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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?

China Invests in AI as US Divests… and the Future Looks Bleaker as a Result

May 28, 2017 Leave a comment

“Is China Outsmarting the US in AI?”, a question posed in an article by Paul Mozur and John Markoff in the Technology section of yesterday’s NYTimes, left me with a chill. Mozur and Markoff describe the divergent paths the governments of China and the US are taking relative to AI (i.e. Artificial Intelligence), with China’s government investing billions in research while the US is spending less. The article makes it appear that there might not be that much difference in which country advances the most in AI, but the notion that China’s amoral and authoritarian command capitalism might dominate the field concerns me. Mozur and Markoff describe China’s rationale for developing AI in this paragraph:

China’s ambitions mingle the most far-out sci-fi ideas with the needs of an authoritarian state: Philip K. Dick meets George Orwell. There are plans to use it to predict crimes, lend money, track people on the country’s ubiquitous closed-circuit cameras, alleviate traffic jams, create self-guided missiles and censor the internet.

These intended outcomes should drive our country to get the upper hand on AI assuming our country values an equal opportunity for all citizens, freedom of speech, and freedom of movement. But instead of using our values as a positive lever to promote more government spending on AI, we are relying on fear. While the President’s budget cuts funding for AI, there is one department who is concerned:

The Defense Department found that Chinese money has been pouring into American artificial intelligence companies — some of the same ones it had been looking to for future weapons systems.

While our best hope for investment is driven by the Department of Defense who wants to use AI for weapons, China purports a desire to use AI for peaceful purposes. Mozur and Markoff offer this contrast in investment strategies:

On a national level, China is working on a system to predict events like terrorist attacks or labor strikes based on possible precursors like labor strife. A paper funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China showed how facial recognition software can be simplified so that it can be more easily integrated with cameras across the country.

China is preparing a concerted nationwide push, according to the two professors who advised on the effort but declined to be identified, because the effort has not yet been made public. While the size wasn’t clear, they said, it would most likely result in billions of dollars in spending.

President Trump’s proposed budget, meanwhile, would reduce the National Science Foundation’s spending on so-called intelligent systems by 10 percent, to about $175 million. Research and development in other areas would also be cut, though the proposed budget does call for more spending on defense research and some supercomputing. The cuts would essentially shift more research and development to private American companies like Google and Facebook.

The balance of the article describes why China’s top-down authoritarian government arguably hobbles research efforts, using the example of medical research on SARs as an example. The piece concludes with this observation by Clay Shirkey, an NYU futurist:

For all the government support, advances in the field could ultimately backfire, Mr. Shirky said. Artificial intelligence may help China better censor the internet, a task that often blocks Chinese researchers from finding vital information. At the same time, better A.I. could make it easier for Chinese readers to translate articles and other information.

The fact is,” Mr. Shirky said, “unlike automobile engineering, artificial intelligence will lead to surprises. That will make the world considerably less predictable, and that’s never been Beijing’s favorite characteristic.”

But if China’s purpose in the development of AI is to control workers by predicting labor strikes and control the populous through the widespread use of simplified facial recognition software one thing IS easy to predict: the world of Winston Smith (Orwell’s protagonist in 1984) is far more likely to occur than the “do no evil” world of Google.

And one last note: it’s unclear to me that unpredictability is Washington DC’s favorite characteristic… and even more unclear that voters are seeking a less predictable world. If anything, we are seeking an orderly world where things are as they used to be in a past that never was….

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Google Making Inroads in Inequity, Innovation, and Instruction… AND Making Profits…

May 14, 2017 Leave a comment

I remember the first time I came in contact with Google. I was working as Superintendent in the late 1990s in an Upstate NY district and had recently hired a Director of Technology to a position I created in order to coordinate our efforts to move ahead in that area. The newly minted administrator came into my office and asked me to enter one word next to the cursor that was blinking on the screen of my terminal… a word he spelled out for me: “G-O-O-G-L-E”. A message box appeared on my screen. He then asked me to type in a question or a phrase. Because we were both Red Sox fans in Yankee territory I typed in the words “Boston Red Sox”… and a series of links to articles about the Boston Red Sox appeared on the screen. We both spent the next half-hour using Google to help us find all kinds of arcane information from journals and periodicals on the web… and since both of us had earned doctoral degrees in the mid 1970s we could immediately see that the world of research was going to change and began forecasting how this kind of rapid access to information could transform schooling.

It’s taken nearly two decades to have some the ideas we came up with come into being… but based on Natasha Singer’s article in today’s NYTimes it appears that Google IS transforming public education and teachers and administrators are making that transformation happen… and the transformation is making it conceivable that despite the lack of an equitable technology infrastructure (roughly 20% of students do not have access to high speed internet in their homes) and despite concerns about data privacy and despite budget challenges, Google is finding a way to meaningfully integrate technology into the classroom.

The article describes how Google circumvented administrative and political roadblocks by working directly with tech savvy teachers and technology directors, providing them with free apps and tools for their schools and classrooms. Those teachers, in turn, recruited colleagues and administrators to use Google applications instead of those clunkier and costlier ones made by Microsoft.

The real breakthrough for Google occurred only five years ago: the Chromebook.

By then, Google had developed a simplified, low-cost laptop called the Chromebook. It ran on Google’s Chrome operating system and revolved largely around web apps, making it cheaper and often faster to boot up than traditional laptops loaded with locally stored software.

Although Google had a business audience in mind for Chromebooks, reviewers complained that the devices were of limited use without internet access.

But there was one interested audience: public schools. In the fall of 2011, Google invited school administrators to its Chicago office to meet (Google’s “evangelist”) Jamie Casap, hoping to interest them in Chromebooks.

Mr. Casap didn’t talk tech specs. Instead, he held the audience spellbound as he described the challenges he had faced as a Latino student growing up on welfare in a tough Manhattan neighborhood.

His message: Education is the great equalizer, and technology breaks down barriers between rich and poor students.

Some critics, me included, would caution against technology as a means of providing the equalizing effect because of disparities in internet access… but Google was aware of that reality and had an answer:

Google was already working on offline capabilities, Mr. Casap said, and ultimately modified its education apps so that students could take their work home on Chromebooks, then upload homework the next day using school Wi-Fi.

Indeed, based on Ms. Singer’s account, one of Google’s greatest attributes was its willingness to listen to concerns of educators and adapt accordingly. Based on her account, Google’s “build-it-first-and-tweak-it-later culture” has adapted to the “bureaucratic school districts with student-protection rules to uphold” and has now understood that before launching a major change it needs to be mindful of the way democratic organizations like school districts function.

The marked increase in the use of technology is remarkable… Now comes the tough change: can the gurus who developed the software making it possible to individualize instruction unlock the age-based grade levels that prevent educators from meeting the unique needs of each child because they must ensure that age cohorts progress in lockstep? Stated differently, can they break the stranglehold of standardized testing that grips the mindsets of politicians from school board members to the USDOE? Here’s hoping they can help launch a grassroots effort among parents in the same way they did among teachers.

E-School’s “App of the Week” Replaces REAL Field Trips with Virtual Field Trips

May 6, 2017 Leave a comment

I returned a couple of weeks ago from a two week trip to Southern Utah. Before making the trip I looked at pictures on line, watched videos, and read many articles. But being in the region, with it’s big sky, deep canyons, otherworldly rock formations, wind, and aromas was a wholly different experience.

The same holds true for any “virtual” experience: listening to a concert on earphones, watching a 3-D movie, or simulating an environment using virtual reality. But all of the virtual opportunities cost less than traveling to the site and take a lot less time… which is why E-School’s App of the Week is likely to appeal to schools who are strapped with funds and limited for time. According to the blurb on the VR Field Trip app site, students will be thrilled: “With stunning scenes and a flexible delivery method, your students will thank you for journeying together through space and time.”

Sorry… but virtual experiences are no substitute for field trips that take students out of their environment to other locales. The small town kids from rural Maine who travelled to Boston got a much different experience  being in the city… the city kids from Philadelphia who were fortunate enough to get into camps in rural Pennsylvania got a chance to hear cicadas and experience starlit skies… the middle class suburban kids who traveled to communities where children lived in poverty got insights on that kind of life that would otherwise elude them. Money spent getting children out of their comfort zones and into the world of others helps develop empathy and expands horizons. Money spent on apps keeps them isolated in darkened rooms.

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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.

An Unsettling eSchool Article Describes What Happens When You Give A Kindergartener a Chromebook

March 18, 2017 Leave a comment

I am an an advocate for using technology to individualize and personalize instruction, but I fond myself getting a know in my stomach as I read Laura Ascione’s eSchool article titled “If You Give a Kindergartener a Chromebook”. The article described the experience Jamie Morgan, a Kindergarten teacher in Wichita Falls TX, has using Chromebooks in her classroom of children, many of whom had special needs. This paragraph gave me my first knot:

Because her class from the previous year was high-achieving, no one expected this new class to achieve the same test scores. And although Morgan’s new class entered with “scary” test scores, by the end of the year, their test scores surpassed the high scores of her previous class. Much of that achievement is due to the Chromebooks, Morgan said.

My reaction to this paragraph: TEST SCORES to determine “achievement” for Kindergarten students??!!! Have we lost our collective minds?

As I read on I learned that the students in Ms. Morgans class spend hours on end in front of a computer mastering the use of various Google applications. I have five grandchildren whose ages range from 4 to 11 and I cannot imagine wanting the to spend classroom time on a computer. They enjoy engaging with each other, playing pretend games, writing “plays” to present to us, and engaging in physical activities. My children do everything possible to keep the children off screens.

After reading the article I was more convinced than ever that the last thing Kindergartners need is a course based on Chromebooks. Far better for them to use their open minds to learn another language or, better yet, learn how to ride bikes, hit a tennis ball or baseball, or enjoy walking in the woods.

 

On-line Preschool Looks Like a Convenient Way to Save Money… and Save Face… But NOT Save Children

March 15, 2017 Leave a comment

Having worked as a consultant for several school districts in Vermont, I know that one of the challenges district in that state face is how to implement a recent legislative mandate to provide a quality preschool  for all children. In trying to provide Universal Preschool, school districts face physical and political problems— geographically remote students, undersized and outmoded schools, and pre-existing “Nursery School” programs operated out of private homes— and fiscal problems— the price tag for teachers, aides, and other support staff can be daunting.

A recent article by Thomas Arnett in ESchool News has a possible solution to these thorny issues: online pre-school. Mr. Arnett reports that Utah instituted such a program called Upstart over six years ago and the result are promising:

In the six years since it launched, Upstart’s results have shown students in the program to demonstrate strong gains in early literacy that significantly exceed those of students in matched control groups.

As these cohorts of Upstart students progress through their first few years of school, they continue to outperform their peers on state exams. Most noteworthy is the fact that special education students, low-income students and English learners have the largest gains relative to their comparable peer groups.

Given that Upstart costs just $725 per student, it is a more-than-sensible solution in states where universal preschool does not exist.

A variation of the caveat phrase, “in states where universal preschool does not exist” appears again at the end of the article, with another caveat on top of it regarding affordability:

But for parents who cannot afford private preschool and who do not live in a region with state-funded preschool options, these programs offer valuable access to early learning opportunities.

As many states rush to provide universal preschool education, I would not be at all surprised to see this model expand rapidly. Why? Because politicians realize that getting parents used to the idea of delivering instruction through computers as opposed to having live human beings provide instruction will save millions of dollars over time… and the fact that it can be done for a fraction of the current cost will enable them to keep their promise to expand programs without having to raise taxes, hire hundreds of new teachers, or worry about transportation logistics or facility limitations. A restatement of the last paragraph with a slightly different slant will indicate why these online preschools are likely to spread:

But for politicians who are unwilling to raise taxes to cover the costs of public preschools that are the equivalent to private preschool and who govern a region with NO state-funded preschool options, these programs offer valuable way to claim they are offering access to early learning opportunities.

You can call something a “preschool”… but if it consists of “…15 minutes per day, five days per week, (where) students log into the curriculum to engage in adaptive lessons, digital books, songs, and activities designed to develop their knowledge and skills in reading, mathematics and science.” it doesn’t warrant the name— especially when it is overseen by an untrained parent. Watch, though: in the next five years I am willing to wager that at least ten states will launch online preschools based on “The Utah Model”— unless they use their $725 voucher to help underwrite the cost of a bona fide preschool or a sectarian preschool that offers Bible instruction.