Archive for July, 2017

From Pre-K to Career Preparation Courses the Message is the Same: Ignore Easy to Test Skills

July 31, 2017 Comments off

With the past week I’ve read two articles that I find heartening. How to Prepare Preschoolers for an Automated Economy”  from today’s NYTimes by Claire Cain Miller and Jess Bidgood and The Key to Jobs in the Future is not College but Compassion from an Aoen post earlier this week written by Livia Gershon both make the same point. Schools overemphasize the skills required for college entry and the use of technology and overlook the most important skills required for the economy today and in the foreseeable future: empathy, collaboration, problem-solving, compassion and caring.

Both articles look at how schooling needds to change given the automation resulting from technological advances. The NYTimes article talks about the earliest years of schooling in that context:

Technological advances have rendered an increasing number of jobs obsolete in the last decade, and researchers say parts of most jobs will eventually be automated. What the labor market will look like when today’s young children are old enough to work is perhaps harder to predict than at any time in recent history. Jobs are likely to be very different, but we don’t know which will still exist, which will be done by machines and which new ones will be created.

To prepare, children need to start as early as preschool, educators say. Foundational skills that affect whether people thrive or fall behind in the modern economy are developed early, and achievement gaps appear before kindergarten.

But the article then emphasizes that teaching “foundational skills” must go beyond those currently offered in the curriculum of most public schools which are dictated by the standardized tests administered beginning in third grade.

Teaching social and emotional skills is fashionable in education right now, but it’s been part of high-quality teaching for decades, and randomized trials over time have shown how important it is to adult success, said Stephanie M. Jones, a professor of education at Harvard who studies social and emotional development.

If you raise and educate kids to be flexible, problem solvers and good communicators, they can adapt to a world that is new,” she said.

This is natural to the way preschoolers learn, said David Deming, a professor of public policy, economics and economics at Harvard. They flexibly move from the art area to the block area during free play; they build structures and make collages; and they share toys and try again when they mess up.

A big challenge — and one he said is essential to preparing children for a labor market in which routine and individualized tasks are being automated — is making sure this style of education is not lost in higher grades, when teachers turn to lecturing and standardized curriculums. Just as preschoolers learn math by operating a pretend store instead of doing work sheets, he suggests high schoolers learn government by staging a mock Congress rather than reading a textbook.

“You’re learning to work in groups and be creative, and that this problem you’re facing today looks like a problem you faced in a different context a year ago,” he said. “That is a process that is very hard for artificial intelligence to replicate.”

Ms. Gershon’s Aoen essay drills more deeply into the flaws of our current economy that undervalues care-giving professions which, in turn, works against the strengths of those raised in the working class and the strengths of females:

It is becoming clear to researchers that working-class people tend to have sharper emotional skills than their wealthier, more educated counterparts. In 2016, the psychologists Pia Dietze and Eric Knowles from New York University found that people from higher social classes spent less time looking at people they passed on the street than did less privileged test subjects. In an online experiment, higher-class subjects were also worse at noticing small changes in images of human faces…

It can be hard to wrap our minds around the notion that emotional work really is work. With the very toughest, very worst-paid jobs, like working with the dying and incontinent, that might be because those of us who don’t have to do the work would rather not think about how crucial and difficult it really is. In other settings, often we simply don’t have the professional language to talk about the emotional work we’re doing. Smiling and nodding at a client’s long, rambling story might be the key to signing that big contract, but resumes don’t include a bullet point for ‘tolerates inconsiderate bores’. A lot of the time, emotional labour doesn’t feel like labour. It’s also not hard to see that highly educated, mostly male, people who develop and analyse economic policy have blind spots when it comes to skills concentrated among working-class women.

In effect, Gershon is arguing that our current economy has set a vicious circle in place whereby the very skills needed in an automated world are undervalued making those jobs less attractive. And this vicious circle will be hard to break since so many jobs depend on the implicit belief that more education is required for success, which may not be the case at all:

Another problem is that the question of how to help low-wage care workers make more money is invariably answered by: ‘give them a better education’. Policy designers talk a lot about ‘professionalising’ direct-care work, advancing proposals for things such as ‘advanced training’ on diabetes or dementia care. Recently, Washington, DC decided to require childcare workers to have a bachelor’s degree – a move one school-district official said would ‘build the profession and set our young children on a positive trajectory for learning and development’. Granted, anyone working with older people with disabilities, or with small children, might benefit from studying research on the particular needs of these groups; and widely accessible college education is a good idea for reasons that go far beyond vocational training. But assuming that more time in the classroom is key to making ‘better’ workers fundamentally disrespects the profound, completely non-academic skills needed to calm a terrified child or maintain composure around a woman playing with her own faeces.

The US economists W Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson call the belief in more schooling as the solution to every labour problem the ‘education gospel’. As Grubb argued in a 2005 talk, having more education tends to help individuals find better work, but that doesn’t make schooling a good overall economic strategy. In fact, he said, 30 to 40 per cent of workers in developed countries already have more education than their jobs demand.

And here’s an irony: the “solution” to the need for the future workforce to have more empathy is… you guessed it… more education programming! Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is spreading across schooling at all levels. But after describing the expansion of SEL programs, Ms. Gershon concludes that their spread may be limited by our standardized testing ethos:

SEL programmes in the US explicitly teach students strategies for developing empathy, managing their own emotions and working with others. Kids practise using affirming language with each other, they collaboratively design rules to govern the classroom, or use mindfulness to improve their understanding of their own mental processes. Researchers are finding that such programmes help students to adopt more positive attitudes and behave in more socially appropriate ways. Many school districts have already adopted SEL programmes, and last year, eight US states announced a collaboration to develop statewide SEL standards.

But the conversation around SEL puts a glaring spotlight on the limited value we place on emotional skills. Often, the programmes are marketed only as ways to reduce violence, not methods for developing crucial human abilities. And in academic environments where testing pressures and back-to-basics rhetoric often crowd out ‘softer’ subjects, they might appeal only insofar as they encourage kids to ‘get themselves under control’ and sit still for a long-division lesson.

Her concluding paragraph captures an overarching conundrum of “progress”:

Technology-driven efficiency has achieved wonderful things. It has brought people in developed countries an astonishingly rich standard of living, and freed most of us from the work of growing the food we eat or making the products we use. But applying the metric of efficiency to the expanding field of emotional labour misses a key promise offered by technological progress – that, with routine physical and cognitive work out of the way, the jobs of the future could be opportunities for people to genuinely care for each other.

At some point, efficiency is no longer a “good”, it is a problem… and when we apply efficiency metrics to immeasurable qualities we can end up with superficial changes,  a veneer of empathy and not the genuiine caring for each other needed to move forward as a civil culture.

The Way Out of the Choice Conundrum: Reframe the Debate to Focus on Compassion

July 30, 2017 Comments off

Last week the New Republic staff writer Graham Vyse posted an article describing the box the Democratic party is in because they have offered support for “school choice” and charter schools, concepts now embraced, expropriated and expanded upon by Betsy DeVos. And as Vyse reports, the NAACP’s recent vote to oppose any expansion of charter schools makes matters even more complicated.

The reasons for the NAACP’s opposition are best spelled out in quotes from Julian Vasquez Heilig, a professor at California State University, that are interspersed throughout the article:

“I think the civil rights community standing up to that narrative—that charter schools equal civil rights—has now become problematic for the people making that argument,” said…Mr. Heilig… an NAACP delegate. “I think what’s happening is there’s really an awakening in communities that school choice isn’t as promised—that when charter schools and private schools are able to make decisions about kids without any recourse for families, communities are discovering that they’ve been sold a bill of goods.”

“…It’s a real bump in the road for people who believe they’re progressive because they’ve found themselves on the same team as Donald Trump. I think they have to look themselves in the mirror and say, ‘I’m a Teach for America person, I’m all for charter schools, I’m about social justice and Black Lives Matter, but why I am on the same side as Donald Trump when it comes to charter schools and ‘school choice’?”

“The debate is whether schools that are private schools or privately managed like charter schools should have the power in the conversations about whether students can enroll and whether students can stay. We want to make sure that parents and families can do the choosing and the public interest is protected.”

The article concludes with Dr. Heilig’s perspective on how the issue of public schools should be addressed in the coming years. In Dr. Heilig’s view

…the thrust of the next ten years of education reform must be democratically controlled, community-based reform. Democratically controlled ‘school choice’ is a civil right issue. Privatizing our education system and profiting from public dollars is not.”

From my perspective reframing the debate between democratically controlled schools and privatized schools is insufficiently narrow. The Democratic Party needs to broaden the argument to one of being compassionate toward each other… to showing that in a democratic culture we care deeply about each other and want to use our government to ensure that the rules of the marketplace are established in a fashion that provides every child born in our country or any child who migrates here with an opportunity to earn enough to raise a family without fear. Indeed, if we want to Make America Great Again we need to Make America GOOD again… and that is impossible if we expect the “market” to solve every problem that faces children raised in poverty or those seeking shelter from war ravaged nations.

Will the Public Support Brutality in the Name of Safety?

July 30, 2017 Comments off

Common Dreams posted an article by their staff writer Jake Johnson that provided a synopsis of President Trump’s chilling speech before a group of Long Island police officers. In his speech, which was intended to focus on the gang MS-13, a transnational gang whose roots are on the west coast, the President called the gang members “animals” and “…encouraged the police to be “rough” with those they detain”. The police response to this line was reported as “wild applause”.

What will the national response be? It is unlikely to be wild applause… but it is also unlikely to be revulsion. My fear is that the response will be acceptance. Law abiding citizens are likely to accept “rough treatment” to those who might be gang members in exchange for their safety the same way that we’ve accepted body scans at airports in exchange for safe travel, supported the idea of fences to “protect us” from dangerous illegal immigrants, supported the billions of dollars we are spending in armaments to “protect us” from the global war on terror, and supported laws that permit the unrestricted acquisition of weaponry to “protect” our homes. I will not be surprised to read that our Google searches, emails, and social media postings should be available to read (if they aren’t being read already) in the name of “safety”. We already seem willing to allow this in schools.

At some juncture we might push back against “safety measures”…. or we might accept ever tightening restrictions on our freedom. We’ve now “trained” a generation of students to accept body scans as they enter a public facility, to accept surveillance during the day, and to expect their every move on the internet to be examined by authorities— all in the name of “safety”. That generation never experienced an unobstructed walk to the gate of an airplane, the opportunity to enter their courts or legislative buildings without being scanned… or the chance to engage in pick-up games without close adult supervision. Will a generation raised with close supervision in the name of safety be willing to become more free?

Missouri’s History of Evaluating Schools Illustrates How “Outcome-Based” Metrics Undercut State Departments, Emphasize Demographic Differences

July 29, 2017 Comments off

Saint Louis Post Dispatch writer Kristen Taketa’s column on potential changes to Missouri’s accountability system provides a history of accountability in that state which illustrates how “outcome-based” metrics undercuts the role of state departments, effectively dismisses the effects of poverty on school children, and provides a cheap and seemingly accurate means of differentiating “performance”. This shift away from a comprehensive but expensive means of evaluating schools to the simplistic and inexpensive method of using test results reinforces the notion that “throwing money” at the solution and imposing government oversight at the state level won’t help improve schools. Instead the message is that hard work by teachers and relentless grit by students alone will make a difference.

In her article on Missouri’s ongoing review of how best to assess the effectiveness of schools, Ms. Taketa describes the way schools in her State (and most states) was done in the 1970s and 1980s:

Two decades ago, Missouri rewarded school districts with good marks if they got parents involved, offered a variety of extracurricular activities and had safe schools. Districts were applauded if they had deep financial reserves, a competent staff and a school board that got along well with administrators….

When the state created the Missouri School Improvement Program in 1990, its primary goal was to ensure schools were providing the services and resources needed for a good education. Schools were graded not by calculating scores with complex formulas, but by in-person school visits by state education officials and educators from peer districts.

Ms. Taketa never says so in her article, but this system had at least three major problems:

  1. Those who value mathematical precision that provides the ability to rank schools found metrics like “parent involvement, competent staff, and highly functioning school boards” to be too soft. Moreover the narrative reports issued by visiting teams of colleagues and State Department officials often contained subjective descriptions of the districts that did not provide the capability of comparing one district to another in terms of student performance, which many taxpayers viewed as the ultimate determinant of school quality.
  2. For those who value complete local control, the notion of being judged by “outsiders” from the State Department and from “other districts with nothing in common” with theirs was an anathema. If local taxpayers and voters were happy with their schools they did not feel feedback from “outside experts” was worthwhile, even if those experts were assuring that the funds from the state were being invested wisely by the local school board and administrators.
  3. For those who want to limit spending, the cost for these periodic reviews was perceived s daunting and the fact that these comprehensive reviews required a robust state department (i.e. a fully staffed bureaucracy) was especially maddening.

Her analysis of how Missouri moved to testing is a solution to each of these “problems”:

Then in 1993, the Missouri Legislature passed the Outstanding Schools Act, which instructed state education officials to create a standardized test to measure student performance. Student performance began to count for the majority of a Missouri school rating by 2001, the same year the federal No Child Left Behind law was passed by Congress.

By 2012, Missouri school accountability was entirely based on student results, though not all of it on test scores.

Later in the second paragraph, Ms. Taketa describes how the state finessed the problem of helping low performing districts become accredited without having to spend a dime!

The inclusion of non-test criteria, such as attendance and graduation rates, is what enabled two high-poverty, previously unaccredited districts — St. Louis and Riverview Gardens — to earn accreditation upgrades, despite having a majority of students who are not proficient on state standardized tests.

Ms. Taketa then describes the downside of using standardized tests as the primary metric: the narrowing of the curriculum.

While most anyone will agree schools should have high test scores and attendance rates, relying on such outcomes when judging schools runs the risk of schools fixating on earning points and little else. It runs the risk of investing energies solely on students who are a few points below proficient, rather than all students.

And that “risk” is precisely what led to the State legislature revisiting the formula, a process that has taken five years of debate! Their solution, though, still relies on test scores, using “growth” instead of “proficiency”. While “growth” is better than “proficiency”, it still poses a dilemma:

In a 2008 Association for Education Finance and Policy survey, 68 percent of education researchers said growth is the best way to measure school quality. Only 9 percent said measuring proficiency is.

“It has been highly recognized as a more accurate representation of trying to isolate what schools are actually doing for kids,” said Michael Hansen, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Districts can already earn points for student growth in Missouri’s accreditation system, but they can’t earn as many points for growth as they can for straight test scores.

Prioritizing growth could give higher ratings to districts such as Riverview Gardens, Jennings and Special School District, all of which received zero points for reaching proficiency targets in 2016 but earned all the points they could for growth.

But Chris Neale, assistant commissioner for quality schools at the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, cautions that, in emphasizing student growth, the state shouldn’t lower expectations for students of color or students from low-income backgrounds.

What you have to be careful of is that you don’t even provide by accident an excuse to say children of poverty can’t achieve, people of a particular racial or ethnic background can’t achieve,” Neale said. “We don’t want the unintended consequence of stigmatizing a community.”

The best way to avoid offering an excuse to say that “children of poverty can’t achieve” is to offer those children the same chance to succeed that a student in an affluent school district has. But that would require more funding… and we don’t want the unintended consequence of stigmatizing the legislature as being cold-hearted and uncaring toward the children who were born into poverty.


Donald Trump’s Address to the Boy Scouts

July 28, 2017 1 comment

I was engaged in scouting from grade three through ten when in lived in PA and OK. I was an indifferent Boy Scout, achieving a Star ranking (the third highest level) and never aspired to become an Eagle scout because I found some of the required merit badges too daunting. I did enjoy the camaraderie of being in a group of peers who enjoyed the outdoors, enjoyed each other’s company, and enjoyed working as a team on various community projects. I also believed in the ideals espoused by scouting: thriftiness, bravery. cleanliness, tolerance, and reverence toward a Deity and the values of our country. I recall our scoutmasters being stern and demanding. But as a “non-swimmer”, I also recall the scoutmasters and camp counselors insisting that we not bully or tease those who could not meet some of the physical demands of scouting. Of all of the lessons I learned, THAT was the most important one: to be kind to those who struggle and not boastful when you are superior.

With this background, I was appalled to read about our President’s address to the Boy Scouts at their annual Jamboree, attended by thousands of young men from across the country. In the speech, he taunted his rivals, encouraged the scouts to join him in his disparagement by booing, and intimated that the accumulation of wealth would result in sensuous rewards that he could not mention because the scouts were too young.

I don’t know the political leanings of my scoutmasters, but given what I know of Boy Scout leaders I met as an adult I would guess they would vote for the most conservative candidate on the ticket. The scouting ideals— particularly thrift and reverence— seem to align with conservative thought. But as leaders who promoted tolerance towards others in the group of young men, who took action to avoid taunting and bullying, I cannot believe they would support a President who used his platform to inspire young men to instead taunt his rivals, who promoted profligacy, and who demonstrated his conviction that raw power was a value. I would hope that the scout leaders who value reverence for the values of our country would choose to not invite this President to speak again at a Jamboree.

A Skeptical Blogger Looks at Horace Mann’s Factory School and Proposed a Heretical Fix

July 28, 2017 Comments off

The Medium feeds me articles of interest in a wide array of topics ranging from sports to public education, and one of their posts introduced me to a skeptical analyst of history named William Treseder. In a July 4 post titled “One Man Created the Education System Holding You Back “, Mr. Treseder provides an overview of the history of public education that rings true, emphasizing that the system created by Horace Mann was designed to help with the transition from an agrarian economy to a industrial one. But, Mr. Treseder asserts that the values Horace Mann’s ideal school system inculcated are no longer relevant:

Education isn’t really about learning! More specifically, it isn’t about learning how to learn. It’s about learning how to conform. Predictability is the ultimate goal.

This idea should scare you. And even if it is only partially true, the idea explains a lot. We are struggling in the 21st century because conformity is no longer that valuable to companies. Software and hardware increasingly shoulder those burdens. Now the economy wants something else. Something unique, and creative. Something our education didn’t cover.

Later in the article Mr. Treseder provides this synopsis of how the Horace Mann’s “job factory” worked:

It’s worth reminding ourselves now about the key characteristics of the industrial era, and how we can see them manifested in the education system that continues to operate across America to this day:

– Schools focus on respecting authority
– Schools focus on punctuality
– Schools focus on measurement
– Schools focus on basic literacy
– Schools focus on basic arithmetic

Notice how these reinforce each other. You enter the system one way, and are crammed through an extended molding process. The result? A “good enough” cog to jam into an industrial machine.

Mr. Treseder believes that the “good enough” attitude was baked into the factory model espoused by Horace Mann in several ways, but that “good enough” attitude contradicts the needs we have today and results in schools inculcating habits that are counterproductive to success in today’s world. He offers five examples of practices that he believes need to be eliminated and five habits that could replace them. Here are the five that need to be eliminated, a list that resonates with me:

  1. Filling up the day with time-bound activities
  2. Accepting whatever you’re assigned
  3. Completing projects at the last minute
  4. Obsessing over quantified ranks and scores
  5. Sitting still for 8+ hours per day

And in their place, Mr. Treseder suggests we emphasize the following principles and practices:

  1. Replace time-bound activities with outcome-based activities. Focus on meetings — the worst culprit — and the decisions you want out of them. If you can’t think of a decision, don’t have the meeting.
  2. Summarize the goals of a new project to the person who asked for it, making sure you know exactly what is supposed to be accomplished, and why.
  3. Plan to complete a v1.0 of each project by the 50% mark. This is a chance to get valuable corrective feedback from other people, despite how uneasy you may feel with your “ugly” project.
  4. Focus on the “Why?” of each project and knocking it out of the park. Take time at the beginning of the project to get inspired by the work of others, then shut out the rest of the world.
  5. Get off your ass.
 As #5 indicates, Mr. Treseder’s essay is written in a smart-aleck tone, but as the list indicates he is definitely insightful as to the deficiencies of public education today…. and the tone may reflect his abiding belief that making the kinds of changes he advocates will be daunting.

University of Virginia Economist’s Theories Predate Powell Manifesto… May Be TRUE Roots of Privatization

July 27, 2017 1 comment

Last Friday Diane Ravitch wrote a a post on the creeping privatization on public schools that elicited a comment from Kim Kaufman that, in turn, included a set of links including this one to a Truthdig article written by Nancy MacLean, whose recently published a book titled Democracy in Chains, a Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. Ms. MacLean’s premise is that the privatization movement sweeping the nation today had it roots at the University of Virginia in the 1950s when then college President Colgate Whitehead Darden Jr. found the funding needed to underwrite a center that would be led by libertarian economist James McGill Buchanan, a Milton Friedman acolyte.

While Ms. MacLean makes a compelling case for Mr. Buchanan’s influence, I still think the so-called “Powell Manifesto” triggered what we are encountering today. It legitimized the privatization and voucher movements by engaging the business community and avoiding any stain that might be associated with opposing integration. Moreover, it appears to me that Mr. Buchanan, like Milton Friedman, was more animated by libertarian economic theory and his faith-in-the-free-market than racism. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter if these economists baed their advocacy for privatization of public agencies on the free market.  Their ideas were expropriated by racists in the 1950s and 60s and have reinforced racial and economic divisions ever since. For the GOP, it appears the race issue doesn’t faze them… for if it did they would find a way to make the market place correct for the continuing injustices.