January 2nd, 2014

Please, Make it Stop

From the “We Just Can’t Seem to Understand How Learning Really Happens Department” I bring you Crystal Hunter, CEO of Edmodo:

From my perspective, 2013 demonstrated that teachers are more connected than ever before. These connections give teachers the ability to build relationships and share content worldwide, including app recommendations, alternative approaches to lesson plans, links to videos, and more—all of which save them time and augment student comprehension of subject material. As the industry determines how to define success in education, it’s important to allow educators to lead the dialogue. Teachers are the ones shaping today’s youth, one student at a time, and much can be learned from the ways they collaborate. In 2014, we’ll see how much these connections positively influence student success.

No need, obviously, for teachers to actually create anything with these technologies and connections. And I’ve been waiting for something to “augment” my kids’ “comprehension of subject material” for some time now. And I’m just tickled that the “industry” will define success and…wait for it… “allow” teachers to lead the dialogue. Wow! How exciting!

If this is the best that 2014 has to offer, we might as well close up shop.

(And not for nothing, but if teachers using blogs to connect  their kids to global others is “best practice” in 2013, then what was it some 12 years ago when we were doing that in my lit and journalism classrooms? Mercy.)

April 2nd, 2013

The Three Narratives

So, this is really thin, early-morning thinking, but I’m trying to describe what I think are the three competing narratives around schooling at the moment. To be honest, I think I’ve done a pretty bad job of it, but I thought I’d post it up anyway to see if some of you might help me flesh it out a bit more clearly. 

Here they are:

1. Schools are broken. The way forward is to make schools better by doubling down on traditional outcomes, state-mandated standardized tests, school choice, and test-based accountability for teachers. The state decides what will be taught and when it will be taught, and, importantly, what will be assessed. Technology’s dual role in this is first to “personalize” delivery of the curriculum to each student using adaptive learning platforms and, second, to provide all students access to “the best teachers” and “best content” available via the Web as a way to increase efficiency.  ”Student learning” is defined by comparison test scores year to year and is “managed” by the system. Policy makers and businessmen who are, for the most part, not educators, are chief drivers of reforms. 

2. Schools are not broken, but can be improved. The way forward is to make schools better by reducing the emphasis on standardized tests, rethinking teacher training and assessment, and increasing local control over school decisions. Thinking about curriculum and classrooms is rooted in traditional systems and structures, and schools are still places where state-created outcomes are delivered to students. Technology’s role is to support instruction and student learning, which is measured primarily by teacher created assessments and summative evaluations. Traditional educators are the primary drivers of change thinking and reforms.

3. Schools as currently constructed are not broken but increasingly irrelevant. Abundant connections to content, knowledge and people created by the Web requires a fundamental rethinking of traditional structures and systems. The way forward is to change the emphasis on student learning from “what” to learn to, instead, “how” to learn. Technology’s role is to support both students and teachers as inquiry, discovery based learners with an emphasis on creating, connecting, collaborating, and sharing authentic, real-world work. Learning is assessed by performance, achievement of teacher-student negotiated outcomes, and contribution. Educators and connected learners are the chief drivers of these reforms.

My biggest struggle is with #2. I’m pretty clear what this group doesn’t want (see #1), but I’m not totally sure what they advocate for, especially in terms of the role of technology.

Anyway…be gentle. ;0)

March 12th, 2013

Rhee on Democracy

David Sirota on Michelle Rhee:

That’s where Rhee’s little-noticed but incredibly revealing comments come in. As grass-roots opposition in the local community understandably rose up to oppose her destructive policies, Rhee made quite clear what she and her movement thinks of the notion of local control of schools and community involvement in education policy:

MICHELLE RHEE: People said, “Well, you didn’t listen to us.” And I said, “No, I listened to you. I’m not running this district by consensus or by committee. We’re not running this school district through the democratic process.”

FRONTLINE: [on camera] It’s not a democracy.

MICHELLE RHEE: No, it’s not a democracy.

If a statement like that about public schools isn’t offensive enough unto itself, remember that Rhee made it not as some outside observer. She made it while she was holding public office. Yes, that’s right: A person who held a democratically accountable office was making clear that the national “reform” movement she leads believes that schools are no longer and should no longer be controlled by any kind of democracy.

Pretty much sums it up. Yet this is a woman who is raising millions if not billions in support of undemocratic reforms. 

January 22nd, 2013

We’re Getting Rolled

Tom Hoffman:

Ten years ago, “school reform” at least equally applied to Deborah Meier and Ted Sizer as it did to, say, Joel Klein.

In the intervening decade, I’ve become a social software curmudgeon — you’ll pull Blogger from my cold, dead hands — and yielded the “ed reformer” tag to people and practices I hate.

Basically, in both cases, the money men started to roll in and roll over the geeks and the teachers who were building tools and schools with an eye to something other than the market, or market-based logic. We’re only just now hitting the point where it is clear the grifters are rolling into schools like Visigoths, but even when the point hasn’t been to make money directly, it has been to apply the methods of business to education.

It has taken a while to sort out, but at this point many of the leading figures in screwing up the internet are also leaders in screwing up education (reform): Gates, Zuckerberg, Jobs (RIP), etc. It isn’t hard to tease out the common thread. The earnest geeks who do things, understand how things work, and care about actual people get rolled by the big money guys. That’s it.

And, the other folks who are screwing up education are those who stand silent and watch it happen…

November 8th, 2012

Enamored by Their Own Ideology

Arthur Camins:

Similarly, I have been trying to understand the persistence of education reformers, especially those in federal and state government, in the light of so much contrary, well-articulated evidence. I have been trying to understand how teachers who oppose charter schools and merit pay, or who make the case that schools alone can’t undo the effects of poverty, have come to be defined by education reformers as the enemy – supporters of and apologists for the status quo. Somehow, educators who do not support the reformers’ ill-conceived version of disruptive innovation, but who have proposed myriad significant improvement, have been cast as defenders of bad teachers who supposedly believe poverty is destiny. Reformers have become so enamored by their own ideology and so invested in their own course of action that they are unable to recognize the evidence that challenges their policies and unable to recognize the damage it is causing to students.

Let’s not forget this either: Few of the “reformers” are educators. They are lawyer-politicians or businessmen who have never been in a classroom, never experienced school other than being there as a student, and have motivations other than doing schools differently instead of better. 

October 11th, 2012

The Reform Formula

Richard Rothstein:

Klein and Rhee have recently founded an organization called StudentsFirstNY to raise millions of dollars from New York City’s wealthiest. It will support candidates in the city’s upcoming mayoral race who adopt an agenda that puts “the interests of children” over “special interests” (read: teacher unions) and commits to expanding charter schools, eliminating teacher tenure, and using student test scores to evaluate teachers. The group’s mission statement incorporates the fanciful Klein autobiographical tale, saying that “while there are many factors that influence a student’s opportunity to learn, a great teacher can help any student overcome those barriers and realize their full potential.”

Klein’s actual biography tells an important story, just not the one he imagines: It’s more evidence that student achievement mostly reflects the social and economic environment in which children are raised and that the best way to improve academic achievement is to address these conditions directly.

Great read that speaks volumes about the power of words and stories when it comes to building a movement and the money to support it. 

September 24th, 2012

Let’s Make it an Even 300, OK?

Been doing some ciphering as to the number of state or national tests New Jersey kids starting kindergarten next year will be taking through their school careers:

Total known state and national tests in 12 years of school: 299


Some questions come to mind:

  • Does anyone think this is good for kids?
  • Does anyone not think this will increase focus on test prep?
  • Does anyone not think this will decrease a teacher’s ability to provide rich learning experiences for kids?
  • Do the standards and model curriculum attempt to prepare kids for the “new normal” of the world as it is?
  • Who are these people? 

That’s just a start.


UPDATE: I realized I was a bit off on the number. Really it’s at least 214. Social Studies and Science will only be tested during high school according to the NJ Model Curriculum. Still…

July 14th, 2012

Valuing the Immeasurable

One of my new favorite bloggers, Justin Reich at Harvard, writes:

I could imagine learning environments where parts of the student experience (learning grammar, practicing math algorithms) are optimized in thoughtful ways using personalization technology, where other parts of the student experience allow for individual experimentation and research, and where time still remains for students to form learning communities devoted to the study of our shared history and civic responsibilities. I can also imagine learning environments devoted to personalization that obliterate meaningful opportunities for collaborative, connected civic learning.

My fear is that we are staring down the barrel of the latter, not just in the area of civics and history but in just about all areas of schooling. And for me it comes back to this fairly simple statement: We define an “education” by what we assess, which in turn defines the value (or lack of value) of this thing we call “school.” 

Up until now, society won’t see someone as “educated” until he or she has passed some type of test or received some type of diploma. The requirements to pass that test or earn that diploma are narrowly built around a discrete body of knowledge and a few necessary skills to apply that knowledge in fairly limited ways. When Diane Ravitch or I or others create lists of what we consider to be other important, broader skills and understandings we want kids to have, we do it (in my case, at least) as a response to the continued narrowing of the current education experience to those things that can be easily measured.

As Justin puts it in his post, the tension is clear: we optimize the measurable at the risk of neglecting the immeasurable. And make no mistake, there is a lot of money out there for those who can “optimize the measurable” if we don’t change the assessment. As he writes in another entry a few months ago, the market driven “reformers” need “measurable” badly:

They view learning as the process of delivering learning objects for the individual consumption of students, and they have great faith that this delivery process can be optimized by algorithms and data mining. It is incredibly important for them that we have quantifiable outcomes of learning (standardized tests), since they can only optimize on quantitative metrics.

No question, this is the crux of the reform issue right now. When our definition of being educated can be achieved by “optimizing the measurable” via personalizing technologies, what then is the societal value of this thing we call “school”? Access point? Babysitter? Something else?

We have a case to make, I think, for valuing the immeasurable over that which can be easily measured, and that the powerful role that schools can play now is not delivering that narrow curriculum (which is now in a million places) but in developing the skills and dispositions or the “opportunity to participate in civic and deliberative discussions” which, at the end of the day, is kinda hard to machine score. It’s not an easy case to make in this world of competition and ranking and sorting. But it is where our real value is now. How we articulate that value and move it into the mainstream thinking is where our collective laser focus needs to be.

May 11th, 2012

"We Love Schools." Say it.

I’ve long said that few people have inspired and motivated me more than Lawrence Lessig, author, law professor, scholar, father, advocate, and speaker. I’ve had the honor of seeing Lessig present a number of times, and I’ve had some brief conversations with him that have left me motivated and have pushed in my thinking. When I first started speaking, I blatantly ripped off his presentation style even though I never came close to doing it justice. He’s had a huge influence in my thinking about the world.

So when John Pederson sent me a link to this audio snip from a recent presentation that John asked Lessig to make at the WiscNet conference, I dove in. He’s answering a question  about the huge challenge that lies ahead in fixing our dysfunctional government and eliminating money from politics. And now that I’ve listened to it a half a dozen times, I feel changed. Take a listen:

I know that Lessig isn’t talking about education when he discusses this feeling of “hopelessness.”  But there are times when I (and I know many others) feel that sense of hopelessness when it comes to fighting the money and political power that is pushing the education reform conversation in this country right now. I sometimes look at that mountain of dysfunction and wonder “why bother? There’s nothing we can do. There’s no way we win this fight.”

But there is this: I love schools. We love schools. We love schools because they are places where children and adults come together to make sense of the world, to develop together the dispositions and perspectives that will carry them throughout their lives. We love schools because they are places of play and of beauty, of social connections and citizenship. We love schools because they are at times filled with magic that only happens when we share a common desire to create and learn and contribute. And we love schools because of the potential every child and every teacher brings with them to the interaction.

You know where this is going. What I hear Lessig saying is this:

If we love schools, right now, we have to fight for schools.

And whether we like it or not, this is what we are in: a fight for our schools. Like Lessig, I’m convinced that we’re making public policy around education that is driven by corporate profits, not the best interests of kids. I’ve written about that here and here and here and lots of other places. But if you don’t believe me, read Alfie Kohn. Read Yong Zhao. Read Gary Stager. Read Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier. You need only listen to the first few minutes of Jeb Bush to understand that whether we like it or not, we are in this moment when the future of our schools is being decided and we all have a part to play. You might call that hyperbolic, but I don’t think I’m overstating it.  

But Lessig provides some powerful context, doesn’t he?

"Love means in the face of absolute improbability, you don’t care about the improbability, you do what it takes even knowing there is nothing you can do. You act as strongly as you possibly can…It might be impossible. It might be we’re past the stage when we as a people can rally together to do anything about this. It’s irrelevant. It doesn’t matter. We still as a people have absolutely every single purpose and obligation to do what we can to do about this. And that starts in this very tenuous, obscure way which is just getting more of us to understand the problem. And once more of us understand that problem, then at least we have an army that recognizes what they have to fight against, whether we can win or not."

So let’s say it: We love schools. And we have an obligation to fight, to educate, to advocate in whatever way we can to make sure more people fully understand the problem that corporate driven, narrowly framed, assessment driven “reform” is not what is in the best interest of our children or our society. And it doesn’t matter that we sometimes feel hopelessness in the moment. We can’t change it with inaction and acceptance. That’s just not a valid choice. 

January 17th, 2012

The Rise of State Schools

So this pretty much sums it up as well it can be summed up right now:

U.S. schools under the jurisdiction of state and federal governments are now scripted processes that view knowledge as static capital, students as passive and empty vessels, and teachers as compliant conduits for state-approved content. The accountability paradigm is antithetical to human agency and autonomy and thus to democracy, but it serves the needs of the status quo and the ruling elite; in effect, accountability paradigms driving compulsory education are oppressive.


(Source: dailykos.com)

November 7th, 2011

"It’s All About Distrust"

The scariest part of this story about how the new teacher evaluation policies in Tennessee are sending “morale into the toilet” is not that the framework is broken. It’s that someone actually created this stupidity in the first place. I mean, just read this:

Teachers have it worse. Half of their assessment is based on their students’ results on state test scores, a serious problem for those who teach subjects with no state test.

To solve that, the state is requiring teachers without test results to be evaluated based on the scores of teachers at their school with test results. So Emily Mitchell, a first-grade teacher at David Youree Elementary, will be evaluated using the school’s fifth-grade writing scores.

“How stupid is that?” said Michelle Pheneger, who teaches ACT math prep at Blackman High and is also being evaluated in part based on writing scores. “My job can be at risk, and I’m not even being evaluated by my own work.”

For 15 percent of their testing evaluation, teachers without scores are permitted to choose which subject test they want to be judged on. Few pick something related to their expertise; instead, they try to anticipate the subject that their school is likely to score well on in the state exams next spring.

Several teachers without scores at Oakland Middle School conferred. “The P. E. teacher got information that the writing score was the best to pick,” said Jeff Jennings, the art teacher. “He informed the home ec teacher, who passed it on to me, and I told the career development teacher.”

It’s a bit like Vegas, and if you pick the wrong academic subject, you lose and get a bad evaluation. While this may have nothing to do with academic performance, it does measure a teacher’s ability to play the odds. There’s also the question of how a principal can do a classroom observation of someone who doesn’t teach a classroom subject.

My. Goodness. Who in their right mind would create and impose something as asinine as this? Really?

These are scary times.

November 6th, 2011

"Blowing Up" Education

So, regardless of whether you think Khan Academy adds real value to the learning conversation, don’t miss the shift in rhetoric around the potential:

In case you haven’t noticed, lots of people want to “blow up education” right now. And the monied interests are going to have much to say about which direction education takes from here. I know I’m sounding like a broken MP3 here, but the question once again is whether or not the focus moving forward will be on learning or test taking. 

We do have a voice in this, obviously. We need to start using it. 

September 30th, 2011

What if we Did School for Kids, Not Adults?

(UPDATE: After a post-posting Twitter exchange with Chris Lehmann, I’m thinking a better title might be “…for Kids AND Adults.”) 

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the education issue here in the states, lots of mostly white middle-aged “experts” meeting and pontificating about change at venues like NBC’s “Education Nation" and the New York Times "Schools for Tomorrow" conference. At the latter, they actually had two panels about students without inviting…wait for it…any students to participate. And Ed Nation felt more like a roll call for the biggest spenders and businesses with a financial stake in education moving forward.

You can’t help but walk away thinking that we’re going to be hellbent on keeping the system manageable for the adults regardless of what my be best for the kids. I know I’ve offered up this Clay Shirky quote before, but let’s not forget that “Institutions will always try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution,” and that is certainly the case right now in education. John Merrow wrote a summary piece about Ed Nation that can’t escape that “let’s do what we’ve been doing better” lens, but one of his commentors, Ken Bernstein, gets it right:

Our schools are now, and have for more than a century, largely been structured for the convenience of the adults involved with them than for the real benefit and learning of the students whom somehow we seem to want to treat as interchangeable parts.

Amen. It’s offensive the way we talk about kids as if they are numbers to be managed and improved, that success has less to do with the types of human beings they become than the scores they “achieve,” and that their desire and ability to continue to learn really doesn’t factor that much into the equation. The current conversation is steeped in tweaking the system, not fundamentally changing it, even though fundamentally changing it would serve our children and, frankly, our nation. I totally understand the magnitude of the articulated “problem” which is to provide every child with an adequate education. But the real problem is that the system is not working for our kids or for us.

Let’s be honest…we are not the most intellectually curious society these days. We routinely ignore science, we’re addicted to Jersey Shore and American Idol, and we disregard our own health to a frightening degree. We don’t know much about the way the world works, and worse, we have no real curiosity about it anyway. We lack energy and inspiration. We act is if we are helpless to do anything to solve our problems or change our world, and our leaders show us no different.

Is it a stretch to suggest that much of what we’re struggling with right now is because of the education system we’ve built and the emphasis we’ve placed on the test? We’ve been taught to hate ambiguity, that only one answer exists, that if we have enough money, we can game the test. We’ve been taught that learning ends once the test is mastered, that our passions don’t matter, and that numbers rather than goods tell our educational story. 

Yet, this is what we perpetuate because for the adults, it’s the easiest path. It’s easier to define success in numbers, easier to manage kids as groups, and easier to tweak than to reimagine, none of which serves our students as well as they deserve.

Kids are not interchangeable parts. If we sincerely valued what was best for them, we’d start talking about change in meaningful ways, not just in ways that support the status quo. 

September 5th, 2011

"We Prepare Children to Learn How to Learn"

Fascinating piece in Smithsonian this month on the “success” of Finnish schools. And I put “success” in quotes because for most American observers, Finland’s school system works because they score near the top on PISA tests. When you read the article, however, you see that test scores have little to do with it from a Finnish perspective. 

There’s a lot to learn from what the Finns do, but more than anything, it’s an attitude toward learning that makes the difference. They’ll do “whatever it takes” to help a child be successful, whether that’s extra time, providing nourishing food and health care, or making play a focal point of the school day. School isn’t high stakes; as one principal said, “We are interested in what will become of them in life,” which is why 43 percent of Finnish kids go to vocational high schools and why there’s only one test in their senior years that they have to take.

But here are the three snips that really jumped out at me. First, the goal of the system:

“We prepare children to learn how to learn, not how to take a test,” said Pasi Sahlberg, a former math and physics teacher who is now in Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture.

What a concept, right? What they seem to understand that we here in the States can’t seem to get is that high test scores do not equal learning. That you can’t create a learning disposition if the focus is on content, Common Core or otherwise. That it’s about being a learner rather than being learned.

And this:

Finnish educators have a hard time understanding the United States’ fascination with standardized tests. “Americans like all these bars and graphs and colored charts,” Louhivuori teased, as he rummaged through his closet looking for past years’ results. “Looks like we did better than average two years ago,” he said after he found the reports. “It’s nonsense. We know much more about the children than these tests can tell us.”

We’ve become so dependent on the test to tell us about our students that we know less and less about who they really are. And without really knowing them, how can we help them reach their individual potentials?

And finally:

In the United States, which has muddled along in the middle for the past decade, government officials have attempted to introduce marketplace competition into public schools. In recent years, a group of Wall Street financiers and philanthropists such as Bill Gates have put money behind private-sector ideas, such as vouchers, data-driven curriculum and charter schools, which have doubled in number in the past decade. President Obama, too, has apparently bet on competition. His Race to the Top initiative invites states to compete for federal dollars using tests and other methods to measure teachers, a philosophy that would not fly in Finland. “I think, in fact, teachers would tear off their shirts,” said Timo Heikkinen, a Helsinki principal with 24 years of teaching experience. “If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect.”

Why is it we have such a hard time in this country seeing this “human aspect” of education? Is that something only understood by socialist cultures who see government as a way of lifting everyone up, of providing an equal starting point for all kids, as opposed to countries like ours that are so hell bent on competition that we’ll let millions of kids suffer a mediocre education just so we can have winners and losers?

I don’t buy the argument that we can’t learn from Finland because it’s smaller and doesn’t have such a big system or that it’s different from our culture. At the core, it’s about caring for kids, doing what’s right by them not what’s easy for us. That’s the piece we seem to be missing, and that’s the piece that should be motivating all of us start screaming about a meaningful overhaul of the system. 

August 31st, 2011

The Truly Flipped Classroom…and Conversation

I think Sarah Thorneycroft gets it right. In commenting about a student-led Minecraft workshop held online last week, she writes:

Perhaps the best aspect of the session today was that it was truly a ‘flipped classroom’ – not through swapping homework with classwork, but through reversing the roles of teacher and learner and turning learning heirarchy on its head. Learning led by kids is challenging and valuable – it’s learning by exploration and questioning, not rote process memorisation. Kids innovate and create first and think later.

Those who have been reading here for a while know my thinking on teachers needing to be learners first, needing to be the learning experts in our communities, not just the subject matter experts. In a world where knowledge and information are changing so fast, where there is so much to know, education has to be more about preparing kids to be learners rather than learned. Unfortunately, I still get the sense that most educators struggle with that shift. Sure, they continue to learn about what they teach, but few see themselves as master learners. In fact, for many, the idea of being a learning “expert” them uncomfortable.

That’s dangerous, especially right now when so many people outside of education are driving the conversation around reform. We’re ceding the debate to non-educators when we are the ones who should be driving it. We need to reframe the conversation, we need to redefine what education looks like, make it something where “success” isn’t measured by test scores or the number of AP courses we offer or the percentage of kids that go on to college but, instead, whether or not the kids that leave us are true learners, kids who have the skills and dispositions to edit their world, create complex work of quality and beauty and significance, work with one another to change the world for good, and tackle any problem that comes their way.

That is not a place we’ll arrive at if we let Bill Gates or Jeb Bush or Scott Walker or Arne Duncan continue to drive the reform bus. And as more moneyed interests become invested in maintaining the status quo, we’ll get farther and farther from that goal.

WE are the learning experts in our communities. (Right?) WE need to lead. And WE need to dive into learning right now, just like those kids in Sarah’s Minecraft class. Flipping that lens, I think, will have a lot to do with flipping the larger conversation around change. 

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