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In the Orchard of Education Technology

Posted on | June 7, 2013 | Comments Off

Amending a PACE Policy Brief:

I got in trouble at a meeting recently for repeating the opening assertion of the policy brief I wrote for Policy Analysis for California Education. [View or download brief] As the brief says, “education technology has always over-promised and under-delivered.”  The assertion, which is reasonably backed up by history and research, drew critical comment from tech-enthusiastic teachers.  That, they said, must have been some other universe, or at least some other classroom!

But, indeed, the tendency of technology policy to concentrate on buying devices or bandwidth is a problem.  It substitutes the easy job of filling out purchase orders for the hard thinking and action involved in changing the learning system, and that is the potential we are offered by Internet-fueled technology.

After the brief went to press, I began to think about technology policy as an orchard.

First, pick the low overhanging fruit by investing in applications that help the most expensive and difficult parts of schooling, including Special Education, English Language Learners, and remediation.

Second—and this is the hard part—we should graft some new branches onto the existing tree of learning.  Technology can provide a new learning infrastructure.  Information, teaching, testing: all available direct to students, who are the real workers in the education system.

Third, we should trim back the intertwined roots of the institution.  Many writers on technology see regulation as the singular solution to the advance of new learning modalities.  I disagree.  But there are some important changes that should be made.

We should gradually move away from “seat time” funding and toward paying schools on the basis of achievement.  In my mind, this change is not so much an “accountability” requirement—“you don’t get paid till students can demonstrate they learned something”—as it is a productivity incentive, making it possible for students to move faster if they can without stigmatizing those whose progress is slower.

For a lot of students, high school and college could take seven years, not the eight or nine now required.

We should also move away from geographic exclusiveness.  Existing school districts and teachers should be able to offer virtual learning, which I see as much more the distribution of courses and lessons than whole on-line schools, statewide, not just in the confines of their school district or in contiguous counties.

I hope you’ll read and comment on the brief itself, which is available free from PACE in pdf form.   Technology policy is hard, and it will benefit from the thoughts of many contributors.

To Make Students Learn, Make Schools Smart First

Posted on | May 30, 2013 | Comments Off

I learned a thing or three on last Friday, and it’s taken me a week to digest it all.  For reasons unknown, I was invited to meet with some very bright teachers who are advisors to the California Council of Science and Technology, the state analogue to the prestigious National Science Academy.

The CCST has been wrestling with what to do about digital education, and the invited group of teachers, tech developers, and onlookers spent Friday exploring the efficacy of new modes of learning.

Although I was invited to talk (mostly I introduced a policy paper on technology just released by Policy Analysis for California Education), for most of the day I listened intently to the participants as they described how they used technology in their work and what those experiences were teaching them.

And here’s what I learned: Teachers and tech developers learn the most when there is rapid, reliable feedback about the efficacy of teaching and learning.  This observation crosses platform and technology: new tech, old tech, or no tech.  When the learning system builds in feedback, learners are better able to correct their mistakes and teachers are more effective in managing the learning process. Read more

4-26-13: Annotating the News

Posted on | April 26, 2013 | Comments Off

Capacity building as a precursor to testing

The L.A. Times has seen the elephant in the room.  In a switch from its past obsession with test score accountability, the paper editorialized on Monday that we ought to be paying more attention to what students are supposed to be learning and particularly to the roll-out of the Common Core of standards, which is supposed to take place in 2014.

The promise of the Common Core to provide deeper learning and better testing will work only if a matching curriculum and testing system is in place and if teachers are trained.  “[A]t the rate California is going, it won’t be ready,” the Times said, echoing my fears and an EdSource commentary by Arun Ramanathan

We need to build capacity before we rush to implement the Common Core and point fingers at those who, given the current preparedness, will surely stumble over its complexities.  The Times said as much:

Experts are divided over the value of the new curriculum standards, which might or might not lead students to the deeper reading, reasoning and writing skills that were intended. But on this much they agree: The curriculum will fail if it isn’t carefully implemented with meaningful tests that are aligned with what the students are supposed to learn.  Legislators and education leaders should be putting more emphasis on helping teachers get ready for common core and giving them a significant voice in how it is implemented.  And if the state can’t get the right elements in place to do that by 2014, it would be better off delaying the new curriculum a couple of years and doing it right, rather than allowing common core to become yet another educational flash in the pan that never lives up to its promise.

There oughta be an immigration law!

A decade ago Samuel Huntington declared that the “Hispanic challenge” would threaten our historic values.  Latinos, he asserted, were just too different to assimilate into the U.S.  [A small aside: family historians found that our forebearers worshiped in German for at least the first 50 years after coming to America.] This week, a pair of dispatches suggested just how wrong he was about Latinos and immigrants in general.

In the New York Times, David Leonhardt reported on the remarkable progress of Latino immigrants, comparing first and second generations:  College graduation up from 11% to 21% compared to 36% for the population at large; less than high school education down from 47% to 17%; median income up from $34.6 thousand to $48.4 thousand.  James P. Smith at RAND calls Latinos “the new Italians,” like the immigrants from a century ago that arrived poor and undereducated.  And like Italians, Latinos are rapidly intermarrying with other Americans: up from 7% in the first generation to 26% in the second.

Meanwhile, the Economist underscores the extent to which highly educated immigrants have pushed our economy.  Forty percent of the high tech companies in California were started by immigrants, most famously, Google, whose co-founder Sergey Brin moved to the U.S. from Russia as a child.

Both stories underscore the necessity of an immigration law, not to be “nice” to immigrants, but to benefit the nation.  As Leonhardt writes, illegal status “brings enormous disadvantages that inhibit climbing the economic ladder.”  At the same time, current law allows only 250,000 foreign nationals with special skills into the country, less than one-tenth of a percent of the workforce, into the country annually.  “America’s job-generating machine cannot run at full throttle for long if it is starved of fuel,” the Economist argues.

Of MOOCs and mentors

It’s hard to go through a day’s emails without seeing reference to Massive Open Online Courses.  More than 5-million students have registered online for free or inexpensive courses run by Coursea, Udacity, or edX.  But as A. J. Jacobs writes in the New York Times, you can forget about the Socratic method.

One may get the wisdom of first-rate professors, but you don’t get the professors.  Jacobs signed up for 11 courses, and graded the whole experience with as a B, but personal interaction only got a D, writing: “Coursera and its competitors will have to figure out how to make teachers and teaching assistants more reachable.  More like local pastors, less like deities on high.”

And that’s an important point.  Teaching, both K-12 and college, has always been a bundled experience of instruction, assessment, and guidance.  MOOCs, which are essentially a sophisticated broadcast media, may present very good lectures and ancillary material much more cheaply than conventional schools and colleges, but they’re not the medium to change young lives.

Although the two stories don’t reference one another, the same section of the N.Y. Times, carries a moving eulogy by writer Philip Roth for his high school teacher.  Bob Lowenstein became a mentor and friend, a reader of Roth’s drafts and a writer of poetry.  He also became a (slightly disguised) character in Roth’s book “I Married a Communist,” the subject of which, “is at bottom, education, tutelage, mentorship, in particular the education of an eager, earnest and impressionable adolescent in how to be come—as how well not to become—a bold and honorable and effective man.”

One may get great lectures, even great simulations from a MOOC, but they won’t grow you up.  Nor will you go speak at a MOOC’s funeral.

Higher Education Faces an “Avalanche”

Posted on | April 24, 2013 | Comments Off

A new report by Sir Michael Barber and his colleagues at Pearson, Katelyn Donnelly and Saad Rizvi, should be on the reading list of everyone thinking about the future of higher education.

An Avalanche is Coming describes—somewhat breathlessly—the forces that are about to reshape colleges and universities worldwide.  Globalization and technology are game changers, they argue.  Barber, Donnelly, and Rivzi channel both Tom Friedman’s flat world and Clayton Christensen’s ideas about disruptive innovation.

But to a greater extent, they are channeling their own experience.  Few people on the planet have the experience and access to the highest levels of power and discussion about education policy as these three.  They have strapped themselves into a lot of airplane seats.

Barber has practiced education policy at the highest levels for three decades.  His Education in the Capital became a keystone for the Blair government in the United Kingdom, in which he served.  Then he headed the global education practice unit at the consulting firm McKinsey before moving to Pearson, where he heads their worldwide program of research into educational policy.  Most recently, he has taken on one of the toughest jobs in the world, designing an education system in Pakistan.

Donnelly leads the Affordable Learning Fund that invests in early-stage companies that are developing low cost solutions for the developing world.  Rizvi leads Pearson’s efforts at efficient delivery of educational outcomes.  Thus, what’s notable about Avalanche, is the worldview of the authors and their position as both thought leaders and movers and shakers in education.

So, what does this transformative snow slide look like?  Mostly, it looks like a fortress with the walls breached and the marauders, well, marauding.  Territory that colleges and universities claimed as their own, sometimes in ringing Biblical city-on-a-hill language is becoming contested as:

  • Universities and colleges compete with one another across state and national borders.
  • Traditional higher education institutions compete with corporations, think tanks, and employers to offer both basic occupational training and high-level specialties.
  • Non-degree learning becomes valued equally with degrees offered by traditional institutions of higher education.

It is not just easy information access that is new, although I still marvel at my ability to “go to the library” at 2 am or have more computing power in my phone than did the university computer into which I fed punched cards a half-century ago.  Just as Barber, Donnelly, and Rizvi look at the Internet and declare content to be ubiquitous, so did John Dewey in School and Society more than a century ago when he wrote:

A high‐priesthood of learning, which guarded the treasury of truth and which doled it out to the masses under severe restrictions, was the inevitable expression of these (historic) conditions.  But as a direct result of the industrial revolution of which we have been speaking, this has been changed.  Printing was invented; it was made commercial.  Books, magazines, papers were multiplied and cheapened.  As a result of the locomotive and telegraph, frequent, rapid and cheap intercommunications by mails and electricity was called into being.  Travel has been rendered easy; freedom of movement, with its accompanying exchange of ideas, indefinitely facilitated. The result has been an intellectual revolution (1900, p. 23).

That earlier democratization of knowledge ushered in the largest expansion of universities and colleges in history.  But it also profoundly reshaped both their utilitarian and social missions.  Universities became gatekeepers for occupations, the pathway to social and occupational status, and the engine that drove economies.

To me, the power of the coming avalanche lies in the unbundling of the university’s historic functions of teaching, research, and societal service.  This model of university, what the University of California president Clark Kerr was to call a multiversity, is possible because of enormous cross-subsidization.  Tuition supports much more than direct instruction.  Undergraduate teaching supports graduate students doing research.  Research grants support students and faculty supplying resources for teaching.  Research also draws star faculty, enhances reputation, and draws more research funds, which are highly concentrated in elite institutions.  The presence of colleges and universities changes communities, including the desirability of neighborhoods and the price of real estate.

And in many ways, universities become basic industries, driving the economies of regions, states, and, sometimes, whole nations.  Barber, Donnelly, and Rizvi cite Stanford at the grain of sand that started Silicon Valley, but there are scores of other examples including the decidedly non-elite community colleges that have had a profound effect on their surrounding communities.

Unbundling the three historic functions, puts the institution at risk, and that is the point of Avalanche.

It’s a good read, and it lifts the veil a bit about the future of higher education from three people who are busy bringing it about.

D.C. School Cheating Issue Calls Test-Driven Incentives into Question

Posted on | April 22, 2013 | Comments Off

This post can also be found at EdSource

The smoke surrounding allegations of test score cheating in the Washington, D.C public schools burst into flame last week.  In a 4,300-word blog post, titled Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error, the veteran educational journalist John Merrow linked the former schools chancellor with documents that suggest that she knew about widespread cheating on standardized tests and looked the other way.

Merrow drew parallels between Washington and Atlanta, where former superintendent Beverly Hall and 34 others have been indicted.  But the underlying question is whether school reform can successfully be driven by rewards and punishments tied to standardized tests.

First, the Watergate question: what did Rhee know and when did she know it?  As U.S.A. Today reported, District of Columbia Public Schools officials have long maintained that a 2011 test-cheating scandal that generated two government probes was limited to one elementary school.  Merrow, however, reported that a long-buried memo from an outside data consultant warned as far back as January 2009 that educator cheating on 2008 standardized tests could have been widespread, with 191 teachers in 70 schools “implicated in possible testing infractions.”

Consultant Fay G. Sanford noted substantial numbers of erasures on test forms where corrections were made from wrong answers to correct ones.  (Erasers leave smudge marks that the machines doing the grading recognize along with the answers.)  “It is common knowledge in the high-stakes testing community that one of the easiest ways for teachers to artificially inflate student test scores is to erase student wrong responses to multiple choice questions and recode them as correct,” Sanford wrote.

When asked, Rhee said that she didn’t recall getting a memo from Sanford an assertion she repeated last week to the Los Angeles Times editorial board.

A day after the Merrow report was issued, another investigation was released citing “critical” violations of test security in 18 classrooms located in 7 district schools and 4 charters.  The test was given in more than 2,600 classrooms, and current D.C. schools chancellor Kaya Henderson said in a statement, “We are pleased that this is yet another investigation that confirms that there is no widespread cheating at DCPS.”

But Henderson is not quelling demands for a district-wide investigation.  Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has called for an independent investigation as did Washington Post writer Valerie Strauss, who said, “The memo does not offer conclusive evidence that cheating occurred, but it literally begs for a thorough probe to be conducted — this time by investigators with subpoena powers.”

Meanwhile, an in-depth evaluation of D.C. schools by a National Research Council panel continues.  The study is chaired by two Californians: Carl Cohn, a professor at Claremont Graduate University and member of the state school board, and Lorraine McDonnell, a professor of political science at U.C. Santa Barbara.  Their work is not confined to test tampering, but considers the overall effect of governance and management changes. Read more

Big Money and the School Board: An Annotation of a “L.A. Times” Op-Ed

Posted on | March 11, 2013 | Comments Off

The scope of bargaining section from a well-marked case book. (Cox, Dunlop, Gorman, Finkin)

[This story has also been posted at Ed Source.]

The Los Angeles Times Monday printed an op-ed piece I wrote about last week’s school board election, where a coalition of deep pockets givers spurred by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa spent over $63 per vote.  It was not only big money but also money badly spent.  (Read the whole article.)

The 800-word limit for op-eds is about double the normal readership attention span, but it doesn’t allow much amplification of the basic points.

One point I raised was the crafting of a Democratic alternative to the Republican position on teachers unions, which is largely that they should be weakened by restriction on bargaining rights.  Generally, this is done by limiting the scope of bargaining or the ability to collect union dues.

Unions fight these restrictions hard, as they should: witness the failed recall election against Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin.

Meanwhile, the political division among the self-styled reformers and the unions continues.  Both call themselves Democrats.  The list includes mayors, such as Villaraigosa and Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, now registered as an independent, contributed $1-million to last week’s Los Angeles Unified School District board election.

The logic of the reformers seems to be that teacher unions are so wrongheaded, and the citizenry sufficiently tired of fights about seniority and teacher evaluation, that putting forward a slate of school board candidates is the way to change the balance of power in the school district and mute the pesky union.

But the strategy hasn’t worked.  Not in L.A., not in Washington, D.C., not in Chicago.

In the op-ed piece, I suggested changing strategy.  Instead of attacking the unions via the school board, rewrite labor law so that it makes unions responsible for education quality.

This issue needs lots of discussion, and I hope the op-ed will engender some, but the big point is that unions now do what the law requires of them.  They negotiate wages, hours, and conditions of employment.  Nothing requires them to negotiate educational quality.

During the 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney characterized teacher unions as uncaring about education quality quoting the late American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker as saying “When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of children. ”  Problem is, Shanker never said it, or at least no one can verify that he did. Actually, Shanker cared a lot about educational quality and spent at least the last decade of his life working to use unionism as a vehicle for change.

But the point is that unions are not empowered or required to represent the interests of children.  Indeed, the construction of labor law crimps teacher professionalism.   And the restrictions in labor law advocated by Republicans generally make teachers less professional rather than more.  Remember: profession is a collective characteristic rather than an individual work ethic.  Organized professions, not individuals, set training standards, codes of conduct, licensing regulations, and standards of practice.

So, how does one get labor law pointed toward supporting teacher engagement in standards setting? Read more

Rainy Day Musing about Tests and Property Rights

Posted on | February 8, 2013 | Comments Off

It’s a rainy day in Claremont: a good day to muse over the blogs and emails.

Teacher boycotts of standardized tests in Seattle have taken a new turn.  District superintendent José Banda has ordered administrators at Garfield High School to give the tests instead of the teachers giving them, according to The Seattle Times. At the same time, many students are opting out of the tests, and the school’s parent association is organizing to notify parents of their right to withdraw students from them.

The standardized test boycott has spread to Portland where a group of students is urging test boycotts, and Jackie Zubrzycki reports on the Education Week blog “District Dossier” that the movement is growing.

The protests may lead to a game of educational chicken, where districts and schools demand that students take tests in order to graduate, and students threaten sabotage the results by doing poorly on purpose.  The upside of all this is that both in Portland and Seattle, the protests have given rise to a reexamination of the value of standardized tests.  In an educational policy world that claims (often without justification) to be “evidence based,” what counts as evidence, how it is collected, and how it is measured is extremely important and should be the topic of political debate.

On this point, see Michael Apple’s review of the a 2010 book Understanding Education Indicators: A Practical Primer for Research and Policy by Michael Planty and Deven Carlson.  I’ve not yet read the book, but understanding clearly what these tests can and can’t tell us about student learning ought to be part of the core skills of every school administrator and teacher leader.  And as Apple, in his usual fashion, points out, the construction and mandating of tests is not politically neutral act.

And all this comes as the country lurches toward the Common Core standards and its associated tests.

File this Under Selling Young Picassos. The Prince George’s County, Maryland, school board has voted to assert ownership of teacher and student work.  So, just in case you thought your 1st grader’s drawing was cute, you may have pay the school to send it to grandma.  According to a Washington Post story by Ovetta Wiggins, the move was prompted when two school board members went to an Apple Computer presentation on how teachers can use apps to create new curricula.  And they figured that the schools ought to own the product.  Maybe they overreached a bit.

Further Thoughts About Teacher-Run Schools

Posted on | February 1, 2013 | Comments Off

The discussion about teacher-run schools prompts me to jot a bit about why I am fascinated by this small, iconoclastic form of organization.

I am, first of all, simply charmed by the schools I visited.  They are interesting places full of interesting people—both faculty and students.  There is a vibe and intensity to being there.  At the same time, it is easy to recognize that these schools are not for everyone.  Not all students thrive in them; not all teachers would want to work in them.

Why, then do we care?  Teacher-run schools demonstrate capacity.  They demonstrate that both teachers and students have much greater capacity to monitor and control their own work than the existing system asks for or allows.  They create schools that are flexible and responsive rather than built around layers of regulations, compliance mandates, and inspection.

When teachers run their own schools, the pedagogy is different.  The word authentic became trite education-speak, but it applies well to the teacher-run schools I visited.  Students do real work and real projects.  The schools have classes when they need them: direct instruction, after all, is a fairly efficient way of transmitting information.  But for the most part, students work on doing, building, creating, and for the most part they are not bored while they are working.  School actually motivates students.

Assessment is different, too, rooted in examination of student products and an overall sense of whether the student is thriving and making progress, the education equivalent of holistic medicine.  These schools do not exist for the purpose of test score maximization.

When teachers run their own schools, they create better jobs for themselves, but not in the selfish sense.  Because they understand the economics of the school at its elemental level, they temper self-interest, often denying themselves raises.  They live in a more fragile economy without the job protections that civil service provides for teachers in district schools.  They work hard, and frequently long.  And nearly all the teachers I talked to said that the jobs they have now are the best ones that they had ever had.  Less security and more satisfaction create an interesting juxtaposition.

The craft skills these teachers display are much more consistent with 21st Century information production than they are with early 20th Century industrial production, on which contemporary school systems are modeled.  And the organization skills create small, cellular units capable of independent operation.  That’s fascinating because it suggests creating a teaching occupation that is consistent with how people access and use information in our age.

“I would prefer to trust our teachers…”

Posted on | January 25, 2013 | Comments Off

Gov. Jerry Brown delivers state-of-state address

California’s Back!  Gov. Jerry Brown did himself proud in Thursday’s state-of-the-state speech, and he did California proud, too.  In the details of the speech, there are prospects for boldness, greatness, and innovation, not the tire patching and gridlock we’ve experienced as government.

Others will comment in great length on the wisdom of the San Joaquin delta tunnel project and whether high-speed rail is prescient or folly.  And educational interests are putting the pencil to whether they win or lose under the governor’s plan for simplifying public education funding and regulation.  (See David Plank’s Los Angeles Times commentary.)

Instead of joining these conversations, or commenting on the literary illusions in the governor’s speech, please zoom in one sentence that has revolutionary importance:  “I would prefer to trust our teachers who are in the classroom each day, doing the real work—lighting fires in young minds.”

Brown knows that we live in a world that profoundly distrusts teachers.  Most of what passes for education reform has been crafted with the assumption that teachers are incompetent or malfeasant.  Education systems, therefore, are layered with micromanagement rather than characterized by useful feedback mechanisms that make teachers smart about their work.  It bends the mind to contemplate what a radical change would be required if public education were built around high-trust assumptions.

But there are places that trust teachers with substantive decisions and hard-nosed accountability.  I’ve written about some of them, including the Avalon School in St. Paul, and in a new book Trusting Teachers with School Success, Kim Farris-Berg and Edward Dirkswager describe practices that build high commitment and performance in schools where teachers: Read more

Three Modest Suggestions About Technology Policy

Posted on | November 20, 2012 | Comments Off

Last Friday, I presented some of my thoughts about educational technology at the Policy Analysis For California Education seminar at Sacramento.  I began by asking the same question that I’ve asked myself and others over the last couple years: “Why should California, the headwater of the digital revolution, be stuck in the eddies of early 20th Century school design?”

There is no good reason, only political will, and the inability to find a clear enough vision to create public policy that will work.  That, as it turns out, is a tall order.

People are more afraid of giving up control than they are excited about the possibilities of technology.  Although educators frequently denigrate standardized testing, they remain wedded to standardized learning: a single scope and sequence, age and grade leveled.  It will take some doing to disturb the existing grammar of schooling.

Technology to change learning does not yet have a champion.  This is not to say that there are not advocates for technology usage, particularly among the companies that manufacture hardware and software.  But we miss “the city on the hill vision” connected to the political vision to bring it about.

I made three policy suggestions at the seminar:

  1. Improve those places in the existing system that are most troublesome and expensive.  In California, as in most of the rest of the country, these include the education of English Language Learners, Special Education, remediation at all levels, and the transition from high school to college.
  2. Start to build a web-based educational infrastructure available to all students, teachers, and families in the state.  It would do three things.  It would create access at school and at home thus partially bridging the digital divide between rich and poor.  It would broker and rate lessons and teaching resources.  And it would allow students to take examinations and get credit when they are ready.
  3. Tweak regulations in order to create a more open system with greater incentive for participation and innovation.

The slides from my talk are available along with a video of the PACE presentation.

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