Today Diane Ravitch cross posted an excerpt from a blog written by ME 4th grade teacher Emily Talmage, who decries the reforms being introduced into her state, reforms funded by Bill Gates and the Nellie Mae Foundation. In her post, which is a letter to Mark Zuckerberg imploring him to dissociate himself from Bill Gates, and in the comments that follow, there are several negative comments about “reform”, “personalized learning” and “mastery learning”—all terms that have been expropriated by those billionaires who see education as the next place to make even more money.
The term “reform” and all its variants, which I at one time associated with Ted Sizer and other progressive educators, is now used by profiteers and the neo-liberal politicians who take their money and promote their ideas.
“Personalized learning”, a term embraced by the technology-based crowd who want to disrupt education, has also lost its original intention which was brought to life in Vermont as part of the Education Quality Standards (EQS). In Vermont, the idea was that all seventh grade students would develop a personalized learning plan (PLP) that would be the basis for their course selection in high school as well as learning activities that would take place outside of school. The notion was that this plan would help bring purpose to the coursework in school and tie the students out-of-school learning and activities to those happening in school. While you might use a computer to write this plan down and modify it annually (or as needed), it had nothing to do with the kind of computer-driven instruction described in the Talmage’s post or the comments that followed.
I also find it maddening that “mastery learning” is being conflated with behaviorism, because boiling that concept down to answering a series of multiple choice questions will corrode that phrase as well. In my way of thinking, mastery learning requires benchmark assessments that are administered when the student is ready to demonstrate that they have mastered a skill. As noted in previous blog posts, the driver’s test is the paradigmatic mastery test: If you fail it the first time– or the first five times— once you demonstrate mastery you get the same “certificate” as an individual who passed it the first time. In mastery learning, time is the variable and content is constant.
In looking back on my 40+ year career in public education I can see the source of these ideas in my first assignment. As a rookie 8th grade math teacher in an overcrowded junior high school in Philadelphia in 1970 I was handed a schedule that assigned me to four sections of roughly 35 homogeneously grouped students who I taught in over 20 different “classrooms” that included a small gymnasium, a section of the cafeteria, and a science lab with 24 lab stools. The book I was issued matched the city’s 8th grade pre-algebra curriculum. Most of my students could not perform basic operations… and given that I had 8-24, 8-30, 8-34, and 8-36… all sections in the lowest 1/3 of the age cohort… this was not surprising. The mismatch between my student’s skills and the expectations of the text book was gaping. My solution– which it took me several months to stumble upon– was to borrow a 3rd grade book of mimeo masters from my father’s best friend, who sold textbooks in the suburbs, and integrate them into a mimeograph “textbook” I wrote and issued to one of my classes. The discipline problems in that class diminished markedly from that point forward… and I began using modifications of this in the other three sections to the same effect.
The name for that kind of approach in 1970 (according to the observation report that was written by an observer of that class) was “individualized instruction”. Today, with the data collection and analysis capabilities, “individualized instruction” has been renamed “personalized learning”. The application of this aspect of “personalized learning” is limited to curricula that are hierarchical in nature, requires adept and timely intervention by a teacher, and is not intended to replace school. It could be a means of getting students out of the lockstep age-based groupings that lead to 8th grade teachers being required to offer pre-algebra to students who have not learned the basic skills.
Mastery Learning, a concept that was taking root as I was in graduate school in the early 1970s, has always seemed unattainable because of the massive amounts of paperwork required to track each student’s progress. By definition it requires a hierarchy of skill levels and focusses on the assessment of those skills… but hierarchical skills exist in virtually every area of learning and performance and assessing learning and performance is a skill that cannot be delegated to a computer… unless, that is, the goal of the school is to measure only easy-to-measure content.
When “reformers” who advocate “personalized learning” claim that computerized assessments measure “mastery” three terms lose their meaning… and the factory school model is reinforced because the effectiveness of all of this “reform” is determined by whether students progress at a uniform rate based on their age… they are widgets moving along an assembly line, not sentient beings who need connection with others.
Washington Post blogger Valerie Strauss used her post on Saturday to reprint a thoughtful four page memo written by Steve Luikhart, the chair of the Pasco County (FL) School Board. In his memo, Luikhart decries the direction FL has taken in emphasizing standardized testing over formative individualized feedback provided by classroom teachers. Much of the memo outlines an ambitious plan he has to replace the current test-and-punish regimen, a plan based on research on how children learn. While I am not completely confident that his ideas could be implemented as presented, I am 100% certain his ideas are FAR superior to what is in place today and welcome any template that moves us away from arguing against the reform movement by arguing for a better paradigm.
The legislative picture on replacing the “reform” agenda is grim, especially in states like Florida where profiteering charter schools have gained a substantial foothold. In states where for-profit schools are gaining momentum, legislators are not delivering the schools parents want, the kinds of schools their leaders believe are needed, the kinds of schools where teachers are valued, or the kinds of schools where the lives of children are the focal point of everyone’s attention. Legislators in these states are selling the public on the notion that there is a quick, easy and cheap way to “fix schools” and the for profit charter school lobbyists and their allies in the testing and technology fields are helping them with their sales pitch in two ways: by giving them the tools to promote the test-and-punish reform model and by making donations to the campaigns of any legislator who uses those tools to impose “scientific equations” onto educators.
As long as voters ignore the local and state elections— and any examination of the voter turnout for those elections makes it difficult to prove otherwise— those with money will find a way to get sympathetic legislators elected to office and the current factory paradigm with it’s reliance on testing of students in age-based cohorts will continue. We need to elect more thoughtful school board members like Steve Luikhart and replace the State legislators who promote the panaceas peddled by the reform movement. Until that happens, schools will continue to “fail” and more children, especially those raised in poverty, will be left behind.
Harvard Business Review Synthesizes Peter Drucker’s Perspectives on Automation: Life-Long Learning is Essential
Roughly 20 years ago I read several books on management theory and found that almost all the writers on this topic based much of their thinking on the ideas of Peter Drucker, a prolific and insightful writer and thinker. Rick Wartzman, the Executive Director of the Drucker Institute in Claremont, CA wrote an essay for the Harvard Business Review titled “What Peter Drucker Had to Say About Automation” that synthesized his perspective on that topic, and they ultimately boil down to one idea: life-long learning is essential for any worker who wants to avoid becoming obsolete.
In the essay, Wartzman cites Drucker’s writings from a 1946 Harpers essay on the mechanization of cotton harvesting and concluding with quotes from his 1993 book The Post-Capitalist Society. In 1946 Drucker wrote:
“It is easy—and very popular in the Deep South today—to see only one aspect of the technological revolution through which the Cotton Belt is passing: the removal of the dead hand of the cotton economy and plantation society, the establishment of a sound agriculture and of a better balance between industry and farming, higher incomes, better living standards, the end of sharecropping—in short the final emancipation of both white and colored from slavery. It is also easy to see only the other aspect: dislocation, the suffering, the uprooting of millions of people who will lose their homes and their livelihood.
However, the full picture, as in all technological revolutions, emerges only if both—the better life for those who can adjust themselves and the suffering of those who are pushed out—are seen together and at the same time.
In 1986, nearly four decades after observing the impact of the mechanization of cotton harvesting, Drucker observed the same phenomenon in the rust belt:
The “shrinkage of jobs in the smokestack industries and their conversion to being capital-intensive rather than labor-intensive, that is, to automation, will put severe strains—economic, social, political—on the system,” Drucker warned in his 1986 book The Frontiers of Management.
In 1993, nearly five decades later, Drucker underscored the need for everyone to adapt to technological advances by learning new and different skills, envisioning a role for both traditional schooling and corporations:
“School,” Drucker wrote in 1993’sPost-Capitalist Society, “has traditionally been where you learn; job has been where you work. The line will become increasingly blurred.”
Employers also have their role, including “active and energetic attempts at retraining for specific new job opportunities,” as Drucker put it. And each employee must step up and be ready to embrace what’s being taught—over and over and over again. “People have to learn how to learn,” Drucker advised. “No one is allowed to consider himself or herself ‘finished’ at any time.”
The highlighted sentences from Post-Capitalist Society resonate with me the most, and should be the basis for determining if a high school graduate is “ready to work”. If “learning how to learn” is the ultimate goal of schooling, the use of a single test to determine if a student is “ready to work” or “ready for higher education” is preposterous. Passing a test implies that the student is a “finished” product. The ability to “learn how to learn” cannot be measured with a single test. It requires initiative, independence, and insight, traits that a teacher can observe and, if given the chance, could document. The ability to pass a test measuring a prescribed set of skills requires compliance and conformity. It doesn’t require a teacher’s observation, only the grading by a machine. Compliance and conformity might land a job, but being able to remain in the workplace in the future requires a combination of initiative and the ability to learn independently. And only a skilled teacher can motivate a student to want to learn… but instead of training and valuing teachers who can motivate independent learning we are trying to replace teachers with computers that train compliant students to pass tests.
Diane Ravitch had several posts yesterday on the deficiencies of Outcome Based Education, posts that yielded several strong dissents based on B.F. Skinner’s theories, computer-based individualized instruction, and early attempts at outcome based and self-paced education that relied heavily on handouts. I remain convinced that until we abandon our current mental model of education as one based on lockstep progression based on age based cohorts we will remain stuck in the same arguments I’ve witnessed for the four decades I’ve worked in public school administration.
We’ve used OBE based on common standards for decades in one area that requires students to demonstrate mastery with both academic and performance assessments… and a brief history of the delivery of this content in this discipline might shed some light on this issue and also on the direction public education could be headed.
Everyone in our country who possesses a drivers license passed both an academic assessment (typically a multiple choice test) and a performance assessment (typically an over-the-road review with a police officer). The standards a student must master in order to obtain a driver’s license are universal. The time required to master the academic and performance skills varies widely. Students who fail the assessments can re-take them as many times as is needed, but once an individual masters the skills as measured by the written and performance tests they receive a license that is no different from anyone else’s. Students who received the training in a structured program offered by a certified instructor received an additional benefit: insurers rewarded the completion of such a program with a reduced rate because their data showed that such students experienced a lower accident rate.
Students used to receive training for these OBE assessments in public schools but in most states the responsibility for learning these skills has shifted out of school and into the private sector. The rationale for this shift was two-fold: the cost for providing the equipment needed for training was high and the insurance benefits that resulted from the attainment of certificate would enable parents to fund the program out-of-pocket instead of having the program funded by taxpayers.
When public schools dropped Drivers Education, private drivers education schools proliferated. Some of the schools were staffed by former certified teachers whose compensation ad benefits were lower than those offered by public schools and others were staffed by instructors with credentials determined by insurance companies. Oh… and some of the students who might have experienced the financial benefits of taking a publicly funded course lost the opportunity to do so because their parents could not afford the out-of-pocket costs associated with enrolling in a privately operated school operated by an accredited teacher. Most of them DID get their drivers license but paid an insurance premium for several years thereafter.
I trust that readers of this blog can see how this brief history of drivers education might apply to the trends in public education we are witnessing today… and might highlight the consequence of our obsession with having everyone learn at the same pace. Because we accept the current model of schooling we fail to ask some basic questions:
=>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 they result in “efficiency” in the factory school… and until we change our minds about how schools are organized, until we replace our conception of schools as a factory with a new mental model, we will continue 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.
Several years ago public schools decided to outsource the attainment of the drivers license “badge”. The “badges” being developed by private sector enterprises (e.g. IT certifications) are superseding the “diplomas” on the back end of the factory. How long before the same phenomenon occurs in public schools?
The Washington Post’s education writer Lyndsay Layton (or, perhaps, the headline writers) fell for the “reformers” framing of a recall election in Jefferson County, Colorado, by parroting Jon Caldara, the president of the libertarian Independence Institute in Denver which wants to keep the three conservative board majority in power, who was quoted as saying: “This is a proxy war between education reform and union power.”
The repeated this meme throughout the article and never once made the point that this is ultimately a battle between for-profit privatization by businesses who have no desire to maintain any semblance of democracy. And the money flowing into this election is stunning!
The most recent campaign finance reports filed with the state show that candidates and political committees have raised more than $450,000. But that does not include spending by Americans for Prosperity and other tax-exempt nonprofit groups that are not required to report political contributions.
Michael Fields, state director of AFP-Colorado, said that his group is spending “in the low six figures” on cable television ads, mailings and canvassing in Jefferson County.
It is not surprising that tax-exempt non-profits are funneling dark money into the campaign, because the source of that money is likely hedge fund managers and/or corporation who are waiting to pounce at the opportunity to pick over the carcass of the public school system that will remain should the conservatives retain control. Indeed, Layton does acknowledge that profit-making IS a motive:
Tina Gurdikian, a parent who helped spearhead the recall effort, agrees that the election is a stand-in for a larger national debate about public education and she said she sees it as an ideological fight.
“This is really part of a national agenda by special-interest groups like Americans for Prosperity to privatize public education,” said Gurdikian, who has two children in the Jefferson County public schools. “We have a nearly $1 billion budget, and I think a lot of people look at that and want a piece of it. Privatization can work for some things, but not really public education. It really is a common good.”
While Gurdikian’s perspective is broader and clearer than that of Caldara, I see something even more disheartening occurring: the “conservative” group has already shown its aversion to democratic principles and its intent to not only shift the management of schools to profiteers but to re-write history in the process. Opponents to the conservative majority cite facts supporting their contentions that they “…violated open-meeting laws, spent lavishly on legal expenses and hired a new superintendent at a salary significantly higher than his more experienced predecessor.” The Board’s decision to abandon the AP history exam because it presented an unfavorable view of our country got a lot of national coverage as well… including a post on this blog when the students walked out to protest the Board’s action.
So while profiteers want to funnel money to a board that violates open meetings laws, forces administrators to evaluate teachers using bogus metrics, and runs schools like a business, the Post concludes with a paragraph quoting a parent who is echoing the Americans For Prosperity party-line:
“This could start a trend around the country,” Gilmartin said. “That’s what AFP wants. And the unions don’t want to see it. Would it really start a wave across the nation if it goes one way or another? I don’t know. We’ll have to find out.”
The “union members” who get raises every year no matter how the kids do on standardized tests versus the reformers who want to make sure kids do well on the same tests? I don’t think so! It’s the anti-democratic profiteers who want to take control away from teachers and reinforce the outdated factory model for schooling against those who want control for education restored to the teachers and not the corporations.
Today’s NYTimes has an editorial that is based on the flawed logic they and legislators have used since the advent of NCLB and the “high stakes tests” that spawned the thinking behind NCLB. I couldn’t recount all of the flawed thinking in the essay in the space allowed for comments, but did offer this rejoinder:
President Obama’s 2% solution will only matter if tests are not used as the basis for closing schools and firing teachers. If a homeowner was told they would lose their home if they failed a test given in June why WOULDN’T they prepare for that test by studying the material on the test and taking preparatory tests that match the format on the June test? If the editors of the NYTimes were suddenly told they would lose their jobs based on a standardized test administered in June, why WOULDN”T they prepare for the test by studying the material on the test and taking preparatory tests that match the format on the June test? If the President wants to require fewer tests, he needs to abandon the notion that any one test is the basis for drastic actions like school closures and the firing of teachers.
Take the stakes out of the tests and all of the other tests will disappear.