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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?

 

 

Washington Post’s Explains DeVos’ Complicated Shell Game Involving ESAs, Justifiably Awards Her 3 Pinocchios for Lying

April 9, 2019 Leave a comment

As Washington Post writer Salvador Rizzo’s article on Betsy DeVos’ latest budget illustrates, the ALEC gambit of Education Savings Accounts is easy to sell to voters under the rubric of “choice” and complicated to explain as a device to siphon scarce tax dollars out of the pockets of public employees and into the pockets of billionaires. Here’s the way the gambit works:

Billionaires donate a large sum of tax deductible money to a charitable “Education Savings Account” that a presumably “needy” family can use as a de facto voucher to attend a school of their choice if their child has the misfortune of being assigned to a “failing school.” The effect of this writ large is that the federal government loses income— in the case of the DeVos budget $5,000,000,000 worth— and local districts are “held harmless”. The fact that the funds lost at the federal level are not necessarily those earmarked for schools is offset by the fact that at the same time as Ms. DeVos is advocating for this income loss at the Federal level she is also proposing a budget that cuts $8,800,000,000! In the words of Mr. Rizzo: “A clever bureaucratic design cannot paper over the reality of money going in and out.” 

If this concept were floated in a world where the use of these funds for sectarian schools or unregulated for-profit schools was prohibited it might be a means of helping “needy” children escape from “failing” schools. But the world we live in isn’t set up that way. In the world we live in STATES get to define which schools are deemed to be “failing” and too often they base that determination on flawed metrics that identify over 70% of the public schools as deficient. In the world we live in STATES get to define which students are deemed to be “needy” and too often they base that determination on income levels that identify over 70% of the families as requiring subsidies to attend non-public schools— including those families who are already enrolling their children in those schools. In the world we live in STATES get to pass legislation based on the same kind of “clever bureaucratic design” and end up diminishing STATE funds away from their budgets while diminishing funds for public schools since most state funding formulas are based on enrollments.

Long story short: if this kind of “clever bureaucratic design” was limited to the federal government it wouldn’t be nearly as bad as it is if STATES were not using the same “clever bureaucratic design” to cut public school funding. As Woodward and Bernstein learned decades ago when they were unravelling the Watergate scandal, if you want to find the source of a problem… follow the money. And in this case the money is leaving the pockets of teachers and going into the pockets of the billionaires who get tax deductions when they make contributions to Education Savings Accounts.

“Dog Bites Man”: Devos Denies Defrauded Students Debt Forgiveness Despite Court Order

April 6, 2019 Leave a comment

In a “dog bites man” story, the NYTimes reported that the Department of Education under Betsy Devos’ leadership has refused to comply with a court order that they forgive the debts incurred by students who were defrauded by profiteering colleges. The Times’ Erica Green writes:

The Education Department failed to approve a single application for federal student loan relief in the second half of last year, according to new department data that signals that students who claim they were cheated by their colleges cannot count on help from Washington anytime soon…

Since taking office, Ms. DeVos has tried to overhaul the 2016 process started by the Obama administration that was supposed to pave an easier road for students to secure loan relief after their colleges are found to have misled them with inflated claims of false promises of jobs. The Obama administration approved nearly 30,000 such claims, estimated at $450 million, in its last year in office. The Education Department approved 16,155 from Jan. 1, 2017 to December 31, 2018.

To translate: in the final ONE year of the Obama administration, 30,000 secured debt relief. I the first TWO years of the Trump administration 16,155— roughly half as many students secured debt relief. And contrary to Ms. Devos’ protests it has less to due with litigation by plaintiffs trying to pry more money from profiteers and more to do with the mindset of those leading the department.

Roughly midway through the article there was this exchange between Senator Dick Durbin and Ms. DeVos:

“Don’t you have a heart?” Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat, asked Ms. DeVos at a hearing on the department’s budget, where he cited 140,000 “victim students waiting on your department to give them relief so they can get on with their lives.”

“No student should be defrauded, and if fraud is involved, there are consequences, and there will be consequences,” Ms. DeVos replied. “But we should not be judging institutions by their tax status. Let’s be very honest here; there are bad actors on both sides of the equation.”

She added, with some indignance, “Let’s talk about the nonprofits that are doing a bad job, that are subject to bribes, that are lying in order to improve their U.S. News and World Report statistics,” referring to the recent college admissions scandal rocking Ivy League and other elite institutions.

Were I Mr. Durbin, I would express my complete agreement with Ms. DeVos on her final point and then pose the question of what she intends to do with those colleges who are found to be lying in order to improve their US News and World Report standings and ask what kinds of metrics her department is working on to replace those metrics…. for absent metrics like those that resulted in evidence of students being defrauded the entire college landscape will soon be dominated by snake-oil salesmen.

Ms. Devos, her boss— Mr. Trump, and the GOP are all in favor of Darwinian Caveat Emptor Capitalism where the consumer is at fault when they are misled. Maybe a form of Darwinian Democracy will result in a change of thinking in Washington DC.

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.

NYTimes Russ Douthat’s Assessment of Admissions Criteria Overvalues Tests

March 17, 2019 Comments off

Over the past week the NYTimes has been full of stories on the admissions scandal whereby millionaire parents have blatantly used their money to effectively buy their children’s way into school. At the end of the week, conservative columnist Russ Douthat weighed in on the the scandal advocating that concluding his analysis with this:

But the “more meritocracy” world — the world where bipartisan criticism produces a Harvard class of 2032 with fewer legacies and non-Asian minorities and an average SAT of 1570 — could be worse than what we have. Because such a change’s essential premise, that intelligence alone really merits power, is the premise that has given us many present difficulties, and if extended may only give us more.

This concluding paragraph illustrates how Mr. Douthat, like USNews and World Report and way too many parents and admissions counselors, views SAT scores as a sound metric for “intelligence” and evidence of “merit”. Standardized tests like the SAT are a poor proxy for “intelligence” or “merit”…. but they yield a seemingly easy and precise means for ranking students and colleges, they are relatively cheap to administer, and they can be used to short-circuit a more comprehensive and more time consuming method of analyzing an individual’s “intelligence” or “merit” or the “quality” of an educational institution. The SATs, then, are a easy, cheap, and fast way to assess “intelligence” and “merit”… and our politicians and voters are always seeking easy, cheap, and fast solutions to problems whose solutions are complicated, expensive, and time consuming.

If we ever hope to improve our public schools, we need to disabuse parents, voters, and politicians of the notion that there is a fast, easy, and cheap means of measuring “intelligence” and “merit” and MAYBE even re-think why this compulsion to measure is even important at all.