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If the SYSTEM is Flawed, Fix the SYSTEM, Don’t Privatize It!

February 21, 2017 Leave a comment

The title of this post is the implicit conclusion of Michael Easterday’s post in The Hill titled “The Japanese Education System May Solve the Problems of US Public Education”. After describing the pushback Betsy DeVos faced in her appointment based on her “solution” of privatization, Mr. Easterday offers a different approach to “fixing” public education: adopting the teaching methods used in Japan… methods that were developed in the US!

If privatization approaches, such as vouchers, charter schools, merit pay and abolishing tenure haven’t provided the magic bullet to improving education, it is because they don’t directly address how we improve teaching.

What may solve the problems of American public education is what already works in Japan.

In researching the K-12 Japanese educational system, typically compared favorably to ours, Catherine Lewis, senior research scientist at Mills College, asked Japanese teachers how they learned problem-solving approaches to teaching mathematics. Reportedly Lewis reacted in disbelief when they told her that were developed by American researchers.

Elizabeth Green, author of Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and how to Teach it to Everyone) found a similar pattern when she interviewed Akahiko Takashi, once one of Japan’s leading teachers and now Associate Professor of Elementary Math Teacher Education at DePaul University.

As Green describes in her book, Takashi came to Chicago to observe classrooms using the innovative teaching approaches of John Dewey, George Polya and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. He had read about the teaching models and applied many in his own classroom, but he couldn’t find them.

“The Americans might have invented the world’s best methods for teaching math to children, but it was difficult to find anyone actually using them,” Green wrote in the New York Times in 2014.

Of course, improving teaching isn’t about improving a specific technique, it’s about creating a system that can continuously design these improvements. 

Reading these paragraphs brought to mind the work of W. Edwards Deming, an engineer who travelled to Japan to teach his approaches of total quality management to their automobile factories, approaches that resulted in Japan producing superior products that ultimately outsold US products. Deming’s methods, which called for continually revision and rethinking, were not embraced in our country where volume was deemed more important than precision. When volume is valued, a “specific technique” is applied and once it is in place within a system it is difficult to unseat. In Japanese manufacturing, the continuous improvement ethos requires that each and every technique be reviewed to determine it’s efficacy. This means that lesson plans and teaching techniques are deconstructed to see if they are achieving the intended purpose. Mr. Easterday describes this Japanese system, called “lesson study”, with the last paragraph echoing the experience of our auto industry who failed to adopt the methods Mr. Deming advocated:

In lesson study, teams of teachers research, design and test a single new lesson over several weeks. The team teaches this lesson publicly in front of the whole school, sometimes in front of hundreds of other teachers, who observe and provide feedback. Teachers share their lessons, which are aligned to a shared course of study, so that other teachers can build upon the lessons through lesson study journals.

Innovators will immediately recognize the similarity of lesson study to other design processes, such as that used by Google Ventures to develop new products, agile software development, and lean manufacturing.

This should be no surprise — the lesson study approach has many of the same intellectual roots about improving quality that Japan has applied for more than half a century.  The systematic application of the lesson study design process has allowed Japan to relentlessly improve its teaching, incorporating pedagogical insights still sit on the shelf in the U.S.

And, as Mr. Easterday notes, the privatization of our flawed system is unlikely to yield any change in our system:

If anything, privatization advocates’ proposals undermine the conditions needed for this sort of collaborative design. Improving teaching requires supporting teachers’ design collaboration, rather than having them compete for merit pay. It promotes the sharing of instructional insights across schools, rather than protecting intellectual property.

This collaborative design provides a stable work environment where teachers have autonomy to make long-term improvements, rather than eliminating due process so teachers can be fired based on the whims of a principal, administrator or an angry parent.

Privatization has not succeeded in improving education, because it does not directly address the root causes of improving teaching. We need to stop trying to do more of what doesn’t work, and start investing in improving teaching.

As noted in many posts on this blog, the biggest flaw of the “reform” movement and its ultimate endgame of privatization is the implicit embrace of the factory school model that batches students by age cohorts and uses standardized norm-referenced tests as the basis for determining “success”. Privatizing a flawed system will do nothing to improve our public schools. Changing the system itself is the best way forward.

Ohio Governor Kasich Proposes Teachers Learn About the Local Economy… How Will That Work Where No Local Economy Exists?

February 20, 2017 Leave a comment

Diane Ravitch’s post this weekend included a link to an article by Doug Livingston, Akron Beacon-Journal staff writer on Governor John Katich’s proposed mandate that teachers “…see what it’s like to work outside the classroom so they can better match their students to the needs of local employers.” How will this be accomplished?

“It could be as simple as teachers touring local business and having those conversations … to just get a better sense of what those in-demand jobs are,” said Ryan Burgess, director of the Governor’s Office of Workforce Transformation, which put together the group that developed the “on-site work experience” externships and about 20 other proposals in Kasich’s budget.

Asked how kindergarten teachers might benefit from touring a local business, Burgess said it’s never too young to explore a career.

For the next generation of firefighters, he said, teachers who have toured fire stations can work the experience into lessons. “As the governor would say, how do we capture the imagination of young people?”

One of the rebuttals was that schools should require that the business leaders be required to spend a day in schools so that they could understand the public school teachers’ perspective. We did such a thing in the mid 1990s in the MD district I led at the time, whereby some businessperson spent a day in the classroom and the teachers spent a day at the businessperson’s worksite. Unsurprisingly the businessmen came away with an appreciation for how difficult teaching is! You have to be at work by 7:00 AM??? You have over 100 kids a day at the HS??? You don’t have “at-will” bathroom breaks at the elementary school??? You’re on your feet five+ hours a day??? There is so much information to keep track of!!! Egads! Oh, and this was the reaction even with a teacher with them in the classroom who had prepared a skeleton lesson plan for the visiting businessperson to follow! Some of the teachers couldn’t resist pointing out that they needed to work part-time after school to help cover mortgage payments or set aside money for their kids’ educations.

In fairness to Mr. Kasich’s proposal, the exchange worked well the other way. Teachers DID see how the workplace had changed from what they either recalled (from summer temp jobs in college) or read about… But it was purely voluntary and, consequently, rewarding for both parties.

But there is one reality to pulling this off at the state level: the paperwork is DAUNTING! Worksites will require the signing of waivers (many businesses DO have non-governmental workplace regulations to follow!), some sort of structured activities for the visiting teachers to follow, and someone at some level will have to make certain that the teachers comply with the externship regulation. What concerns Becky Higgins, president of the Ohio Education Association and members more than anything is “…the apparent devaluing and extra mandates placed on teachers“. As Ms. Higgins asked:

“Are there any other licensed professionals who have to do an externship outside of their area of expertise to get their licenses approved?”

Will this idea work in Ohio… I have my doubts. I wonder how businesses will feel about finding time and space for thousands of teachers to spend time visiting? More importantly, how will districts with no industry or local businesses deal with this? Will teachers spend time observing in local convenience stores? Or shadowing a local contractor? Or will they need to trave to the nearest town that has a Walmart? Or what if the only local enterprise is a coal mine? Or a military base? Or another government agency? And lastly, I wonder how some employers will feel about inviting a union member to work in their midst?

Dealing with the Twitter-verse in the Times of Trump

January 3, 2017 Leave a comment

Over the Holidays I took a break from reading the news and blogging (the Holiday posts were written in advance), and so I missed the opportunity to comment on Inside Higher Ed’s original story regarding a satirical tweet by George Ciccariello-Maher, Associate Professor of politics and global studies at Drexel University, that read: “All I want for Christmas is white genocide”. Given Mr. Ciccariello-Maher’s writings on this topic, those in his intended audience recognized the post as satire. But Drexel’s original reaction was forceful and devoid of that realization:

 “Drexel became aware today of Associate Professor George Ciccariello-Maher’s inflammatory tweet, which was posted on his personal Twitter account on Dec. 24, 2016. While the university recognizes the right of its faculty to freely express their thoughts and opinions in public debate, Professor Ciccariello-Maher’s comments are utterly reprehensible, deeply disturbing and do not in any way reflect the values of the university. The university is taking this situation very seriously. We contacted Ciccariello-Maher today to arrange a meeting to discuss this matter in detail.”

As reported in Insider Higher Ed Drexel University has since softened it’s approach to Mr. Ciccariello-Maher’s tweet, offering a lengthier and far more thoughtful response that includes this paragraph:

Very often electronic forms of communication (Twitter, in particular) are limited in their ability to communicate satire, irony and context, especially when referencing a horror like genocide. While Professor Ciccariello-Maher has defended his comments as satire, the wide range of reactions to his tweets suggests that his intentions were not adequately conveyed. These responses underscore the importance of choosing one’s words thoughtfully and exercising appropriate judgment in light of the inherent limitations presented by communications on social media.

My tweets are limited to the titles of my blog posts… primarily because I have come to appreciate the fact that Twitter has an extremely limited ability “…to communicate satire, irony and context“. In my verbal communication I often find myself using satire and irony to inject humor into an otherwise grim situation. But in verbal communication I am able to literally empty a wink and a nudge— or at the very least a shrug of the shoulders and an eye roll— to convey my true intent in sharing.

But Drexel’s predicament illustrates the complicated issues that arise when public social media is used to convey perspectives that are “…utterly reprehensible, deeply disturbing and do not in any way reflect the values of the university (or school district)“.  As a retired School Superintendent I can envision a situation where a conservative school board member might call to report that “one of my teachers” has posted a tweet that he or she found “…utterly reprehensible” and sought my support for that position by demanding a retraction. As one who handled discipline issues in high schools for six years I can envision a situation where a student reports that a classmate posted something that he or she found “…utterly reprehensible” and asked me to intervene to have the classmate remove that post. These are both situations I never had to face because social media was not as widespread when I was working as it is today, and the kinds of situations are stressful and ultimately irresolvable when personal perspectives on “reprehensibility” are in play.

Given the world we live in where the President elect uses social media without regard for the accuracy of his posts or their potential for inflammatory reactions it would be difficult to defend a punishment to a teacher or student who is equally tone deaf in their political postings. Now, more than ever, schools need to teach civility and… in the words of Drexel’s President, “…the importance of choosing one’s words thoughtfully and exercising appropriate judgment in light of the inherent limitations presented by communications on social media.” It is a far more important issue than anything in the common core.

Anti-Standardized Testing Pushback Against Formative On-line Assessments MAY be Misguided

December 20, 2016 Leave a comment

All computerized testing is not equal… and my suspicion is that some parental pushback against the formative on-line testing may well be misguided. Yesterday, Valerie Strauss turned her Washington Post blog over to Lisa Guisbond, a testing reform analyst at FairTest, who decries the “…new standardized testing craze” that his hitting public schools. FairTest’s “Fact Sheet” on this craze describes formative on-line testing as follows:

Education policymakers and technology providers have joined forces to accelerate a longtime push for “test data-driven” education interventions. Both sectors look to computer-based curricula and data collected with online tests to control classrooms and define educational outcomes.

Though couched in humanistic language about “personalization,” such a transformation is leading to even more frequent standardized testing. This narrows and dumbs down instruction to what low-level tests can measure, depresses student engagement, and produces inaccurate indicators of learning.

As a first year teacher who taught (or attempted to teach) urban 8th grade students basic mathematics skills in the early 1970s, I would have loved having a computerized testing program that allowed students to progress at their own pace without me having to spend hours on end grading quizzes and tests I administered to them. Because the skill level of the students I was assigned was far below the text books I was given, I ended up writing a self-paced “text-book” for one section that consisted of 40+ ditto sheets and handing it out and collecting it daily in class. The “text-book” sprinkled cartoons of me hand-drawn by my artist-wife and little narratives that incorporated lyrics from songs that were popular at the time. I had a packet of worksheets that corresponded to the work in the booklet. The deal was this: if the students worked diligently on the packet during class and did one or two worksheets at home they would get a “B” and if they did more worksheets at home they’d get an A. I used this to good effect in Spring of my first year and hoped to expand on it over the summer… only to learn that I would be assigned to teach a “Computer Course” in my second year because I had taken one computer programming course as an undergraduate.

Here’s what I learned from my 8+ week experience using these worksheets with a group of students who had not learned basic math skills by 8th grade:

  • They had heard for 7 years that they were terrible in math and believed it.
  • Their teachers “covered” the mismatched curriculum for seven years and often failed the students because their skills were “deficient”
  • I spent far more time preparing materials for class and far less time grading quizzes
  • I spent less time on classroom management and far more time working one-to-one with students
  • I could have spent even more time outside of the classroom reviewing each students performance if I had a Khan-academy-like program for the students to progress through

And here’s concerns me as a technologically literate administrator who wants to see more computer-assisted learning: the anti-“standardized testing” obsession might lead to pushback against on-line formative tests that could be more engaging than whole group instruction, free up teachers to do more analysis of each student’s strengths and weaknesses, and provide more insightful data on students than we have traditionally gathered with the kinds of teacher-developed assessments.

I believe more individualization is a good thing. It should free teachers from menial grading of quizzes and provide them with time to meaningfully examine the quiz results, allow students to experience success by moving at their own rate instead of a normed rate (which necessarily means a 50% failure rate), and provide time for intentional group interaction discussing mathematical applications to the real world once students master fundamental skills.

Those who decry the replacement of teacher graded paperwork with computer-graded paperwork are overlooking the reality that a lot of classwork and homework is based on the need for repeated practice of low-level skills, and asking teachers to grade these low-level activities is a waste of their time and talent. Better to have a computer perform that function so that teachers can be freed to interact directly with children who hit a roadblock.

What is the Greatest Wisdom of All? Kindness

November 16, 2016 Leave a comment

My wife and I practice Buddhism in the Plum Village tradition and part of that tradition is practice songs. One of the practice songs is a haunting melody in a minor key whose lyrics are the words in this post… and when I read two recent articles on the reaction of school teachers to the recent election of Mr. Trump the lyrics to the song popped into my head.

One article from a NYC parents group website called Mary Poppins, was “An Open Letter to Donald Trump from Concerned Parents”. In the letter, parent Anna Fader cites several incidents of bullying that occurred since Mr. Trump was elected and she implores the President elect to “…lead by example and uphold the values of our great nation and constitution“. While acknowledging that everyone will have to work harmoniously to make this happen, Ms. Fader emphasizes the oversize role the President must play:

Teachers, school administrators, parents, and local and national government officials will also need to do their best to handle these situations and set the tone for their communities, but it is most incumbent on you, Donald Trump, to tell America that you do not stand for or condone any form of bigotry. Tell America’s children that you do not condone attacks on Muslims, gays, blacks, Latinos, or any group. Tell girls that they are valuable, strong and their bodies are not up for grabs. Reassure children that you are not going to deport their law-abiding parents in the night. Be the beacon that this nation needs to actually “unify our great country” as you professed you would.

She underscored her points by including this photo of a first grade teacher’s message to her students following the election:

trump-first-graders

In a postscript at the end, she notes that bullying is a two way street and in communities where children who supported Trump are in the minority bullying by children who supported Ms. Clinton is wrong and needs to stop.

The second article by NYTimes writer Emily Bazelon, “Bullying in the Age of Trump”, opens with these two sobering paragraphs followed by a recounting of particularly egregious incidents among the 430 shared with the Southern Poverty Law Center:

Kids who are in religious or ethnic minorities, or are gay or disabled, are more likely to be bullied in school than other kids. Their point of difference can be a point of vulnerability. In the last decade, schools have put more energy into preventing bullying, to the benefit of these kids and others (girls, too, are more frequent targets). And they’ve often had the authority of the courts, state legislatures and the federal Department of Education behind them.

Now the country has elected a man who threaded racist, xenophobic and misogynistic messages and mockery of disabled people through his campaign. Donald J. Trump’s victory gives others license to do the same. There are already signs that during his presidency, the moral values that schools and parents have been helping to instill in young people — empathy and “upstanding,” a term schools use that means looking out for fellow students who are being mistreated — will be in danger of eroding.

Ms. Bazelon doesn’t pull any punches in her assessment of Mr. Trump’s decisions to appoint staff members with track records of bashing religious minorities and crudity and concludes with these paragraphs:

It’s also clear that if we can’t count on our national leaders to counteract bigotry, then we have to redouble our efforts to do so ourselves. When parents and alumni at Maple Grove High posted pictures of the racist graffiti on social media, the district issued a statement: “The tweet you may have seen of a racist message scrawled in a school bathroom is real and we are horrified by it. It goes against everything we stand for.” The school officials promised an investigation, acknowledged the danger to minority students and staff members, and said they would work to heal the impact on the school’s culture and “on every member of our school family.”

Those words are a start and deeds must follow, in small moments of kindness and larger acts of standing for justice. At this moment, local civil institutions and all of us, in our communities, are being put to a test. We have to show heart and conviction. We have to ensure that our kids learn the values some leaders have forgotten.

Like the parent who composed the open letter, Ms. Bazelon sees the responsibility for instilling civility shifting away from the national leadership to each and every classroom in the nation… and… in effect… to each and every citizen. In the face of vulgarity and crudeness in our President it is incumbent on every adult to exert the greatest wisdom of all: kindness. Legislation will not help us or our children. Our thoughts, words, and acts of kindness will.

The Mathbabe Finds a Constructive Application of Big Data

November 1, 2016 Leave a comment

In a blogpost today, Cathy O’Neill (aka the Mathbabe) assesses an article by NPR reporter Anya Kamenetz describing a program at Georgia State University, and declares this college is using Big Data to provide a Big Boost to struggling college students. The article by Kamenetz describes how Georgia State built an “early warning system” to identify students at risk of failure based on the analysis of 2.5 million grades assigned over a ten year period. This so-called GPS system (for Graduation Progression Success) issues daily reports to academic advisors to help them know when intervention is needed and likely to be effective.

Several Mathbabe readers alerted her to this algorithmic method of monitoring students using Big Data expecting that she would find it wanting… but she rated it as a qualified success. Her assessment:

wrote a recent book about powerful, secret, destructive algorithms that I called WMD’s, short for Weapons of Math Destruction. And naturally, a bunch of people have written to me asking if I thought the algorithm from this article would qualify as a WMD.

In a word, no.

Here’s the thing. One of the hallmark characteristics of a WMD is that it punishes the poor, the unlucky, the sick, or the marginalized. This algorithm does the opposite – it offers them help.

Now, I’m not saying it’s perfect. There could easily be flaws in this model, and some people are not being offered help who really need it. That can be seen as a kind of injustice, if others are receiving that help. But that’s the worst case scenario, and it’s not exactly tragic, and it’s a mistake that might well be caught if the algorithm is trained over time and modified to new data.

According to the article, the new algorithmic advising system has resulted in quite a few pieces of really good news:

  • Graduation rates are up 6 percentage points since 2013
  • Graduates are getting that degree an average half a semester sooner than before, saving an estimated $12 million in tuition.
  • Low-income, first-generation and minority students have closed the graduation rate gap.
  • And those same students are succeeding at higher rates in tough STEM majors.

At the end of the post, Ms. O’Neill emphasizes that algorithms per se are not evil. Rather the way the algorithms are USED is the issue… and in the case of Mount St. Mary’s College in MD (see earlier posts on the Mathbabe site as well as this one) algorithms were used for nefarious purposes. In the case of Georgia State, their intention was good and their use was effective.

 

NPR’s Story on Teacher Attrition Underscores REAL Problem With Schools— And it ISN’T Teachers!

October 25, 2016 Leave a comment

NPR reporter Eric Westervelt’s recent report on four teachers who gave up their jobs after attaining a continuing contract illustrates everything that’s wrong with the way public schools are operating today and underscores the fact that the teachers who leave the profession are not those who struggle. On the contrary, Westervelt’s sampling indicates that teachers leave out of frustration about the lack of resources, the emphasis on testing, the toxic environment resulting from the anti-union legislation in many states, and– most sadly, because there is an emphasis on promoting students to the next “grade level” even if they aren’t actually learning the material presented in the classroom.

In each of these cases, the desire to run schools-like-a-business is driving teachers out of the profession. Schools emphasize testing and promotion because the metrics used to determine success are simple and cheap. Promotion rates and test scores, neither of which require mastery of the material by the students, are easy for the public to understand, inexpensive to calculate, and lend themselves to ranking and rating schools and— when invalid algorithms are used— teachers. Schools batch students in “grade levels” based on age and expect them to advance in lockstep through those “grade levels” because that’s the way a product that is manufactured progresses through a manufacturing process. Teachers are discouraged from being in unions and schools are starved of resources because government officials want to limit the costs to taxpayers in the same way that Walmart, for example, strives to limit overhead. The “overpaid teacher” meme is so ingrained today that asking teachers to pay for resources does not seem unfair to “cash-strapped-and-overburdened” taxpayers. The result, as Linda Darling Hammond states in Westervelt’s article, is “Teachers who are well prepared leave at more than two times lower rates than teachers who are not fully prepared”. A vicious circle is in place, especially in those districts with the tightest budgets— the districts serving the children with the greatest needs. Changing this vicious circle will be difficult. It will require the public to see the flaws in the “business model” and the merits of a developmental approach toward teaching and learning. It will require the public to have faith in “secular government schools” instead of schools operated by the “efficient” business sector or religiously affiliated schools. It will require a realization that a quality education, like any quality product, costs more than a shabby product. And it will require a willingness for affluent parents who understand all of this to be willing to pay higher taxes to help their less advantaged counterparts. Those who can afford high priced homes in districts that operate schools with robust programs and who pay teachers well will need to help out those children who had the bad luck to be born into families that struggle economically. When the minds and hearts of the public change, public schools can change for the better as well…. but it will require time, energy, and resources to effect that change.