Archive for November, 2013

Technology CAN Make a Difference

November 30, 2013 Comments off

Over the past several months I have been concerned about the reflexive opposition to anything technological by many in the anti-provatization movement. There appear to be good reasons for opposing some forms of applied technology. Some K-12 and undergraduate on-line programs offered by for-profit enterprises are shady at best and tend to get unqualified support from those who want to slash costs for public education and break up unions. The use of computerized assessments to measure teacher performance through “value added” metrics undercuts the positive arguments for using computer technology to help measure mastery of content. The recent news about NSA snooping has also raised concerns about data collection in schools given the government’s widespread access to information that was previously thought to be secure and private. Finally, the use of “disruptive technology” to eliminate jobs and entire companies in the name of progress has those supporting the status quo on edge. I think technology has a defensible and positive place in each of these areas.

On-line learning may be the only way small towns can retain schools in the face of declining enrollments and rising cost for personnel, and may be the only way they can accomplish this without compromising the wide range of opportunities for the children who attend those schools. I’ve witnessed the positive effects of the Middlebury College on-line curriculum in rural Vermont where a geographically isolated K-8 school is now able to offer foreign language.  K-8 schools with fewer than 150 students cannot offer robust programs like those in larger comprehensive schools without the assistance of on-line courses supported by teacher-generalists who can provide periodic tutorial assistance when needed.

Using on-line assessments to measure individual student growth seems ideal to me: it provides a means of allowing students to progress at their own pace in skill development (e.g. demonstrating mastery of mathematical facts; grammar fundamentals) and the knowledge of fundamental facts (e.g. historical sequences; scientific facts; vocabulary specific to content areas). 

I have blogged frequently on the need for teachers to have information on student learning styles, progress in various content areas, and– perhaps more controversially– on background information from social workers and other agencies. (See “A Homeland Security Bill for Education”). The practical reality regarding the brouhaha over privacy and data collection: schools are already collecting sensitive information and have been doing so for areas. Based on my experience as a school-based administrator and superintendent I would advocate MORE data analysis and less word-of-mouth-in-the-faculty-room. I can recall many cases of misbehaving 9th grade students developing reputations that followed them through high school based on word-of-mouth in faculty rooms while their academic and discipline records demonstrated improvement. And, as noted in the article referenced above I know of many cases where schools would benefit from knowing about a child’s out-of-school challenges so that everyone could work together to provide wraparound support. Technology provides a means of gathering information in a format that makes it available “just-in-time” and easily read and interpreted. Arguably, schools are UNDER-using data analytics. Just as baseball teams have developed advanced metrics that help them identify the qualities that make a good team-mate (see the Boston Red Sox for a prime example) schools can work on ways to measure the soft skills and consequently develop ways to embed them into instruction or daily activities in school. Those of us who oppose the testing regiment can’t argue that schools shouldn’t rely solely on standardized tests unless we have other data points to use as the basis for evaluating students and/or schools…. for it is impossible to claim that what happens during the 6 hours students are in school cannot be measured at all.

Finally, disruption is happening outside of school in ways that might repel traditional educators and those, like me, who lament the trend toward  centralization of wealth to the hands of an ever smaller group of plutocrats. My take, as implied in earlier posts, is this: if schools don’t find a way to integrate and embrace technology and policy makers continue to rely solely on standardized tests parents will not only opt out of tests… they will opt out of school and do-it-themsleves. THAT is the real treat of disruption: for parents can form collectives to create their own schools that offer curricula to their children that are engaging and relevant to THEM.

We should not fear technology: we should find a way to use it to improve opportunities for all students. It can be the means for equalizing opportunities if used in the right way. Those who want a level playing field should accept that reality and help make it happen.


November 28, 2013 Comments off

For my entire career in education I believed that high school success was a function of engagement in the life of the school. Students who participate in extra-curricular activities, take electives that match their interests, and students who enter school with a clear and specific goal ALL succeed in high school. Those who attend school because it is an obligation do not get a lot out of the four years spent there and often leave without a diploma… and a large number of these students are capable, hard-working employees at part-time jobs or imaginative and creative in endeavors that are not part of the school curriculum. Connecting with these adrift students is public education’s biggest challenge, for it is the middle 60% of high school classes that will constitute the middle class in the future and if that group is as disengaged in the life of the community as they are in the life of the school our democracy will be in trouble.

20 years ago Marc Tucker wrote a monograph titled “America’s Choice: High Skills or Low Wages” where he argued that we needed to increase the technical skills of “average” students if we hoped to compete the in global economy. The high school students we were trying to connect with in the early 1990s are now in their 30s, and their wages are eroding as the high skill jobs migrate overseas. The only way to restore the wage base of the middle-level earners in this country is to ramp up the technology skills, and the best way to do that is to abandon our current model of high school and move toward a tiered system that provides paid apprenticeship opportunities for students who do not aspire to college.

The Washington Post describes one such system  in an article titled “Recasting High School, German Firms Transplant Apprenticeship Model to US”.  The article describes the frustration the German firm Siemans encountered when it opened a factory in North Carolina. It seems that there were not enough sufficiently trained high school or community college students with the skill sets required by their company. Instead of joining some ALEC-like coalition of businesses and complaining about the poorly prepared students, the German human resources department decided to launch an apprenticeship program in a partnership with local community colleges and high schools. The curriculum for the apprenticeship program is narrow and specific, but since the corporation is providing the funding for the curriculum it is only fair that they determine its content… and the students enrolled in the program have no complaints since they are choosing entry into the program for a wide range of reasons, many of which are described in the Post article.

After reading the article, I offered the following comment:

American corporations would rather pay dues to ALEC to get their taxes lowered than roll up their sleeves like Siemans and recruit students from high schools and train them. As other commenters noted it wasn’t always this way: many large corporations actually PAID trainees enrolled in colleges and junior colleges instead of using unpaid interns and many used community colleges as a vehicle for delivering their curriculum. It IS easy to offshore labor, dodge taxes at all levels, support legislation that lowers everyone’s wages, and then complain about the lack of government services and “prepared workers”. Siemans is reminding us that there is another way.

I’m thankful that some corporations are showing the way to a new kind of approach to schooling… and maybe their example will spread in the coming years so that our country can choose high wages over the tired model for schooling we have in place today.

Hoping for Superman

November 26, 2013 Comments off

My daughter, who lives in Brooklyn, posted two links on Facebook regarding the urgent need for Mayor-elect diBlasio to appoint someone to Chancellor of NYC schools who will abandon the testing regimen. One link, from ParentvoicesNY includes a well produced video featuring faces and voices of parents and students decrying the time wasted on test preparation, time that diminishes the chance for students to pursue their favorite subjects in order to keep their schools open. The other link was to a New York magazine article titled “The Opt-Outers”,  describing parent groups who are mounting a movement against the standardized tests that involves keeping students home on days that the city administers its tests. One paragraph in the article gives a sense of how intense the testing regimen is in NYC:

From the third through eighth grade, two major state tests loom large every spring—the ELA and math. Formal preparation takes weeks, and informal preparation, as Oscar learned, begins as early as the second grade. For kids just trying to stay at grade level, New York City is unique in how it ties promotion to those state scores. Anything less than a “proficient” rating of two on a scale of one to four, and you’re held back. For children hoping to excel, the fourth-grade ELA and math tests have become a sort of SAT—a do-or-die score that many of the selective, ­application-only middle schools use to screen kids.

As readers of this blog realize, my biggest concern with schooling today is the retention of the age-based grade-level grouping of students that implicitly assumes that all children grow at the same rate intellectually… an absurd notion on its face but one that persists because it has been inlace for three or more generations. With today’s technological advances it is possible to tailor schooling to meet the unique individual needs of each child, but instead we are using technology to monitor student performance against a mythical “standard” that expects linear and orderly intellectual development.

The New York article does an excellent job of using personal anecdotes of parents to illustrate the consequences of adopting the testing regimen and in explaining the derivation of the Common Core State Standards that are the basis for the grade-level outcomes:

….David Coleman (now president of the College Board), is an educational consultant who worked out a set of standards based on an elegant, seemingly unimpeachable methodology: to reverse-engineer the test results of high-performing college students by raising primary-school standards to be more in line with what prepares them for college-level work. For example, the Common Core’s elementary-school math standards focus tightly on the building blocks of algebra—addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and fractions. Traditional curricula are more varied and, in Coleman’s view, “a mile wide and an inch deep,” clogged with superfluous drills about patterns and combinations. “Imagine you have an assessment system where you can pass a fourth- or fifth-grade math test without knowing fractions ’cause you’re covering so many topics?” Coleman said at a Harvard conference last spring. “If you pass that test, are you on your way to success?”

So… the Common Core is based on reverse-engineering of college entrance exams with no thought of developmental realities or the number of hours that might be required for some children to attain those standards and with no thought to the reality that we don’t need to have all students entering college. Sure enough, complaints starting rolling in from respected educators and teachers unions:

Carol Burris, a high-school principal in Rockville Centre, has noted how it expects first-graders to know the meaning of words beyond their reading level, like cuneiform, sarcophagus, and ziggurat. ­Standards like that, critics say, will lead to the exact drill-and-kill problem the Common Core is trying to avoid.

Established educators complained that the standards weren’t created with enough of their input—not one of the 135 people on the Common Core panels was a K-3 classroom teacher or early-childhood professional. The unions turned on it, too: American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten recently quipped, “You think the Obamacare implementation is bad? The implementation of the Common Core is far worse.”

The fallout from the testing may well have been the difference between diBlasio and his opponents in the recent mayoral race… and from all evidence the momentum to have students opt out is increasing. But I fear diBlasio’s new chancellor will need more that the mayor’s support: both Governor Cuomo and President Obama are heavily invested in the grade-level high stakes testing accountability model and neither seems inclined to cede ground… and if a high profile mayor like diBlasio wants to appoint and support a chancellor who wants to opt out of the Regents and the Race to the Top… NYC could be in for interesting times and possibly less State and Federal aid. I hope diBlasio finds the Superman (or Superwoman) the parents desire, and I hope the lack of State or Federal funds are not the kryptonite that brings the new leader down.