I recently had the opportunity to write a guest editorial in the Lewiston Sun Journal, and I gave myself the ridiculous challenge of trying to provide the big picture on education reform for a general audience in 700 words. Here is the director's cut (yes, a little longer...)
US public schools are working to
improve, but recent political activity has suffered from a misconception, which
is to conflate the policies of the “accountability” movement (shame, blame,
threats, punitive measures and privatization) with the policies of the broader
reform movement, (Capacity building, Standards, Proficiency-based systems,
Personalized learning, Magnet and Charter Schools, Online and blended classes,
etc.) As they are often entwined in statute, the latter are vulnerable to
collateral harm from justifiable outrage at the former.
One thing is very clear from the
research; punitive accountability is ineffective. It
does not drive change at the system level. It is not necessary to attach
punitive measures to needed changes, and it is more likely to put them at risk.
Practices derived from these policies use potentially helpful data in a harmful
way.They are based on a couple of false
assumptions: 1. Schools can get better if we simply put pressure on all the adults to get better or else. 2. Schools can get better by making only changes that do not disrupt parents, students or the public.The truth is, schools need to change dramatically, and we need to let them change.
The shift to proficiency-based systems
is one change worth supporting. It will not be a classroom miracle, but it can
lead to more personalized instruction with clearer, more timely feedback for
students. It will also lead to much fairer grading practices, and help to
curtail the awarding of credit where it isn’t earned.Teachers are unique individuals with strong
preferences and beliefs, but this shouldn’t be a factor in the assessment of
students’ academic performance. Grades should be for core knowledge and skill,
demonstrated effectively, not for unique combinations of points based in part
on punishments for behavior, attendance, social skills, nice notebook covers or
who knows what. It is a difficult change to make, more so where the bureaucracies
and the market both lack the capacity to provide it in kit form, but the states
are right to insist on it.
The Common Core isn’t the problem! We’ve
had similar standards documents for decades, always with the same flaws: full
of jargon, not parent-friendly, too big, too many topics (just like
textbooks.)Teachers prioritize, slice,
dice and do what it takes. In spite of the valid criticisms, national level
standards such as the Common Core are very useful, especially for small states unable
to create their own, and for content providers and institutions that serve
students from more than one state.Imagine
you are a museum docent and have been requested to design a presentation for “8th
grade level.”If your first question has
to be “which state?” you are going to find that more difficult.Also, these standards do not, as is often alleged,
“standardize” the students.A very advanced 4th grade student
could be working on the 8th grade standards, and this sort of
personalization is exactly what the reform movement should be about.The Common Core is just a list of statements
the formulas for the volumes of cylinders, cones and spheres…” The effects
of standards for good or ill have been overstated, but they are part of the
solution and should not be seen as a threat.
Standardized tests have rightly been
tainted by their association with accountability policies, but I feel that the
current wave of “opting out” is an over-reaction, for a couple of reasons:
first, a national test gives useful, more objective information to see how well
students are doing, second, schools do need a way to show improvement that is
perceived to be objective and comparable across the country. The time students
spend taking large-scale standardized tests (2-4 days per year) has not changed
much since the #2 pencil era. Contrary to reports, the Smarter Balanced test
does not profile or collect personal data. The backlash against “testing mania”
has more to do with teachers being broadly pressured over test results in the
name of “accountability,” which is a misuse of the test.They can
use the results to improve instruction and this is being done in non-punitive
ways. Teachers are right to be angry about the use of large scale tests to
evaluate and reward them as professionals, and this is especially true if, as
often occurs at the secondary level, the tests are not in the subject they
teach! But they are inaccurate when they assert there is too much testing, and
it should be self evident they are wrong if asking to be the sole source of
information on what the students know or can do. The state has a right to judge
that for itself, not only in math and reading, but in other required subjects. For
instance, a short high school exit test in civics and government (similar to
the US Citizenship test, and about the length of a driving test) would address a legitimate state interest and insure
that schools valued this content.
Federal overreach is occurring in
schools, but it’s in the mandated reporting and ever more prescriptive
requirements, not in the SBAC/PARC tests or the Common Core. This overreach is a
fixed aspect of the money. The punitive excesses of No Child Left Behind were
unprecedented and unreasonable, but it isn’t realistic to expect federal help
without strings. It also comes with the
danger of pressure to use certain services and products that financially enrich
entities with connections to the seat of power. The most practical relief from federal meddling would come from a prudent (gradual) wind down of these funds.
I am for
education reform, but this is what it means: Every school, whether innovative
or traditional, needs an improvement process with the following goals or
characteristics: a culture of high expectations that includes all constituents, means to ensure intrinsic motivation of teachers and students, opportunities for teachers to
learn from colleagues and work as teams, and clearer feedback for students and
parents.To these ends a variety of potentially
positive changes are happening, including: magnet and charter schools, flexible
schedules, more student choice, more college courses available at high schools,
on-line and blended classes, standards-based grading, authentic assessments,
project-based learning, etc.This is
what education reform should be about.
I’m all for “stopping the madness” of
shame and blame politics, but there are those (including some educators) who
would use that sentiment to halt the process of reform altogether.Buying into the status quo would be a
mistake, but it also isn’t realistic. We
can argue about which changes make sense, but the “standards movement” or
“proficiency movement” and many other changes underway can be very positive, to
the extent they can be divorced from a destructive focus on punitive state level approaches to accountability.
During the early
days, K-12 technology was about "buying the next thing,” and the cool
factor weighed heavily with decision-makers who often had more buying authority
than knowledge. Today it is more often an urgent research process by a team of
leaders with complicated requirements and piles of new demands for very
sophisticated features, especially interoperability and data security.If you are looking for an institutional
purchase, these 5 practices will go a long way to show them you understand
1.Get the feature set out there. State in specific terms what it does. Post
full recordings of demos, webinars, etc., not just teasers.Post a thorough, useful FAQ; don’t omit
difficult questions. Decision-makers need to get good detailed information on
your product, as quickly as possible.
2.Be FERPA native.Address student data security in plain
language, up front. Don’t leave it to the fine print. Show that you understand the problem of student data security.
3.Don’t hog data.If your product collects user data, provide an easy means to export it in usable
4.Embrace interoperability.Say if your product interacts with any
SIS or LMS, or eco-system or platform… or not. If yes, say how, specifically. Show
that you understand the problem of interoperability.
5.Clarify migration assistance.Show how easy it will be to start and stop using the product, especially
to export and/or purge user data.
Betty Gravely was 92 years old when she passed away this year. She was probably the best teacher I had in 1968, (a rough year in general.) I was having trouble with Geometry, (actually the Algebra contained within it, which I had not learned as a freshman) and she got me through it. When I think of the new math programs (Investigations in Numbers, Data and Space, Everyday Math, Connections, etc.) and the controversy around them, I always think of Mrs. Gravely, because these programs are actually trying to replicate what Mrs. Gravely did on a good day. For instance, she handed me a shoebox for my first assignment. In it was a disk puzzle and a set of questions to be answered about the puzzle. There were no instructions, and each kid got a different shoebox. I spent all evening trying to figure out the answers to those questions. I described to the class how I had worked them out. Other kids had done it differently, and we discussed the pros and cons of each method. None of us was judged as "incorrect" for the method he/she had chosen. I had never before engaged with a math question at that level of interest. She had gotten us into mathematical thinking, which is more creative and quite different than much of what goes in the land of "don't ask why; just invert and multiply." I felt like I belonged in a math class; it was OK to be there and I was doing what the other students were doing. I began to read ahead in the math book, especially the side bars about Pythagorus and Archimedes. What I had seen as an uncomfortable hour of marginal benefit, where the teacher made hieroglyphics on the board and spoke in a foreign language to native speakers, had become interesting, even relevant. As any modern expert can tell you, in K-12 schools, mathematics is basically a psychological game; it's all about engendering a sense of belonging in that disaffected group, so they start to put forth effort again. The top scorers can survive traditional teaching, but the low scorers are where the opportunities are for the teacher to go from good to great. Mrs. Gravely was the embodiment of the truth that most "modern" methods are not new.
This short animation of a talk by Ken Robinson does a fairly good encapsulation of the challenges of K-12 education. What's interesting to me is that, for many years people who believed this way mostly spoke and wrote books for, well... each other. Mainstream policy makers would see a guy like Ken as a gadfly if not a complete crank. Today discussions this radical (ADHD rant aside) are taking place in policy circles. And the tools for structural change (especially customization) are on the near horizon. Many voices are saying the time has finally arrived for the "complete retool" we've all discussed for decades. We've thought this before. Our old system, especially conventional U.S. high schools, have shown an amazing resilience. I've been a part of many "school of the future" projects, from modest to mega, and the results of those years... well, it would be kind to call them mixed. Those schools did some fantastic work, including innovative work, but today they mostly still have that basic high school structure: bell schedule, study halls, lunch period, classes where they have to "put" students who aren't going to benefit that much, stifling group pace, artificial academic tasks, disconnection between disciplines, labeling of students by type, in short the whole, sort-n-select factory shebang.
I found this TED talk presentation a better way to understand Kahn Academy, and its progress as a tool for schools. I think some educators have been hesitant to support Kahn, partly because students would be consuming, rather than producing the videos (which would not technically be consistent with constructivist ideology.) This presentation shows how such a tool can put students in the drivers' seat while respecting and supporting the unique role of the teacher.