Archive for October, 2013

Brick By Brick

October 31, 2013 Comments off

Diane Ravith’s column today includes a link to an article from the Gotham Schools blog that reports on another influential group who is protesting high stakes testing: students from elite public high schools. Student leaders at Stuyvesant HS, one of NYC’s hyper-competitive schools, are mobilizing a boycott of the tests that has NO consequences for them and high stakes for teachers. Why? Because they think its a waste of their time and a completely inappropriate way to measure their teacher’s performance. Knowing how most standardized tests are written the Stuyvesant kids are right on both counts.  The test is probably easier than what they are working on now and because it doesn’t have much “head room” it will not be able to measure student growth in any meaningful way making any “value added” calculations impossible. The children shall lead us….

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Brave New World?

October 31, 2013 Comments off

Two articles in the NYTimes sent chills up my spine this past week: one on public education’s struggle with monitoring children’s internet habits and Nick Kristoff’s column on the eavesdropping debacle in Europe.

Tuesday’s article, “Warily, Schools Watch Students on the Internet” described a quandary schools are facing:

… as students complain, taunt and sometimes cry out for help on social media, educators have more opportunities to monitor students around the clock. And some schools are turning to technology to help them. Several companies offer services to filter and glean what students do on school networks; a few now offer automated tools to comb through off-campus postings for signs of danger. For school officials, this raises new questions about whether they should — or legally can — discipline children for their online outbursts.

Our country’s fear-based desire to protect students from bullying is contributing to this dilemma as is the desire to closely monitor students’ use of time on computers. The legislation regarding bullying opens the doors to schools giving serious consideration to this kind of monitoring as does the notion that schools are responsible for suicide prevention in addition to academics. The article describes how one district, Glenwood Unified School District (GUSD), secured the services of Geo Listening to monitor students’ social media postings in response to a rash of suicides. The company uses algorithms to monitor the posts and got $40,500 from GUSD for its services. It’s president predicted he would have 3000 districts signed up by the end of the year… and he’s not the only one in tis market. CompuGuardian, based in Salt Lake City, is offering it’s services to “…monitor whether students were researching topics like how to build bombs or discussing anorexia.” and their CEO is “…optimistic about market growth.” It is telling that this article appeared in the Business Day Technology section of the newspaper. The market for fear-based products is growing.

In addition to monitoring posts and on-line searches schools are unapologetically monitoring the time students spend on homework when they use district issued laptops or I-Pads. Details on this “academic monitoring” can be found in countless articles in education journals. To a degree this kind of monitoring is as much an invasion of privacy as the monitoring of social media because it conditions students to accept virtual monitoring of their everyday lives.

Kristoff’s column has nothing to do with schools but everything to do with our political and cultural conditioning. In the concluding paragraphs he writes:

Yes, there is still a place for drones, for spying on allies, for the N.S.A. But they need to be subjected to scrutiny, context and brakes, as they were before 9/11.

Commercial aviation would be safer if we were all required to fly stark naked. But we accept trade-offs — such as clothing — and thus some small risk. In the same way, it’s time to pause for a breath in the security realm and start examining the trade-offs, rather than just doing things because we can.

It was the last sentence that prompted me to go back to my queue of pending blog articles and dig out the one on monitoring social media. Are we monitoring students more closely “because we can” or is this monitoring expanding the mission of “state schooling” to a level that is unacceptable and unrealistic? This line of thinking led me to make this comment to Kristoff’s article:

One of the “trade-offs” we have accepted in our efforts to “protect children” is to keep them behind locked doors with surveillance cameras and expecting “the state” in the form of public schools to monitor their every move from the time they leave home until the time they return. Oh.. and to protect them even more we want them to walk past an armed guard to get into their confined quarters. Oh… and if THAT’s not enough we want to monitor the time they are spending each night doing homework. What kind of world are we creating for the future? Are the “trade-offs” worth it? When will we start “…examining the trade-offs” rather than doing things that are politically expedient and based on fear?

Most young adults can’t believe there was a time when you could walk right into an airport and meet your loved one when they got off the plane. What will my grandson think when I tell him about my school days in the 50s? Is his world really less safe than mine was or are monitoring his world more closely because we can?

Bard’s Botstein Gets It Right

October 30, 2013 Comments off

The NYTimes invited Leon Botstein to respond to the Room For Debate Question on whether high school should be four or six years and his response was on the money: secondary education needs to be completely overhauled.

Some context to the question: last week Barack Obama visited P-Tech, a six year high school in Brooklyn that he singled out for praise in his State of the Union address. The school begins in ninth grade and, as I learned in Botstein’s response, is “…unabashedly vocational, designed and supported by IBM”. Graduates receive a technology related associates degree at the end of their education and, presumably, a ticket to employment in the technology industry.

Botstein concurs that high school should be six years, but he envisions a completely different model making three points in doing so:

  1. “…high school should start and end earlier. Middle school and junior high school need to be discarded… We waste our adolescents’ time in school. Properly structured and taught, much more could be accomplished in less time.”
  2. “…the curriculum that begins in the 11th year, which should be the first year of post-secondary education, needs to be taught not just by teachers but by professionals: biologists, physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists and the like, just as is the case in our universities.”
  3. “…schooling should not be linked to corporations, or to a single employer or current technology, even if the sponsor is IBM or Google. They too, like General Electric and Kodak before them, will downsize, disappear and be replaced.”

Botstein has long advocated the elimination of the senior year in high school, but this is the first time that he’s discussed middle level education. Having recently researched middle level education as part of a consulting assignment I think his ideas merit serious debate. Too many people ascribe student’s boredom to recent technological developments, but I believe students are bored because they want to know WHY they are learning information… and learning to “pass a test” so they can go to “another level” where they can learn how to pass ANOTHER set of tests is not motivating them to learn about content or learn about themselves.

A future post will tie together some recent articles I’ve read on MOOCs and mastery, two elements that could bring Botstein’s ideas to fruition.

Great Article on Conversations We’re Dodging

October 29, 2013 Comments off

Jeff Bryant,  a blogger for the Education Opportunity Network hits nail after nail on the head in this well written and cogent essay entitled: The Education Reform Conversation We Need Vs. The One We Have. As readers of this blog might suspect the conversation deals with the effect poverty has on student performance and the erosion of good schooling that has resulted from the “reform” movement. The title comes from this question which an audience member posed at a debate between conservative education proponent Frederick Hess and Arne Duncan:

“When are we going to have the conversation nobody wants to have … that we live in a society that educationally and otherwise has policies that favor some groups at the expense of others? When are we going to have a panel that doesn’t consist of white males in suits who have no children who are at risk?”

“The policies that are in action,” she explained, “I don’t have any say in those. How can we believe that the policies that are created are not doing what they are doing, that they are not designed to create a permanent underclass?”

No one on the panel of “…white males in suits” answered the question, either remaining silent or launching into meaningless platitudes.

Bryant contrasted this exchange with an ACTUAL conversation that took place with Diane Ravitch and a group of diverse panelists on an MSNBC show. You know Ravitch’s line of thinking: poverty and inequity ARE the biggest problem with our schools and despite those obstacles our schools are NOT failing.

We know what needs to be done… but it might cost money or  (gasp) require some extremely wealthy people or tax-avoinding corporations to pay more money into the system to help those children who need help. Let’s do it….

Testing Pushback Begins in Earnest

October 29, 2013 Comments off

A Diane Ravitch blog post and a NYTimes news report show that two influential groups are firmly opposed to the testing regimen inappropriately labelled “reform”.

Diane Ravitch’s post had a link to a letter to parents from the NYS Principals that provided tow lists: “…what we know — and what we do not know — about these new state assessments.” Diane Ravitch posted the “what we know” list, but I found the “what we don’t know” list more compelling. Here it is:

Here’s what we do not know:

1)    How these Tests will Help our Students: With the exception of select questions released by the state, we do not have access to the test questions. Without access to the questions, it is nearly impossible to use the tests to help improve student learning.

2)    How to Use these Tests to Improve Student Skills or Understanding: Tests should serve as a tool for assessing student skills and understanding. Since we are not informed of the make-up of the tests, we do not know, with any level of specificity, the content or skills for which children require additional support. We do not even know how many points were allotted for each question.

3)    The Underlying Cause of Low Test Scores: We do not know if children’s low test scores are actually due to lack of skills in that area or simply a case of not finishing the test — a problem that plagued many students.

4)    What to Expect Next Year: We do not know what to expect for next year. Our students are overwhelmed by rapidly changing standards, curriculum and assessments. It is nearly impossible to serve and protect the students in our care when expectations are in constant flux and put in place rapidly in a manner that is not reflective of sound educational practice.

5)    How Much this is Costing Already-Strained Taxpayers: We don’t know how much public money is being paid to vendors and corporations that the NYSED contracts to design assessments, nor do we know if the actual designers are educationally qualified.

The NYTimes article described how “…a group calling itself Anonymous, in the spirit of the amorphous global hacking network” got its hands on a field test the Montclair NJ school district was planning to administer to help its students prepare for the forthcoming State tests that are aligned with the common core. The group of test anarchists are parents, a group that is increasingly voicing opposition to the testing regimen the Superintendent and Board are introducing in the name of “reform’. Why would parents oppose testing?

Christopher L. Len, 39, whose son is in third grade at the Charles H. Bullock school, said Monday that testing was taking time away from more worthy pursuits. “If they don’t learn now how to initiate a conversation, how to cooperate, how to be a good friend, then I think their elementary school experience will have failed them,” he said.

Most parents understand that school is about more than testing. It’s also about learning how to build relationships and have opportunities to express oneself creatively. Parents in a relatively affluent district like Montclair are especially aware of the absurdity of preparing for tests: they know their schools aren’t “failing” students because the students are going on to college or capable of finding employment upon graduation. They see that preparing for tests takes away time that can be used more productively. And, as this incident indicates, they know how to resist.

So two influential groups are mobilizing in opposition to the “reformers”: principals and middle class parents… and I expect to see more pushback until the “reformers” can answer the Principals questions convincingly and explain to parents why taking time for tests isn’t wasted. I don’t think the answers or rationale will be forthcoming.


Ranking Colleges Based on Worth

October 28, 2013 Comments off

One of today’s front page articles in the NYTimes has a headline with a disturbing announcement: “Lists That Rank College’s Value Are On The Rise”. The article includes a link to a graphic that perfectly illustrates the folly of this enterprise: it displays six different lists with five different colleges ranked #1 with the only overlap being service academies which charge no tuition whatsoever making their value-per-dollar-spent immeasurable.  Among the obvious outcomes that one can expect are that lower cost colleges generally have higher rankings, colleges that focus on engineering and science generally have higher rankings, and selective colleges, whose graduates may be hard-wired for success given existing connections, also tend to have higher rankings.

As the article notes in one of the middle paragraphs:

“…there is no agreement on how to measure the value of a college, and there is no agreement, or anything even close, on what value is in the first place.”

But this is not stopping the Obama administration from moving into a market-based approach. They plan to develop a ranking system and use it as the basis for meting out federal loans. To gather information on what constitutes value the USDOE intends to convene a series of town meetings. This whole thing is likely to generate the kind of information the Chamber of Commerce crowd is looking for whereby employability in the private sector will trump employability in the public sector thereby diminishing the loans for the group of people who are most idealistic to begin with. Specifically, if “value” is defined as “earning power/cost”, the kind of simplistic calculation that is likely if one canvasses the public, then the lower ranked colleges will likely be schools that graduate a lot of social workers, teachers, and nurses will fare poorly in any ranking system based on income…. or State funded schools where undergraduate costs re skyrocketing because of state budget cuts…  and the federal dollars will not go toward students seeking those jobs but instead go to students seeking work in technology-related and business fields.

Here’s the ultimate irony in all of this: the rankings of the colleges attended by three of the technology icons— Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg— won’t be phased by their earnings because they never finished college. Oh, and those four Waltons who are among the ten wealthiest people in America, their colleges would be affected… and I’m sure their college degree made a big difference in their incomes.

Here’s my perspective: the Obama administration should confer with Buddhist scholars and ask them to rank jobs based on Right Livelihood and use THAT ranking to determine the allocation of funds. I’m sure with the assistance of someone in an economics department a mathematical algorithm can be worked out. Under such a ranking system I doubt that service academies and schools sending alumni into business schools will fare as well as colleges graduating teachers and nurses.


Getting to Prekindergarten

October 27, 2013 Comments off

Nick Kristof’s column today has a cliche for a title: “Do We Invest in Preschools or Prisons?”… and he trots out all the studies showing the power of preschool and early intervention, all the survey data showing how much Republican and Democrat voters love prekindergarten, and how much Obama and Duncan want to have early intervention and prekindergarten be part of their legacy. It omits one fact: early intervention and prekindergarten cost money and, THAT means higher taxes somewhere along the line.  That led me to go through the trouble of entering this comment on Kristof’s web page:

The political aphorism “everyone wants to go to heaven but no one wants to die” applies here. OF COURSE everyone “supports” prekindergarten! But NO ONE wants to pay for it. We need to have Obama be forthright about where he will get the money and THEN we’ll see who is willing to support it. I would like to believe that there are enough compassionate voters out there who want to see everyone have an equal opportunity to succeed. But until Obama and Duncan advocate for more money and explain where it will come from we’ll be stuck.

At the most elemental level we are motivated by love or fear. When we answer surveys we draw on our love motivation— he answer with our heart. Alas, too often when we vote we are primed to base our decision on fear: someone wants to take our money from us and give it to the “other people” who don’t deserve it. Here’s my question to anyone who thinks that way: What 3 year old doesn’t deserve a chance for success?