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“Assembly Line Justice”: an Apt Metaphor for a Department of Education Driven by Efficiency

June 17, 2017 Leave a comment

Late yesterday I read an article by Erica Green of the NYTimes titled “Education Department Says It Will Scale Back Civil Rights Legislation”. The overarching purpose of  the “scaling back” is to reduce the backlog of cases in the department that are primarily the result of former President Obama’s directive to perform thorough and comprehensive investigations where they were warranted.

The office’s processing times have “skyrocketed,” the Education Department spokeswoman, Liz Hill, said, adding that its backlog of cases has “exploded.” The new guidelines were to ensure that “every individual complainant gets the care and attention they deserve,” she said.

In the memo, which was first published by ProPublica, (the acting head of the department’s office for civil rights, Candace) Jackson emphasized that the new protocols were aimed at resolving cases quickly.

“Justice delayed is justice denied, and justice for many complainants has been denied for too long,” Ms. Hill said in a statement.

But to civil rights activists, the real problem isn’t that justice will be denied to complainants. It’s that justice will not be rendered at all.

But civil rights leaders believe that the new directives will have the opposite effect. They say that Education Department staff members would be discouraged from opening cases and that investigations could be weakened because efficiency would take priority over thoroughness.

If we want to have assembly-line justice, and I say ‘justice’ in quotes, then that’s the direction that we should go,” said Catherine Lhamon, who was the assistant secretary of the Education Department’s civil rights office under Mr. Obama, and who now heads the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

Ms. Green’s article explores the difference between the approaches Ms. Lhamon took in her civil rights investigations and those advocated by the incoming staff, describing how one particular case in a public school district required the district to dig into it’s disciplinary records for past years, an exercise that resulted in the district gaining a better understanding of its practices that resulted in a disproportionate number of harsh actions taken against minority students. This kind of in depth analysis requires staff time at the USDOE level as well, and as cases like these accumulated the backlog accumulated as well. In the name of efficiency, though, these kinds of thorough investigations will be a thing of the past.

In the concluding paragraph of the article, Ms. Green describes the budgetary gambit Betsy DeVos is using to facilitate the “judicious approach” the department will implement.

In the administration’s budget request for the fiscal year that begins in October, the Education Department has proposed cutting more than 40 staff positions from the office for civil rights, which would require the office to “make difficult choices, including cutting back on initiating proactive investigations,” the department wrote.

In effect, Ms. DeVos is submitting a budget that will ensure the necessity for limiting the thorough investigations… a budget that will require “assembly-line justice”. For a department that is enamored of algorithmic on-line learning it seems fitting that they would adopt algorithmic justice. Students, after all, are widgets that require periodic quality control via standardized tests and periodic attention from teachers who make sure the robots are providing sufficient knowledge. Who needs a thorough education when an efficient one is sufficient?

Choice Advocate Kerry McDonald ALMOST Gets Illich’s Ideas on Schooling— But Misses Crucial Point

May 31, 2017 Leave a comment

The title of self-described school choice advocate Kerry McDonald’s article in Forbes, Public Education vs. Public Schooling, intimated that she might be familiar with education philosopher Ivan Illich… and sure enough her op ed piece DID use Illich’s ideas as the basis for the distinction between education and schooling. She opens her essay with this promising premise:

I am a true believer in, and a full supporter of, public education.

The trouble is that public education and public schooling have become synonymous. Schooling is one method of education; but it is certainly not the only one and, I argue, not the best one. Until we separate public education from public schooling–to truly “de-school” our perspective on learning–we will be mired in a debate about reforming one, singular method of education (that is, mass schooling), while ignoring other methods of education that could be better.

This appeared to be attuned to the thinking behind this blog, which is premised on the notion that learning networks should replace the outmoded factor model of education in place in our nation for over a century. And Ms. McDonald makes it clear that her use of the term “de-schooling” is drawn from the ideas of Ivan Illich, whose writings from 40 years ago resonate with me today:

In his path-breaking 1970 book, Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich wrote about the need to de-institutionalize learning and invest in decentralized education models that support learners in educating themselves. Illich said: “Universal education through schooling is not feasible…The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring.”

She builds on this promising argument by describing visionary public libraries that serve as educational webs and then draws a clear contrast between the function of libraries and public schools:

The primary difference between public education and public schooling is that the former is openly accessible and self-directed, while the latter is compulsory and coercive. Both are community-based and taxpayer-funded; both can lead to an educated citizenry. But public education–like public libraries, public museums, public parks, community centers, and so on—can support the education efforts of individuals, families, and local organizations with potentially better outcomes than the static system of mass schooling.

But Ms. McDonald goes off the rails when she attempts to support her argument for the replacement of education with schooling by using standardized test data. In doing so, she unwittingly reinforces “the static system mass schooling” that batches students into age-based cohorts and mandates that they take tests based on their age as opposed to taking tests that reflect skills they feel they have mastered. In doing so she misses Illich’s most important point: education holds time as a constant and allows learning to be a variable; schooling holds learning as a constant and allows time to be a variable. We will never be able to promote de-schooling until we use a different metric than standardized testing.

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Educational Choice vs. School Choice vs. the Implicit Mission of Public Schools

May 22, 2017 Leave a comment

Christensen Institute’s article on last week’s blog by Michael Horn made a distinction between educational choice and school choice, noting that while school choice is getting a lot of publicity (and notoriety), the real change in the format of public education might be emerging in educational choice. And what is educational choice? It is a method parents can use to access some aspects of schooling in traditional public schools while accessing other aspects on line or in other venues. Here’s Michael Horn’s description:

…rather than have the school control the educational experiences, as occurs in course access, a subset of parents, particularly at the elementary school level—both public and home-school—are opting to manage their children’s education and customize a mix of public brick-and-mortar school, online school, home school, and even some private school (such as private music lessons) experiences. In other words, a student might take her core academics online at home, come in to the local elementary school for arts and physical education, and then enroll in a music academy for private piano lessons. Or the core classes could be at the public school and extracurricular activities could be delivered online. All of this is possible in Florida because of FLVS’s Flex program, which allows students to attend part-time.

After describing the technological change process in detail, Mr. Horn posits that what is happening in Florida with an increasing number of parents opting for this “customized mix” of educational models is also emerging as a trend nationwide:

Outside of Florida, the emergence of a wide variety of micro-schools points to a similar phenomenon. The families who send their children to micro-schools often want an option other than home schooling that will personalize learning for their child’s needs. And they are often thrilled if it’s a stripped-down, small school that students attend a couple days a week where they can customize their children’s experience around the edges, in areas like music, science, engineering, sports, and so forth. In other words, it’s perfectly fine that the school itself offers something limited in an area because the parents will find another way to provide students with that experience. This is actually something parents of home-schooled children have done for years, but increasingly some seem to be saying that they would like some of the benefits of the local public school, for which they are paying with their tax dollars, as they do so.

Having just spent the week-end at an Air BnB site that is located in the home of two individuals who operate a small private school that fits the description of the micro-school described above, I can see one problem with this trend. If parents are allowed to access public funds to attend a school that effectively reinforces the values of the parents, it could lead to a further Balkanization of our country. The school in question reinforces that value I would like to see in all public schools. It espouses harmony with the environment; collaboration, and cooperation among students; independent thinking and learning by individual students; and and ethic of multiculturalism. But around the corner from this school, it is conceivable that another school with a militaristic, survivalist curriculum could be created. In effect you would be fragmenting the population into micro-value systems where one school would be wearing tie-dyes and another wearing camouflage and neither group would be exposed to the other. One of the implicit purposes of public education is to reinforce the notion that our country is a melting pot. That is, we are united as a nation despite our differences of religious and secular beliefs and that unity is an overarching value we share. While the housing patterns and district borders might work against this notion and might even lead cynics to declare that unity is a myth as opposed to an aspiration, I fear that encouraging the dissolution of public schools through this kind of educational choice will lead to even more Balkanization than we already have in place.

In the end, I find that Mr. Horn’s justification for moving in this direction is even more disturbing: it could save taxpayers money!

The net impact on public financing… was actually positive to the tune of roughly $400 to $500 saving per student, not insignificant in a state where total per pupil funding hovers around $8,500 in any given year.

In his closing paragraph Mr. Horn DOES acknowledge that the ultimate consequences of implementing widespread educational choice are indeterminate:

If programs like this expanded, could those savings be redirected to students most in need? And how do the students of families who avail themselves of this choice do academically, socially and from an extracurricular perspective? Many questions to be asked and answered, but this development is an intriguing wrinkle that takes us well beyond the national theme of school choice.

I like the idea of micro-schools, but only if there is some assurance that they do not isolate children from others who hold different values and beliefs. We need to maintain (or perhaps restore or even impose) economic, racial, ethnic, and religious diversity in public schools if we hope to change the national trend of corrosive divisiveness. If we hope to make that change in the future, we need to make it happen in public schools today.

Un-Grading Schools to Make Performance Constant, Time Variable

May 1, 2017 Leave a comment

I read Diane Ravitch’s column today and was dismayed because in her opposition to standardized testing she is posing the wrong question, which is: “Why do we need standardized testing in every grade for every child.” The better question is this: “Why do we test students based on age cohorts at all?” The answer to this question is that it is “more efficient” (i.e. easier to administer and “interpret”) and implicitly promotes competition between students and among schools (i.e. it yields “precise” comparative data). The “standards” that the tests yield are statistical constructs: a particular cut score becomes the “standard” for proficiency even though the cut score is unrelated to the mastery of any particular information. The cut score only tells a teacher whether their students exceeded or fell short of a cut score that is defined as a “standard”.  But the standardized test scores DO yield a seemingly precise aggregate score that politicians and journalists can use to “measure quality” and statisticians can use to draw conclusions about “teacher performance”.

If we replaced standardized summative tests with individualized formative tests and batched students based on performance cohorts instead of age we could move out of the factory model of schooling that, in the name of efficiency, batches students by age cohorts and require them to advance through predetermined curricula at the same rate as their age peers in all content areas. Instead of a factory model, we could have a system that groups children based on their skill proficiency as measured by formative assessments designed for that purpose. Mastery tests require a different kind of question than standardized tests. We use mastery tests in other arenas. Drivers license tests, citizenship tests, bar exams, and medical school exams are not graded on a curve. They ascertain the baseline skills needed in each domain they measure and design assessments that  assure a demonstration of sufficient knowledge in a particular field. Moreover, many credentials, like drivers licenses and medical degrees, require performance assessments. We don’t want drivers who cannot operate a vehicle or surgeons who’ve only passed content examinations.

Our insistence on using standardized tests as the primary metric for “schooling” assumes that time is constant and learning is variable. Any standard that begins with the phrase “by the end of grade X…” assumes that students will be batched in age-based cohorts and tested at a set time. The common core was based on this assumption, which meant that the debate over it was not about whether the sequence of math skills was accurate but rather about timing of the tests to assess mastery of the skills: whether the tests on the sequence of skills matched the age cohort to be tested.

And when the stakes on the passage of standardized tests linked to age-based cohorts increased, the focus on “schooling” narrowed and the urgency to cram more content into groups of children who were not developmentally prepared to absorb the information led to the expansion of the school day, a reduction in arts, music, and hands on learning, and a diminishment of joy for teachers and students alike.

We need to test students in some fashion to ensure that they have mastered the skills we teach them and we should accept the fact that students will learn at different rates and in different ways. Anyone who is the parent of more than one child knows this is true. If we used our collective time and energy to design and use the results of formative assessments to help students progress through skill sequences at their own rate and in a fashion that matches their learning modality we could re-form education…. and with the technology available today we could readily accomplish this. But as long as we insist that all children move at the same speed through our curricula, as long as we insist on having time be constant, we can be certain that performance will vary and some children will be “left behind” for no good reason.

Neither Cuomo’s “Free Tuition” Excelsior Program Nor “Choice” Address Inequity… and Both Reinforce the Status Quo

April 30, 2017 Leave a comment

I read two different articles this morning on NYS Governor Cuomo’s vaunted Excelsior program which offers “Free Tuition” to State colleges. Both articles acknowledged one flaw in the program: it does nothing to help children raised in poverty.

Lisa Foderaro’s NYTimes article focuses on the impact of the recently passed legislation on students who are weighing their decision on which college to attend in the coming year and the impact on public college admissions administrators who are waiting to see if their 2017 Freshman classes are larger. In the body of the article, Ms. Foderaro offers this synopsis of the Excelsior program with my emphasis added:

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has made Excelsior the centerpiece of his middle-class agenda, saying it will “make college accessible to thousands of working and middle class students” who might otherwise not be able to afford to attend. The program’s passage was hailed by Hillary Clinton, among others, for opening up college opportunities, but critics have complained that it does little to ease the college burden for the state’s poorest students. (By 2019, the income cap for the scholarship will rise to $125,000.)

Some have argued that the tens of millions of dollars allotted for the program this year should be used instead to help low-income students pay for room and board, which is generally not covered by existing state and federal financial-aid programs. Others faulted the scholarship’s stringent eligibility requirements, including full-time enrollment and the need to stay in the state after graduation. Still others worried that the program would siphon students from New York’s private colleges, putting their financial viability in jeopardy.

The Christiansen Institute’s Newsletter article featured an by Alana Dunagan critiquing the Excelsior program, which focussed on the impediment the program imposes on those, like the Christiansen Institute, who seek to change the current paradigm for college. In the body of her essay, Ms. Dunagan offers this scathing analysis of the impact of Excelsior on students raised in poverty:

The Excelsior Scholarship has been criticized for not doing enough to help students. It only covers tuition—not fees or living expenses, which together are estimated at $15,180 at SUNY and $14,135 at CUNY. It only covers full-time enrollment—not part-time enrollment, which excludes over a third of current CUNY students. Taken together, these two factors mean that most working adults will likely be shut out of the program, even though the Excelsior Scholarship has no official age requirements. The policy is also regressive: it is a last-dollar program which will direct funds to middle- and upper-middle-class families, rather than helping poor and working-class students defray more of the full cost of attendance. As free college advocate Sara Goldrick-Rab said, regarding Cuomo’s new initiative, “No other free college program is less about making college affordable.”

As one who sees the need to provide access to post-secondary education those who need it most, it is evident that the Excelsior program is NOT the way forward. Like the “choice” plans offered by reformers and especially the reform plan offered by Betsy DeVos, Excelsior directs relatively scarce public funds to institutions that middle class parents are already voluntarily funding out of their pockets instead of directing those funds to children who’s parents do not have the wherewithal to fund the first dollar for post-secondary schools or “schools of choice”.

And as Ms. Dunagan emphasizes in her essay, the Excelsior program keeps a failing model for college on life-support, thereby crowding out opportunities for innovative approaches to schooling to emerge.

But what the Excelsior Scholarship program does do, and does well, is distract students, parents, and taxpayers from the broken business model of the state’s higher education system. “Free college” is in this case a shell game. Although it may reduce the cost of college for middle-class families, it by no means makes it free—and the costs of the program are likely to be shouldered by the same middle-class taxpayers who it benefits. But the underlying issue still remains: it’s not just tuition that is unaffordable, it is the cost—ever rising—of college itself. As we’ve written before, “free college” may score votes, but it doesn’t solve problems

Cuomo may have papered over the state’s higher education problems for the moment, but in doing so, he is likely to make them worse in the long run. The program will undoubtedly force some of the state’s private schools to close, but it is no boon for public schools either. Subsidizing more students attending a system that is bleeding money will have costs far higher than the Excelsior Scholarship’s $163 million price tag. Over the long term, higher education policy needs to move away from subsidy programs that let more students afford college. The key is redesigning college to be affordable.

I do not agree with all of the approaches the Christiansen Institution advocates (i.e. their overselling of on-line learning), but I do agree that we are wasting millions on post-secondary education that could be better spent on funding community service “gap years” and/or job training programs for careers that are vital but do not require a formal degree. Excelsior reinforces a bad model of post-secondary education in the same way that standardized testing reinforces the factory model of schooling that is imprinted in our minds…. and like the “choice” model it subverts the need for change.  

The Administrator Behind the Metal Detector Accepts The Necessity of His Role

April 30, 2017 Leave a comment

“The Man Behind the Metal Detector”, a NYTimes op ed article by Boston public school administrator Adam Stumacher, describes Mr. Stumacher’s conflicts about his role as the school’s gatekeeper and inspector of book-bags and knapsacks. These paragraphs describe his unsettling thoughts as he performs his daily task, comparing his students’ experiences to those he had growing up in rural New Hampshire:

The reality for my students is different. They have been followed through stores, had people roll up their car windows or cross the street when they approach. So perhaps they are unsurprised by the metal detectors.

I try to tell myself none of this is within my control. I think of our school’s work to design courses around diverse texts, hire teachers who reflect our students’ cultures and connect kids with opportunities like internships — how we welcome all students with the promise that we will not rest until they achieve their potential.

But I see how their body language shifts when they walk through metal detectors, some wrapping their arms around themselves and others throwing their heads back in defiance. I see how they fixate on their phone screens or scarves, anything to avoid meeting my gaze. In that moment, there is no denying I am part of the machine.

As one who taught in urban public schools and worked as an administrator in a blue collar suburban district just outside of a city, I am not surprised that Mr. Stumacher is conflicted about his role. Indeed, I imagine anyone who, like me, grew up in a small college town where most of my associations were with churched classmates whose parents expected them to go to college, is often conflicted when they are forced into the role of “enforcer”. Most teachers are drawn to professions in public education because they believe they can make a difference in the lives of children through connections, not because they want to impose their will. So Mr. Stumacher’s conflicts about serving as a de facto policeman are not surprising. What would have been more interesting is to read about the process the administrative team went through to make the decision to put the metal detectors in school to start with, a decision that they had to realize would change the entire dynamic of entry to school each and every day and change Mr. Shumacher’s role. The article offers this as an explanation:

There are metal detectors at the entrance of nearly every public high school in Boston — I imagine it’s the same in most major cities. Last year, when I started working at this school as part of a new administration, we were determined not to use them. We made it until October, when a student brought a knife to school. He was a gentle kid, a ninth grader, and he said he’d brought the knife only because some guys in his neighborhood were harassing him on the way to school and he needed to protect himself. But our first job is to keep the school safe, and so we asked the district for metal detectors, which arrived before 7 the next morning. I had never seen anything arrive so promptly from the district. Textbook orders take months.

This brought to mind my first year as an administrator in 1975 when I heard through the student grapevine that a student had a knife rolled up in a towel in his gym bag. Like the student in Mr. Shumacher’s essay, he was “a gentle kid” who didn’t stemlike the kind of student who would be prone to violence. Nevertheless, I called the student to the office where I confronted him. When he denied the allegation, I asked if I could accompany him to his locker to retrieve his gym bag so he could show me it’s contents. When I asked him to unroll his towel, he looked at me guiltily, and slowly unrolled the towel where there was a large knife. Like the student in Mr. Shumacher’s essay, he said he’d brought the knife only because some guys in his neighborhood were harassing him on the way to school and he needed to protect himself. We called his parents in for a conference, suspended him from school for three days for possession of a weapon (the notion of In School Suspension had not been introduced at that time), and alerted the police and local community leaders of the sense of threat the student felt. The idea of metal detectors was not on our radar in 1975 because in that era one could freely walk through airports, freely enter the US House and Senate Building, and freely enter any public space without having to walk through a metal detector or screening device monitored by a uniformed guard.

My questions to those who see metal detectors as the only option is this: we built “the machine” that Mr. Shumacher is a part of. Why can’t we take it apart and build it a different way? Why can’t we begin with the premise that our money is better spent building cohesive neighborhoods than  building and staffing metal protectors? Why aren’t we operating out of a caring attitude instead of a fearful one?

Union District in Oklahoma Exemplifies Network School Model

April 3, 2017 Leave a comment

David Kirp’s article in yesterday’s NYTimes, “Who Needs Charters When You Have Schools Like These?” describes the success experienced in the Union Public Schools district in the eastern part of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Like most districts in Oklahoma, Union is woefully underfunded. But despite the shortage of money, it is doing an amazing job of educating its largely Latino and poverty stricken population. How? By accepting full responsibility for the well-being of the children who attend and by offering all the children in the school a challenging STEM curriculum…. But I believe the acceptance of responsibility for well being and the caring for each and every student that goes with it are the primary factor.

“Our motto is: ‘We are here for all the kids,’ ” Cathy Burden, who retired in 2013 after 19 years as superintendent, told me. That’s not just a feel-good slogan. “About a decade ago I called a special principals’ meeting — the schools were closed that day because of an ice storm — and ran down the list of student dropouts, name by name,” she said. “No one knew the story of any kid on that list. It was humiliating — we hadn’t done our job.” It was also a wake-up call. “Since then,” she adds, “we tell the students, ‘We’re going to be the parent who shows you how you can go to college.’ ”

Last summer, Kirt Hartzler, the current superintendent, tracked down 64 seniors who had been on track to graduate but dropped out. He persuaded almost all of them to complete their coursework. “Too many educators give up on kids,” he told me. “They think that if an 18-year-old doesn’t have a diploma, he’s got to figure things out for himself. I hate that mind-set.”

The school operates like an institution that is the parent who can show the way and a one-stop community service center:

The school district also realized, as Ms. Burden put it, that “focusing entirely on academics wasn’t enough, especially for poor kids.” Beginning in 2004, Union started revamping its schools into what are generally known as community schools. These schools open early, so parents can drop off their kids on their way to work, and stay open late and during summers. They offer students the cornucopia of activities — art, music, science, sports, tutoring — that middle-class families routinely provide. They operate as neighborhood hubs, providing families with access to a health care clinic in the school or nearby; connecting parents to job-training opportunities; delivering clothing, food, furniture and bikes; and enabling teenage mothers to graduate by offering day care for their infants.

This integration of social services is a universal key component to every high performing public school, as is are the extended hours for child care and/or extra-curricular activities. And while the services offered in the “neighborhood hub” model don’t add a dime to the school budget, they DO require the school to re-format itself, to adopt a new algorithm for success apart from preparing students for the next standardized testing cycle.

Mr. Kirp concludes his article with a paragraph consisting of two questions:

Will Ms. DeVos and her education department appreciate the value of investing in high-quality public education and spread the word about school systems like Union? Or will the choice-and-vouchers ideology upstage the evidence?

I trust he knows the answer… and I sense he shakes his head in dismay as he poses the questions.