Archive for August, 2012

We’re #24!!!

August 31, 2012 Comments off

Diane Ravitch’s blog this morning references a report on Pre-school education completed by the Economist magazine that rates countries on the quality of their pre-school programs. The United States is ranked #24.

I’ve been involved in public education for over 40 years and can recall reading about the importance of preschool education ever since I entered graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania in 1970. Presidents from Nixon through Obama and governors of all stripes have extolled the virtues of early intervention. But where is the US in terms of the following elements that “leading countries” have in place for pre-school programming?

  • A comprehensive early childhood development and promotion strategy, backed up with a legal right to such education.
  • Universal enrolment of children in at least a year of preschool at ages five or six, with nearly universal enrolment between the ages of three and five.
  • Subsidies to ensure access for underprivileged families.
  • Where provision is privatised, the cost of such care is affordable relative to average wages.
  • A high bar for preschool educators, with specific qualification requirements. This is often backed up with commensurate wages, as well as low student-teacher ratio
  • A well-defined preschool curriculum, along with clear health and safety standards.
  • Clear parental involvement and outreach.
  • A broad socioeconomic environment that ensures that children are healthy and well- nourished when they enter preschool.

The answer is clear: we have no comprehensive ECE program; we do not have any universal enrollment in ECE programs; we offer no subsidies to ECE programs; we have no indexed ECE scale; we have no certification requirements for ECE; we have no defined preschool curriculum; we have no parental outreach plans in place; and we have no plan to ensure that all children are healthy and well nourished.

I will paraphrase a conclusion I’ve written before: raising taxes to improve the quality of life for children raised in poverty is not socialism— it is hard-headed capitalism. If we want to remain competitive in a world where the economy is based on life long learning we need to intervene early in the lives of the 20+% of our youth population that is being raised in poverty.
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Poverty:School Reform::Humanity:Global Warming

August 29, 2012 Comments off

I’m a little behind in my posts, in part because of the Race To The Top grant I wrote about in an earlier post and in part because I have subscribed to Diane Ravitch’s blog, which is full of articles that intersect with my areas of interest. One of her posts led me to this article by Anthony Cody from Education Week‘s Teacher edition critiquing the Gates Foundation’s perspective on poverty. It poses this question: “Can We Defeat Poverty By Ignoring It?”.

The answer is clearly “NO”… and Cody provides a comprehensive data set to support the impact poverty has on school performance. But the whole argument against the linkage between poverty and school performance was captured in this quote of Eric Hanushek, a Stanford economist who is a favorite of the run-schools-like-a-business crowd. I offer Hanshek’s quote in its entirety with Cody’s comment in parenthesis and my emphasis added:

There is no doubt, no researcher that I know that has ever said, that family background [note that he refuses to use the term “poverty.”] is not extremely important. It’s not an issue. We understand that. We don’t have the means to change families. Or we’re not willing to use that as a nation. We DO have the means to adjust what our schools do. That’s our public policy instrument. That’s why some of us spend all of our time not looking at how to change families, but how to change the schools. There’s absolutely NO evidence that if we gave $10,000 a year more income to poor families that the achievement of those kids would increase. There’s absolutely none. That’s not to say we might not, for societal purposes, and I believe it, that we should worry about the income levels of the poor people. But not because that’s the way to solve our school problems, or that we have to wait until we equalize incomes to address some of these achievement problems that are extraordinarily real.

The notion that educators are advocating increases to family incomes is a straw man argument. I don’t know of any thoughtful educator who suggests giving “$10,000 a year more to poor families” as a way to improve the school performance of children in their households. Rather, that $10,000 could be used to bolster pre-natal care, preschool programs, social services, and other early interventions that might address some of the deficiencies poor children encounter in their daily lives. The hedge fund managers who underwrote Geoffrey Canada saw the benefit of this approach… The $10,000 a year for each child in a poor family could BE the means to change families. So in that regard, Hanushek is wrong: we HAVE the means to change families… But sadly he may be right about the second part of his statement: our nation may not be willing to do so.

This whole situation regarding the relationship between poverty and education reminds me of the ongoing debate about whether humanity is causing global warming. In the final analysis, those who question the linkage between humanity and the climate make the same argument. They create straw man arguments (i.e. how are we going to power our computers if we don’t use energy?) and follow them with a statement like “and if humanity IS responsible for global warming what are we going to do about it?”, thus concluding that nothing CAN be done about it. We COULD impose a heavy carbon tax and thereby increase the efficiency of cars and power plants and/or reduce consumption. But the same rule applies to global warming: we CAN take action but we don’t want to— we don’t have the will.

The title of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation blog where this post originally appeared is called “Impatient Optimists”, a title Cody plays on in the paragraph that followed the Hanushek quote:

So this is the justification of the “impatient” reformers for disrupting and shutting down schools, dismissing whole staffs, and dislocating thousands of struggling poor children into other under-resourced buildings. We cannot WAIT to repair poverty. We have to tackle the problem where it is manageable and surmountable, in our schools. We cannot hold society accountable, so instead we will hold teachers and administrators accountable for their students’ performance.

I am an impatient optimist… I keep believing that people want to have equal opportunity for all children and will see that money spent to help children born in poverty is a good investment in the future… but it seems like time is running out. As the previous blog post noted, we are spending more on prisons than we spend on schools and as other blog posts note the gap between affluent schools and schools serving children born in poverty is widening at an astonishing rate.

State’s Message to Citizens: Prisons are More Important than College

August 28, 2012 Comments off

The Common Dreams blog post describes our nation’s perverse spending priorities: many of the largest states in our country are spending more on prisons than they are on post-secondary education…. and we have a higher percentage of our population behind bars than any developed country on the planet. A couple of tidbits:

Arnold Schwarzenegger summarized California’s spending priorities as follows:

Thirty years ago, 10 percent of the general fund went to higher education and only 3 percent went to prisons. Today, almost 11 percent goes to prisons and only 7.5 percent goes to higher education. Spending 45 percent more on prisons than universities is no way to proceed into the future.

In Pennsylvania, the State government “…now spends twice as much on corrections as it does on higher education.”

In Massachusetts, the Boston Gobe reports that “…legislators cut state appropriations to higher education 37 percent between 2008 and 2012. The state spent dollar for dollar on higher ed and corrections in 2007.” You can do the math: spending for prisons is higher than spending for college.

But our prison population surges while the cost of college soars:

The U.S. incarceration rate in 1980 was 220 for every 100,000 people, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Today, with more than 2 million people incarcerated, the rate has climbed to 743 per 100,000 people.

Here’s another sad fact, according to the report cited above, “..nonviolent drug offenders account for “roughly one-fourth of all inmates in the United States, up from less than 10 percent in 1980.”  So let’s recount the bidding: we’re spending millions to incarcerate non-violent drug users and adding millions in debt to college students because we’re effectively shifting dollars from schools to prisons.

Where are we going? And why are we in a hand basket?

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Relentless Robots Replace Human Animals

August 21, 2012 Comments off

“Skilled Work Without the Worker” an article in Sunday’s NYTimes, included this arresting quote from the CEO of Foxconn, the firm that manufactures I-pads on the first page: “As human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache”.

So instead of asking its Chinese employees to do arduous and dangerous work for low wages so that Americans can afford low cost computer gadgets, FoxConn will lay off those workers and replace them with robots who work 24/7 without a coffee break… and without human rights activists squawking. Is this a case of “be careful what you wish for” or a case of technology run rampant.

Since I am not a Luddite, I see it as neither: the disruption caused by these robots seems to be a natural consequence of the speed with which change takes place in our wired world… and our reaction at this point seems to be one of complete denial. The article cites the transition that took place in farming as a precedent for this change, where jobs in the farming sector fell from 40% of the economy to 2%… over the course of a century.  Over the course of a CENTURY adjustments occur gradually… but this article suggests similar massive shifts occurring in the course of a DECADE. That means that this year’s seniors couldn’t have seen tis coming and, given the glacial speed of change in large systems like education, this year’s second graders are unlikely to be prepared for the workplace they will face in 2022 when they graduate from high school— unless they start taking hammers to the robots being installed in factories and warehouses across the country.

So where ARE the jobs going to be, especially for unskilled workers?

Some jobs are still beyond the reach of automation: construction jobs that require workers to move in unpredictable settings and perform different tasks that are not repetitive; assembly work that requires tactile feedback like placing fiberglass panels inside airplanes, boats or cars; and assembly jobs where only a limited quantity of products are made or where there are many versions of each product, requiring expensive reprogramming of robots.

But that list is growing shorter.

The list is growing shorter for both skilled and unskilled jobs… and the unemployment lines today are getting longer… and the number of unskilled laborers, those without college degrees, is getting longer too. There are only so many beds to be made in motels, so many fast food franchises to operate, so many bed pans to empty— assuming there is any money at all for health care. Something will emerge from all of this so that we can muddle through… but the chance of the robust middle class returning seems slimmer and slimmer.


Media Companies See a Cash Cow: Education!

August 20, 2012 Comments off

Today’s NYTimes reports that the Discovery Channel is moving into the digital textbook market because “it sees a growth opportunity too good to pass up.” Looking at a market where it can deliver a digital textbook for $38 to $55 per student as compared to cost of roughly $70 per student for a textbook.

But Discover is not the only company jumping into this market place. Disney, News Corporation (which owns Fox News), NBC, and a host of traditional textbook companies are entering into the fray. One quote jumped out at me as I work on a Race To The Top grant (see next post) that emphasizes personalized learning plans:

“Over the last 10 years alone, we’ve invested $9.3 billion in digital innovations that are transforming education,” said Will Ethridge, chief executive of Pearson North America, part of Pearson P.L.C., the world’s largest education and learning company. “One way to describe it would be an act of ‘creative destruction.’ By this I mean we’re intentionally tearing down an outdated, industrial model of learning and replacing it with more personalized and connected experiences for each student.” (emphasis added)

A cynical blogger might see the USDOE’s recent Race to the Top grant’s emphasis on personalization as kowtowing to the technology industry, but as a wild-eyed optimist about the possibility for change I see it as evidence that the factory school is on its last legs and a new form of schooling is about to emerge. A wild-eyed optimist can envision public schools embracing this new technology and using it to meet the unique needs of each child…. but I also know from experience that democratically operated institutions move VERY slowly and instituting the kind of disruptive change Pearson is advocating might require a complete overhaul of schooling. In my conversations with administrators and teachers in the North Country of New Hampshire and Vermont, it is clear that changing minds quickly will be the biggest challenge in the next five years.

Racing to the Top

August 20, 2012 1 comment

Late last week the USDOE posted its final RFP for Race to the Top funds… and it is heartening to see that the emphasis on personalized learning remains at the forefront. Even if the motives for emphasizing personalization are based on nudges from the technology companies, the movement away from the factory model toward a more individualized approach is long overdue.  In the coming weeks I may well be working with a group of rural school districts in Northern New Hampshire to develop a Race To The Top proposal… which will be a daunting task given the 107 page application form. Fortunately, much of the writing and thinking on this web page/blog advocates personalization and describes a means of achieving personalization (see the white paper on Reformatting NE Schools). Since both NH and VT are implementing the Common Core State Standards and introducing new assessments, districts in both states can benefit from the staff development that would be available through a federal grant. As the writing for the grant progresses I will provide periodic updates.

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The Challenge of Changing Minds

August 19, 2012 Comments off

Today’s NYTimes Magazine features an article by Maggie Koerth-Baker called “The Mind of a Flip-Flopper” that includes the following paragraph (emphasis added):

We tend to side with people who share our identity — even when the facts disagree — and calling someone a flip-flopper is a way of calling them morally suspect, as if those who change their minds are in some way being unfaithful to their group. This is nonsense, of course. People change their minds all the time, even about very important matters. It’s just hard to do when the stakes are high. That’s why marshaling data and making rational arguments won’t work.Whether you’re changing your own mind or someone else’s, the key is emotional, persuasive storytelling.

Since this blog is devoted to opening and changing minds about education, maybe it’s time to do some “emotional, persuasive storytelling” as opposed to “marshaling data and making rational arguments”. In Maryland I had a particularly insightful school board member whose mind I was trying to change on a particular issue and I began outlining the data that supported my decision and the logic behind it. Her response was: “We don’t have a misunderstanding, we have a disagreement”. She didn’t say it explicitly, but her real message was that her view of the world and mine did not reconcile on this particular issue and she wasn’t going to change her worldview based on data and logic. Would a good story change her world view? Hard to know.

Over the past couple weeks in working on a Race To The Top grant proposal, I’ve encountered resistance not to the ideas behind the draft grant proposal I’ve drafted— which is based on the Reformatting Education white paper available on this site— but rather to the whole notion that change is possible in public schools. It isn’t difficult to get people to agree that batching students by age cohorts is crazy, or that using portfolio and performance assessments is superior to using standardized tests. It IS difficult to get people to believe that it is possible to get parents, the public, and elected officials to agree with these ideas. THOSE are the stories I need to tell— but where are they to be found?


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