What Mark Twain Didn’t Really Tell Us About Technology Disruption, Jobs And Education (Derek Newton)

Derek Newton: “I write about education including education technology (edtech) and higher education. I’ve written about these topics and others in a variety of outlets including The Atlantic, Quartz and The Huffington Post. I served as vice-president at The Century Foundation, a public policy think tank with an emphasis on education and worked for an international education nonprofit teaching entrepreneurship. I also served as a speech writer for a governor of Florida, worked in the Florida legislature and attended Columbia University in New York City.”

This appeared in Forbes on July 26. 2018

At a time when facts and figures are tossed around indiscriminately, it is well to remember that school reform rationales have too often been anchored in false statistics. One example will do. For nearly forty years, business and civic leaders have claimed that schools are failing to prepare the next generation for a workplace or as a recent IBM report put it: “ … sixty-five percent of children now in primary school will work in job types that don’t exist today.”

This figure of “65%” has been picked up and disseminated repeatedly by corporate leaders, top public officials, and academic researchers to prod schools to adopt business practices in preparing children and youth to enter an ever-changing workplace. That the percentage has no credible source, seems to have been made up and then blazoned on the bandwagon of school reform for nearly four decades is what Newton points out in this piece For a more detailed inquiry to the source of the fake 65%, see Benjamin Doxtdater, “A Field Guide to ‘Jobs That Don’t Exist Yet.”


The movie The Big Short opens, more or less, with this quote from Mark Twain, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

It appears, though, that Twain never said that. Which makes the quote insightful, ironic and appropriate for what we are sure we know about technology, the future of work and the shortcomings of our education systems.

A fairly loud chorus knows for sure that three things are true – that technology is going to deeply and massively change the nature of work, that our schools, and colleges and universities in particular, aren’t preparing future workers for those future jobs and that a failure to quickly adopt massive changes in the way we teach will result in certain doom for future workers, businesses and the global economy.

In May, IBM, the global advice and technology leader, sang a version of that tune with a released report called, “The six new competencies Industrial companies need on their path to digitization.” The first statistic in that report is, “ … sixty-five percent of children now in primary school will work in job types that don’t exist today.” IBM highlights the figure and used it in social media ads to promote the report.

Which brings us back to the Twain quote that opens The Big Short. Not only is this 65% statistic something we know for sure that just ain’t so, the stat itself is fake – simply, it appears, made up.

The footnote in the IBM report leads to this 2016 article in Fortune Magazine by John Chambers who was then the ­executive chairman of Cisco. In it, Chambers wrote, “ … it is estimated that 65% of children entering primary school today will work in job types that don’t even exist yet.”

It is estimated. That’s it. No footnote. No source.

A similar stat appears in a report by the World Economic Forum called “The Future of Jobs and Skills,” also in 2016. It says, “65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist.” And that statement footnotes to “McLeod, Scott and Karl Fisch, “Shift Happens.””

ShiftHappens is a series of viral YouTube videos from 2007. The videos are great but so dated at this point that it seems other-worldly to see references to the growth in MySpace as evidence of our technology future. But the problem isn’t the date, it’s the fundamental accuracy.

Scott McLeod, J.D., Ph.D. and associate professor, Educational Leadership, University of Colorado Denver, one of the creators of the videos, told me that the 65% stat, “ … indeed, is not a statistic we ever used! .. Not sure where it came from.”

McLeod isn’t the first or only person to have expressed bewilderment with this statistic. In 2017, the BBC did an entire segment debunking the “65% of primary school” idea. Also in 2017, Benjamin Doxtdator did some great research on the stat and found, “ …  the claim is not true.” According to Doxtdator, “ … versions of it date from at least to 1957.”

If you think about it, the idea that 65% of kids will take jobs that don’t exist today is implausible. To be real, coming technology would need to replace jobs like chefs, dog walkers, lawyers, software engineers, bank employees and directors of non-profits entirely, and within in a decade or two. That should be inconceivable on its face.

So, it’s an embarrassing wonder that IBM used it as recently as May of this year to make the case that businesses and schools need to gear up for major, inevitable changes in technology and prepare for a new generation of workers.

When asked, IBM repeated the premise of technology disruption in the workforce. “IBM’s position on this issue is that AI may not replace every job, but it will change every profession.  So, jobs as we know them today, will be different in the future,” an IBM spokesperson said.

And, to be fair, IBM isn’t the only one to get that stat wrong. As noted, the World Economic Forum, Fortune (via Cisco) and others have repeated it without checking.

And that’s the problem. It’s one thing to see statistics tossed around by anonymous sources in backroom bulletin boards. Those should often and rightly be ignored. But when otherwise credible sources such as IBM and WEF peg entire research reports to false, narrative-forming points, it’s damaging to the necessary and honest debates about what we should expect from employers and schools.

Yes, we should be more skeptical about the things we read. But IBM and others should also do better than just repeating statistics they hear in the chorus, which feels like the place to remember something else Mark Twain said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics.”

And as true as that feels, no, it seems Twain didn’t say that either.




Filed under Uncategorized

Paradoxes of Efficiency in Education (Part 2)

Introducing an innovation to increase efficiency ending up with more inefficiency is a paradox. Most obviously, it occurs in transportation: fuel efficient cars that get more miles per gallon of gas than before end up multiplying demand for more such vehicles  putting more cars on roads spouting gases into the air. And in medicine–see Part 1. Such paradoxes of efficiency occur as well in education.

Are there jobs in which there are few gains in productivity–that is, workers produce more at less cost–yet wages of these “unproductive” workers rise over time. None?


Think of a string quartet playing to a live audience 300 years ago. The number of musicians and the time they needed to play a Beethoven sonata in the late 18th century  haven’t changed, yet today’s quartets playing the same sonata in the same amount of time  make far more than those four musicians centuries ago. Why is that?

Economists William Baumol and William Bowen used that example in their 1966 article to make the point that in certain people-dependent, service-driven, labor-intensive occupations such as the arts, health care, and education there are few productivity increases (e.g., musicians are not paid to play Beethoven sonatas faster nor are teachers paid more to teach history faster). Traditionally, factory and business employers raise wages for workers as a result of new technologies and managerial techniques that increase employee productivity–making and selling more products at less cost than before. Higher wages usually follow gains in worker productivity.

No so for labor-intensive work. The technology used to play for live audiences, teach students, and care for patients leaves hardly any room for labor-saving innovations to increase efficiency since the product is actually the labor of the musician, teacher, and care-giver. But to retain experienced, talented, and hard-working artists, teachers, and health care workers and to keep them playing, teaching, and taking care of the elderly and ill, salaries go up over time. This paradox of efficiency is called “Baumol’s Cost Disease.”

In applying Baumol’s Cost Disease to education, additional paradoxes of efficiency turn up, for example, around class size and applying technologies to teaching and learning.

Class size

A most common move to increase efficiency of teaching in both K-12 and higher education is to make classes larger–one way of skirting “Baumol’s Cost Disease.” As one researcher in the late-1920s put it: Larger classes make for fewer teachers and lower building costs. Increasing the size of classes, then, offers an obvious and tempting means to immediate educational economy.

How large or small class size should be–without losing “effectiveness” however measured–has continually been contested. Researchers at all levels of schooling have done comparison studies since the early 20th century (see here here, here, and here) to determine exactly what class size is both efficient and effective. Research findings in the early 21st century remain contested for the simple reason that while the costs of providing teachers in classrooms drops as a district increases class size, questions of teacher effectiveness in achieving desired student outcomes arise time and again (see here and here).

Historically, class sizes in urban schools in the early 20th century ran to 50-plus students and have fallen each decade until they range in the 20s to 30s.  In most K-12 instances, both parents and teachers sought smaller class size, often to sizes below 20 students per class because they believed that smaller classes would give teachers time to build relationships with students, work with individuals, and boost students’ academic outcomes. As class sizes dropped, costs for hiring additional teachers and finding space for those smaller classes rose. And that is the paradox of efficiency that policymakers have found themselves in repeatedly when it comes to class size.

Another bind in which policymakers find themselves is not knowing what the exact number of students per class is best insofar as measures of academic achievement. A tradeoff between efficiency and effectiveness continues to plague policymakers although most practitioners and parents urge smaller class size than now exists.

In higher education, increasing institutional efficiency in the face of rising tuition costs and low faculty teaching loads was to have more lectures for hundreds of students in first two years of college and reserve seminars for 15-25 students in the final years of an undergraduate’s career and graduate school. And now to increase efficiency, offering  online courses is believed to reduce costs and provide access to professors.

Increasing class size through scheduling large lectures in introductory courses, reserving seminars for advanced students and increasing online instruction–are efficiency measures that often end up in students frustrated in having little contact with professors, questioning the effectiveness of larger classes and online learning while turning off students to the course content they seek to learn. So decreasing or increasing class size in both K-12 schools and higher education lead to greater inefficiencies.

New technologies

And, of course, there is increased use of new technologies, the all-purpose solution to inefficiency.  There is little doubt, even among skeptics, that computerization of the administrative side of schooling–personnel actions, budgeting, purchasing, and collecting student data–have been streamlined and desks piled high with records and folders have decreased yet the numbers of administrators both in K-12 schools and in higher education have increased. Similarly, on the curricular and instructional side of schooling, the paradox of efficiency has become apparent. Examples abound.

*Online courses in K-12 and higher education have been touted as being cost-efficient and cost-effective for decades but proliferation of such courses have raised questions among current and prospective students if that kind of instruction and teacher contact is what they want. The belly-flop of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and its high attrition has added to those doubts as has the continuing spread of online classes and numbers of students who fail to complete courses. Technologically induced efficiency leads to larger inefficiencies in dropouts and frustrated teachers and students.

*With standardized tests increasingly being taken online, districts have spent additional funds beyond buying devices and new software (and maintaining both before they sink into obsolescence) and more dollars to train students and teachers to use online tests (see here and here).

*”Personalized learning” is the Holy Grail of efficient teaching–each lesson adapted to the strengths and weaknesses of each student. This has been the dream of school reformers for decades. With the flow of tablets, laptops, and phones into schools for instructional use, the day of efficiency has dawned. Here is where the paradox kicks in.

In the quest to make teaching and learning faster and better, a wealth of technological devices and software have been mobilized and put into classrooms. In the name of efficiency and effectiveness, current students have far more access to technologies than students 35 years ago when they were initially introduced. Yet test scores and other measures of academic achievement have not climbed as more machines and software have spread through U.S. classrooms. Nor have the amounts of money being spent on these new technologies decreased as they have become ubiquitous. Another instance of the quest for efficient teaching and learning leading to inefficiency.




Filed under Uncategorized

Paradoxes of Efficiency (Part 1)





I have been reading Edward Tenner’s The Efficiency Paradox. He got me thinking about paradoxical thinking that is rife throughout education and medicine. But before getting to either of these, I need to make clear what efficiency is–Tenner’s definition–and what the paradox of efficiency is. Here goes.

According to Tenner, efficiency is: “…producing goods, providing services or information, or processing transactions with a minimum of waste (xii).” To listen to Tenner describe his book, see here.

In education, “efficiency” came to mean teachers teaching more, faster, and better than they had before. Large class sizes in the early 20th century (e.g., 50-plus elementary school students in a class) were reduced in the name of efficiency to achieve more productive teaching, that is, faster, and better teaching.

Definitions and examples aside, what are paradoxes of efficiency?

Consider the introduction of coal as fuel to replace the more expensive oils that were used. The idea was to use coal to heat homes, power railroad engines, run generators  because coal had become technologically more available through improved mining and ship[ing to factories and home. It also burned with higher heat. It was far more efficient than previous fuels.

But as coal became increasingly available and used through industrial society, more and more coal was mined and sent to industrial plants and home causing, over decades, pollution and respiratory diseases. Coal was economically efficient in the short run but became, with increased demand for more and more coal, inefficient by damaging the environment and harming humans. This paradox was discovered in the mid-19th century and is called Jevins Paradox.

The paradox applies to other energy sources such as gasoline for cars and nuclear power increasing consumer demand for the fuels and damaging the environment over time.

Now, consider paradoxes in the practice of medicine.

Take Electronic Medical Records (EMR). Introduced to decrease administrative burdens doctors faced (e.g., writing on patient charts, what the  patient’s condition is and writing directions to nurses for what medicine and therapies patient needed) so that physicians could spend more time with patients to diagnose and treat them. EMR promised clearer communication–recall stories of doctors writing illegibly–among and between primary care doctors, specialists, nurses, and pharmacists.

In recent studies, however, EMR has neither reduced time spent on administrative tasks or freed doctors to give more time to patients. When one counts in the additional time, doctors have to spend in learning EHR and then thinking through the codes that will be reimbursed by insurers in making judgments about treatment–all of that consumes time that doctors had not considered when adopting EMR. There’s more.

According to Tenner (p.170): For every hour of direct contact [with patients], doctors spend two hours at the office filling out out EMR forms and completing other paperwork….

In emergency rooms, doctors may need to perform four thousand mouse clicks during a ten hour shift.. or on the average of one [click] every ten seconds (p.170).

Thus, as Tenner, concludes when it comes to applying new technologies as EMR to the practice of medicine to increase efficiency and effectiveness, “[E]fficiency is difficult to implement efficiently. It takes more time, money, and failures than advocates expect” (p. 168).

There are, of course, positives to EMR. Tenner points out that these electronic records often build in checklists of practice in treating patients that signal doctors what needs to be done for handling a diabetic patient, or one recovering from breast cancer surgery, or side-effects of particular drugs.

Whether these pluses outweigh the negatives, at this point the supposed efficiencies gained through introducing and using EMRs has increased inefficiencies in many doctors’ use of time. A paradox that continues to puzzle health care experts.

Another paradox is the increased efficiency in providing end-of-life cancer treatments or prolonged dementia care may create benefits for those individuals receiving treatment, but policymakers and the larger society may decide that because there is a limited pot of money available to health providers, that money efficiently spent on end-of-life-care is inefficient, on a different scale since that money may be better spent on other treatments that create more benefits for larger numbers of people needing health care.Hence, efficiency in treatment for those nearing the end of their lives may be considered inefficient when considered against the health care needs of others.

Part 2 takes up the paradoxes of efficiency in education.










Filed under Reforming schools

Whatever Happened to Channel One?


What is Channel One and when did it begin?

Founded by Knoxville (TN) advertising executives and entrepreneurs Chris Whittle and Ed Winter in 1989, Channel One offered secondary schools free television sets, satellite dishes, and a news program in exchange for a 12-minute news program of which two minutes were commercials (companies that advertised on Channel One, for example,  were Mars–makers of Snickers–Proctor & Gamble–maker of Clearasil). Schools signed agreements with Channel One to show these programs at least 180 days a year.

Within a decade, Channel One grew from 400 public and private schools to 12,000 enrolling, according to one source, about one-quarter of U.S. students. Channel One spent $200 million to equip schools allowing administrators and teachers to use the monitors and satellite dishes for other programs when not viewing the news program.

A New York Times reporter watched a class viewing Channel One in 1999:

At [principal Anthony]Bencivenga’s school in New Jersey, a classroom of sixth graders recently tuned in, as they do at 8:30 every weekday morning. For anyone educated before the Channel One era, it is an arresting sight: 25 children’s heads craned upward to focus on a video screen mounted near the ceiling; the broadcast is the only sound in the room. Their teacher, Kathy Ferdinand, says it is no big deal, though when she received her teaching degree from Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pa., television was not considered part of anyone’s curriculum.

“I think we’ve been very adaptable to it,” she said. “The information base is solid, and they do look at a varied portion of the world’s cultures.” Social issues also come up, like divorce, addiction and depression. “Debriefing them, you sometimes have to be gentle,” she said of her students. “You’re coping with this in the classroom.”

At the same school, when soft drink ads appeared, the reporter noted one middle school boy said:

“My whole class started banging on the desks when the Pepsi commercial came on,” one boy said, humming the “Joy of Cola” theme song that Pepsi introduced this spring.

Youthful looking reporters and anchors appeared on the show (CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Lisa Ling worked at Channel One–see video here)

For an excerpt of Channel One News in 2014, see YouTube video

What problems did Channel One aim to solve?

Many districts could not afford the equipment necessary for transmitting TV programs to schools and in-classrooms monitors. Channel One offered cash-strapped districts free equipment. For those schools and districts that signed up, they got hardware they could not buy out of their regular budget in exchange for a 12-minute news program aimed at youth accompanied by commercials.

Another problem was U.S. students’ lack of knowledge about world, national, and local affairs and lack of civic activity. A key part of the rationale for the news program-cum-commercials (beyond lack of money to purchase equipment) was to give children and youth up-to-date world and local news–current events–that would inform them  and lead eventually to civic engagement during school years and later as members of communities.

Did Channel One work?

No evidence I have seen has shown that watching Channel One’s current events led to increased civic engagement of youth. There is limited evidence, however, that youth  favored those products advertised during the two minutes over similar non-advertised products (see here).

What happened to Channel One?

Whittle sold Channel One for $250 million to Primedia in 1994 and the program was bought and sold numerous times until it landed in the portfolio of publishing giant, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2014.

During its journey, Channel One was continually criticized for those two minutes of ads seen by a captive audience of children and youth. Most educational associations opposed Channel One because of the commercials. From the National School Boards Association to the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, to  elementary and secondary principals’ groups, educators came out against Channel One. Moreover, researchers criticized the current events shown (e.g. sports, weather, natural disasters) rather than social and political events. Channel One did conduct mock presidential elections beginning in 1992 running through 2016 mobilizing young viewers to make decisions on candidates.

The ads, however, generated the most attacks upon Channel One causing reduced viewership and increased antagonism from both parents and educators (see here, here, and here).

Channel One died at the end of the 2018 school year. After 29 years as a “free” televised news program that included commercials, it closed its doors.


Filed under Uncategorized

Ninth Anniversary of Blog

Hard to believe that I began this blog in 2009. I have enjoyed writing about school  reform and classroom practice because both have consequences both anticipated and unanticipated for children, teachers, parents, citizens, and society. I also look forward to writing posts during my tenth year because I know that there are a lot of fiercely smart practitioners, policymakers, parents, academics and graduate students out there who read them.  They think about what I write, agree or disagree with the points I make, and on occasion, take the time to comment. For those readers, I thank you.


As with all things, there is a history to writing this blog. My daughter Janice who is a writer in marketing communication urged me to begin a blog in August 2009. She guided me through the fits-and-starts of working on this platform. A few weeks ago, she interviewed me about writing on this twice-weekly blog for the past nine years. Here are her questions and my answers.

Tell me a bit about your blog.

It’s called Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice. I aim for 800 words for each post, two times a week. I have at least one point I want to make. I use lots of examples to back up the point, and then I take a position on it.

What specific topics do you cover?

Because it’s education and includes both policy and practice, it gives me a lot of latitude to write about what I want — from state and federal policy to school reform to classroom lessons. Education is so connected to other institutions in our society so it’s easy to also analyze business, the practice of medicine and teaching, and other similar topics. I try to make connections between things, it makes writing more challenging and interesting.

How do you find blog post ideas? Do you have an editorial calendar?

I am always reading a lot of books, newspapers, magazines, other peoples’ blogs, and a lot about corporate, medical, and governmental practices. Ideas just kind of get married to one another, and that to me is exciting. I don’t have an editorial calendar but I do have some regular sections on the blog. There is a monthly feature on education cartoons with different topics, for instance, how teachers and kids use digital tools, and an intermittent post I call “Whatever happened to..” about past innovations and popular school reforms over the ages, like teaching machines and phonics. I also do an anniversary blog post every year thanking readers and featuring annual blog stats.

Do you ever run out of topics?

Ideas don’t always come to me. Sometimes I’ll ask others to do a guest post. Other times I’ll recycle posts and update them with a new opening and closing. Then there was that “Poems about Education”… not such a big hit. Readership dropped. Not doing that again.

I still marvel at the fact that you write twice a week. How the heck do you do it?

That’s a complicated answer: One, I like to write. Sometimes you hear blogging is passé but I find it very invigorating intellectually. I like to take ideas that I have and convert them into prose that gives me a chance to express myself. Secondly, the blog is a vehicle to teach others. I’m highly motivated to share because I think my ideas matter and give me a form of teaching. Teaching has been a major part of my life.

What advice would you give to would-be bloggers, or those in need of a writing adrenaline shot?

Ask: Who is your audience? Once you have an audience, read other blogs you admire and try to figure out an angle that gets at what you want to communicate. It’s important to always have a hook. Also, have the self-confidence that what you’re saying matters to the audience. Last but not least, make a commitment to try to do it for at least a year. Writing, revising, and editing is hard work but very satisfying when you push that button “publish” and hear from readers.


Filed under Uncategorized

Too Personalized (Peter Greene)

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation. This post appeared July 12, 2018

Personalized learning is the hot new idea in education reform, but some versions could get a little too personal.

While personalized learning is a broad and ill-defined field these days, many folks want to harness computer power to match students up with perfectly suited educational materials. This involves some sort of algorithm that collects and crunches data, then spits out a result, not unlike the way Facebook or Netflix collect data with users in order to match them up with the right products, or at least the best marketing for those products. As we’ve seen with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, there are some real privacy issues with data mining on this scale, but that has not stopped developers from digging deeper and deeper.

Personalized learning can be as simple as an exercise management system. Pat completes Widget Studies Worksheet 457A/rq, and because Pat missed questions 6, 9, and 11, the algorithm says Pat should next complete Worksheet 457B/sg, and so on until Pat completes Unit Test 1123-VZ and is declared a master of widgetry. This may sound like a boring mass work worksheet, but instead of paper worksheets, the modern system puts all the worksheets on a computer and students complete them on a computer screen, so it’s like super-exciting.

Data mining academics is central to many personalized systems. AltSchool, the Silicon Valley Wunderschool (now a business marketing wunderschool-in-a-box) touted its massive data mining, with teachers recording every significant learning moment and turning it over to a data team in order to create a program of perfectly personalized instruction for each student.

But many personalized learning developers are certain that data mining the academics is not enough. Social and emotional learning is another growth sector in education programming, and also, many folks have suggested that the young people are not automatically entranced by dull work just because it’s on a computer screen.

So we’re seeing attempts to mine other sorts of data. NWEA, the company that brought us the MAP test, now offers a feature that tells you whether or not the student taking the computer test is engaged or not. They believe that by analyzing the speed with which a student is answering questions, they can determine whether or not said student is trying. During test time, the teacher dashboard will toss up a little warning icon beside the name of any not-trying-hard-enough student so that the teacher can “redirect” the student.

That is more redundant than creepy; many teachers perform a similar analysis and intervention with a technique called “looking with their eyes.” But the personalization can get creepier.

There are several companies like LCA and its Nestor program. The program uses the students’ computer webcam to track and analyze facial expressions in order to determine if the instructional program is working. Monitoring programs like Nestor (there are several out there) claim they can read the student’s face for different emotional reactions the better to personalize the educational program being delivered. The beauty of these systems, of course, is that if we have students taking computerized courses that read their every response, we don’t really need teachers or school. Anywhere there is a computer and a webcam, school is in session and the program is collecting data about the students.

Does that seem excessive? Check out Cognition Builders, a company that offers to help you deal with your problem child by monitoring that child 24/7.

There are huge issues with all of these. From the educational standpoint, we have to question if anyone can really develop an algorithm or a necessarily massive library of materials that will actually work better than a trained human. From a privacy standpoint, the data collection is troubling. It’s concerning enough to create a system that allows employers to “search” for someone who is strong in math and moderately strong in written language based simply on algorithm-driven worksheet programs. It’s even more concerning when the program promises that it can also screen out future workers who are flagged as “Uncooperative” because of behavior patterns marked by a computer program in third grade.

And we still haven’t found the final frontier of creepitude.

Meet the field of educational genomics. The dream here is to use genetic information  to create “precision education,” which much like “precision medicine,” “precision agriculture” and “precision electioneering” would use huge levels of data down to the genetic level to design a perfect program.  The MIT Technology Review this spring profiled $50 DNA tests for IQ.

Imagine a future in which doctors perform a DNA test on an embryo and by the time that child is born, an entire personalized education program is laid out for her. The constant computer monitoring collects her performance and behavior data, so that by the time she’s ten years old, her digital record already makes a complete profile of her available, with an algorithm judging her on academic abilities as well as judging whether she’s a good person.

There are a thousand reasons to question whether or not we could do any of this well or accurately. But before we try to see if we can enter this impersonally personalized brave new world, we really need to talk about whether or not we should.


1 Comment

Filed under school reform policies, technology use

Yes, Definitions of “Success” and “Failure” in Schooling Have Changed Over Time (Part 2)

The current donor and business-led resurgence of a “modern cult of efficiency,” or the application of scientific management to business can be seen at a host of companies and in U.S. schools.

Consider Amazon, a company that earned little revenue in its early years yet in 2018 was valued at over $700 billion. Using technology to achieve swift purchases and delivery to customers account in part to its “phenomenal success.” Amazon’s quest for efficiency would cause Frederick Winslow Taylor to applaud.

One observer, for example, reported in 2015 on the newly-opened one-million square feet Amazon warehouse in Robbinsville (NJ) where orders are “fulfilled.”

Upon arrival, each new product is identified using a computer vision system that catalogues it rapidly, feeding its weight and dimensions into a central tracking system. At the heart of the building, items stored on tall, square shelves are kept stocked by humans working with a team of 2,000 squat orange robots. The robots zip around the storage area, picking up shelves and either arranging them in neat rows for storage or bringing them over to the human workers, who stack or pick from them. Further along the fulfillment line, workers charged with packing up orders for shipping are automatically given the optimal size of shipping box and even the correct amount of packing tape. Before those boxes are sent to trucks, a system weighs them to make sure the correct products are inside.

Amazon updated the century-old practices of Taylorism 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” (see here, p. 501)

Turn now to schooling. The current incarnation of “Taylorism” and focus on student outcomes can be seen in the standards, testing, and accountability movement launched over three decades ago in the wake of A Nation at Risk report. The application of business practices and lingo under the umbrella of scientifically acquired evidence reappeared anew albeit with different labels.

Since the 1980s, reforms that called for uniform curriculum standards and increased testing while holding districts and schools responsible for student outcomes aimed to harness education to a stronger economy. With the increased power of computers to gather and analyze data, new techniques to prod schools to teach more, better, faster, and cheaper appeared (see here, here, and here)  *

The frequent gathering and parsing of test data, school-by-school, district-by-district, state-by-state, and nationally became a major enterprise. The lure of increased productivity and efficiency through evidence-based decision-making in light of huge (and available) data-sets has led to increasing use of algorithms to grade performance of individual schools, evaluating teacher performance, and customizing online lessons for each student (see here and here).

States and districts now evaluate the performance of schools based on test scores, growth in achievement, graduation rates, and other measures and then assign rankings by issuing a grade to each school ranging from an A to a F, awarding one to five stars, or similar systems. Such grades signal parents which schools are high-performing and attractive to enroll their children and which schools are to be avoided—an efficient way of sorting out schools especially since parental choice in public schools has expanded.

Determining which teachers are productive, i.e., “effective,” using students’ test scores has occurred in many states and big city districts. Such outcome measures should not shock anyone familiar with the spreading influence of the business model (e.g., earning profits, market share, and return on investment) upon schooling.

Policymakers’ concerns over inefficiency in sorting effective from ineffective teachers (most districts graded 90-plus percent of teachers satisfactory) led to an embrace of an economic model of providing incentives to increase organizational productivity and efficiency.

Within classrooms, both effectiveness and efficiency have come to the fore in customizing lessons for individual students. Earlier efforts to introduce “teaching machines” in the 1920s and later in the 1950s testify to the history of educators seeking ways to tailor teaching and learning to fit individual students. With the spread of faster and cheaper technologies since the 1990s, new classroom models of integrating devices and online programs took hold in many schools. The growth of huge data-sets of information on student performance in math, reading, and other school subjects also segued into a Niagara of software spilling over schools in the past two decades. The rationale for extensive buying and distributing of new devices and software has been to make teaching and student learning faster, better, and individualized.

The U.S. Secretary of Education made this point in 2010:

Technology can play a huge role in increasing educational productivity, but not just as an add‐on or for a high‐tech reproduction of current practice. Again, we need to change the underlying processes to leverage the capabilities of technology. The military calls it a force multiplier. Better use of online learning, virtual schools, and other smart uses of technology is not so much about replacing educational roles as it is about giving each person the tools they need to be more successful—reducing wasted time, energy, and money.

By far, the best strategy for boosting productivity is to leverage transformational change in the educational system to improve outcomes for children. To do so, requires a fundamental rethinking of the structure and delivery of education in the United States.

Those sentiments reign supreme among policy elites when it comes to schooling. Efficiency, productivity, and effectiveness a holy trinity to earlier generations of educators remain sacred to current school officials. Faster and better teaching through new technologies producing improved student outcomes in less time and money is precisely what Frederick Winslow Taylor would have recommended (see here and here).

This recent surge of technology-enhanced schooling called “personalized learning” merges the polestars of school reform since the 1890s. First, there is a reunion of efficiency and effectiveness, and second, the two wings of the progressive movement—“administrative” and “pedagogical” reformers, under different aliases have reappeared, reunited, and now use similar vocabularies.

Personalized learning as both efficient and effective: Past and present

Today’s reformers promoting “personalized learning” might salute their yesteryear Progressive cousins. A century ago, these reformers wanted public schools to turn children and youth into thoughtful, civically engaged, whole adults. Those early Progressives drank deeply from the well of John Dewey but ended up following the ideas of fellow Progressive Edward Thorndike, an early behaviorist psychologist expert in testing who was a doyen of efficiency in schooling.

A century ago, this efficiency-minded, behaviorist wing of the progressive movement overwhelmed the pedagogical progressives passionate about developing the entire child  and using a range of cognitive and social skills to benefit students and society. Thorndike trumped Dewey.

Now in 2018 behaviorists and believers in the “whole child” wear the clothes of Deweyan reformers and educational entrepreneurs. They tout scientific studies showing lessons tailored for individual students produce higher test scores than before, or that project-based learning creates independent, creative, and smart students who go on to lucrative careers and help their communities.

What exists now is a re-emergence of the efficiency-minded “administrative progressives” from a century ago who now, as modern-day entrepreneurs and practical reformers, using the vocabulary of pedagogical Progressives want public schools to be more market-like where supply and demand reign, and more realistic in preparing students for a competitive workplace.

These reformers are of two types. Some want individual students to master the content and skills found in district and state curriculum standards in less time than usual while spending the least amount of money to achieve mastery. Examples would be current versions of competency-based learning aligned to, say, Common Core standards or programs such as Teach To One.

Other entrepreneurs and technology advocates see schools as places to create whole  human beings capable of entering and succeeding in a world far different than their parents faced. To these reformers, efficient ways that reduce waste while integrating student interests and passions into daily activities with the help of teachers. Students make decisions about what to learn and take as long as they can to demonstrate mastery while meeting curriculum standards and posting high scores on state tests.

No surprise that a catch-phrase like “personalized learning,” using technology to upend traditional whole group lessons and “factory-like schools” has birthed a gaggle of different meanings. Is it updated “competency-based learning?” Or “differentiated learning” in new clothes or “individualized learning” redecorated?  (see here, here and here). Such proliferation of school reforms into slogans is as familiar as photos of sunsets. “Blended learning,” “project-based teaching,” and “21st Century skills” are a few recent bumper stickers that have generated many meanings as they get converted by policymakers, marketeers, researchers, wannabe reformers, and, yes, teachers into daily lessons.

The struggle today is between re-emergent, century-old wings of educational progressives in a context where individualizing instruction and being held accountable for meeting district standards occur at the same time. For some voices that challenge such a resurrection, see here, here, and here.

Yes, these differences among reformers resemble another instance of a family fight but in a very different context than existed a century ago. These efficiency-minded school reformers, filled with optimism about the power of new technologies to “transform” teaching and learning, have appropriated the language of “whole child” Progressives.  Imbued with visions of students being prepared for a world where adults change jobs a half-dozen times in a lifetime, these efficiency-minded reformers tout schools that have tailored lessons (both online and offline) to individual students, turned teachers into coaches, and structured activities for student collaboration where thus reflecting the changed workplace of the 21st century. Efficiency-minded reformers’ victorious capture of the vocabulary of “personalized learning”  has made parsing the present-day world of school policies aimed at making classrooms havens of “personalized learning” most confusing to those unfamiliar with century-old struggles over similar issues.


Laura Chapman pointed out a piece I had not seen that appeared in the wake of the Great Recession in 2008. Researchers priced out the cost of different school subjects similar to the quest of early 20th century “efficiency” experts. The first paragraph reads:

How much does it cost to provide a high school math course? What about remedial English? An Advanced Placement (AP) course in history? As the economic outlook continues to darken, school districts will be looking for ways to cut costs, and they will no doubt wrestle with some difficult issues.



Filed under Reforming schools, school leaders