Archive for December, 2014

CBE Part II: Scope of Skills Taught

December 26, 2014 Comments off

Just before Christmas blogger Audrey Watters posted an essay titled “What is Competency Based Education” that defined that term as follows:

Rather than moving students together through materials for a fixed duration of a class, CBE enables students to move at their own pace through the curriculum. They are assessed along the way, and if they can demonstrate “competency” on a particular skill, they can move forward to the next. This is seen as an alternative to traditional models where students receive a grade — and credit — at the end of the course, but that grade can range from A to D, meaning that students have attained very different levels of understanding of the course materials.

I’ve used a set of questions she posed at the end of that article to write a series on the topic of CBE, which is the instructional backbone for what I call “Network Schools”. This post is part of that series.

How might CBE’s emphasis on “skills” change what and how things are taught? Do “abstract” concepts tend to be lost, for example?

CBE schools, unlike the factory schools in place today, would not group students in age-based “grade levels” or teach factual and hierarchical skills to students in classroom settings. Instead, CBE schools would use technology to individualize instruction.

CBE schools would teach factual and hierarchical skills asynchronously at a rate and method that matches the students ability and learning style. Student advisor-coaches will monitor the student’s off campus work and provide tutorial assistance just-in-time on an as needed basis.

In CBE schools abstract skills would be taught in small group “dialogue sessions” and assessed through periodic “exhibitions” students give to a panel of peers and teachers.

As students approach the time when they are ready to either enter the workforce or seek entry to a higher education institution they will progress through instructional modules that consist of activities and exercises that the businesses or post-secondary institutions develop. Student mastery of the requisite preparatory skills will be measured using metrics developed by businesses or post-secondary institutions.

CBE Part I: Everything Old is New Again

December 24, 2014 Comments off

A month ago Audrey Watters (aka Hack Education) blogged about Competency Based Education (CBE), describing it “…as a way to rethink education — to save money and to boost “outcomes”. She then provides this concise definition of CBE:

Rather than moving students together through materials for a fixed duration of a class, CBE enables students to move at their own pace through the curriculum. They are assessed along the way, and if they can demonstrate “competency” on a particular skill, they can move forward to the next. This is seen as an alternative to traditional models where students receive a grade — and credit — at the end of the course, but that grade can range from A to D, meaning that students have attained very different levels of understanding of the course materials.

She then acknowledges that CBE is NOT a new concept and has often taken on different forms and been called by other names:

CBE is sometimes referred to as proficiency-based, mastery-based, outcome-based, performance-based, and standards-based education. Those adjectives are used to in conjunction with “instruction” and “learning” as well (that is, mastery-based learning, competency-based instruction). And to complicate things, one US Department of Education description combines competency-based learning and personalized-learning together (Here is an EML look at “personalization”).

Readers of this blog undoubtedly realize that I am a strong proponent of CBE. With the advent of inexpensive technology and free instructional materials on the web it is now possible to implement CBE and, by doing so, change the factory model of education that has been in place for nearly a century. At the end of her article, Watters poses a series of questions:

How might CBE’s emphasis on “skills” change what and how things are taught? Do “abstract” concepts tend to be lost, for example?

How might CBE’s emphasis on the “modularity” of skills shape teaching and learning? What does it mean to see knowledge as “modular” in this way? Does this mean that knowledge is seen as static? As decontextualized? Or only contextualized through a certain “order” of skills?

To repeat an earlier question, what is “competency”? Who decides? How is it different from current assessment decisions? (Is it?)

Can students be engaged in determining “competencies”? How might CBE help give students more responsibility?

While CBE promises to change things like “seat time,” does it necessarily change other traditional outcomes of school? Is it still focused, for example, on the things that are “measurable”?

What support systems — people and technology — need to be in place for schools to successfully move to CBE? What other frameworks need to be in place to promote a “progressive” CBE?

What policies might need to change for CBE to be more readily adopted? And always key to ask: who are the biggest advocates of these policy changes? Why?

In the coming week I’ll answer these questions and, in doing so, flesh out how I believe CBE could transform schooling. In the meantime, enjoy this dance number from All That Jazz:

The End of the Beloved Community

December 23, 2014 Comments off

Leo Casey, a Shanker Institute Fellow, wrote a blog post in last week’s edition of Education Week titled “Democracy, Schools and Unions”. The post offered his perspective on these three issues from a largely theoretical standpoint. He posed two questions and provided a context for them:

“At a time that teachers’ unions face existential threats, how do we defend the democratic voice that they provide teachers?” “How can we strengthen the voice that unions provide teachers, making teachers’ unions more democratic?”

These questions are informed by my view of what politics should do. I came of political age in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The defining political questions of my “new left” generation—the civil rights struggle and the opposition to the Vietnam War—were issues of a profoundly moral nature. The old labor anthem “Which Side Are You On?” captured for us the seeming moral clarity of our age. Our politics were guided by moral visions of a radically different society free of racial oppression and imperial war, captured in the ideals of “participatory democracy” and the “beloved community” of Martin Luther King Jr..

It is evident that Mr. Casey and I are contemporaries, but we lived in parallel universes. While he chose to make change from the bottom up I decided to work from the top down… Consequently I see the union movement over the past 40 years from a different perspective,  a perspective I described in a comment I left this morning.

I believe both the civil rights movement and the union movement have suffered because they achieved their broad goals and, as it turns out, found it tough to identify new ones that had broad public support. To make matters even worse for those seeking racial and economic justice, the legislative and judicial victories of the 1950s and 1960s did not change the hearts and minds of a sizable number of voters. Politicians in one party capitalized on lingering racial biases… but politicians in BOTH parties seized on voter resentment of the wages, benefits, and working conditions of union members and used that resentment combined with the ever-present resistance to higher taxes to their advantage.

The ‘reform” movement capitalizes on both of these negative biases. The “reformers” are not trying to make inroads in affluent districts where teachers still have a modicum of respect and relatively low wages compared to local taxpayers. They are instead going into urban areas and Rust Belt communities where racial and economic biases are rooted and there is deep seated voter animosity toward the legislative and judicial victories that eliminated laws enabling racial equality and public sector unionization.

The laws and court decisions in the 50s and 60s made it possible for participatory democracy and the beloved community to emerge… but legislation and court decisions cannot change the hearts of people— and neither can unions by themselves. This is especially true if the union’s fights are focussed on employee wages, benefits, and working conditions instead of the well-being of the students and communities they serve.

Going forward, it is possible that once elected school boards and unions understand that “reformers” want to put them BOTH out of business they might join hands to push back against the test-centered approach of the plutocrats who want to abandon democracy completely and replace the “beloved community” with a free market. In order for that to happen, both boards and unions need to reach out to the communities they serve and avoid internal bickering that disenfranchises them.


Red Wings Get School $$$$

December 22, 2014 Comments off

In “You can’t make this stuff up” news, Michigan Attorney General “quietly issued an opinion” that state taxes earmarked for schools could be used to build a new arena in downtown Detroit. At stake in this particular instance are “only $15 million per year” which some Republican legislators described as a “pittance sum”. The billionaires who are asking the taxpayers to pony up $261,000,000 claim the new arena will “…create 400 part- and full-time jobs, and the city will receive about $16 million in total income tax revenue”. 

Here’s another way to calculate the economic impact: if the school district received the $15,000,000 per year it is entitled to they could hire 300 teachers per year (assuming $50,000/year in total compensation) or maybe renovate one or more schools per year thereby creating employment opportunities for contractors in the area and refurbishing schools that are in disrepair.

Oh… and that additional “total income tax revenue”? How much is likely to end up in the school budget? Any way you look at this, using $261,000,000 of taxpayers money to underwrite the costs of an arena to house a team owned by a billionaire is a bad deal… especially for the children of Detroit.

The Sad State of Affairs in School Funding

December 21, 2014 Comments off

Today’s NYTimes has an excellent article by Nikole Hannah-Jones on the horrific racial imbalances in MO schools, imbalances that persist despite numerous lawsuits and persistent efforts on the part of minority parents who want a better life and an equal opportunity for their children. I’m sure many who read this will shake their heads at the “racism in the South and Midwest”… but in doing so they will miss a major point: virtually every state in the union has inherently inequitable funding formulas and one of the consequences is a corresponding inequity in opportunity for students raised in poverty.

In 1972 as a graduate student at the University of PA I wrote a term paper for an education law course titled “Exclusionary Zoning: The Ultimate Roadblock to Equal Educational Opportunity”. The research I did at that time illustrated how zoning regulations in affluent suburbs close to Philadelphia and other low income communities precluded affordable housing and contributed to economic and racial segregation. Things have only gotten worse since then… and not just in Philadelphia. Since that time, all but five states have been sued over inequities in school funding, evidence that we are not even meeting the Plessy v. Ferguson standard of ” separate but equal” let alone the Brown v. Board of Education standard.

Politicians like to claim that every child deserves an opportunity to succeed in the 21st Century economy and virtually everyone agrees that a good education is the crucial first step to make this happen. The solution racial and economic inequity that the MO legislature came up with to address the deficiencies in the Normandy School district was to allow some Normandy students to take a bus to a distant district with surplus space. The result? Normandy parents were elated… but…

Parents in the school district that had to take Normandy’s students — Francis Howell, an 85 percent white district 26 miles away — were not. Officials there held a public forum to address community concerns. More than 2,500 parents packed into the high school gym.

Would the district install metal detectors? What about the violence their children would be subjected to, an elementary school parent asked. Wouldn’t test scores plummet? The issue wasn’t about race, one parent said, “but trash.”

If the MO state legislature is any indication, State elected officials do not want to upgrade “low performing” districts by providing more money— especially if that money needs to be drawn from state funds currently being sent to middle class and affluent districts.

Nor did the legislature want  they want to provide more opportunities for African American children by redrawing boundaries so that nearby affluent districts would merge with districts like Normandy… and the answer was provided in the article:

…students were not sent to the high-performing, mostly white districts nearby (and) Michael Jones, a state board of education official, was blunt about the reason: “You’d have had a civil war.”

And here’s what is frustrating: even though 45 states have had lawsuits brought because of funding and racial inequities, I don’t recall ANY gubernatorial candidate, or congressional candidate making this an issue in 2014 and, to date, no “serious” Presidential aspirant is making this an issue for 2016.

When I wrote that term paper 42 years ago I was confident that political leaders would see this injustice and provide a remedy. I hope some graduate student today still holds out that same hope.



Rolling Stone and UVA

December 20, 2014 Comments off

Rolling Stone magazine ran an article two months ago describing the horrific treatment a young UVA co-ed experienced at a fraternity party where she became intoxicated and was raped repeatedly. The story was picked up by mainstream media and became national news. The UVA President closed down all fraternity parties, began serious exploration of the complete elimination of fraternities, and called for soul searching about the toxic atmosphere at the college. The story, as it turned out, had some holes… and ultimately led to the Rolling Stone editors apologizing for failing to validate the facts in the case.

The whole incident brought to mind personal encounters with the media and, especially, the Tawana Brawley incident in Wappingers Falls NY where the community was still putting the case behind them when I worked there a decade after the incident. In brief, Ms. Brawley was found in a garbage bag with racial slurs written on her body and covered with feces. She claimed to have been abducted and raped by six white men, one of whom was the Dutchess County Assistant DA Steven Pagones. Ms. Brawley’s allegations drew national attention from the media and much sympathy from those who were convinced of the veracity of the story, a story some believe to be true to this day. A grand jury convened and determined that the entire episode was fabricated by Ms. Brawley to avoid severe punishment from her mother and step-father for staying out overnight. In the aftermath, Mr. Pagones sued Ms. Brawley and her advisors (one of whom was Al Sharpton) for defamation and won some restitution but lost his marriage and his reputation since the coverage of the accusations far outstripped the coverage of the defamation trial. A decade later, when I applied for the Superintendency in that district, my brother sent me an email reminding me of this case, as did virtually everyone who learned that I was appointed to the job. In the minds of the public, Wappingers was defined by the case and, presumably, had a shadow cast over it. Some of the staff members I worked with rolled their eyes when I mentioned this, with one in particular recalling the turmoil it created in the secondary schools in the district where he served as Principal at the time.

I have long been suspicious of media coverage given my first experiences as a student teacher in Philadelphia and my admiration for George Orwell’s analysis of political writing. By over-reporting on salacious incidents that prove to be untrue and under-reporting the slow, steady improvements that are taking place, the media play into the hands of those who claim the fundamental issues (e.g. racism and sexual assaults on campus) are groundless. And the collateral damage to the institutions and/or communities under attack is irreparable.

This post was triggered by an article in today’s NYTimes, titled “University of Virginia Officials Blast Media Coverage”. The article quotes the University of Virginia’s rector, George Keith Martin, and President Teresa Sullivan:

“Our tightly knit community has experienced the full fury of drive-by journalism in the 21st century — of callous indifference to the truth and callous indifference to the consequences,” he said, adding, “our great university’s reputation has been unfairly tarnished.”

Before reciting a long list of things the administration is doing to make the campus safer, Teresa A. Sullivan, the university president, said, “Our concern with sexual assault was not something that started with the Rolling Stone article.” And she said she felt compelled to state that “UVA’s climate and culture are generally healthy.”

As it turns out the rush to publish a salacious article has become a lose-lose proposition. UVA and fraternities on all campuses have their reputations tarnished and, as the penultimate paragraph notes, the false story will have negative percussions for those trying to change the culture on campuses as well:

Activists have voiced concerns that the Rolling Stone episode could undermine people’s willingness to believe victims, and weaken the university’s resolve to address the problem.

The solution? When someone approaches the media with a story like the Brawley incident or the UVA episode the writer should make certain that the source has done everything possible to seek redress through administrative and/or legal channels and if not, do thorough and complete research before publishing. As the Brawley incident indicates, it takes years to heal and as UVA is learning, the aftermath outlives “…the full fury of drive-by journalism in the 21st century”. 

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Using Science and Activism to Stop Testing

December 20, 2014 Comments off

Earlier this week, Andrew Cuomo stunned the natural gas industry and environmental activists with an announcement that he was going to indefinitely suspend fracking in NYS. An article in The Albany Project described the process activists used to persuade Cuomo to make this decision and, in doing so, provides a playbook to those who want to put an end to the high-stakes testing mania. And the analogy is apt given that in the end Cuomo used “scientific evidence” as the basis for his decision to deny fracking, and readers of this blog and students of statistics know that the “value added measure (VAM)” evaluations beloved by “reformers” are based on junk science and any reputable and respectable statistician or education assessment expert knows that there is NO scientific evidence supporting VAM based on standardized tests.

The Albany Project summarized the activists steps with these bullet points:

  • They got organized locally.
  • They got organized statewide.
  • They correctly identified the significant points of leverage in the machines and applied pressure that never stopped.
  • They took their case to their own city halls and made the issue real for people.
  • They backed a primary candidate with a funny name and no money who won half the counties in the state while amplifying the fracktivist message.
  • They changed the debate.
  • They moved public opinion significantly.
  • They severely restricted Cuomo’s freedom of movement on the issue.
  • They completely out-maneuvered Andrew Cuomo, eventually placing him in such a tight position that his only possible option was to defer to the science.

Using the environmentalists playbook, those in NYS who oppose the over-emphasis on standardized tests might try the following:

  • Begin and/or continue applying pressure to locally elected school boards to adopt resolutions refusing to use VAM as the basis for any evaluations and supporting parents who wish to opt out of the tests
  • If and when the State tries to compel the local districts and/or parents to comply with the implementation of the tests needed to implement the VAM mandate, file a lawsuit emphasizing that teacher evaluation and student assessment are local decisions… and in filing the suit be prepared to go all the way to the State Supreme Court to prove your point
  • Hound Governor Cuomo wherever he goes demanding an end to the overuse, misuse, and abuse of standardized testing
  • Make sure that the overuse, misuse, and abuse of standardized testing is an election issue locally and especially at the State level. This will help raise the public’s awareness of this issue.
  • Use Cuomo’s acknowledgment that he isn’t a scientist to compel him to also acknowledge that he isn’t a psychometrician and get him to turn over the ultimate decision on the use of VAM to an independent panel of experts.

It worked for the environmentalists because in the end politicians cannot argue against science… and science should always win when there is an argument.