Archive for July, 2012

Outsourcing at Texas A&M… and my personal experiences in public schools

July 30, 2012 Comments off

Today’s NYTimes features an article on how Texas A&M plans to save mega-bucks by outsourcing food service and janitorial services. As a public school administrator I can identify with the the quandary the administrators face: they are not in the business of managing a large restaurant enterprise or in the business of maintaining acres of land and facilities (though arguably if they offer programs in hotel management and agriculture they could develop learning experiences that might help offset some of the high costs).

My personal experience is that outsourcing food services has been almost always a “win”. In the districts I led where we outsourced we were able to expand choices— including healthy choices— for students while lowering our operating costs by virtue of the bulk purchasing that was available to food service groups. Like Texas A&M, we were able to retain the existing work force at their current wage levels for a pre-determined time level. The only aspect that gave me some level of concern was that the new hires were often paid less and the “frozen wages” often diminished if the veteran staff stayed on. On a mega-scale, then, I was contributing to the wage suppression that I’ve written about as a negative elsewhere.

My personal experience in outsourcing custodial services has universally been poor. When the services were outsourced, the for-profit organizations cut corners in cleaning, hired staff members who lacked the pride in the facilities that the “old guard” had, and required us to institute inflexible guidelines for building use that resulted in complications with PTAs, community groups, and school organizations. This was despite the initial support or indifference to the “new” program that was going to save lots of money.

Finally, unlike the Texas A&M plan, our savings did not get redirected to new programs or expansion of existing programs: they were inevitably used to “save the taxpayers” money. The result, in the case of the facilities management, was ultimately NO savings and new headaches… and in the case of Food Services marginal savings and no change whatsoever to our efforts to improve our major mission of providing a quality education to students.


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Poverty and the Politics of Honesty

July 30, 2012 Comments off

My posts have been absent for a couple of days because I was in an internet free zone late last week and have been busy at Chautauqua the last two days… and I’m using an opportunity between lectures on digital identity to catch up on some timely articles I set aside as I scanned the newspapers of the last few days.

Among the “souvenirs” I’ve gathered here at Chautauqua is a bright yellow pin that reads” TAX ME…end poverty”. I got it before I read the article entitled Why can’t We End Poverty by Peter Edelman in Sunday’s New York Times. The article reinforces the effects that children have experienced in the recent past:

The safety net for single mothers and their children has developed a gaping hole over the past dozen years. This is a major cause of the dramatic increase in extreme poverty during those years. The census tells us that 20.5 million people earn incomes below half the poverty line, less than about $9,500 for a family of three — up eight million from 2000. (emphasis added)

This has a major impact on schools. It means that 8,00,000 MORE students who entered 12th grade in 2012 lived below the poverty line as compared to those who started their senior year in 2000….

We have the ingredients (to end poverty). For one thing, the demographics of the electorate are changing. The consequences of that are hardly automatic, but they create an opportunity. The new generation of young people — unusually distrustful of encrusted power in all institutions and, as a consequence, tending toward libertarianism — is ripe for a new politics of honesty. Lower-income people will participate if there are candidates who speak to their situations. The change has to come from the bottom up and from synergistic leadership that draws it out. When people decide they have had enough and there are candidates who stand for what they want, they will vote accordingly.

I have seen days of promise and days of darkness, and I’ve seen them more than once. All history is like that. The people have the power if they will use it, but they have to see that it is in their interest to do so. (emphasis added)

Sadly, from my perspective, neither political party wants to talk about poverty… and until someone in a leadership position draws this issue out the people have no power and the vicious circle described by Peter Edelman will continue to turn.


THIS is the Future of Technology in Schools

July 26, 2012 Comments off

The ASCD Blog posted a link to an article by Tim Brady titled “What Will the Ed Tech Revolution Look Like?”  that, in my judgment, provided an accurate description of what the ed tech revolution will look like if public education evolves. The article forecasts an optimistic— perhaps overly optimistic— view of the future of education technology in three five year chunks. For each five year block of time Brady describes how technology will affect education at home and in schools. In Brady’s view, in the next five years we will slowly change our perception of the place of technology in our classrooms, due, in large measure to this fact:

According to National Center for Education Information, a full 30% of public teachers are now under the age of 30. This percentage has doubled over the last five years. Why does this matter? Every teacher under 30 years old entered secondary school after Netscape. Like pre and post-TV generations, the pre- and post-Netscape generations think and act differently. They assume that the web is a part of their daily lives and integrate it into their daily routines without giving it much of a thought.

Meanwhile, at home, parents are becoming aware of freeware like the Khan academy, making the computer “seen as a device for learning inextricably tied to a child’s education.”

In the second five year chunk, Brady predicts that purchasing of technology tools will happen from the bottom up, guided by feedback teachers receive from assessments linked to the common core and from their peers who make use of open source freeware. At home parents “…will be empowered to evaluate their child’s progress” with widely available online assessments linked to the common core. Page forecasts that engaged and informed parents will interact with teachers in the same fashion as engaged and informed parents interact with their physician.

In the third phase, Page foresees the abandonment of the factory school model and the advent of a structure much like the Network School.

After a decade more of fiscal pressure at school and many of the changes discussed above, we will finally see widespread changes to our public school model. Schools will move toward one of a handful of models that better support the needs of individual students and reflect the fiscal realities of today.

More specifically, public schools will look to save money by moving away from their traditional age-based and grade-based system (i.e. the “factory model”) toward one based on mastery. Kids will be able to test out of certain classes by proving competency. High schools, and maybe even middle schools, will begin to operate less like factories and more like colleges.

Brady concludes his essay with this:

Most disappointing to me in this projection is the long timeframe likely required to see substantial change. Fifteen years is an entire generation of students! It is difficult to accept the idea that change will take that long while we are failing so many students. But there is no silver bullet for fixing our K-12 system….

Most exciting to me in this revolution is the movement away from the factory model of education and towards something more individually customized to each student and more cost efficient. Technology helps make this possible. We will fail fewer students because they will be more engaged, and we will lose fewer teachers to frustration. And that is an investment worth making.

I believe that Brady’s forecast is accurate for affluent schools and for engaged parents who want their children to get the most out of their education. The schools serving children in poverty— typically urban and high poverty suburban, small city, and remote rural districts–  and the schools serving parents who are disengaged will face serious challenges. Schools and homes without resources now will face challenges in the future because they do not have a baseline for technology in their budgets today. Moreover, some schools and homes are located in parts of the country where internet access is limited. Given that  neither political party views the provision of broadband into all communities and private homes as an urgent need and given that profit seeking telecom providers see no payback in providing internet access to remote rural areas, it is unlikely that all schools and/or homes will have the infrastructure needed to receive the benefits Brady forecasts in his article. Even more complicated is the need to get disengaged parents to use the wealth of information available to them in the way Brady predicts. Parents who don’t look at report cards are unlikely to see the availability of rich online data as a valuable resource… and far too many parents don’t look at or care about their child’s report card. Engaging the disengaged parent and student will be the challenge for teachers more so than learning how to use technological tools… and that is where the art of teaching comes into play.

I sincerely hope that the future Brady sees comes to pass. But I also hope that technology optimists like Brady realize that not all parents are like the patients his wife serves as a physician and not all students attend the kinds of schools where technology is abundant…. and hope that those funding education recognize the need to close the funding gaps that preclude schools serving children in poverty from having the same access to technology as affluent school districts.



“Michelle Rhee Is Shameless” – Diane Ravitch

July 26, 2012 Comments off

Michelle Rhee Is Shameless. This title of this post from Diane Ravitch bluntly characterizes the darling of the business oriented “reformers”  who want to see public schools fail in the same way Mitch McConnell wants to see Baarack Obama become a one term president. The one data point that jumped out at me was the fact that the US was 11th out of 12 when the first international tests were administered in 1964, the glory days when the baby boomers were emerging from high school after receiving that wonderful education provided to students in the 1950s. As I’ve written in several previous blog posts, if either party acknowledges that poverty is the problem behind public education’s so-called “failure”, then the only solution is to address that issue head on… and neither party wants to tackle an issue that is so complicated.

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Markets: The Vicious Cycle in Urban Schools

July 24, 2012 Comments off

In her book written last year, The Death and Life if the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch describes the vicious cycle charter schools set into motion in some urban districts. Todays NYTimes has an article by Motoko Rich that describes how this cycle is playing out in several cities. The clearest example is in Cleveland, OH:

In Cleveland, where enrollment fell by nearly a fifth between 2005 and 2010, the number of students requiring special education services has risen from 17 percent of the student body to 23 percent, up from just under 14 percent a decade ago, according to the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.

Here’s the likely back story:

  1. Charter schools open and those engaged parents who want a solid education for their children, the great majority of whom do not need special education services, enroll their children and the State and local money follow the child.
  2. Public schools lose enrollment, lose revenue that goes along with it, and lose part of the core of students of engaged parents who help set and maintain the academic tone in the classroom.
  3. Squeezed for funding because of the enrollment drop, the district is forced to make budget cuts, starting with the most youthful teachers and focussing on those programs that re not tested like art, music, and PE.
  4. Because the students lost are among the most engaged and the classes are larger, it becomes more challenging to maintain an atmosphere of academic push in the classroom and becomes more challenging to meet the needs of each child.
  5. Because teachers have more students in their classroom, want their students to experience success, and need more support to help them, they begin seeking special education services for more students. Parents who want more attention for their children quickly learn that special needs services will achieve that goal and they, too, seek those services.
  6. Because class sizes are larger, classes are more unruly, the proportion of students receiving special education services is higher, and elective programs are eliminated, the overall quality of the public schools is eroded.
  7. An increasing number of parents seek enrollment in charter schools…. and the spiral continues until public schools predominantly serve children of disengaged parents, more than 25% of who require special education services.
  8. Because these parents are disengaged and dispirited, they don’t possess political clout and the de-funding of public education continues, accelerating the spiral.

The Times article describes districts in various stages of this death spiral without attributing it solely to the advent of charter schools… and yet it is clear from the article that the charters are headed in the opposite direction. By skimming the children of engaged parents, operating on lower overhead because they can compensate teachers on lower pay scales with fewer benefits, augmenting their start-up costs by receiving grants from foundations, the charters can offer more programs for lower costs. Moreover, because they operate as quasi-private schools, if a student is disruptive or a parent does not stay engaged, many charter schools will expel the child and send them back to their public school, who will be required to take them back.

The bottom line on all of this is money. The founders of the charter school movement  wanted to apply market principles to public education even though the market is ultimately Darwinian: it drives out the businesses that can’t succeed and presumably replaces it with ones that can. But “the market” results in a lack of grocery stores in some sections of the city, results in remote areas having no cell reception or internet connectivity, and results in having many Americans consume way too much cheap, unwholesome food. All of this is morally acceptable to those who believe in the market, because the market operates on the principle that the consumer will seek out better products if they want them. The market, though, doesn’t help those who can’t help themselves… and five-year old children born into poverty can’t help themselves. The market mentality is eroding the quality of our public schools. It  is the most vicious cycle of all.

$1,000,000,000 for Master Teachers: A Bad Idea

July 23, 2012 Comments off

Late last week there was much media fanfare over President Obama’s proposal to include $1,000,000,000 to provide $20,000 per year stipends for 10,000 “elite” teachers in science, technology, engineering and math (or STEM as the education media calls these topics). Slate reported that “…the ultimate goal that the elite group of teachers will pass their knowledge and skills on to their colleagues to help bolster the quality of teaching nationwide.”

This is a bad idea for several reasons:

  1. It assumes that STEM teachers merit a substantial pay differential based solely on the content they teach. A good Kindergarten teacher is every bit as valuable as an “elite STEM teacher”.
  2. It assumes that there is some national objective criteria that can be used to differentiate “elite” STEM teachers from “non-elite” STEM teachers. My hunch is that the USED will use student performance on some kind of standardized achievement test as the “objective basis” for identifying STEM teachers… or maybe a variant of the rubric used for National Board certification. If it is standardized tests, my guess is that with $20,000 at stake STEM teachers might teach to the test. If it is National Board Certification, see #1 above and imagine how a Board Certified elementary teacher of English teacher will feel about the STEM teacher getting $20,000.
  3. It assumes there is a mechanism in place for these “elite STEM teachers” to pass their knowledge and skills to their less elite colleagues in other districts. The notion of spreading “best practice” across diverse school districts is part of the business model for schools that has not succeeded to date. A STEM teacher in Scarsdale has access to far more technology resources that a teacher in, say, rural New Hampshire.
  4. It fails the “next dollar” test: For most of the 29 years that I worked as a Superintendent, we explicitly or implicitly invited Principals to submit proposals for programs they might launch if they were given an extra dollar to spend. In this way, we could pit an initiative against an existing practice. In those years, differentiated pay never made the list. My hunch is that if you asked 10,000 districts how they would spend an extra $100,000 that most would look at ways to intervene early with at-risk students. Paying their 5 best STEM teachers an extra $20,000 would fall to the bottom of the list unless they were losing STEM teachers to neighboring districts. Oh… and one little detail, I think virtually every school district in America would like to see full funding for Special Education before additional funds are poured on projects like this one!
  5. It seems redundant: The Slate article reported that: Republican Rep. John Kline, chairman of the House Education and the Workplace Committee, pointed out to the AP that there are already more than 80 quality teacher programs supported by the federal government. 80 might be an overstatement, but even if there are “only” 10 quality teacher programs it would be helpful to those in schools to know what they are, how they relate to each other, and why another one for STEM teachers is needed.

This proposal might excite a few businessmen and will likely garner applause when it is added to a list of education initiatives the Obama administration has championed, but it is unlikely to gain traction without answers to the questions implied in the five points listed above. I’ll be eager to hear why STEM teachers deserve more money; how “elite” STEM teachers will be identified; how this “elite” squad will transfer their knowledge; why this is the best use of another $1,000,000,000; and how this fits with the other “quality teacher programs”.

On-Line Headlines

July 20, 2012 Comments off

Over the past three days, the NYTimes has featured three articles on on-line education in colleges. As regular readers of this blog realize, I am an advocate of blended instruction whereby the unarguable advantages of technology are merged with the unarguable advantages of traditional schooling.

The unarguable advantages of technology are that it is asynchronous, adaptable to the learning style of the student, supports mastery learning where it is possible, provides equal access to high quality instruction, and provides parents, students, the face-to-face teachers, and counselors with a wealth of data on the student. The unarguable advantages of traditional schooling are the opportunity for personal tutoring, for dialogue between the teacher and the student, for interaction with other students learning the same information, and for direct instruction and feedback in areas that cannot be delivered or measured in an on-line venue.

The July 17 Times featured an article by Richard Perez-Pina on Coursera, a new venture offering on-line courses that includes many “name brand colleges” including Stanford, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan… and, yes, the University of Virginia! Coursera will be offering MOOCs, Massive Open On-line Courses (see earlier post on this topic) that are currently offered for free by several “brand” colleges like CMU, MIT, and Stanford. To date there has been no way to make money from this model… but as one who I can recall when Amazon was not making any money I would not be at all surprised to see more and more “market share” going to MOOCs and, as employers begin to recognize these “standalone” MOOC offerings as worthy the university as we know it today will be changed. The article suggests that:

“The people who should be worried about this are the large tier of American universities — especially the expensive private schools — that are not elite and don’t have the same reputation” as the big-name universities now creating MOOCs, said Anya Kamenetz, an author who writes on the future of higher education.

On the same day, the Times had an article by Tamara Lewin entitled “Universities Reshaping Education on the Web” that reported on Coursera even more breathlessly:

“This is the tsunami,” said Richard A. DeMillo, the director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at Georgia Tech. “It’s all so new that everyone’s feeling their way around, but the potential upside for this experiment is so big that it’s hard for me to imagine any large research university that wouldn’t want to be involved.”

Because of technological advances — among them, the greatly improved quality of online delivery platforms, the ability to personalize material and the capacity to analyze huge numbers of student experiences to see which approach works best — MOOCs are likely to be a game-changer, opening higher education to hundreds of millions of people. (emphasis added

To date, most MOOCs have covered computer science, math and engineering, but Coursera is expanding into areas like medicine, poetry and history. MOOCs were largely unknown until a wave of publicity last year about Stanford University’s free online artificial intelligence course attracted 160,000 students from 190 countries. Only a small percentage of the students completed the course, but even so, the numbers were staggering.

The article also reported that University of Washington intends to offer credit for its MOOCs, which could have seismic consequences. The article also alludes to the potential for profit sharing, when the revenue model can be worked out.

Coursera does not pay the universities, and the universities do not pay Coursera, but both incur substantial costs. Contracts provide that if a revenue stream emerges, the company and the universities will share it.

Another echo of Amazon, who entered the online sales venue taking a loss on items in an effort to get market share. One of the criticisms of on-line learning is the opportunity for students to cheat and how courses would be graded… but surmounting the cheating obstacle presented education behemoth Pearson with another opportunity for earnings and surmounting the grading obstacle presented Coursera with yet another opportunity to turn schooling upside down:

“I would not want to give credit until somebody figures out how to solve the cheating problem and make sure that the right person, using the right materials, is taking the tests,” said Antonio Rangel, a Caltech professor who will teach Principles of Economics for Scientists in the fall. Udacity recently announced plans to have students pay $80 to take exams at testing centers operated around the world by Pearson, a global education company.

Grading presents some questions, too. Coursera’s humanities courses use peer-to-peer grading, with students first having to show that they can match a professor’s grading of an assignment, and then grade the work of five classmates, in return for which their work is graded by five fellow students. But, Ms. Koller said, what would happen to a student who cannot match the professor’s grading has not been determined.

Today’s Times features an op ed piece by UVA English professor Mark Edmundson called “The Trouble With On-line Education”, an essay that seems to be arguing against an on-line paradigm that is five years old:

Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue. The Internet teacher, even one who responds to students via e-mail, can never have the immediacy of contact that the teacher on the scene can, with his sensitivity to unspoken moods and enthusiasms. This is particularly true of online courses for which the lectures are already filmed and in the can. It doesn’t matter who is sitting out there on the Internet watching; the course is what it is.

In pre-YouTube and pre-Big Data days this criticism had merit… but as noted in the earlier excerpt from the June 17 article, today’s on-line model is more personalized, more interactive, and more sensitive to individual student needs than the traditional model of schooling. MOOCs are coming… and coming soon!