Category Archives: Reforming schools

How Hard It Is To Translate Policy into Practice: The Broad Superintendency Academy (Part 1)

One would think that top decision-makers and philanthropists would learn a few lessons after these many years they have struggled in negotiating the pot-holed strewn road from adopting policies to changes in school and classroom practice. Perhaps a touch of humility in face of the complexity they face in improving urban schools. Or more consideration of the professional expertise that practitioners have. Not yet. Consider the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation’s Broad Superintendents Academy (BSA).

Eli Broad made it clear that he knew how to run successful businesses. He wanted customer-driven knowledge to be applied to urban public schools. At one conference, he said, “We don’t know anything about how to teach or reading curriculum or any of that, but what we do know about is management and governance.” What Broad did not say was that managing and governing are not the same as converting key policies into classroom lessons.[i]

The BSA was created to prepare a new breed of market-aware district leaders to raise student academic achievement and reduce the test score gap between minorities and whites. BSA, however, has quietly struggled with the trip from policy to practice. It is an 18-month program of extended weekends and internships for educators and non-educators (for example, ex-military officers, business leaders, and government officials). But determining how many graduates have become urban superintendents and how long they have served is difficult because of fragmentary and biased data salted liberally with conflicting accounts from Broad and its critics.[ii]

In attracting fresh recruits from the military, businesses, and government to enter urban education posts, the Academy has, to a small degree, altered the administrative workforce in urban settings. But whether Broad graduates stay longer or perform better as school chiefs than those trained in traditional university administration programs, I do not know. I do not know because since 2002 when BSA began, none of its nearly 200 graduates have stayed in a district superintendency for over seven years—a term that some observers believe is sufficient to show signs of student success. Broad officials say five years is the minimum, but I could still only find two BSA graduates who served that long: Superintendents Abelardo Saavedra in Houston (TX) and Mark Roosevelt in Pittsburgh (PA).[iii]

Lacking data on longevity and performance of urban school chiefs has persuaded independent observers (including myself) that the Broad pipeline into top leadership posts has not led to better test scores or significantly altered existing school structures.[iv]

Part 2 takes up the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation’s recent suspension of the $1 million prize for urban districts that had improved student achievement and reduced the test score gap between and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations dropping of their decade-long journey to improve U.S. high schools.

 

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[i] Bloomberg Businessweek Magazine, “Bill Gates School Crusade,” July 15, 2010 at: http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/10_30/b4188058281758.htm#p2

[ii] For press releases from Broad Superintendents Academy, see website: http://www.broadcenter.org/academy/newsroom/category/press-releases For a highly critical view, see Sharon Higgins, a parent who has followed Broad graduates of the Academy and other programs at: http://thebroadreport.blogspot.com/p/parent-guide.html

As of 2011 there were 165 graduates. The Foundation released no figures for 2012 and 2013.

[iii] Angela Pascopella, “Superintendent Staying Power,” District Administration, April 2011 at: http://www.districtadministration.com/article/superintendent-staying-power

Retrieved November 3, 2024.

[iv] Further evidence of the struggle to go from policy-to-practice is the announcement that the Broad Foundation no longer will give a $1million prize, begun in 2002, to urban districts that have improved student achievement and reduced the test score gap between minorities and whites. See: Howard Blume, “Broad Foundation Suspends $1-million Prize for Urban School Districts,” Los Angeles Times, February 8, 2015. For a recent study of the correlation between superintendents and student achievement, see Larry Cuban, “Superintendents and Test Scores,” October 14, 2014 at: https://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2014/10/08/superintendents-and-test-scores/ Retrieved November 17, 2014.

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The Lack of Evidence-Based Practice–The Case of Classroom Technology (Part 2)

In  the No Child Left Behind Act (2001), the phrase “scientifically based research” is mentioned 110 times. Not a typo. Evidence-based practice, a variation of the NCLB phrase, and data-driven decision-making are popular among policymakers, administrators, and researchers. What is common to all of these phrases is the idea that systematic inquiry into a question or problem–either through evaluation or research (or both) will yield solid data useful to educators in making and implementing policy.

Yet the historical record is rich in evidence that research and evaluation findings have played a subordinate role in making educational policy. Often, policy choices were (and are) political decisions. This is not a criticism of politics or even ideology in schooling but a recognition that tax-supported public schools are political institutions where stakeholders with competing values vie for resources.

There was no research or evaluation, for example, that found establishing public schools in the early 19th century was better than educating youth through private academies. No studies persuaded late-19th century decision-makers to import privately-funded kindergartens into public schools. Ditto for introducing desktop computers into schools a century later.

So it is hardly surprising, then, that many others, including myself, have been skeptical of the popular idea that what policymakers and teachers should do is pursue unrelentingly evidence-based policy-making and data-driven instruction. The strong belief persists among educators that when policy and practice are anchored in scientifically researched findings, then and only then, rational and effective policymaking and classroom teaching can occur.

As Part 1 indicated, that has hardly been the case when it comes to monies spent on charter schools and classroom technologies then and now. Why is that?

Political and practical reasons, not research and evaluation, often guide policy decisions–or as two scholars put it: “evidence-based decision-making is sometimes framed as an antidote for ideology-driven decision-making [when] people make decisions precisely by drawing on what might be considered ideology … as a fundamental part of the decision-making process.”

Politically smart state and local policymakers believe–here is where ideology enters the picture–that buying new tablets loaded with software, deploying them to K-12 classrooms, and watching how the devices engage both teachers and students will work; it is considered “best practice” because, well, “we believe in it.” The theory is that student engagement with the device and software will dramatically alter classroom instruction and lead to improved  achievement. The problem, of course (you no doubt have guessed where I am going with this) — is that evidence of this electronic innovation transforming teaching and achievement growth is not only sparse but also unpersuasive even when some studies show a small “effect size.”

When the research pantry is nearly empty and evidence for raising student test scores or transforming teaching is sparse, how do  policymakers and administrators justify buying new devices and software?

Here are three reasons that I see spurring decision-makers to allocate scarce dollars for new technologies.

First, keeping up with the rest of the changing world. Call it “modernization” or recasting schools as less like museums and more like fast-paced companies using technology in daily work. No more jokes about educators being technological slow-pokes. Use of new technologies is considered modern, being with-it, even an unadulterated “good” that all children and youth in age-graded schools should embrace.

Second, because new technologies are highly valued in the culture, school boards and their superintendents feel strong pressures to keep up with other sectors–both public and private–undergoing technological changes. If those leaders do not act, they fear that taxpayers and voters will lose confidence in public schools. And public confidence is like money in the bank since tax-supported public schools are politically and fiscally dependent on the good will of taxpayers.

And there is a less obvious third reason for school leaders to purchase new technologies: increase efficiency in testing and scoring results. Schools have to have computers because eventually U.S. students will be taking state tests online. The Los Angeles Unified School District’s recent fiasco with iPads was triggered by demands to implement the standardized testing required by adoption of the Common Core standards.  Just as the move from quill pens to pencils to computer-adaptive-testing required no research studies but were done on grounds of cost-saving efficiency, so it was when the LAUSD School Board and Superintendent authorized buying iPads.

Note that the three reasons I offer are political–not in any negative sense–but ones that are practical and realistic in the world that policymakers inhabit. Research findings to support the promises that school leaders make for the “good” that high-tech purchases will achieve, are simply not there. And that pattern of pursuing innovations without much evidence or data to support the decisions that school boards and superintendents make is plain to see.

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The Principal: The Most Misunderstood Person in All of Education (Kate Rousmaniere)

Kate Rousmaniere is Professor and chair of the Department of Educational Leadership at Miami University (Ohio). Her most recent book is: The Principals’ Office: A Social History of the American School Principal, (Albany: SUNY Press,2013). The following article appeared in Atlantic Online, November 8, 2013.

 

A few years ago when I walked the hallways of a high school with my five-year-old niece Evie, she remarked, without prompting: “There’s the principal’s office: you only go there if you are in trouble.” As an educator and an aunt, I wondered how the office of an educational professional had come to be symbolized in such a decisive way in the mind of a child, particularly a child who had yet to enter formal schooling. As I scanned popular representations of the school principal, I found that Evie’s impression was hardly unusual. Across popular and professional cultures, the figure of the school principal is commonly reduced to a small, often disagreeable functionary of bad news, the wet blanket of progressive teacher practice, the prison guard of students’ freedom. As I asked friends and colleagues about their impressions of school principals, few actually knew what principals did, and many people confused the role of school building principal with school district superintendent. Most remarkably, those very people who did not understand what a principal did were often the first to argue for the abolition of the role.

In American public schools, the principal is the most complex and contradictory figure in the pantheon of educational leadership. The principal is both the administrative director of state educational policy and a building manager, both an advocate for school change and the protector of bureaucratic stability. Authorized to be employer, supervisor, professional figurehead, and inspirational leader, the principal’s core training and identity is as a classroom teacher. A single person, in a single professional role, acts on a daily basis as the connecting link between a large bureaucratic system and the individual daily experiences of a large number of children and adults. Most contradictory of all, the principal has always been responsible for student learning, even as the position has become increasingly disconnected from the classroom.

The history of the principal offers even more contradictions. Contemporary principals work in the midst of unique modern challenges of ever-changing fiscal supports, school law and policy, community values, and youth culture. At the same time, the job of the contemporary principal shares many of the characteristics of their predecessors two centuries ago. While social and economic contexts have changed, the main role of the principal has remained essentially the same over time: to implement state educational policy to the school and to maneuver, buffer, and maintain the stability of the school culture at the local level.

The reason for this paradoxical history of change and constancy is that even as the broader context of education has changed over the past two centuries, the core purpose of the school principal has remained embedded in the center of the school organizational structure. Located between the school and the district, and serving both, the principal has historically been a middle manager who translates educational policy from the central office to the classroom. Assigned both to promote large-scale initiatives and to solve immediate day-to-day problems, the principal has always carried multiple and often contradictory responsibilities, wearing many hats, and moving swiftly between multiple roles in the course of one day. This mobile, multitasking role has always described the work of the principal, even as the nature of those tasks has radically changed.

The complex role of the principal is not an accidental by-product of history; rather, the principal’s position at the nexus of educational policy and practice was an intentional component of the role when it was originally conceived. Indeed, of the many organizational changes that took place in public education in North America at the turn of the last century, few had greater impact on the school than the development of the principalship. The creation of the principal’s office revolutionized the internal organization of the school from a group of students supervised by one teacher to a collection of teachers managed by one administrator. In its very conception, the appointment of a school-based administrator who was authorized to supervise other teachers significantly restructured power relations in schools, reorienting the source of authority from the classroom to the principal’s office. Just as significant was the role that the principal played as a school-based representative of the central educational office. Created as a conduit between the district and the classroom, the principal became an educational middle manager in an increasingly complex school bureaucracy.

The introduction of the principal’s office radically changed the overall machinery of how public education was delivered from central authorities to the classroom. Located as the connecting hinge between the school and the district, the principal was critical to the success of newly designed school systems in the early 20th century, in much the same way that the creation of middle managerial structures in business in the same period helped to consolidate the control of independent enterprises under a corporate umbrella. Modern administrative practices, including scientific management, greased the wheels of this development in late 19th-century American business, providing managerial techniques, a hierarchical decision-making structure, and an occupational culture of rationality. In the business world, middle managers were the engine behind the expansion of corporate bureaucracy, providing the smooth transition of responsibilities from the central office to the shop floor.

Like the foreman in the factory and the mid-level executive in the office building, the position of school principal was designed to be an administrator who was responsible for day-to-day building operations rather than strategic policy decisions. Standing between the district and the classroom, principals were, as sociologist C. Wright Mills described such white-collar positions, “the assistants of authority” whose power was derived from others and who were responsible for implementing managerial decisions but had limited opportunities for influencing those decisions. Like other middle managers, the principal had a “dual personality,” standing “on the middle ground between management and employee,” as both a loyal sergeant to a distant supervisor and a local administrator who had to negotiate with workers in order to get the job done properly. The National Education Policy Center’s Larry Cuban aptly describes principals’ historic and contemporary role as “positioned between their superiors who want orders followed and the teachers who do the actual work in the classrooms.” Principals’ loyalties, Cuban argues, “are dual: to their school and to headquarters.”

The historical development of the principal reflects the growing pains of an emerging state school bureaucratic system. Through the mid-20th century, the principalship was an inconsistently defined position, as often a teacher with administrative responsibilities as an administrator who supervised teachers. These early principals were flexible teacher leaders who maintained a close connection with classroom work and the school community in ways that might delight contemporary educators who feel burdened by bureaucracy. But for all the freedom offered by such positions, early principals suffered from the absence of an administrative scaffold to support their work.

At the turn of the 19th century, as educational reformers built up the bureaucratic framework of the state and local public school system, they realigned the primary attention of the principal from the classroom to the central administrative structure. This professionalization process involved proscribing lines of authority and accountability, establishing entry requirements and academic training, and improving compensation for the work. While professionalization improved the stature of the principal’s office, it restricted the types of people who sat in that office, increasingly excluding women, people of color, and educators who prioritized community engagement over administrative tasks. Indeed, through the mid-20th century a majority of elementary principals were women, and the totality of principals of segregated African American schools were black. The professionalization process changed all that, as it also formalized the division between teachers and administrators, between doing education and supervising education, between classroom and office, body and mind, experience and intellect, and between women and men. The irony of professionalization is that it emphasized the identity of the principal as an administrator in the middle of an educational bureaucracy and not an educator in the middle of the school house.

As the principalship evolved away from the classroom to the administrative office, the principal became less connected with student learning, and yet more responsible for it. Isolated in the new principal’s office, the role of school head changed from instructing students to supervising teachers of students. Further complicating the principal’s role in the mid-20th century was that as public education became more responsive to and reflective of the public, principals were swept up in changes initiated by state and federal governments, legal requirements, and the increasing demands of local communities. Modern principals came to have less to do with student learning and more to do with upholding administrative structures and responding to public pressures.

Yet by the nature of their background and role as educators, principals have always been concerned with student learning, and principals across time have played a pivotal role in shaping the educational culture of schools. Middle management, after all, is a multifaceted role that can open up both possibilities and constraints, and some school principals in the past and present have been able to initiate progressive educational practices in their schools, often in spite of bureaucratic restraints. Indeed, across history, many principals’ own vision of student learning has adapted to community needs and student interests. For all those efforts, however, the history of the principalship is marked by an increasing discrepancy between the popular image and the actual work of the position. Ironic too, is the dominant image of the principalship with an office, given the great variety, mobility, human interactions, and community relations of principals’ work.

 

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In Plain Sight: Pervasive Inequalities

This post will not be filled with statistics about the worst gap ever–yes, ever–in income between rich and poor in the United States or how badly the U.S  fares  among developed nations in the world on inequality measures.

This post will not rail at the moral unfairness or growth of mistrust among Americans as a result of such economic, social, and political disparities.

Now will this post recommend ways for reducing the growth of a two-tiered society.

What this post will do is look at effects of inequality and how they are pervasive, taken-for-granted, and even encouraged in everyday transactions.

There are many obvious examples of inequalities such as the current protests across the nation’s cities over white police officers shooting black men and disproportionate percentages of minority and poor arrested and convicted for “broken window” crimes. Current protests against the police’s lethal mistreatment of African Americans capture the abiding anger and resentment over this historic inequality. In this post, however, I offer only three prosaic ones to make this point about inequalities in plain sight: airplane travel, hospital emergency rooms, and schools.

Airplane Travel

Yeah, I know that this may strike readers as either whining or a silly example but many Americans and international  visitors have flown somewhere on a U.S. airline.  Inequalities are taken for granted. Sure, they are temporary–disappearing when you leave the aircraft–and dependent upon how much money individuals are willing to spend on air travel but, most important, status differences–inequalities–are intentionally designed to incite envy. Let me be specific.

While not all airlines treat customers in the same way, I fly United Airlines and know first-hand about these temporary status differences. First, you have to line up according to whether you are a “frequent flier” and what status you have acquired from United Airlines: Premier Silver, Premier Gold, Global Services, etc.;  those allowed on the aircraft first have the most miles flown (or are business- and first-class passengers who have paid much more for their tickets); they get a crack at the bins for their roller suitcases, packages and coats. By the time the last passengers–economy cabin–are called to board, most of the overhead space has been taken and many annoyed people have to check their roller suitcases and pick them up at baggage claim at their destination.

Then there are the curtains and bathrooms that separate economy from business- and first-class seats. Shall I mention big differences in size of seats and legroom? Forget snacks–juice and soft drinks are free–for United passengers in economy but for those in the big-seat sections, they get multi-course meals. Or the amenities passed out to big-seat passengers on international flights and nothing given to those in economy. Enough. the point is made.

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One passenger had this to say about the class distinctions and inequalities in flight dependent upon how much money you spend for a ticket;

This stark class division should come as no surprise: what’s happening in the clouds mirrors what’s happening on the ground. Statusization — to coin a useful term — is ubiquitous, no matter what your altitude. While you’re in your hospital bed spooning up red Jell-O, a patient in a private suite is enjoying strawberries and cream. On your way to a Chase A.T.M., you notice a silver plaque declaring the existence within of Private Client Services. This man has a box seat at a Yankees game; that man has a skybox. And the skybox isn’t the limit: high overhead, the 1 percent fly first class; the .1 percent fly Netjets; the .01 fly their own planes. Why should it be any different up above from down below?

No, I am not whining. I am describing how inequalities and grasping for status are so embedded into American experience that both appear in plain sight when anyone flies the “friendly skies.”

Hospital Emergency Rooms

Not so for hospital emergency rooms where the inequalities hit you directly in your face and cannot be ignored. These inequalities ares not temporary. They are consequential and reflect the two-tiered system of health care in the U.S.

In ERs the inequalities that appear before your eyes are deeply embedded in the social, political, and economic structures of a market-driven democracy. For anyone who has had to go to a hospital ER before or after the Affordable Care Act (2010)–about one out of five Americans have been to an ER at least once a year–some facts become obvious.

*Most of those in need of medical attention are poor and minority.

*Most of those who arrive in ERs do not have health insurance (61 percent) and have no access to medical attention except at the hospital ER.

*While middle- and upper-middle class families–young and old–with health insurance do go to ERs, most  have health insurance. Moreover, they have access to their primary care physician or other medical services while most poor young and old do not have access to alternative medical attention.

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The inequalities in access to medical attention in the U.S., even after the Affordable Care Act became law, are apparent to anyone who has spent time in an ER.

Public Schools

I have worked as a teacher, administrator, and researcher in largely poor and minority high schools for the past half-century.  I returned this year to three high schools in two different cities  where I had taught between the 1950s and 1970s to see what changes, if any, had occurred in the past half-century. Sure, there were changes but all three continue after a half-century poor and minority and, for the most part, located in racially and ethnically segregated neighborhoods.

I walked the halls, listened to teachers and students, and watched many lessons in each school. What was apparent to any informed observer was that security to protect students and keep order was pervasive:  Each school had metal detectors and security aides sweeping students out of hallways during classtime. Motivational posters urging students to graduate hung from walls on every floor; while there were instances of superb teaching in each of these schools, in most classrooms I observed students clock-watching and half-heartedly following teacher directions; there was compliance in doing worksheets and answering questions but that was about it.  I did see clumps of highly motivated, achieving students (including English Language Learners) in each school but they were immersed in an academic culture of doing the least amount of academic work to pass the course. Student suspension rates ran high, large numbers of 9th and 10th graders dropped out, and low percentages of students graduated. Two of the three high schools had been “reconstituted” twice–yes, twice in the past five years–when the entire staff and principal were removed and had to reapply for posts in each school.

Each of the school districts had initiated projects to revitalize these low-performing schools and progress was in inches, not feet or yards. Each of the districts had portfolios of options available to parents from which to choose: charters, magnets, alternative schools. High-tech hardware and software had been purchased and deployed in the schools I visited. Teachers were being evaluated on the basis of student test scores. High-performing teachers received bonuses. Much district effort to turn around low-performing schools had been made.

Yet, overall, these high schools remained examples of sheer economic inequality in the dollars that districts generated in property taxes, how officials spent that money, and what families contributed to their children’s education. These inequalities became obvious when compared to conditions in other schools.

I say that because I have also been in elementary and secondary schools where mostly middle-class and upper-middle class students, both white and minority, attend. What these districts generate in education dollars may be similar to low-performing ones but the resources families bring to the schools and their children’s lives is far more than many poor families can contribute. Moreover, to sit in classes, walk the halls, listen to teachers and students in these urbanized suburbs reveal that the overall culture and the quality of work performed by both students and teachers differ dramatically. The idea that there is a two-tiered system of schools in the U.S., one for the poor and one for everyone else becomes inescapable. None of this, of course, is new to anyone who has spent time in urban, suburban, and exurban U.S. schools or watched media reports on high-achieving and low-achieving schools.

These three everyday examples that adults and children experience show the sheer persistence of inequalities wrapped into the daily fabric of American life.

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Although economists are divided over the causes and consequences of the huge gap between poor and the wealthy, between the middle-class and the rich, a gap that has grown even larger in the past two decades, all Americans pay a price for this inequality. Distrust between police and minority communities is one cost of inequality that has made current newspaper headlines and television coverage. Loss of confidence in society being fair bites at many Americans when the chances of a black child going to prison are significantly higher than a white child or when corporate leaders pull down huge compensation packages as compared to their typical employee. Or feelings of disgust over political elites passing laws that create tax code loopholes and government-protected share of markets to both increase and protect the sheltered wealth of their supporters. Economic, political, and social disparities are (and have been) in plain sight and the entire nation pays high prices for becoming an increasingly divided society.

Figuring out what to do about this problem of an increasingly obvious two-tiered society has split social scientists. Mainstream economists argue that unjust differences are not the problem because inequalities naturally arise from the rapid globalization of the U.S. economy, increased uses of  technology, and spreading automation. They argue that government intervention can worsen the problem since these larger factors determine what occurs and little can be done to avert inequalities. Efforts to slow down globalization, use of technology, and spread of robotics and automation will only end in even deeper  inequalities. Watching and waiting until the system corrects itself, and it will–they say, is what needs to be done to decrease these differences.

Other social scientists say that the injustice of disparities is a moral hazard in a democracy, made by humans not machines. The problem is that wealth means access to political power. Access to political power means helping friendly legislators and executives at local, state, and national levels gain office. Friendly legislators and executives then jerry-rig the system to further the interests of the wealthy few rather than the majority of Americans. Such dissident social scientists point out that the U.S. political system has been hijacked by the rich and now serves their interests by passing laws that deregulate government oversight and shield their wealth-seeking efforts. They argue that this is a problem made by people with interests to protect. The problem can be solved by political action from the majority.

While I favor the latter point of view, it is clear to me that even framing the problem remains in dispute among economists and other social scientists, many of whom advise top policymakers in making choices about what to do about increasing gaps in wealth and the costs of such inequalities within a democratic society. Those costs of inequality have daily consequences when Americans travel, go to hospitals, and attend school.

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“This Will Revolutionize Education” –A Story That Needs To Be Told Again and Again

I needed to write a post yesterday morning. I had on my desk a few ideas from articles I had cut out of newspapers, suggestions that friends and family had sent to me, and pieces  from a chapter on donors that I had drafted and wanted to try out on my blog.

Before I decided which of these items I would expand into a post, I checked my website to see how many views I had overnight, what comments had come in and whether they needed responses from me, and, of course, dumping the spam that had collected overnight. I also checked to see who had clicked onto the site for that is a way I find out who is reading posts and a chance for me to pick up different ideas. And that is how I found today’s post. One reader had downloaded my monthly cartoon feature on technology for kids and adults to her website and also gave a link to a video called “This Will Rev0lutionize Education.” That caught my eye. I watched it. And I was startled by its accuracy, brevity, and elan in taking apart that common phrase used time and again by wannabe school reformers eager to put the next new technology into classrooms.

As a historian of school reform, I have written more than I want to remember about those rose-colored, feverish, high-tech dreams that appear time and again promising to transform classroom practice and how students learn. This video is seven minutes long and it vividly captures the hollowness of each generation’s claim that “This Will Revolutionize Education.” But far more important the video zeroes in on the centrality of the teacher to student learning beyond conveying information which new technologies are superb in doing.

At a time when blended learning, flipped classrooms, MOOCs, and, “disruptive” innovations pop up incessantly in media and rhetoric of school reform, what Derek Muller presents is worth seeing. So I now present the YouTube video: “This Will Revolutionize Education:”

Click on: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GEmuEWjHr5c

 

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Software Will Not ‘Eat’ Education (Ben Stern)

Ben Stern is “the Manager of Education Partnerships at TeachBoost and an advisor to Ponder. Formerly a history teacher and technology integrator….” This appeared in EdSurge September 11, 2014.

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Marc Andreessen, with the support of long-time colleague and amateur rapper Ben Horowitz, famously leads Andreessen Horowitz with the thesis that software will “eat the world.” Naturally, I wonder whether it will “eat” education.

Most recently, Andreessen and Horowitz suggest healthcare, education, and government are poised to be eaten. They may be right about healthcare. Government, they admit, is a longer way off. Education may be more imminent. Andreessen explains,

Technology is not driving down costs in…education, but it should…[Access is] the critical thing. We need to get every kid on the planet access to what we consider today to be a top Ivy League education. The only way to do that is to apply technology.

Ostensibly supporting this thesis is the growing edtech industry, in which I work. $452 million of VC money in 2013 is no small potatoes. Andreessen and Horowitz must be on to something, right?
No – at least, not as they frame the issue.

The biggest problem in education is not, and never will be, that too few students have access to Harvard. Let’s ignore for a moment the discussion about the value of an Ivy League education. Instead, consider the myopia of this view of education. K-12, as opposed to higher ed, is more relevant to the vast majority of Americans. Rightfully, getting every kid into Harvard is far from the top concern of anyone involved in this space, whether as a student, parent, educator, policy-maker, or entrepreneur. Let’s get every kid into and through high school first.

The many issues in K-12 –the achievement gap, funding disparities, and teacher attrition rates, to name just a few –are not issues that can be resolved by instant access. In fact, they are not software problems. They are human issues, political issues. Software alone will not change ,  much less save ,  the world of education.

Software can help, under three conditions:

  1. Edtech should be designed to focus on a narrow set of problems. The complexity of the American education system can be frustrating for companies, but it exists for a reason: educating 77 million students isn’t simple. Certain parts of it must exist to manage so many people. Companies aiming to
    1. overhaul education with their product are DOA. Instead, they should be targeting inefficiencies in the system. Companies ought to recognize that there are certain confines within which they must operate.
    2. Related, edtech companies ought to make sure the problem they solve is a real problem, not a mere annoyance. Often, great edtech software never gets adopted because it’s solving a problem that doesn’t yet exist, or won’t exist until 20 years of innovation have transpired. Companies that believe that their software will help to usher in a whole new educational model, who will truly disrupt or “eat” education, probably won’t. Iterative –not radical – change is itself ambitious in education, an industry in which the most successful companies thus far reinforce the status quo.
    3. To focus on the right problem, companies must assume a purely Socratic approach  :  know that they “know nothing,” and be inquisitive, open-minded, and responsive . By asking rather than answering questions, companies can deliver software that helps humans improve teaching and learning.

    Using good software, humans begin to chip away at the big issues of the day: software might free up time to focus on the issues, surface data that elucidates the issue, and empower teachers and learners to grow in new ways But humans do the important work. Software must strike a delicate balance between innovating and meeting current, non-technological needs–a balance that’s harder to strike in education than anywhere else. But who said startups should be easy?

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Squelching Public and Professional Voices: Big Donors and School Reform

There have been many criticisms of big donors in the past decade (see here and here). They have been criticized for trying to privatize public schools and throwing their considerable weight around in advocating policies that will increase numbers of charter schools, spread vouchers, evaluate teachers on the basis of student test scores, and, in general, oppose teacher unions. I will take up each of these criticisms in a chapter I am now drafting for a book on educational philanthropy that will be published in 2015.

For this post, however, I want to describe another criticism that is often mentioned but seldom developed, one that, I believe, should be front-and-center in the debate over the role that big donors play in pushing a reform agenda. What follows is a first draft. I have excluded footnotes documenting statements in this post that will appear in next draft. Any comments would be appreciated.

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One criticism I want to examine is that In centralizing governance of schools, policymakers, supported by major donors, have squelched public and professional voices.

The background to this criticism is that the Gates, Walton, Broad, and other foundations have advocated mayoral control in cities, state laws that expand choice of schools, and parent trigger laws that, in effect, strip local school boards of their authority to make decisions, shrink public participation in educational affairs, and diminish teacher and principal professional judgment.

Donors supported state laws expanding charter schools, urged adoption of Common Core standards, and endorsed mayoral control of city districts in New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Chicago because it made grant-making for small high schools, charter schools, and changes in teacher evaluation easier when school authority was fixed in the appointed superintendent’s or chancellor’s office. Here is Bill Gates on mayoral control of schools:

The cities where our foundation has put the most money in, is where there’s a single person responsible – in New York, Chicago, Washington, DC, the mayor has responsibility for the school system, and so instead of having a committee of people, you have that one person. And that’s where we’ve seen the willingness to take on some of the older practices and try new things, and we’ve seen very good results in all three of those cities, so there are some lessons that have already been learned

No extended time going through messy public vetting of each proposal. No squabbling over school board members’ questions and community hearings when decisions could be reached in the mayoral appointed superintendent’s office.

I do not suggest that educational philanthropists have caused centralized policymaking or loss of faith in professional educators’ judgment since both had begun in the mid-1960s with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act underwriting federal and state actions and continued through the 1980s–A Nation at Risk called for states to act on their recommendations–and into the 1990s with the spread of mayoral control in big cities. And of course, No Child Left Behind (2002) has the U.S. Secretary of Education intervening into local schools as never before.

I do suggest, however, that “muscular philanthropy” has accelerated consolidation of authority at local, state, and federal levels with the consequence of even further shrinking citizen and school professional participation in governing schools.

Donors have also helped governors and state legislatures compete for federal funds offered through Race To The Top by bankrolling organizations helping officials negotiate federal eligibility rules to apply for funding. State legislation allowing more charter schools, evaluating teachers on the basis of student test scores, and adopting Common Core State Standards and tests strengthened state applications for federal funds. Few local school boards were involved or practitioner voices heard as these state laws imposed top-down requirements on every district and school.

Centralized governing of schools over the past decades has been done not only in the name of increased efficiency in operations and developing excellence in schooling but also in seeking egalitarian outcomes: leave no child behind, college for all, and equipping minority and poor students with essential skills to enter a 21st century workforce. This deep concern for those who have been educationally disadvantaged over decades is part of the belief system of foundation and corporate executives who push for centralized governance, curriculum and testing mandates, and accountability rules.

The sum total of these public and private ventures has meant that large donors have not only set the reform agenda but gone way beyond agenda setting to promote state laws that eroded, no, a more precise word would be—diminished—local public participation and professionals’ judgment in significant decisions.

Although these donor-supported policies have inadvertently drowned the public voice in local decision-making and shifted power to technocrats who guide policy into schools, I doubt that foundation leaders intended to consolidate school decision-making higher up the authority ladder away from local policymakers, professionals, and citizens. Nonetheless, that is what has unintentionally happened over the past 30 years in identifying the problem as failing U.S. schools and the solution of getting schools to be efficient, effective, and excellent through a business-driven, technocratic model of governing schools.

I find much merit in this criticism.

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Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies