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Those Opposing Personalization Based on Data Collection Fail to See Technology’s Insidious Trade-off

November 17, 2018 Leave a comment

Earlier this week I read a post by Diane Ravitch about a group of Brooklyn HS students who are protesting “Mark Zuckerberg’s Summit platform” used to personalize education in their school. Their protest was based on the following: some students played games on their computers; cheating was easy; teachers’ over-used computers; there were all kinds of technical difficulties, and the platform “… is collecting a huge amount of personal data from thousands of students without their knowledge or consent or that of their parents.”

Here’s a few reality check based on my experience in high school in the early 1960s:

  • My friends and I used graph paper we secured from the math classroom to play five-in-a-row tic-tac-toe throughout classes, engaging in tournaments we developed in homeroom
  • Some of my friends (not me, I swear!), devised ways to cheat on quizzes and tests… but almost everyone I knew (including me) used “flexible grading” for the “individualized” SRA reading programs that one progressed through by passing self-graded tests that were periodically audited by teachers.
  • Some teachers, especially social studies teachers, overused films to “teach” us about the wars that constituted their course of study

The equipment glitches that plague “Zuckerberg’s Summit platform” didn’t exist, but there were some days where we had more than one substitute teacher which meant we could play tic-tac-toe openly.

What we DIDN’T have was the privacy issue… but then we didn’t have the conveniences that come with the technology that students, parents, and teachers rely on today. And here’s the irony about those who complain about invasions of privacy: while they complain about “Zuckerberg’s Summit Platform” they are probably walking around with their cell phones inter pockets, purses or backpacks and, in doing so, providing all kinds of data. And if they are making any on-line purchases with any company, or streaming any videos or music of any kind, or using any social media of any kind, students and parents are providing a treasure trove of information to potential sellers.

This just in privacy advocates: We have evidently unwittingly made a trade-off: we get all the goodies technology offers us in exchange for information that can be used to market stuff to us.

My thought: We need to develop a new curriculum that teaches children how to ignore the propaganda that is the basis for advertising and the noxious politics in our country…. Maybe the tech billionaires can develop it, we personalize it, and develop a standardized test to see how well the children are learning it. Or maybe teachers can do that without the standardized testing part.

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The Public Library is Priceless

November 12, 2018 Leave a comment

I just finished reading Medium writer Katie Hyson’s post titled “The Library Was the Place Where I Could Always Get More”.  As I read the post I thought of my childhood, my late wife, my two daughters, my grandchildren…. and my wife and her grandchildren. While none of us experienced the kind of austerity Ms. Hyson described, we ALL loved reading and could not begin to afford the cost of the books necessary to provide us with the desire to learn more and expand our horizons.

Growing up, my mother would take us to the library once a week in the summer to get a stack of books to read during the heat of the afternoon in Tulsa OK. I have fond memories of plowing through Dr. Doolittle, all of the Landmark books, Sherlock Holmes, and Edgar Allen Poe during my late elementary school years. Later, I spent many hours at the library of West Chester State College (as it was called then) that was blocks away from my house when I was in high school.

My late wife’s favorite after school haunt was the West Chester public library where she could study in quiet solitude. As a result of my late wife’s frequent reminiscences of her afternoons among the stacks, my older daughter was married at that library to honor her mother and feel her presence.

My daughters, as a result of their parents’ experiences, had library cards from the time they could hold a book. My older daughter was and is an avid reader of every kind of genre. My younger daughter, like Katie Hyson, not only read stacks of books from libraries, but has seen her own book on the shelves of libraries across the country and her short stories published in several literary magazines.

My grandchildren love to go to our local library whenever they visit and whenever we visit them they have stacks of books they’ve checked out of their local libraries in Brooklyn for us to read to them.

My wife recounts stories of library visits with her children when she was raising them in rural Vermont. She and I frequent our local library seeking out book-tapes we can listen to on drives to visit our grandchildren or to various getaways and we both read for pleasure and gaining a deeper understanding of our place in the world.

And my wife’s grandchildren, like mine, enjoy visits to our local library when they come to spend the night, checking out stacks of books for us to read to them and want us to read a story to them before they go to bed.

As I write this, I find it hard to imagine NOT taking advantage of the local library, even in this age of electronic media. Our local library has added new means of accessing written material, videos, and recorded book-tapes (as I refer to them with my “old-fashioned” terminology). Our library also sponsors book groups, speakers on timely issues, and offers free meeting space for local non-profits, including the public schools. We (I am now on the Board of the local library) are about to launch a partnership with our local high school to provide a maker-space and have all kinds of outreach programs in place to connect with all age groups. The bottom line: the public library remains one place where the doors are open to all and where the playing field is completely level. If you ever come to Hanover NH, stop by our local library… but better yet, go to the library in your neighborhood or town and see what they have for you, your children, or your grandchildren. You might be amazed!

 

Public Schools Linked to the Election of President Trump? Peter Schrag’s Op Ed MUST be Tongue in Cheek!

November 2, 2018 Comments off

Peter Schrag, identified as the former editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee and the author of “Final Test: The Battle for Adequacy in America’s School,” wrote an op ed for the San Francisco Chronicle titled “Did American public schools help give rise to Trump?“. Given Mr. Schrag;s background, I have to trust that he intended this to be satirical, though I am sure that the DNC’s neoliberal wing that supports the privatization of public schools might agree with his analysis. In his essay, Mr. Schrag bemoans the fact that public schools have fallen short in teaching children how to think critically and how democracy works. He writes:

maybe the biggest educational shortcoming of the past 50 years has gotten almost no attention, and that’s the failure to adequately teach government, civics and history.Nearly four in 10 American adults, according to the latest polls, still support the presidency of a self-confessed sexual abuser, a chronic liar, an abettor of every form of bigotry, public corruption and violence. Millions still support politicians who work hard to deny the voting franchise to ethnic minorities and other opponents in their own communities. They watch with equanimity as the nation’s prestige and influence abroad, not long ago as great an element of our security as our military, are systematically undercut by the very people sworn to uphold them. They watch quietly as the courts, even the Supreme Court, are politicized…

What did they learn in school? What did the schools not teach? Are we surprised when people deny the science of climate change and global warming when, according to Gallup, some 38 percent of us still reject Darwinian evolution?

Mr. Schrag doesn’t lay the entire blame on public education. He rightfully notes that the decline of unifying institutions, including the press, has also eroded voters’ understanding of how democracy is supposed to function:

No, not all of that can be blamed on the schools. The great industrial unions — the autoworkers, the steel workers, the mine workers, the garment workers, the communications workers — now badly reduced in their membership, once were also great teachers of democracy and great introductions to our democratic institutions.

Our media, the newspapers, the TV networks, most of them, once fostered and catered to national and local communities. They sought to appeal to the common elements in their viewers and their readers, sometimes at the cost of mind-numbing blandness.Some still do, but with ever smaller resources. The internet and so-called social media (really the anti-social media) — few of them with editors or fact checkers — foster and play to separatist subgroups of true believers. As such, they undercut whatever communitarian civic sense the schools still instill.

And he also flags the local school board’s for their small mindedness by banning the reading of books “…that might challenge local prejudices” and thereby promote the kind of open-mindedness needed to function in a democracy. He concludes his assessment of public education with this on point critique: :

More broadly, the “reforms” of the past decades emphasized reading and math, testing and the so-called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) subjects — fitting students for the economy, not for the arts, the humanities, and not for community and citizenship. We’re now paying the price.

I completely agree with Mr. Schrag that schools have lost their unifying mission, their commitment to providing all students with a fundamental understanding of how democracy operates. Worse, they are increasingly militarized, resembling armed fortresses more than ivied halls of learning, And… as I’m sure Mr. Schrag realizes, students didn’t learn about these things in public schools because they weren’t on the high stakes tests that were designed to identify “failing schools” that could be taken over by privatizers. Until we get the profit motive out of schools and get the focus on public education back to the arts, the humanities, community, and citizenship we ill pay an even higher price in the future.

Philanthropist Puts Her Boots on the Ground, Sees the Challenges, and Invests in Public Schools

October 24, 2018 Comments off

I often write about the billionaires who are working to undercut public education by spending huge sums of money on for-profit deregulated charter schools and on the candidates who support them. This is an exercise that is discouraging, dispiriting, and maddening. So I was heartened to read an article by Kathleen Megan in US News and World Report about Barbara Dalio, a philanthropist who is investing in PUBLIC schools. And, according to Ms. Megan, Ms. Dalio’s investment might be the beginning of a trend!

What was most revealing to me is the decision making process Ms. Dalio used to determine that investing in public schools is necessary.

Dalio, 70, who is universally described as humble and hands-on, said in an interview last week that her shift toward traditional public school districts came about as she learned more about education and became concerned about the achievement gap and students who are disengaged from school.

Dalio said she observed that the kids who go to public charter schools have parents who are often more involved and have the initiative to seek out an alternative for their child.

But many parents, she said, don’t have the time to do that.

“It’s not that they don’t care about the kids,” Dalio said of those parents. “It’s that they are burdened in many instances with just one parent having two or three jobs. That really struck me.”

Later in the article Ms. Megan described the “hands on” experiences that led Ms. Dalio to break ranks with her fellow billionaires:

As the family’s foundation was expanding, Dalio said, “I really felt for the public schools and I really wanted to be helpful.”

But she realized she needed to be educated. So she began volunteering at an alternative high school in Norwalk where she started coming in once every two weeks and soon was up to two or three times a week.

“I learned really how many needs the kids have because they had kids with learning differences, kids that have had trauma in their lives, kids with emotional needs,” Dalio said, as well as kids who are hungry. “So it really is challenging for the school, the teachers to address all of those needs, especially with (budget) cuts” that eliminate social workers or mental health programs, she said.

Dalio said she learned through the alternative school and also with her own children, one of whom has bipolar disorder, that all children can succeed if given the right the services and help.

Her own son is in very good shape now, she said, “but it took a lot of resources and patience and time and you know if we didn’t succeed, he could have been just one of those kids.”

So I always feel a bit for the underdog . or the kids that don’t have opportunities and I see that if you give them what they need, which is sometimes not that much, (with) just a little attention and love, you can really turn them around.”

Many public education advocates— including this one— assert that too may of the top-down “reformers” are completely oblivious to the realities in public education because, unlike Ms. Dalio, they have no first hand experience as parents and have not taken the time to put their boots on the ground to find out why children struggle in school. What I found especially heartening about Ms. Dalio’s story was that she at one time was on the TFA-Charter School bandwagon and jumped off. And far and away the most impressive aspect of Ms. Dalio’s donations is her empathy and compassion for teachers and administrators:

Those who have worked closely with Dalio can’t say enough about how well she listens and how much she wants to learn and provide the best help she can.

“It sounds like it’s too good to be true, but (Dalio) is truly a partner,” said Erin Benham, president of Meriden’s teachers’ union and a member of the State Board of Education. “She sits with us, listens to us. She laughs. She loves being with students and she loves being with teachers.”

Anne Marie Mancini, deputy superintendent of East Hartford Public Schools, said Dalio has been “fantastic, supporting any initiative we have brought forward. We brainstorm together and she works right along with us. She’s like any other educator.”

Dalio has been working with teachers and administrators in Hartford, East Hartford, Meriden and New Haven as part of the foundation’s Connecticut RISE Network, which works to empower teachers and provide them with needed resources.

Another major focus for Dalio has been trying to help youth who are disengaged from school reconnect and get on track for graduation through its Connecticut Opportunity Project.

The initiatives funded through Dalio at the network schools have included summer leadership programs for high school students, the funding of full-time counselors who work closely with ninth graders to help keep them on track, funding for SAT prep and extensive professional development for teachers and administrators at the University of Chicago and other education centers.

Teachers and administrators say she also quietly does countless acts of kindness, including providing thousands of coats to students who don’t have them and lunch to teachers on Teacher Appreciation Day.

Not all billionaires are cut out of the same cloth, and when one is an advocate for public schools it offers a glimmer of hope that others may follow suit… and one writer seems to think that could happen:

David Callahan, editor of Inside Philanthropy, said he hopes “other philanthropists will pay attention to what (Dalio is) doing and the hands-on immersive approach she’s taken, which is how philanthropy should operate if it doesn’t want to alienate the people it needs to engage to succeed.

“If Barbara ever gets focused on the national level,” Callahan said, “I think that could be a big deal, given her mindset and the sensibility she brings to this space.”

Here’s hoping publicity for Ms. Dalio’s efforts spreads… because her time commitment to gaining an understanding of the challenges of public education has paid off. Who knows, maybe she will begin supporting politicians who want to direct more money to schools who serve to the “underdog” children, the ones who attend underfunded schools, the one who need “… just a little attention and love”. 

Maine Is Reversing Direction on Competency Based Diplomas. What is the Lesson for Other States?

October 20, 2018 Comments off

Chalkbeat writer Matt Barnum wrote a lengthy and link-flied article describing the rise and fall of Maine’s efforts to implement competency based diplomas for its schools, an article that thoroughly described all the landmines associated with the effort but one that overlooked the fundamental problem, which is the strong hold of the “sort and select” paradigm in our culture.

A quick history of the movement in Maine: In 2012 Maine’s Governor Paul LePage supported legislation to abandon the traditional awarding of high school diplomas based on the accumulation of credits tied to seat time and replace it with a competency based model. Nellie Mae, a philanthropic organization that advocates student centered learning, played a pivotal role in this initiative:

(In early 2012) the Massachusetts-based Nellie Mae Foundation awarded nearly $9 million to two of Maine’s largest school districts, Portland and Sanford. The money was meant to help them adopt what the organization calls “student-centered” approaches. That includes what’s called mastery, competency, or proficiency-based learning, which means that students progress at their own pace, moving on only when they demonstrate they’ve learned a certain topic.

This “student centered” approach failed in Maine for several reasons, the primary one being that there was no effort to develop a uniform state-level consensus on what constituted “mastery”. As Mr. Barnum reports, once the state mandated “proficiency based” diplomas:

Each district was tasked with determining what it meant for a student to be “proficient” in the subjects Maine required. Officials knew that if they set standards too high, an unprecedented number of students could fail to graduate. Too low, and it would defeat the purpose of the whole exercise.

Without a robust State Department to provide technical assistance, districts turned to out-of-state consultants to help them or foundered on their own. The result was a hodgepodge of definitions for proficiency and, ultimately, the decision to abandon the approach altogether at the state level.

I am a firm advocate of “…mastery, competency, or proficiency-based learning”… but that approach is incompatible with the traditional batching of students by age and the traditional method of grading students. As I learned when I attempted to promote this kind of model in districts I led, anyone attempting to change this dominant paradigm of awarding student grades can expect hard pushback from two sources: teachers and parents.

Many teachers are resistant because, as the article explains, they need to make difficult and substantive changes to the way they deliver instruction, changes that some find discomforting. Teachers who hold the view that they are the purveyors of knowledge and students must absorb that knowledge and demonstrate their understanding of it by passing a relatively small number of high stakes tests see students who fail in their classrooms as “not working up to my standards”. Mr. Barnum described that subset of teachers as follows:

(Researchers) found that most teachers continued using traditional exams, not portfolios or performances. Some teachers remained overwhelmed by the prospect of helping struggling students clear the bar without more guidance.

And the teachers who were reluctant to change the current system found allies in parents who liked things the way they were, especially the parents of high achieving children who valued the traditional system that invariably identified their children as the best. Their support for the traditional grading system was buttressed by the fact that many colleges expressed confusion over the meaning of the new system, a valid confusion given that “proficiency” meant different things in different districts.

Changing paradigms requires changing minds… and as the post I wrote yesterday about the GOP-raised teacher in Oklahoma indicates, changing minds requires a combination of adverse experiences and a willingness to question one’s core convictions. This is unlikely to happen in public schools in the short run because parents whose children are successful in school are invested in keeping the system as it is. Their children experience no adversity with the current paradigm: they progress from grade-level to grade-level with no difficulty. Moreover, the current method of ranking students places their children at the top. Why change?

Nor do teachers who work in schools see any value in changing the way schools are organized. The current system efficiently drives the poor-performing students out and identifies the best-and-brightest. Replacing it with some kind of system that nebulously defines “competency” can only lead to needless confusion and, as teachers in Maine experienced, lots of wheel spinning and work.

The best hope for changing the status quo is the development of a collective belief that the current age-based grading system is flawed… and perversely the only way that collective belief can be achieved is through the continued emphasis on testing. MAYBE parents and teachers who currently value the status quo but detest the impact of standardized testing can coalesce around a new paradigm based on the notion that learning should be constant and time should be variable. The entire system we have in place now is based on the opposite belief: that TIME is constant and LEARNING is variable.

My advice to Nellie Mae is to focus on developing a set of competencies that all children should master, developing a clear and common definition of those competencies, and the developing a new paradigm that is better than the one we have in place now.

 

Clay Christensen and Michael Horn Nudge Public Schools to Re-Think Their Delivery

October 9, 2018 Comments off

I am a begrudging fan of Michael Horn and Clay Christensen who, unlike the privatizers, are advocates of disruption of delivery of public education, NOT the displacement of public schools by technology centered on-line learning.

A recent post by Michael Horn in the Clayton Christensen Institute’s weekly on-line newsletter led me to this conclusion. The post begins with a description of how WeWork is moving in the same direction as some former on-line businesses in developing a different model for public education. Noting that on-line retailers like Amazon, Warby Parker, and Bonobos are opening brick and mortar stores that have virtually no inventory but lots of computer terminals, WeWork’s development team has surmised that a similar model might work for education… and they are field testing with their latest partnership with, 2U, which Mr. Horn immodestly describes as “…the standout online program management company.”  And what is WeWork-2U up to?

the partnership allows 2U students to use WeWork’s office space as study halls, and the two companies will build a learning center together in 2019.

The place-based aspect of the partnership is what is so interesting, as it points to what will happen next with the disruptive innovation of online learning, namely how it will improve.

The future of online learning in higher education is in bricks, not just clicks. But these bricks won’t look like the gorgeous and overgrown college campuses we have today….

After a lengthy description of how on-line learning, like Amazon, is finding the middle ground in disruption, he concludes his article with this description of the WeWork-U2 partnership model:

WeWork offers 2U students a place to learn and a community with whom to learn and interact more broadly. Although many of 2U’s students were independently finding and connecting offline with others in their area before, 2U has now embedded that option as a feature, not an inconvenient arrangement that students had to construct on their own.

Importantly, WeWork and 2U are not recreating the sprawling campus environment of college with its traditional classrooms, dorms, grassy green quads, and recreational facilities. But they are offering an in-person environment in an experiment that could dramatically bolster engagement—and herald the future of online learning as it continues its disruptive march.

It isn’t difficult to foresee how arrangements like 2U could migrate into public education. Our local museum’s, galleries, and music studios are already doing something like 2U by bringing homeschooling students together to learn about science, the arts and humanities, to work on art projects and music performances together. When those kinds of options become more clearly known to parents it is not hard to foresee how more parents might opt out of their local public schools, especially if those schools are focussed exclusively on increasing test scores.

From my reading of Mr. Christensen’s book and his newsletter, it is not evident that he wants to undercut public schools. Indeed, when their book Disrupting Class was published when I was still working as a Superintendent, Mr. Christensen and Mr. Horn gave a presentation at our annual conference and Mr. Horn followed up with several visits to the state. Their ideas, unfortunately, did not gain traction in large measure because the risk of changing was too great: if a district went all in on disruption and the test scores did not go up the Superintendent and school board that advocated the change might not be around for long. But a careful reading of Mr. Horn and Mr. Christensen’s concepts leads me to the conclusion that they are inherently opposed to the factory model that standardized testing reinforces. Instead of believing that all children learn at the same rate, Mr. Horn and Mr. Christensen believe that all children learn when they are engaged in studying information they are interested in with groups of similarly engaged and interested cohorts. ASSUMING that is the case, it might be helpful for Mr. Christensen and Mr. Horn to advocate a total and complete disruption of schooling by advocating the elimination of age-based cohorts and replacing it with interest-based cohorts.

Adverse Childhood Experiences COULD Account for Academic Struggles

October 7, 2018 Comments off

Several months ago, a study by Vanessa Sacks and David Murphy analyzed the number and demographics of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) on state by state basis. The ACEs they used as the basis for they analysis were:

1. Lived with a parent or guardian who became divorced or separated

2. Lived with a parent or guardian who died

3. Lived with a parent or guardian who served time in jail or prison

4. Lived with anyone who was mentally ill or suicidal, or severely depressed for more than a couple of weeks

5. Lived with anyone who had a problem with alcohol or drug

6. Witnessed a parent, guardian, or other adult in the household behaving violently toward another (e.g., slapping, hitting, kicking, punching, or beating each other up)

7. Been the victim of violence or witnessed any violence in his or her neighborhood

8. Experienced economic hardship “somewhat often” or “very often” (i.e., the family found it hard to cover costs of food and housing)

Another ACE, “how often their child was treated or judged unfairly because of his or her race or ethnicity”, was not included because the researchers found it too subjective to include. It is safe to say that children of color encountered this ACE far more frequently, which means that if anything, those children encountered an even higher number of ACEs than white children. For decades researchers have found that an individual ACE can have a negative impact on a child and multiple number of ACEs, the threshold is typically four, can lead to long term effects. But Ms. Sacks’ and Mr. Murphey’s study drew an even more astonishing conclusion:

One of the most sobering findings regarding ACEs is preliminary evidence that their negative effects can be transmitted from one generation to the next.13,14 Toxic stress experienced by women during pregnancy can negatively affect genetic “programming” during fetal development, which can contribute to a host of bad outcomes, sometimes much later in life.15Infants born to women who experienced four or more childhood adversities were two to five times more likely to have poor physical and emotional health outcomes by 18 months of age, according to one recently published study.16

Their findings reinforce my contention that public schools are the logical venue for intervening when children encounter difficult problems for three reasons:

  1. ACEs often result in complicated and intractable problems in adulthood, and treatment at that point is expensive and prolonged.
  2. One of the effects of ACEs is a slide in academic performance, making schools the first place negative impact of ACEs may manifest.
  3. Finally, “positive relationships” have been proven to be a mitigating force, and schools are a place where children can develop positive relationships.

Here’s the opening paragraph to a summary of the study, which support the need for schools to intervene in these circumstances:

ACEs can cause stress reactions in children, including feelings of intense fear, terror, and helplessness. When activated repeatedly or over a prolonged period of time (especially in the absence of protective factors), toxic levels of stress hormones can interrupt normal physical and mental development and can even change the brain’s architecture.ACEs have been linked to numerous negative outcomes in adulthood, and research has increasingly identified effects of ACEs in childhood.4,5 Negative outcomes associated with ACEs include some of society’s most intractable (and, in many cases, growing) health issues: alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, suicide, poor physical health, and obesity.There is also some evidence that ACEs are linked to lower educational attainment, unemployment, and poverty.6 In childhood, children who have experienced ACEs are more likely to struggle in school and have emotional and behavioral challenges.7Nevertheless, not all children who experience one of these adverse events (or even more than one) are negatively affected; much depends on the context in which they occur—particularly the context of positive relationships.

Later in the article Ms. Sacks and Mr. Murphey cite research findings that reinforce the notion that a caring adult might offset the consequences of multiple ACEs, writing that

There are likely to be multiple factors that account for individual variation in response to adversity, including genetic predispositions and other biological characteristics, as well as contextual factors such as supportive adult relationships.

In public education our obsession with standardized testing and budget cutting has diminished the resources for support services in schools. In government budgets, the notion that safety nets are viewed as “entitlements” that drain resources has diminished the funding for the mental health and public health services that could provide the support children, adults, and families require as a result of ACEs. But our nation is committed to fast, cheap, and easy solutions to problems. Until we examine our system holistically and realize that relatively small amounts of money spent early in a child’s life will avoid the need to spend huge sums of money later we will continue to perpetuate the underclass and deny opportunities to hundreds of thousands of children.