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Archive for March, 2015

“Flexible Scheduling” Undermines Parent Engagement, Stymies Social Mobility

March 31, 2015 1 comment

When I was an undergraduate trying to make every dollar I could to pay my tuition and cover my living costs I worked part time as a cashier in a grocery store chain and in the stockroom of a retail chain. In both of these jobs I was given my schedule a week in advance. Both employers worked around my class schedule and, in part because I was a reliable employee and, in the case of the grocery store, because of the union, I was able to trade hours with other employees to get time off for family events. While I appreciated the relative flexibility of the employers, I was relieved when my earnings as a newly hired teacher combined with my wires earnings meant I could stop working part time.

Today’s part-time employees live in a different world— one where flexibility works for the employer and one where unions have no say whatsoever in the wages and working conditions of employees. As Michele Chen reported in a recent article in Nation, 

Many retail workers are stuck in a segment of the labor force known as “involuntary part-time”: those forced to work fewer than thirty-five hours a week and who would generally otherwise work full-time, but can’t, due to a lack of available jobs.

And these involuntary part-time workers face horrific scheduling for their work. Using scheduling algorithms that optimize the wages paid to employees, corporations employing large numbers of part-time employees– like Walmart, Starbuck, and any number of fast food and retail franchisers– require part-timers to be on call 24/7. The result?

The consequence is not just impoverishment but deepening long-term instability in workers’ family lives and crushing personal stressAs Esther Kaplan points out, low-wage workers face intense pressure to adhere to unstable schedules and to ramp up speed and productivity at the same time—no time to schedule daycare, but always on-call to take a last-minute night-shift.

This plays out in schools in having fewer parents available for scheduled parent conferences, more parents scrambling at the last minute to send their children off to school with proper attire and completed homework assignments, and lots of stress in the homes of children whose parents are often working more than one of these involuntary part-time jobs to make ends meet.

Walmart and Starbucks received lots of relatively favorable coverage when they unilaterally decided to raise wages, but, as Chen notes, more is needed:

An extra dollar-an-hour for impoverished Walmart associates helps, but they want good jobs, equitable schedules and real control over their labor, not just higher wages. Countless workers are still forced to take whatever they can get—which is often simply whatever the boss is willing to give them.

Shareholders want profits which means they want to impose flexible hours on employees more than they want to empower employees to arrange flexible work hours among themselves and to have the flexibility to schedule doctors appointments for their children… let alone volunteer in their child’s school or coach their child’s little league team. Those making decisions about which scheduling algorithm is the most cost effective for the company need to look at what algorithms are most effective for the well being of their employees and see that the two are, in some cases, mutually exclusive. If we want strong communities and a stable work force, increasing the minimum wage only gets us part way there.

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Sin Tax Bonanza! Pot Proceeds Provide Colorado Public Schools With Avalanche of Revenue

March 29, 2015 Leave a comment

The moral debates over the legalization of marijuana are quickly disappearing as legislators look at the results of excise taxes in Colorado. As reported in Britain’s Daily Mail tabloid and the US magazine The Week, Colorado’s taxes on marijuana have increased tenfold bringing in $2.3 million in revenues. Most states I’ve worked in dedicate gambling revenues and/or alcohol revenues to schools and when it is necessary to find new revenues the solution invariably is to raise “sin taxes”. Given that there is diminishing evidence that marijuana in and of itself is a “gateway drug” and given the lack of political courage on the part of many legislators as evidenced by their unwillingness to raise broad based taxes to fund schools, it seems likely that more and more states will look at the revenues garnered by Colorado and follow suit.

I am in favor of legalization for four major reasons. First, it will end the real gateway element of marijuana use, which is breaking the law. Marijuana use requires the buyer to break the law in order to make a purchase and, consequently, the widespread use of marijuana makes lawlessness acceptable.   Secondly, given the fact that lawless people are dealing the drug, it increases the probability that the “sales personnel” will market higher potency drugs that are for more dangerous and addictive than the lower grade marijuana that a regulated marketplace would make available. It is the sale of drugs by lawless marketeers that makes marijuana into a “gateway drug”, not the drug itself. This leads to the third reason I am in support of legalization: doing so would ensure that the THC dosages are lower and less addictive. Fourth, and of greatest interest to legislators, it would bring new revenues to state coffers while arguably diminishing costs for law enforcement and prisons. The additional revenues could be earmarked for schools, drug treatment, early childhood education, or the general coffers. Legal marijuana will feed legislators’ addictions to quick and painless fixes to revenue gaps… expect to see it spread rapidly in the coming decade.

Trickle Down Testing: NOLA Kindergartners Spend 95+ Hours Taking Computer-Based Standardized Tests

March 27, 2015 Leave a comment

A recent Slate essay, “Welcome to Kindergarten. Take This Test… And This One”, describes the testing gauntlet imposed on NOLA students in the name of accountability. Alexandria Neason writes about the experiences of third year Kindergarten teacher Molly Mansel’s challenges in administering computerized tests to her entering kindergartners. The first challenge was teaching them to use a mouse when most of them were used to swiping screens on phones and pads. Then came the test itself:

Mansel’s students started taking tests just three weeks into the 2014–15 school year. They began with a state-required early childhood exam in August, which covered everything from basic math to letter identification. Mansel estimates that it took between four and five weeks for the teachers to test all 58 kindergarten students—and that was with the help of the prekindergarten team. The test requires an adult to sit individually with each student, reading questions and asking them to perform various tasks. The test is 11 pages long and “it’s very time-consuming,” according to Mansel, who is 24 and in her third year of teaching (her first in kindergarten).

The rest of the demanding testing schedule involves repeated administrations of two different school-mandated tests. The first, Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP, is used to measure how students are doing compared with their peers nationally—and to evaluate teachers’ performance. The students take the test in both reading and math three times a year. They have about an hour to complete the test, and slower test takers are pulled from class to finish.

The second test, called Strategic Teaching and Evaluation of Progress, or STEP, is a literacy assessment that measures and ranks children’s progress as they learn letters, words, sentences, and, eventually, how to read. Mansel gives the test individually to students four times throughout the year. It takes several days to administer as Mansel progresses through a series of tasks: asking the students to write their names, to point to uppercase and lowercase versions of letters, and to identify words that rhyme, for example.

These are pre-tests… and over the course of the year Mansel’s students will spend 95 hours taking these tests… and if Ms. Mansel’s performance rating is based on “growth” you can be certain they will spend many more hours in front of screens instead of playing with blocks or engaging in social play with classmates. All of this is being done in the name of maintaing international competitiveness with other countries. But when do other developed countries introduce reading and what does research tell us about this issue? David Elkind’s EducationNext article in 2012 addressed this question:

Evidence attesting to the importance of developmentally appropriate education in the early years comes from cross-cultural studies. Jerome Bruner reports that in French-speaking parts of Switzerland, where reading instruction is begun at the preschool level, a large percentage of children have reading problems. In German-speaking parts of Switzerland, where reading is not taught until age six or seven, there are few reading problems. In Denmark, where reading is taught late, there is almost no illiteracy. Likewise in Russia, where the literacy rate is quite high, reading is not taught until the age of six or seven.

So if research shows that premature instruction in reading increases the probability of reading difficulties, why are we introducing “academics” early? The short answer is that scientific evidence is immaterial in the politicized environment of American schooling today. The consequences on children are adverse whether or not they learn how to read earlier, for the 95+ hours they spend in front of screens are 95+ hours that could have been spent engaged in activities that would help them develop interpersonal skills and self-regulation.

Because Badges ARE Better Than Degrees, MOOCs Will Eventually Prevail

March 25, 2015 Leave a comment

Earlier this month, Kevin Carey wrote an Upshot article that, if anything, understated the value of “badges” or “verified certificates” as opposed to degrees. As noted in several earlier posts and described in Carey’s article, “badges” are earned by the completion of a series of courses or activities embedded in a course, and when these “badges” are recognized as bona fide credentials the MOOC movement will gain irreversible traction:

Free online courses won’t revolutionize education until there is a parallel system of free or low-fee credentials, not controlled by traditional colleges, that leads to jobs. Now technological innovators are working on that, too.

The Mozilla Foundation, which brought the world the Firefox web browser, has spent the last few years creating what it calls the Open Badges project. Badges are electronic credentials that any organization, collegiate or otherwise, can issue. Badges indicate specific skills and knowledge, backed by links to electronic evidence of how and why, exactly, the badge was earned.

Some of the commenters criticized Carey’s naiveté or his desire to turn higher education into a utilitarian enterprise that turns out “cogs in the machine”. From where I sit, “badges” have tremendous promise for students— especially those students who are NOT engaged in formal education past high school or those directionless students who enroll in college because it is what their parents expect. Moreover, from my perspective as a former employer and a current consumer I can think of several places where “badges” are already in place:

  • Technology repairs
  • Auto repairs
  • Accounting
  • Medical providers
  • Real Estate

The list could be extended endlessly because we are obsessed with credentials, many of which, as Carey notes, are meaningless at worst and obtuse at best:

… H.R. departments know what a bachelor’s degree is. “Verified certificates” are something new. But employers have a powerful incentive to move in this direction: Traditional college degrees are deeply inadequate tools for communicating information.

The standard diploma has roughly the same amount of information that prisoners of war are required to divulge under the Geneva Conventions. College transcripts are a nightmare of departmental abbreviations, course numbers of indeterminate meaning, and grades whose value has been steadily eroded by their inflation.

Instead of the diploma being the coin of the realm for HR staff, a detailed summary of the skills learned at college would take it’s place… in effect a portfolio of the work completed in college would replace the numeric GPA and single sheet of course listings. Once that takes place, HR staff members will likely place a diploma bearing applicant on equal footing with a non-degrees applicant who has superior job-specific skills as evidenced by a certificate. This happens already in technology-related areas where an applicant with a specific product certification is deemed superior to someone with a generic computer technology degree when they are applying. In our school district which used Apple computers, for example, we sought “Apple Certifications” in all applicants and valued experience in a school environment over a generic technology degree. I imagine auto dealers seek the same kind of product-specific training in their applicants and trust that the phlebotomist at my doctor’s office has certification in that area.

As Carey reports, the details on “badges” are being worked out in an organic fashion… and once they are worked out and in place the MOOC revolution will happen rapidly and education at all levels will need to adapt just as quickly.

 

Yes… Surveillance Cameras ARE Helpful… but the Trade-offs are Not Worth It!

March 23, 2015 Leave a comment

My antipathy for video surveillance is evident to most readers of this blog, and even well crafted arguments in its favor, like those found in a recent K-12 TechDecisions post by Brian Armes and Guy Bleisner cannot dissuade me from that perspective. Armes and Bleisner, in an article describing the limitations of surveillance cameras, note that a camera, unlike live human beings, provides cold, objective reportage of incidents that require adult and/or parental intervention and, in doing so, provide caring adults with “teachable moments”. The case study they cite, involving two young men engaged in a shoving match while a nearby teaching assistant tended to a minor medical problem, resonated with me. There were several instances when I worked of six years as a high school disciplinarian that having a video record could have saved hours of sorting out who-did-what-to-whom. But the thought that students are being conditioned to video surveillance during every moment that are in school is chilling… even more so when I read one of the introductory paragraphs:

Unlike commercial and industrial organizations, few K-12 schools can afford full-time monitoring of their video surveillance systems and lack an immediate response capability. Passive monitoring by a secretary with a long list of other duties is about the best schools can hope for. With this kind of limitation, video surveillance in the K-12 environment is relegated to a reactive approach at best. In most cases, it becomes an investigatory and forensic tool after the fact.

Armes and Bleisner begin with the de facto assumption that the absence of video cameras is a “limitation” and that employees in “commercial and industrial organizations” are conditioned to a work environment with total and complete video monitoring.

Socialization is part of the hidden curriculum in school, and as a classroom teacher and school administrator I felt that the discipline in the school was based on an ethos of honesty. If there was a dispute between students about who-did-what-to-whom my preference was to have students work it out face-to-face even though it would have been much easier to review a videotape. Running a school based on robotic video surveillance has a far different feel than a school based on mutual respect and honesty. A video monitoring system feels like a police state while a mutual trust system feels more like a neighborhood watch… and I prefer the moral force of neighbors over the legalistic force of police. My belief: by relying on video surveillance we are increasing our fear of our neighbors and adding to the disconnection that is emerging in our communities. To paraphrase a tired aphorism, it takes a village to raise a child… not a police state.

 

This Just In: Takeovers Don’t Pan Out!

March 21, 2015 Leave a comment

In the latest item to add to the “failed assumptions of reform” file, add this report from Detroit where Detroit News op ed writer Nolan Finley laments the failure of three “emergency managers” to rectify the financial problems with Detroit’s school system and the likely failures of the fourth one, Darnell Early, who has just taken over. But here’s the kicker: Finley mentions in passing that Governor Snyder has a plan for fixing the schools… and it’s one that will work very well from the Koch Brothers standpoint:

There’s talk of placing all schools, traditional and charter, under a new education czar, who may or may not be (Detroit) Mayor Mike Duggan. Where that leaves Earley and his plan, who knows?

Well I’ve got a wild guess as to where it leaves Darnell Early: on the outside looking in! And where does it leave Detroit school children? The same place. And where does it leave the privatizers who are likely the ones who are promoting the “talk of placing all schools, traditional and charter, under a new education czar”… laughing all the way to the bank. Welcome to the 21st century version of for-profit public schools.

Is “Personalized Learning” a New Efficiency or a New Form of Schooling?

March 19, 2015 Leave a comment

Audrey Watters is always thought provoking, and her brief essay with the dating title “The History of ‘Personalization” and Teaching Machines” that I just came across teased out the question that is the title of this post. In the essay Watters suggests that personalized learning may not be a liberating force that enables students to learn what they wantwhen they want to. Instead it is a means of feeding students what they need at a pace that enables them to master the skills as defined by those “in privilege and power”.

The distinction is an important one. If “personalized learning” is defined as allowing a student to progress through the Common Core curriculum at a rate of speed that matches their capability to learn, then personalized learning is an efficiency to the factory model, akin to Skinner’s theories. If it is defined as allowing a student to learn what they wantwhen they want to it is more akin to Ivan Illich’s experiential De-schooling model.

From my perspective schooling should be designed to provide students with the tools— the foundational skills— needed to learn-how-to-learn and to connect them with those who can help them expand their knowledge once they have those foundational skills. The foundational skills can be delivered using a behaviorist approach: math and reading fundamentals, fundamental writing skills, and basic analytic skills are based on hierarchical frameworks that lend themselves to various forms of asynchronous on-line instruction. A teacher in these classrooms would intervene when a student is struggling with a particular concept but would not engage in “broadcast” instruction to a group of students. Otherwise, the teacher would serve as a facilitator, helping the student gain self-awareness and self-understanding through dialogue with the teacher, with peers, and with other mentors.

We have the technological capabilities to make the mastery of foundational skills more efficient and effective than it is today and the human resources available to provide each student with a mentor to help them find answers to the questions that they want to find answers for. “Personalized learning plans” should be able to achieve both ends.