Tag Archives: school reform

Efficiency-Minded Reformers Today Draw from Efficiency-Minded Reformers of a Century Ago

The crusade among reformers for data-driven decision-making in schools and evangelizing new technologies didn’t just begin in the past decade. Its roots go back to Frederick Winslow Taylor‘s application of scientific methods a century ago to what workers do each day to increase their efficiency and productivity. In the decade before World War I and through the 1930s, borrowing from the business sector particularly manufacturing where Taylorism reigned, institutions as varied as farming, medical practice, municipal government, justice, and schools adopted Taylor’s techniques of time-and-motion studies to increase employee efficiency and find the “one best way.”

Consider Louis Brandeis, a lawyer who fought for unions, the 10-hour work day for women, and similar causes in the first decade of the 20th century. He believed in the superiority of science in gathering facts to make an argument rather than one’s opinions. Brandeis coined the phrase “scientific management, according to his biographer, and in 1914 wrote the foreword for a book written by one of Taylor’s followers called Primer of Scientific Management. Like Taylor, he saw the merits of applying scientific processes to labor and management. As a lawyer who presented briefs before state and federal courts, his biographer wrote, Brandeis brought together “the need for facts … the need to mitigate some of the harsher aspects of industrialization and the use of law as a social instrument of social policy” (p. 217). Eventually, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Brandeis to the U.S. Supreme Court justice; he served between 1916 and1939.

Like lawyer Brandeis and business and civic leaders who enlisted in the movement to use “scientific management” in every day tasks, educators including many academics, administrators and researchers of the day glommed on to it. “Educational engineers” created lists of behaviors that principals would use to evaluate teachers, checklists of what made a school building good, and measured anything that moved or was nailed down.

Academics, school boards, and superintendents–then called “administrative progressives” kissing cousins of “pedagogical progressives” who wanted to uproot traditional teaching and learning and plant student-centered learning in schools–adopted scientific ways of determining educational efficiency.

These “administrative progressives” saw “scientific management” with its meticulous registering of statistics applied to every single task as the Holy Grail, a system that would bring standards, productivity, regularity, and order to public schools.

In Raymond Callahan’s Education and The Cult Of Efficiency (1962), he documents Newton (MA) superintendent Frank Spaulding telling fellow superintendents at the annual conference of the National Education Association in 1913 how he “scientifically managed” his district (Review of Callahan book). The crucial task, Spaulding told his peers, was for district officials to measure school “products or results” and thereby compare “the efficiency of schools in these respects.” What did he mean by products?

I refer to such results as the percentage of children of each year of age [enrolled] in school; the average number of days attendance secured annually from each child; the average length of time required for each child to do a given definite unit of work…(p. 69).

Spaulding and other superintendents measured in dollars and cents whether the teaching of Latin was more efficient than the teaching of English, Latin, or history. These “administrative progressives” recorded how much it cost to teach vocational subjects vs. academic subjects.

What Spaulding described in Newton for increased efficiency (and effectiveness) spread swiftly among school boards, superintendents, and administrators.  Academic experts hired by districts produced huge amounts of data in the 1920s and 1930s describing and analyzing every nook and cranny of buildings, how much time principals spent with students and parents, and what teachers did in daily lessons.

That efficiency-driven progressive crusade for meaningful data to inform policy decisions about district and school effectiveness continued in subsequent decades. The current donor and business-led resurgence of a “cult of efficiency,” or the application of scientific management to schooling appears in the current romance with Big Data and the onslaught of models that use algorithms to grade how well schools and individual teachers are doing, and customizing online lessons for students.

Determining which teachers are productive, i.e., “good” and which ones are inefficient, i.e., “bad” by reporting students’ test scores teacher-by-teacher as has  occurred in many big city districts such as New York City and Los Angeles Unified School District are not shockers to anyone familiar with the history of the business model in schooling. That model of competition, incentives, productivity, and efficiency has seeped into the bloodstream of schooling over the past century. Those crude efficiency studies of yesteryear are no more. But the ideas of Taylorism are present today in “standardization, the split of planning from doing, … the setting of precisely defined tasks, the emphasis on efficiency, and productivity to the exclusion of all else” (p. 501, Kanigel)

So the new “administrative progressives,” drawn from efficiency-minded wealthy donors, top state and federal policymakers, business and civic leaders, have pushed for Core State Standards, abolishing teacher tenure laws, evaluating teachers on the basis of student test scores, charters, and online instruction as policies to make U.S. schools efficient and productive.

I say that Taylorism is alive and far too well in 2014.

 

 

 

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Teachers Putting Reforms into Practice: “The Implementation Problem”

Guess who wrote these paragraphs.

I’ve been struck of late by how would-be reformers have been reacting when things go awry. After all, even some of those bullish on Race to the Top have privately conceded that maybe it didn’t turn out quite like they’d hoped. Champions of teacher evaluation are busy explaining, “Well, that’s not what we meant!” when hit with complaints, lawsuits, and concerns about the reliability and validity of some ill-conceived systems. Common Core advocates are busy explaining that the goofy homework questions and worksheets don’t accurately reflect their handiwork.

In each case, we’re assured, the underlying ideas are sound–it’s just a matter of confusion or inevitable “implementation problems.” Now, it’s true that change is always hard…. But the fact that implementation problems are inevitable doesn’t mean they’re okay. More importantly, the severity of these problems is not a given: it varies depending on how complex and technocratic the measure is, whether it’s being pushed from Washington, on the breadth and depth of political support, on whether the plan is fully baked, and on the incentives for effective execution. I’ve seen precious little evidence that advocates have done much to minimize the problems.

Those championing teacher evaluation, School Improvement Grants, or Common Core frequently sound as if they think no one could have anticipated or planned for the challenges that have emerged. To my ear, the disgruntlement tends to sound like that of a kid who leaves his new bike out unlocked, and then gets furious when it’s stolen. Of course, it’s unfair. But, you know what? He really should’ve known better. Advocates tend to blame their frustrations on other folks (bike thieves, Tea Party members, textbook publishers, principals, data analysts, et al.) getting in the way or screwing up. They rarely, if ever, acknowledge that their vision of how this would go down was perhaps colored by rose-tinted glasses or that their miscalculations may have aggravated the problems.

Sounds like these paragraphs about myopic reformers failing to anticipate implementation problems might have come from reform critic Diane Ravitch  or teacher union chief, Randy Weingarten. No, neither wrote those words.

Prolific writer and blogger Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute wrote the above paragraphs. Note the above ellipsis. I left out one sentence where Hess said: And I’m sympathetic to most of the reforms we’re talking about.

Nor did I include a subsequent paragraph:

Now, I don’t want to make it sound like I’m picking on today’s reformers. The same criticisms [about implementation] have been appropriately leveled at plenty of earlier efforts, including site-based management, block scheduling, equity lawsuits, busing, de-tracking, and much else. When pursued at scale, these efforts received well-deserved critiques for both frequently disappointing and for sometimes leaving lasting problems in their wake. 

Yeah, I was trying to fool the reader. Hess has been both mostly an advocate and occasional critic of these reform policies. And here in discussing the short-sightedness of reformers he hit the nail on the head except for one crucial point.

Hess says repeatedly that policymakers should have anticipated “implementation” problems with better crafted policies and careful forethought about what to expect in putting these ideas into practice. I agree. Yet I was startled by the absence of the word “teacher” in the entire piece. Teachers had to be involved in School Improvement Grants, teacher evaluation, and Common Core but in the post they are invisible. The closest that Hess comes to mentioning teachers is in the following paragraph:

What matters in education is what actually happens in 100,000 schools educating 50 million kids. That’s all implementation, and that means it matters a lot that some reforms are much more likely to suffer bumps, distortions, and problems than are others. The more complex they are, the further away they are from schools and families, the more dependent on intensive retraining–the more likely big ideas will suffer from “implementation problems.” Yet, I rarely find would-be reformers very interested in any of this, or what it portends. I find them much more intent on driving change from wherever they happen to be, using whatever levers they happen to control.

The first sentence tiptoes up to mentioning teachers but stops. To the rest of the paragraph, I say, amen.

He is certainly correct that policy implementation is the single most important aspect of the three reforms mentioned above (and all policies directed at changing what and how something is supposed to be taught). And he is correct that policymakers pay the least attention to it. Where he swings and strikes out is failing to say explicitly that knowledgeable and skilled teachers are critically important to putting any policy into practice.

Hess advises current reformers: Pay attention to implementation. Don’t whine. Do better next time. I would re-write that first piece of advice to say: pay attention to teachers and keep the rest.

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Cursive Writing and Coding (Part 2)

Here is a recent “Letter to the Editor” in the New York Times.

In the 21st century, every student should learn to program, for three reasons. Computational thinking is an essential capability for just about everyone. Programming is an incredibly useful skill: fields from anthropology to zoology are becoming information fields, and those who can bend the power of the computer to their will have an advantage over those who can’t. Finally, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that 71 percent of all new jobs in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) during the next decade will be in computer science.

Computer science is the future. Is your child going to be ready for it?

Written by Ed Lazowska, a University of Washington professor holding the Bill and Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science and Engineering, was responding to an article about teaching coding in schools. Clearly, a champion of coding, the writer typifies the unharnessed enthusiasm for teaching children to acquire computational thinking through programming. He is a “true believer.”

In Part 1, I pointed out the gradual disappearance of cursive writing from the elementary school curriculum as an instance of reformers abandoning a traditional subject because they see schools as engines of economic, societal, and political change in the nation. They do not see schools as “museums of virtue” where cursive writing would be taught to every second and third grader. Instead, these reformers advocate  that young children and youth be taught programming languages as tools for computational thinking, a 21st century skill is there ever was one. I used the example of Logo, an innovation introduced into schools in the early 1980s as an earlier instance of school reformers as “true believers” in teaching coding to children. They wanted to alter traditional teaching and learning. That innovation flashed across the sky like a shooting star and within a decade, had nearly vanished.

Now, the “true believers” are back. Even though the context and rationale for having K-12 students learn to program differs from then and now, the outcomes will be the same.

Contexts differ

Forty years ago, Seymour Papert and his MIT team wanted to restore progressive ways of teaching and learning so that students could construct their own meaning of ideas and their experiences. Learning to move “turtles” around on a screen was a way for students to think logically and computationally. These MIT scientists wanted to dismantle institutional barriers that schools had erected over time–the rules, traditions, and culture– because they retarded student learning. Logo, then, would be a vehicle for transforming teacher-centered schools into student-centered ones.

For Logo activists, however, their timing was bad. The idealistic and experimental years in public schools during the mid-1960s to early 1970s had ebbed just as  reformers began piloting programming in a few elementary schools. In just a few years, Logo became a boutique offering because a “back to basics” reform had seized civic and political leaders and the window for new ventures, anchored in the work of Jean Piaget and John Dewey, had closed. Traditional forms of schooling and teaching were back in vogue.

Shortly afterwards, the Nation at Risk report (1983) warned leaders that unless schools became more effective–the U.S. would languish economically and other nations would leapfrog over America to capture global markets.  By the late-1980s, states had raised their graduation standards, created more rigorous curriculum frameworks,. and began testing regimes. Not a welcoming climate for Logo-driven reformers like Papert and his colleagues.

Ever since Nation at Risk, reformers-0n-steroids have successfully pushed higher standards, testing, and accountability. Different reforms fitting that mold arrived in the federally-funded Race To The Top, state adopted Common Core Standards, and the spread of new technologies. Here is where coding as a way to equip young children and youth with the computational skills that will prepare them for the labor market in the 21st century is the reform du jour. Monied activists pushing the teaching of programming in elementary and secondary schools are the new “true believers,” ones who get snarky when past similar reforms like Logo get mentioned.

Coding as a Boutique Reform

“True believers” are seldom reflective so do not expect a glance backward at why Logo became virtually extinct failing to last beyond a few schools where  children continue to program using Logo-derived languages.  Why?

The reasons are instructive to current enthusiasts for coding:

1. While the overall national context clearly favors technological expertise, Big Data, and 21st century skills like programming, the history of Logo showed clearly, that schools as institutions have lot to say about how any reform is put into practice. Traditional schools adapt reforms to meet institutional needs.

2. Then and now, schools eager to teach coding, for the most part, catered to mostly white, middle- and upper-middle class students. They were (and are) boutique offerings.

3. Then and now, most teachers were uninvolved in teaching Logo and had little incentive or interest in doing so. Ditto for coding.

4. Then and now, Logo and coding depend upon the principle of transfer and the research supporting such confidence is lacking.

Surely, those interested in spreading programming in schools now–including “true believers”–should take a look at Logo and draw both inspiration and lessons from this earlier reform.

 

 

 

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Failing Schools: Conflicts over How to Write, Talk, and Make Films about Them

I have been a social studies teacher for 14 years in schools that were black and poor. Even before test scores determined whether a school was failing, the three urban schools I taught in were viewed as ____ (choose your favorite word: losers, basket cases, lousy, failures) because of the neighborhood in which the school was located and the color of the students’ skin. And that was over a half-century ago.

When I would read newspaper articles about where I taught then, the school often had the adjective “ghetto” or “slum” in front of it. Both were accurate insofar as characterizing students’ color of skin, family income and residential segregation that kept families where they lived but was far too simplistic in overlooking the many men and women in these neighborhoods who took pride in their homes, brought back weekly paychecks, and urged police officials to rid their streets of muggings, gangs, and drug-related crime.

Here is where my values come into conflict in writing about failing schools. I prized, then and now, the honest portrayal of unassailable facts of any low-performing school including the ones I worked in more than a half-century ago. By all academic criteria, they were doing poorly. The numbers graduating high school, dropouts, suspensions–name any school-wide metric–and they would have registered on the failing side of the ledger. The schools were in the center of neighborhoods that were different from the rest of the city as a result of residential and class segregation. Non-working and working poor families mixed with upwardly striving ones sometimes on the same street. Sure, those schools were housed in old buildings containing under-resourced science labs and libraries with  few books. The truth of those meager investments  and failure on common academic measures has to be told.

Yet–you knew there was a “yet” coming–another value that I prize is capturing the complexity of what happens in failing schools decades ago and now. As  an insider in those schools, I saw first-hand the cadre of teachers who stayed late and came in early to work with students who wanted to succeed academically. I saw the many students, the first in their families to attend college, put in super-intense work in their academic classes. And not to be ignored, I saw first-hand the consequences of poverty that spilled over the school in dozens of ways. I also saw uncaring teachers, administrators who twiddled their thumbs, and students who, for any number of reasons, acted out and eventually left school.

So how do I capture, then and now, the mix of persistent effort by some determined, hardworking teachers, students, and upwardly-striving parents who succeed in the midst of neighborhood poverty within a school doing poorly academically? For sure, not a black-white picture but ones shaded in gray.

Yet authors, artists, turnaround specialists, and even academic experts over the decades–I have learned–are far less interested in grays. Black and white hats fit their tastes better. For over the past half-century,  portraying urban schools as unredeemable failures has become a cottage industry of books, articles, speeches, and films.

These authors and artists have faced no dilemma. They have created simple tropes that tell hero and villain stories about failing urban schools.  Over time, they have resorted to blaming students, families, neighborhoods, and teachers for school failures.Consider Hollywood films such as “Blackboard Jungle” (1955), “Cooley High” (1975), Boyz in the Hood (1991) that fastened images of bad kids, bad teachers, bad principals, and crime-ridden neighborhoods onto the public consciousness. That tradition continues with “Bad Teacher” and “The Substitute.” Books, such as Shut Those Thick Lips have pursued similar tropes:

Not all of the stories use these “bad” tropes. Some artists and experts flip the negative and make bad teachers (and principals) into heroes and bad kids into likable, hard-working students who, with a little help, can pull up their socks and succeed. “Good” tropes replace “bad” ones.  There is the heroic teacher in To Sir with Love  and Dangerous Minds and those hard working Latino students and ever-demanding teacher in Stand and Deliver. Don’t forget that in-your-face principal Joe Clark in Lean on Me,  and entrepreneur Geoffrey Canada who rescues the classroom, school, and neighborhood in “Waiting for Superman.” Good or bad stories still have villains be they families, students, teachers, principals, and “the system.”

So here is the policy point I want to make in analyzing conflicts I face in writing about failing schools. What too often goes unnoticed in today’s scramble to turning around failing schools–”dropout factories,” where district officials fire the entire staff and restructure the school to convert a loser into a winner is how even in those failing schools effective work by cadres of teachers, students, and parents exist. I don’t think it is uncharitable to point out that there is little evidence that firing staffs works to turn around schools–called “restructuring.” I am reminded of some critic of the U.S.’s failed Iraqi policy, called that strategy “clumsy gestures based on imperfect knowledge.”   Current turnaround policies are anchored in tropes that no longer blame young children and youth as they did decades ago. Instead, top decision-makers resort to other familiar ones to explain failure: bad teachers and bad administrators.

Other alternatives? Some say the best thing to do is just close the school and start anew. Others, including myself, say that working closely and investing in those teachers, students, and parents who have somehow overcome the academic disengagement, the inertia, and  negative peer-driven cultures in these failing schools is the route to take. Both alternatives, however, are experiments since no body of evidence clearly supports either. But at least the latter one avoids creating anew the villains that populate so many films, stories, and accounts of failing schools.

 

 

 

 

 

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Business as Usual in Corporations and Schools

In the heart of Silicon Valley where start-ups are a way of life, open space offices and teams rule the landscape. Even at the biggest of the big companies such as Google and Facebook, power struggles among and between bureaucrats are a thing of the past. “Move fast and break things” is a Facebook’s slogan. Flat organizations, no elaborate hierarchies, and constant change dominate. Or so, everyone seems to say. See here, here, and here.

Then along comes a Stanford professor who says: “Sorry Kids, Corporate Power Hasn’t Changed.” Jeffrey Pfeffer at the Graduate School of Business since 1979 has studied organizations for decades. According to Pfeffer, Silicon Valley firms–big and small–recruit engineers and programmers to become managers by saying:

We’re not political here. We’re young, cool, socially networked, hip, high-technology people focused on building and selling great products. We’re family-friendly, have fewer management levels and less hierarchy, and make decisions collegially.

It just ain’t so, according to Pfeffer. He points out that hierarchies exists in all organizations and power, acquiring status, and control over ideas and practices are in play unceasingly. He points to the power struggles that occurred at the birth of Twitter and the frequent turnover of CEOs as Hewlett-Packard. And hierarchy is alive and well at Facebook and Google where dual classes of stock “allow the founders to retain the lion’s share of control.” An infographic on hierarchy at both firms would have strengthened his argument even further.

Pfeffer concludes his article with the flat-out statement:

Competition for status and advancement exists not only over time and across countries but also in virtually all species. In short, whether we like it or not, the rules of power abide largely unchanged. People who ignore these principles do so at their peril.

I was struck by Pfeffer’s points that amid all of the talk about change, flat organizations, and team-work, the constancy of competition within companies for power and status remains. Even in Silicon Valley.

Power, Status, and Hierarchy in Public Schools

A similar rhetoric pervades the quest for effective schooling. Reformers, both on the political left and right, say teachers need to collaborate, network, and build strong school cultures where instruction and learning are primary goals. See here, here, and here. But talk is cheap. Beyond the words, what are the organizational realities (i.e., tall or flat, hierarchical or teams) in public schools?

Most U.S. elementary schools are already “flat” organizationally. There is a principal, a few administrative and instructional aides, building staff, and the largest group of all, the  teachers who report to the principal. That’s it. In larger secondary schools there are more administrators, staff, and rules but few hierarchical strata separate teachers from their principals. The largest number of staff in middle and high schools are teachers. But rules also come from district and state offices.

Regulations abound in schools because districts are creatures of the state which, in turn, makes educational policy for everyone. So district administrators try to make sure that local and state policies are followed in schools. School-site principals do the same with teachers. In short, even with a flat school-site organization, bureaucratic levels exist in school districts and the state which means that elbowing for higher status and getting more clout occur in schools, districts, and state departments of education. Here’s the catch, however.

With all of the rules and hierarchical levels from classroom through the state superintendent of education, teachers have one things in their power to do: close the classroom door. They are (and have been) gatekeepers for student content, skills, and attitudes.

What about charter schools that have autonomy and are free from most district and state regulations? KIPP, Aspire, and other groups of charter schools have state and national organizations that make rules for individual schools to follow. As in public schools, however, charter school teachers can close their doors.

Teachers as gatekeepers exist because the organizational reality of both regular and charter schools is that they are age-graded and each teacher has a self-contained classroom with a door to close. Teachers have power within their classroom but little outside of it unless they develop a support network, a culture within the school. And, from time to time, that has occurred in both charter and regular schools.

Consider all the talk of moving to project-based learning and shifting the teacher’s role from the sage-on-stage to guide-on-the-side. Periodically, school reformers for more than a century have coerced, urged, and pleaded with teachers to change their dominant teacher-centered forms of instruction into more student-centered ones along the lines mentioned above.

On occasion, some of the reforms have stuck in some schools where teachers  weathered criticism and supported one another through cascades of hype and criticism. In these scattered instances, teachers kept their doors open and built a stable school culture supporting such instructional reforms as teaching in small groups regularly, sustaining open classrooms, using project-based learning, and creating rich student-centered activities (see here and here). But not most teachers who returned time and again to practices that worked better for them than the “new” reform simply because they could close their classroom doors.

These are (and have been) abiding features of public schools and companies that no amount of talk and hype about doing business differently has changed. Even in Silicon Valley.

 

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Slogans in Businesses and Schools

Located in Menlo Park (CA) near the tidal marshes at the southern edge of San Francisco Bay, Facebook has 11 open-space buildings holding 6,000 employees. Open space architecture means no one has an office with doors.  You want privacy, wear earphones.

None of the open-space arrangements surprised me. What did, however, surprise me in the description of Facebook’s workplace was that there were posters everywhere that “exhort changing, hacking, and fearlessness.” Corporate slogans like “Hack,” “Taking risks gives me energy,” and “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” adorned walls, partitions, and employee entrances as constant reminders of what the company values (see slide show of Facebook, Google, and Twitter buildings).

My surprise may well be because of my limited exposure to these companies other than what I have read in articles and books plus what I heard from friends and their sons and daughters who work in these organizations. Apparently, company leaders believe that posting slogans everywhere strengthens the workplace culture and keeps the corporate vision and values driving Facebook at eye-level. Do such displayed slogans actually increase the sense of community and shared values and lead to higher job performance? I do not know.

There is another reason I was surprised by the ubiquity of placards in the Facebook workplace. In my experience as a teacher, administrator, and researcher I had seen in the past three decades many similar posters in low-income, largely minority schools exhorting students and teachers to learn and achieve. In these schools strenuous efforts to create a culture of achievement, success, and right behavior for every student is everywhere. For example in KIPP elementary and secondary schools, such posters abound:

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And here are some photos of wall posters in other urban schools that are 90 percent minority and poor:IB poster

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My memory fails me, however, about the days that I taught in three urban, largely minority high schools between the mid-1950s and early 1970s, I do not recall such posters urging academic success and responsible behavior. Yet when I returned to those very same schools in 2013, such posters as shown above, are everywhere in the school.

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So I asked myself: when did such posters appear in urban schools? What influenced schools to post these slogans–similar to Facebook’s placards–to get students and teachers to work harder and produce higher student achievement?

When Did Posters Exhorting Students and Teachers Begin To Appear?

No doubt there is no one single moment or even year. But my guess is that such posters began appearing in the late-1960s to early-1970s in alternative schools formed to uplift ethnic and racial pride. The belief was that pride in race and ethnicity is a precondition for academic improvement.

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Beyond guessing, I am more sure of the movement to spread Effective Schools, beginning in the early 1980s, on the appearance of posters urging urban students to respect themselves, work hard in school, do well on tests, and succeed. Correlates of “effective schools” included “Climate of High Expectations,” “Clear and Focused Mission,” for example.  As attention and resources shifted to student outcomes in these years, efforts to make schools “effective” by following five, six, or more factors associated with high-achieving schools in low-income neighborhoods prompted many school leaders and teachers to display posters in school hallways and classrooms.

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Furthermore,  the effective schools movement in  the 1980s converged with numerous initiatives within the corporate sector to restructure and re-culture firms to improve an organization’s performance. Those were the years (e.g., Nation at Risk) where harnessing school improvement to a stronger economy became the central task of policy elites and national leaders. Swapping ideas and practices between for-profit businesses and schools have occurred periodically in the past and were strongly encouraged by both corporate and national leaders then and since.

Do these slogans work? I really do not know for either the Facebook company or schools. Such school slogans certainly reassure students, teachers, parents, and school visitors that key values are displayed and important. Surely, the climate of a school, its norms, ceremonies, and traditions matter to how children, youth, and adults carry out their daily work. But far more critical is that school leaders, faculty, students, and community not only share the vision and values embedded in those slogans but also have the skills, wherewithal, and will to make them happen daily in hallways, cafeterias, and classrooms.

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Avoid The Hype: Online Learning’s Transformational Potential (Michael Horn)

From time to time, posts that I write prompt responses. Especially when writing about K-12 access and use of new high-tech devices, software, and their supposed revolutionary impact. Here is such a response to one I wrote about online learning and its hype. I would like readers to look at my original post and then Michael Horn’s response.
Michael Horn is a co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute and serves as the executive director of its education program. He leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres through its research. His team aims to transform monolithic, factory-model education systems into student-centric designs that educate every student successfully and enable each to realize his or her fullest potential.”  See more at: http://www.christenseninstitute.org/michael-b-horn/#sthash.k7t3TBqv.dpuf

This article appeared in Forbes on June 6, 2013 at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelhorn/2013/06/06/avoid-the-hype-online-learnings-transformational-potential/print/

 In Larry Cuban’s recent piece in the Washington Post, “Why K-12 online learning isn’t really revolutionizing teaching,” he in essence says that our research showing that online learning is a disruptive innovation that has the potential to transform K–12 education into a student-centric learning design that can allow each student to realize his or her fullest potential is unfortunate hype from academic gurus.

What’s unfortunate is Cuban’s misrepresentation of our research to hype his argument.

Cuban refers to our prediction that by 2019 50 percent of all high school courses will be delivered online in some form or fashion. He says that the prediction is erroneous because of the different forms in which online learning will arrive and argues that online learning will not disrupt schools.

What might shock him is that we agree with those two statements.

For the first, that’s why our prediction states that online learning will occur in different forms and fashions, and the bulk of it—at least 90 percent—will be in blended-learning environments. It is interesting that Cuban doesn’t dispute that these different forms might add up to 50 percent of high school courses by 2019.

Indeed, our research at the Clayton Christensen Institute has explored in sharp detail the different forms of online learning in K–12 education, as we have provided a definition of blended learning that is used widely in the field and have classified the different models we see emerging in schools themselves to give educators a language to talk about the different innovations they are pioneering. Perhaps Cuban should draw on some of this research before discussing blended learning.

As to the second point, we have never stated that online learning will disrupt schools; instead, our research shows that online learning will disrupt the traditional classroom environment in secondary schools over the long term. Our latest research adds another subtlety, which is that online learning is unlikely to be disruptive to the traditional classroom in elementary schools, but instead will, for the most part, take place within those traditional classrooms.

Cuban’s other main point in the piece is more complex. He says that some online learning programs are teacher-centric, whereas others are quite student-centric and high quality. He is right. Not all online learning—in blended-learning or distance-learning environments—is good. Some of it is great, and some of it is bad. This is why we’ve said that online learning has the potential—but is not guaranteed—to transform schools into student-centric learning environments.

Cuban has long done some of the best work in explaining why so many hyped learning fads and technologies have failed to transform schooling. His past work is in fact consistent with the theories of disruptive innovation, which show that the model in which a technology is implemented is often more important than the technology itself. This is in part why we relied heavily on his research in Chapter 3 of Disrupting Class. Central to his argument has been that despite all the reforms and fads, once the classroom door shuts, teachers have the domain to ignore all of the reform efforts and fall back on what they know and believe is best.

Once again, we agree. This is why, however, disruptive innovation is so powerful. In education, it can allow us to replace that classroom model with a new one that is far more conducive to personalizing learning for each student. What the theory of disruptive innovation says is that online learning—in its many forms—will disrupt the traditional classroom over the long haul in secondary schools. What disruptive innovation does not say is whether the result will be a student-centric learning design. The theory is largely silent on this normative question.

That’s where the potential enters the equation. Because online learning scales naturally, the good programs about which Cuban writes can theoretically serve millions of students and aid millions of teachers. The question at hand is how do we create the conditions for the good programs, not the mediocre or bad ones, to thrive.

Because we have the chance to reinvent the learning model as we know it—with far fewer constituencies standing in the way of protecting the “status quo” in online learning—there is currently a window in which to put in place policies that create the proper incentives. Paying providers for student outcomes; not regulating and paying for inputs so as to free up educators on the ground to make smart decisions for their students; moving to a competency-based learning system, in which students progress once they have mastered a concept, not when the calendar says it is time to move on; and having appropriate on-demand systems of assessments that allow for a bottoms-up accountability that rewards growth instead of today’s top-down accountability system together appear to be critical pieces.

If online learning continues to grow within the current regulatory environment, however, which focuses on inputs instead of outcomes and has at its core a set of assumptions that takes the factory-model classroom system that has been in place for over 100 years as a given, then we may lose that window.

We education transformers—those who do not want to just reform education but to transform it into a student-centric design—don’t have all the answers for how to do this well. We should admit that. But Cuban and others could help. Rather than simply act as naysayers who say why everything is doomed to fail, they could be part of “the solution.” Asking how we might make this unique opportunity different—or pointing out where we are erring in shaping it in a constructive fashion—would go a long way. The past is instructive, but it should help guide us forward, not hold us back.

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Big Educational Laptop and Tablet Projects: Looking at Ten Countries

Michael Trucano is the World Bank’s Senior ICT and Education Policy Specialist, serving as the organization’s focal point on issues at the intersection of technology use and education in middle- and low-income countries and emerging markets around the world.
At a practical working level, Mike provides policy advice, research and technical assistance to governments seeking to utilize new information and communication technologies (ICTs) in their education systems.

 This post appeared at: http://blogs.worldbank.org/edutech/big-educational-laptop-and-tablet-projects-ten-countries on July 31, 2013

 Big educational laptop and tablet projects: Ten countries to learn from

1. USA
Reflexively, many countries look to, and hope to compare themselves against, the United States when considering educational technology initiatives. (Whether or not this is a good or useful practice, especially for many less affluent countries, or for countries with decidedly different educational contexts and socio-economic circumstances, is perhaps fodder for another discussion.) The United States is of course a very big and diverse place, with a very decentralized education system (some might say it is actually a collection of education systems). Technology purchasing decisions are not made at the national level, but at the state or, more often, the district level (the country has over 14,000 school districts in total), which tends to complicate other countries’ attempts to ‘benchmark’ their level of use of educational laptops and tablets against ‘the U.S. experience’. Focusing one’s gaze at the state or local level can be more useful. While some elements of its program may change going forward, the U.S. state of Maine has been, and continues to be, a global pioneer in the use of laptops in schools, and lessons from the Maine experience have influenced policymakers in scores of other places. The recent decisions of the Los Angeles Unified School District to purchase iPads for its students (here are some thoughts from Larry Cuban on this announcement) and that of education officials in Miami Dade (Florida) to ensure access to digital devices to all students are worth noting, as these are two places likely to receive a great deal of media and research attention in the coming years. It is perhaps also worth mentioning that many school districts the U.S. are increasingly promoting ‘bring your own technology‘ (or ‘BYOT‘) initiatives (also known as BYOD, or ‘bring your own device’) as a way to increase the access to laptops and tablets within schools, which raises sets of additional questions worth considering related to things like (among others) equity, costs, maintenance and digital safety.

2. Uruguay
The first country in the world to provide all primary school students with free laptops (in public schools), Uruguay’s pioneering Plan Ceibal now finds itself at a crossroads. While the project continues to enjoy wide support from citizens, the sight of young children toting and using their small green and white One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) XO laptops is no longer novel, but rather part of the educational and cultural landscape. How can the level of excitement and momentum engendered by Plan Ceibal be maintained and sustained, especially as the really tough work begins: helping to catalyze and enable change as part of larger efforts at  ‘whole system reform’?

3. Thailand
While most large scale efforts to introduce ’1-to-1 computing’ in education have featured laptops, Thailand is notable in that it has instead chosen to use tablets. Heralded as the largest educational tablet initiative of its kind when it was first announced (although this title is now claimed by another country, see below), Thailand’s efforts are just beginning, but, as with similar initiatives in many other countries, have already serve as lightning rods for criticism and optimism.

4. Peru
Close to one million OLPC XO laptops have been distributed to students in Peru, a process which began in 2008, focusing initially on small schools in poor (and often rather remote) communities. Examining the Peruvian experience, colleagues at the Inter-american Development Bank (IDB) has been engaged in the first large-scale randomized evaluation of the impact of the OLPC program. The results so far should provide much food for thought for educational reformers and technology proponents in other countries who feel that large scale introductions of new technologies will, in and of themselves (and perhaps magically), bring about a variety of promised positive changes in educational systems. Reality can be a little more complicated — and messy.

5. Kenya (and Rwanda)
While it has not yet even begun, the bold three-phase plan in Kenya to begin rolling out laptops in its education system in January 2014 has already attracted much international attention. Starting with 400,000 free laptops delivered to new first graders, this project, if it proceeds as announced, would quickly become the largest effort of its kind on the continent. While Kenya has been home to a number of encouraging small pilot projects, the logistical challenges of doing something this large, this quickly, will be, as they like to say in Silicon Valley, ‘non trivial’. Lessons from its East African neighbor, Rwanda, which has distributed over 200,000 OLPC XO laptops so far, are no doubt being eagerly consumed and digested by policymakers and experts in Nairobi. While difficult, success in logistics is only a means to an end. Impacting the teaching and learning process inside and outside of schools in positive ways, fueling the aspirations of a new generation of Kenyan students (and their families), sustaining positive momentum and results over time — these are much more difficult goals to achieve. And then there is the question of how to pay for all of this, especially in ways that do not impede or constrain efforts to address other pressing educational and developmental priorities. In these and in other regards, the Kenyan experience with educational technologies will definitely one to watch in the coming months and years.

6. Turkey
While Thailand’s plans to introduce tablet computers into the hands (and onto the laptops) of its students immediately marked it as a potentially pioneering middle income country in the scope of its use of educational technologies, the scale of what is being rolled out in that Southeast Asian country has since been dwarfed plans and efforts at the other end of the continent, where Turkey’s FATIH (“Movement to Increase Opportunities and Technology”) project is introducing over ten million tablets (and tens of thousands of interactive whiteboards, printers and other peripherals) into Turkish schools. Large scale pilots are already underway, as is a huge tender process to award contracts to roll out and support the project. In contrast to how the tablet project was conceived in Thailand, local manufacturing is meant to play a very important role in the project in Turkey.

7. India
Before Turkey, and before Thailand, it was the Aakash project in India which excited the imagination of many proponents of putting huge numbers of tablet computers into the hands of students in a developing country. That project has moved forward in fits and starts, but is only one of numerous efforts to introduce tablets at laptops across the continent-sized South Asia country. Large efforts in Rajasthan have recently been announced, following on efforts which began earlier in states like Uttar Pradesh. Initiatives across India will be particularly interesting to monitor, given the scale at which they will be occurring, and the fact that there is already a great deal of local knowledge about various approaches that have worked, and that haven’t, based on earlier educational technology programs in the country.

8. Argentina
Building in part on lessons from early efforts in San Luis province, Argentine projects like Conectar Igualdad and Plan S@armiento BA (in the nation’s capital, Buenos Aires) will eventually be, in aggregate, larger than the one laptop per child initiatives in Peru and Uruguay combined. Given the size and variation of these projects in these three countries, policymakers in other parts of the world seriously interested in learning from the hard won lessons of others before embarking on their own 1-to-1 education computing programs could do worse than to learn some Spanish (not a terrible amount of related information is available in English, let alone other international languages) and reach out to (and perhaps visit with) their colleagues in South America.

9. Portugal
The most ambitious European effort to date to provide students with laptops has been in Portugal. Given its recent history (a member of the European Union, Portugal was itself a developing country not that long ago), lessons from the eEscola project and Magellan initiative may be particular relevant and useful for middle income countries about to embark on large scale 1-to-1 educational computing programs — especially those that wish to utilize ‘public-private partnerships’ along the way.

10. ____

 As is the practice with lists of ten presented on the EduTech blog, #10 here has been left deliberately blank, as both an invitation for people to tell me what I have missed (or ignored), and as an acknowledgement that my own knowledge of such things is decidedly incomplete.

There are certainly lots of other places to look for inspiration, for best (and worst) practices, for hard-won implementation expertise and (hopefully) for hard data on costs and impacts. While Mexico recently cancelled a 240,000 unit procurement of laptops for students, this may perhaps be viewed more as a short-term hiccup in longer-term plans. A recent survey of technology use in education across Europe (One laptop per child in Europe: how near are we? [pdf]) highlights the extent to which students in countries like Denmark and Norway, as well as Latvia and Spain, already learn in environments where one laptop/tablet per learner is the norm. Netbooks on the rise [pdf] attempts to survey and distill lessons from across the Europe. Australia, the country that is often touted as having the first 1-to-1 computing initiative (at Methodist Ladies’ College way back in 1989 is nearing the end of a program that has seen almost a million laptops distributed to schools while at the same time tablets seem to be quickly gaining ground. (Side note: The Australia-based Anytime Anywhere Learning Foundation (AALF) is a great resource for information on 1-to-1 computing efforts.) The EduTech blog has previously looked at educational laptop efforts in Georgia (the country in the Caucasus, not the state in the American South). A post on lessons from Quebec’s Eastern Townships has long been in the queue for publication; those who don’t want to wait are directed to related research published late last year.

Some closing remarks
Most of the large proposals for educational technology programs that come across my desk these days highlight the use of tablets (almost always Android devices, for what that’s worth, presumably for reasons of cost, and because the iPad, the market leading tablet device in OECD countries, does not currently have wide distribution in most middle and low income countries). Rarely (or more accurately: almost never) do I find a compelling reason why tablets are being chosen over laptops (or desktops … or … anything else, really). This is not to say that there aren’t potentially compelling reasons why purchasing tablets for use in schools and/or by teachers or students might make sense (although seeing hybrid devices, laptops with touchscreens, and tablets with dockable keyboards does leave me confused at times about where to draw the line between various product categories), rather that this technology choice often seems driven by assumption rather than as a result of careful deliberation. Worldwide, the general trend is clear: PCs and laptops are slowly being eclipsed by tablets in the consumer space.

I do suspect that what I am seeing in many of the education project proposals I read is in part just the latest manifestation of a long-observed trend that refuses to die: that of simply wanting to buy the latest popular gadget for use in schools. All too often, the related question being asked is not ‘what challenges are we trying to solve, and what approaches and tools might best help us solve them?’, but rather, ‘we know what our technology ‘solution’ is, can you please help us direct it at the right problems?

As in other parts of life, in education the answer you get is usually a function of the question you ask. In the process of attempting to formulate their questions related to the purchases and implementations of huge numbers of new laptops or tablets (or whatever tomorrow’s device of choice may be) to help support teaching and learning, hopefully more education policymakers and politicians will take the time and effort to try to learn from the experiences of their counterparts in other countries who have already been down similar paths. While studying lessons, both positive and negative, from some of the countries listed here may not provide them with all of the answers they seek, doing so just might help some of them re-think and re-frame some of the questions they are asking.

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How to Use Technology in Education (Frederick Hess and Bror Saxberg)

 Frederick M. Hess is director of educational-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Bror Saxberg is chief learning officer at Kaplan, Inc. They are the authors of  Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age: Using Learning Science to Reboot Schooling. This appeared in National Review Online, December 16, 2013

The book provides an invaluable template for how to best think about digital learning. Promising education technologies won’t “fix” schools or replace terrific teachers. Instead, they make it possible to reshape the teacher’s job, so that teachers and students have more opportunity for personalized, dynamic learning.

How can we expand on the book’s transformation of education? Well, the book has real limitations. Students learn best when eye and ear work in tandem — but books are a silent medium. Books are fixed, providing the same experience to every reader, every time. The material and language will inevitably be too difficult for some readers and too easy for others. Books can’t offer a live demonstration or a new explanation to a confused reader.

Online materials can be rapidly updated, are customizable to a student’s interests and reading level, and feature embedded exercises that let students apply new concepts and get immediate feedback. Virtual instruction makes it possible for students to access real, live teachers unavailable at their school; this can be a haven for some students, especially those reluctant to ask questions in class. Researchers have found that intelligent, computer-assisted tutoring systems are about 90 percent as effective as in-person tutors.

None of this will happen just by giving out iPads or mouthing platitudes about “flipped classrooms.” Rather, it requires getting three crucial things right. First, new tools should inspire a rethinking of what teachers, students, and schools do, and how they do it. If teaching remains static, sprinkling hardware into schools won’t much matter. Second, technology can’t be something that’s done to educators. Educators need to be helping to identify the problems to be solved and the ways technology can help, and up to their elbows in making it work. Third, the crucial lesson from those getting digital learning right is that it’s not the tools, but what’s done with them. When they discuss what’s working, the leaders of high-tech charter school systems like Carpe Diem and Rocketship Education, or heralded school districts like that of Mooresville, N.C., brush past the technology in order to focus relentlessly on learning, people, and problem-solving.

All of this is too often missed when tech enthusiasts promise miracles and tech skeptics lament that technology is an “attack on teachers.” What to make of such claims? The book didn’t work miracles or hurt teachers. It did allow us to reimagine teaching and learning, even if we’re still struggling to capitalize on that opportunity five centuries later. Here’s hoping we do better this time.

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Contradiction of School and Classroom Cultures (Part 2)

In the last post, I described a visit to a Southern California urban high school’s four social studies classes where the dominant culture expressed values of doing the least amount of work to pass the academic course. For most of the students, classroom habits revealed far more tedium than enthusiasm for, or even interest in, learning. Most of the disengaged students treated the classes like buzzing mosquitoes that had to be endured for 43 minutes before freedom came when bells ended the period.

Then after the class observations, I walked down the hallway and watched an assembly of a few hundred juniors and seniors sitting quietly and respectfully  honoring three school athletes who, through hard work, self-discipline, and display of skills had become national all-stars. They also had football scholarships to universities in hand. These players were on a team that had consistently beat rivals and was on the cusp of becoming state champions.

The disconnect between what values and habits I saw in these classrooms and the values and habits displayed by members of the football team who practice daily, play in interscholastic competition, and have to pass academic classes got me thinking about whether a school’s athletic  achievements and the spirit that flows from such hard work and grit spill over to the rest of the school influencing how non-athletes behave in classrooms and achieve academically.

Of course, I only saw these four social studies classes. How many of those 9th and 10th graders were on athletic teams, I do not know. Nor did I visit honor classes in math, science or Advanced Placement (the school had AP chemistry and calculus) that prized academic achievement, hard work, and self-discipline. Let’s grant that  such courses and classroom cultures existed in the school.

Keep in mind, however, the high school’s high dropout rate–less than 60 percent of students graduated high school–and persistent low performance on annual state tests. My hunch is that while such classes and academically engaged students were present,  in the face of such statistics, these classes hardly put a dent in the overall academic culture pervading most classrooms.

So I return to this disconnect, this apparent contradiction, between a school’s success in sports seemingly stopping at the classroom door by asking a few questions.

What does the research say about the connection between academic achievement and participation in high school sports?

No surprise here: The findings are mixed. One study of Ohio high schools concluded “that high schools that devote more energy to sports also produce higher test scores and higher graduation rates.” One writer summed up research on links between student athletes and academic achievement;

“One 2010 study by Betsey Stevenson, then at the University of Pennsylvania, found that, in a given state, increases in the number of girls playing high-school sports have historically generated higher college-attendance and employment rates among women. Another study, conducted by Columbia’s Margo Gardner, found that teenagers who participated in extracurriculars had higher college-graduation and voting rates, even after controlling for ethnicity, parental education, and other factors.”

But most students do not participate in interscholastic sports–40 percent is cited as the national average but if one were to look closely at some low-income, largely minority schools participation in competitive sports would be no more than 20 percent. For the 60 to 80 percent who do not compete, there is no research that I can find that shows a spillover affect from winning seasons in high school sports to academic culture in classrooms. What researchers and critics of high school sports programs have pointed out, however, is that so often academic programs are starved while dollars flow for hiring coaches (many of whom are not teachers), new locker rooms, and better turf for the playing field.  Some critics urge high schools to abandon interscholastic sports and spend more money on academics. See here and here.

But research findings are seldom invoked in providing resources for such value-laden policies as financing sports programs and cultivating academic success. Beliefs trump research time and again.

What  beliefs dominate current thinking about competitive athletics in high school?

For the high school I visited in Southern California and similar high schools elsewhere in the country (e.g., Dallas’s Carter High School, Cleveland’s Glenville High School), many adults believe that competitive sports are pipelines to university scholarships and an education that leads directly to middle and upper-middle class status. They also believe that winning teams build pride-in-school and community, promoting a spirit of achievement that flows across the entire school. See here and here.

So I return to the contradiction that I noticed when visiting social studies classes and then stepped into a sports assembly. Does a school’s athletic  achievements spill over to the rest of the school influencing how non-student athletes behave in classrooms and achieve academically?

From only watching four social studies classes in the California high school, I did not see it. But the sample is too small and may be unrepresentative of the larger school.  From what I have heard from athletic boosters clubs at every school I have taught at and observed, I want to say “yes.” When I turn to the research on high school sports and academics, one has to scratch to find such studies. Moreover, I have yet to see the spillover effect in a high school. So without seeing it or have studies that confirm such a connection, I can only say: I do not know.

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