Diane Ravitch posted a press release from K12 announcing the launch of a new online product targeting prekindergarten students. K12 is a largely discredited online learning company that has recently lost contracts to some school boards because alert parents and faculty members have pointed out to board members that the K12 program is demonstrably unsuccessful. Given the parental and teacher pushback against this program and the political pushback by local school boards, K12 is doing direct marketing to parents with this kind of push:
…Educators across the U.S. have identified kindergarten-readiness as an educational priority, and even the President of the United States has made kindergarten-readiness a national issue. According to the U.S. Department of Education, there is a robust body of evidence and research demonstrating that high-quality, early learning programs help children arrive at kindergarten ready to succeed in school and in life.”
Nothing like telling your prekindergarten child that they need to get screen time so they can arrive at school “ready to succeed in life”… but K12, their privatization cronies, and political leaders all know that fear sells because… it’s worked in the past.
I remember as an elementary student being told that the Sputnik launch proved we were falling behind the Russians… and hearing as a Superintendent in Maine in the early 1980s being we were a “Nation at Risk” of falling behind the Japanese… and now hearing over and over again about how we are losing our economic competitiveness because of poor public schools and falling behind China. In college I read a lot of George Orwell’s essays so I know where this is coming from…. and having worked in public schools as an administrator for over 35 years I know the most engaged parents are fearful that their kids won’t get into the best colleges and THAT fear has launched many supplemental after school programs.
K12 and the privatizers know that fear sells, and the preschool parent market is a good place to go because there is no one to counter the worthlessness of their online packages… and so we have a generation of students moving from Baby Mozart to K12 to corporate charter schools… and who knows what kind of products to help them achieve “success” in the future.
As one who believes that technology could be a means of leveling the playing field between affluent schools and schools serving children raised in poverty, I was simultaneously disheartened by, in agreement with, and intrigued by a recent post by Jesse Irwin in Model View Culture titled “Grooming Students for a Lifetime of Surveillance”.
I was disheartened because technology is currently dis-equalizing and technology is currently being misapplied. The dis-equalizing effects of technology on instruction are summarized in this paragraph:
Education technologists also continue to widen the digital divide between affluent and economically oppressed. Despite an industry-wide insistence that technology is not being developed to replace educators in the classroom, many poor school districts faced with massive budget cuts are implementing experimental blended learning programs reliant on “adaptive” and “personalized” software as a way to mitigate the effect of large class sizes on student learning. This means that students who attend costly private schools or live within rich school districts that can afford to employ more educators and maintain smaller class sizes receive much more personalized instruction from their teachers. Instead of receiving much-needed interaction and personalized learning directly from educators, poor students living in disadvantaged communities receive instruction from educational software that collects their data (which is likely to be sold), and have less individual instruction time from teachers than their affluent counterparts.
The dis-equalizing of instruction also extends to internet access. Affluent schools are not bound by the E-rate mandate to filer the internet because they do not qualify for that funding. Thus, a student in an affluent district is more likely to have access to ALL the information available and not the information that a district or federal officer deems “suitable”.
I was in agreement with the overarching theme of the article: our current use of technology overemphasizes regulation and monitoring and, consequently IS conditioning students to accept surveillance and screening as a way of life. Not only are we screening the content available to them by filtering the internet, but we are also increasingly monitoring their behavior out of school and gathering data on them that, arguably, should be shared with law enforcement.
I was intrigued because as I read the post I saw many paradoxes: instances where policy makers need to determine boundaries between the data collected in school and the data shared with other agencies and vendors. Some examples:
- CYBER-BULLYING: If schools are expected to deal with issues of cyber-bullying that most often occurs outside of school, shouldn’t they have the ability to monitor social media that students use? And once teachers and/or administrators start monitoring social media, what is their responsibility if they see a picture of one of their students with a beer can? a bong? naked? Do they call the police? Child services? Parents? As of four years ago when State legislatures were passing laws on cyber-bullying there were no clear answers to these questions.
- ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE DATA: Schools can now determine how much time a student spends on homework that is assigned “on-line” and/or computer-based classwork that is assigned in class. Shouldn’t teachers use that data the same way they currently use graded homework and classwork assignments? Also, programmed instruction modules based on hierarchical content (e.g. Khan Academy curricula) provide a means for teachers to identify where students are “stuck” and where their intervention is needed. Shouldn’t a technologically savvy teacher use that kind of data?
- ACADEMIC INSTRUCTION DELIVERY: The whole notion of “flipped instruction” that provides the lecture as homework and classroom discussion and/or Q and A as means of delivering instruction can only work if students watch the lesson at home. This, in turn, requires the monitoring of off-campus activity by the student.
- GENERIC DATA COLLECTION AND USE: As noted in previous posts on analogous issues, schools already collect massive amounts of data on children, data that could be put to good use if it were more readily available to classroom teachers. A case in point: if IEPs were made available in a secure network to mainstream teachers it would provide an effective means of two-way communication between the school and the teacher.
- PAYING FOR TECHNOLOGY: School districts can’t get good software for a low price unless there is some kind of quid pro quo… and the quid pro quo is often the ability to collect marketing information on the students. FERPA, written in 1974, never envisioned the kind of massive data collection that is possible today and technology advocates haven’t figured out how to purchase the tools that many students have at home. FERPA needs to be reworked, a daunting task given the complex questions involved and the dysfunctional legislature.
Addressing these and other paradoxes will be crucial if we want to use technology to truly individualize instruction and to level the playing field. By dodging these questions we are increasing the digital divide and preparing our students for a world where they will be surveilled 24/7.
Greg Hinz, a political blogger for Crain’s Chicago Business, wrote a post outlining the findings of a study conducted by Myron Orfield of the Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota Law School that concluded:
Chicago’s massive experiment in adding charter schools pretty much is a flop, one in which the charters do little better than conventional schools and in some ways lag behind.
The article describes the findings of the study in detail that show no significant difference in the performance of the charter schools as compared to public school despite the fact that “Pound for pound, charters should do better than typical neighborhood schools because parents, who have to go to special trouble to enroll their children, presumably are more invested in their kids’ performance…”
Hinz noted that because the report was released on Columbus Day he had received no official report from either the pro-charter or anti-charter sides of the debate, though he imagined some would be forthcoming. If he read the comment section that followed his article, he would see that the debate was already underway and each side was taking predictable positions. The “pro-charter” side offered several variations of “I told you so”. The pro-charter folks questioned the format of the research, and disputed the impartiality of the researcher, noting that the “Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota Law School” was once called “The Institute on Rae and Poverty”.
Reading the article and the comments made me wonder if we will ever have a debate about the way our schools are organized like factories? I’m convinced that as long as we remain stuck in the politically framed “right-left” debate we’ll plod along with the same kind of schools we have now. I would suggest a different line of paradigmatic questioning: why do we group students in age-based cohorts? why do we use standardized tests as the means of measuring “school performance”? why aren’t we using technology to individualize instruction? As long as we continue these three practices we will continue to “manufacture” students the way we manufacture widgets and turn out large numbers of “defects”.
And here’s my concern: anyone who started teaching a generation ago has only known schools that focus on raising test scores. That wasn’t always the way. There was a time when teachers, Boards and administrators talked about how they could help EVERY student succeed instead of focussing on getting a large group of students to raise their performance on a test to the “satisfactory level”, a test whose definition of “satisfactory” was determined by an arbitrary “cut score” set in a State Department office. All of this is reinforcing the factory paradigm and not providing the chance for teachers to try a different approach, which was the vision many educators had when charter schools were first launched.
Finally, the testing regimen is moving us more and more into a two tier system of schooling. Affluent schools who perform well on tests are immune to the instructional regimen that matches the testing regimen and so their students get a more robust and engaging form of schooling, one that integrates technology, the arts, and personal focus. Schools serving children in poverty are slaves to the tests: if the teachers don’t raise test scores their schools are threatened with closed and their employment is threatened. This fear pervades the classrooms and children suffer as a result.
So to return to the primary theme of this post, why aren’t we asking these three paradigmatic questions:
- Why do we group students in age-based cohorts?
- Why do we use standardized tests as the means of measuring “school performance”?
- Why aren’t we using technology to individualize instruction?
The NYTimes “Texas Tribune” offers periodic reports on the political developments in that state, which often involve education policy. This week’s Texas Tribune featured an article titled “As Curriculum Changes, Thousands of Students Will Advance Despite Failing Grades”. The article reviews the legislation in TX that required students to receive a passing grade on their examinations in order to get promoted from one grade level to another, legislation that has not substantially changed the promotion rates from their current levels of 1.5% at grade 5 and 1% at grade even though 9% of the students failed the tests. So 100,000 students failed the test yet roughly 80,000 of them got promoted anyway.
The article then goes on to report that the State Superintendent he intended to waive the requirement that the test be passed because he expects even MORE students to fail in the coming year because “… instruction (is) not rising to the level to provide (the) kind of learning (that will be tested). We have moved the bar significantly higher than it has ever been, and the system needs time to catch up.”
There are several wrongheaded ideas at play here, not the least of which is the notion that a single test should be the basis for determining if a student succeeds or fails in school. The subtlest and most profound wrongheaded idea is that a student’s learning should be based on age-based grade cohorts. It implicitly assumes that there is an intellectual growth rate that matches a student’s age which is, on its face, untrue. Do we expect all students to physically mature at the same rate? If a physician determined that a group of students was shorter than other students in their age range would we use that medical measurement as a basis for determining whether those students should be held back? I would urge the Texas legislature to answer this set of questions, which are taken from my “About” page:
- Why do we group students in grade levels based on their age?
- Why do we group students within a particular grade level based on their rate of learning?
- Why do we group students at all?
- Why does school take place in a limited time frame?
- Why do we believe there is “one best way” to educate ALL children?
All of these practices are in place because the school-is-a-factory is so ingrained that we cannot conceive of a different method for organizing education…. and these practices result in “efficiency” in the factory school. Some states, Vermont for example, are starting to replace the conception of schools as a factory with a new mental model, one that acknowledges that all students have different needs, learn in different ways, and learn at different rates. They realize the absurdity of measuring “quality” by giving standardized tests to students grouped in “grade levels” and recycling “new ideas” and “reforms” based on ways to run the factory more efficiently. Instead, they are mandating that each rising 7th grade student develop a Personalized Learning Plan in concert with their parents and school staff. The PLP would be reviewed annually and used to determine the individual student’s success.
But, you might argue, TX is much bigger than VT and much more diverse. How could they possibly accomplish this? If the staff and technology applications being used to boost test scores were instead assigned to guidance and support services ANY state or school district could implement PLPs and EVERY state or school district would move toward a truly individualized approach to learning. This CAN happen if states adjust their paradigms instead of the cut scores on standardized tests.
Audrey Waters, who writes and assembles the Hack Education blog is fun to read and always thought provoking… and her post on Wednesday was a perfect example. “Ed-Tech’s Monsters #ALTC” is a synopsis of a talk she gave at an international conference on educational technology and the slides on the post weave together the history of technology in general, the early notions of how technology might affect schooling, the etymology of the word “Luddite” and the history of the Luddite movement, the link between the Luddite movement and Mary Shelley, how Frankenstein might be an ideal metaphor for education technology, and the history of “teaching machines” featuring pictures of BF Skinner. There are several seeds for blog posts within this talk, which reinforces my premise that efficiency, not technology, is the enemy.
At te outset of her talk she notes that she is a folklorist, and as such she is interested in these kinds of question:
What stories do we tell? Whose stories get told? How do these stories reflect and construct our world — worlds of science, politics, culture, and of course, education?
Shortly thereafter she recounts the stories “reformers” are telling us:
Ed-tech now, particularly that which is intertwined with venture capital, is boosted by a powerful forms of storytelling: a disruptive innovation mythology, entrepreneurs’ hagiography, design fiction, fantasy.
The long, rambling and seemingly disconnected discourse on Luddites and Frankenstein leads to this pay-off paragraph:
In order to automate education, must we see knowledge in a certain way, as certain: atomistic, programmable, deliverable, hierarchical, fixed, measurable, non-negotiable? In order to automate that knowledge, what happens to care?
Waters then recounts a brief history of “teaching machines” that intimates that care disappears when technology is used in schooling. Eliminating “care” is collateral damage when “efficiency” is valued.
…Visiting his daughter’s fourth grade classroom, (B.F.Skinner) was struck by the inefficiencies. Not only were all the students expected to move through their lessons at the same pace, but when it came to assignments and quizzes, they did not receive feedback until the teacher had graded the materials — sometimes a delay of days. Skinner believed that both of these flaws in school could be addressed through a machine, and built a prototype which he demonstrated at a conference the following year.
All these elements were part of Skinner’s teaching machines: the elimination of inefficiencies of the teacher, the delivery of immediate feedback, the ability for students to move through standardized content at their own pace.
She concludes her talk (and blog post) with this quote from Hannah Arendt:
“Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.”
Her conclusion: we need to make sure WE do NOT allow machines to dictate knowledge, to define desirable behavior, to divide us. Rather, we need to find a way to use technology to bring us together as human beings. I look forward to reading her forthcoming book.
Here’s the title of a blog post from Beta Beat that requires no further comment:
University Bans Social Media, Political Content and Wikipedia Pages on Dorm Wifi
Oh… and it’s not a private religiously affiliated university, which arguably COULD get away with restricting the freedom of speech of its students… but state funded Northern Illinois.