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The Promised Technological Utopia Falls Short

April 27, 2015 Comments off

Jacobin editor Megan Erickson’s essay, Edutopia describes the failed promise of educational technology, offering historic and current examples of forecasted breakthroughs in schooling that would result as a result of advances in technology. The most recent example of over promising is “design thinking”, whereby groups of individuals crowd-source solutions to thorny and seemingly intractable problems. Here’s Erickson’s description of the process as it was introduced to a group of teachers at a staff development workshop:

Tim Brown, IDEO’s CEO and a regular at Davos and TED talks, has described design thinking as a way to inject “local, collaborative, participatory” planning into the development of products, organizational processes, and now schools.

After providing a more detailed description of how “design thinking” might play out in schools, Erickson’s skepticism about this process comes out in this paragraph:

What design thinking ultimately offers is not evolution, but the look and feel of progress — great graphics, aesthetically interesting configurations of furniture and space — paired with the familiar, gratifying illusion of efficiency. If structural and institutional problems can be solved through nothing more than brainstorming, then it’s possible for macro-level inputs (textbooks, teacher salaries) to remain the same, while outputs (test scores, customer service) improve. From the perspective of capitalism, this is the only alchemy that matters.

Erickson provides a history of “teaching machines”, beginning with Edward Thorndike’s ideas of precise measurement of mental skills in 1912, B. F. Skinner’s theories in the 1950s, the various individualized curricula designed in the 1960s, and the notions of technology billionaires today. She concludes that all of these conceptions are off the mark:

The fact is, education is not a design problem with a technical solution. It is nothing like building a spaceship. It is a social and political project that the neoliberal imagination insists on innovating out of existence. The most significant challenges faced today in education are not natural obstacles to be overcome by increasing productivity — they are man-made struggles over how resources are allocated.

Erickson then provides some stunning facts on how our country chooses to allocate it’s resources:

The United States is one of just three OECD countries, along with Israel and Turkey, where schools that serve rich families have better resources and more funding than schools that serve poor families. The other thirty-four countries included in the index either provide equal funding for all students or spend a disproportionate amount of money on students from low-income families.

In a country where the top 20 percent of the population earns eight times as much as the bottom 20 percent, this inevitably leads to two distinct and parallel systems of education, one for the rich and one for the poor. It’s not that “money doesn’t matter” for reforming the education system, or that technology can be a substitute, but that children from working-class and poor families score lower on standardized test scores than their wealthy peers — and America has many more poor families than rich.

Erickson then describes Sal Khan’s efforts to provide individualized lessons for children in a wide array of topics, characterizing his work as “…a fine way to practice math problems or learn a didactic skill” but notes that it deemphasizes “…the importance of interpretation and critique in education“.

Erickson asserts that individualization in isolation is a flawed way to deliver instruction:

Teachers who encourage resistance are essential sources of support and guidance for kids. People do not learn to think critically and construct meaning in isolation — which is the assumption behind the trend of textbooks that respond individually to each student and allow them to move at their own pace.

Erickson is also dismissive of the notion that children need to be protected from some content for fear they will be guided in the wrong direction:

As Katherine McKittrick has pointed out in response to the idea of trigger warnings being placed on college syllabi: the classroom isn’t safe. It should not be safe. Teaching, for McKittrick, is a “day-to-day skirmish,” and teachers must work hard to create classroom conversations “that work out how knowledge is linked to an ongoing struggle to end violence,” to engage with the history that students bring with them into the classroom and resist reification of oppressive thinking in practical ways.

Erickson DOES see one form of schooling that meets the needs of children… a method that minimizes the use of technology:

Waldorf schools incorporate creative and tactile experiences and tools including hammers and nails, knives, knitting needles, and mud — but not computers — into the curriculum. Engagement comes from the connection between children and their teachers, who stress critical thinking and aim to create interesting, inquiry-based lesson plans.

I agree completely with much of the thinking in Erickson’s essay, particularly her disdain for those who want to use technology to reduce costs and monetize schooling. But felt that she overstated the ineffectiveness of technology and oversold the status quo model of education. For example, Sal Khan himself would acknowledge the limitations of his “Academy”. He realizes that his lectures and lesson packets work most effectively when the content is hierarchical and objective because in those cases the need for intermediation is minimal. And while his work was underwritten by Bill Gates, I do not that Khan’s curriculum should be dismissed on that basis. It is conceivable that by using Khan Academy to deliver instruction that is hierarchical and objective that teacher-time could be used to engage and connect with with students and design lessons that stress critical thinking and aim to create interesting, inquiry-based lesson plans. Indeed, I could see public school teachers behaving more and more like Waldorf teachers and students progressing at their own rate on topics that are highly interesting and engaging based on their skill levels.

Underinvestment in Education Begins at Birth… not in College

April 26, 2015 Comments off

David Leonardt’s Upshot essay today has the provocatively titled “College for the Masses“, profiles a marginally qualified student who enrolled in and graduated from college after failing to launch a career as a rock singer. The broad points of the article were that many students who graduate from high school fail to pursue college even though they could succeed in college and that we, as a nation, underinvest in college education. Leonardt gives an overview of several studies and writes:

Yet the new research is a reminder that the country also underinvests in enrolling students in four-year colleges — and making sure they graduate. Millions of people with the ability to earn a bachelor’s degree are not doing so, and many would benefit greatly from it.

Earlier in the essay he contends that the conventional bi-partisan wisdom is that “college is not for everyone”:

There are few surer ways to elicit murmurs of agreement than to claim that “college isn’t for everyone.” On both the political left and right, experts have taken to arguing that higher education is overrated (at least when it comes to other people’s children). Some liberals seem worried that focusing on education distracts from other important economic issues, like Wall Street, the top 1 percent and the weakness of labor unions.

In my comment I wrote:

Count me among the “liberals… worried that focusing on education distracts from other important economic issues”. Why? Because this research fails to examine why many (if not most) students raised in poverty either drop out of HS or fail to take the necessary courses or tests needed to seek admission to college. And why is that the case? Because we underinvest in their learning and well being from the time they are born until the time we expect them to enter the work force. Children raised in poverty ARE “our children” and they deserve the same opportunities as children born into affluent families.

Leonardt is right: we DO underinvest in education, but we underinvest in human resources in general and we are especially underinvested in those who are currently unemployed, parents who are struggling to make ends meet, and children being raised in families with low incomes. Leonardt is also correct in his assertion that more marginal students should attend college… but what he fails to acknowledge is that many “marginal students” are not even aspiring to college because their parents  are daunted by the costs before they even begin middle school and they are, therefore, discouraged from even trying to prepare for post-secondary schooling.

Deep Fat Fryer Debate in Texas Demonstrates Good and Bad in Federal, State Control

April 26, 2015 Comments off

There is a debate raging in Texas this year because the State Commissioner of Agriculture Sid Miller is ready to give local school boards the decision on whether or not they can use deep fat fryers in their schools. Ten years ago, in an effort to stem obesity among children and teens in the state, Miller’s predecessor, Susan Combs, issued a regulation banning deep fat fryers in the state along with sugary snacks, sodas, and (gasp) cupcakes. Some school districts evidently saw this kind of regulation as overreach and when he was running for office Mr. Miller told voters he would repeal those regulations and give local school boards the freedom to choose the kinds of foods they want to serve their children. This has set off a debate between those, like Combs, who are concerned with children’s health and those like Miller who seek to make this a local issue. The argument for sustaining the policies is framed well by the Partnership for a Healthy Texas, a statewide coalition of more than 50 organizations working to prevent obesity, who filed an open letter in opposition to the proposed changes which read

“Schools are one of the key environments where our state can work to defeat child obesity,” the organization wrote. “Fit, nourished children perform better, miss less school, have fewer behavioral challenges, and are more likely to grow up to be healthy, working adults.”

Miller’s argument is all about freedom and liberty and aligning Texas with the rest of the country, which has no regulations on deep fat fryers:

 (Miller) believes that repealing these parts of the Texas Public School Nutrition Policy will simplify things, pulling the state into line with less-strict national standards. Currently, there are no federal restrictions on deep fat frying as a preparation method.

“It’s simple. If a school district doesn’t agree with any of these changes, then they don’t have to implement them,” Miller wrote in a statement, referring to the policy changes. “That’s the beauty here.”

The article didn’t say so, but the opponents to the regulation are likely concerned with how the regulation affects fund-raising efforts of athletic teams, clubs and parent organizations who often rely on revenues from vending machines and /or bake sales and how the regulation affects school lunch programs, many of whom rely on a al carte sales of french fries and “foods” like chicken fingers to maintain a health fund balance. My hunch is that money is a far greater factor than “local control” or “liberty”… and that hunch leads me to fear what will happen when the Federal government is no longer setting national education standards for schools. It’s easy to see how a Commissioner of Education who is beholden to a pro-privatization Governor and legislature might make a similar argument about requiring the hiring of certified teachers, or requiring a core curriculum, or offering music and the arts.  They could argue: “I’m just putting the state into line with less-strict national standards. Currently, there are no federal restrictions on certification or curriculum content. It’s simple. If a school district doesn’t agree with any of these changes, then they don’t have to implement them.” Worse yet, states could let curriculum decisions on the teaching of climate change, evolution, and health topics become a matter of local control, politicizing the curriculum debates at the local level even more than they are today.

Given Texas’ reputation for libertarian thinking, I was surprised to read that the state had adopted this regulation, which is one the Federal government should adopt given that the obesity rates among children have jumped from 7% in 1980 to 18% today. But I don’t expect to see that change occurring in the near future given the public’s apparent distaste for government regulations, Big Agriculture’s lobbyists and money for PACs, and our country’s desire to save tax dollars at all costs…. even if the cost is the health and well being of ALL children.