Archive for January, 2014

Internet Filters’ Biggest Flaw

January 31, 2014 Comments off

This article about the UK Government’s “discovery” that blocking access has flaws is scary on several levels.

First and foremost, I confess that I had no idea that the UK public was willing to allow the government to interfere wit its access to information. This is a deplorable encroachment on personal freedom. Somewhere George Orwell is weeping… weeping because I don’t believe he would take any pleasure in saying “I told you so!”

Secondly, it is hard to believe that the electorate would allow the government to determine which sites should be blocked and which should remain open. If our country ever thinks this is a good idea I dread to think how we will learn about evolution if the Tea Party extremists take over or, for that matter, how anyone might be able to get maps of the Capital offices since we are so fearful of extremists that we might conjecture that they could use that information to engage in terrorism. Drawing the line on what information to shield is fraught with peril.

Thirdly, it is hard to believe that if a government wanted to shield the public from some information it would be incapable of finding programmers who couldn’t do a better job… I hope the government’s ability to shield the internet from hackers is better than the UK government’s ability to shield the public from naughtiness.

Finally, it is sad to say that we are setting up our country for “white lists” and other forms of filtering.  While some schools have abandoned filters altogether, too many schools keep them— even at the HS level. Consequently we are “training” too many students that filters are OK the same we we’re training kids that metal detectors and surveillance cameras are OK. Information wants to be free and children want to be free… we can’t provide 100% protection for children from risks on the internet any more than we can provide 100% protection from automobile traffic, slipping and falling on the playground, or injuring themselves playing sports.

Bottom line: information needs to be free and available to all.

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Broadband and Equality

January 30, 2014 Comments off

Today’s NYTimes Bits blog post addresses the need for cheaper broadband in schools. While this post may be a repetition of previous ones, it is important, I believe, to keep beating the drum of technology access for all. To that end, I posted the following comment:

Thank you for bringing this to the public’s attention. Two more issues need to be emphasized.

First, it is imperative to provide the schools with the physical AND staffing infrastructure needed to take full advantage of the increased bandwidth. Schools often have insufficient servers and routers to take full advantage of increased bandwidth and seldom have the technical staff needed to ensure that all of the equipment is in good repair and operable.

Second, the neighborhoods surrounding the schools need to have access to bandwidth. If schools hope to use methods like flipped instruction and on-line tutorials to supplement struggling students they need to know that students AND teachers can use technology at home.

I know, I know, all of this will cost money and no one wants to pay for it— especially if it takes profits away from the telecommunications businesses or requires more taxes. Better to have broadband in affluent schools and neighborhoods and blame the teachers in high poverty urban schools for failing.

If we want to use technology to change instruction, we need cheaper and more widespread broadband, upgraded infrastructure and staffing in our schools and neighborhoods, and, yes, more public funding for both.

Wishful Thinking on Pre-K

January 30, 2014 Comments off

The NYTimes editorial page has an article by two UVa professors, Daniel T. Willingham and David W. Grissmer, describing the kinds of steps that are needed to provide constructive information on the effectiveness of preschool education programs. I agree with every point the writers made, but fear that their work at the University of Virginia has insulated them from the realities of politics. As noted in a recent post, diBlasio’s funding request, while far more that Cuomo’s, falls one year and roughly $3000/student short of the per puli costs of the best programs offered in New Jersey.

I had two problems with this article, which I enumerated in the comment section.

First, Willingham and Grissmer assume that evidence will guide policy makers. If that was the case in reality, policy makers would be looking at what’s happened with the “reform” movement and rightfully conclude that the high-stakes-testing regimen is making on difference whatsoever and might decide something different is needed. They might examine and per pupil spending and see that there is a strong link between per-pupil spending figures and student achievement and decide to provide urban schools with more funding.

Secondly, the article assumes that policy makers are interested in developing comprehensive plans to gather data that can be used to inform decisions. Inevitably Pre-K measures will be reduced to some form of standardized assessments that measure what’s easy to measure as opposed to what’s important to measure. As the article accurately notes, “…comparing preschool programs is hard because quality depends not just on factors in the classroom like the curriculum and the teacher’s skill, but also on how those factors interact with sleep, nutrition, parenting and other aspects of domestic life. Yet we know little about such interactions.” Those same exogenous factors come into play in K-12 education but have been dismissed by “reformers” as “excuses”.

MAYBE the implementation of pre-K will result in policy decisions that more funds are needed to provide a quality program and lead to the realization that exogenous factors play a role in the effects of schooling… but I have my doubts that either will occur.

Vouchers Redux

January 28, 2014 Comments off

TN Senator (and former Secretary of Education) Lamar Alexander will be proposing a bill in Congress to give each child who qualifies for federal programming a voucher for $2100 to attend a school of their choice. This will enable Republicans to champion their silver bullet of “choice” as the best means of providing an equitable education… but it might also shine a light on the current way federal funds are allocated to school districts… a way that doesn’t necessarily equalize funding at all.

If a choice bill is debated, I hope the following questions are raised by opponents, with the likely answers thoughtfully provided in italics:

  • Will students be free to attend any public school regardless of existing boundaries? NO! We need to maintain local control… and get the parents in affluent suburbs to support this measure! 
  • Will students be free to attend a school whose curriculum does not follow the common core? YES! If parents want their child to believe dinosaurs and humans lived simultaneously that’s perfectly OK… and we don’t want to have pesky regulations to suppress opportunities for new schools to open! 
  • Will students be free to attend low performing schools? YES! Caveat emptor! If liberals are OK with people using food stamps to buy sweetened cereal how can they complain when parents use vouchers to attend ineffective schools? Now the parents have NO choice— with vouchers they will be accepting the responsibility for their chid’s educational well-being and can offer no excuses. 
  • But what if nearby high-performing schools have no seats? THE PRIVATE SECTOR WILL PROVIDE! If there is an opportunity for a private sector school to open without needing to provide a building there will be all kinds of options for children raised in poverty. Isn’t that the way it is working out in NYC? 
  • Will Federal Special Ed Funds follow the child? WE’LL GET BACK TO YOU ON THAT! 
  • Will Federal funds for military bases follow the child? ER… WE’LL GET BACK TO YOU ON THAT AS WELL
  • How about the various grant funds that go to affluent districts? How about Race To The Top? How about the federal money money that is used for test development? How about the federal money that underwrites State Department jobs? Will those funds be part of the voucher program? ER… WE’LL GET BACK TO YOU ON THAT AS WELL… 

The fact of the matter is that not all Federal funds go to schools serving poor children: they never have and they never will since suburban schools depend on supplemental funds. The other fact is that choice has never and probably WILL never allow elementary students to cross boundary lines within a district and/or between districts. Such flexibility would wreak havoc with real estate values and gentrification schemes that help realtors and developers increase their wealth.

The Lamar Alexander’s marketing pitch for vouchers is catchy and easy to understand:

“The simplest way for them to get (federal funds to children raised in poverty) is just to pin them to the blouse or shirt of a child and let it follow the child to the school they attend.”

This is not a bad idea… except the dollar figure needed is the per pupil cost differential between the most affluent schools in the State and the highest poverty schools in the state. In PA, for example, Philadelphia students should have $5,500 pinned to their blouse in addition to the amount Lamar Alexander wants to give them. If urban schools had the same per pupil funding as the affluent suburban schools they might be able to close the gap… Pin enough money on the blouses of poor children and you might make progress.

This Just In: Programs that Work Cost $$$

January 27, 2014 Comments off

Two recent NYTimes article report on the underlying dilemma that taxpayers and politicians face if everyone is serious about improving education: the most effective programs cost more money!

Today’s NYTimes features an article titled “Lessons for diBlasio in NJ’s Free Pre-K”… and the lessons are spelled out in this paragraph:

Though experts differ on the long-term benefits of preschool, the programs in 31 low-income districts in New Jersey are widely acknowledged for strong results. But they are also more expensive and intensive than what many officials — including Mr. de Blasio and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York — have proposed.

Unsurprisingly everyone agrees that early education is important, but no one wants to announce the costs for such a program and Cuomo doesn’t want to pay for the kind of programming that is needed with new taxes, presumably believing he can use existing funds for K-12 to cover the costs. The kind of pre-K program that works is not unlike that being advocated in VT: class sizes of no more than 15; pre-Kindergarten for both 3 and 4 year olds; teachers who are highly qualified in early childhood education. Geoffrey Canada explained the consequences of doing less that what is needed:

We have to get this right,” said Geoffrey Canada, the leader of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which operates prekindergarten and charter schools. “We do not need another lousy service for poor kids that we feel good about but that doesn’t actually accomplish anything.”

Unfortunately, the proposals diBlasio and Cuomo have on the table WON’T “get this right”. diBlasio is budgeting $10,000 per pupil for a one-year program while NJ’s most effective programs cost $13,000 per pupil for two years. diBlasio hasn’t specified the credentials he will be seeking in hiring pre-school teachers while NJ specifies certification in early childhood education. One other factor: it took nearly a decade for all NJ parents to buy into prekindergarten… so the institution of the program will not be the kind of quick fix politicians love… though it may make voters “feel good”.

Meanwhile in Chicago, the NYTimes’ Mokoto Rich reported on a study conducted by a team led by Jens Ludwig, the co-director of the University of Chicago Urban Education Lab, that

…provided a program of intense tutoring, in combination with group behavioral counseling, to a group of low-income ninth- and 10th-grade African-American youths with weak math skills, track records of absences or disciplinary problems. Those students learned in an eight-month period the equivalent of what the average American high school student learns in math over three years of school, as measured by standardized test scores, over and above what a similar group of students who did not receive the tutoring or counseling did.

This is good news, as it demonstrates that it IS possible to make up lost time when students fall behind and effectively underscores the mantra that “all children can learn given sufficient time and targeted instruction”. There is one problem with this program, though:

The cost of providing tutoring and counseling was about $4,400 per student. Previous researchers who have examined the benefits of small-group tutoring have said its cost would be prohibitive on a large scale.

Yet in the next sentence Rich writes: “But tutoring could be more cost-effective than efforts to shrink class sizes across the board.”

This makes perfect sense for two reasons: reducing class sizes would impact facilities as well as staffing and reducing class sizes would not guarantee the personal attention tutoring necessarily provides.

Will the mayor of Chicago call for an expansion of tutoring? The answer, alas, is no. Individualizing is out of the question because it is costly and doesn’t conform with the mayor’s narrative that “fixing” the schools won’t cost any more money, it only requires the replacement of expensive and ineffective union teachers who are wed to the status quo with “reform minded” younger teachers who are open to change. Unfortunately the change that is needed is the abandonment of the factory model and the movement toward more individualization is resisted… in part because it is costly, but, I believe, primarily because it is antithetical to our notion of what constitutes “school”.

diBlasio’s Chance to Change Metrics

January 27, 2014 Comments off

The NYtimes editors persist in demanding a continuation to the school rating system imposed by Mayor Bloomberg despite the fact that it made no difference in terms of overall student performance over time. Why? Because they, like all “reformers” are stuck with the factory school paradigm that expects students to progress through the age-based grade levels at a constant rate like widgets moving through an assembly line. diBlasio has a chance to change that. Here’s what I suggested in the comment section:

I hope diBlasio replaces the standardized tests measuring a student’s performance against age-based cohorts with standards-based tests that measure the students mastery of material no matter how long it takes. All students can learn given sufficient time and targeted instruction. It is unrealistic to expect a third grader from an educationally deprived home to learn as much in three years time as a third grader from an educationally enriched home. Yet our batching and measuring of children by birth date persists because it is administratively efficient. We can use technology to individualize instruction like never before but instead we are using crude educational statistics to “rate” schools.

While this is unlikely to occur, it would be helpful for those who want to abandon the 1920 model system we have for a 2000 model to let the NYTimes and other media know there IS another model for schooling and its one that more and more parents are moving towards.

MOOC Abysmal Pass Rates

January 24, 2014 Comments off

A Bloomberg Technology article reports that only 5% of those who signed up for MOOCs offered by Harvard and MIT completed those courses, using that data point as evidence that MOOCs are not all they are cracked up to be. I’m not so quick to jump off the MOOC bandwagon for several reasons:

First and foremost, I believe the reason for these MOOCs low pass rate is that K-12 education requires compliance and teacher oversight while MOOCs require initiative, self-direction, and the ability to learn independently.  The irony in this is that the business community claims it wants creative, self-directed and independent thinking employees and yet it insists that schools use standardized tests to measure the effectiveness of K-12 schools and teachers.

Secondly, these aren’t just ANY MOOCs: they are ones offered by MIT and Harvard, neither of whom watered down the course they offered nor, to the best of my knowledge, made any effort to make their courses appealing to a broader audience. Roughly 5% of those who apply to Harvard and/or MIY get in. Is it any surprise that only 5% of those who TRIED a course from those institutions COMPLETED the course?

Third, as the article noted, getting a certificate of completion may not have been the goal of those who registered for free. I have one retired friend who watches philosophy lectures given at an elite institution  with his wife and afterwards they use the material from the course as a springboard for discussion. I’m sure that somewhere there are “MOOC Clubs” springing up the same way there are “Book Clubs” and folks are convening meetings to learn from each other in addition to learning from the lectures.

Finally, the fact that only highly educated people signed up for MOOCs is not evidence that they will not eventually be a democratizing force. At this point, only a few technologically informed individuals are aware of the opportunity to take on-line courses for free. Once more guidance counselors, home school parents, and parents who want to provide supplementary learning opportunities for their children learn of MOOCs, their enrollment base will expand and the availability of free courses from leading institutions will expand opportunities. Indeed, even with a 5% completion rate, 43,000+ students completed courses at Harvard and MIT: that’s FAR more than attend those colleges and even more students will be registering once the word spreads.

I am still convinced that the curve for MOOCs will bend upward like the curve for the use of cell phones. MOOCs, like cell phones, are marginally lower in quality but drastically higher in convenience and in meeting individual needs. Don’t count them out yet….