Today’s NYTimes features an op ed piece by former USDOE adviser Chad Alderman titled “In Defense of Annual School Testing”. In the essay Alderman argues that if we drop annual testing at each grade level we will no longer focus on the performance of Hispanic and African American students because, he assumes, we will lose the ability to meaningfully disaggregate the data as we are doing now. There are many flaws to Alderman’s thinking, but instead of enumerating them I want to call attention to the biggest flaw of all: our insistence that we use age-based cohorts as the primary means of measuring performance. My comment describes how this insistence on standardization based on these cohorts reinforces the factory model for schooling and precludes the individualization that is possible given the technology available today:
By using standardized tests administered to age-based cohorts we call “grade levels” we are reinforcing a factory model that was instituted in the 1920s. Technology gives educators the opportunity to break away from the age-based grade levels and teacher-centered classroom and thereby individualize instruction in a fashion that was previously impossible. Unfortunately, given our obsession with ranking and comparing groups of students, teachers, and schools we use standardized tests as a metric effectively insisting that all children develop their intellect at the same rate of speed. With the mindless teaching-to-the-test that results from using high-stakes testing to “measure” schools and teachers it is not surprising to see more and more parents opting out of public education altogether…. but sometimes it seems that’s part of the plan.
I remain convinced that there is a way public education could facilitate the migration out of the factory school model and into the kind of individualization that un-schooling parents provide to their children…. but as long as schools, teachers, and students are “measured” based on age-based standards we will be stuck with the 1920 factory model in an age where manufacturers themselves have abandoned that model altogether.
Two recent essays on technology posed related questions in their title. Susan Pinker’s NYTimes op ed piece asked “Can Students Have Too Much Tech?” and Larry Cuban’s three-part series of blog posts asked “Will Teaching and Learning Become Automated?” My response to both questions is “NO”.
Pinker’s response, though, is: YES! Based on studies conducted over the past decade it is evident that providing all children with equal access to technology increases the performance divide instead of diminishing it. Why? Here’s Pinker’s answer with my emphases:
We don’t know why this is, but we can speculate. With no adults to supervise them, many kids used their networked devices not for schoolwork, but to play games, troll social media and download entertainment. (And why not? Given their druthers, most adults would do the same.)
The problem is the differential impact on children from poor families. Babies born to low-income parents spend at least 40 percent of their waking hours in front of a screen — more than twice the time spent by middle-class babies. They also get far less cuddling and bantering over family meals than do more privileged children. The give-and-take of these interactions is what predicts robust vocabularies and school success. Apps and videos don’t.
Larry Cuban, long a technology skeptic, rightly believes technology has been oversold as the ultimate solution to providing a cheap means of offering an equitable education and especially laments the effects this line of thinking has had on the definition of schooling and teaching. In the third part of a three part series, Cuban undercuts the “…conceit that super-duper software will eventually, not today but in some future tomorrow, automate teaching.” He opens his argument by describing the new, narrow “purpose of schooling” and contrasting it with the definition in previous eras:
What technophiles forget, neglect, trip over—pick a verb–are the multiple purposes for tax-supported schools in a democracy. They and many other futurists err—my verb choice—in equating access to information with becoming educated. The purpose of schooling is reduced to acquiring information.
Tax-supported public schools have been and are social, political, and moral institutions whose historic job has been to help children and youth acquire multiple literacies, enter the labor market well prepared, vote, serve on juries, contribute to their communities, think for themselves, and live full and worthwhile lives.
Until three decades ago, these diverse purposes for tax-supported public schools were obvious; now those purposes have been narrowed to job preparation… Engaged citizenship, contributing to one’s community, and living worthwhile lives remain in the shadows. Few policymakers, philanthropists, technology futurists have challenged (or are willing to challenge) the swelling embrace of automated instruction that promise transforming schools into information factories.
Cuban eloquently and passionately describes the importance of good teachers:
Effective teaching, like work in other helping professions such as medicine, social work, and religious counseling is anchored in relationships. Those student/teacher relationships convert information into knowledge and, on occasion, knowledge into wisdom about the self and world. Teachers, then, from preschool through high school are far more than deliverers of information.
In classrooms, they set and enforce the rules that socialize the young to act consistent with community norms. They set an example of adult behavior becoming for some students exemplars to model. They create classroom cultures that can encourage individual achievement, cooperative behavior, and independent decision-making….
Teachers make thousands of decisions in planning, conducting lessons, and assessing how well students are doing. Hundreds of those decisions are made in the nanosecond during teacher/student exchanges in daily lessons. Many decisions are moral ones in that they involve her authority as teacher, parental expectations, and student behaviors. Decisions over right and wrong are ever-present in classrooms. Teachers sort out conflicts daily among students over truth-telling and differences between parental values and school norms… No software program that I know has algorithms that either make instantaneous decisions when events pop up unexpectedly or split-second moral decisions.
Given these complicated human interactions, Cuban cannot see a day when teachers will be replaced by technology.
While both Pinker and Cuban are wary of the overselling of technology, both recognize it has a place inside and outside the classroom and both tacitly acknowledge that the roles of teachers will need to change in order to take full advantage of all that technology has to offer. After reading both articles, I found that Pinker’s conclusion and Cuban’s analysis overlap in Pinker’s concluding paragraph:
“…the public money spent on wiring up classrooms should be matched by training and mentorship programs for teachers, so that a free and open Internet, reached through constantly evolving, beautifully packaged and compelling electronic tools, helps — not hampers — the progress of children who need help the most.”
And while neither writer says so explicitly, I think both would agree that in addition to spending money on technology once students are in school, it would be far more beneficial to invest in programs that nurture babies born to low-income families socially and academically and provide more supervision for students after school. Technology can provide information: technology cannot educate.
As readers of this blog know, I DO believe technology can play a major role in transforming education… but I also believe that too many of today’s end users embrace seemingly cheap and easy technology applications that are actually more expensive and difficult than they appear.
The NYTimes Upshot column, “Helping the Poor in Education: The Power of a Simple Nudge” by Susan Dynarski is a case in point. Dynarski suggests that researchers:
…have identified behavioral “nudges” that prod students and their families to take small steps that can make big differences in learning. These measures are cheap, so schools or nonprofits could use them immediately.
The “nudge”she cites at length is to send timely text messages to students. The basis for this recommendation is a series of studies that shows when first generation college students raised in poverty received timely texts they enrolled at higher rates, succeeded in their schoolwork at higher rates, and graduated at higher rates. From these studies on college students, Dynarski makes the leap that similar programs would yield analogous results at lower grade levels. Here’s the example of the kind of texting protocols used in one study:
A school in Los Angeles, in collaboration with Peter Bergman of Columbia University, sent personalized text messages to parents of middle and high school students. The texts told parents when their children did not hand in homework assignments, listing page numbers and specific problems for students to complete. The parents and students responded: Completed homework went up 25 percent and grades and test scores rose. Other forms of communication between the school and parents improved, too, with parents twice as likely to reach out to their children’s teachers.
And here is the conclusion she draws from this study and others like it:
These light nudges can’t solve every problem, by a long shot. But at a low cost, they can help many students.
Why aren’t schools, districts and states rushing to set up these measures? Maybe because the programs have no natural constituency. They are not labor- or capital-intensive, so they don’t create lots of jobs or lucrative contracts. They don’t create a big, expensive initiative that a politician can point to in a stump speech. They just do their job, effectively and cheaply.
There are several unacknowledged obstacles to this idea, obstacles that are NOT inexpensive:
- Not every parent has the technology needed to receive texts
- Not every parent has the technology skills required to respond to texts
- Not every parent resides in a neighborhood where there is cell reception (e.g. in areas of rural poverty— look at your coverage maps for proof of this assertion you city dwellers)
- Not every school has the technology needed to send texts
- Not every teacher has the technology needed to send texts
- Many teachers have class sizes and or student loads that preclude writing the kinds of “personalized text messages” described above. A college teacher might teach 3 or four classes of 20 students most of whom do not need the kind of intensive help suggested in these studies. A middle school teacher in a typical school district might have 100 students in five classes if the district limits class sizes to 20… and if the class sizes are, say, 35 (which they are in many urban districts), a classroom teacher might see 175 students. And a higher percentage of those students require the “nudges” described in Dynarksi’s article. Is it realistic to expect that teacher to write a personalized text message to each of those students whenever they fail to “…hand in homework assignments, listing page numbers and specific problems for students to complete“.
Contrary to Dynarski’s concluding paragraph, I believe some politicians would see this as a quick and cheap way to intervene and would claim that districts would engage in this but for “union rules” and might point to charter schools who do this as the solution (while conveniently overlooking the fact that charters have smaller class sizes and attract children of parents who would be more likely to have and use technology). But would a teacher’s union who pushed back on this kind of requirement be obstructionist or anti-reform? Or would they be pointing out the practical reality that sending personalized messages requires smaller class sizes, fewer students assigned to each teacher, and the availability of technology at the school and at the home. Sorry, Ms. Dynarski, this solution isn’t cheap or easy!
Readers of this blog know that I have long advocated the need for ALL homes to have broadband access if we ever expect public schools to take full advantage of technology and ever hope to use technology as a means to provide equitable opportunity. Today’s NYTimes reports that Obama will be pushing to pass federal legislation that overrides state laws that prohibit or limit broadband expansion.
A sidebar: I am beginning to sense that Obama has waited until NOW to push legislation that will be disagreeable to the private sector because he no longer needs their campaign $$$. If my conclusion is accurate. it is further evidence that Citizens United needs to be repealed. Here’s hoping THIS Congress, which appears to be beholden to the telecomm business, will not throw a monkey wrench into Obama’s charge to the FCC.
Silicon Valley Turns Its Eye Toward Education, an article in today’s NYTimes by Natasha Singer, quotes Betsy Corcoran, the chief executive of EdSurge, an industry news service and research company, as describing education as “…one of the last industries to be touched by Internet technology”… a last frontier that is getting more and more attention from hedge fund investors. The article focuses on the direct marketing of free apps to teachers as a means of coping with the “…limited budgets and slow procurement processes” in small school districts across the country. These free products, or “Freemiums” are used by a large number of teachers, parents, and students and are subsequently monetized by selling advertising based on the large number of users. Free courseware, on the other hand, is monetized by having students pay to complete assessments that certify the mastery of the materials presented in the course. In both cases, the technology start ups are using a bottom-up approach to marketing. They identify a need that technology can meet, design a product to meet that need, and then get market share in that niche. From my perspective, this kind of marketing and product development is praiseworthy even though part of the monetization of the “freemium” is likely to involve the sale of e-mail lists and, given the scope of the products described, some personal information.
The article does not mention the top-down approach to introducing technology into schools being used by technology advocates like Bill Gates and various profiteers who are introducing technology-based deregulated for profit schools in states like PA who are willing to fully fund virtual education. Gates’ method of introducing technology is to fund (and in some cases create) various organizations that promote technology based learning and/or the use of technology to assess student and teacher performance. These organizations, in turn, generate White Papers that are used to influence legislation at the State and federal level, legislation that effectively mandates the use of technology. This top-down approach has the advantage of side-stepping the “…limited budgets and slow procurement processes” in small school districts across the country by side-stepping the democratic processes inherent in those same small districts across the country. It has some inherent disadvantages as well:
- Buy-in: Because it is imposed at the national or state level teachers are not engaged in the adoption of the products and not invited to provide feedback as they are in the small start-ups cited in Singer’s article.
- Infrastructure: Top-down “innovations” like on-line testing require technology infrastructure that is often lacking and back room support that for-profit organizations often short change. Too, there is often incompatibility between the technology in schools and the technology required for testing. This recent E-classroom Newsletter article described the connectivity challenges MN faced, challenges that were mirrored in several states across the country.
- Time: Those seeking quick fixes to education are drawn to the top down approach despite the reality that implementing new software programs requires time. Having lived through several budgeting, scheduling, and data-base implementations during my career as an administrator, I found that it took at least two years for the small number of end users to make full use of the software programs. The aggressive roll-out schedules for student assessments reflect a desire place profits in front of education.
- Training: Implementing technology requirements from the top-down requires training of teachers, parents, and students…. and the training can only occur once the first three items on this list are addressed: there must be total buy-in from the end users, the infrastructure must be in place, and there must be sufficient time for the software to be de-bugged.
The Times article’s conclusion is on target and should be required reading for those within to impose a top down means of technology implementation:
“If you get share, users and engagement, you can find a way to build a viable business,” said John Doerr, a partner at Kleiner Perkins, which is an investor in Remind. “But none of it is easy.”
Mandating technology is easy and fast… but it’s unlikely to be as inexpensive as the bottom-up approach and even more unlikely to be effective.