Archive for May, 2012

Challenges Closing the Digital Divide

May 31, 2012 Comments off

Yesterday’s NYTimes featured an article describing a recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation reporting that closing the digital divide by providing technology to children in poverty doesn’t close the academic divide. Indeed, it may contribute to a widening of the divide since many of the students receiving the new technology use it for games, TV, and social networking instead of academic enrichment. Two quotes stood out for me in the article:

 “…access is not a panacea,” said Danah Boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft. “Not only does it not solve problems, it mirrors and magnifies existing problems we’ve been ignoring.”

Ms. Robell, the principal (of one of the students mis-using technology), said children needed to know how to use technology to compete, but her priorities for her students were more basic: “Breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

Providing technology is one of the many “good, fast, and cheap” silver bullets that politicians and businessman espouse and many educators buy into… but the cold reality is that without early intervention and parental support for learning there is little schools or gadgets can do for students.

I remain convinced that technology can be a powerful tool for supplementing instruction and providing timely and meaningful data to parents, teachers and students. But in and of itself it cannot fix the problems children are born into or bring with them into the classroom.

First Class and Coach in Public Schools

May 31, 2012 Comments off

Nick Kristoff’s column in today’s NYTimes deals with the thorny question of how to balance capitalist markets with morals. He offers several thought provoking examples of how markets contribute to disparity, drawing the column from a book by Mark Sandel called What Money Can’t Buy, which asserts that “…in recent years we have been slipping without much reflection into relying upon markets in ways that undermine the fairness of our society.”

Kristoff’s column includes the following citation from the book:

“The marketization of everything means that people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives,” Sandel writes. “We live and work and shop and play in different places. Our children go to different schools. You might call it the skyboxification of American life. It’s not good for democracy, nor is it a satisfying way to live.”

And follows that citation with the following sentences a couple of paragraphs later:

It is one thing for Delta Air Lines to have first class and coach. It is quite another for government to offer first class and coach in the essential services that government provides.

This inconsistency led me to submit the following comment:

You write that government shouldn’t “…offer first class and coach in the essential services that government provides” yet government has historically offered one essential service– public schooling– in two tiers for decades. Look at the per pupil costs differential between NYC and Scarsdale and you’ll see that differential… and that differential exists in every urban area in the country. If we ever hope to close the divide in our country we need to close the divide in funding for public education.

While I’m not sure I’m crazy about the term “skyboxification”, I think it does capture the difference between, say, Hanover NH and Canaan, NH as well as Scarsdale and New York. But is also accounts for an emerging differential between cities with college educated and non-college educated residents as described in this NYTimes article. Given the choice between Dayton and NYC, more and more college educated folks are choosing urban areas where college educated folks congregate… This is the vicious cycle that only some kind of government assistance can break.

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Presidential Politics: No Discernible Difference

May 30, 2012 Comments off

Washington Post writer Jay Mathews reaches the same conclusion as I did regarding education policy as it applies to the Presidential election: Romney and Obama are mirror images of each other. In an article published on May 27 Mathews notes:

Republican and Democratic presidential candidates have been happily copying each other since a group of Democratic governors (including Bill Clinton) started the school accountability movement in the 1980s and several Republican governors (including George W. Bush) joined in.

He notes that Obama and Romney both champion charter schools, school choice, and “unions-as obstructionists” rhetoric. the only difference is in the parties’ positions on vouchers.  To Mathews’ credit, he accurately points out the key flaw in vouchers:

Instead the two parties pound each other with an education issue that makes them look tough to their most partisan supporters. That convenient weapon is vouchers, tax-supported scholarships for students who want to attend private schools. Obama has cut funds for a voucher program in the District so Romney embraces it. “I will be a model for parental choice programs across the nation,” he said in the speech.

The split doesn’t affect the bipartisan approach to schools much because vouchers have no chance of ever expanding very far. There aren’t nearly enough available spaces in good private schools to meet the demand. Any significant growth in vouchers would lead to heavy government interference in private schools and kill any allegiance conservative Republicans had to it.

To date I have been very disappointed with the Obama administration’s approach to “school reform”, whose centerpiece, Race to the Top, uses standardized achievement tests as the primary (if not sole) basis for school and teacher accountability. I’m hoping that the latest wrinkle in RTTT means some REAL reform in education.

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Testing and Student Motivation

May 26, 2012 Comments off

CNN blog post describes a recent set of studies that determined (are you ready for this) that tests may or may not motivate students. While this may seem self-evident, it is tacitly assumed that students naturally WANT to do well on ANY test, especially a test that has “high stakes”. Unsurprisingly, the study concluded:

“Finally, like any motivational tool, assessments have the strongest power to motivate when their goals are not too difficult or too easy and when they align with students’ own personal interests and goals.”

This explains why students who struggle in, say English, can perform very well on their Drivers Education test or, if they aspire to the military, on an ASVAB test. It also explains why students who are behind their age peers AREN’T motivated when they take a “high stakes” assessment like those mandated by NCLB. After all, if the tests are too difficult and have no alignment with the students’ own personal interest and goals, why should they work hard on it?

Studies like these reinforce the notion that IF the purpose of school is to graduate motivated self-actualized learners, accountability assessments should be formative instead of summative and should measure the students academic performance using content that matches their interest. Given the technology we have available today, this is possible. It is our mindset, that “second grade” is inextricably linked with seven or eight year olds who mature at the same rate, that prevents change.

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Urban Education Blues

May 26, 2012 Comments off

I just read two columns on schools that were disheartening.

Gail Collins Saturday NYTimes column on Romney’s education policy was no more substantive than Romney’s “bold education policy”, which I critiqued a couple of days ago. What she neglected to point out was that BOTH Obama AND Romney refuse to acknowledge two canards: first, that school choice is a viable alternative; and secondly, that we are spending too much on urban schools. After a quick Google search, here is the comment I wrote:

School choice will work when Bronxville accepts kids from the Bronx. School improvement will occur when the Bronx per pupil costs match Bronxville. How much more would NY budget if it matched its neighbor to the north in per pupil expenditures? $5.9 billion is a rough approximation. And Bronxville is only ranked 55th in the State in per pupil costs. But I keep forgetting…. we’re “throwing money at the problem” and money doesn’t make any difference anyway.

If money doesn’t make a difference, why do affluent schools spend more than urban schools on education: in the case of Bronxville $6,168 dollars more than NYC? And don’t tell me that the cost of living in Bronxville is any more than the Bronx! The two communities border each other. Without doing the Google research I am confident that the same disparities exist between neighboring districts across the country.

Then I read an article on privatization in Philadelphia in Common Dreams that drove me back to Google and resulted in the following comment:

Here’s some data from the New American Foundation: Philadelphia spent $10,828 per pupil in 2009 and Springfield, Montgomery County, its neighbor to the Northwest, spent $17,069. If Philadelphia budgeted as much on a per pupil basis as Springfield it would have just under $1,000,000,000 more to spend. But I keep forgetting… money doesn’t matter.

The disparities between Philadelphia schools and Springfield schools are almost identical to the disparities between Bronxville schools and New York schools! Money DOES make a difference to those living in affluent suburbs but doesn’t matter if your kids attend urban schools. And for those who think that the money is better managed in private hands, please read the Common Dreams post… or read any of the recent articles on JPMorgan Stanley.

A School Based on Brain Research

May 25, 2012 2 comments

One of my of repeated “fundamental questions” is this: “Knowing what we know about how students learn and having the technology that makes individualized learning possible, why are our schools organized based on the 1920s factory model?”

This ASCD blog post describes a “School Designed by Your Brain”… and it looks more like Summerhill than the traditional model experienced by most of us. The blog post is short, but it describes a non-graded technology-based environment where students know how and why they learn information. But… since the students might not do well on the standardized tests that are used to measure school performance it is unlikely that we will see it happen any time soon.

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An Evaluation System that Looks Promising

May 25, 2012 Comments off

I may be showing my Maryland bias (I served as Superintendent there for 10 years and felt it was the best State Department and best legislature I experienced in my 29 years), but the evaluation system described in this Washington Post article appears to be well conceived and promising. I know that St. Mary’s County was a leader two decades ago when I was in MD  and I also feel the country system of governance makes the most sense for schools (though MD’s funding element is politically charged), and it seems from the reporting here that the union and administrative leadership worked harmoniously to develop a method of incorporating student performance the includes local formative assessments as well as State summative assessments as a part of the evaluation system. It also seems that the district has figured out a rational way of addressing the problem of using assessments to measure the performance of secondary classroom teachers as well as “special” teachers— a concept that other states and districts seemingly glossed over in their rush to get some kind of performance-based system in place.

All of this begs the question of whether the time spent developing this evaluation system might have been better spent developing mastery assessments to help track individual student progress. The political obsession with devising some form of performance compensation for teachers drains the most important resource– TIME— away from the most important issue– making certain that each student masters the curriculum. My hunch is that the results of this evaluation system will not yield a performance compensation plan. It MAY provide more evidence to support the discharge of low performing teachers, but I doubt that the list of “low performing teachers” will include any surprises. I will be interested to see how this system fares over time.

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