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The Emerson Collective’s Re-Boot of High School Sounds Eerily Familiar… and Impossible to Scale Without a Change in Metrics

April 12, 2019 Leave a comment

Rebooting High School“, a recent Axios article by Kaveh Waddell, describes the efforts of XQ Schools, an affiliate of the Emerson Collective to devise a plan for high schools that teaches “future proof” skills. I completely agree with the direction XQ schools are heading as described by Ms. Waddell:

High schoolers are often being taught skills that will soon be handed over to machines, and they’re missing out on more valuable ones.

  • “The current system was created to develop a large body of people who can perform repetitive tasks in a strict hierarchy,” says Scott Looney, head of Hawken School in Ohio.
  • “We’re preparing young people for jobs that won’t exist,” says Russlynn Ali, CEO of the education nonprofit XQ Institute and a former assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education.

Education research has largely overlooked high school, Ali tells Axios — but that’s started to change. Among a new spate of efforts:

  • A new teaching method at Summit Shasta, a charter school just outside San Francisco, where students choose the skills they want to focus on — pegged to their college and career aspirations. (Read about my visit to Summit Shasta.)
  • A curriculum revamp at Lakeside School in Seattle, in which faculty and students are developing a list of future-proof skills they want to teach.
  • A “mastery transcript under development by a group of top high schools — Hawken’s Looney is the project’s founder — that measures a student’s skills, habits and knowledge as an alternative to the typical list of letter grades.

Some experts liken the potential upheaval from automation to the economic changes that sparked an education revolution more than a century ago, which made high school the norm for American students.

  • The High School Movement, which gathered steam in the 1910s, was the result of two big developments, according to Harvard scholars Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz.
  • The first change was an increased financial return to additional years of education; the second was increased demand for more specialized skills.
  • Those factors may soon be back in play, as companies begin demanding “soft skills” like creativity, adaptability, and oral communication.

As one who entered public education in 1970, I find the descriptions of the 18 schools eerily familiar. They sound like the kind of high schools envisioned by true education reformers like Philadelphia Public Schools Superintendent Mark Shedd, the kinds of schooling advocated by Ivan Illich and A.S. Neill, and the kinds of high schools my classmates in the Ford Foundation program at the University of Pennsylvania dreamed of creating.

Now, nearly fifty years after beginning my career in public education and dreaming of Schools Without Walls or De-schooling Society or schools that meet the unique needs of each child, I am reading the profiles of 18 such schools underwritten by a Foundation funded by the estate of Apple’s billionaire founder whose corporation dodged $40,000,000,000 in taxes.

If businesses and politicians wanted to transform high schools, the first step would be to create and aggressively promote a new set of metrics to assess students, schools and colleges. As described below, our current methods of measurement reinforce the current system that was designed to “develop a large body of people who can perform repetitive tasks in a strict hierarchy”. These metrics compel schools to focus on preparing students to pass tests, a skill that might get them into college but will not prepare them for a future of fast-changing jobs that rely increasingly on interpersonal skills and creativity and less on the accumulation of knowledge that can readily be accessed by machines. Here’s how our current system of metrics undercuts the development of “future proof” skills by focussing relentlessly on test scores:

  • Because K-12 students are assigned numeric or letter grades based on how well they absorb content in a fixed time frame they are not assessed on their skills or habits or the “future proof” soft skills.
  • Because the metrics used to measure K-12 public are based primarily on standardized test scores, public school teachers focus their attention on boosting those test scores at the expense of helping students develop soft skills like creativity, adaptability, and oral communication.
  • Because colleges and universities have effectively adopted the US News and World Report’s metrics they place an increased emphasis on the SAT scores, GPAs, and class ranks of the applicants and especially the entering class. This, in turn, puts pressure on students to focus on improving their test scores and GPAs reinforcing a vicious circle that in no way addresses the “future proof” soft skills the experimental high schools emphasize.

My thought: if the Emerson Collective wanted to REALLY make a difference in ALL high schools across the country, they could take the $40,000,000,000 saved by dodging taxes and invest it in purchasing ETS and the US News and World Report and, after the acquisition, change the metrics used to measure schools and colleges and universities. As the aphorism says: “What Gets Measured Gets Done”… and right now what is getting measured is not what is important for students to know in the future.

 

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Standardized Tests, “Failing Schools” and the Emerging Un-Enlightenment

April 11, 2019 Leave a comment

I read “Trump’s Most Worrisome Legacy” by economist Joseph Stiglitz’s in yesterday’s Common Dreams and got the chills he hoped to elicit as a result. The legacy that created a knot in Stiglitz’s (and my) stomach is this: President Donald Trump is not interested in seeking the truth.

One section in Mr. Stiglitz’s essay, an overview of impact of the Scottish Enlightenment, was especially thought provoking:

Adam Smith tried to (explain the basis for America’s wealth) in his classic 1776 book The Wealth of Nations. For centuries, Smith noted, standards of living had been stagnant; then, toward the end of the eighteenth century, incomes start to soar. Why?

Smith himself was a leading light of the great intellectual movement known as the Scottish Enlightenment. The questioning of established authority that followed the earlier Reformation in Europe forced society to ask: How do we know the truth? How can we learn about the world around us? And how can and should we organize our society?

From the search for answers to these questions arose a new epistemology, based on the empiricism and skepticism of science, which came to prevail over the forces of religion, tradition, and superstition.Over time, universities and other research institutions were established to help us judge truth and discover the nature of our world. Much of what we take for granted today – from electricity, transistors, and computers to lasers, modern medicine, and smartphones – is the result of this new disposition, undergirded by basic scientific research (most of it financed by government).

The absence of royal or ecclesiastical authority to dictate how society should be organized to ensure that things worked out well, or as well as they could, meant that society had to figure it out for itself. But devising the institutions that would ensure society’s wellbeing was a more complicated matter than discovering the truths of nature.In general, one couldn’t conduct controlled experiments.

Mr. Stiglitz then describes how our country devised institutions that ensured things would work out as well as they could… and described how Mr. Trump has undermined those same institutions by emphasizing the accumulation of wealth over the search for truth. He writes:

But what concerns me most is Trump’s disruption of the institutions that are necessary for the functioning of society. Trump’s “MAGA” (Make America Great Again) agenda is, of course, not about restoring the moral leadership of the United States. It embodies and celebrates unbridled selfishness and self-absorption. MAGA is about economics.

But I have news for Mr. Stiglitz: MAGA’s embrace of “unbridled selfishness and self-absorption” and roots in “economics” reflects of our culture’s perspective on schooling. The purpose of getting an education in America is not to find the answer to questions like “How do we know the truth? How can we learn about the world around us? And how can and should we organize our society?” The purpose of getting an education in America is about scoring well on standardized tests that value convergent thinking; about promoting oneself over others in order to gain entry into a prestigious college; and, ultimately, about earning a lot of money. These are the values we are inculcating in students and have inculcated in them for at least two decades of test-based “reform” that is the basis for NCLB, RTTT, and now ESSA. And while Mr. Trump’s MAGA movement “celebrates unbridled selfishness and self-absorption” and places the accumulation of wealth on a higher pedestal, I believe the MAGA movement has its roots in the message we’ve given to students for decades that the primary purpose of schooling is to earn a lot of money.

It is revealing that several reports indicate that the tech billionaires do not enroll their children in elite private schools or affluent public schools: they enroll them in Waldorf Schools whose goal is “…to inspire life-long learning in all students and to enable them to fully develop their unique capacities.” Standardized tests are not given in Waldorf Schools… and their “success” is not measured by their enrollment in a prestigious college or their lifelong earnings. They are more interested in the questions posed by Adam Smith: “How do we know the truth? How can we learn about the world around us? And how can and should we organize our society?

 

 

An Argument to Reinstate the Draft Misses Two Points… But Makes Several That Need to be Considered

April 5, 2019 Comments off

Danny Sjursen, a young retired military officer, wrote a thought provoking post for Common Dreams titled “Was Ending the Draft a Grave Mistake?” He believes it was… and I tend to agree with him with a huge caveat.

Mr. Sjursen’s reasoning is that if we had the draft in place now politicians would be less likely to commit troops to unwindable wars in remote outposts and less likely to spend huge sums of money on military misadventures. His solution, “...a lottery system (with no college or other elite deferments) that gives draftees three options: serve two years on active duty right after high school, serve six years in the reserves or go straight to college and enroll in the ROTC program” is off the mark, though. Instead, I would prefer that all 18-year olds perform two years of community service in a milieu that would require them to come in contact with citizens outside of their typical orbit.

In sum, I see two major points Mr. Sjursen misses in his analysis:

First, the biggest obstacle to re-imposing the draft is the war profiteers lobby. Not only do we run the military like a business, we’ve outsourced a lot of the military functions to private corporations and those making a bundle by providing “support” are unlikely to buy into an expanded military.

And second, a universal service obligation does not require military service. It could take the form of community service. With a shredded safety net and crumbling infrastructure and a complete lack of opportunity for those raised in affluence or in segregated communities to ever cross paths with those raised in poverty or those of a different race or creed it is imperative that we find a way to restore that opportunity ASAP. A community service/military service mandate wold do that.

What Makes a Fair College Admissions Policy? JStor Invites Three Writers to Respond… And Their Responses Show What is UN-Fair

March 29, 2019 Comments off

I receive a weekly newsletter from JStor, a website that provides scholarly research on a host of timely topics. This past week’s edition included a reaction from three researchers on the question “What Makes a Fair College Admissions Policy?” In reading the responses, I found that all three writers concur on one issue: as long as their are gross inequities in the funding of public K-12 schools there will never be an admissions policy that could be deemed “fair”.

After recounting all of the potential “objective” means of determining qualifications, Julie Park’s essay on race-neutral admissions policies offers this insight:

Let’s remember what’s even more unfair: That low-income students and so many students of color are denied access to high-quality public schools. That many affluent, White, and East Asian American students experience tremendous advantage in college preparation. And of course, that there exist policies and practices that overtly favor the wealthy, from donor preferences to the incredible admissions scandal of recent months. These things are much, much more unfair than someone with a perfect SAT score—one of thousands of similar applicants in the pool—getting turned down by Harvard and then being able to attend some other fantastic college.

Christine Yano also laments efforts to objectify student assessment in an effort to be “fair”. She rather views the development of a cohort as an art based on the intuition of an admissions officer as opposed to a science based on cold hard data. She writes:

Fairness…requires admissions officers to look beyond numbers and conduct the screening process not as science, but as art. This is the art of human assessment, predicting the future from the past. Adding up test scores does not necessarily guarantee success within this ideal of a vibrant, richly diverse educational institution. Nor is GPA a pure predictor, if the successful life of a campus is also measured by unquantifiable elements such as leadership and creativity, both broadly conceived.

Nadirah Farah Foley advocates a move away from meritocracy asserting that “A truly fair system would reject meritocratic logics and instead operate on the principle that high-quality education is not a reward for the few, but a right of the many“. After reading the first two analyses, both of which implicitly accept the world as it is, I found myself nodding with complete agreement at Ms. Foley’s call for a total and complete overhaul of the current system:

I think we need to go a step further than asking what constitutes a fairadmissions process, and instead ask what constitutes a fair society. We should recognize that our college admissions process is merely holding a mirror up to our society, reflecting how competitive, individualistic, unequal, and unfair the United States is. A truly radical solution would require the reorganization of our entire class structure and the redistribution of resources,thus obviating the need for such a high-stakes college application process.

It seems that we cling to meritocracy as a way of clinging to some hope of a better life in an increasingly unequal world.But rather than investing our hope in a fairer admissions system, I think we should dream bigger, and invest our hope in a more just society—one in which we live in community rather than competition.That might look like taking up Harvard professor Lani Guinier’s call to emphasize “democratic merit,” or it might look like dispensing with merit—and its attendant acceptance of deserved inequality—entirely.

Everyone deserves access to education. A fair admissions system would have that as a core premise and reject ostensibly just, “meritocratic” inequalities.

How do we get from where we are now to where we want to be? We need to start by acknowledging that the opportunities offered to children raised in poverty are in no way comparable to those available to affluent children and that any pretense of “fairness” requires us to either spend more on K-12 education or open the doors to all higher education institutions to all students. While neither of these options is likely to occur in my lifetime, they could happen with a generation if we face the unfairness that exists today.

Amanda Hess’ NYTimes Article Castigating Parents for Bribes Misses BIG Point: We ALL View a Good Education as a Transaction.

March 28, 2019 Comments off

Today’s most read article in the NYTimes is Amanda Hess’ article “People Don’t Bribe College Officials to Help Their Kids. They Do It to Help Themselves”. The main point of the article is that parents value the cachet of having their children attend an “elite school” far more than their children. The article focuses on YouTube “star” (and now “victim” of parents bribing her way into college) Olivia Jade as a proxy for a whole group of students whose parents work behind the scenes to get their children admitted to prestigious schools. It seems that Olivia Jade’s broadcasts feature several examples of her demeaning the purpose of higher education and the importance of school altogether. After describing how Olivia Jade has already achieved success of a kind in YouTube’s world, the article concludes with this: 

Olivia Jade… is worried that other kids at school are going to take advantage of her. “That’s already my big fear of meeting people at my college — that they are just going to use me,” she says. She seems to see the value of a good education, in exactly the way so many parents see it: as a transaction.

Ms. Hess overlooks one sad reality: it isn’t just parents who see a good education as a “transaction”…. it’s the entire culture we live in. What is schooling but a transaction when the ultimate metric for K-12 education is employability or readiness for college— and college’s ultimate metric is lifetime earnings.

A Trove of Articles on the Cheating Scandal

March 18, 2019 Comments off

Last week’s arrests of 33 parents who spent tens of thousands of dollars to hire a “consultant” to help them secure a place in one of the country’s elite colleges resulted in a flood of articles on college admissions. Each article could warrant a stand-alone blog post… but I am trying to scale back on the number and length of blog posts in hopes of devoting more time to writing op ed pieces and/or completing a book I started over a decade ago… but I cannot resist reacting to several of the articles. The articles I culled for reactions are outlined below:

In “College Admissions: Vulnerable, Exploitable, and to Many Americans, Broken“, Anemona Harticollis describes how the whole admissions process to college is, as the title indicates, “exploitable, arbitrary, broken“. Two quotes from  Jerome Karabel, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and a historian of college admissions stood out for me. The first:

“Elite colleges have become a status symbol with the legitimacy of meritocracy attached to them, because getting in sanctifies you as meritorious”

And the second one, in the concluding paragraphs:

Mr. Karabel, the sociologist, said that the bribery crisis simply reflected problems in broader society. “I think that as America has become more and more unequal, affluent parents have become desperate to pass on their privileges to their children and avoid downward mobility at all costs,” he said.

Fair access to education, the engine of upward mobility, he suggested, is the casualty.

And one statistic from the article also stood out:

…the admission rate for legacies at Harvard was 33.6 percent. The rate for the Class of 2022 as a whole was under 5 percent.

NY Times reporters Dana Goldstien and Jack Healy describe the consulting process itself in an article titled “Inside the Pricey, Totally Legal World of College Consultants”. As Superintendent who retired from SAU 70, an affluent district in NH that included Hanover High School, I witnessed this world which consisted of everything from retired educators offering advice to the parents of their nieces and nephews to retired guidance counselors earning supplementary income by helping parents navigate the complicated application process, to retirees offering SAT help to slick and costly consultants like those described in the article. And, as the article indicates, the whole enterprise of college admissions coaching is completely unregulated, which makes it particularly vulnerable to the kinds of scandals that emerged this past week. The one paragraph that jumped out for me was this one, that attributed the expansion of admissions consultants to the diminishment of counseling services at public schools:

The growth of private consulting has been driven, in part, by a shortage of guidance counselors in public schools. During the 2015 to 2016 school year, each public school counselor was responsible for an average of 470 students, according to the group.

When I was Principal in rural Maine we had one counselor for 750 high school and middle schoolers. Hanover High School, by contrast, has six counselors for 750 students. Based on the fact that 90+% of the students pursue higher education this is adequate… yet, as noted above, some parents nevertheless seek out additional help.

The scandal also brought forth some scandalous behavior on the part of “elite colleges”, as described in another NYTimes article by Ozan Jaquette and Karina Salazar. The scandalous behavior is captured in the title of the article, “Colleges Recruit at Richer, Whiter High Schools” and despite the data that supports the title the article appeared as an opinion piece.

Even the “Your Money” section of the NYTimes offered some insights into the skewed admissions practices in an article by Ron Lieber describing how colleges are inclined to accept students who can afford to pay full tuition costs over those who need some kind of financial aid. The reason? Some schools “don’t have unlimited aid budgets and generally don’t want to overload families with debt” so they will show some degree of favoritism toward students who don’t need to draw against their scarce pool of scholarships. The thought provoking article illustrates how this conundrum is addressed in different ways by the colleges who use this “need-aware” policy.

The final NYTimes article that sheds indirect but glaring light on this admissions scandal describes “snow-plow” parents: those who strive to remove all obstacles from their children’s lives as they mature in the name of assuring their happiness and success. The result, as article by Clara Cain Miller and Jonah Engel Bromwich indicates, is that parents are robbing their children of adulthood. The link between this kind of parenting and the scandalous behavior that captured headlines is self-evident… but here it is summarized in two paragraphs:

Helicopter parenting, the practice of hovering anxiously near one’s children, monitoring their every activity, is so 20th century. Some affluent mothers and fathers now are more like snowplows: machines chugging ahead, clearing any obstacles in their child’s path to success, so they don’t have to encounter failure, frustration or lost opportunities.

Taken to its criminal extreme, that means bribing SAT proctors and paying off college coaches to get children in to elite colleges — and then going to great lengths to make sure they never face the humiliation of knowing how they got there.

And, as Miller and Bromwich report, the snowplowing begins early and often never leaves:

It starts early, when parents get on wait lists for elite preschools before their babies are born and try to make sure their toddlers are never compelled to do anything that may frustrate them. It gets more intense when school starts: running a forgotten assignment to school or calling a coach to request that their child make the team.

Later, it’s writing them an excuse if they procrastinate on schoolwork, paying a college counselor thousands of dollars to perfect their applications or calling their professors to argue about a grade.

Oh… and for some hard-core snowplowing parents it doesn’t end with college:

The problem is: Snowplowing is a parenting habit that’s hard to break.

“If you’re doing it in high school, you can’t stop at college,” Ms. Lythcott-Haims (the former dean of freshmen at Stanford and the author of “How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success”) said. “If you’re doing it in college, you can’t stop when it comes to the workplace. You have manufactured a role for yourself of always being there to handle things for your child, so it gets worse because your young adult is ill-equipped to manage the basic tasks of life.”

And once a young adult relies on their parents for making medical appointments, keeping track of their finances, and finding their way in the world it creates a helplessness that is hard to overcome.

A Predictable Meltdown Results When a Former Investor in For-Profit Schools Oversees the Dismantling of Regulations Governing Those Schools

March 8, 2019 Comments off

NYTimes reporters Stacy Cowley and Erica Green describe the rapid meltdown of a college chain that resulted when Betsy DeVos aggressively deregulated post secondary schools in the name of giving “new life” to an industry that was “on its heels” during the Obama administration. And why was it on its heels? Because, as the Obama administration’s Department of Education recognized, the profiteers who operated private (mostly proprietary) colleges misled students who went deeply in debt to get the education they understood they needed to be successful in the global economy. The students never got their degrees because the colleges did not have the wherewithal to provide the education they promised. When the Obama administration fined the colleges to help pay back either the students’ personal loans or the government who provided loans for the schools the profiteering colleges either went out of business or transferred their ownership to a different entity. The winners in all of this were the investors and the college administrators who received unseemly high salaries. The losers were the students who hoped to better themselves only to find themselves deep in debt. I am certain that the laissez faire capitalists will shrug their shoulders and say that’s the way the market works: caveat emptor! One can only hope that every disaffected student will at least learn that the policy of deregulation— UNDER-governing— is the problem and not the government itself. But that unit was probably not included in the introductory economics courses offered.