Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Saying it all in 700 words....

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 a different version (yes, a little longer) with some of the same ideas:

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 like “Know 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) 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 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, 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 “accountability.”

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

5 Essential Practices for Ed-Tech Startups

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 their challenges:

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 form.
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.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Will change really happen this time?

This short animation of a talk by Sir 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. Today these discussions are taking place in policy circles. And the tools for structural change (especially customization) are there. Many voices are saying the time has finally arrived for the "complete retool" we've all discussed for decades.  Has it?

Friday, October 28, 2011

Trauma Telemedicine on IPod Touch

Rural Maine Telemedicine.... Trauma surgeon on IPod Touch...

Friday, July 29, 2011

Kahn Academy Described

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.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

News flash: students use technology to break the rules


I often receive an email from a teacher to the effect of "I saw a student defeat our firewall and go to a blocked site.  What is the technology department going to do about it?"  In nearly every case, the teacher had a responsibility to deal with the student, but saw it as a technical matter, rather than a disciplinary one.  I also often receive messages to the effect of "I broke the rules; look how easy it was."  This is largely a problem of school culture, both professional and academic.  We need to build a culture where people understand that doing something wrong is not made right because it is possible.  This has always been true, but the Internet has caused some to become confused (at times hysterical) about it.  Technology departments can do a lot to prevent unintended access to inappropriate material, but cannot transform the Internet into a walled garden.  It is a place where the capability to do both right and wrong is inherent.  While the technology folks appreciate information and can assist teachers in apprehending or ascertaining what students have done, it is the school's responsibility to respond to violations with the appropriate consequences and actions. There is no need for hysteria; we can bring our existing wisdom and ethical sense to the table on this.  Today, many students struggle with this idea: "I can, therefore I may."  When something is against the rules, it is not made less so by the fact that it is technically possible to do it, and it should not be encouraged, even as a way of "testing our security." 

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Same old arguments

In twenty years of working with technology in schools, the same arguments always appear in posts about computers in school.  I was following this thread on a recent PBS article and sure enough, there were several posts which:
  • Equated technology with bad teaching
  • Described computers as a luxury and complained about the expense
  • Waxed nostalgic about drill and practice in the old days, and how much more was learned back then (by the 30% of people who completed high school.)
Some obvious points:
K-12 is the last industry which makes a big deal out of using technology.  Every other industry has switched to using it.  The world uses technology to do real work today, so of course we need it to teach those things.

$250 per year per student is not much money compared to the $12,000 or so we spend on each student every year.  Kids will buy their own computers soon.  Most already do.

Learning does require practice and hard work, and wherever this is not present, learning suffers.  (It's an old problem.  Unfortunately, you can do bad teaching with or without a computer.)

Education is lighting a fire, not filling a bucket.  Many old-fashioned school practices actually taught kids to hate learning (writing as a punishment, for instance.) School does not have to be like it was.

Printed textbooks will not survive this economy.  E-Reader copies can be updated much more cheaply, contain video, etc.  E-Readers cost no more than one or two textbooks now, and can hold thousands of books.  You can read them in daylight and they don't make your eyes sore. There will always be wonderful books, including paper ones, but for traditional classroom textbooks, It's over.  People complain about filtering the Internet. There is no more egregious filter than a history textbook approved in Texas and California.

Technology does not drive good teaching; it is simply necessary, as a practical matter, for good teaching in today's world for most subjects. 

http://www.edutopia.org/maine-project-learning-schools-that-work