A couple of days ago I got a letter from my daughter whose son attends public school in Brooklyn. The email, titled “Should Have Done My Homework”, lamented the fact that she gave permission for my Grandson to participate in the “Tripod Project“, an effort funded by Bill Gates to develop student questionnaires that can be used to help evaluate the performance of teachers. I wrote her a lengthy response, which I’ve used as the basis for this post. As indicated in previous posts, I have mixed feelings about Bill Gates. But, for reasons outlined below, I have generally positive feelings about using student feedback to help improve school and teacher performance. The opting out question is easy if your child’s test results are not going to be used to assign him or her to a magnet school or used to determine a grade in a course: you do not go to school on that day. As noted in earlier posts, the circumstances in NYC are different, making opting out in any grade level before middle school arguably harmful to a child’s future.
First my thoughts on Bill Gates, who I believe has good intentions but lacks respect for and understanding of public education. Contrary to the belief of many who oppose “reform”, I am not entirely sure that Bill Gates wants to use his philanthropy to make even more money. I know, for example, he’s matched millions of dollars Rotary Clubs across the world have raised to help eliminate polio. To the best of my knowledge, Bill Gates has no investments in the corporations that provide the polio vaccine nor has he developed any software to sell to Rotary Clubs or health agencies to track polio. In seeking to eliminate polio he has, to the best of my knowledge, deferred to public health and medical experts and spent his money how and where they advise him to. Consequently, health and medical professionals have admiration and respect for his efforts. I believe the Gates Foundation has provided grants in other fields in the same fashion, drawing on the expertise of practitioners and researchers in the fields where he believes his donations can make a difference. My problem with Bill Gates is that he DOESN’T confer with or listen to education experts. If he did, he would find that schools like Hanover High School in the district where I last worked has been doing student surveys for decades and, over that time, has developed a system that is scalable IF the teachers in school are engaged in the process the way Hanover High teachers were in the mid-1980s. What’s maddening and sad is that HAD Bill Gates sought out districts who were already doing this and championed their efforts he could have had as great an impact in public education as he’s had in fighting polio– which is virtually eliminated…. and he might have the good will of teachers and administrators across the country.
My thoughts on the use of student and parent feedback to help assess school and teacher effectiveness are positive. In the New Hampshire/Vermont district I led for seven years, we instituted parent survey across the board… and it was PAINFULLY slow and time consuming but ultimately very helpful to the faculties and Boards when we set our annual goals. In order to develop a survey, we needed to get teachers and administrators to accept the notion that the results would be helpful and not punitive; we needed to get ALL parents to see the idea as being worthwhile (to avoid having only those with axes to grind responding to the survey); we had to figure out the logistics for collecting the data and keeping the open-ended responses confidential; and, we had to develop questions that would give us actionable feedback. It took two years to get the survey right and another two years to institutionalize it… but after all was said and done the surveys accomplished their stated goals: They DID provide us with information that both confirmed our beliefs about academic disciplines that were strong (or weak) in our schools and forced us to question some some mistaken beliefs we held in the same vein. The surveys, instituted in 2008, are still in use today. Here’s a link to page on the school district’s web site that has them:
The HS student surveys are especially informative! At the end of each course (which could be a quarter, a semester, or a school year) the teachers have each student complete a survey that has a bank of generic questions and the chance for specific questions the teacher is seeking feedback on. The survey results are collated electronically and shared with the teacher in advance of the teacher’s end of the year conference with their department head. At that conference the department head asks the teacher for their reaction to the surveys and, in most cases, the teachers share the detailed results. But here’s a part of the Hanover High “survey culture” that was particularly unique: when the department head or principal came in to observe the teacher in the classroom, the department head would periodically ask the teacher to leave 5-10 minutes before the end of the period. The department head then engaged the class in a free-form dialogue with to get unstructured and unvarnished feedback on the teacher’s skills. This kind of 360 degree performance evaluation permeated the environment in the school and, perhaps surprisingly to some who are reading this, engendered trust and confidence throughout the organization.
Given the opportunity to work in a high functioning district at the end of my career provided me with the opportunity to see how having the funds to hire the right kinds of teachers and the staff needed to conduct thorough and thoughtful evaluations made a HUGE difference in the culture and climate of the school…. And this experience makes me especially frustrated with the simplistic notion that standardized tests can be used as the sole basis for determining which teachers are “successful”…. and it makes me frustrated when Bill Gates doesn’t pick up the phone or Google “student surveys” to see how high functioning public high schools are doing this right… In the end, I think he’d determine that high performing schools have higher salaries across the board for teachers; have robust middle level managers who observe, support, and coach teachers; do not put much stock in standardized tests when it comes to evaluating teachers; and introduce change slowly, methodically, and democratically.
Now… as to the question of opting out on this particular initiative… I think this is a MUCH tougher call than opting out on the pilot Common Core tests. If teachers and parents want to see something other than standardized tests used to evaluate teachers, SOMEONE has to come up with the money to conduct the field tests of the alternative…. and it’s clear USDOE is NOT interested in anything BUT standardized tests and its also clear they don’t have any money for research. As noted above, it took us two years to develop a set of questions that provided us with helpful information, and we did it with the use of my time and the time of some technology support staff. Assuming Bill Gates it doing these pilot surveys as a means of finding something to supplement or supplant standardized testing then any child’s participation is worthwhile. I’d be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt… but, to paraphrase a former president, I think that trust needs to be verified. Based on every NYC parents well founded skepticism, I expect this and all future pilot efforts to be closely watched. I’ll be curious to see if Mr. Gates uses the data he gathers to conclude that information gathered on surveys is far more helpful than VAM.
Chicago Magazine writer Whet Moser’s recent article titled “How Big Business Has Driven School Reform for Over A Century” provides a postscript to Raymond Callahan’s excellent book Education and the Cult of Efficiency, published in 1964. Callahan’s book describes the way businessmen in the 1920s influenced school administrators and created the “factory school” model that persists in today’s world. Callahan’s books described how this “efficient” method of grouping students by age and ability was carried forward into the 1950s and up to the time the book was published, which is a year before I graduated from high school. Moser’s article illustrates that even today business leaders– in this case high tech executives and billionaires in the Chicago area– are defining the agenda for Chicago schools and now, as in the 1920s and the 1960s, efficiency is the goal.
But Moser misses the larger point, which is the same one the billionaires miss: efficiency is not “reform”… it is engineering of the factory. Even Horn and Christensen, who talk about “disruption” of schools overlook the need to abandon the age-based grade level cohorts that are associated with the “factory school” and replace them with a truly personalized education that uses technology to individualize instruction.
Mokoto Rich’s latest NYTimes article describes the data collection occurring in schools today and provides some counter arguments against this trend. As one who advocated the thoughtful collection and use of data throughout my career, I find it maddening that many parents who are concerned about tis trend seem to think that it is a new phenomenon.
As I indicated in a comment I left, those who push back against data collection overlook the fact that data HAS been collected in public schools for decades— but not in a systematic and objective fashion.
As one who served as a public school administrator for 35 years I know that teachers administered quizzes and tests to students on a regular basis. I recall my first year as high school principal finding myself in the position of defending a social studies teacher who was failing a student because they had a 64.5 average when 65 was passing. The student’s grades trended upward as the end of the year approached and the student’s mother came in to see me to explain that she and her husband had just divorced and that might have contributed to the child’s earlier lapses in submitting homework. The teacher ignored this, insisting that he had the data to support his decision to give a failing grade… and that data was the mean of the test and quiz scores. This led me to ask this question: what exactly did his quizzes and tests measure?
I also know that teachers often placed written anecdotal information about students in their student files, in some cases without the knowledge of the student or parent. I know this because my colleagues and I purged a lot of this information when FERPA was enacted… information in the student’s high school file that included commentary from elementary teachers about the student’s attire, the presence of head lice, the inability of the teacher to communicate with the parent because there was no phone, and descriptions of misconduct that had the teacher questioning the student’s mental health.
And I also know that one of the most powerful “data sources” was faculty room conversation, where a student’s behavior, attitude, and academic promise were discussed. As a disciplinarian for six years, I found it maddening that an immature 9th grade student’s reputation was often sealed after one quarter. Once a student sassed a teacher he or she was branded as a “troublemaker” and other teachers often pre-judged the student based on their “reputation”.
And here’s the practical reality regarding data collection: while some of this “academic data” was formally reported to parents in quarterly report cards, all of it was used to determine which classes a student could enroll in and whether a particular student was “college material”.
The difference today is that this objective data can be collected systematically, shared with colleagues, parents AND the student. The decisions about a student’s progress in school, attitude, and behavior can be based on more objective data as a result. The accumulation of data that is widely shared is far superior to the “good old days” when anecdotal information dominated the decision making process in schools.
In my last assignment as Superintendent of Schools, I received a phone call from the High School Principal who was seeking permission to call the school district’s attorney to address a question: could she and the Dean of Students look at the messages on a cell phone a student suspected of selling drugs had willingly surrendered to them? And… in a related question, could they give the cell phone to the police who were conducting an investigation?
When I received this call, cell phones were just becoming ubiquitous and this was unsettled law. After some deliberation, as I recall our attorney advised against it. I’m still not certain there is a clear ruling on whether a school administrator can review phone messages from a cell phone, but in today’s schools where surveillance cameras abound and students use of social media without regard for the consequences of over-sharing, looking at cell phone messages may not be necessary.
This all came to mind as I read this chilling article from The Guardian titled “Is the On-Line Surveillance of Black Teenagers the New Stop and Frisk“, an article I got to through the Mathbabe blog. The article describes how police monitored social media exchanges among young black males who were suspected of being gang members in NYC. One might accept this premise if police went through the procedures required to do phone surveillance and targeted their monitoring to those who might be the most influential leaders…. but when it affected 28,000 young black males aged 10 and up and involved subterfuge, it is chilling:
The (young black men) are surveilled offline, but also on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other social media channels. When accounts are set to “private”, police officers sometimes gain access to them by sending friend requests posing as young women or club promoters.
The article details the extent to which the movements of every young black male are monitored and concludes with an interview with Mike Loudwy, a South Harlem resident, who discusses how police have adapted to the directive to limit the use of “stop and frisk”:
While ordering some food, Loudwy confides the best way to deal with police randomly stopping you is to stay silent and know your rights. “If you start talking, they’ll find a way to throw you in. Any wrong move could be my life,” he says. “You don’t even have to let them search you. They need a probable cause…”
Is he on Facebook? “Hell no. I call Facebook ‘fed-book’. I don’t do Facebook. They’re watching us on there.”
To some, his words may come across a little paranoid; the result of growing up with cameras on the street corner, police watchtowers a few blocks away; too many years being ordered to the ground by an overzealous police force…
And yet, Loudwy’s fears hold up. What is perhaps most alarming is that he and his friends are so used to being treated like suspects that to find out that they are being watched online comes as no surprise. Even without actual proof, it’s something they have just assumed – quite rightly – has been happening all along.
Here’s a question that over-protective parents, teachers, and administrators need to wrestle with in this era of surveillance cameras and the capability of monitoring social media: are we creating a generation that assumes they are being watched 24/7… and if so, is that the world we want to create in the future?
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.