Archive for August, 2017

Sensitizing and Sanitizing Algorithms Essential for Defending Their Broader Use in Schools

August 31, 2017 Comments off

Cathy O’Neill, who blogs as Mathbabe and is a regular contributor to Bloomberg, wrote a post yesterday on the pushback “algorithmic overlords” are beginning to receive from researchers and politicians. Ms. O’Neill, who has written extensively about the bias of algorithms, offers some examples in her post:

Objective as they may seem, artificial intelligence and big-data algorithms can be as biased as any human. Examples pop up all the time. A Google AI designed to police online comments rated “I am a gay black woman” 87 percent toxic but “I am a man” only 20 percent. A machine-learning algorithm developed by Microsoft came to perceive people in kitchens as women. Left unchecked, the list will only grow.

This kind of inherent bias can be problematic for those of us who see promise in the use of algorithms in personalized learning. For example, if algorithms direct users to ever narrower learning opportunities that are determined based on inherent biases, young women might be directed away from mathematics and science content and toward content in “kitchen-related” fields while long men would be directed in the opposite way…. and as long as these kinds of algorithmic biases exist it will be impossible to overcome resistance to data-driven personalization.

Ms. O’Neill is no Luddite. She sees promise in the use of technology to enhance education. But she is not enthusiastic about the “algorithmic overlords” tendency to keep their methods secret in the name of proprietary information:

Many researchers and practitioners are working on how to assess algorithms and how to define fairness. This is great, but it inevitably runs into a bigger problem: secrecy. Algorithms are considered the legally protected “secret sauce” of the companies that build them, and hence largely immune to scrutiny. We almost never have sufficient information about them. How can we test them if we have no access in the first place?

Legislators need to intercede… and they are beginning to do so, albeit at a snail’s pace. Here’s hoping they succeed, for if they don’t, biases will persist.

Internal Documents Reveal Right-Wing Plan to Strike Public Unions With ‘Mortal Blow’

August 31, 2017 Comments off

The GOP is intent on making this happen because when employees are part of a union they demand higher wages and better benefits… both of which reduce profits for the shareholders whose donations keep them in office. This fuels the politics of resentment that has become the hallmark of the GOP.

Source: Internal Documents Reveal Right-Wing Plan to Strike Public Unions With ‘Mortal Blow’

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A Poll that Will Make Reformers, GOP Cringe Shows Americans LIKE Their Public Schools but Want More Social Services, Less Academics in Schools

August 30, 2017 Comments off

In a story that warmed my heart, Washington Post writer Valerie Strauss summarized the results of the annual Phi Delta Kappa poll in hr opening paragraphs as follows:

Most American adults are weary of the intense focus on academics in public schools today, according to a new national survey, and want students to get more vocational and career training as well as mental, physical and dental services on campus. Even so, a majority of public school parents give higher grades — A’s and B’s — to the traditional public schools in their neighborhoods than they have in years.

A majority of Americans polled also said they oppose programs that use public money for private and religious school education, policies that are supported by President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. And a majority said they do not think that standardized test scores  — which have been used for more than a dozen years as the most important factor in evaluating schools — are a valid reflection of school quality.

The Phi Delta Kappa poll is seen as the gold standard among administrators and school board members, and these findings should unsettle “Reformers” in both political parties who want schools to run like a business and have their “bottom line” determined by standardized test scores. And President Trump’s notion that the public wants vouchers is also now open to question. Not only does the American public support public education in general, they have the strongest support ever for their local public school!

The new poll finds that the proportion of Americans who give their community’s public schools an A grade is at its highest in more than 40 years of PDK polling. In the newest survey, 62 percent of public school parents gave public schools in their own communities an A or B grade, compared with 45 percent of nonparents. Grades go higher when parents are grading their own school — 71 percent gave them A’s or B’s.

These findings are consistent with surveys where many people give low grades to “Congress” but high grades to their local legislator. But in the recent survey, even generic public schools are rated better than ever:

The report said that 24 percent of Americans give public schools na­tionally an A or B (with no difference between parents and all adults), and it noted:

There’s no contradiction in the gap. Awareness of a few poor schools can diminish the ratings of all schools together, driving down scores nationally while leaving local scores far better.

All of this relatively good news notwithstanding, there are some results of this survey that could be cherry-picked by “reformers” and voucher advocates.

Still there was this: If cost and location were not issues, just one-third of parents say they’d pick a traditional public school over a private school (31 percent), public charter school (17 percent), or a religious school (14 percent). Fifty-four percent said they would stick with a public school if they were offered public funds to send their child to a private or religious school — but only if they received full tuition. If they received only half of tuition for private or religious school, 72 percent of parents said they would stick with a traditional public school.

Even though cost and location are clearly issues in the minds of parents, I hereby predict that some voucher advocates will use the finding that only one third of the parents would choose “…a traditional public school over a private school” as proof that the public wants vouchers, overlooking the fact that such a switch would only be supported  if they received full tuition… and NO legislation I’ve read of comes close to providing full tuition for the kind of leafy private schools parent might be envisioning as an alternative let alone a public charter or parochial school.

The article provides a list of other findings that contradict the “conventional wisdom” of reformers, such as:

  • Strong support for wraparound services such as  after-school activities (92%); mental health services (87%); general health services (79%); and dental services (65%).
  • Job or career skills classes even if that means… less time in academic classes (82%)
  • Certificate or licensing programs that qualify students for employment in a given field (86%)
  • The need for “…schools to help students develop interpersonal skills, such as being cooperative, respectful of others and persistent at solving problems.” (82%)

And as for accountability measures, the public is developing a deep antipathy for standardized tests. The survey indicated that “…only 42 percent said performance on standardized tests is a highly important indicator of school quality; 13 percent said test scores are extremely important.” What was important? 39% felt that “…developing students’ interpersonal skills” was very important and 37% felt that “…offering technology and engineering instruction” was crucial.

One contentious area, integration, had mixed results. The survey found that 55% said “having a mix of students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds in public schools is extremely or very important”. The demographic breakdown: blacks, 72 percent; Hispanics, 57 percent; whites, 48 percent. Democrats cited this as important nearly twice as often as Republicans.

Looking at these findings is heartening. Despite 30+ years of hearing that public education is failing and having a President and Secretary of Education who repeatedly describe public schools as a “dead end”, the public— especially parents— have a different experience. Here’s hoping these facts will find their way into the consciousness of the electorate!

Don’t Know Much About History? Blame the Textbooks…

August 29, 2017 Comments off

Atlantic writer Matt Ford’s  What Trump’s Generation Learned About the Civil War, an article in yesterday’s yesterday on-line edition effectively laid the blame for our President’s ignorance about the Civil War on the textbooks used in classrooms while he was in school. As a contemporary of the President, I think that the way history was taught during that era was the problem far more than the content…. and the methods used in that era persist in far too many classrooms today.

The history courses— or “social studies” courses— I took in the late 1950s and early 1960s all used thick textbooks that were stuffed with facts, textbooks that were impossible to “cover” in one year and “front loaded” so that the explorers and Founding Fathers were covered in depth. In my experience, the Civil War was taught as a stand-alone event. Contrary to the premise of Mr. Ford, I recall the context for the war was limited to the premise that the South wanted to keep slavery and the North wanted to abolish it. There were facts we needed to memorize about the Civil War, but the facts were not put into a context… a method that was typical of the way all conflicts were presented. As a result, I learned a lot about the time period between 1763 and the election of George Washington, a lot about 1861-1865, and a lot about 1914-1917. Being raised in a Republican bastion, we also learned that FDR’s programs did nothing to left the country out of the Depression. Instead it was our entry into World War II that got our economy back on track.

Throughout junior and senior high school our history teachers relied heavily on AV to deliver many of the facts we needed to recall for the tests… and one teacher in particular showed film-after-film of the battles in World War II, a favorite era for him. Because he emphasized that particular time span in that fashion, we learned even less about the economic factors that led to World War II and hardly anything about our country’s isolationist perspective prior to the war. We all learned that history was about memorizing indisputable facts and timelines.

The result of this approach to presenting material was to conflate the accumulation of facts with “history”, which deadened the subject and, in all probability, led many in my generation to be incurious about the causes and effects of the events we had to commit to memory. Clearly both recent GOP Presidents lack the curiosity needed to delve deeply into causes and effects of events that faced them. The anti-intellectualism of the GOP that has come into full bloom under President Trump dates back to the antipathy the party generated in opposition to Adlai Stevenson, the anti-Communist attacks of Joe McCarthy, and Spiro Agnew’s railing against the “pointy-headed” liberals.

Mr. Ford is right in his criticism of the material in the textbooks of the 1950s and 1960s. It was too often sanitized in order to be marketable in all parts of the country and, consequently, omitted contentious issues like slavery and racism that supported slavery. But he misses the key point that the way we were tested on those facts led us to accept them as indisputable and etched in stone. Worse, it led too many of us to stop looking deeply into the causes and effects of events and to diminish those who bothered to do so.



A “Crazed Lefty” is Bewildered by Logic of Conservative Columnist

August 28, 2017 Comments off

As noted in earlier posts on this blog, I greatly appreciate the way “Google Alert – Public Schools” provides me with articles that I would never have access to without their daily feed. Today’s article by Carole Hornsby Haynes, Ph.D, titled “Blame Public Schools for those Crazed Lefties” is a case in point. Using the removal of statues of Confederate generals as a springboard, Dr. Haynes excoriates the Democratic Party (aka “the Crazed Lefties”) for its unwillingness to acknowledge that their party was pro-slavery back in the day when the Republicans were on the side of abolition and that some members of their party, most notably Senator Robert Byrd, were KKK members.

Dr. Haynes’ column recounts all of the weak willed University Presidents, mayors, and school boards who have caved to the “leftists and socialists” in taking down the statues of Confederate Generals and at the same time manages to discredit a long list of communist/socialist/progressive/leftists like Maya Angelou, John Dewey, the Carnegie Foundation, and (gasp) Sotheby Real Estate!

Ii appears that Dr. Haynes, who is’s reporter on education policy issues is unaware that the Democratic party is controlled by neoliberals who favor school choice, privatization, and the use of standardized achievement test results to sort and select schools and students. She overlooks the fact that the only difference between Arne Duncan and Betsy DeVos is that Ms. DeVos is willing to provide funds for private parochial schools. As for John Dewey, he would not be welcome at their convention… and the policies of the true populist progressives— Bernie Sanders and the members of the progressive caucus, are ignored by the neoliberals.

The ultimate irony, though is the fact that Dr. Haynes frames her column using this quote:

“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”

And who wrote that quote? Why that would be socialist George Orwell in his book “1984″.

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What if More Education ISN’T the Answer?

August 28, 2017 Comments off

In the early 1960s, Abraham Maslow coned the aphorism “if the only tool you have is a hammer, you treat everything as if it were a nail.” As a blogger who writes about education policy and one who worked in public schools for nearly four decades, I’ve long believed that the answer to social mobility is better schools. But of late, I’m beginning to question that proposition and started thinking about a different paradigm, one that begins with the premise that more education might not be the answer…. especially more formal education.

Two books, one fiction and one non-fiction, have caused this shift in thinking. The fiction book is John Grisham’s Gray’s Mountain, which I am halfway through. The non-fiction book is J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, which I just finished last week. Both books deal with what I call “the Appalachian conundrum”, which, I believe, is applicable to all rural areas. It’s this: people tend to settle into a place and stay there… and people who live in rural areas are not willing to trade “country comforts” for the hectic urban and suburban lifestyle beloved of those like me who grew up in a household that relocated regularly.

This conclusion is supported by article in magazines and  newspapers, and the US Census, which showed that 59% of Americans live in the State they were born in. But many college educated individuals move away from their home states and many individuals who do move away from their home towns do so to seek higher paying jobs, jobs that invariably require more education. And many rural communities bemoan the fact that their best and brightest are “forced to leave” because there is “no work in town anymore” because the factory closed, or the mines no longer have any value, or mechanization has eliminated the need for employees.

The solution offered by both political parties is the same: more people should get more education and leave towns that are decimated by the flight of employers. But, as Gray’s Mountain and Hillbilly Elegy explain in different ways, the life in the country has a pull on the people who live there that is far stronger than the pull to go elsewhere and due to family dysfunction and a failed economic system there is nothing productive for them to do in their hometowns. So the fictional and real characters in those two books escape into drugs, religious fundamentalism, and, for a fortunate few, employment in highly mechanized and environmentally destructive jobs. The result is a vicious circle that clutches them tightly, a circle that mobile, well educated, and well intentioned “liberal elites” view as easy to escape through more education combined with bootstrap tenacity and grit.

I do not believe that the empty storefronts in rural and the poor urban neighborhoods in urban America cannot be filled with small businesses operated by people with more education. They are the product of an economy based on the premise that efficiency and the low prices that result from it are more valuable than the well-being of the citizens who buy the goods for low prices. When we premise our economy and our political priorities on the notion that bigger is better, we should expect our small rural towns to be hollowed out and the populous in those towns to escape into drugs and religious fundamentalism to find peace of some kind in their lives…. and we should also expect those living in the small rural towns without economic opportunity to be resentful of anyone who suggests that they need to get more education and move away from their roots in order to share in the benefits of our “new economy”.

And this is leading me to be less certain that more education is the answer… We might need a different tool than “more education” of we hope to achieve a different outcome in the future.


If Adverse DNA Test Results Do Not Change Personal Habits Why Do WE Think that Standardized Test Results Would Change Schools?

August 28, 2017 Comments off

I read an article earlier this month by AP science writer Malcolm Ritter titled “Science Says DNA Test Results May Not Change Health Habits”. To those of a scientific bent, this flies in the face of logic and reason. If one was told that their DNA pre-disposed them to a disease, why wouldn’t they eat healthier foods, exercise more regularly, and do everything possible to avoid exacerbating the likelihood of illness? It seems that NOT changing ones habits is in keeping with the findings of several researchers:

Last year, researchers published an analysis that combined 18 studies of people who got doctor-ordered DNA test results about disease risks. None involved direct-to-consumer tests; participants were drawn mostly from medical clinics or elsewhere. Eight of the 18 studies were done in the United States.

The result? Getting the DNA information produced no significant effect on diet, physical activity, drinking alcohol, quitting smoking, sun protection or attendance at disease-screening programs.

That fits with other results showing that, on balance, getting the information “has little if any impact on changing routine or habitual behaviors,” said psychologist Theresa Marteau of Britain’s Cambridge University, a study author.

I read this finding and immediately saw a link to public education policy, where “reformers” and politicians seem to believe that presenting adverse test results will naturally compel schools to change their “bad habits”. But the “reformers” and politicians’ diagnosis of “bad habits” focuses on “overpaid union teachers”, over-regulation, and the requirement that children attend the schools in their zip code and they offer their remedies accordingly. As anyone who’s worked in multiple districts knows, however, it is the students whose “habits” need to change. And as anyone who understands the impact of poverty on the life of a child realizes, it is exceedingly difficult to change habits of mind with an empty stomach and without a roof over ones head. In the end, the “habits” we need to change if we want to change the habits of teachers and students is the “habit of mind” that compels us to believe that there is a cheap, fast, and easy solution to the problems brought on by poverty.

And to stretch this metaphor a little further, unlike human DNA it is possible to change policy DNA and  the operational DNA of public schools. For example, we could:

  • Abandon grade levels based on age
  • Replace summative assessments with formative assessments
  • Emphasize mastery of material over attaining a “passing” grade
  • Offer educational programming year-round and all day
  • Emphasize collaboration and compassion over competition and comparing
  • Divert the money used to provide incentives for businesses to help parents earn a living wage
  • Acknowledge that poverty is the underlying problem of most societal ills, and that poverty could be eliminated through the redistribution of wealth

The abandonment of the factory model for schools and the establishment of a fair, progressive system of taxation are probably both beyond the capacity of our policy makers today. But if we can conceive of such a change it seems to me we could make it happen.