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.
I hate to sound like a broken record when it comes to calling out the NYTimes… but I intend to take every chance I get to make the point that VAM is flawed and the Times is complicit in the public’s misunderstanding of that mathematical and statistical fact. Sunday’s column by Nick Kristof, “Are You Smarter than an Eighth Grader” gives me such a chance. The column offers three questions from a recent international test of eighth graders and used them as examples of how poorly our students fared as compared to students in other countries. This led me to offer the following comment:
This paper contributes to the public’s misunderstanding of mathematics and statistics by supporting flawed ideas like “value added” measures as a basis for measuring individual teacher performance despite the rebuke of the methodology by the American Statistical Association and by publishing test data on individual schools without explaining their statistical significance.
I could have made the response more political by noting that the Times reports clearly incorrect and/or incomplete mathematical information when it comes to budget proposals, giving column inches to budget balancing ideas that lack specifics or, in some cases, don’t add up at all. When the “newspaper of record” supports statistical measures that are rebuked by professionals in the field and fails to provide its readers with mathematically accurate facts it is failing the public far more than its schools who need to defend themselves against baseless and inaccurate charges of “failure”.
And then this morning I read a letter to the editor to the Lubbock Avalanche Journal from George McFarland, a local superintendent, pointing out how their media have jumped onto the “failing schools” meme without looking at the facts, which are:
For example, news media like to grab onto quotes that public schools are clearly failing because there are 146,000 students trapped in almost 300 failing public schools. However, considering that 146,000 students is 2.8 percent of the 5,151,925 Texas students, simple math can identify more than 97 percent of Texas public school students are not enrolled in “failing” schools.
Likewise, 300 schools represent 3.5 percent of the 8,574 public school campuses in Texas, meaning 96.5 percent of campuses are not “failing.” These numbers might suggest there are areas where public education can improve but certainly don’t necessitate the need to completely trash an entire system which is serving so many successfully.
Thankfully the newspaper published the article… but if they were doing their job every time a politician said schools were failing they would note that 96.5% are NOT failing… but that FACT undercuts the narrative that is stuck in the minds of readers and voters.
David Dayen, a prodigious blogger and Fiscal Times writer, wrote a column earlier this month that I just came across via Naked Capitalist. Titled “The Biggest Outrage in Atlanta’s Crazy Teacher Cheating Case”, Dayen compares the efforts to prosecute wrongdoing in the Atlanta cheating scandal with the failure to prosecute comparable fraud committed by those who issued bogus loans to unsuspecting customers… lone that led to the financial collapse. After describing the misconduct of the Atlanta teachers and administrators in detail, Dayen outlines the parallel between their behavior and that of the bankers:
None of this excuses the misconduct, it sets a context for it. And it matches almost precisely what went on at every level of the mortgage market before, during and after the housing bubble. Mortgage brokers used Wite-Out and exacto knives to falsify income tax data for unqualified borrowers to get them into loans. They employed Coke vending machines as light boards to trace forgeries, putting people into garbage loans they didn’t purchase. The loans got sold to Wall Street banks, which routinely lied to investors, who purchased bundles of mortgages packaged into securities, by telling them that the loan quality exceeded underwriting standards.
When the loans predictably defaulted, mortgage servicing company employees were instructed to lie to customers, claim to have lost loan modification applications when they actually shredded them, and push customers into foreclosure, which maximized servicer fees. One set of workers at Bank of America testified that they received Target gift cards as bonuses for causing foreclosures among customers.
In the foreclosure process, these same companies, with help from “default services” specialists and “foreclosure mill” law firms, fabricated and forged the legal documents required to enforce the terms of the mortgage, because all that documentation was either lost or never recorded. Workers would sign each other’s names, use each other’s notary stamps, pretend to work for other companies, and assign mortgages from the company they didn’t work for to the one they did.
While the GA district attorney aggressively pursued the cheating case and ultimately issued criminal charges against the Superintendent of Schools, Dayen notes that only one person in the entire country has been charged with a crime as a result of the financial meltdown that resulted from the kind of misconduct described above. Dayen’s conclusion?
You don’t have to consider the Atlanta teachers innocent to know something has gone terribly awry in the country when filling in bubbles on Scan-Tron sheets can get you 20 years, but stealing people’s homes and defrauding pension funds can’t get you indicted. The only way you could see what the justice system has granted bankers as in any way commensurate with what it does to ordinary people is if you grade on a curve.
In what could have national ramifications, a post in Politico suggests that the STATE may have the power to withhold FEDERAL funds from districts who fail to participate in the testing.
Here’s the context for this story:
Last year, parents across NYS launched a campaign to opt out of the state tests because they feel that the emphasis on test results is undermining the curriculum in their districts, placing inordinate and inappropriate pressure on their children, and providing them with no information whatsoever about their child’s mastery of the information tested. Teachers unions tacitly supported this movement for the same reasons, emphasizing the flaws in using value added measures for evaluating them and the lack of useful information made available following the testing.
Sensing the growing opposition to the testing regimen, Governor Cuomo included a provision that 50% of the teacher evaluation be used on test results in his budget proposal. When this proviso didn’t fly in the legislature, he accepted a compromise that would allow the Regents to determine the extent to which testing would be the basis for evaluations. As noted in earlier posts, this effectively gave Cuomo a green lift to proceed with VAM since the majority of the Regents and the Regents chair are supporters of the testing regimen Cuomo wants to put in place.
Last year the opt-out campaign was marginal… but this year nearly 200,000 parents have opted out of the testing program, teachers unions have explicitly supported the opt-out movement, and some school boards and superintendents have formally and publicly endorsed the movement. As it became evident that parents were not in support of the movement, Tisch and Cuomo both made claims that they their hands were tied win it came to withholding of federal funds… but as Politico notes that may not be the case:
State officials had previously suggested that the matter was out of their hands. Representatives for the U.S. Department of Education and the state Education Department have said the federal government could withhold Title I funds—grants for schools that serve low-income students—if fewer than 95 percent of students in an individual school or district take the tests, and Governor Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday also said the federal government holds the power to decide whether to withhold funding.
But public statements and regulatory guidance from both the U.S. and state education departments suggest the decision is not totally up to the feds.
“They [federal officials] seem to indicate—I’m hearing that we have discretion, but we will find out how much discretion we have,” state Board of Regents chancellor Merryl Tisch told Capital on Tuesday. “If we do have discretion, we intend to use it.”
Duncan has put Tisch and Cuomo in a bind! Here’s why. Affluent districts with high opt-out percentages and low Title One allocations have less to lose than districts serving children raised in poverty that have high opt-out percentages and high Title One allocations. Thus, if Tisch and Cuomo use the withholding of Federal Title One funds as a penalty they will be hurting children raised in poverty more than those in affluent districts.
And Tisch may have put herself in a bind with her assertion that the Regents intend to use any discretion they have because if they DO assert themselves by withholding the marginal funds from affluent districts they will unleash a massive protest. IF the Regents intend to withhold funds they need to do so quickly because local budgets will be adopted in May and presumably Boards will be advised of their State funding in advance of those budget votes.
Finally, Duncan’s position in NYS may have created a problem for himself: If NY State can withhold federal funds as a penalty, why couldn’t ANY state do the same? And does this ability to withhold funds mean that States have the authority to re-allocate the federal dollars they receive?
It seems to me that a can or worms has just been opened in NYS and conceivably across the country. We may see some interesting fireworks in the coming weeks!
I re-blogged Diane Ravitch’s post on the NYTimes article by Kate Taylor and Mokoto Rich because it perpetuated the myth that unions and not parents were the primary force behind the opt-out movement. This post will provide a blow-by-blow listing of everything that is wrong about their article… and bear with me because the list is a long one!
- Taylor and Rich write: “In Florida, the teachers’ union has lobbied to limit the use of standardized tests, and the governor last week signed a bill thatlimits the number of hours students can spend taking them”, linking the union lobbying to the passage of the law when anyone familiar with FL politics knows that it was the conservative right who compelled Governor Scott to abandon the testing regimen first put in place by presumptive presidential aspirant Jeb Bush.
- They write: “Lawmakers are considering a bill that removes the most punitive consequences for schools and makes clear that states do not have to use test scores to evaluate teachers” as if this will put an end to testing… which, as previous posts have noted is NOT the case. The new bill will require that states develop their own accountability measures and those measures may (and probably will) include annual tests.
- Taylor and Rich quote testing advocates such as Joshua Edelman who is quoted as follows: “It’s right at the point when we finally actually have the kind of improved tests that so many folks petitioned for and advocated for for years,” and while “Mr. Edelman said that the organization supports legislation to reduce unnecessary testing (he felt that) “encouraging parents to opt out is not an effort to reduce over testing… “It’s an effort to undermine accountability”. This is wrong on two scores: first the tests being used now are NOT the kind of “improved tests so many folks petitioned for” because their results cannot be used by teachers to help individual students improve their knowledge and understanding nor can they prescribe the kind of instruction each child needs. And parents and unions are not opposed to “accountability”, they are opposed to the kind of accountability model imposed on schools by politicians who want to privatize public education.
- The article gives several inches of space to those who oppose the campaign against testing, and Taylor and Rich then write: “The union argued that it was not fair to make test scores so big a part of a teacher’s rating because many factors outside the classroom can influence scores.” That statement is accurate but incomplete: it omits the fact that the unions argue the use of test scores is unfair because there is no statistical validity to their use for evaluating teachers and even the use of the tests to evaluate schools is debatable.
In the article there is no mention whatsoever of the statistical science community’s virtually unanimous agreement that “value added” measures are impossible… which is akin to having an article denying climate change published based on the findings of a scientist on the payroll of the petroleum lobby. By turning a blind eye to the statistical worthlessness of value added measures the Times is effectively telling the public that test scores can be a valid measure teacher performance… which is clearly untrue. The Times is doing a disservice to students, parents, taxpayers, and– yes— teachers.
Several stories this past week described the increase in the number of students who opted out of tests and contrary to the narrative promoted by the pro-privatization crowd and mainstream media it is being led by parents and NOT the teacher’s union.
USA Today reported the 155,000 figure on Thursday, based on information provided by United to Counter the Core, whose Facebook page featured this statement:
BRIEF STATEMENT FROM UNITED TO COUNTER THE CORE
As we complete the first round of counts for ELA and move into the first round of counts for math, it is important to remember why parents do this.
Make no mistake, this wave of civil disobedience is not just about Andrew Cuomo and his teacher evaluation plan. Cuomo is the flavor-of-the-month in a long line of ill-prepared, ill-advised education reformers, each worse than the one before. These sometimes well-intentioned reformers have nevertheless damaged an entire generation of America’s schoolchildren going all the way back to No Child Left Behind.
Hundreds of thousands of parents are not making political statements, they are looking at crying, defeated children around their kitchen tables and demanding meaningful change. NY parents and teachers want education reform that is educator-driven, that is tested and proven, that addresses the real problems facing our schools and our children, and that is implemented with a modicum of competency.
A reduction of testing or evaluations does not address the underlying issue. NY parents want what parents have wanted since time began – a better education for our children.
As Democracy Now reported, this figure might be an understatement:
Protest organizers say at least 155,000 pupils opted out — and that is with only half of school districts tallied so far. … More than a decade after the passage of No Child Left Behind, educators, parents and students nationwide are protesting the preponderant reliance on high-stakes standardized testing, saying it gives undue importance to ambiguous data and compromises learning in favor of test prep.
Nadia Prupis’ synopsis of the opt out movement in Common Dreams included the reports from NYS, referenced Democracy Now’s coverage and also included a quote from Juan Gonzalez’ NY Daily News account referenced earlier this week in this blog. Her post noted that the 155,000 figure dwarfed the 49,000 who opted out last year and only included half of the districts in NYS. From these reports, it appears that NYS’ hurried and bungled roll out of last year’s test may be the undoing of the standardized test movement in that state… but Governor Cuomo and the Regents will likely find some way to downplay the opt-outs and/or continue to promote the notion that the unions are behind it. One of the most reprehensible ideas advanced is to permit “high performing districts” to opt out completely, thus creating a de facto two tiered system of assessments whereby affluent schools are not required to take standardized tests.
Say tuned for Week Two of the testing cycle to see how many children stay home during the math tests in NYS… and for the coming weeks win standardized tests are administered across the nation.
Today’s blog post title is a play on yesterday’s NYTimes featured an op ed article by Will Miller titled “Want Reform? Principals Matter, Too”. In the article, Miller, who is president of the Wallace Foundation, breathlessly reports that the Principal of a school plays a key role in school improvement… a fact that true school reformers like Ron Edmunds knew decades ago. Miller’s op ed piece recounts all of the reasons this is the fact, touches on some of the research that demonstrates this, and offers some recommendations on how this can be addressed.
One point Mr. Miller overlooked was the impact of VAM on school administrators, especially in New York. The latest thinking on “reform” in NY insists that test scores take greater precedence than principal evaluations. Indeed, Governor Cuomo has so little regard for Principals’ ability to evaluate that he wants to institute a system that requires independent third party evaluations. Why? Because the failure rate for teachers is way too low! To paraphrase Mr. Miller, it’s hard to think of another profession where so little attention is paid to leaders. Organizations like the military, corporations and universities listen to and respect their leaders. If we’re going to do this in public education, a lot has to change… beginning with abandoning the notion that test results can replace direct observation in the classroom as a means of judging teacher and administrator performance.
The fundamental principle that test scores cannot measure the human interactions between a teacher and a student and a leader and a subordinate needs to be brought to the forefront…. because THAT principle matters A LOT more than any Principal.