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The Unshakeable Myth of Horatio Alger Lives On… Facts Notwithstanding. But Then So Does Sorting Students by Age and Standardized Testing

July 5, 2019 1 comment

It is difficult to NOT to sound haughty and dismissive when I react to large swaths of the population in our country who cannot accept the fact that unregulated capitalism works against their needs. Today’s NYTimes, for example, had an article by Patricia Cohen titled “Southerners, Facing Big Odds, Believe in a Path Out of Poverty“. The article describes how most Southerners see no need for any kind of government assistance because they cling to the Horatio Alger myth that “anyone with enough gumption and grit can clamber to the top”. It also describes how those holding this belief are unshaken when confronted with facts illustrating that social mobility in their region is the worst in the country and worse than it has ever been. And what was even more astonishing was to read research showing that that this optimism persisted and even increased in the face of segregation. Social scientists di find one factor that DID make a difference: an individual;s political viewpoint:

Whether people think opportunity is equally available, though, often depends on their political viewpoint.

Liberals are generally more pessimistic than conservatives about the ability of poorer Americans to hoist themselves up economically, and they are more inclined to support government programs meant to ease the route. Tell them that social mobility from one generation to the next is less than they thought, and their support for public assistance increases.

For conservatives, none of that is true. Learning that they have overestimated the odds does not increase their support for government intervention, but causes it to drop even further.

To this New England liberal, this conservative unwillingness to face facts seems backward! How could anyone NOT want to change an economic system that reduces the odds for their children to have a better life? But then I reflect on my own life experience and realize that I often ignored cold, hard facts when I applied for jobs and worked hard in my teens and in my workalike to “clamber to the top” thanks to “gumption and grit”. I could easily create a narrative based on this personal experience that anyone who applied themselves, persisted, and accumulated the prerequisite skills could realize their dreams without any help from the government. But this narrative would have to overlook the reality that I was born as a white male into a family where both parents had college degrees and were able to provide me with food, clothing and shelter throughout my youth.

In the early 1990s I read a book by Joel Barker titled Paradigms, a book that drew on the then arcane research of scientist Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Barker posited that the collective rules that govern our thinking, our paradigms, can often block us from seeing potential business opportunities and can often lead us to cling to ideas that are outdated and unsubstantiated by facts. I showed the video that accompanied the book to faculty members and administrators in the district where I was working at the time, linking Barker’s message to the changes we were making as we converted our “junior high schools” to “middle schools”, our budgeting toward a school-based approach as opposed to a centralized one, and our student grading system towards a mastery approach. The conversion to middle schools was relatively easy, challenged primarily by budget constraints that made inter-disciplinary team organization scheduling very complicated. The school-based budget was also relatively easy to accomplish: most of the Principals readily accepted the idea that they could allocate a pool of money among accounts instead of having the central office mandate budget lines for supplies, texts, workbooks, and equipment. The student grading system, though, seemed impervious to change. I hoped that we would move away from a bell curve to a j-curve, away from letter grades that compared students to each other toward a system that measured each individual against a series of performance standards, a system that used time instead of mastery as a variable. What I found was that the imprint of the bell curve and the rules that accompanied that imprint, were seemingly impervious to change.

The lesson I learned from this is that some mind shifts can occur fairly rapidly, especially when the benefits of the shift are relatively painless to achieve. But when a mind shift requires a corresponding change in deeply imprinted paradigms like the bell curve, a mind shift can be measured in generations unless some kind of shared experience compels us to think differently.

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NYTimes Offers Better Ways to Do College

June 24, 2019 Comments off

There Are Better Ways to Do College“, an article by NYTimes writer Alice Lloyd, profiles a handful of colleges in the United States that offer credits for hands on work. Here’s Ms. Lloyd’s of the so-called “work colleges”:

There are nearly 10 of them: Private four-year schools known as work colleges, where students put in mandatory hours each week as a complement to their course loads. Through a combination of grants, donations, endowments and hourly wages, work colleges ask for less in fees than any comparable schools and leave their graduates with lighter debt loads. They also keep every student meaningfully occupied, in roles that range from chaplain to dishwasher.

It’s almost too easy, once you’ve visited one of the campuses, to slip into contemplation of what work colleges have that most of the rest of life lacks. They serve a deeper need than affordable education. They harness the power of purposeful work, compounded by collegiate social pressure. (If the bathroom crew misses a shift, their dorm mates will notice.)

They also do a great job of honoring their origins: Each one rose to meet its area’s need for a college that students wouldn’t have to fund in the conventional manner, and the model they landed on worked well enough that relatively little has changed.

In an era where college is promoted as the key to earning higher salaries, a world where the federal government is planning to rate colleges based on the earnings of its graduates, the notion of harnessing the power of purposeful work  and engaging each and every student in work that keeps them meaningfully occupied seems quaint and idealistic. But the world we need in the future is not the world we have today. The world we need in the future would place a higher value on communitarianism than libertarianism and a higher value on meaningful work than highly remunerative work. Ms. Lloyd concludes her report with these paragraphs:

Work colleges aren’t actually going to save the world. To keep tuition low or nonexistent, they often rely on restricted grants, to the necessary exclusion of most Americans. And even students who meet the standards for guaranteed tuition at the schools that offer it have to qualify academically. They tend to be tightly local, too. Not all of the schools aggregate data year to year, but College of the Ozarks prides itself on standing as a barrier against the Ozarks’ brain drain.

“They go back to teach in the schools in the communities,” Mr. Bolger boasted of his flock. “They work for firms in their communities, they serve in social services in the communities that they came from.” Alice Lloyd said it sends 80 percent of graduates to work in the same Appalachian counties from which it almost exclusively recruits.

Trying to figure out what makes work colleges work — and how the rest of the world can work more that way — has the flavor of a soul-saving mission. I’d say work colleges do their part in the national project by teaching students something the rest of us often don’t learn before it’s too late — essentially that to survive, a community needs each one of its members to pick up a shovel and participate.

I disagree with Ms. Lloyd. I think that work colleges actually COULD save those corners of the world where the services of college graduates are needed but are “unaffordable” because of local economic conditions. As one who worked in rural regions for much of my career as a school superintendent, I heard about, read about, and witnessed the “brain drain” that the Ozarks experienced…. and cannot help but think that there were many of those who fled their roots in Norther New England and Appalachia because they could not find employment in their chosen profession because the school districts and social service agencies “couldn’t afford” them. Western Maryland, New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont would all envy having a college in their region that had 80% of its graduates working in the same counties they recruited from… and I daresay that many of those who left their hometowns would come back if there was work for them. Maybe some of the small struggling state colleges and small liberal arts colleges could help themselves and the communities where they are located if they adopted a work college model.

Head of Local Private School Touts Role of Schools in Future While Ignoring Public School’s Realities

June 15, 2019 Comments off

Brad Choyt, the Head of Crossroads Academy, a nearby K-8 private school wrote a thoughtful and insightful op ed article for our local newspaper describing the need for schools in the future to change their emphasis given the advent of AI-based instructional tools. In the article, after describing the advances in AI, he writes:

Within forward-thinking schools, educators are creating environments that prize the very skills that the most advanced computers programmed with the latest algorithms can’t match. This includes a renewed emphasis on creative problem-solving, cultivating high levels of empathy that foster clear communication skills, a fluency when collaborating with diverse groups of people and an ability to analyze data with a critical eye to determine the sets of information that are relevant and also what needs to be disregarded.

The best schools are also maximizing student engagement in their classrooms and ensuring their coursework meaningfully connects to real-world issues. In these classrooms, students are given ample opportunity to grapple with knowledge and problems that are complicated and sometimes messy to learn, but that often lead toward deeper understanding and insights on complex and nuanced topics.

Also, high-functioning schools are continually enabling their students to develop into self-directed, lifelong learners. Skilled teachers do this by allowing students to explore their specific interests while empowering them to self-evaluate their academic progress. In these classroom environments, students are given ample opportunity to learn from and to teach their peers while fostering greater accountability for their own academic success. All of these qualities allow students to gain uniquely human skills and insight as they strive to internalize a deeper understanding of their communities and the world around us.

One day, a more advanced generation of algorithms might be able to do many of the things the best teachers can do. And these computers will hopefully also create a world with fewer diseases and greener sources of energy. But I also believe there will continue to be a need for places where students and teachers can come together both to learn and to prepare for a brighter future, one where we can continuously perfect our own human neural networks in the company of others who can become both role models and mentors.

Ultimately, my visits to different schools have reaffirmed this essential point: It is the potential and the power of human relationships that inspire students to learn life’s most important lessons, and no computer, no matter how advanced its algorithm, can be a substitute.

These ideas resonate with me. I wholeheartedly agree that schools should focus on interpersonal relations, self-directed learning, and higher order thinking skills. And the ideas Mr. Choyt presents are congruent with the mission of the school he leads, which describes itself as an “Independent, coeducational day school based upon the Core Knowledge Sequence, authored by E.D. Hirsch, and the character education program, Core Virtues, created by founder Dr. Mary Beth Klee.” The webpage for the school also notes that the Crossroads Program “includes a strong focus on the performance arts”. It’s motto is “Strong Minds. Kind Hearts”.  

There is one reality that Mr. Choyt overlooks: as a private school Crossroads does not use annual state test scores as the basis for determining it’s quality. And by the way, neither does it’s nearby public school district— the one I led for 7 years when NCLB was emerging as the coin of the realm for accountability. Why? Because our public school was a de facto selective school in the same way as Crossroads since the real estate within the communities that comprised the school district were among the wealthiest in their respective states.
If we want the kinds of schools Mr. Choyt describes we need to provide those schools with the kinds of resources Crossroads has, the kinds of resources that affluent public schools have, and— most importantly— stop using standardized tests as the primary metric for “quality”. If we want to value creative thinking, self-directed learning, and interpersonal skills we need to find a way to measure them acknowledging that any measure will be imprecise… an acknowledgement that should be made and emphasized even now!

Schools Serving Children Raised in Poverty are Overburdening Underpaid, Overworked Teachers

May 27, 2019 Comments off

Pedro de Costa’s recent EPI blog post connected the dots between under-resourced schools, underpaid teachers, and the teacher shortage that exists in schools serving children raised in poverty. This poignant quote from a presentation given by Joy Kirk, a middle-school teacher from Frederick (VA) teacher illustrates the daunting challenges that face teachers in under-resourced schools:

….okay, we know so and so doesn’t have water, how can we get them into school early and maybe get them down to the gym? As teachers, you’re making these little baskets and you’re letting this kid come to class 20 minutes late and the other kids are wondering but it’s because as teachers you know they don’t have water right now and you’ve got to do something—but you don’t want them to stand out.

“But as the problem began to grow, especially through the recession, we began to recognize this was more than just a few teachers on a team, or a few teachers in a school. It’s a community issue and we need to step up.

“We need the mental health workers, we need the school psychologists. We have some of our schools now that now offer laundry service and the kids can bring in clothes to do their laundry, so they’re not ‘that’ kid.”

The bottom line, as Ms. Kirk and Mr. de Costa infer, is that schools are the last line of defense in the War on Poverty that was launched with insufficient funds, insufficient “soldiers”, and insufficient “armaments” from the outset… and so the problems that students bring to the classroom persist and the gap between the haves and the have-nots is widening.

 

We’re Not in Palo Alto Any More

April 21, 2019 Comments off

An article by Nellie Bowles in today’s NYTimes describes the reaction of parents in Kansas when their school district decided to adopt Mark Zuckerberg’s Summit Learning program that relies more on Chromebooks than teachers…. and the reaction was NOT good!

“We’re allowing the computers to teach and the kids all looked like zombies,” said Tyson Koenig, a factory supervisor in McPherson, who visited his son’s fourth-grade class. In October, he pulled the 10-year-old out of the school.

In a school district survey of McPherson middle school parents released this month, 77 percent of respondents said they preferred their child not be in a classroom that uses Summit. More than 80 percent said their children had expressed concerns about the platform.

Oops! Well… maybe the problem was limited to a small rural district in Kansas!

The resistance in Kansas is part of mounting nationwide opposition to Summit, which began trials of its system in public schools four years ago and is now in around 380 schools and used by 74,000 students. In Brooklyn, high school students walked out in November after their school started using Summit’s platform. In Indiana, Pa., after a survey by Indiana University of Pennsylvania found 70 percent of students wanted Summit dropped or made optional, the school board scaled it back and then voted this month to terminate it. And in Cheshire, Conn., the program was cut after protests in 2017.

“When there are frustrating situations, generally kids get over them, parents get over them, and they all move on,” said Mary Burnham, who has two grandchildren in Cheshire’s school district and started a petition to end Summit’s use. “Nobody got over this.”

Oops again and again!
But here’s an imponderable. How would parents have reacted to the imposition of the factory school model when it was “invented” in the early 1920s? Would they have preferred the one-room school house model to the egg crate school? Would they have preferred a different form of grouping than the age-based cohorts imposed by efficiency minded administrators? And a final question: are the Silicon Valley CEOs imposing their way of thinking on future generations the same way that business-minded efficiency experts imposed their way of thinking on generations that followed?

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

April 11, 2019 Comments off

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?

 

 

Extra-rational Motivation vs. Material Interests in Capitalism… and in Schooling

April 10, 2019 Comments off

A recent Evonomics blog post by Peter Turchin, “Does Capitalism Kill Cooperation?”,  examines our current economy and describes the corrosive effects of competition and the benefits of collaboration. At the end of his analysis, he concludes that innovation and the resulting economic growth that stems from innovation is NOT the result of competition– the desire to win—  but rather the result of “extra-rational” motivation.

He opens his post with this description of the current mindset of economists:

Milton Friedman, of course, always argued that economic agents should strictly follow their material interests;there is no place for “extra-rational motives” in business. Most economists today feel the same way, although few are willing to state it as boldly as Friedman did.

Mr. Turchin acknowledges that in many– if not most— cases people make economic decisions based on optimization: they want to get the most value for the lowest cost possible. But he goes on to note that at the systems level capitalism operates differently, emphasizing that capitalism has been successful as a system because it promotes innovation:

But capitalism is not just about buying and selling things—people have been doing commerce for millennia before capitalism. Surely the amazing capacity of capitalism to transform knowledge into innovation, and innovation into economic growth is one of the central of its attributes? So let’s talk about such successful innovation hotspots, as the Silicon Valley. What are the motivations driving successful entrepreneurs within such hotspots?

Mr. Turchin then answers this question using the findings of Victor Hwang and Greg Horowitz whose recent book The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley examines the characteristics of regions where innovation is prevalent. And here’s what they found:

A central theme that recurs throughout the book is that successful entrepreneurs, and the successful innovation systems in which they operate, such as the Silicon Valley or Route 128 in Massachusetts, are the antithesis of the rational businessperson postulated by Branko (a Friedman acolyte) one who is solely motivated by money. In fact, “Rainforests [their term for successful innovation systems] depend on people not behaving like rational actors.” “For Rainforests to be sustainable, greed must be restrained.” “Predatory venture capitalists might win a few in the short run, but they do not last long in the business and are unable to build lasting firms.”

Extra-rational motivations—those that transcend the classical divide between rational and irrational—are not normally considered critical drivers of economic value-creation. …  These motivations include the thrill of competition, human altruism, a thirst for adventure, a joy of discovery and creativity, a concern for future generations, and a desire for meaning in one’s life, among many others.Our work over the years has led us to conclude that these types of motivations are not just “nice to have.” They are, in fact, “must have” building blocks of the Rainforest.

Hwang and Horowitz identify four recommendations to create the “Rainforests” that result in innovation:

First, diversity, which brings people with very different knowledge and skills together, such as a scientist, a venture capitalist, an engineer, a sales specialist, and an administrator (a CEO).

Second, extra-rational motivations, because self-regarding rational actors are simply unable to cooperate to launch a successful innovation enterprise.

Third, social trust, because successful cooperation is the only way to beat the terrible odds against a successful innovation startup, and cooperation requires trust.

Fourth, a set of social norms that regulate the behavior of various cooperating agents, and willingness both to follow them and to enforce these rules by various sanctions.

After listing these recommendations, Mr. Turchin concludes his post with this:

In other words, Hwang and Horowitt describe a system that uses precisely the same components to bring about cooperation that have been studied in other settings (a foraging group, a military troop, a religious sect, and a state), and in the abstract, by cultural evolutionists.

The Rainforest, then, provides ample empirical material to reject the theory that economic growth, which is based on innovation, is moved by self-interested rational agents. But—and it was one of the real eye-openers for me—it also explains why this is so.

The notion that extra-rational motivations are “must haves” in the Rainforest and the four recommendation offered by Mr. Hwang and Horowitt resonate with me. And they underscore my belief that our public school “system” is based on the wrong premises. Indeed, they currently operate on the opposite set up. They are not diverse, they focus on competition and individual performance over collaboration and group performance, they have rules imposed with no input from students or, in some cases, from staff members, and— as a result— there is no effort to create social norms based on consensus.

Politicians, parents, businessmen and voters all seek to have schools that create innovative and caring graduates who can function effectively in our economy and our democracy. If we want that end, we might consider following the recommendations for creating a “Rainforest” instead of staying with our current system that sorts and selects based on a factory model.