Posts Tagged ‘Art of teaching’

Solving Big Data’s Big Dilemma in Public Education

June 25, 2015 Leave a comment

As noted in many previous posts, public schools have been collecting massive amounts of data on individual students for decades… data that has been stored in stuffed file folders and various generations of microfiche and computer formats. This inconvenient and inconsistent method of data collection made it impossible to use group data to determine the effectiveness of teaching methods, to track an individual student’s learning, or to do systematic research in education.

The advent of cloud storage, the adoption of uniform learning standards, and the extensive use of standardized tests makes it possible to gather and analyze data systematically. This should be nothing but good news for teachers and parents… but as we’ve seen with the NSA, data collection has a dark side as well. Recent articles in the NYTimes and Atlantic describe the dilemma researchers and practitioners face in making use of the data that is now available: the reluctance of parents to have information about their children stored on line.

The Times article, “When Guarding Student Data Endangers Valuable Research” looks at the Data Dilemma from the research angle. As the writer Susan Dynarski notes, the data gathered is invaluable:

Educators parse this data to understand what is working in their schools. Advocates plumb the data to expose unfair disparities in test scores and graduation rates, building cases to target more resources for the poor. Researchers rely on this data when measuring the effectiveness of education interventions.

Noting that despite the fact that no one has hacked into the student data and despite the fact the student data is not a likely target for marketers, many legislators are proposing laws that would hamstring the efforts of researchers to draw on the data to gain a better understanding of what works and the efforts of teachers to use the data to personalize instruction. To use a phrase of one of my colleagues in Maryland, the legislators are using a shotgun to kill a mosquito. Her solution to this is to provide the Department of Education with the ability “…to impose serious penalties on districts and states as soon as they are found to have violated privacy regulations” noting that “…the states, districts and the courts then need to do the hard work of enforcing laws that protect student privacy.”  A noble idea, but a non-starter in Congress who, even if they passed such a law to pacify indignant parents, would fail to provide the funding for enforcement.

The Atlantic article by Andrew Giambrone describes one way to solve this data dilemma. Given the government’s seeming inability to deal with this problem, and the given the demand for data analytics on the part of schools (e.g. a 2012 survey of educational professionals indicated that 80% of the respondents “…believed analytics would become more important in the future”), developing an acceptable means of defining appropriate use of data may fall to local districts working with eager vendors. Giambrone describes how this is happening across the country… and it calls to mind a Ted Sizer quote I used frequently: “How does change occur in education? Slowly, Carefully, and All At Once”. His concluding paragraphs underscore why the systematic collection of student data is a good idea… and why this change will happen slowly and carefully:

Jose Ferreira, the founder and CEO of Knewton, a New York-based company that develops adaptive-learning tools, says a lot of student data is going to waste right now; rather than being forgotten at the end of each school year or semester, it could be harnessed responsibly to drive learning outcomes. His company tracks students’ proficiencies across a variety of subjects, but will not share that information—even with teachers—unless explicitly authorized to do so by a student’s legal guardians.

“If you’re going to touch people’s data, it’s very important that the benefits be clear,” he explains. “‘Why should I let you collect my data? The benefits are fantastic? Now you have to reassure me you’re going to use it in a way I’m comfortable with.’”

Like Ferreira, I am convinced that reams of student data is going to waste.. but like the majority of parents, I am not yet comfortable with the way the data could and might be shared. That will take some time.


Let’s Test Teachers, Too!

June 18, 2015 Leave a comment

I read with dismay Elizabeth Harris’ article in today’s NYTimes titled “Tough Tests for Teachers, With a Question of Bias”. The article describes a nascent movement to require that teachers pass rigorous tests in order to get licensure. The article outlines the pros and cons of testing and indicates the racial disparity in the Praxis test results, and offers this paragraph as rebuttal to the critic of teacher testing:

But many public education officials view rigorous entrance requirements as crucial to improving student performance and ensuring a qualified teaching force in the face of uneven preparation programs. In a court document, an expert defending the ALST on behalf of the state is quoted as saying, “The purpose of a teacher licensure test is to protect the public from incompetent teachers.”

It has been four years since I was a Superintendent, but in the 29 years I served in that capacity I can only think of a handful of my colleagues who saw the Praxis test or tests like it as being a valid means of measuring teacher competence. Testing IS cheap and fast means of determining a candidate’s knowledge base of general content, but it was never clear to me that the general knowledge base required for physical education, secondary science, kindergarten, and art had much in common. Moreover, I had at least two instances where we hired a teacher who did extraordinary work as a substitute in the district on the condition that they pass the Praxis tests only to find ourselves releasing them when they could not pass the test: one was a PE teacher and the other was a Special Education teacher. Alas, the talents– the “competence”— they brought to the classroom were immeasurable by a pencil and paper test but I’m sure an expert in the State department and the State Board members slept well knowing they had protected the public from an “incompetent teacher”.

Overcoming the Grind of Poverty on Children… and Teachers

May 31, 2015 Leave a comment

A recent article by Tampa Bay Times reporter Mariene Sokol summarizing the recent findings of a teacher survey done in Hillsborough County caught my eye. I hope it also caught the eye of data driven education reformers across the country because Sokol’s article provides hard evidence that teaching in schools serving children raised in poverty, particularly those with disengaged parents, is far more difficult than teaching in schools with affluent and/or actively engaged parents. The message of the findings is summarized in the first three paragraphs:

School districts offer cash bonuses. They hire teacher coaches. They appeal to the idealism of educators who want to make a difference.

But the proof is in their own data: It’s hard to teach at a high-poverty school.

There’s less buy-in from parents. Kids don’t follow the rules. There aren’t even enough computers. And staff turnover is sky high.

So the if the favored approach of the “reformers”, giving bonuses and assistance to teachers doesn’t improve morale in a school, what does? Near the end of the article is the answer:

Dunbar, a West Tampa medical and science magnet school, had some of the happiest teachers, with a composite score of 96 percent. But the percentage of its students receiving free or reduced-price lunches was relatively high at 83 percent.

It’s a small school, with only 287 students. Principal Sarah Jacobsen Capps also said she is deliberate about maintaining a culture of collaboration.

“We have constant conversations and reflections on what we’re doing,” she said. “We always talk about it all the time. Even after we saw the survey results, we asked, ‘Where else should we focus?’ “

Some reformers will read this and conclude that “choice” is the key because Dunbar is a magnet school. Others will read it an say that keeping schools small is the key. I read the article and come to the conclusion that three factors are at play here:

  • Parent engagement: I am never surprised to read that magnet schools have better learning environments because one of the de facto entry requirements to a magnet school is parent engagement. When parents are engaged in the lives of their children and interested in their current well-being and future, children thrive in school. Note that parent engagement is actionable. It is something schools can foster and support and in the article it noted that schools who made an effort to engage parents saw an increase in their teacher’s satisfaction and an increase in the percentage of students who followed the rules in school.
  • Student focus: I know from experience leading large districts that smaller schools like Dunbar do not have to focus on logistical issues nearly as much as large schools. With fewer buses, fewer mouths to feed in the cafeteria, fewer names to learn, and fewer opportunities for students to be disruptive it is easier for teachers to direct their attention to children. Indeed, in a small school with limited transience it is common for teachers to know the names and families of each and every child in the school. While size makes it easier to focus on students as opposed to logistics, it is possible for larger schools to keep the focus on teaching and learning each student with the right kind of leadership, which is the third element.
  • Teacher-centered leadership: The principal at Dunbar seeks a “culture of collaboration”, which was illustrated by the way she handled the information from the survey. Instead of using a top-down method whereby the omniscient administrator explains and interprets data to the staff, the principal engaged her staff in “constant conversations and reflections“.

Small schools and magnet schools are easy to replicate and maintain the traditional separation of school and family life and the hierarchical organizational structure that is familiar to business leaders and politicians. Engaging disengaged parents, maintaining a focus on each and every student, and nurturing teachers are soft skills that are difficult to measure and require a change in the orthodoxy in schools…. but my experience and, I would contend, these data support that direction going forward.

What IS the Role of the Teacher in a Standardized World?

May 10, 2015 Leave a comment

An op-ed article by Mark Bauerlein in today’s NYTimes poses the question: “What’s the Point of a Professor?” The article contrasts the role of the professor in the 1960s and even the 1980s with the role today, and he finds that in today’s world the role is significantly diminished. Why?

When college is more about career than ideas, when paycheck matters more than wisdom, the role of professors changes. We may be 50-year-olds at the front of the room with decades of reading, writing, travel, archives or labs under our belts, with 80 courses taught, but students don’t lie in bed mulling over what we said. They have no urge to become disciples.

He laments the fact that more students view college as a means to earn more money, citing a finding of a survey given to entering freshmen:

One prompt in the questionnaire asks entering freshmen about “objectives considered to be essential or very important.” In 1967, 86 percent of respondents checked “developing a meaningful philosophy of life,” more than double the number who said “being very well off financially.”

…Since then… finding meaning and making money have traded places. The first has plummeted to 45 percent; the second has soared to 82 percent.

What Bauerlein fails to note in his essay is that the federal government wants to use job placement and lifetime earnings as the primary metric for determining the quality of a college. And he also overlooks the fact that efforts to monetize public education and post-secondary education has emphasized the utility of schooling over its inherent virtue. In effect, both the government and the private sector are reinforcing the anti-intellectual notion that college is only worthwhile if it is financially rewarding.

He concludes his essay with this lament:

When it comes to students, we shall have only one authority: the grades we give. We become not a fearsome mind or a moral light, a role model or inspiration. We become accreditors.

After reading the essay, I left this comment:

Our country’s obsession with standardization reinforces the notion that teachers and professors are accreditors and not mentors. When we place a higher value on test scores than on interpersonal relationships between teachers and students we set the stage for automated instruction to replace in-the-flesh teaching and learning. When we advocate measuring the value of a college degree by the earnings of graduates and/or workforce preparedness we replace idealism with utility. The good news for those who want to make colleges profit centers who serve customers is that these trends make operating a college more efficient. You can devise computerized curricula that guide students toward lucrative jobs and develop computerized assessments that determine if the students meet the entry standards for those jobs. When that’s completed you can eliminate those pesky professors who want decent wages and benefits and assurance of long term employment and put crazy ideas in student’s heads… ideas like critical thinking, for example. 

There is a way teachers and professors could use computerized instruction to augment their classroom instruction and be more than accreditors. Indeed, in an ideal model the teachers could be the mentors, the individuals who “become the fearsome mind or moral light” for students, and it would be through providing the kind of writing tutorials that Bauerlein describes in his essay…. because writing more than any discipline requires intense human interaction and cannot be done algorithmically.

AltSchool: The Right Idea Proposed by the Wrong People

May 8, 2015 Leave a comment

I just finished reading Natasha Singer’s NYTimes article “AltSchool Raises $100 Million and Plans to Open More Schools” and the 50 comments that accompanied the article. This exercise reinforced my belief that changing the existing paradigm away from the factory model will be an enormous challenge. The comments that garnered the most “likes” fell into the following categories:

  • ad hominem attacks on the founders (technology executives) and funders (tech billionaires)
  • assertions that this was all an effort to get more money (which may be a by product but appears to be a secondary motive)
  • resource mis-allocation (e.g. philanthropists should advocate the abandonment of standardized testing)
  • the outrageous cost for the school (the annual cost, excluding grants, was $20,000/year)
  • the impersonality of technology.

I found the general notion described in the article to be appealing.  If I understand how AltSchool operates, the teacher will serve as an intermediary when cognitive mismatches occur… as they do in classrooms today… and when engagement wanes… as it does in classrooms today. In today’s schools and the schools I grew up in cognitive mismatches are a given and engagement is not a primary focus of teachers. Teachers are responsible for covering material and if students don’t understand it or are not interested in it the blame and responsibility falls on them. Standardized testing has exacerbated this notion, driving parents of those with cognitive mismatches and parents of those hose disengagement is leading to emotional problems to seek alternatives to the factory model we have in place and are seemingly unwilling to abandon.

I have long believed that technology can move education toward an individualization model that was impossible 50 years ago and free schools from the sort-and-select factory model toward one of mastery learning. To those who do not want to consider a different model because it is promoted by technology executives and funded by philanthropists who may (or may not) profit from it , I offer this aphorism:

If you want to get what you’ve always got keep doing the what you’ve always done.

Marc Tucker’s Cogent Analysis on High Stakes Tests: Trust Teachers

May 2, 2015 Leave a comment

I have often referred to Marc Tucker’s monograph America’s Choice, High Skills or Low Wagesmost recently on April 22 of this year. Written in 1990, it was highly influential in MD where I served as Superintendent and the organization he founded, the National Center on Education and the Economy, still works with State governments and school districts developing accountability systems. While Tucker is chastised by some progressive educators for his insistence on high-stakes testing and teacher compensation plans based on something other than longevity and degrees, I find his perspective measured and thoughtful. His recent essay in Education Week, “How Should We Gauge Student Success: The Accountability Dilemma” is a good example of Tucker’s willingness to offer complex ideas without trying to develop a simplistic solution. The essay describes his idea of what constitutes student success, and it isn’t just test scores. After providing a lengthy and elaborate list that includes affective issues like “initiative” and teamwork, he writes:

This is not a complete list.  My point in creating it is not to lay out a full menu but to make a point.  The point is very simple.  High achievement in reading, writing, mathematics, science and problem solving is essential.  Students who leave high school lacking in these essentials represent a profound failure to educate.  We have an obligation to hold educators who fail to educate students against those metrics accountable for that failure.  That is what the accountability movement is all about.

But success on these metrics does not mean that we have met our obligations to these students.  Not at all.  Because these metrics measure only a small part of what we really care about, or ought to care about.

He then lays out the major dilemma of high stakes accountability:

By using high stakes accountability systems to put great pressure on teachers to improve student scores on tests of reading, mathematics and science,we communicate that we do not care about any of the other goals we have in mind.  That is a very foolish policy

On the other hand, if we forego high stakes testing, or make it optional for schools and districts, as many would now have us do, we communicate that we are quite comfortable with the outcome if school districts and states choose to do nothing if students do not achieve very much in any arena.  That, too, is unacceptable.

So what are policy makers to do? Tucker’s answer is: trust teachers. He suggests that in order to get beyond measuring what is easy to measure and move toward measuring what is important, we should so what other leading countries do: pay teachers well, show them respect, and let them determine if students are accomplishing the crucial learning skills needed now. He concludes his essay with this perspective on what we’ve done in our country instead of trusting teachers and what has happened as a result:

The United States has responded to poor student performance by instituting draconian high-stakes accountability systems that create very strong incentives for teachers to teach only a small portion of what they should be teaching and, indeed, want to teach.  The great irony here is that, since these high-stakes accountability systems were introduced, there has been no improvement in student performance at the high school level in the things the high-stakes tests measure, while, at the same time, there is every reason to believe that our students are doing far worse on the important things we should be measuring but are not measuring. 

That is a terrible deal for our children and our country.

It IS a terrible deal… but we seem committed to continuing using the “draconian high-stakes accountability systems” despite their poor track record. As Einstein reportedly quipped, one definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. This isn’t just a terrible deal for out country, it’s insane!

The Promised Technological Utopia Falls Short

April 27, 2015 Leave a comment

Jacobin editor Megan Erickson’s essay, Edutopia describes the failed promise of educational technology, offering historic and current examples of forecasted breakthroughs in schooling that would result as a result of advances in technology. The most recent example of over promising is “design thinking”, whereby groups of individuals crowd-source solutions to thorny and seemingly intractable problems. Here’s Erickson’s description of the process as it was introduced to a group of teachers at a staff development workshop:

Tim Brown, IDEO’s CEO and a regular at Davos and TED talks, has described design thinking as a way to inject “local, collaborative, participatory” planning into the development of products, organizational processes, and now schools.

After providing a more detailed description of how “design thinking” might play out in schools, Erickson’s skepticism about this process comes out in this paragraph:

What design thinking ultimately offers is not evolution, but the look and feel of progress — great graphics, aesthetically interesting configurations of furniture and space — paired with the familiar, gratifying illusion of efficiency. If structural and institutional problems can be solved through nothing more than brainstorming, then it’s possible for macro-level inputs (textbooks, teacher salaries) to remain the same, while outputs (test scores, customer service) improve. From the perspective of capitalism, this is the only alchemy that matters.

Erickson provides a history of “teaching machines”, beginning with Edward Thorndike’s ideas of precise measurement of mental skills in 1912, B. F. Skinner’s theories in the 1950s, the various individualized curricula designed in the 1960s, and the notions of technology billionaires today. She concludes that all of these conceptions are off the mark:

The fact is, education is not a design problem with a technical solution. It is nothing like building a spaceship. It is a social and political project that the neoliberal imagination insists on innovating out of existence. The most significant challenges faced today in education are not natural obstacles to be overcome by increasing productivity — they are man-made struggles over how resources are allocated.

Erickson then provides some stunning facts on how our country chooses to allocate it’s resources:

The United States is one of just three OECD countries, along with Israel and Turkey, where schools that serve rich families have better resources and more funding than schools that serve poor families. The other thirty-four countries included in the index either provide equal funding for all students or spend a disproportionate amount of money on students from low-income families.

In a country where the top 20 percent of the population earns eight times as much as the bottom 20 percent, this inevitably leads to two distinct and parallel systems of education, one for the rich and one for the poor. It’s not that “money doesn’t matter” for reforming the education system, or that technology can be a substitute, but that children from working-class and poor families score lower on standardized test scores than their wealthy peers — and America has many more poor families than rich.

Erickson then describes Sal Khan’s efforts to provide individualized lessons for children in a wide array of topics, characterizing his work as “…a fine way to practice math problems or learn a didactic skill” but notes that it deemphasizes “…the importance of interpretation and critique in education“.

Erickson asserts that individualization in isolation is a flawed way to deliver instruction:

Teachers who encourage resistance are essential sources of support and guidance for kids. People do not learn to think critically and construct meaning in isolation — which is the assumption behind the trend of textbooks that respond individually to each student and allow them to move at their own pace.

Erickson is also dismissive of the notion that children need to be protected from some content for fear they will be guided in the wrong direction:

As Katherine McKittrick has pointed out in response to the idea of trigger warnings being placed on college syllabi: the classroom isn’t safe. It should not be safe. Teaching, for McKittrick, is a “day-to-day skirmish,” and teachers must work hard to create classroom conversations “that work out how knowledge is linked to an ongoing struggle to end violence,” to engage with the history that students bring with them into the classroom and resist reification of oppressive thinking in practical ways.

Erickson DOES see one form of schooling that meets the needs of children… a method that minimizes the use of technology:

Waldorf schools incorporate creative and tactile experiences and tools including hammers and nails, knives, knitting needles, and mud — but not computers — into the curriculum. Engagement comes from the connection between children and their teachers, who stress critical thinking and aim to create interesting, inquiry-based lesson plans.

I agree completely with much of the thinking in Erickson’s essay, particularly her disdain for those who want to use technology to reduce costs and monetize schooling. But felt that she overstated the ineffectiveness of technology and oversold the status quo model of education. For example, Sal Khan himself would acknowledge the limitations of his “Academy”. He realizes that his lectures and lesson packets work most effectively when the content is hierarchical and objective because in those cases the need for intermediation is minimal. And while his work was underwritten by Bill Gates, I do not that Khan’s curriculum should be dismissed on that basis. It is conceivable that by using Khan Academy to deliver instruction that is hierarchical and objective that teacher-time could be used to engage and connect with with students and design lessons that stress critical thinking and aim to create interesting, inquiry-based lesson plans. Indeed, I could see public school teachers behaving more and more like Waldorf teachers and students progressing at their own rate on topics that are highly interesting and engaging based on their skill levels.