Archive for January, 2015

The Limits of Technology: It Can Provide Information. It Can’t Educate.

January 31, 2015 Comments off

Two recent essays on technology posed related questions in their title. Susan Pinker’s NYTimes op ed piece asked “Can Students Have Too Much Tech?” and Larry Cuban’s three-part series of blog posts asked “Will Teaching and Learning Become Automated?” My response to both questions is “NO”.

Pinker’s response, though, is: YES! Based on studies conducted over the past decade it is evident that providing all children with equal access to technology increases the performance divide instead of diminishing it. Why? Here’s Pinker’s answer with my emphases:

We don’t know why this is, but we can speculate. With no adults to supervise them, many kids used their networked devices not for schoolwork, but to play games, troll social media and download entertainment. (And why not? Given their druthers, most adults would do the same.)

The problem is the differential impact on children from poor families. Babies born to low-income parents spend at least 40 percent of their waking hours in front of a screen — more than twice the time spent by middle-class babies. They also get far less cuddling and bantering over family meals than do more privileged children. The give-and-take of these interactions is what predicts robust vocabularies and school success. Apps and videos don’t.

Larry Cuban, long a technology skeptic, rightly believes technology has been oversold as the ultimate solution to providing a cheap means of offering an equitable education and especially laments the effects this line of thinking has had on the definition of schooling and teaching. In the third part of a three part series, Cuban undercuts the “…conceit that super-duper software will eventually, not today but in some future tomorrow, automate teaching.” He opens his argument by describing the new, narrow “purpose of schooling” and contrasting it with the definition in previous eras:

What technophiles forget, neglect, trip over—pick a verb–are the multiple purposes for tax-supported schools in a democracy. They and many other futurists err—my verb choice—in equating access to information with becoming educated. The purpose of schooling is reduced to acquiring information.

Tax-supported public schools have been and are social, political, and moral institutions whose historic job has been to help children and youth acquire multiple literacies, enter the labor market well prepared, vote, serve on juries, contribute to their communities, think for themselves, and live full and worthwhile lives.

Until three decades ago, these diverse purposes for tax-supported public schools were obvious; now those purposes have been narrowed to job preparation… Engaged citizenship, contributing to one’s community, and living worthwhile lives remain in the shadows. Few policymakers, philanthropists, technology futurists have challenged (or are willing to challenge) the swelling embrace of automated instruction that promise transforming schools into information factories.

Cuban eloquently and passionately describes the importance of good teachers:

Effective teaching, like work in other helping professions such as medicine, social work, and religious counseling is anchored in relationships. Those student/teacher relationships convert information into knowledge and, on occasion, knowledge into wisdom about the self and world. Teachers, then, from preschool through high school  are far more than deliverers of information.

In classrooms, they set and enforce the rules that socialize the young to act consistent with community norms. They set an example of adult behavior becoming for some students exemplars to model. They create classroom cultures that can encourage individual achievement, cooperative behavior, and independent decision-making….

Teachers make thousands of decisions in planning, conducting lessons, and assessing how well students are doing. Hundreds of those decisions are made in the nanosecond during teacher/student exchanges in daily lessons. Many decisions are moral ones in that they involve her authority as teacher, parental expectations, and student behaviors. Decisions over right and wrong are ever-present in classrooms. Teachers sort out conflicts daily among students over truth-telling and differences between parental values and school norms…  No software program that I know has algorithms that either make instantaneous decisions when events pop up unexpectedly or split-second moral decisions.

Given these complicated human interactions, Cuban cannot see a day when teachers will be replaced by technology.

While both Pinker and Cuban are wary of the overselling of technology, both recognize it has a place inside and outside the classroom and both tacitly acknowledge that the roles of teachers will need to change in order to take full advantage of all that technology has to offer. After reading both articles, I found that Pinker’s conclusion and Cuban’s analysis overlap in Pinker’s concluding paragraph:

“…the public money spent on wiring up classrooms should be matched by training and mentorship programs for teachers, so that a free and open Internet, reached through constantly evolving, beautifully packaged and compelling electronic tools, helps — not hampers — the progress of children who need help the most.”

And while neither writer says so explicitly, I think both would agree that in addition to spending money on technology once students are in school, it would be far more beneficial to invest in programs that nurture babies born to low-income families socially and academically and provide more supervision for students after school. Technology can provide information: technology cannot educate.

A Reality Check as National Choice Week Winds Down

January 30, 2015 Comments off

National Choice Week, described by AlterNet blogger Laurie Levy as “…a giant commercial, paid for by a huge list of corporate sponsors (that) is a misrepresentation designed to make me want it.”

In her blog post on this faux celebration”5 Devastating Facts“, Levy undercuts the claims of the pro-school-choice crowd with five documented assertions, all of which have been addressed in prior posts on this blog:

1. There are no data that support the idea that charter schools are superior to public schools.

2. Unlike public schools, charters can pick and choose their students.

3. Children who are better resourced with more family support are the winners in the school choice game.

4. It’s family income, stupid.

5. Public schools, in some communities, are doing just fine.


By the end of her blog posts, Levy concludes that she’s not buying ANY of it.

Peter Greene, whose Curmudgucation blog is aptly named, offers NINE things people should know about school choice in his most recent post. The 9 things are paraphrased below:

  1. Poll data supporting charters is suspect
  2. Only .2% of the students are using vouchers to attend private schools (note the decimal!)
  3. Half of the all of the charter schools in the US are in four states: TX, FL, AZ, and CA
  4.  The “grading system” used by the “Center for Education Reform” is suspect at best.
  5. The 8 states that disallow charters (ND, SD, MT, NE, VT, WV, AL and KY) lack “…juicy urban profit centers”
  6. 1,036 of the 6,700 charter schools that opened since 1992 have already closed
  7. …(T)here are no conclusive studies showing that charters do it better (than public schools)
  8. The Resolution recognizing National School Choice Week was “…sponsored by Tim Scott (Rep-SC) with ten co-sponsors including Ted Cruz , Rand Paul, and Dianne Feinstein” , an interesting list by any standard!
  9. In the last election cycle “pro-school-choice” candidates won in every election except PA, where “…Tom Corbett, who arguably could have been beaten by my dog” was defeated.

Greene’s gloomy conclusion is that the facts may not win out in the end:

It’s not necessary for the things to be true, or even supported by facts– just keep repeating them uncritically and without argument, and eventually, they stick.

I hope Peter Greene’s final paragraph is wrong… but…. after 35 years we “know” that government isn’t the solution, it’s the problem! And we “know” that regulations strangle innovation and the market place should decide what’s best.  Alas, the very creation of “National School Choice Week” seems to support Mr. Greene. Here’s hoping his facts and those of other bloggers can help change the public’s view of their schools.

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Why Lamar Alexander Opposes Duncan’s Mandate for Teacher Evaluation

January 29, 2015 Comments off

Diane Ravitch is spot on with her introduction to this excerpt of Lamar Alexander’s article.. but I fear she might be off base with this part of her analysis:
“Leaving it (teacher and principal evaluation) to the states raises the possibility that some states will be even more heavy-handed and punitive than Duncan, but it’s hard to imagine how.” Andrew Cuomo, Chris Christie, Scott Walker, John Kasich, and Mike Pence might have some very vivid imaginations when it comes to heavy-handed evaluation of teachers and principals. RTTT over-reached… but some states will suffer if the governor’s are given free reign.

Diane Ravitch's blog

Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee is conservative; he believes in state and local control of education. He doesn’t think that Washington knows best. He favors legislation to encourage states but not to compel them to do what Washington wants. In this article, he expressed his strong opposition to Arne Duncan’s favorite initiative, evaluating teachers by test scores and offering waivers only to states that agree to do it. Let me be clear that I disagree with his praise for the Teacher Incentive Fund (merit pay), because merit pay has never worked anywhere. The TIF was a waste of $1 billion, and now more money will be thrown at a failed policy. I have no doubt that I won’t like whatever is in the final bill to support privatization and profiteering, but I like Alexander’s clear dismissal of federally mandated teacher evaluation, which is a poison pill invented by Duncan and…

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Citizenship Tests as a Graduation Requirement

January 28, 2015 Comments off

As readers of this blog know, I am solidly against the high stakes standardized test regimen that has been imposed on schools as a result of NCLB and RTTT. I am not, however, opposed to ALL standardized tests. I fully support standardized Criterion Referenced Tests (CRTs), tests that are designed to measure a specific skills and specific information sets that are necessary to successfully use those skills. An example of a CRT that is universally accepted is the test required to obtain a drivers license. To secure a drivers license one must demonstrate the capability of driving a car and the ability to understand the signs and “rules of the road”. The AP Tests and GED are examples of CRTs that are accepted as evidence that a student has mastered the skills required for specific college courses or required to graduate from high school.

An article by Rick Rojas and Mokoto Rich in today’s NYTimes describes a CRT that is being required by some states for graduation that is also hard to argue against: the citizenship examination administered to immigrants. Rojas and Mokoto write:

This month, Arizona became the first state to pass a law requiring its high school students to pass the citizenship exam, stipulating that they must answer at least 60 of 100 questions correctly to receive a diploma. (Immigrants are given 10 of the 100 questions and must correctly answer six to pass.) Other states may follow suit: North Dakota’s House of Representatives has passed a comparable bill, and its Senate approved it Tuesday; legislators in Indiana, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia and seven other states have recently introduced similar initiatives.

The driving force behind this movement is Frank Riggs, a former congressman who is president of the Joe Foss Institute. Riggs thought that it was reasonable to require ALL high school graduates to “demonstrate a rudimentary knowledge of civics” in order to get a diploma and reasoned that there was no need to devise a new test for this because we already had one in place: the test given to aspiring US citizens.

The article notes that the proposal to require passage of the citizenship examination does have some opposition:

“I don’t think the test measures what is most important for students to learn,” said Diana Hess, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and senior vice president of the Spencer Foundation, which gives grants in support of education causes. “If all we’re asking students to do is answer very simple questions, we’re not going to be working on the complex understanding that I think students need in order to participate well.”

The balance of the article describes various perspectives on the question, citing the lack of fundamental knowledge that exists among voters today and the poor voter turnout.

I wholeheartedly support this idea… but would take it a step further. To get a drivers license one must not only pass a written test, one must also pass a performance test: they must demonstrate the ability to drive a car. Similarly I would propose that schools require high school students to register to vote and vote in mock elections beginning in their sophomore year. In that way they would learn the procedures that are required in their state and get an understanding of the specific offices they will be voting for once they are of age. For those teachers who complain that this would take time away from “valuable instruction” my retort would be this: “What is more important to our democracy than ensuring high school graduates are informed voters?”

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Childhood Poverty at “Obscene Levels”

January 28, 2015 Comments off

Charles Blow’s NYTimes column today deals with childhood poverty, a topic that has been the subject of scores of posts on this blog. Drawing statistics and quotes from “Ending Child Poverty Now”, a recently released report from the Childhood Defense Fund, Blow calls on us to reduce the “obscene level of childhood  poverty”. He writes:

People may disagree about the choices parents make — including premarital sex and out-of-wedlock births. People may disagree about access to methods of family planning — including contraception and abortion. People may disagree about the size and role of government — including the role of safety-net programs.

But surely we can all agree that no child, once born, should suffer through poverty. Surely we can all agree that working to end child poverty — or at least severely reduce it — is a moral obligation of a civilized society.

And yet, 14.7 million children in this country are poor, and 6.5 million of them are extremely poor (living below half the poverty line).

He quotes extensively from the report, which notes that children born in poverty in the US are more disadvantaged than those born in other developed countries in the world: “Among (the 35 OECD) countries, America ranks 34th in relative child poverty — ahead only of Romania, whose economy is 99 percent smaller than ours.” 

Citing statistics that demonstrate how poverty is intergenerational and the long term costs associated with the corrosive effects of poverty, the report recommends that our government invest $77 billion per year to end childhood poverty. While that is an eye-popping amount, the report notes that it pales in comparison to what we are spending now:

Every year we keep 14.7 million children in poverty costs our nation $500 billion — six times more than the $77 billion investment we propose to reduce child poverty by 60 percent.”

The report offers several ideas on how that money could be raised, including the obvious solutions of raising taxes on the highest wage earners and spending less on the military. But as I implied in the comment I left, these ideas are likely non-starters:

As you note in your column, this is not a new problem. Unfortunately “A Nation At Risk” that blamed economic problems on public schools captured the public’s attention far more than the 1994 CDF report “Wasting America’s Future” and the current toxic testing regimen is the result. You could get over $1.7 billion from the state coffers by eliminating standardized tests that are used now to tell us what we already know: children raised in poverty do worse on standardized tests than children raised in affluence. And here’s what is especially maddening: instead of using those results to demonstrate the need to invest more in children who are raised in poverty we are using those results to close neighborhood schools and replace them in many cases with for-profit charters that are not markedly improving the opportunities for children raised in poverty but ARE increasing the money shareholders receive.

I doubt that the 2014 CDF Report will get any more traction than the 1994 report, but appreciate Charles Blow’s effort to bring the report to the full attention of the public. MAYBE repeating the report’s central message will help people of conscience to think twice before they support cuts to programs that help children. That central message is:

“America’s poor children did not ask to be born; did not choose their parents, country, state, neighborhood, race, color, or faith.”

What Could Replace Standardized Tests as A Metric?

January 27, 2015 Comments off

Several years ago (over 35 to be more precise), I recall pondering to move as I sought a new job in a larger school district. To help us decide where we might want to move, my wife and I had purchased  Places Rated Almanac which complied reams of data sets to help families like ours decide where we might want to move. As I recall, the data sets included items like housing costs, availability of transportation, recreation alternatives, medical services, weather, taxes… and schools. The metrics used to assign “stars” for each of the data sets had some flaws (e.g. recreation included the number of golf courses and bowling alleys, neither of which interested me) but the one I found most frustrating was the data set for schools. The ratings used some combination of per pupil spending, class size, and standardized achievement tests to evaluate “quality” and they were particularly inadequate in metropolitan areas like Hartford CT where the city school indices were blended with the nearby suburban districts… and I knew from my experiences in the Philadelphia area that there were VAST differences between the city schools and suburban schools and among the suburban school districts as well.

It is therefore not surprising that after relocating to Western MD in the late 1980s I was enthusiastic about the State Department of Education’s notion of developing “Report Cards” for each school as part of an accountability initiative and I welcomed the opportunity to participate in the development process as one of the 24 Superintendents in the State. Under the leadership of State Superintendent Nancy Grasmick we developed a Report Card that included standardized test scores, drop out rates, attendance, and a host of demographic data that included race, socio-economics, special education, and ESL. As the report cards evolved we worked to upgrade the Report Cards. We changed the test data reported, moving away from the use of minimum competency tests to the “Maryland School Performance Assessment Plan” (MSPAP) assessments that were administered in grades 5, 8 and 11. We made certain we all used a common methodology for defining “drop outs”.  We reported the data in a disaggregated format to make certain that high-performing students in affluent schools were not masking the deficiencies of, say, special education students in less affluent schools. The MSPAP Report card was far superior to the blunt measurements used by Places Rated but still fell short of capturing the elusive qualities the separate a “good” school from an “excellent” school.

I was saddened when I learned that Maryland had to abandon its tests with the advent of NCLB because they were not given at the end of each grade and they also needed to abandon the format of the Report Card. Standardized Test data became the primary metric for determining school quality. Race To The Top, as noted repeatedly in this blog, only made matters worse by raising the stakes of standardized test results thereby making them the de facto exclusive metric for school quality. Ironically, the depth of the data available to parents in the age of the internet was more school specific than the Places Rated data, but it was far less helpful to parents and far more punitive to schools.

But, as Anna Kamenetz reported in an NPR post earlier this month, the reauthorization of NCLB may result in the use of a different set of accountability metrics. In “What Schools Could Use Instead of Standardized Tests” Kamenetz offers a long list of possibilities:

  • Samplingwhere tests like NAEP would examine random samples of students in a school instead of stopping everything to administer tests to all students simultaneously.
  • “Stealth testing”, which suggests formative assessments like NWEA or Khan Academy dashboards could be used to systematically determine individual student progress
  • Multiple Measures, where routinely collected data, like “…graduation rates, discipline outcomes, demographic information, teacher-created assessments and, eventually, workforce outcomes” could be used to measure a school district’s effectiveness. Kamenetz also suggests that emerging metrics like social/emotional skills surveys, game-based assessments, and portfolios could be included in the “multiple measures” provided to students and/or their parents.
  • Inspections, conducted by well-funded state departments of education.

Kamenetz has written a book on this topic, which provides a more expansive description of each of these ideas and offers others…. and anyone who thinks this is “unaffordable” should look at how much we are spending on standardized tests. The billions spent on those tests could easily be redirected to the metrics described above… and the results described above would be far more beneficial to teachers, parents, and students than the results we are getting today.


The Golden Arches Come to Public Education

January 27, 2015 Comments off

NPR’s Anna Kamenetz recently gave a report on a study completed by NOLA school choice by the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans suggesting that parent choice doesn’t always play out the way “free market” advocates think it will. Choice advocates believe that breaking the monopoly on public schools will create a competitive environment whereby parents will opt into schools that have better academic performance. This will create a virtuous circle where poor performing schools are driven out and only high performing schools remain.

From the outset I found this notion to be preposterous. If the free market worked in the fashion envisioned by “choice” advocates the Bronx would be full of grocery stores that offer the same items as those found in Bronxville and have sidewalk cafes comparable to those found in, say, Park Slope. Those advocating deregulated charter schools conveniently overlook the fact that poor neighborhoods and communities do not have car dealerships, department stores, boutiques, or hospitals that provide the wide array of consumer goods and services that are routinely available in the more affluent suburbs. The free market does not guarantee quality or equity for groceries, restaurants, consumer goods, or medical services… yet charter advocates seem to think it will provide “quality education” to economically disadvantaged children. After nearly a decade of nearly universal choice in NOLA (86% of the children do NOT attend their neighborhood school) here’s what the research found:

Parents, especially low-income parents, actually show strong preferences for other qualities like location and extracurriculars — preferences that can outweigh academics.

And what are the factors that parents value?

The study split families up into thirds based on the median income in their census tract. What they found was that the lowest-income New Orleans families were even more likely to pick schools that were close by, that offered extended days, and that had football and band in high school — and, conversely, they had a weaker preference for schools based on test scores.

This last point is crucial because it suggests that a choice-based system all by itself won’t necessarily increase equity… These parents appear to be more interested in factors other than academic quality as the state defines it. Maybe they have access to different, or less, information. If this is true, choice could actually increase, rather than diminish, achievement gaps within a city.

Based on my experience this is not at all surprising. The proximity means greater convenience and less of a “hassle cost”. What parent wants to put their child on a bus or drive them across town when the nearby school is comparable. The extended days provide working parents with child care for their elementary children. And good “football and band programs” are far more important to loosely engaged parents than “test scores”. Finally, parents are wise to the fact that test scores are not a reliable proxy for “quality” despite what politicians, economists, psycho-metricians, and privatizers believe. Informed parents, like informed travelers, rely less and less on metrics conceived by organization like AAA or Mobil Travel Guides and more and more on word-of-mouth reviews found in Trip Advisor.

There IS a lesson in all of this for public schools: instead of introducing “choice” they might provide all schools with after school programs and a robust extra-curricular program. Parents could opt out of the extended day if they wished to provide their children with less structured activities or activities different from those offered by the schools and extra-curriculars would remain optional. Oh… and last but not least… replace the test-driven metrics with “costumer reports” like those found in Trip Advisor.