Archive for May, 2017

“Rigorous Pre-Schools” Prove that We’ve Learned Nothing from “Reform”

May 31, 2017 1 comment

“Free Play or Flashcards? New Study Nods to More Rigorous Preschools”, Dana Goldstein’s article in today’s NYTimes, made me want to scream. The article describes what should be self-evident: the more information a child absorbs before they enter school the better they will do once they enter school. That well-known reality is the basis for providing more preschool opportunities for children raised in poverty, children whose parents often have less education than children raised in affluence, whose parents work long and unpredictable hours at low wage jobs, or who are raised in single parent households. The idea behind these preschool opportunities is to compensate for the lack of nurturance and intellectual stimulation they receive at home as compared to that offered by better educated parents with more time.

Ms. Goldstein’s article described a study comparing  “rigorous” or “academically oriented” preschools with traditional prekindergarten programs. She wrote:

The study defined “academic-oriented” prekindergarten programs as those in which teachers reported spending time most days on activities like sounding out words, discussing new vocabulary, counting out loud and teaching children to measure and tell time.

Having raised two children and witnessing the upbringing of five grandchildren, I do not see this as anything different from what my wife, children, and step-children did or are doing with their preschoolers. While neither my wife nor my daughters and stepchildren intentionally taught their offspring how to read, they ALL read to their children frequently and visited the library regularly to keep their children stocked with new and interesting books. My grandsons all knew more about dinosaurs, sharks, and large equipment than I do and they all continue to pursue in depth study of topics that interest them. This is the kind of encouragement that ALL children need, because given the opportunity children have a desire to learn and to train their minds to think about the world they live in and the activities they have done or plan to do.

As an educator who worked in districts with high numbers of children raised in poverty, though, I know that not every parent takes the time to help their children enunciate words properly, learn how to count, learn the alphabet and the sounds associated with each letter, or tell time. The parents are all doing the best they can given the circumstances they find themselves in, but in some cases they have neither the time nor the wherewithal to provide the intellectual stimulation that their children need and desire. In some cases, children raised in poverty do not have the structure in their lives that my children and grandchildren have. When parents have an irregular work schedule, or are working multiple jobs to provide food, clothing and shelter, or when one parent is absent, it is difficult to eat at regular times, set a standard bed-time, establish daily routines, or engage in “play dates” or other structured play activities. By entering school at an early age, these children receive the structure and intellectual nurturance that is a “given” for more affluent and educated families.

Looking at my upbringing, my children’s upbringing, and my grandchildren’s upbringing to date, it is evident that we all grew up in a child-centered environment…. and that is what children want and need from schools in the early years. When “rigor” is measured by standardized tests, the focus on the developmental needs of each individual child will take a back seat to the needs of the adult teachers to “get those test scores up” at all costs. We’ve witnessed this for over a decade in schools thanks to NCLB and RTTT. I hope “reformers” can learn from that lesson… but fear that the lure of the bell curve will pull them away from the need for children to receive the intellectual stimulation they need.

Choice Advocate Kerry McDonald ALMOST Gets Illich’s Ideas on Schooling— But Misses Crucial Point

May 31, 2017 Comments off

The title of self-described school choice advocate Kerry McDonald’s article in Forbes, Public Education vs. Public Schooling, intimated that she might be familiar with education philosopher Ivan Illich… and sure enough her op ed piece DID use Illich’s ideas as the basis for the distinction between education and schooling. She opens her essay with this promising premise:

I am a true believer in, and a full supporter of, public education.

The trouble is that public education and public schooling have become synonymous. Schooling is one method of education; but it is certainly not the only one and, I argue, not the best one. Until we separate public education from public schooling–to truly “de-school” our perspective on learning–we will be mired in a debate about reforming one, singular method of education (that is, mass schooling), while ignoring other methods of education that could be better.

This appeared to be attuned to the thinking behind this blog, which is premised on the notion that learning networks should replace the outmoded factor model of education in place in our nation for over a century. And Ms. McDonald makes it clear that her use of the term “de-schooling” is drawn from the ideas of Ivan Illich, whose writings from 40 years ago resonate with me today:

In his path-breaking 1970 book, Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich wrote about the need to de-institutionalize learning and invest in decentralized education models that support learners in educating themselves. Illich said: “Universal education through schooling is not feasible…The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring.”

She builds on this promising argument by describing visionary public libraries that serve as educational webs and then draws a clear contrast between the function of libraries and public schools:

The primary difference between public education and public schooling is that the former is openly accessible and self-directed, while the latter is compulsory and coercive. Both are community-based and taxpayer-funded; both can lead to an educated citizenry. But public education–like public libraries, public museums, public parks, community centers, and so on—can support the education efforts of individuals, families, and local organizations with potentially better outcomes than the static system of mass schooling.

But Ms. McDonald goes off the rails when she attempts to support her argument for the replacement of education with schooling by using standardized test data. In doing so, she unwittingly reinforces “the static system mass schooling” that batches students into age-based cohorts and mandates that they take tests based on their age as opposed to taking tests that reflect skills they feel they have mastered. In doing so she misses Illich’s most important point: education holds time as a constant and allows learning to be a variable; schooling holds learning as a constant and allows time to be a variable. We will never be able to promote de-schooling until we use a different metric than standardized testing.

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Could Princeton’s Model Be Used in Public Schools?

May 30, 2017 Comments off

David Leonardt is providing an outstanding service by developing and promoting the College Access Index, or CAI, a ranking system for colleges that places a premium on equity. Unlike the US News and World Report’s system of rankings that uses SAT scores, acceptance rates, endowments, and other easy-to-measure-but-irrelevant metrics to rank colleges, Mr. Leonardt’s  CAI “...measures how many lower-income students graduate from a college and how much they must pay to attend it“. It uses the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants as a proxy for low income entrants, and ranks only colleges who graduate 75% of entering freshmen within five years, which is a proxy for “competitive colleges”. The other factor in the CAI is the affordability, the “…tuition, fees, room and board, net of financial aid — that the college charged students from families with annual income between $30,000 and $75,000.

In a succession of columns this past week, Mr. Leonardt has profiled competitive colleges who are making an earnest effort to expand the number of undergraduates who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Today he describes Princeton’s efforts to diversify based on income, and based on his column they are doing an admirable job:

Only 6.5 percent of the class of 2007 received Pell grants, which typically go to students in the bottom half of income distribution. The share among the class of 2017, which graduates next week, is 14.9 percent. The share in both this year’s and next year’s freshman class is 21 percent.

The changes aren’t just about one statistic, either. Princeton is also enrolling more middle-class students and low-income foreigners, who are ineligible for Pell grants.

As Mr. Leonardt notes,this is not accidental. It is the result of a commitment by Christopher Eisgruber, the current college President to, in Mr. Leonardt’s words, “…create urgency in his own community about the American class divide — a divide that has led to anger, alienation and the most worrisome political situation in decades.” 

And that challenge should extend to public education as well. I know from reading his columns regularly that Mr. Leonardt is an advocate for charter schools and the choice model in place in NYC, which requires parents of middle and high school students to go through a lengthy and complicated application process. This process, which was intended, in part, to encourage the kind of even-playing field opportunity for children in the city has not done so. An article by Iris Rotberg in Education Week three years ago cited some disturbing trends that resulted from the expansion of charter schools and choice, including:

a strong link between school choice programs and an increase in student segregation by race, ethnicity, and income.

risk of segregation is a direct reflection of the design of the school choice program.

increased segregation for special education and language-minority students, as well as in increased segregation of students based on religion and culture.

She concluded her well researched article with this:

Proponents of charter schools believe they’re giving low-income and minority students opportunities they otherwise would not have had. That belief is true in some cases; all charter schools do not result in segregation. But far too many do, and the trend is unfavorable. It takes a lot of care through targeted funding and oversight to mitigate the pressures that lead to yet more segregation. But whatever motivations drive the choices families and schools make, it is important that government does not exacerbate the problem of segregation by ignoring the unintended consequences of its policies. The risk is an increasingly divided public education system.

In the intervening years between the publication of this article, with the unyielding expansion of charters and choice under the Obama administration and now with Ms. DeVos at the helm of the USDOE and a pro-privatization administration in place, it is more likely than ever that re-segregation by race and worse segregation by income will persist…. and our divided public education system will lead to anger, alienation and an even more worrisome political situation.

What Does “Ready For Work” Mean in an Iowa Town that Values Low Wage Meatpackers?

May 30, 2017 Comments off

I just read an article by Patricia Cohen in today’s NYTimes that was alternately heartwarming, infuriating, and perplexing. “Immigrants Keep an Iowa Town Alive and Growing” describes the evolution of Storm Lake, Iowa from a community that was about to lose its one and only factory to a corporation who was ready to move because it could not extract huge concessions from its union employees to a community that has absorbed hundreds of immigrants willing to work long hours at arduous work in arguably dangerous working conditions.

The stories of the immigrants is heartwarming. They moved to this sleepy town in Iowa from war town countries in Southeast Asia and Central America and are proud of how hard they work and are thrilled at the material possessions and relative comfort they have attained. After some initial resistance from the community members whose jobs they effectively displaced, Ms. Cohen describes Storm Lake as a community that has achieved a multi-cultural hegemony that is comparable to that achieved in urban neighborhoods and that described in the aspirational speeches of the nations most progressive politicians.

But Storm Lake is part of Steve King’s congressional district, and Mr. King is one of the most strident anti-immigration political figures in the nation. As a extreme nativist, Mr. King plays to the Caucasians in his region who are resentful of the immigrants who “took their jobs”. But Mr. King also champions deregulation and opposes unions, effectively championing the businessmen who told the union workers four decades ago to accept low wages, longer shifts, and deplorable working conditions before closing their doors completely. Ms. Cohen uses the story of a 66-year old Caucasian who is about to retire as an example:

When Dan Smith first went to work at the pork processing plant in Storm Lake in 1980, pretty much the only way to nab that kind of union job was to have a father, an uncle or a brother already there. The pay, he recalled, was $16 an hour, with benefits — enough to own a home, a couple of cars, a camper and a boat, while your wife stayed home with the children.

“It was the best-paying job you could get, 100 percent, if you were unskilled,” said Mr. Smith, now 66, who followed his father through the plant gates.

After nearly four decades at the plant, most of them as a forklift driver, Mr. Smith is retiring this month.

The union is long gone, and so are most of the white faces of men who once labored in the broiling heat of the killing floor and the icy chill of the production lines. What hasn’t changed much is Mr. Smith’s hourly wage, which is still about $16 an hour, the same as when he started 37 years ago. Had his wages kept up with inflation, he would be earning about $47 an hour.

Later in her essay she describes a decision Mr. Smith made when the factory closed and then re-opened under new ownership without a union:

With vigorous support from town leaders, the upstart Iowa Beef Processors (later known as IBP) bought and reopened it a few months later — slashing wages by more than half and shunning the union.

At that point, Mr. Smith returned to do night cleanup, earning $5.50 an hour with no benefits, but a vast majority of his former co-workers were turned away, he said, because the new owner did not want to hire union supporters. Instead, the company began actively recruiting in Mexico and in immigrant communities in Texas and California.

“They learned real fast to keep a sharp knife and didn’t complain if they had a sore arm,” Mr. Smith said.

Ms. Cohen describes what happened to communities that didn’t forego decent paying jobs: they experienced a flight of those seeking work and a hollowing out of their businesses and a loss of community spirit. And here is what is both infuriating and perplexing: instead of linking the practices of the businesses to the decline of their towns the Iowans outside of Storm Lake link the decline to the immigrants who are willing to work long hours in tough working conditions for low wages… immigrants who, in the words of Dan Smith, Ms. Cohen’s proxy Caucasian who worked side-by-side with them, are “…just trying to make a buck for their family, like I am.”

After reading this article and looking at this dynamic through the lens of an educator, I am left with the question that serves as the site of this post: “What Does “Ready For Work” Mean in a Town that Values Low Wage Meatpackers?” Does the next generation of immigrants who are now attending Storm Lake HS seek a better life than their parents or do they stay in the community they grew up in and take over their parent’s jobs? If they DO want to accept the work their parents are doing, are they willing to forfeit wage increases that match the CPI? If they DON’T accept the work their parents do, what work will there be for them in Storm Lake? These children-of-immigrants are not be the cohort to face this question, but if the wall that Steve King wants is built, they could be the last…. and if they ARE the last, will the factories pay higher wages to attract more employees or will they flee Storm Lake for other communities where desperate workers are willing to work longer hours for lower wages?

A Fix for Urban Schools No One Mentions in ANY Strategic Plan: Integration

May 29, 2017 Comments off

An op ed piece by Carnegie Mellon graduate student Rob Cullen in today’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette flags an omission from “Expect Great Things”, the latest strategic plan from the Pittsburgh PA Public Schools: integration. In the opening paragraphs of the article Mr. Cullen offers a valid critique of strategic plans in general, noting that they all offer high-minded phrases that no one could disagree with like: “…developing more rigorous curriculum, addressing the racial achievement gap and providing better support for teachers“. As a result, one could read plan after plan in succession or across the country and find no difference in their findings and, in doing so, get a feeling of de ja vu. But Mr. Cullen notes one glaring omission from the Pittsburgh plans, an omission that is likely fond in a majority of urban strategic plans:

But most disappointingly, there was the word that wasn’t mentioned — not in this plan or any other the district has released in recent years. It’s an idea that could be one of the most effective ways to actually achieve the Great Things that PPS says we should expect: integration.

Mr. Cullen then shows that several studies indicate that the strategies and goals outlined in the Pittsburgh Strategic Plan could be readily accomplished through integration:

….one key long-term goal is eliminating racial disparities… (and) a survey of dozens of studies on integration, researchers with the Poverty & Race Research Action Council found, “Students who attend integrated schools perform better on tests in math, science, language, social studies; they take higher-level math and science courses.”

Another goal is ensuring that all Pittsburgh students are equipped with skills to succeed in college, career and life. Again, the PRRAC study found that attending integrated schools leads to students who “hold higher educational aspirations than their otherwise comparable peers” and “increases the likelihood of attending college, particularly for youth from underrepresented minority communities.”

The district wants to attract and retain high-performing teachers; a research brief from Harvard’s Susan Eaton shows that racially integrated schools are more likely to have stable staffs composed of highly qualified teachers….

Employers are increasingly looking for people who are comfortable working in diverse environments, because racial diversity is associated with increased sales revenue, more customers, greater market share and greater relative profits. Students who attend integrated schools have fewer discriminatory attitudes, more cross-racial friendships and better leadership skills than their peers who don’t.

Like most urban areas, Pittsburgh’s integration is internal as well as external. Mr. Cullen notes that while African-Americans make up just 26.1 percent of the city’s population, and 53 percent of its public school students, more than a dozen Pittsburgh schools, over 90 percent of the student body is African-American. And while Pittsburgh schools are 53% African-American, less that 30 minutes away Lower Burrell High School enrolls fewer than 3 percent non-white students.

So with the clear benefits for both black and white students, why is integration not mentioned anywhere in Pittsburgh’s strategic plan? Here’s Mr. Burrell’s take:

…integration is more contentious than simply saying we should eliminate the achievement gap or provide more support for teachers. For many parents, in Pittsburgh “integration” conjures memories of the 1970s and ’80s, when white families fled the district to avoid what they saw as inferior schools and black students were bused long distances to schools where they were often seen as unwelcome outsiders. Even education advocacy groups committed to racial equity, like A+ Public Schools and Great Public Schools Pittsburgh, don’t mention integration as part of their platforms.

Despite the lack of courage on this issue by the “education advocacy groups” in the Pittsburgh region, Mr. Cullen calls on the public schools to take the lead, citing New York City’s Council as an example.

Still, someone needs to have the courage to at least begin a conversation about integration in Pittsburgh Public Schools. A good place to start would be adopting something like New York City’s School Diversity Accountability Act. The legislation requires the city’s Department of Education to issue an annual report on diversity in NYC schools, make diversity a priority in decision-making and commit to having a strategy for overcoming impediments to school diversity.

But as previous posts on this blog illustrate, issuing an annual report on diversity hasn’t changed the racial composition of city schools, though it has provided an opportunity for parents who value integration to hold the city school system’s feet to the fire on the issue. MAYBE the grassroots movement of these parent groups can achieve what top-down solutions like bussing failed to create. One thing is clear to Mr. Cullen, if we ignore integration as part of the solution, nothing will change:

If Pittsburgh school leaders don’t have the courage to start that conversation, around an idea that decades of research have shown can actually help close the achievement gap, then there’s little reason to Expect Great Things. Instead we should expect more of the same.



China Invests in AI as US Divests… and the Future Looks Bleaker as a Result

May 28, 2017 Comments off

“Is China Outsmarting the US in AI?”, a question posed in an article by Paul Mozur and John Markoff in the Technology section of yesterday’s NYTimes, left me with a chill. Mozur and Markoff describe the divergent paths the governments of China and the US are taking relative to AI (i.e. Artificial Intelligence), with China’s government investing billions in research while the US is spending less. The article makes it appear that there might not be that much difference in which country advances the most in AI, but the notion that China’s amoral and authoritarian command capitalism might dominate the field concerns me. Mozur and Markoff describe China’s rationale for developing AI in this paragraph:

China’s ambitions mingle the most far-out sci-fi ideas with the needs of an authoritarian state: Philip K. Dick meets George Orwell. There are plans to use it to predict crimes, lend money, track people on the country’s ubiquitous closed-circuit cameras, alleviate traffic jams, create self-guided missiles and censor the internet.

These intended outcomes should drive our country to get the upper hand on AI assuming our country values an equal opportunity for all citizens, freedom of speech, and freedom of movement. But instead of using our values as a positive lever to promote more government spending on AI, we are relying on fear. While the President’s budget cuts funding for AI, there is one department who is concerned:

The Defense Department found that Chinese money has been pouring into American artificial intelligence companies — some of the same ones it had been looking to for future weapons systems.

While our best hope for investment is driven by the Department of Defense who wants to use AI for weapons, China purports a desire to use AI for peaceful purposes. Mozur and Markoff offer this contrast in investment strategies:

On a national level, China is working on a system to predict events like terrorist attacks or labor strikes based on possible precursors like labor strife. A paper funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China showed how facial recognition software can be simplified so that it can be more easily integrated with cameras across the country.

China is preparing a concerted nationwide push, according to the two professors who advised on the effort but declined to be identified, because the effort has not yet been made public. While the size wasn’t clear, they said, it would most likely result in billions of dollars in spending.

President Trump’s proposed budget, meanwhile, would reduce the National Science Foundation’s spending on so-called intelligent systems by 10 percent, to about $175 million. Research and development in other areas would also be cut, though the proposed budget does call for more spending on defense research and some supercomputing. The cuts would essentially shift more research and development to private American companies like Google and Facebook.

The balance of the article describes why China’s top-down authoritarian government arguably hobbles research efforts, using the example of medical research on SARs as an example. The piece concludes with this observation by Clay Shirkey, an NYU futurist:

For all the government support, advances in the field could ultimately backfire, Mr. Shirky said. Artificial intelligence may help China better censor the internet, a task that often blocks Chinese researchers from finding vital information. At the same time, better A.I. could make it easier for Chinese readers to translate articles and other information.

The fact is,” Mr. Shirky said, “unlike automobile engineering, artificial intelligence will lead to surprises. That will make the world considerably less predictable, and that’s never been Beijing’s favorite characteristic.”

But if China’s purpose in the development of AI is to control workers by predicting labor strikes and control the populous through the widespread use of simplified facial recognition software one thing IS easy to predict: the world of Winston Smith (Orwell’s protagonist in 1984) is far more likely to occur than the “do no evil” world of Google.

And one last note: it’s unclear to me that unpredictability is Washington DC’s favorite characteristic… and even more unclear that voters are seeking a less predictable world. If anything, we are seeking an orderly world where things are as they used to be in a past that never was….

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“It’s Crap”: The Trump Administration’s Budget Is a Highway to Privatization

May 28, 2017 Comments off

Despite research that shows that private companies do NOT do work at a lower price than government employees, the Trump administration is proposing widespread privatization in roadbuilding and… or course… in public education. And once a highway is privatized and relies on tolls cooperate, the economic divisions will become clearer: we’ll see Mercedes on the interstates and pick-ups on the side roads…. which is fitting since that’s the way the “new internet” and the “new public education system” will look as well.

Source: “It’s Crap”: The Trump Administration’s Budget Is a Highway to Privatization

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