Tag Archives: reform policies

More Cartoons on Common Core Standards

One of the most viewed monthly installments of cartoons that I have posted over the past three years has been on the Common Core. Here is another batch that I have gathered. Enjoy!

 

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I end with a Calvin and Hobbes panel about a “typical” day in school.

 

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Pay-for-Performance for CEOs and Teachers

Oracle CEO Larry Ellison earns $37,692 an hour. No, that is not a typo or misplaced comma. Ellison’ annual salary ran $78.4 million, much of it in stock option awards. His salary was based on the annual performance of the company’s stock. Oracle’s Board of Directors set the pay scale (Ellison owns one-fourth of the company’s shares) to spur better management to increase profits and shareholders’ dividends.

They pay Ellison to perform well on the metric they have chosen (“company earnings before income taxes minus the costs of stock-based compensation, acquisitions, restructuring, and other items.” This CEO’s performance pay is not, however, a metric used by other major corporations for paying their top person. I return to the point of different measures used by companies to judge CEO performance later.

Switch now to the average U.S. public school teacher who earns an annual salary of over $55,000. That figure translates to around $27.00 for a 40-hour week. Like Ellison, hundreds of thousands of teachers are involved in pay-for-performance plans. In response to the federal Race To the Top competition, many states have mandated that teachers’ performance and salary be tied to students’ test scores to spur better teaching and student learning. Those test scores, as a factor in assessing effectiveness and determining salary (or bonuses), can range from as much as over half to one-quarter of the decision to set salary and retain or fire a teacher.

While I have written about this pay-for-performance reform over the past few years (see here, here, and here), for this post I want to inspect how the private sector–often a model for U.S. school reform–has its own problems, often undisclosed by business-oriented champions of school metrics, in determining CEO pay.

The lesson to learn from this post is: Paying for CEO performance in companies and schools is as flawed as the measures used to determine it.

A recent study of the metrics used in 195 large companies over the past five years showed that the most popular gauge measuring CEO performance was “total shareholder return.” Over half of the companies using that measure, however,  lost nearly two percent over the five-year period. Companies using less popular equations such as “earnings-per-share growth” gained almost three percent.

Now, here’s the clincher. Most companies judging CEO performance are relying on a metric that yielded loses for investors (“total shareholder return”)  yet,  at the same time, those very same companies continued to give their CEOs substantial raises year after year.

The authors of the study believe that the popularity of the performance measure, i.e., “total shareholder return,” stems from how easy it is for boards of directors and CEOs to manipulate the metric by “removing costs from the equation” such as “discontinuing product lines or closing factories.” Boards of directors then can reward CEOs with higher compensation packages. Earnings-per-share growth, a less popular metric and one of multiple measures that many firms use, sorts out under-performing from high performing firms, the authors found. This one as well as other measures, they concluded, are less easily manipulated by top corporate officials. CEO pay, then, can be better associated with company performance.

The main takeaways from this study is that boards of directors and CEOs do manipulate the numbers,  “one size does not fit all when measuring pay for performance,”and that multiple measures for determining effectiveness and salary have a better chance of capturing performance than single ones do.

Now, consider teacher pay-for-performance where one measure–student test scores–is often used to determine to what degree a teacher is effective. Like “total shareholder return” there are serious problems of using this metric alone or even in concert with other measures to judge teacher performance (see here and here).

Consider the following:

Incentives corrupt measures.

Since the mid-1970s, social scientists have criticized the use of specific quantitative measures to monitor or steer policies because those implementing such policies alter their practices to insure better numbers. The work of social scientist Donald T. Campbell and economists in the mid-1970s about the perverse outcomes of incentives was available but have largely been ignored. Campbell wrote in 1976.

“The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor” (Campbell 1976, p.54)

Campbell used examples drawn from statistics on police solving crimes (p. 55), the Soviets setting numerical goals in industry (p. 57), and the U.S.’s use of “body counts” in Vietnam as evidence of winning (p.58). For public schools, Campbell said that “achievement tests are … highly corruptible indicators (p.57).”

That was nearly forty years ago. In the past decade, researchers have documented  (also see here) the link between standardized test scores and narrowed instruction to prepare students for test items, instances of  state policymakers fiddling with cut-off scores on tests, increased dropouts, and straight out cheating. Although how the distortions occur are unclear, the evidence confirms Campbell’s insight.

Easy To Measure Indicators Trump Hard To Measure Ones

Few in business, medicine or education question that some indicators are easier to quantify than others. In medicine, for example, hospital mortality and surgical procedures are fairly easy to measure but the results even when compared to other hospitals and surgeons hide as much as they reveal about effective health care. So it is with standardized tests.

Because test scores are inexpensive and efficient to collect, they draw attention away from important but hard-to-measure aspects of teaching and learning such as student engagement, rapport between teachers and students, academic climate in classroom and school, and principal leadership. Cumulative practitioner experience and stories about teaching over centuries have established these as crucial factors in working with gifted and vulnerable students.

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These are known results of using single measures to judge individual or organizational performance. Consequences of their use can be anticipated. Historical examples abound. Some districts (e.g., Denver) wisely have moved to using multiple measures with student outcomes included that go beyond test scores but in most states where such mandates reign, test scores still remain a major part of the equation used to judge teacher performance (e.g., New York City, Washington, D.C., Houston, Texas) and allocate bonuses to teachers and principals.

This manipulation of data and one-size-fits-all measures show up in businesses as well as schools raising serious questions about the worth of this frenetic passion for pay-for-performance in both public and private sectors.

In the meantime, if Oracle’s Larry Ellison read this post in his office–say 10 minutes–he would have earned over $6,000. Ah, to be a CEO.

 

 

 

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Evidence Based Education Policy and Practice: A Conversation (Francis Schrag)

 

This fictitious exchange between two passionate educators over making educational policy and influencing classroom practice through careful scrutiny of evidence–such as has occurred in medicine and the natural sciences–as opposed to relying on professional judgment anchored in expertise gathered in schools brings out a fundamental difference among educators and the public that has marked public debate over the past three decades. The center of gravity in making educational policy in the U.S. has shifted from counting resources that go into schooling and relying on professional judgment to counting outcomes students derive from their years in schools and what the numbers say.

That shift can be dated from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 but gained sufficient traction after the Nation at Risk report (1983) to dominate debate over innovation, policy, and practice. Although this is one of the longest guest posts I have published, I found it useful (and hope that viewers will as well) in making sense of a central conflict that exist today within and among school reformers, researchers, teachers, policymakers and parents.

Francis Schrag is professor emeritus in the philosophy of education at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. This article appeared in Teachers College Record, March 14, 2014.

A dialogue between a proponent and opponent of Evidence Based Education Policy. Each position is stated forcefully and each reader must decide who has the best of the argument.

Danielle, a professor of educational psychology and Leo, a school board member and former elementary school teacher and principal, visit a middle-school classroom in Portland Maine where students are deeply engaged in building robots out of Lego materials, robots that will be pitted against other robots in contests of strength and agility.  The project requires them to make use of concepts they’ve learned in math and physics.  Everything suggests that the students are deeply absorbed in what is surely a challenging activity, barely glancing around to see who has entered their classroom.

Leo:  Now this is exciting education. This is what we should be moving towards.  I wish all teachers could see this classroom in action.

Danielle:  Not so fast.  I’ll withhold judgment till I have some data.  Let’s see how their math and science scores at the end of the year compare with those of the conventional classroom we visited this morning.  Granted that one didn’t look too out of the ordinary, but the teacher was really working to get the kids to master the material.

Leo:  I don’t see why you need to wait.  Can’t you see the difference in level of engagement in the two classrooms?  Don’t you think the students will remember this experience long after they’ve forgotten the formula for angular momentum? Your hesitation reminds me of a satirical article a friend showed me; I think it came from a British medical journal.  As I recall the headline went: “Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma related to gravitational challenge: systematic review of randomized controlled trials.”

Danielle:  Very cute, but let’s get serious.  Spontaneous reactions can be misleading; things aren’t always what they appear to be, as I’m sure you’ll agree.  I grant you that it looks as if the kids in this room are engaged, but we don’t know whether they’re engaged in the prescribed tasks and we don’t know what they’re actually learning, do we?  We’ll have a much better idea when we see the comparative scores on the test.  The problem with educators is that they get taken in with what looks like it works, they go with hunches, and what’s in fashion, but haven’t learned to consult data to see what actually does work.  If physicians hadn’t learned to consult data before prescribing, bloodletting would still be a popular treatment.

Suppose you and I agreed on the need for students to study math and physics.  And suppose that it turned out that the kids in the more conventional classroom learned a lot more math and physics, on average, as measured on tests, than the kids in the robotics classroom.  Would you feel a need to change your mind about what we’ve just seen?  And, if not, shouldn’t you?  Physicians are now on board with Evidence Based Medicine (EBM) in general, and randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in particular, as the best sources of evidence.  Why are teachers so allergic to the scientific method?  It’s the best approach we have to determine educational policy.

Leo:  Slow down Danielle.  You may recall that a sophisticated RCT convincingly showed the benefits of smaller class sizes in elementary schools in Tennessee, but these results were not replicated when California reduced its elementary school class size, because there was neither room in the schools for additional classrooms nor enough highly skilled teachers to staff them.  This example is used by Nancy Cartwright and Jeremy Hardie in their book on evidence-based policy to show that the effectiveness of a policy depends, not simply on the causal properties of the policy itself, but on what they call a “team” of support factors (2012, p. 25).  If any one of these factors were present in the setting where the trial was conducted but is lacking in the new setting, the beneficial results will not be produced.  This lack of generalizability, by the way, afflicts RCTs in medicine too.  For instance, the populations enrolled in teaching hospital RCTs are often different from those visiting their primary care physician.

Danielle:  I have to agree that educators often extrapolate from RCTs in a way that’s unwarranted, but aren’t you, in effect, calling for the collection of more and better evidence, rather than urging the abandonment of the scientific approach.  After all, the Cartwright and Hardie book wasn’t written to urge policy makers to throw out the scientific approach and go back to so-called expert or professional judgment, which may be no more than prejudice or illicit extrapolation based on anecdotal evidence.

Leo:  You seem to be willing to trust the data more than the judgment of seasoned professionals.  Don’t you think the many hours of observing and teaching in actual classrooms counts for anything?

Danielle: If your district has to decide which program to run, the robotics or the traditional, do you really want to base your decision on the judgment of individual teachers or principals, to say nothing of parents and interested citizens?  In medicine and other fields, meta-analyses have repeatedly shown that individual clinical judgment is more prone to error than decisions based on statistical evidence (Howick, 2011, Chap. 11). And, as I already mentioned, many of the accepted therapies of earlier periods, from bloodletting to hormone replacement therapy, turned out to be worse for the patients than doing nothing at all.

Now why should education be different?  How many teachers have “known” that the so-called whole-word method was the best approach to teaching reading, and years later found out from well-designed studies that this is simply untrue?  How many have “known” that children learn more in smaller classes?  No, even if RCTs aren’t always the way to go, I don’t think we can leave these things to individual educator judgment; it’s too fallible.

And you may not need to run a new study on the question at issue.  There may already be relevant, rigorous studies out there, testing more exploratory classrooms against more traditional ones in the science and math area for middle-schoolers.  I recommend you look at the federal government What Works website, which keeps track of trial results you can rely on.

Leo:  I’ve looked at many of these studies, and I have two problems with them.  They typically use test score gains as their indicator of durable educational value, but these can be very misleading.  Incidentally, there’s a parallel criticism of the use of “surrogate end points” like blood levels in medical trials.  Moreover, according to Goodhart’s Law—he was a British economist—once a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good indicator.  This is precisely what happens in education: the more intensely we focus on raising a test score by means of increasing test preparation to say nothing of cheating—everything from making sure the weakest, students don’t take the test to outright changing students’ answers—the less it tells us about what kids can do or will do outside the test situation.

Danielle:  Of course we need to be careful about an exclusive reliance on test scores.  But you can’t indict an entire approach because it has been misused on occasion.

Leo: I said there was a second problem, as well.  You recall that what impressed us about the robotics classroom was the level of involvement of the kids.  When you go into a traditional classroom, the kids will always look at the door to see who’s coming in.  That’s because they’re bored and looking for a bit of distraction.  Now ask yourself, what does that involvement betoken. It means that they’re learning that science is more than memorizing a bunch of facts, that math is more than solving problems that have no meaning or salience in the real world, that using knowledge and engaging in hard thinking in support of a goal you’ve invested in is one of life’s great satisfactions.  Most kids hate math and the American public is one of the most scientifically illiterate in the developed world.  Why is that?  Perhaps it’s because kids have rarely used the knowledge they are acquiring to do anything besides solve problems set by the teacher or textbook.

I’m sure you recall from your studies in philosophy of education the way John Dewey called our attention in Experience and Education to what he called, the greatest pedagogical fallacy, “the notion that a person learns only the particular thing he is studying at the time” (Dewey, 1938, p. 48).  Dewey went on to say that what he called “collateral learning,” the formation of “enduring attitudes” was often much more important than the particular lesson, and he cited the desire to go on learning as the most important attitude of all.  Now when I look at that robotics classroom, I can see that those students are not just learning a particular lesson, they’re experiencing the excitement that can lead to a lifetime of interest in science or engineering even if they don’t select a STEM field to specialize in.

Danielle:  I understand what Dewey is saying about “collateral learning.”  In medicine as you know, side effects are never ignored, and I don’t deny that we in education are well behind our medical colleagues in that respect.  Still, I’m not sure I agree with you and Dewey about what’s most important, but suppose I do.  Why are you so sure that the kids’ obvious involvement in the robotics activity will generate the continuing motivation to keep on learning?  Isn’t it possible that a stronger mastery of subject matter will have the very impact you seek?  How can we tell?  We’d need to first find a way to measure that “collateral learning,” then preferably conduct a randomized, controlled trial, to determine which of us is right.

Leo:  I just don’t see how you can measure something like the desire to go on learning, yet, and here I agree with Dewey, it may be the most important educational outcome of all.

Danielle:  This is a measurement challenge to be sure, but not an insurmountable one.  Here’s one idea: let’s track student choices subsequent to particular experiences.  For example, in a clinical trial comparing our robotics class with a conventional middle school math and science curriculum, we could track student choices of math and science courses in high school.  Examination of their high school transcripts could supply needed data.  Or we could ask whether students taking the robotics class in middle school were more likely (than peers not selected for the program) to take math courses in high school, to major in math or science in college, etc.  Randomized, longitudinal designs are the most valid, but I admit they are costly and take time.

Leo: I’d rather all that money went into the kids and classrooms.

Danielle:  I’d agree with you if we knew how to spend it to improve education.  But we don’t, and if you’re representative of people involved in making policy at the school district level, to say nothing of teachers brainwashed in the Deweyian approach by teacher educators, we never will.

Leo:  That’s a low blow, Danielle, but I haven’t even articulated my most fundamental disagreement with your whole approach, your obsession with measurement and quantification, at the expense of children and education.

Danielle:  I’m not sure I want to hear this, but I did promise to hear you out.  Go ahead.

Leo:  We’ve had about a dozen years since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act to see what an obsessive focus on test scores looks like and it’s not pretty.  More and more time is taken up with test-prep, especially strategies for selecting right answers to multiple-choice questions.  Not a few teachers and principals succumb to the temptation to cheat, as I’m sure you’ve read.  Teachers are getting more demoralized each year, and the most creative novice teachers are finding jobs in private schools or simply not entering the profession.  Meanwhile administrators try to game the system and spin the results.  But even they have lost power to the statisticians and other quantitatively oriented scholars, who are the only ones who can understand and interpret the test results.  Have you seen the articles in measurement journals, the arcane vocabulary and esoteric formulas on nearly every page?

And do I have to add that greedy entrepreneurs with a constant eye on their bottom lines persuade the public schools to outsource more and more of their functions, including teaching itself.  This weakens our democracy and our sense of community.  And even after all those enormous social costs, the results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress are basically flat and the gap between black and white academic achievement—the impetus for passing NCLB in the first place—is as great as it ever was.

Danielle:  I agree that it’s a dismal spectacle.  You talk as if educators had been adhering to Evidence Based Policy for the last dozen years, but I’m here to tell you they haven’t and that’s the main reason, I’d contend, that we’re in the hole that we are.  If educators were less resistant to the scientific approach, we’d be in better shape today.  Physicians have learned to deal with quantitative data, why can’t teachers, or are you telling me they’re not smart enough?  Anyhow, I hope you feel better now that you’ve unloaded that tirade of criticisms.

Leo:  Actually, I’m not through, because I don’t think we’ve gotten to the heart of the matter yet.

Danielle:  I’m all ears.

Leo:  No need to be sarcastic, Danielle.  Does the name Michel Foucault mean anything to you?  He was a French historian and philosopher.

Danielle:  Sure, I’ve heard of him.  A few of my colleagues in the school of education, though not in my department, are very enthusiastic about his work.  I tried reading him, but I found it tough going.  Looked like a lot of speculation with little data to back it up.  How is his work relevant?

Leo:   In Discipline and Punish, Foucault described the way knowledge and power are intertwined, especially in the human sciences, and he used the history of the school examination as a way of illustrating his thesis (1975/1995, pp. 184-194).  Examinations provide a way of discovering “facts” about individual students, and a way of placing every student on the continuum of test-takers.  At the same time, the examination provides the examiners, scorers and those who make use of the scores ways to exercise power over kids’ futures.  Think of the Scholastic Assessment Tests (SATs) for example.  Every kid’s score can be represented by a number and kids can be ranked from those scoring a low of 600 to those with perfect scores of 2400.  Your score is a big determinant of what colleges will even consider you for admission.  But that’s not all: Foucault argued that these attempts to quantify human attributes create new categories of young people and thereby determine how they view themselves.  If you get a perfect SAT score, or earn “straight As” on your report card, that becomes a big part of the way others see you and how you see yourself.  And likewise for the mediocre scorers, the “C” students, or the low scorers who not only have many futures closed to them, but may see themselves as “losers,” “failures,” “screw-ups.”  A minority may, of course resist and rebel against their placement on the scale—consider themselves to be “cool”, unlike the “nerds” who study, but that won’t change their position on the continuum or their opportunities.  Indeed, it may limit them further as they come to be labeled “misfits” “ teens at-risk,” “gang-bangers” and the like. But, and here’s my main point, this entire system is only possible due to our willingness to represent the capabilities and limitations of children and young people by numerical quantities.  It’s nothing but scientism, the delusive attempt to force the qualitative, quirky, amazingly variegated human world into a sterile quantitative straight-jacket.  You recall the statement that has been attributed to Einstein, don’t you, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” I just don’t understand your refusal to grasp that basic point; it drives me mad.

Danielle:  Calm down, Leo.  I don’t disagree that reducing individuals to numbers can be a problem; every technology has a dark side, I’ll grant you that, but think it through.  Do you really want to go back to a time when college admissions folks used “qualitative” judgments to determine admissions?  When interviewers could tell from meeting a candidate or receiving a letter of recommendation if he were a member of “our crowd,” would know how to conduct himself at a football game, cocktail party, or chapel service, spoke without an accent, wasn’t a grubby Jew or worse, a “primitive” black man or foreign-born anarchist or communist.  You noticed I used the masculine pronoun:  Women, remember, were known to be incapable of serious intellectual work, no data were needed, the evidence was right there in plain sight.  Your Foucault is not much of a historian, I think.

Leo:  We have some pretty basic disagreements here.  I know we each believe we’re right.  Is there any way to settle the disagreement?

Danielle:  I can imagine a comprehensive, longitudinal experiment in a variety of communities, some of which would carry out EBEP and control communities that would eschew all use of quantification.  After a long enough time, maybe twenty years, we’d take a look at which communities were advancing, which were regressing.  Of course, this is just an idea; no one would pay to actually have it done.

Leo:  But even if we conducted such an experiment, how would we know which approach was successful?

Danielle:  We shouldn’t depend on a single measure, of course.  I suggest we use a variety of measures, high school graduation rate, college attendance, scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, SATs, state achievement tests, annual income in mid-career, and so on.  And, of course, we could analyze the scores by subgroups within communities to see just what was going on.

Leo:  Danielle, I can’t believe it.  You haven’t listened to a word I’ve said.

Danielle:  What do you mean?

Leo:   If my favored policy is to eschew quantitative evidence altogether, wouldn’t I be inconsistent if I permitted the experiment to be decided by quantitative evidence, such as NAEP scores or worse, annual incomes?  Don’t you recall that I reject your fundamental assumption—that durable, significant consequences of educational experiences can be represented as quantities?

Danielle:  Now I’m the one that’s about to scream.  Perhaps you could assess a single student’s progress by looking at her portfolio at the beginning and end of the school year.  How, in the absence of quantification, though, can you evaluate an educational policy that affects many thousands of students?  Even if you had a portfolio for each student, you’d still need some way to aggregate them in order to be in a position to make a judgment about the policy or program that generated those portfolios.  You gave me that Einstein quote to clinch your argument.  Well, let me rebut that with a quotation by another famous and original thinker, the Marquis de Condorcet, an eighteenth century French philosopher and social theorist.  Here’s what he said:  “if this evidence cannot be weighted and measured, and if these effects cannot be subjected to precise measurement, then we cannot know exactly how much good or evil they contain” (Condorcet, 2012, p.138).  The point remains true, whether in education or medicine.  If you can’t accept it, I regret to say, we’ve reached the end of the conversation.

References

Cartwright, N & Hardie, J. (2012). Evidence-based policy:  A practical guide to doing it better.  Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Condorcet, M. (2012). The sketch. In S. Lukes, and N. Urbinati (Eds.), Political Writings (pp. 1-147). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dewey, J. (1938/1973). Experience and education.  New York: Collier Macmillan Publishers.

Foucault, M. (1995).  Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. (A. Sheridan, Trans.) New York: Vintage Books. (Original work published in 1975)

Howick, J. (2011). The Philosophy of evidence-based medicine. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

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Moving Forward without a Backward Glance: MOOCs and Technological Innovations

In a recent commentary on the rock star Sting’s dipping back into his childhood to revitalize his song writing, David Brooks said: “how important it is to ground future vision in historical consciousness.” I agree with Brooks when it comes to the half-life  of technological innovations. The experience of Massive  Open Online Courses (MOOCs) over the past few years is an unexpected example of what Brooks meant.

Much has been written about MOOCs  since they went viral in the past three years (see here, here, here, and here). This vision of creating platforms for college-level courses that would give anyone with an Internet connection access to college courses while reducing ever-escalating costs of higher education has turned some professors into academic entrepreneurs. Here is a two-for-one innovation (increased efficiency and equity) that has married new technologies with global access to higher education. MOOCs spread rapidly among elite institutions (e.g., Harvard, MIT, Stanford) and some second- and third-tier universities. For those familiar with the Gartner hype cycle–which many acolytes of MOOCs somehow either missed or ignored–the first two phases of the cycle were textbook examples:

“Technology Trigger: A potential technology breakthrough kicks things off. Early proof-of-concept stories and media interest trigger significant publicity. Often no usable products exist and commercial viability is unproven.

Peak of Inflated Expectations: Early publicity produces a number of success stories—often accompanied by scores of failures. Some companies take action; many do not.”

Recent articles (see here and here) express disappointment mixed with hope over how MOOCs have fared since the first blush of the academic love affair with the innovation. The evidence thus far is ample: high dropout rates, little knowledge of what students who completed a MOOC actually learned, lack of faculty enthusiasm, and the real sticking point for universities–how to make money from offering MOOCs? No surprise, then, that the birth rate of new MOOCs has plummeted. We are now in the “Trough of Disillusionment” phase of the cycle.

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The high hopes and inspired rhetoric pushing MOOCs have collapsed. Looking back, the creators were pained–one of them, Sebastian Thrun, has departed from the MOOC scene–and I must add, terribly innocent about earlier technological innovations in education.

Of course, I do not know how (or whether) the next phase (“Slope of Enlightenment”) will unfold. No one does. It is a work in progress. But how does all of this current disappointment with MOOCs connect to the point I raised in the first paragraph: “how important it is to ground future vision in historical consciousness?”

Would knowing the checkered history of technological innovations in K-12 schools and higher education–including the Hype Cycle–help high-tech innovators “ground their future vision?” Yes, it would but I doubt if lessons drawn from earlier innovations would help them alter what they will do anyway. While innovators are creative and hopeful about the future they may be, in David Brooks’ words, “necessarily naive.”

And it is that phrase “necessarily naive” that creates the paradox previous high-tech innovators and school reformers have faced and do so now.

The paradox works like this: If I know well what has occurred with past technological innovations seeking to reshape K-12 and higher education, that is, most fail in the first few years, I would not even try. However, if I don’t care about those past efforts  but still forge ahead because I have faith that what I propose will work regardless of the odds, then I can succeed.

The paradox of forging ahead without a backward glance is 100 percent  American.  Consider often described characteristics of being American: highly individualistic, competitive, optimistic, believes in change, especially technological, as an unvarnished good and that anyone with grit who works hard can overcome any obstacle. There are other characteristics associated with being American including beliefs in equality, a strong work ethic, and fairness.

Running like a red thread in the white fabric of being American, however, is the pervasive belief that if you know the past well, it can be a drag–a disincentive, economists would say–for action, invention, and making progress. To avoid looking backward in order to innovate, one has to be “necessarily naive” in the face of past failures in new technologies. Hence, with “naive” entrepreneurs ignoring the past, there has been a swift rise in and decline of MOOCs.

A skeptic might say: Really, Larry, what would you have to know about past technological innovations that might have helped the founders of MOOCs avoid the “trough of disillusionment?”

My answer is:

1. Technological innovations aimed primarily at increasing productivity and efficiency in schooling have largely ignored teacher knowledge and expertise.

2. High-tech innovators seldom ask the questions teachers ask about a new classroom technology.

3. Innovators have cared little about whether their new technology can be integrated into teachers’ routines because their priorities are to transform teaching and learning, increase student productivity, and keep costs low.

A backward glance to lessons drawn from previous technological innovations, then, might help start-up entrepreneurs from being “necessarily naive” about MOOCs or the next new thing for K-12 classrooms. Will that happen? I doubt it.

 

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Politics, Research, and School Reform: Letting Teens Sleep in

Teaching high school students, first period of the school day, say, 7:30 or 8 AM is tough. Why? Students from both affluent and working class families shuffle into the room, sometimes carrying wake-up food and drink, and sit down at their desks giving the teacher the 1000-yard stare or closing their glazed eyes. They are sleepy.

Recent research (see here, here and here) has established that adolescent bodies and minds are still developing and getting five or less hours of sleep a night when doctors recommend nine means sluggish lessons in the mornings and sleepy afternoons in class.

Citing such research, some school boards (e.g., Long Beach, California; Glen Falls, New York, and Stillwater, Oklahoma), after many open meetings with parents and experts on sleep and teenagers initiated later start times for middle and high school students. Research tied to solving a problem–sleepy and non-involved teenagers in academic classes– supporting a tidy solution such as a later school starting time in morning–seemed, thus far, to work in these communities. However, in other communities, raw politics, and coalitions built by sleep-deprived teenagers allied with parents and teachers made the changes.

Consider 17 year-old Jilly Dos Santos who tries again and again to get to her 7:50 AM class on time at Rock Bridge High School in Columbia (MO). And failed. She is an academically strong student, works at a fast food restaurant after school and interned in a get-out-the-voter campaign earlier in the year. She heard that the school board was meeting in a few weeks to approve a half-hour earlier starting time. Yes, 7:20 AM. Santos, a sleep-deprived teenagers morphed into a political “sleep activist.”

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Santos created a Facebook page and Twitter account telling hundreds of fellow  students that the school board was going to start school at 7:20 AM. She contacted a non-profit group about sleep that gave her the scientific studies about how teenagers needed more, not less, sleep. She emailed all teachers in the district and started an online petition. She brought other students together and they made posters. She tweeted everyone that “If you are going to be attending the board meeting tomorrow we recommend you dress up.”

You guessed it. The school board turned down the earlier start time. A few months later, the coalition that Santos had pulled together worked successfully to get the school board to start high school at 9 AM. The superintendent said after the board voted 6-1 in favor of the later time: “Jilly kicked it over the edge for us.”

Who said that schools are apolitical institutions?

I use the example of Santos to underscore how an issue as school start times, so often driven by efficiency–scheduling a limited number of buses for both elementary and secondary schools, when teachers have to be in their classrooms in the morning, parents’ demands for child care, and other factors–gets turned around when a group of teenagers, teachers, and parents coalesce into a political group pressing the school board to alter its policy. Rowdy democracy in action.

So here is an incontrovertible fact: schools are political institutions. This fact means that teachers, principals, superintendents, students, and parents are political actors also. Not in the partisan sense of Democrats and Republicans but in the fundamental sense that politics are about relationships over power, resources, and to achieve goals.

Of course, reformers in every generation have known that schools are political institutions subject to popular pressures to adopt or reject policies. With the state and federal centralization of authority for school policies over the past half-century–think No Child Left Behind, state charter school laws, and Common Core Standards–the political nature of schooling becomes self-evident. Although the word “politics” continues to have a sour smell about it to many parents, teachers, principals, and superintendents, for Jilly Dos Santos, the fragrance of politicking the school board to adopt a later start time drove her on. She and like-minded citizens practiced democratic action.

Here is the second fact about the role research studies played into the political success of the coalition that Santos’s mobilized in favor of a later start time. As much as each of us believes that data compiled into evidence, especially from scientific studies, are essential to get a policy adopted–after all we see ourselves as rational and mindful creatures–in this instance of having teenagers come to school later in the morning–research studies became useful but clearly subordinate tools. Without the political muscle of  the coalition Santos and others mobilized, ho-hum responses from the school board would have occurred.

Political muscle at the federal, state, and local levels, using research as a shield and lance, continues to dominate the current reform debate over what teachers should teach, how they should teach, choice in schools, and, yes, what time Jilly Dos Santos has to wake up and go to Rock Bridge High School tomorrow morning.

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Learning from the Past: The Economy and School Reform Then and Now*

There is hardly any work we can do or any expenditures we can make that will yield so large a return to our industries as would come from the establishment of educational institutions which would give us skilled hands and trained minds for the conduct of our industries and our commerce.   

Theodore Search, President of the National Association of  Manufacturers, 1898 (quoted here, p. 29)

No issue will have a bigger impact on the future performance of our economy than education.  In the long run it’s going to … determine whether businesses stay here.  It will determine whether businesses are created here, whether businesses are hiring here.  And it will determine whether there’s going to be an abundance of good middle-class jobs in America….The countries who out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow.  That’s a simple fact.  And if we want America to continue to be number one and stay number one, we’ve got some work to do. 

President Barack Obama, speech to National Governors Association, 2012

I begin with these quotes covering more than a century to make a simple point: Past and present, policy elites have connected the economy to education and pursued school reforms to tie the two together.

Between the 1890s and 1920s when the U.S. was competing with Great Britain and Germany in selling products in a global marketplace, progressive reformers created a vocational curriculum in addition to the dominant college preparatory program in secondary schools making career preparation a goal of U.S. public schools. (see here and here)

For the past three decades, business and civic leaders have talked extensively about how more efficient and effective schools will lead to economic growth and improve global competitiveness. Resulting actions have stripped away most vocational programs in exchange for an academic program geared to prepare students for higher education–just like the high school in the 1890s.

The goal of career preparation remains from both periods of school reform but has shifted from job preparation for an industrial economy—a high school diploma–to job preparation for an information-driven economy—a bachelor’s degree.

In 2014, we persist with economically-driven school reform, one that has evolved into a market-tinged policy agenda embraced by both national and state political and business leaders: more parental choice in selecting schools, more teacher use of high-tech in classrooms, focus on academic standards, testing, and accountability including the new Common Core national roll-out, and using student outcomes to evaluate student, teacher, and school effectiveness.

But newspaper ads, policy elite rhetoric, and a common vocabulary among leaders, as past reforms have shown, do not make much difference in classrooms (see here, here, and here)..

And this lesson about classroom implementation is one that generations of reformers have too often missed. There are crucial differences between policy talk, policy decisions, and classroom practice that can help supporters and opponents of current reforms, anchored as they are in the past, to crack the mystery of reform occurring again and again.  These policy distinctions have existed for over a century foiling the best laid designs to closely link U.S. schools and classrooms to the economy.

POLICY TALK, ACTION, AND IMPLEMENTATION

Policy talk refers to past and present reformers whose words of gloom and doom about schools are often followed by over-confident and untested solutions to schools in crisis. For example, those over 50 years of age can recall talk about the Apple IIe desktop computer decades ago, or now, classroom Smart Boards, iPads, and online instruction revolutionizing classroom instruction. Perhaps they can also recall the dire predictions since the 1980s about declining U.S. global competitiveness as graduates enter the job market unprepared for the new economy. Such policy talk is important in framing problems, mobilizing political coalitions, and getting educators to roll up their sleeves to solve school problems. Seldom, however, do doom-tinged words or ambitious talk about transformations make a reform happen. Words have to be converted into policies.

Policy adoption refers to actual decisions governors, mayors, superintendents, and legislators make to solve problems framed in the purple rhetoric of policy talk. Examples of policy action include legislatures authorizing mayors to take control of schools; boards of education buying tablets for kindergartners. And New York State’s Board of Regents approving the Common Core standards.

Policy implementation in districts, schools, and classrooms, however, differs from both talk and action.

Implementation means putting an adopted policy into practice. Consider what so often occurs after a state or district adopts new technologies to increase student engagement and test scores. When observers go into classrooms to see how teachers use new devices in lessons, they find great variation across districts and even ones within the same school. Some teachers pick and choose what to use in their classrooms; others just ponder when to begin implementing, and even others ignore the policy. Because of school cultures and organizational structures, change is gradual, scattered, and sporadic. What happens in schools and classrooms, then, is a world apart from the lofty promises policymakers make and when they adopt new policies.

POLICY DISTINCTIONS MATTER

These distinctions become very clear when it comes to Common Core standards in New York. Ambitious, even fiery, talk from advocates about how the new standards will lead to high school graduates having the wherewithal to enter college and then graduate with a bachelor’s degree. With degree in hand, graduates would get decently paid middle-class jobs that would strengthen the economy while increasing the U.S.’s global competitiveness.

The New York State Board of Regents adopted the new standards in 2010. The state department of education piloted reading and math standards across the state even having students take versions of the new tests that will accompany the Common Core standards. Lots of glitches showed up when the standards and tests entered classrooms, especially the steep drop in student test scores. With sharp conflict emerging over districts’  unreadiness to implement and the impending Common Core tests being used to evaluate teacher performance, the Regents have delayed full implementation for five years (see here and here). Amid all of this furor, however, is a welcome sign from the past: the New York State Commissioner of Education and the Department of Education have allocated funds for professional development of teachers and other tools to help make Common Core standards much easier to put into practice.

Time will tell whether policy elites distinguishing between policy talk, adoption, and implementation, distinctions that have made a difference in understanding prior reforms aimed at importing market-driven ideas and practices into classrooms, will come to matter in New York state where in nearly 4,800 schools over 211,00 teachers teach 2,700,000 students after they close their classroom doors.


*A version of this post appeared February 28, 2014 in the blog of the City University of New York Education Policy at Hunter College.

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How To Lift Schools and Colleges Out of Academic Failure

A recent Atlantic article “How To Escape the Community-College Trap” got me thinking again about how hard it is to create, establish, and sustain efforts to improve low-performing K-12 schools and colleges. As Ryan Fuller pointed out in an earlier post, good teaching is harder than rocket science. Ditto for improving low-performing schools. One glance at the evaluations of the U.S. Department of School Improvement Grants would verify that. But there is solid evidence of turnarounds and new schools that do the heavy lifting of improving low-performing schools.

Look at community colleges for example. Forty-five percent of all college undergraduates go to community colleges. Yes, that is an astounding number when one considers media attention on Ivy League schools and large state universities and how little is reported about local colleges. These colleges offer access to young adults at relatively low cost combined to enormous flexibility in programs. Options for adult students abound.

Yet in urban community colleges, just over 15 percent get an Associate Degree within three years. Moreover, just over one-third earn that two-year degree within six years. “Non-traditional students”– a euphemism for minority students from low-income families or who attend college, mostly part-time–as the above numbers show, must have great determination and grit to complete the Associate Degree in technical, scientific, medical, and other pursuits that qualify them for immediate jobs.

One New York City program, however, ASAP located in nearly all of the City’s community colleges, has graduated 50 percent in three years since 2007. That percent is not a typo.

How? They have demanding academic and behavioral expectations–students sign a contract that they will graduate in three years; they have daily, weekly and monthly targets to hit. ASAP provides incentives (transportation passes and tuition/textbook assistance), and an infrastructure that provides support through tutors and mandatory biweekly advising sessions. It is a combination of pressure on and support of students who have usually dropped out. And it costs nearly $4,000 more than the nearly $10,000 the New York Community College system spends on each full-time student.

As the journalist in the Atlantic article writes: “Good information, well-structured expectations. timely counsel, confidence-instilling directives–these are the essential ingredients of education and they are all the more important for marginal students and for those blazing a trail to college for the first time in their family’s history.”

No MOOCs, no huge computer labs. In fact, ASAP stops at the classroom door in designing and executing their structural pressures and supports.

Not rocket science in conception but, oh my, so very hard to put into practice and sustain over time.

GETTING HIGH PERFORMANCE: REFORM FROM WITHIN AN INSTITUTION, STARTING NEW SCHOOLS OR BOTH

ASAP is an example of a New York City college program within a large system. Like those K-12 districts that have, under different leadership and strong faculties, turned failing schools into higher-performing ones (e.g.,Cincinnati, Ohio; Sanger, California), ASAP worked within a city-wide bureaucracy and made substantial changes for over 4,000 college students. Unrelenting pressure from leaders, constant support for teachers and students, individual grit, and careful implementation over time can, indeed, make a difference for students.

There are those, however, who argue that within institutions failing schools are too often caught in the tangle of bureaucratic rules and defeated again and again by myopic district and school leadership. Reform from within the system, they say, is a fool’s errand. The path to go is to close failing schools and create new ones. Perhaps.

NEW SCHOOLS

Elementary and secondary school charters since the 1990s have been popular, especially in Washington, D.C., New Orleans, New York City, and other urban districts.  KIPP charter schools, for example, capture the ethos and program of ASAP in their demanding behavioral and academic expectations,  pressure to succeed, and infrastructure of teacher support for individual students. Of course, there are other charter and non-charter schools created by districts that have these features also see (here, here,and here).

Starting from scratch, however, does not guarantee anything. From the business world to beginning a relationship to creating a new school, more often than not, start-ups fail. The best of dreams, the best of intentions, and even the architecture of these features described above, hardly prevent a new venture from going belly up. Over forty years ago, Seymour Sarason pointed out how creating something new was not as easy as it looked; it is incredibly complex, borrows extensively from the traditional, and often fails. Few reformers then and now heeded his insights into creating a new setting.

SO WHAT AM I SAYING?

1. These fundamental features of programs work both inside and outside the system to lift low performance of elementary, secondary, and community college programs for “non-traditional” students. Not either-or inside/outside the system but both are necessary for reducing low-performing schools and colleges.

2. These features combine steady pressure on students with a pervasive array of supports to help individual students succeed academically in gaining diplomas and degrees.

3. These features require organizational and faculty commitments and much work that extend over time.  They are not one-offs that appear and disappear as founding teachers and leaders exit. Continuity is crucial.

4. State and federal policymakers take note. These programs inside and outside systems are malleable to fit different contexts but not easily scalable because of particularities of leadership and teachers working together in different settings. So they must be adapted again and again to different contexts.

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History Content and Teaching: A Historic Struggle

The past two posts have made the point that content and pedagogy are joined at the hip. Yet in science and math, too often, policymakers and reformers have focused on content rather than the art and craft of teaching that content in the mistaken belief that one is far more important than the other. Like the left foot or right foot–yeah, the body metaphor works for me–which one you step off with first is the question that curriculum developers and teachers need to answer not whether one is more important than the other.

So now I turn to the subject of U.S. and world history where the issues that arose in science and math reform (e.g., periodic battles between “traditionalists” and “reformers,” struggles over which purposes should drive the study of the content, and the wide variation among teachers in responding to each swing of the reform pendulum) appeared repeatedly in the century-long saga of doing something about the subject of history in schools.

In the early 20th century, history professors and teachers worked together closely to shape both content and teaching approaches. Beginning in the 1920s as a new subject “social studies” aimed at improving society through problem solving, and building better citizens; it spread across the nation’s schools, shrinking the number of history courses in the process. Those history professors walked away from K-12 teachers and stayed away for three generations.

Then, in the 1980s after the Nation at Risk report spurred a growing awareness of  how poorly American students fared on international tests and the critical importance schools played in helping the U.S.  compete globally for markets, a later generation of university professors rejoined(pp.105-114)  K-12 teachers in the quest to improve the teaching and learning of science, math, and history.

Why teach history in K-12? For over a century, two purposes have competed for teacher attention. One abiding purpose has been to cultivate a national identity, patriotism, and a faith in one’s nation.  The heritage approach uses the past to recreate the present to “tell ourselves who we are, where we are from, and to what we belong.” (pp. xi,xiii, 123) Beyond the U.S. flag in every classroom and Pledge of Allegiance, examples of the heritage purpose at work in schools are lessons that focus on the “founding fathers” of the Revolutionary period and heroes such as Davy Crockett, Frederick Douglass, and Susan B. Anthony to recoup from the past a legacy that all American students should know. In the hands of some legislators, textbook authors and teachers, the heritage purpose comes close to an official  story encased in state standards; it aims to inspire pride in the U.S.

A competing purpose has been  historical approach. It is not a single account of the past but many accounts. The goal is to equip students with the skills that historians and citizens use daily. Historians seek verifiable truth as they sift evidence to answer questions and interpret what happened in the past; they reduce bias in their accounts by closely examining their own values as they read and analyze sources. In history classrooms, it means that students investigate the past through different sources and produce impartial stories and analyses from many accounts, consistent with the evidence they have before them. In doing so,  students acquire skills of smelling out bias in sources, analyzing documents, providing multiple perspectives on an event or person. They think, write, and discuss different views of what happened.  Students learn that history is an interpretation of the past, not a fax that yesteryear has wired to the present. In short, they become historically literate.

These contending purposes–which kind of history gets taught?–have spurred tensions between “traditionalists” and “reformers” for decades erupting in the 1960s and later in the late-1980s and early 1990s in policy circles and in classrooms.

What happens in classrooms as these battles begin and unwind periodically?

The battles over what teachers should teach too often devolved into struggles over content vs. skills, a false dichotomy at best. There was the New Social Studies in the 1960s following New Math and science curriculum revisions. Then, new history textbooks got students to work like historians in analyzing and interpreting sources. In the 1980s and since the New History (see here, here and here) has produced different textbooks, lessons, and engagement by historians in working with K-12 teachers.

For “traditionalists,”  “good teaching” stressed the importance of facts, specific dates, names, and places; they took precedence over skills of determining accuracy of sources, analyzing documents, and crafting interpretations of the past. “The job of educators,” one historian  (p.175) summed up this position, “is simply to train children’s memories in the facts they need to be loyal and industrious citizens.” Some analytical thinking would fit “traditionalists reasoned, but students must absorb a rich funds of ‘basic facts’ before starting to think about them.”

“Reformers,” however, saw “good teaching” as giving students “opportunities to examine the historical record for themselves, raise questions about it, and marshal evidence in support of their answers….Good teaching should equip students with a solid knowledge base of information but also demonstrate that facts are only the raw materials of historical understanding” (pp. 175-176).

Many history teachers, however, saw virtue in both positions without divorcing content and skills; they bundled together both heritage and historical ideas to craft class activities, use textbooks, document analysis, lectures, small group work–to create hybrids. Nonetheless, most history teachers still engage in a variety of text-driven practices that tilt toward a heritage rather than historical pedagogy.

In light of the evidence, thus far, of how teachers teach, professional historians–given their erratic but episodically vigorous efforts especially since the 1980s–have succeeded in raising public and professional awareness of the importance of history as a school subject but failed in their mission to substantially alter how teachers teach history (see here)

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The Math “Wars” and Struggles over Content and Pedagogy

Read this university professor’s appeal to his academic math colleagues that elementary and secondary school teachers have their students learn arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and calculus through teachers organizing students to work collaboratively when doing math. The professor called it the “laboratory method.”

The laboratory method has … the flexibility which permits’ students to be handled as individuals or in groups. The instructor utilizes all the experience and insight of the whole body of students. He arranges it so that the students consider that they are studying the subject itself, and not the words, either printed or oral, of any authority on the subject. And in this study they should be in the closest cooperation with one another and with their instructor, who is in a desirable sense one of them and their leader.

 Instructors may fear that the brighter students will suffer if encouraged to spend time in cooperation with those not so bright. But experience shows that just as every teacher learns by teaching, so even the brightest students will find themselves much the gainers for this co-operation with their colleagues.

 …[T]he student might be brought into vital relation with the fundamental elements of trigonometry, analytic geometry and the calculus, on condition that the whole treatment in its origin is and in its development remains closely associated with thoroughly concrete phenomena. With the momentum of such practical education in the methods of research in the secondary school, the college students would be ready to proceed rapidly and deeply in any direction in which their personal interests might lead them (1631286).

E. H. Moore, exiting President of the American Mathematical Society, trained a generation of mathematics professors at the University of Chicago. He was an advocate of tying together both content and pedagogy. He urged that school math lessons cover two instructional periods (rather than one) so teachers and students would have sufficient time to both understand the beauty of math and apply it to their daily lives. He wrote this article in 1903.

Moore’s advocacy of applied math and “laboratory” methods was roundly dismissed by traditionalists of the day. They believed that the essential knowledge of math taught in  sequence of separate math subjects algebra, geometry, etc. through lecture, textbook assignments, memorization, and practice was the best way students would learn, understand, and appreciate the beauty of the subject.  Controversy over content and pedagogy go back well over a century.

Like the subject of science, math has gone through its curricular and pedagogical wars (see here, here and MathWars). It continues with the roll-out of Common Core math.*

Over the decades, for both advocates of different math content and their critics , curricular reforms in the early 20th century (separate or unified subjects), post-Sputnik reforms at mid-century (the “New Math”), and end-of-century (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics “standards”), cycles of change oscillated back and forth between “traditionalists” who wanted students to acquire essential content knowledge and skills through textbooks by memorizing and practicing algorithms and “reformers”  who designed courses and textbooks that integrated math subjects and sought deeper student understanding of content through individual and collaborative inquiry.

What happened in the policy sphere in the last half-century when commissions and state boards published “new” curricular frameworks in math–especially  following A Nation at Risk (1983) and U.S. students’ mediocre scores on international tests– is clear. There is a documentary trail of “traditionalists” fighting “reformers” that even Hansel and Gretel could find their way without resorting to bread crumbs.

Not so, however, for what happened in elementary and secondary classrooms after state officials publicized new math frameworks and approved textbooks. What occurred in classrooms varied greatly across California as well as the nation when the “New Math” was unveiled in the 1960s and when NCTM “standards” hit schools in the 1990s. I expect a similar pattern of wide variation when math teachers implement Common Core. For what happened in California policy and classroom practice between the 1960s and 1990s and elsewhere across the nation, see here, here and REVIEW OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH-2005-Remillard-211-46.

Resolving these tensions between “traditionalists’ and “reformers” of the math curriculum and their associated ways of teaching will not occur easily. Perhaps there is a middle ground where partisans for each side can agree on both content and pedagogy, where both sides give a little and join forces to construct a curriculum and pedagogical content knowledge that includes what both sides seek for students. I do not see it yet as the impending Common Core standards in math get implemented in classrooms. For that middle ground to be trod by both sides of the divide in content and teaching of math, there would have to be a coming to grips with the historic division among policymakers, math professors, researchers, parents, and teachers over the primary purpose of elementary and secondary school students studying arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and advanced math subjects.

Is the purpose mathematical literacy for all students because in a democratic and technological society, it is essential? Or is the purpose to prepare students for entering college and getting good jobs? Or is it to produce engineers, scientists, and mathematicians that will keep U.S. secure and economically competitive in a world where other nations can do harm to the country? Or is it because math has been part of Western culture for millennia and every student should know that heritage?

For generations, reformers and traditionalists have waved their flags emblazoned with one or more of these purposes to rally followers. The truth is that, because of limited resources and external events, these flag wavers have had to make ahrd choices. Choosing among purposes involves making value choices. And conflict erupted repeatedly because of those value-choices.

The struggle over purposes of math often degenerating into “math wars” over what content and which ways of teaching are best have occurred also in history content and pedagogy.

_______________

*Even lyricist and long-time math teacher at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Tom Lehrer got into the New Math wars of the 1960 with his rhyming ditties.

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Parents Make Better Teachers (Sara Mosle)

Sara Mosle teaches writing at Philip’s Academy Charter School in Newark, N.J., and has written about education for Slate, the New York Times, and The Atlantic among other publications. This appeared in Slate, August 30, 2013.

In a recent [New York Times] article, Motoko Rich described how many schools are now exclusively hiring teachers and principals in their early 20s who work for just two to three years before leaving education altogether. Instead of deploring this trend, charter programs have embraced a pool of eager, young, and idealistic college graduates, many in or fresh out of Teach for America, who are willing to work long, grueling hours for low pay and with no promise of a sustained career path.

The Times focuses on the resulting turnover and inexperience among these educators. Studies show that schools with high rates of teacher attrition perform poorly on average and that many educators don’t hone their skills until their third year in the classroom or beyond. The Times article, however, neglects another downside to charters’ emphasis on youthful hiring: Many schools launch with few or no adults on staff who know first-hand what it’s like to be a parent.

If you aren’t a parent, maybe this won’t strike you as odd. It wouldn’t have struck me that way more than 20 years ago when I joined Teach for America in the program’s first year and taught for three years in New York City’s public schools. I was single, childless, and clueless about even the most basic aspects of child-rearing. My students’ parents seemed like creatures from another planet, remote and distant from the job I thought I was doing. To the extent I understood family dynamics, it was solely from the perspective of the teenager I’d been just a few years before.

Nearly two decades later, I returned to the classroom, this time as a mother, and have become acutely aware of how being a parent has made me a better teacher. While I still have a reformer’s high expectations for my students, I am more flexible about discipline, in part because I’d never want my daughter to be so docile she wouldn’t rock the boat. Now when parents approach me with worries or high hopes for the future, I have greater respect for their commingled love and fears. I also have a far stronger sense than I did at 25 that children’s lives are not static but instead endlessly fluid. They flow in waves of achievements and setbacks, with their own peculiar weather systems and mysterious currents that can change from week to week and month to year and, in the storms of adolescence, from hour to minute.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to say no nonparent can be a great teacher—several of my favorite high school teachers were childfree—I cannot imagine sending my daughter to a school where not a single grown-up in the building has any direct comprehension of the inner workings of adult family life. Schools need both youthful energy and seasoned wisdom to succeed over the long haul and on a broad scale.

Ryan Hill was also once a young, hard-charging educator, like the kind described in the Times article. In 2002, he was the founding principal of TEAM Academy, the first charter school in the Newark, N.J., region operated by KIPP, the national charter chain. Like many of his fellow KIPP trailblazers, Hill, by his own estimate, worked north of 100 hours a week in a profession he regarded as less of a vocation than a crusade.

At the time, he thought of his school like a Silicon Valley startup, which like all new ventures demanded insane hours. “We were a bunch of 25-year-olds,” he recalled in a conversation this spring. “We’d be there every day, including on Saturdays and Sundays. We’d have students at the school until 10 o’clock each night—kids who needed a place to do homework or whatever.” It was part of the school’s ethos and formula for success: longer days and a longer school year. Hill loved the job. “It was hard work, but it was also good work,” he said.

But then TEAM expanded, opening more charters in Newark, which Hill oversaw, and were also staffed with idealistic twentysomethings. The inevitable followed soon after: Many of Hill’s original teachers got a little older, began to marry, and started families, just as they were blossoming into full flower as educators. Hundred-hour workweeks were no longer feasible. The charter was suddenly confronting issues like maternity leave that, incredibly, it had never faced before.

Unlike some charter proponents, Hill now recognizes the value of his veteran teachers. “Our people who are proven, who are good, are so irreplaceable,” he told me. “It was just not an option for us to lose them.” Hill says that his attitude isn’t always shared or understood by some corporate backers who come “from fast-growth, nonpeople-dependent industries.” But in teaching, Hill argues, your people are everything. Which is why he began to offer more flexible hours to top teachers who had become parents. Similarly, the unusual charter where I work in Newark, which is not part of a chain, offers on-site day care to teachers as just one way to help retain talent.

Now a father of two, Hill says parenthood has altered his views of teaching and reform. In years past, when students’ parents used to get upset, Hill recounts, “They’d say, ‘You don’t understand because you don’t have kids.’ ” At the time, Hill dismissed such criticism as a cop-out. “I thought it was a way of disagreeing with me for no reason,” he said. “My comeback was, ‘Yes, I do have kids; I have 300 of them.’ [But] that was stupid. I mean, I loved every single one of my 300 students, but it is different, and I knew that but didn’t realize how much.”

It’s a lesson that more reformers would do well to learn.

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