Archive for January, 2013

Internships, Co-op Programs, ELOs, and MOOCs

January 31, 2013 Comments off

Today’s NYTimes has an article on internships describing their expansion and the complications that occur when businesses require that colleges grant credit for internship experience. Here’s my comment, which is a reprise of earlier posts on MOOCs:

My theory is that MOOCs created in partnership with businesses will make college credentials irrelevant. If the business community wants narrowly trained graduates (as opposed to liberal arts majors) they will partner with a willing college and university to design a MOOC or series of MOOCs that will result in the award of a credential that certifies mastery of the desired skills. If my computer breaks, I’m calling an Apple certified repair person, not a person with a college degree in computer technology.

As one who attended a university that was unashamedly career oriented and has the co-operative work-study program as its centerpiece (Drexel), I am a strong advocate for pursuing work activity that is related to ones major. Had I not spend a year as a management trainee for Ford Motor Company and a half-year as a trainee for Mobil Oil I might well have spent unsatisfying years in the corporate world instead of working as a teacher and school administrator, which I found challenging and rewarding. New Hampshire offers students the opportunity to pursue External Learning Opportunities– or ELOs— that award credits for internships, work study opportunities, or virtually any activity that a student can relate to the high school curriculum. This kind of un-schooling or de-schooling opportunity is rare: to the best of my knowledge few states offer it… For years I expected home-schooling parents and anti-testing parents to seize on ELOs as a way to provide “legitimate” non-traditional schooling for their children… it hasn’t happened yet but may be the trend in the future. It took a while for the private sector to see the value of internships… it may take even longer for them to adopt ELO-like opportunities to provide educational opportunities for students BEFORE they enter college…

Is Bill Gates an “enemy of teachers”?

January 31, 2013 Comments off

Here’s the concluding paragraph from the section of Gates’ report that deals with public education, with one phrase IN ALL CAPS that I added:

“I think the most critical change we can make in U.S. K-12 education is to create teacher feedback systems like the one in Eagle County that are PROPERLY FUNDED, HIGH QUALITY, and TRUSTED BY TEACHERS. These measurement systems need to provide teachers with the tools to help support their professional development. The lessons from these efforts will help us improve teacher education programs. The countries that have better education systems than the United States provide more teacher feedback than we do today, but I think it is possible to do even better than any country has done so far.”

I mostly agree with Diane Ravitch’s column and strongly believe that there is too much emphasis on standardized testing and strongly believe that emphasis reinforces the factory model thereby blocking any chance of changing the current organizational structure of schools. But I am not buying into the meme that Bill Gates is “…an enemy to teachers” nor am I buying into the notion that ALL measurement is bad. Today’s blog post, “Bill Gates and the Cult of Measurement” provided an opportunity for me to offer a comment that explains where I have a difference of opinion on these issues:

Bill Gates portion of the annual letter concludes with this paragraph, with my emphasis added: I think the most critical change we can make in U.S. K-12 education is to create teacher feedback systems like the one in Eagle County that are properly funded, high quality, and trusted by teachers. These measurement systems need to provide teachers with the tools to help support their professional development. The lessons from these efforts will help us improve teacher education programs. The countries that have better education systems than the United States provide more teacher feedback than we do today, but I think it is possible to do even better than any country has done so far.

I find it hard to argue with this aspiration. I also find it hard to criticize the exemplary evaluation system Gates describes in the article. Teachers are observed 10 times a year and coached by peers. It appears that the teachers endorse the linkage between the observations, student test scores, and compensation. But Gates’ aspiration depends on three variables: “proper funding”, which requires money for more direct supervision; “high quality”, which requires the incubation time afforded the teachers in Eagle County, and “trust”, which requires solid, sustained leadership from the school board through the master teachers. Gates’ problem is that he contends ANY measurement system is better than NO measurement system and so he ends up supporting evaluation systems that are NOT properly funded, do NOT provide the time needed to meet the unique needs of every district, and, therefore, do NOT engender trust.

I don’t think Bill Gates is an enemy to teachers. What teacher WOULDN’T support a properly funded, high quality and trustworthy evaluation system. I DO think Bill Gates is naive if he thinks that this aspiration of his can be accomplished cheaply, quickly, and imposed from the outside.

I DO think Gates and his “reform” colleagues would love to see school boards disappear because achieving fast, widespread change requires top-down approaches that are ultimately anti-democratic. (i.e. when Ethan Allen furniture closed in Canaan VT they didn’t hold public hearings or ask for a vote among townspeople). And I DO think the “reformers” would like to see unions disappear as well, because unions prevent the businessmen from defining and paying “market value” for labor. If public education was privatized it would operate under the same rules as the private sector: lower cost health benefits, 401-ks instead of defined benefit retirements, at will employment, etc…. and consequently it would be “cheaper”. Finally I DO think the “reformers” want to have lower local and State taxes and, if they operate the schools, increase their profits.

In short, Bill Gates and the “reformers” all favor and have unquestioning faith in unregulated capitalism…. and public education, a public good, cannot operate under that system if we hope to achieve an equal opportunity for all students.

The Lesson of Multiple Choice: There is One Right Answer

January 31, 2013 Comments off

“New Reasons to Dislike Multiple Choice Tests” an Edutopia article posted earlier this week, offers some subtle insights into these tests.

One compelling reason to dislike multiple choice tests resonated with me: they imply that there is one right answer to every question… and that implication is misleading at best and damaging at worst. The concluding section of the post, “Beyond Either/Or” describes this phenomenon:

But the real issue here isn’t one of assessment design as much as it is looking at the overall tone of learning.

In the 21st century, networks are a kind of collective wisdom — or at least they can be. How you connect with others automatically informs how you’ll connect with their ideas. If digital interdependence doesn’t completely change both sociology and education over the next 25 years, we might need to go back and see what happened.

So let us look at multiple-choice questions in this light. More than anything else, when a multiple-choice question is given to a student in hopes of measuring how well he or she understands something, it manufacturers the illusion of right and wrong, a binary condition that ignores the endlessly fluid nature of information.

It alters the tone of learning, shifting it away from a constant process of reconciling old thinking with new data, and toward something of a pitch-and-fetch scenario. One question, four answers, and only one of them is right.

Just point to the right answer.

Increasingly, everyone will need to learn how to live in ambiguity and uncertainty: we’re never given four choices where only one is correct… we all need to learn how to muddle through…

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Preparing For Tests vs. Preparing for the Future

January 30, 2013 Comments off

In his column in today’s NYTimes Tom Friedman, a great advocate of “education reform”, writes about the kind of future we can expect now that the world is “hyper-connected”. He reaches this conclusion (with my emphasis added):

How to adapt? It will require more individual initiative. We know that it will be vital to have more of the “right” education than less, that you will need to develop skills that are complementary to technology rather than ones that can be easily replaced by it and that we need everyone to be innovating new products and services to employ the people who are being liberated from routine work by automation and software. The winners won’t just be those with more I.Q. It will also be those with more P.Q. (passion quotient) and C.Q. (curiosity quotient) to leverage all the new digital tools to not just find a job, but to invent one or reinvent one, and to not just learn but to relearn for a lifetime. Government can and must help, but the president needs to explain that this won’t just be an era of “Yes WeCan.” It will also be an era of “Yes You Can” and “Yes You Must.”

So… are US students following a rigid curriculum in a “failing” public or charter school having their passion fed? Are they given an opportunity to develop curiosity? Of course not. Are schools in affluent communities feeding each student’s passion and stoking their curiosity? FAR more so than the drill-and-kill schools serving children raised in poverty. Is the education system helping or hindering equality? I think the answer is clear. My comment on Friedman’s article follows:

Obama’s education initiative, Race To The Top (RTTT), does nothing to promote initiative or to develop skills that are “complementary to technology”. It does the opposite. The testing regimen imposed by RTTT and supported by “reformers” compels teachers to prepare students for standardized assessments by following ever constricted curricula. If technology is used at all it is used to administer periodic assessments to determine if the students are getting sufficient preparation for the tests that will determine if a school is “successful” and a teacher is “adding value”. This is the antithesis of developing initiative on the part of the student. We are preparing students for tests. We are not preparing them for the future.

My fantasy is that someday Tom Friedman will see the contradiction between the “reform” schools he champions and the future he predicts and join the rising chorus of educators who question the direction RTTT is taking us.

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Hurried Children Creating Replicants

January 29, 2013 Comments off

Diane Ravitch’s latest blog post is titled “Common Core is Horrible for K-3″… hardly an understated headline… but also accurate in light of the links and anecdotes included in the blog… and VERY accurate in light of Ravitch’s Sunday blog post that included a semi-satirical Vanity Fair article on the current status of childhood. My theory on why this is happening is included in the comment I posted on the blog, which is posted below:

Your blog post with the Vanity Fair article on Sunday said it all… David Elkind’s Hurried Child and Neil Postman’s Disappearance of Childhood saw this coming in the early 1980s… let’s see… the kids in elementary and middle school at that time are probably the parents of the kids who are being pressured to get into the right-pre-school-to-get-into-the-right-elementary-school-to-get-into-the-right-college-to-get-into…. WHAT? Oh… and the business folks who are advocating these standards for pre-school grew up in “hurried” households without a childhood and think that everyone else should grow up the same way if they want to turn out like they did…

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We Caused the Creation of USDOE; Now Let’s Change It

January 29, 2013 Comments off


One of Diane Ravitch’s blog posts this afternoon is titled “Local School Board’s to Duncan: Back Off”. In the post she describes a gathering of local school board members in Washington proposing legislation that would require the federal government to hold public hearings whenever a change of the magnitude of RttT is being proposed. The NSBA’s letter to Secretary Duncan concludes with this paragraph:

“We must ensure that the decisions made at the federal level will best support the needs and goals of local school systems and the communities they serve,” said Gentzel. “Local school boards must have the ability to make on-the-ground decisions that serve the best interests of our school districts.”

In most of my years as Superintendent, which coincided with the implementation of 94-142 and many various “Title” programs, I served on state legislative committees and was among the chorus of Superintendents and Board members decrying “mandates without money”… a chorus I would clearly join today. But at the same time, I conceded the fact that school boards and state governments invited a lot of the federal intrusion by their action or— in most cases— by their IN-actoin. My comment to Diane Ravitch elaborates on this:

It would be wonderful to have no federal interference… but State governments and local school boards have no one but themselves to blame. If states and local boards provided all children with an equal opportunity, Brown v. Board of Education would never have been heard… If States provided sufficient funds for districts serving children born into poverty, the federal government never would have needed to introduce Title 1… If states and local boards provided a free and appropriate education to children with handicaps we never would have passed 94-142… and given the prevailing attitudes in some states, if the federal money and mandates went away we’d be back where we started from in the “good old days” when blacks attended “separate but equal” schools, kids born into districts with no tax base attended ramshackle schools with unqualified teachers, and handicapped kids were warehoused in Dickensian facilities… I am opposed to the testing regimen imposed by RttT and NCLB, but districts who paid no attention to their drop out rates and student performance brought this on for all of us. In my judgment, we need to work with the hand we’ve been dealt and provide those in power with a better way to measure school performance.

My thought: if we want to get the federal government out of the mandating business, those of us who support public schools need to come up with some means of assuring the federal government that we will address their concerns regarding accountability, equal opportunities for all children, and due process, which are, after all, the concerns of taxpayers and voters. Some of my ideas on the kinds of measures schools might use in lieu of tests are described in the White Paper that deals with getting the metrics right. At the same time as boards rightfully bemoan the lack of federal support for the mandates being imposed, they should also have some counter-proposals that would demonstrate their understanding that accountability is a necessity. In the coming days I’ll be sharing these ideas with the School Board Associations in NH and VT where I served most recently as Superintendent and where I am now consulting. I’ll be interested in the response I receive.

Policing Research and School Discipline

January 29, 2013 Comments off

John Tierney’s article describing how prison populations shrink when the police force expands applies to schools as well. When I was Superintendent in Upstate NY the Principals at one of the large (1800 student) HSs achieved a dramatic decline in suspensions by monitoring where serious discipline incidents occurred and deploying his non-professional hall monitors and teachers assigned to hall duties in those locales. In MD I had a similar experience with a HS Principal at a smaller school who decided to crack down on small offenses based on the “broken windows” theory. In these cases the thoughtful use of non-professional staff and deployment of hall duties led to fewer suspensions, fewer incidents of major disruptions in the school, thereby freeing the administrators to spend more time in classrooms and in the hallways and less time dealing with suspension hearings.

Maybe instead of instituting “no excuses” schools and spending money on “good guys with guns” those overseeing schools might look at applying the methods used by the police force.

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