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Timothy Egan Unfairly Castigates Public Schools for Public Stupidity

November 17, 2017 Leave a comment

In his op ed piece today titled “We’re With Stupid“, NYTimes columnist Timothy Egan unfairly blames public schools for the stupidity we are witnessing among voters, stupidity that is causing our democrcy to go off the rails. Here’s his analysis of our status as a nation:

As we crossed the 300-day mark of Donald Trump’s presidency on Thursday, fact-checkers noted that he has made more than 1,600 false or misleading claims. Good God. At least five times a day, on average, this president says something that isn’t true.

We have a White House of lies because a huge percentage of the population can’t tell fact from fiction. But a huge percentage is also clueless about the basic laws of the land. In a democracy, we the people are supposed to understand our role in this power-sharing thing. 

Nearly one in three Americans cannot name a single branch of government. When NPR tweeted out sections of the Declaration of Independence last year, many people were outraged. They mistook Thomas Jefferson’s fighting words for anti-Trump propaganda.

Fake news is a real thing produced by active disseminators of falsehoods. Trump uses the term to describe anything he doesn’t like, a habit now picked up by political liars everywhere.

But Trump is a symptom; the breakdown in this democracy goes beyond the liar in chief. For that you have to blame all of us: we have allowed the educational system to become negligent in teaching the owner’s manual of citizenship.

As I commented on his article, the “educational system” is not to blame on this. For at least the past decade our country has been engaged in a debate about what is important to teach in schools. This debate was manifested most recently in the Common Core, a set of objectives for reading and mathematics that it seemed impossible to get a consensus on. As for science, we have several state boards who are rejecting any discussion of climate change and some states where the teaching of evolution is still disputed. How on earth can we hope to get a consensus on what elements of civics are important in this atmosphere?

Timothy Egan does offer a solution:

There’s hope — and there are many ways — to shed light on the cave of American democracy. More than a dozen states now require high school students to pass the immigrant citizenship test. We should also teach kids how to tell fake news from real, as some schools in Europe are doing.

The idea of requiring that high school students pass the citizenship test as a basis for earning a diploma should be a quick and easy fix… but teaching kids how to tell fake news from real will run into the same buzz saw as math, reading and science. And if we can’t adopt the citizenship test as a graduation standard, please don’t blame public education for the demise of democracy.

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Technology’s Promise, OBE, CBE Thwarted by the Factory Model Which is Reinforced by Standardized Testing

November 8, 2017 1 comment

Blogger Tom Ultican, described by Diane Ravitch as a California physics and math teacher who formerly worked in technology, wrote a post in early October that excoriates the role of technology in public education and decries the failed attempts to introduce various forms of mastery learning into public schools. In doing so, Mr. Ultican, like many technology critics, overlooks the fact that technology’s advantages are undercut by our current factory school model and the standardized tests that reinforce it. Moreover, some of Mr. Ultican’s assertions regarding the outflowing of new money for technology do not appear to be substantiated.

Mr. Ultican opens his post lamenting ESSA’s inclusion of billions of dollars for “blended learning”, which is defined in the law as:

…a formal education program that leverages both technology-based and face-to-face instructional approaches—(A) that include an element of online or digital learning, combined with supervised learning time, and student- led learning, in which the elements are connected to provide an integrated learning experience; and (B) in which students are provided some control over time, path, or pace.”

He then delineates the funding provided for ESSA and, absent any evidence, purports that “…it is clear that Title-I authorizes spending tens of billions of tax payer dollars on education technology.” What is clear to me is that Title I allows districts to use these funds for technology, but since this money is already being spent for existing Title One programs and is only a .6% increase over the baseline it is highly unlikely that funds currently being spent for Title One personnel will be redirected to technology. Similarly his assertion that Title IV is 100% for technology is inaccurate. As the Center for Digital Education notes in an April blog post:

ESSA is authorized to spend up to $1.6 billion on Title IV, which includes provisions of use for access to well-rounded education, school counseling, school health and safety, and education technology. By placing those important areas under the same umbrella for funding, the amounts left to use on education transformation through the use of technology are lower than the funds initially received from Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT), which at it’s peak was allocated $700 million. Based off of initial Congressional proposals, the $1.6 billion authorized seems highly unlikely to come to fruition.

So… where Mr. Ultican sees a treasure trove for technology, the technology industry itself sees a diminishment of funding… and as the closing sentence in this paragraph indicates, the authorization of funding is different from the allocation of funding

Mr. Ultican’s distaste for technology appears to be rooted in his distaste for what he calls “behaviorist education”, which includes some concepts that I fully support:

The behaviorist ideology of B.F. Skinner informs “competency based education.” CBE is the computer based approach that replaces the failed 1990’s behaviorist learning method called Outcome Based Education. Outcome Based Education is a renamed attempt to promote the 1970’s “mastery education” theory. Mastery education’s failure was so complete that it had to be renamed. It was quickly derided by educators as “seats and sheets.” These schemes all posit that drilling small skills and mastering them is the best way to teach. It has not worked yet.

Today’s proponents of behaviorist education hope that technology including artificial intelligence backed by micro-credentials and badges will finally make behaviorism a winner. It will not because little humans are not linear learners. Non-alignment with human nature is a fundamental flaw in this approach. In addition, behaviorism is not known as a path to creativity or original thinking. Those paths are created between teachers and students through human contact; paths undermined by “digital education.”

Earlier in his post, Mr. Ultican writes about the uselessness of standardized testing, yet he bases his conclusion on the failure of OBE on test results. Standardized tests, unlike the “micro-credentials and badges” he derides, assume that all children learn at the same rate. He also fils to see that technology could be used to enable students to progress at their own rate without the “sheets” that made mastery learning cumbersome in the 70s and led to the failure in South Africa where teachers were compelled to develop their own self-paced learning materials for children.

My bottom line is this: technology will not make any difference in public education as long as public education is organized based on the premise that all children learn at the same rate and that, consequently, they should be grouped by age cohorts to facilitate learning. Standardized testing reinforces this notion and the “compensatory” funding that is the ultimate root of ESSA is designed to improve standardized test scores.

And here’s what surprises me the most: the technology industry seeking ever increasing amounts of money has not caught onto this and explicitly advocated a change to the factory model.

States Tinker With Grading System… But WHY???… The Results Will Always Be the Same

November 6, 2017 Leave a comment

This morning several articles on my Google Public News Feed deal with changes in the grading systems states will use as part of their implementation of ESSA. One of the articles, “No More Curve” by Will Sentel of The Advocate, a Louisiana publication, describes how the State Board of Education in that state will be abandoning the bell curve they used following the implementation of the Common Core in favor of a grading system that would ensure that an “A” in Louisiana was the same as an “A” in other states… an decision that will result in roughly 57% of the LA schools receiving an “F”.

The Decatur Daily reporter John Godbey wrote about the new grading system to be imposed by the Alabama legislature that will be based mainly on growth as measured by the ACT’s standardized tests for K-12 students. He wrote as best he could, but it is difficult to write about a grading process that is nclear to even the Superintendents in the region. As he reported:

Decatur-area superintendents said they remain baffled by the process.

“We have not been informed about what our grade will be,” Decatur City Superintendent Michael Douglas said. “We got a formula last year, and I know enrichment growth is a component, but it’s so complicated I can’t tell you what we’ll get.”

And in Michigan, they are rolling out a new grading system as well, replacing a system in place for several years based primarily on test scores with one that has a host of easy-to-measure data. As reported by Louise Wrege in the Benton Harbor Herald Palladium who spoke with State Superintendent Brian Whitson:

Under a new benchmark system, he said student performance on the state’s standardized test will only count for 29 percent of the school district’s score. He said the rest of a district’s score will be based 34 percent on student growth, 10 percent on the graduation rate, 10 percent on the success of English language learners, 3 percent on parent participation and 14 percent on additional factors, such as do the students have chronic absenteeism or access to art, music and gym classes

In the end, all of the grading systems will have the same result: schools that serve children raised in affluence will drastically outscore schools that serve children in poverty… and the correlate finding: schools in districts that spend the most will “outperform” schools that spend the least. And, fortunately for the “reformers” who love these rankings, there will be outliers. There will be a district or two from the high-poverty-low-spending demographic that get good grades and a district or two in the high-spending-low-poverty demographic who do poorly… and they will serve as the posted children for two mantras: “The failing schools should learn from the successful ones” and “Throwing money at the problem won’t solve it”.

States can grade schools and grade districts from now until eternity, but until there are equitable funding formulas in every state and education funding has the same priority as funding for our endless wars we will continue to wring our hands over the low achievement of children raised in poverty… or rub our hands together in hopes of making a fortune in managing the schools serving those children to no good effect.

NC Principal Begs to Differ with Those Who Say Her School is “Failing”

November 5, 2017 Leave a comment

Erica Jordan-Thomas, a Columbus, OH native who is currently Principal at Ranson IB Middle School in  Charlotte NC wrote a forceful blog post that Medium published arguing against those who call her school a “Failure”. In the post she described all of the accomplishments of her school, accomplishments that she wished she could have shared with someone who made the determination that her school should be listed among those “failing”. But, the title of her post underscores her frustration: “You said we failed… but you never visited my school…”. Ms. Jordan-Thomas writes about her school being called a “failure”:

What is most perplexing about the use of this word is that I have consistently heard it from writers, reporters, community members, and elected officials who have never visited my school. They have never had lunch with my scholars, served as a reading buddy or classroom speaker, donated a uniform or supplies, introduced a new community partner, or sent me an email asking how everything is going and how they can help. And for the record, showing up to a school unannounced looking for what’s wrong doesn’t count as a visit in my book…

The accomplishments at Ms. Jordan-Thomas’ school are impressive: she has deployed her staff in imaginative ways, created partnerships with feeder schools to help mitigate the fact that her school has the highest transience rate in the city, “…met and exceeded growth in Language Arts at every grade level and… been ranked #2 in the district the past two years for our growth in 6–8 Language Arts”, and thanks to supplemental funding provided by generous donors been able to offer rich staff development activities for her teachers and lots of supplemental reading materials for her students. And based on Ms. Jordan-Thomas’ description, she has achieved something that is very difficult to do in a high poverty school like hers: she has built community.

But in NC, the accomplishments Ms. Jordan-Thomas described are inconsequential. Test scores are all that count… and test scores are wonderful if you are trying to operate “efficiently” because no one from the State Department of Education has to visit a school to determine if test scores are adequate: all you need is a spreadsheet. The politicians in NC, like those in most states, prefer to measure what is easy instead of what is important. Ms. Jordan-Thomas concludes her post with this:

So let me be clear. My key point isn’t to not hold us accountable. Our kids are too important for you not to..…so yes, look at our data! But don’t look at it from the sidelines and give us labels. Ask us questions, learn what’s working, and be a critical friend to support us in the areas where we need help.

Do we have it all figured out? Absolutely not. Are we satisfied with our current proficiency? Absolutely not. Are we the same schools that we were five years ago? Absolutely not.

If you would have visited our schools you would see that we are not failing….we are actually flying.

But figuring out if Ranson IB Middle School is operating differently than it was five years ago would require some kind of visit from a team of independent educators or State Department officials… and it’s so much easier (and cheaper) to use an off-the-shelf test. Who needs a critical friend when a test score can render judgment from afar.

While China’s Leaders Want Tests De-Emphasized, NYC Chinese Immigrants See Testing as the Way Up in the US

October 29, 2017 Leave a comment

In contrast to an article in the NYTimes a few days ago described the Chinese government’s efforts to abandon the test-centric curriculum that drives instruction but stifles creativity, an article by Alice Yin in Sunday’s NYTimes describes the Chinese immigrants continuing efforts to use NYC’s— and the Ivy League’s— test-centric admissions policies as a means of providing their children with an opportunity to climb the economic ladder in our country. And as the title of the article indicates, these Asian test prep centers offer parents what they want: results. 

Ms. Yin describes the reasons for the success of these centers, which are the results student’s desire to succeed, which in turn stems from Chinese culture, parental drive and commitment, and US immigration policy. Ms. Yin profiles several students in her article, whose commitment is captured in a question Join Wang, one of a group of Chinese students attending NYC’s most prestigious HS, Stuyvesant, posed:

‘What are you going to do in the summer?’ ‘Go to prep,’” Wang says. “We all go to prep.”

While many competitive US parents enroll their children in internships or volunteer trips to round out their resumes for college, or sending them to camps to hone their athletic skills, Wang’s HS friends are all enrolled in test-prep schools in NYC. Ms. Yin attributes the industriousness of these Chinese students to culture:

This rigor is seen as necessary to keep up with national test-based systems like China’s, where a single exam determines university placement. “It’s Confucian to emphasize your children’s education,” (Pyong Gap) Min (a sociology professor at Queens College in the City University of New York) says. “You go to China, Korea and Taiwan, there’s after-school programs that they transplanted here.”

She also attributes it to the dedication of parents, who are willing to limit spending on everything else in order to reside in communities served by excellent schools or, if they reside in NYC, to spend thousands each year on “cram schools”. Finally, she cites a wrinkle in the US immigration policy that contributes to the recent emergence of the academic prowess of Chinese students:

Jennifer Lee, a professor of sociology at Columbia University, …argues in “The Asian American Achievement Paradox,” her 2015 book with Min Zhou, that much of Asian-Americans’ educational attainment actually stems from a hyperselective immigration policy: A 2015 census report found that a majority of Chinese immigrants have college degrees, a distinction matched by fewer than one-third of Americans as a whole and only 16 percent of the population in China itself.

This imbalance of Asians in the group of students who score well on tests and therefore are admitted in disproportionate numbers to selective high schools and colleges contributes to the call for the abandonment of tests as the primary metric for admissions, a call that the Chinese and other Asians resist since the test-centric selection methods have thus far worked to their benefit.

In the end, this combination of culture, parent commitment, and the inherent rewards of doing well on tests results in many Chinese students feeling a deep appreciation for the sacrifice their parents made on their behalf. Ms. Yin concludes her article with this anecdote about a Stuyvesant student Join Wang, which illustrates this mindset:

There’s also the concept (Professor) Lee calls “parental bragging rights.” When immigrants move to the United States, she points out, they often experience a drop in status — socially, professionally and legally. Some will never regain that stature, settling over the long term for more menial jobs. But they may attempt to recoup some standing through their children’s success. Chris Kwok, a 1992 Stuyvesant graduate… grew up in a working-class family in Flushing; in China, his father had been an engineer, but in Queens, he worked as a blue-collar city contractor, and Kwok’s mother was employed in a garment factory. For his first summer prep class, Kwok recalls: “I made no decision. It was just, ‘This is what you’re doing.’”

The programs he attended in the late 1980s, he remembers, were “terrible,” but at least half his classmates got into either Stuyvesant or Bronx Science, in part because the classes forced a certain kind of discipline. “My parents spent money that they earned,” he says. “The message is that you’re supposed to be paying attention to studying. If you didn’t, you know, you just felt guilty.”

Now that Wang is halfway through high school, he wonders at times where he will go from there. He admits that he would like to leave New York and try being independent for a while. But, he says, “my No. 1 priority is making my parents happy, because they have done so much for me. After that is what I like.”

On a recent Saturday, Wang was logging in to check his SAT results at a Thai cafe near his house, tapping at the screen as if playing some mobile game. “Oh!” he exclaimed, breaking into a sly smile at the score that emerged. “Checking my answers was so worth it.”

Was he going to celebrate? Wang wasn’t sure; it might be premature. His parents had already started him on private college counseling. He would have plenty of time to relax and pursue hobbies later, he said — once he had a solid job. I was reminded of a phrase he had recited earlier, one that almost every Chinese child has heard, including me: “Xiān kǔ hòu tián.” First bitter, then sweet.

The story told above is an echo of many immigrant stories beginning with the Pilgrims who valued family, emphasized hard work, and encouraged deferred gratification. The shame is that all of these values are being reinforced through a desire to score well on a single test.

Economists Weigh in on K-12 and Higher Education… and Their Conclusions Are a Mixed Bag

October 21, 2017 Leave a comment

Lacrosse (WI) Tribune writer Nathan Hansen reported on a two day gathering of four economists at University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse. He detailed their reports on a host of education issues and, after reading them, I concluded that their findings can best be summarized in this sentence from Christopher Walters from the University of California-Berkely, who, when asked about the value of standardized tests said:

“Having test scores is better than nothing, A researcher would like more measures and different kinds of tests.”

All of the economists in one former another echoed the sentiment that they wished for more data, but one conclusion that none of the four economists challenged was the impact of poverty, with Matthew Wiswall from UW-Madison and Susan Dynarski from the University of Michigan, being especially outspoken on the issue. In examining the impact of pre-school education Mr. Wiswall was particularly forthright. He noted that family background has a disproportionate effect on childhood development, likely due to those families having access to more resources to provide better nutrition, schooling, early education resources or even ability to spend more time with their children. He advocated for government intervention in the form of income redistribution such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and advocated for funding of early childhood programs such as preschool or Head Start, which targets low-income families with children between the ages of 3 and 5. He was particularly disparaging of “choice”:

“One of the questions people ask is why the government should do something. In the education policy sphere, one major motivation is you don’t get to pick your parents or sign contracts before you are born.”

Ms. Dynarski noted that additional education funding can only be the answer if that funding is targeted to those children raised in poverty and targeted to their essential needs. She was critical of Wisconsin’s recent legislation that provided vouchers to students who were already enrolled in private schools at their parents expense and technology initiatives might be an unwise use of scarce funding if the goal is to provide an equal opportunity for all. Mr. Hansen offers this quote from Ms. Dynarski to summarize her thinking:

“For a kid in good shape, adding another dollar is probably not a good investment. If your family is having trouble putting food on the table, adding a nifty laptop isn’t going to make a big difference.”

The economists all lamented the use of test scores as the primary metric for “school quality”, but being driven by data felt that the scores at least provided a means of capturing the inequities in schools.

In the second day the four economists tackled higher education… and their analysis there was flawed by the limited data as well and particularly muddied by the fact that they effectively bought into the notion that post-secondary education is all about earning more money. That may be because earnings is the only available hard metric for post-secondary education in the same fashion that standardized tests are the only hard metric for K-12. But in both cases, using the hard data as the sole rationale for schooling is wrongheaded: it assumes that anything that can’t be measured is unimportant, which is clearly not the case in a democratic nation.

There is one area where hard data is can inform education policy, and that is in the area of student loans. In examining the student loan crisis, Ms. Dynarki noted that data she’s gathered indicates that “...interest rates don’t have as much impact on monthly payments as they do on longer loans, such as a mortgage.” Instead, she suggests that policymakers focus on the repayment process or reducing student borrowing.

After reading Mr. Hansen’s article I conclude that the economists’ ability to inform policy making is limited by the hard data available to us… and because of that economists have thus far provided more mischief than assistance. Enamored of the power of mathematical models, it is economists who helped develop VAM and who use complex algorithms rooted in standardized test scores and demographics to assess the effectiveness of charter schools…. and it is the economists and statisticians who are promoting the gathering of hard data on soft skills, thus leading to a time where educators might be held accountable for flawed test results in those areas that same way they have been held accountable for test results for two decades in public schools. My thought: anthropologists would be more helpful than economists.

Childhood Trauma Survey Underscores Need for School Services

October 19, 2017 1 comment

A quick review of the data from a recent National Survey on Children’s Health underscores the daunting challenges schools face in dealing with problems children bring to the classroom. The most compelling chart from the report was one that provided information on the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) among children in the US. ACEs “…include a range of experiences that can lead to trauma and toxic stress and impact children’s brain development and physical, social, mental, emotional, and behavioral health and well-being” and include a lengthy list of incidents ranging from economic hardships to the death of a parent. Researchers have determined that “… the impact of ACEs extends beyond children and can have far-reaching consequences for entire communities” and given this impact addressing the consequences requires a coordinated effort on the part of various service providers and agencies. Most important in reviewing the findings is the “…growing evidence that it is the general experience of multiple ACEs, rather than the specific individual impact of any one experience, that matters.”

That finding is crucial because according to the survey findings, 46% of the children in this country have had at least one ACE during their school experiences and over 21% of the children have had more than two ACEs. That means that 1 out of five students have experienced more than two “experiences that can lead to trauma and toxic stress and impact children’s brain development and physical, social, mental, emotional, and behavioral health and well-being.” 

And while schools are not solely responsible for addressing these childhood traumas, they feel the impact of them far more than any other public institution… and today they are effectively held accountable for the adverse consequences that result from these ACEs. Two findings underscore this reality:

  • More than three in four (76.3 percent) U.S. children ages 3-5 who were expelled (“asked to stay home”) from preschool had ACEs.
  • Children ages 6-17 with no ACEs are half as likely to be disengaged in school compared to those with 2+ACEs (24.1 percent vs. 49.0 percent).

And the link between poverty and race and ACEs is also noteworthy, with 58 percent of U.S. children with ACEs coming from homes with incomes less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level and an astounding 6 out of 10 black children experiencing ACEs.

Armed with these facts one would expect states to increase funding for social services and health services to schools serving children raised in poverty and black children. But these facts are evidently less important than standardized test scores when it comes to determining the well-being of students and the success of schools. Instead of moving in the direction of neighborhood schools that provide comprehensive health and social services, though, we are giving parents “choices” in schools— none of which provide a choice that includes the kind of nurturing environment needed to address children who have experienced ACEs.