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Unsurprising Results in Online Courses: Self-Actualized Learners Do Fine… Others, Not So Well

January 21, 2018 Leave a comment

The NYTimes featured an op ed article by University of Michigan professor Susan Dynarski earlier this week with the unsurprising headline: “Online Courses Are Harming the Students Who Need Help the Most“. The article describes a study that concluded that “…the growth of online education is hurting a critical group: the less proficient students who are precisely those most in need of skilled classroom teachers.” But, as Ms. Dynarsky notes, these are the very students who are being steered into online coursework in the name of efficiency and equity.

Online learning is more efficient. After all, a single teacher— or in some cases and single teacher and an algorithm— can oversee hundreds of students working online. But too often, online courses are used for the purpose of credit restoration, and when students “pass” an online credit restoration course they gain far less understanding than students who take the same content face-to-face. But passing as many students as possible is important when the metric for “success” is pass rates and if one can achieve a pass rate using computers it saves a substantial amount in the budget.

Online learning can provide equity, but only if the students are highly motivated. As Ms. Dynarsky writes:

Online courses have many real benefits… They can help high achievers in need of more advanced coursework than their districts provide through other means. This is especially true in small, rural districts that offer few specialized, traditional courses for students working ahead of their grades.

A study in Maine and Vermont examined the effect of online courses on eighth graders with strong math skills in schools that didn’t offer face-to-face algebra classes. Students were randomly assigned either to online algebra or to the less challenging, standard math offered in traditional classes.

Both groups of students were tested at the end of the school year. The online algebra students did substantially better than their counterparts in standard classrooms. They were also twice as likely to complete advanced math later in high school.

Having worked in rural schools, this result is unsurprising. Often small schools enroll weaker students in a course labelled as “Algebra” in order to provide the course for children in their school… but many of the students in the course are only marginally prepared for the rigors. The online courses, though, are often limited to those students with “strong math skills”, which would account for the differential in performance at the conclusion of the course.

The real damage done to struggling students occurs at the higher education level:

n colleges, especially in nonselective and for-profit schools, online education has expanded rapidly, too, with similar effects. These schools disproportionately enroll low-income students who are often the first in their families to attend college. Such students tend to drop out of college at very high rates. Students with weak preparation don’t fare well in online college classes, as recent researchby professors at Harvard and Stanford shows.

These scholars examined the performance of hundreds of thousands of students at DeVry University, a large for-profit college with sites across the country. DeVry offers online and face-to-face versions of all its courses, using the same textbooks, assessments, assignments and lecture materials in each format. Even though the courses are seemingly identical, the students who enroll online do substantially worse.

The effects are lasting, with online students more likely to drop out of college altogether. Hardest hit are those who entered the online class with low grades. Work by researchers in many other colleges concurs with the DeVry findings: The weakest students are hurt most by the online format.

And to make matters worse, these for-profit “colleges” often use false advertising to entice enrollees who take out loans to pay— or more accurately OVERpay– for the courses they take. Ms. Dynarksy leads this conclusion out of her analysis: This scam, more than anything, adds to the student loan crisis facing our country.

 

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This Just In: Privatizing Profiteers Benefit from and Exacerbate Racial and Economic Segregation

January 20, 2018 Leave a comment

Yesterday’s Washington Post blog post by Valerie Strauss consists of an interview of author Nowile Rooks whose latest book, Cutting School, is summarized in one telling quote that leads Ms. Strauss’ post:

“If we as a nation really took seriously dismantling underperforming school districts and replacing them with the same types of educational experiences we provide the wealthy, it would negatively impact the bottom lines of many companies.” — Noliwe M. Rooks

In Ms. Strauss’ interview, Ms. Rooks provides a narrative on how segregation began after the Civil War, how it flourished and was supported by law until the mid-1950s, and how it continues today. But Ms. Rooks asserts that the privatization of public education has made the situation even worse, and that any policy that seeks to end segregation by race (or, by implication of her analysis, income) would likely run afoul of the investor class whose campaign contributions to conservatives and neoliberals ensure the perpetuation of our current system:

Students educated in wealthy schools perform well as measured by standard educational benchmarks. Students educated in poor schools do not. Racial and economic integration is the one systemic solution that we know ensures the tide will lift all educational boats equally. However, instead of committing to educating poor children in the same way as we do the wealthy, or actually with the wealthy, we have offered separate educational content (such as a reoccurring focus on vocational education for the poor) and idiosyncratic forms of educational funding and delivery (such as virtual charter schools and cyber education) as substitutes for what we know consistently works. While not ensuring educational equality, such separate, segregated, and unequal forms of education have provided the opportunity for businesses to make a profit selling schooling. 

Ms. Rooks coined a term for this phenomenon: “segrenomics”. And this paragraph on how it works could have been lifted from “Reinventing Government” or any treatise coming from libertarian think tanks:

I am calling this specific form of economic profit “segrenomics.” Children who live in segregated communities and are Native American, black or Latino are more likely to have severely limited educational options. In the last 30 years, government, philanthropy, business and financial sectors have heavily invested in efforts to privatize certain segments of public education; stock schools with inexperienced, less highly paid teachers whose hiring often provides companies with a “finder’s fee”; outsource the running of schools to management organizations; and propose virtual schools as a literal replacement for — not just a supplement to — the brick and mortar educational experience.

The attraction, of course, is the large pot of education dollars that’s been increasingly available to private corporate financial interests. The public education budget funded by taxpayers is roughly $500 billion to $600 billion per year. Each successful effort that shifts those funds from public to private hands — and there has been a growing number of such efforts since the 1980s — escalates corporate earnings.

In short, these privatized for-profit schools are designed to benefit shareholders first and foremost and if children learn as a result it is a collateral benefit.  Is there any way out of this trend given the money being spent by philanthropists and profiteers, the relentless message that privatized for-profit market driven schools are better than “government schools”, and the desire to keep taxes low at all costs? Ms. Rooks’ interview concludes with this:

In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech entitled “Where Do We Go From Here: Community or Chaos?” I often reflect on his questions when thinking about where the contemporary paths we are traveling in relation to public education are leading. I think community or chaos are two potential destinations. We have to stop and reflect on where both our educational preferences and policies are leading us. We can either continue to encourage chaos by allowing our tax dollars to be used to educationally experiment on working class and poor children, and disrupt poor communities by closing schools, or we can embrace community by requiring that poor children are educated in the same ways as the wealthy.

The choices we make are will tell future generations much of what they will need to know about what our democracy means to us here in the 21st century.

I have been consulting in rural Vermont communities who are trying to answer a variation of this question. The legislature in Vermont passed a bill that encouraged town school districts to voluntarily merge into multi-town union districts where their local schools would be represented by regional boards instead of locally. This bill rightly assumes that a single merged K-12 district will provide greater efficiency and, thus, greater savings. But many town bridle at the changes that come with regionalization: they fear that their towns might ultimately lose their public schools, which serve as community anchors. The overarching question is one of efficiency versus community: do we want to save every dollar we can in the name of reducing costs, even if it means eliminating our community? It is clear that some Vermont towns do not want the state imposing a new definition of “community” on them in the name of efficiency. It is also clear that some suburban and exurban towns and urban neighborhoods do not want the state government or city government imposing a definition of “community” on them in the name of segregation. In both cases the hearts and minds of individuals need to be changed. I believe we need to expand our definition of “Community” to be as inclusive as possible without abandoning the traditions that make our local “community” unique. It CAN be accomplished if we lower our voices, soften our positions, and open our hearts and minds.

 

Christensen Institute’s Julia Freedland Makes An Important Distinction: Behaviorism vs. Constructivism

January 14, 2018 Leave a comment

In her recent Christensen Institute post flagging the “5 Big Ideas for Education Innovation in 2018“, Julia Freedland encourages critics of disruption to focus on the distinction between constructivism and behaviorism in their analyses. Under the heading “Stop debating technology, start debating constructivism and behaviorism” she writes:

The ever-simmering edtech debate is starting to boil over. Commentators are stuck arguing whether tech is good or bad, whether personalized learning is synonymous with robot teachers or high-touch teaching, whether technology is under-researched or offers a high payoff. I worry that these debates draw false dichotomies. They risk entrenching different camps in their feelings about the form a tool takes rather than its function. I suspect that the deeper tension undergirding these debates may have less to do with technology itself and more to do with competing behaviorist and constructivist philosophies. I’m hoping that mainstream edtech conversations dedicate more time to examining these competing pedagogical philosophies—and how edtech tools do or don’t support each—in 2018. This year I’ll keep following thinkers like Larry Cuban who have become more vocal about this distinction.

In the article Mr. Cuban wrote, he contends that “personalized learning” is used to describe programs that range from de facto programmed instruction where students more through teacher-constructed playlists at their own pace to technologically enhanced Summerhill-like approaches– where students dictate both content and pace. I think his nuanced perspective, one that eschews “value-loaded” words, is far superior to that of those who bundle all technology into the Skinnerian end of the spectrum.

As one who advocates the elimination of age-based grade levels and the open-ended opportunity for students to explore subjects that interest them in depth once they’ve mastered reading and mathematical skills, I tend toward the constructivist side of the spectrum. But as one believes there is a place for technology in school improvement, I also hope educational critics will heed Ms. Freedland’s dictum and “Stop debating technology, start debating constructivism and behaviorism“.

“Micro credentials” for Teacher Recertification COULD Open the Door to Mastery Learning in the Classroom, OR Micro-Vouchers

January 7, 2018 Leave a comment

Earlier this week  Education Week published an article by Stephen Sawchuk titled “Inching Toward Relicensurc, One Microcredential at a Time”. In the article, Mr. Sawchuk describes a re-certification process Tennessee is piloting whereby teachers can get their teacher’s license renewed by completing a series of “microcredentials”, which he defines as “badges (teachers earn) by submitting evidence that they’ve mastered small components of instruction; their submissions are scored by outside reviewers. It strikes me that the concept of micro credentials would help teachers transfer the concepts of mastery learning implicit in the awarding of micro credentials to teaching in their classroom. Instead of “covering” material in a set time frame and then assessing students on that material using a pencil-and-aper test, teachers might see the value of assuring that the students are fully prepared by “…submitting evidence that they’ve mastered small components” of the course and have that evidence reviewed by outsiders. That could be a very favorable outcome of this pilot program.

There is a downside to this concept, though, unless public schools fully embrace mastery learning. Namely, the awarding of micro credentials for teachers could lead to the awarding of micro vouchers for students. Longstanding readers of this blog might recall reading about this similar concept that was presented in a book by Lewis Perelman in his 1992 book titled “School’s Out: Hyperlearning, the New Technology, and the End of Education”. Perelman envisioned a day when employers and colleges would focus more on the demonstrated mastery of material instead of the issuance of a diploma, and envisioned a day when something akin to wait badges would serve as the vehicle for demonstrating mastery. He took this a step further, suggesting that instead of public schools being the sole source of certifying mastery, private enterprise might step in and the marketplace would winnow out the purveyors of worthwhile credentials from those who were issuing slipshod “badges”.

Obtaining micro credentials is analogous to on-line learning in that it is far more convenient than traditional coursework at a college or university that requires travel time and fixed times for courses. Once teachers discovered on-line alternatives to traditional courses they flocked to them, with some earning Master’s Degrees in less than two years. Their use of on-line courses to earn credits made it difficult for them to push back when students sought the same opportunities… even though those on-lne opportunities could ultimately result in fewer jobs at the high school level. If teachers begin earning micro credentials, will that similarly open the door for students to seek the same kind of avenues? And, if so, will that open the door to the micro-vouchers Lewis Perelman wrote about over 25 years ago?

Technology is Fast and Cheap… but it Isn’t Good.

January 6, 2018 Leave a comment

Diane Ravitch’s posts yesterday included on that had a link to an article she wrote recently for EdSurge, a pro-technology website. In the article she identified five major risks associated with the use of educational technology. After reading her article I left this comment with a link to this post:

The tech industry is serving shareholders, politicians and, alas, voters who don’t want to spend more for education. Technology is currently cheap and fast… but it isn’t good.

A consultant whose name escapes me gave a presentation to the administrators in the MD district I served in the early 1990s. She wrote three words on the board (this was pre-powerpoint era): “fast”, “cheap”, “good”. She said that in any undertaking you could only choose two of these. (NOTE: I just learned from my friend “Google” that this is now called the “Iron Triangle”— and example of technology’s utility).

Technology promises to provide all three… but it really only provides “fast” and “cheap” means of covering the curriculum that is measured by standardized tests. It’s faster than the laborious face-to-face tutoring it supposedly replaces. Its’ cheaper because it lowers the costs to school districts by selling the data it collects to third parties. But because it is fast and cheap it isn’t good: it takes the “costly” human interaction out of teaching; it has a limited scope because it only delivers instruction in areas that can be measured by standardized tests; and it requires schools to compromise the principle of student and parent privacy in order to secure the low costs valued by politicians and voters.

Like Diane Ravitch and several of her commenters, I was an early adopter to technology applications. As a public school administrator I found technology a godsend for scheduling, tracking budgets, preparing cost-benefit analyses, calculating the impact of collective bargaining proposals, and especially for writing. And while the introduction of the internet was a mixed blessing (emails tended to eat into my daily schedule on the job and outside of it), it did provide a means of making every decision transparent and disseminating information rapidly. And as one who tends to think in bullet points and one who used an overhead projector as a teacher, I found powerpoint to be very useful in preparing presentations on everything from budgets and building projects to future directions I hoped we might be able to take.

But unlike Ms. Ravitch and her commenters, I was a school superintendent and, as such, witnessed the intense pressure to suppress costs while simultaneously introducing children in schools to the technology school board members and I were using every day on our jobs. One thing I learned was that the use of technology required some degree of standardization.. and some teachers and parents bridled at any form of standardization. In devising schedules and linking the schedules to computerized report cards, for example, I needed to demand that teachers re-name some of their courses to “fit” the fields “the computer” allowed. In implementing a computerized parent portal that enabled parents to monitor their child’s progress in various subjects periodically we needed to ensure that teachers entered grades into their grade books regularly and not at the very end of the grade period. In collective bargaining, we needed to make certain both parties were using the same spreadsheets to calculate the impact of changes in compensation. Each of these “standardization” efforts resulted in faster and more efficient operations… but whether it was BETTER was debatable in the minds of some people in virtually every case.

My bottom line is that the effectiveness of technology is limited by the factory paradigm we insist on retaining in public education. As long as we group children by age and measure their progress by tests that are linked to their cohort group we will continue to mis-use and abuse technology. The ideals espoused by progressive educators like John Dewey are not based on operating an “efficient” (i.e. cheap and fast) system in the fashion the industry leaders envisioned at the turn of the 20th century. We need to let children roam free in the real and virtual worlds and not be limited to pre-programmed electronic worksheets that quickly and inexpensively move them through a standardized curriculum. Doing so might be slower and/or more expensive than what we are doing now, but it would be better.

A Homeschooler’s Analysis of Public Education is On Target… The Consequences, though, Might Not Be What He Expects

January 3, 2018 Leave a comment

Alternet managing editor Chris Sosa wrote a blog post today titled “I Was Homeschooled and I Believe in Public Schools- Here’s What Needs to Change About Them”. In the post, Mr. Sosa offers a concise history of public education in our country and recounts his personal experience as a homeschooler, contrasting his experiences with those of his age cohorts.

In Mr. Sosa’s narrative of public education, schools as we know them today emerged as a result of the nation’s desire to educate former slaves at the conclusion of the Civil War. But, as he concludes, the effort to standardized schooling had at least one unintended consequence: it dampened creative thinking:

Booker T. Washington, a former slave, established a movement to train black Americans as teachers that eventually led to the creation of numerous state universities. But in the 1890s, a standardization effort emerged that resulted in what we now know as the K-12 schooling system, including grade levels and accreditation. American education efforts in the late 1890s are nothing short of impressive in that they emerged from the rubble of a civil war. But almost 130 years later, we’re living with the same system.

Throughout the 1900s, efforts to standardize and further hone and improve this system continued. From desegregation to school lunches, the system evolved to meet the needs of a diverse and rapidly growing citizenry. But one element was lost amid this growth: a recognition that the system itself was designed to stabilize a rocky nation, not foster creativity or critical thought as culture rapidly evolved.

Mr. Sosa then describes the misguided efforts of NCLB, RTTT, and ESSA to “reform” public schooling in light of our nation’s failure to surpass other countries on international assessments. Drawing from a recent book by  journalist Greg Toppo, Mr. Sosa makes the case that the problem with schools today isn’t poor teaching, it’s the system itself:

Our public schools suffer from an authoritarianism problem. We need to start addressing it today. A true embracing of creativity, as opposed to obedience, requires a cultural change. The federal government won’t solve this by default. We need to vote for reformers who understand the problem, foster inquisitiveness in young people who cross our paths and join school boards ourselves in locations where schools are producing mathematically-challenged robot children.

Mr. Sosa sees that such a shift is plausible. While I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Sosa’s assessment of what’s wrong with public education… I don’t see evidence that those who are opting out are doing so for the reasons Mr. Sosa’s mother chose to do so. Indeed,recent NCES surveys indicate that 80% of homeschoolers are “concerned about the environment in schools”, 67% want to provide moral instruction, and 51% want to provide religious instruction. Only 39% opted out of public education to pursue a “non-traditional” approach. If public education reformed in the fashion Mr. Sosa and I desired, by compelling students to dig deeper into the basis for their beliefs, it would not surprise me to see more parents expressing “concern about the environment in schools” and seeking ways to provide moral and religious instruction.

Despite that misgiving, I would love to see public schools abandon the standardized testing regimen that reinforces the compliance and narrow gauge instruction Mr. Sosa’s mother and 39% of other homeschoolers wanted to avoid…. and I join him in his desire to see states and local school boards promoting policies that move us away from producing mathematically-challenged robot children and instead producing self-actualized learners who question everything.

Former Massachusetts Commissioner’s Agrees With Premise of this Blog… We Need to Change Minds! But Doesn’t Appreciate WHOSE Minds Need to be Changed

December 7, 2017 Leave a comment

An article by Scott O’Connell in yesterday’s Worcester (MA) Telegram and Gazette describes a lecture by former Massachusetts Commissioner of Education Paul Reville that called for a change in the mindset of schools, a call that echoes the ideas the set forth in this blog. In the annual Lee Gurel ’48 Lecture in Education at Clark University, Mr. Reville decried the fact that despite decades of effort, a child’s performance in school is still tied to their parents’ income— not just in terms of metrics based on standardized testing, but on virtually every other metric of well being.

“We should work at continuing to improve schools,” he said, explaining that his intent was not to portray the state’s education reform attempts as fruitless. But the data show that “despite our best efforts, we haven’t been able to erase that correlation.”

Instead of continuing practices that have defined reform in Massachusetts over the past two decades – and in many ways perpetuated an “outdated and outmoded” system of education that originated over a century ago, Mr. Reville asked the dozens in attendance Wednesday to consider a “mind shift in the way we think about public education.”

Specifically, he advocated for a more holistic approach to instructing and nurturing students, one that focuses not just on their time in the classroom, but their time outside it as well.

“The goal is right,” he said of the state’s recent efforts to improve its education system. “We’ve got the wrong delivery system.”

He’s on target in terms of the need for a more holistic approach… but off the mark in his concluding analysis of whose minds need to be changed:

“This isn’t a case where we don’t know what to do,” he said. The hard part, he added, is pushing through change in an industry where the people involved are often unwilling at times to abandon the comfort of conventional practices.

The current time provides an opportunity to do just that, however, as local governments take the reins of education reform while the federal government appears to be backing off, Mr. Reville said.

“We’re at a moment where we need to rethink where we’re going,” he said, “We need a new vision.”

I found myself nodding in agreement until this point… and then shaking my head in bewilderment. The people involved in “the industry” do not need to change their minds. Given the opportunity to forge a vision for how to deliver and measure the what constitutes schooling the teachers in the classroom would envision a FAR more holistic approach than preparing students for standardized tests based on age cohorts. Teachers and building level administrators, though, are seldom given the opportunity to consider anything other than conventional practices because of the accountability system put in place by business minded politicians and parents who fear that anything unconventional might result in the diminishment of SAT scores and thereby limit their child’s chances to get into a prestigious college.

Sorry, Mr. Reville: the people whose minds need to be changed are the “reformers” whose practices, in Mr. Reville’s own words “ perpetuated an “outdated and outmoded” system of education that originated over a century ago.” If Mr. Reville wants to change minds and encourage the need for a more holistic approach to public education he should be talking to the Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, and the hedge funders in the state who want to use test scores as the basis for identifying “failing schools” and persuade them that in doing so they will be exacerbating the social and economic divide in this country.