Archive for July, 2012

Big Data Comes to a College Near You

July 19, 2012 Comments off

The Education Life section of the NYTimes has a thought provoking article on the use of “big data” on campuses across the country, especially in large public universities, community colleges, and on-line institutions. Basically, the use of big data takes two forms: monitoring progress and guiding course selection. To monitor progress colleges aggregate data based on successful students’  patterns of course-taking and progression through courses and use that data to indicate whether a student is “on track” or in need of remediation or intervention. The data is shared with the teacher and student on a timely basis so that the teacher can provide just-in-time tutoring or adjustments to the instruction. To assist in course selection, students are provided with Netflix-like guidance based on their interest and the sequence of courses needed to achieve a degree in four years. The article is filled with personal anecdotes from teachers and students and explanations of why this approach is an improvement over what we have in place. As one who read all of George Orwell’s books and essay as a college student in the 60s, I find some of the consequences of this trend unsettling… but as one who knows that way too many students drift through high school and college without a clear direction or adult guidance I can appreciate the need to use technology in this way… Indeed, those of use who spend time on line are being affected by these technology applications whether we like it or not! Here’s the comment I submitted after reading the article:

In 1973 the SLA murdered Marcus Foster, the Superintendent of Schools in Oakland, CA, because he was supposedly advocating the assignment of discrete student numbers to students in an effort to keep drug dealers out of schools. While the assassination was an extreme over-reaction, there was much discussion among school administrators and policy-makers at the time about the extent to which schools should monitor students movements during the day in order to keep drugs off high school campuses. This was before airport screenings became routine, before the placement of cameras in public places, before computer tags, and before people started placing all kinds of personal information in public venues like Facebook. We’ve come a long way…. or have we?

I am a great advocate for the use of technology to personalize teaching because the current one-size-fits-all model of schooling is clearly not working for many students. On the other hand, I wandered through college, filling my schedule with seemingly random courses, changing my major three times as an undergraduate, but still managed to graduate on time. And, as an on-line reader of this newspaper, I find that I miss the serendipity of reading “old school” newspapers, where a sidebar article on page B-27 might catch my interest, an article that I might otherwise miss even with the Times’ recommended articles algorithm. The solution might be some form of intentional serendipity: structured “water coolers” on campus and on-line.

From my perspective this is a MUST READ article. It provides a description of the technological framework that would be needed to underpin a network school and brings out the potential downside of moving in this direction.

You Can Go to Jail But Not to Yale

July 18, 2012 Comments off

The Naked Capitalist cross-posted a post from “My Left Nutmeg”, a progressive blog in Connecticut, titled “A Must Read Piece  on the Impact of Inadequate School funding”. The post explains the theory behind Connecticut’s funding formula, which is mathematically logical and defensible IF it was adequately funded… which of course it isn’t. In fact, it is so grossly underfunded that district who rely on State aid cannot by essentials for students, cannot attract and retain good teachers, and cannot begin to meet the challenges students bring to school. The result: the blogpost provided a list of examples of the kinds of indignities teachers face in schools that serve children raised in poverty.

The writer notes that because schools and social agencies serving children raised in poverty have their budgets cut year-after-year, they are often unable to hire the staff needed to provide services, have the money needed for AP courses or instructional technology, or even the money needed of lightbulbs and copy paper. Meanwhile, a parent made the following observation:

“I have never heard a judge say to someone who committed a crime, `sorry we don’t have money to lock you up.’ Why is it then, that when a child says he wants an education, we say, `we don’t have money to give’? We are telling kids, `you can go to jail, but not to Yale.’

Oh, but the article DID report that the Connecticut legislature DID find money to institute more standardized tests as part of a “reform package”.  So there will be money for classroom technology to administer tests but no new money for teachers, social workers, and free and reduced lunches.

Standardized Tests and Poverty

July 18, 2012 1 comment

The New York Times’ Invitation to a Dialogue is inviting readers to response to an op ed piece written by Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus from USC’s Rossier School of Education. In his essay, Krashen makes arguments regarding poverty and schooling that echo many of the posts on this blog:

The common core standards movement seems to be common sense: Our schools should have similar standards, what students should know at each grade. The movement, however, is based on the false assumption that our schools are broken, that ineffective teaching is the problem and that rigorous standards and tests are necessary to improve things.

The mediocre performance of American students on international tests seems to show that our schools are doing poorly. But students from middle-class homes who attend well-funded schools rank among the best in the world on these tests, which means that teaching is not the problem. The problem is poverty. Our overall scores are unspectacular because so many American children live in poverty (23 percent, ranking us 34th out of 35 “economically advanced countries”).

Krashner proposes that the way to address the poverty problem is to re-direct the billions to be spent on implementing the tests associated with the common core.

How can we pay for this? Reduce testing. The common core, adopted by 45 states, demands an astonishing increase in testing, far more than needed and far more than the already excessive amount required by No Child Left Behind.

No Child Left Behind requires tests in math and reading at the end of the school year in grades 3 to 8 and once in high school. The common core will test more subjects and more grade levels, and adds tests given during the year. There may also be pretests in the fall.

The cost will be enormous. New York City plans to spend over half a billion dollars on technology in schools, primarily so that students can take the electronically delivered national tests.

Mr. Krashner overlooks some realities that undercut his argument:

  • New York City is going to spend millions— hopefullyhalf-a-billion— on technology in schools whether tests are put in place or not. New technology will be needed to teach students how to access information and provide them access to customized and advanced instruction. There will be no money to re-direct.
  • Teachers will test students whether there is a common core or not. Systematizing the classroom testing regimen so that parents and teachers are certain that students have mastered agreed upon skills and content would be beneficial in all districts, affluent ones as well as those serving children in poverty.
  • School superintendents and school boards need to demonstrate to the public that schools make a difference in order to continue receiving funds. Some form of assessment is needed to accomplish that end.
  • The real opportunity for re-directing funds lies in eliminating the functional silos that make it impossible for social services agencies to communicate with each other and with schools. Students in poverty who receive social services often have multiple case managers and overlapping service providers. My essay published Education Week ten years ago describes this phenomenon in detail (see “A Homeland Security Bill for Education” in published articles section). If schools coordinated with social service agencies they could provide the services students need from birth to Kindergarten in their facilities or under their aegis and students could begin their schooling on equal footing.

I am glad the NY Times is publishing op ed pieces that acknowledge the role of poverty on school performance. Poverty is the secret everyone knows but no one wants to talk about… because it requires some tough dialogue about equity and taxes.

Privatization Blues: NYS’s Pre-School Special Ed

July 17, 2012 1 comment

An editorial in today’s NYTimes decries the lack of regulatory oversight of New York State’s pre-school special education programs, citing the following as evidence for this need:

Late last month, Thomas DiNapoli, the state comptroller, issued three damning audits of prekindergarten service companies whose owners have since been hit with criminal charges for defrauding the state. A company called Capital District Beginnings improperly diverted $800,000. The owner of a Brooklyn company called Special Education Associates Inc., who has pleaded guilty to defrauding the government, paid his wife $150,000 as his assistant executive director while she was earning $90,000 a year as a full-time professor at the City University of New York.

Now fans of privatization will say that there are similar cases in other States (which is true— but all have been aggressively prosecuted) and also assert that privatization will necessarily lead to lower costs to taxpayers, which is NOT true:

The preschool special education system serves more than 75,000 children a year across the state. The program this year will cost about $2 billion (or $26,660 per student)— up from about $792 million a decade ago, when about 60,000 children were enrolled (which means each additional student costs $52,000+). Part of the run-up has to do with an increase in the number of children diagnosed with autism, thanks to greater awareness of the disorder, making them candidates for intensive services.

The program’s structure may also be at fault. It is essentially run by private companies that often have two potentially conflicting roles: diagnosing the children and providing the services the diagnosis is thought to require. It would make sense to have neutral parties do the evaluations. (emphasis added)

The preschool special education lobby is politically powerful. But with costs soaring and evidence of wrongdoing mounting, lawmakers must give this program the scrutiny it deserves. When it comes to serving disabled children, every dollar should count.

The facts notwithstanding, I doubt that those calling for privatization will change their thinking and doubt that any NYS politicians will be calling for more staff to assist with oversight of the private firms… and the soaring costs of special education will be used as further evidence of the failure of public schools.


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July 16, 2012 Comments off

No additional comment needed… except this: YIKES!

Diane Ravitch's blog

The Ohio Virtual Academy is making lots of money. And why not? It has a teacher student ratio of 51:1 even though the state pays it for a ratio of 15:1. Only 10% of its state funding went to teachers, and they cleared a profit of 31.5%. What a cool business! Corporate headquarters is bullish; it projects that this will one day be a $15 billion industry. The results aren’t that good, but who cares?

And this cyber charter district is one of the worst performing in the state of Ohio. Its test scores and graduation rates are so low that if it were a public school it would have been shut down by now. But its owner makes big political contribution so no turnaround for this district! Even more important, Governor Kasich spoke at its graduation ceremonies (were they online?) and urged the students to serve their Creator…

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Parent Engagement and Student Independence

July 16, 2012 Comments off

Today’s NYTimes Room for Debate section deals with the issue of parent engagement. The section I linked to is titled “Worry more about Under-Involved Parents” by Richard Settersten, Jr, a professor of social sciences from Oregon State. His article included several bullets on this issue. The three concluding bullets resonated with me given many of my recent blog posts, with key phrases in bold:

  • If you want to see just how much involved parenting matters, track the lives of young people who don’t have it. Many serious problems in our nation stem from parents who are absent, neglectful or abusive. In obsessing about helicopter parents, we’re focused on the wrong end of the spectrum.
  • Involved parenting is especially important for boys and for fathers. Many of the crises of child development concern boys, and many of the crises of parenthood concern men. Both benefit from involved fathering.
  • There is extraordinary inequality in the capacities and resources of American parents. These things determine what parents can do with or for their children. Unequal childhoods become unequal adulthoods

The need for wraparound services for children raised in poverty is premised on the three notions in bold. The disengaged parent is possibly the biggest challenge public schools face in closing the performance gap that exists in our schools today, a performance gap that is exacerbated by the residential segregation that mirrors our economic divide. My response to the essay, which appears in the comment section, follows:

I believe the purpose of schooling is to develop adults who are self-actualized learners, independent thinkers and compassionate members of society.

Children learn from observation and experience. If children observe parents reading, engaging in dialogue about important issues, and working harmoniously with each other, they incorporate these behaviors in their every day life. If parents read to their children, talk with them, answer their questions, and provide a wide range of experiences, the children know how to interact with a nurturing adult when they enter school. When children are in elementary school, parents need to engage the child’s teacher productively. They should let the teacher know their child’s strengths and weaknesses at the outset and share their child’s perspective about his or her experiences in school. As the child advances through school the parent should allow the child to learn from mistakes and determine their own aspirations knowing that their child will not succeed in every endeavor.

Parents whose behavior is the opposite of what is described above create either over-dependence or over-independence. The over-engaged parent produces a stressed out student, the unengaged parent produces a disengaged student. Both students fail to become self-actualized learners, independent thinkers and compassionate members of society. The stressed out student, though, is labelled a “success” by our current standards even though their independence is compromised.

While I believe the purpose of schooling is to develop adults who are self-actualized learners, independent thinkers and compassionate members of society, that does not appear to be the purpose of schooling operationally. Self-actualization, divergent thinking, and inter- and intra-personal skills do not lend themselves to standardized tests that can be numerically sorted into ratings and so we instead focus on the accumulation of knowledge that CAN be measured easily.

CNN: Oversimplify and Throw Dirt

July 15, 2012 Comments off

I’m a bit behind in reading the ASCD Smartbrief and find myself appalled at CNN’s coverage of Ohio’s decision to link teacher pay to test scores. In explaining the rationale for the decision to link test scores to teacher pay, they downplayed the voluntary nature of Race To The Top and downplayed the role the Ohio legislature played in enacting laws that require that 50% of a teacher’s evaluation be linked to compensation. They had no commentary on the preposterousness of this mandate given that only two content areas– math and reading– are tested and given that only grades 3 through 8 are tested in sequence. This means that there is no way to measure the progress made as the result of instruction provided by teachers in grades K-3, 9-12 and teachers in all content areas except Language Arts and mathematics… assuming that standardized achievement tests in place today can be used to measure “student growth”.

I suppose its understandable that CNN cannot get into the complications inherent in using standardized tests to “measure growth”, but if CNN and the mainstream media DON’T make it clear that this cannot be done, public educators who point this fact out will appear to be “making excuses”.

But here’s what is REALLY appalling. At the conclusion of the article, CNN thoughtfully provides a way for readers to provide feedback by using the following prompt: What’s wrong with America’s school system? Tell us here. I will be joining the 586 commenters… but my fundamental comment will be this: What’s wrong with America’s school system is it relies too much on standardized achievement tests!