Category Archives: school reform policies

Questioning Mainstream Wisdom about Schools and the Economy

The fairy tale about the Emperor with no clothes is (and has been) a metaphor for the damages incurred from groupthink. Fear of appearing silly or losing status among peers in raising questions when a consensus–the wisdom of the group–occurs daily in all organizations. When that consensus extends to the nation and involves ideas that have consequences for the entire citizenry, then yelling out that the Emperor is naked is everyone’s duty in a democracy.

For the past thirty years the groupthink idea of public schools solving a national economic crisis and rising inequalities  has been the idee fixe of civic, business, educational, and academic leaders. This “educationalizing” of an economic problem has steered school reform for three decades. Here is what President Barack Obama said in 2009:

The source of America’s prosperity has never been merely how ably we accumulate wealth, but how well we educate our people. This has never been more true than it is today. In a 21st-century world where jobs can be shipped wherever there’s an Internet connection, where a child born in Dallas is now competing with a child in New Delhi, where your best job qualification is not what you do, but what you know — education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity and success, it’s a prerequisite for success.

Not only President Obama, however. Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W.Bush,  Bill Clinton, George W. Bush,  governors, state legislators, and business leaders have made similar statements. This idee fixe has led to new laws, new curriculum standards, and scads of new tests. The belief that the nation’s slipping economic competitiveness and increasing inequalities between the wealthy and everyone else is largely the result of future workers being educated poorly has been reduced to a bumper sticker slogan: Strong schools=strong economy.

From time to time, an occasional voice of reason challenges that groupthink. When it is an economist who does–since most economists have contributed to and embrace this mainstream wisdom–the nakedness of the emperor gets unusually displayed. Enter Nobel Prize winning economist, Paul Krugman.

In a recent op-ed piece, he summarizes the current “wisdom.”

We live in a period of unprecedented technological change, and too many American workers lack the skills to cope with that change. This “skills gap” is holding back growth, because businesses can’t find the workers they need. It also feeds inequality, as wages soar for workers with the right skills but stagnate or decline for the less educated. So what we need is more and better education.

My guess is that this sounds familiar…. It’s repeated so widely that many people probably assume it’s unquestionably true. But it isn’t.

….[T]here’s no evidence that a skills gap is holding back employment. After all, if businesses were desperate for workers with certain skills, they would presumably be offering premium wages to attract such workers. So where are these fortunate professions? You can find some examples here and there. Interestingly, some of the biggest recent wage gains are for skilled manual labor — sewing machine operators, boilermakers — as some manufacturing production moves back to America. But the notion that highly skilled workers are generally in demand is just false.

Readers know, as does Krugman, the quality of schooling is important to each graduate’s well being, career advancement, and lifetime earnings. Public schooling, for all of its faults, still remains the best hope for the recent immigrant, the poor, and the middle class of this nation. To the degree that graduates find jobs that match their skills and motivation, they do contribute to the economy.

But other facts overwhelm what indirect contributions schools make to the economy. Schools do not generate manufacturing jobs; they do not make corporate decisions to install new technologies in factories that reduce numbers of workers; they do not decide to build plants in other countries; they do not downsize companies that send ex-employees into unemployment offices.

So saying that improving the quality of schooling will pump up a sagging economy and reduce inequalities, the prevailing wisdom of the moment, is misleading, even mischievous in redirecting attention away from corporate and governmental decisions that affect the economy directly. Again, Krugman:

Now, there’s a lot we could do to redress this inequality of power. We could levy higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy, and invest the proceeds in programs that help working families. We could raise the minimum wage and make it easier for workers to organize. It’s not hard to imagine a truly serious effort to make America less unequal.

But given the determination of one major party to move policy in exactly the opposite direction, advocating such an effort makes you sound partisan. Hence the desire to see the whole thing as an education problem instead. But we should recognize that popular evasion for what it is: a deeply unserious fantasy.

What we have had since the mid-1980s is a groupthink acceptance of “mainstream wisdom.” Much arm-waving and  bellicose words about transforming schools into leaner, smarter, and efficient organizations–as corporate firms have supposedly done. Once called “restructuring,” and the rage among educators and business leaders pressing for school change, that hot rhetoric has cooled considerably in the last decade.

Now we hear far more about reauthorizing No Child Left Behind and Common Core and, of course, standardized tests accompanying the new standards that determine whether a failing school needs to be “restructured” and whether teachers are effective.

Why? Because the current “wisdom” says that the nation’s economic crisis is an educational problem that must be solved.

What is far more important, however, is the groupthink idea that drives school reform. The assumption that improving public schools will revive a weak economy and ease inequalities remains largely unexamined and, is, ultimately flawed by illogic, facts, and data. Yet it continues to fuel one fad after another to improve schools.

How many shout-outs that the emperor is naked will it take before we dump the  assumption that public schools are bootcamps for the economy?

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After 20 years, a Teacher Reinvents Her Classroom Using Technology (Nichole Dobo)

Nichole Dobo, a reporter, writes about blended learning. Most of her 10-year career as a journalist has focused on education. This post appeared on October 15, 2014. The Hechinger Institute is a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education

Teacher Valyncia O. Hawkins knew she needed extra time with students who arrived in her classroom behind grade level, but slowing down the whole class risked boring the more advanced students. But even after 20 years as a teacher, Hawkins still didn’t have a good method to keep everyone moving forward. The 21 children in her classroom at Anne Beers Elementary School shared the label of fifth grader, but they arrived with different needs. It was clear she was losing some of them. It was disheartening.

“When I would stand and talk they would be bouncing off the walls,” Hawkins recalled.

Convinced there had to be a better way, this D.C. Public Schools Teacher took a fellowship with the CityBridge Foundation in 2013 to research and develop a new teaching method. She traveled to see other schools in states such as California and New Jersey, and she noticed technology offered a solution. It inspired her to create a new method of instruction. And in the process she found her zeal for teaching returned.

Today, she is no longer standing in front of the room for a whole class period, trying to keep everyone on the same page. She developed a new style of teaching that gives students a mix of technology and small-group instruction. Online tools, most of them free, helped her customize lessons for students. She periodically checks progress through the year to adjust.

“I am meeting them where they are,” she said.

That’s not to say she found a method that is easier. It requires a lot of advance planning. She must craft several lesson plans for one class period.

On a recent day, when students arrived the first task was correcting the punctuation on two sentences projected on a smart board. Everyone gathered at the front of the room, composition books in hand, and they got to work fixing run-ons. They had four minutes to do it. Hawkins knew some students would move quicker, and her new teaching method meant she was prepared for it.

After answering correctly, students grabbed laptop computers and got to work on more challenging problems provided by online lessons that allowed them to work at their own pace.

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This allowed Hawkins to work with students who took longer to arrive at the right answer.

“After we add a period is the ‘I’ lowercase?” Hawkins asked the smaller group who remained.

“No,” a student responded, a few moments later.

“Right, it is capitalized because you are always important,” Hawkins said.

A blended learning classroom gives children a mix of online and in-person instruction, and some say it offers more personalized learning. There are many ways teachers can do it, but Hawkins created something that is her own model. There is a lot of movement in her classroom, with many students breaking off to work on lessons at their own pace after the starting the class together. Groups of desks offer places for children to gather to work on laptops. A small couch near the front allows for comfy seating for small group-instruction at a smart board. Singular desks in corners welcome children who seek solitude while they work.

The children are often allowed a measure of independence. For instance, they can choose from several vocabulary lessons. They can wear headphones. Or not.

Student JaNaia Jackson, 10, said her favorite lessons in English are finding the theme and main idea, she said. She notices that some of her peers like to take the computers off and work quietly on their own. Others like to stay near each other. There are other perks, such as getting to write with a tool that is preferred over a pencil and paper.

“I love to type,” she said. “I just love to work on typing.”

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Right now, Hawkins is the only educator using this model of teaching in her school. In other D.C. schools, the district is coordinating blended-learning experiments.

Hawkins has noticed students are more engaged and there are fewer behavioral issues, something other D.C. educators said they have noticed with this model of instruction. The novelty of the technology isn’t the only factor, Hawkins said. Personalized instruction that allows students some freedom to explore keeps them from getting bored or frustrated.

“It just helped me feel like I was contributing to the learning of the students,” Hawkins said. “It helped address those students who don’t necessarily follow the norms.”

That’s not to say the transition was easy or the results perfect. Hawkins considers her classroom a work in progress. She continues to remodel it to fit the needs of the school day and her students.

This year, for example, she had to re-organize her blended classroom because she now teaches English language arts to all fifth graders in the school. Before, she taught multiple subjects to the same 20 students all day. The new schedule means she has more students, so she is customizing plans for about 63 children who transition in and out of her room for English class. The new schedule has also shortened the class-time window. (That’s not to say there is less time for English and language arts at the school — writing instruction is now included across other subjects, such as science class.)

Another challenge: Managing the multiple online platforms, such as quizzes, learning games and online grade reporting for parents. Data on the websites she uses aren’t connected so Hawkins has to juggle them to monitor how her students are progressing.

But those obstacles haven’t sent Hawkins back to the familiar way of teaching. She continues to find a way to navigate, and it often means finding low-cost, or free, help.

Volunteer students from Georgetown University spend time in her classroom as aides to help with things like transitions between the groups and the inevitable technical issue, such as a misplaced log in for a computer. And plastic milk crates Hawkins snagged in the cafeteria are the perfect size for storing student folders that organize personalized learning materials. To organize online resources, she puts links on a free website that she’s used for the classroom for a long time. Students are in one of five groups based on their ability level. Each group has a “playlist” of lessons. They access it in the classroom, and it’s available at home for the students who have Internet access.

On Tuesday, most students worked independently on computers in the classroom to answer a question about the class word of the day, “persistence.” Meanwhile, Hawkins stood in front of about 10 students with the word projected on a smart board. The students were asked to define the word. They wrote in composition books, pencils in hand and dictionaries by their side.

Hawkins challenged students to explain how the word “persistence” was subtly different than the examples they were giving, which would better fit the word “repetition.” She called the entire classes’ attention, including the faster-moving students who had been working independently. They had a joint class discussion, and together everyone arrived at the answer.

“Even though you know there is trouble ahead you have persistence,” Hawkins said.

 

 

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Filed under how teachers teach, technology use, Uncategorized

Cartoons on Evidenced-based Practice and Data-Driven Decisions

A few weeks ago, I completed a three part series on the role of evidence in determining school and classroom practices (see here, here, and here). I then began looking at cartoonists’ work on the role of evidence in making decisions. Of course, I found some. Perhaps you will chuckle and laugh as I did. Enjoy!

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Here Comes The Classroom Observation and My Slim Chances of Being Rated a Top Teacher (Becca Leech)

Tennessee teacher Becca Leech has been, in her words,a special educator since 1991, with experience teaching infants to young adults in rural, suburban and urban communities, and in both private and non-profit school settings. I currently coordinate an alternative graduation program for students with mild disabilities who are most at-risk for dropping out of high school.

Her blog entry for September 27, 2014 shouts out the unfairness of using student test scores to evaluate a teacher’s performance for either being retained or receiving additional pay. Often called Value-Added Models, the inherent inequity in the scheme in Tennessee and across the nation, apart from all of its methodological problems (see here and here), came up in interviews I had with teachers in Cleveland and Washington, D.C. again and again last year.

This week, a fellow special educator will serve as my administrative observer for the classroom observation portion of my Teacher Effectiveness Measure. This represents a first in my career, so I should be rejoicing. After all, my previous observers have included former coaches and PE-teachers-turned-administrators, a former Science teacher, and a Dual Enrollment History teacher. These observers had no idea of the overall mission of my classroom or any understanding of the strategies and groupings I use to teach multiple subjects to groups of students with different abilities in the same room. I could tell that they simply rated me to produce a slightly-higher-than-average score that might not cause controversy. So I should be holding high hopes that, if I plan very hard and manifest all the teaching skill I have carefully honed over the years, an observer with experience in special education will grant me top scores.

Still, a reading of the Brookings Institute’s May 2014 report entitled “Evaluating Teachers with Classroom Observations – Lessons Learned in Four Districts” confirms my suspicions that, as a special education teacher who teaches the lowest achieving students in a nontraditional classroom, I have little chance of rating top scores no matter how I try. And I know that my observer will be under pressure to rate me within the same range as previous observations so that inter-rater reliability will be preserved.

I empathize with my students who, knowing that they have no chance of scoring proficient on state exams, simply bubble pretty patterns on their answer sheets during the test. So, I’m off to doodle a pretty little pre-conference record form and make sure I employ the strategy for saving face that I’ve learned from my students: I’ll ensure my mediocre score appears to be due to lack of effort rather than try my best only to expose my fragile ego to the judgement that my teaching is simply mediocre.

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Whitehurst, G., Chingos, M., & Lindquist, K. (2014, May). Evaluating Teachers with Classroom Observations – Lessons Learned in Four Districts. Retrieved September 27, 2014, from http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/reports/2014/05/13 teacher evaluation/evaluating teachers with classroom observations.pdf

“We believe this represents a very serious problem for any teacher evaluation system that places a heavy emphasis on classroom observations, as nearly all current systems are forced to do because of the lack of measures of student learning in most grades and subjects. We should not tolerate a system that makes it hard to be rated as a top teacher unless you are assigned top students. “

 

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Some Donors Give Up Too Soon: Patience and School Reform

The path to successful school reform–moving from an adopted policy to classroom practice–is long, twisted, and filled with sinkholes. The journey requires thoughtful attention, persistence and, most of all, patience. Two instances of impatient, fickle, and inattentive donors is on full display in the two headlines below that you might have missed in the sea of media we swim in:

Broad Foundation Suspends $1 Million Prize for Urban School Districts

Los Angeles Times, February 8, 2015

City Students at Small Public High Schools Likely to Graduate, Study Says

New York Times, January 25, 2012

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The Gates Foundation and small high schools.  Beginning in 2000, Bill and Melinda Gates spent nearly $2 billion to transform U.S. high schools. Many grants went to creating  a few thousand small high schools in 45 states and the District of Columbia to improve student academic achievement, rates of high school graduation, and college attendance.  In 2009, in his Annual Letter, Bill Gates said that “Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way.” No more money to spur small high schools; the Foundation turned to assessing teacher effectiveness. In less than a decade the deep-pocket Foundation walked away from what began as a promising initiative to turn around urban high schools.

Now here is the punch line. A number of studies since the Gates Foundation turned off the money faucet (see here, here, and here) have established that these small high schools have, indeed, improved student achievement, rates of high school graduation, and college attendance.

Patience, persistence, thoughtful attention and time are crucial ingredients for baking school reforms in the oven; pulling out the cake too soon, as happened in this instance, is a recipe for disappointing those who have worked hard, invested themselves into the effort, and were there for the long haul.

What the Foundation has done in the past few years, while continuing to invest in teacher effectiveness and other improvements, is to shift more of its funding to organizations advocating policies that advance its school reform agenda. Of course, adopting policies is a media-friendly way of giving the illusion that schools are, indeed, changing but ignores the baking time and careful attention it takes for an adopted policy to reshape what happens in first grade classrooms and Advanced Placement history courses.

$1 million Broad Prize for urban school districts.  After 13 years, Eli Broad said enough. According to the President of the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, Bruce Reed, “Eli has kept a close watch over the prize throughout its existence and over the past year he has become more concerned than ever about the slow pace of progress.” Reed went on to say that “we’ve seen some of that, but not enough and not fast enough.” The Broad Foundation, however, continues to offer $500,000 prize to charter schools.

In an interview for Forbes magazine, Broad said: “we don’t give money away. We invest it, and we expect a return. What do I mean by that? We want to see a return in the form of student achievement and the closure of income and ethnic gaps among students.”

Impatient donors are well within their rights to give up on solving educational problems. After all, it is their money and they can say “oops!” whenever they feel like it.

Under the law, donors have no accountability for mistakes. They are beyond the reach of being fired or voted out of office, so they have no responsibility to district leaders, individual principals, teachers, students and parents for hopes raised and dashed. If their grants fail to achieve desired objectives, philanthropists can shrug and walk away.[i]

For venture philanthropists and their supporters, this unaccountability provides valuable flexibility in taking actions for the public good and is in the best tradition of a democracy.[ii] As some have argued: “[S]uch virtual immunity represents foundations’ greatest strength: the freedom to take chances, to think big, to innovate, to be, in the words of the late Paul Ylvisaker of the Ford Foundation, ‘society’s passing gear.’”[iii]

Being society’s “passing gear” assumes that funders and their retinue of experts  identify educational problems correctly, sort out symptoms from fundamental causes, and adopt solutions that target those causes. Yet as one observer noted: “Just because you were great at making software or shorting stocks doesn’t mean that you will be good at … ensuring that kids can read by the third grade. If you’re worth billions, though, nobody may tell you that.”[iv]

And few do.

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[i] Walking away from a grant—usually three years in length—was common among donors when early returns appeared unpromising. See Gary Lichtenstein report on what happened at Denver’s Manual High School in the early 2000s when the high school was reorganized to become three small schools. See Gary Lichtenstein, “What Went Wrong at Manual High: The Role of Intermediaries in the Quest for Smaller Schools, “ Education Week, May 16, 2006

[ii] Rob Reich, “What Are Foundations For?” Boston Review, March 1, 2013 at: http://www.bostonreview.net/forum/foundations-philanthropy-democracy Retrieved October 17, 2014.

[iii] Edward Skloot, “The Gated Community,” Alliance Magazine, September 2011 at: http://www.hudson.org/content/researchattachments/attachment/1197/alliance_magazine_edward_skloot.pdf Retrieved October 17, 2014.

[iv]David Callahan, “Be Afraid: The Five Scariest Trends in Philanthropy,” Inside Philanthropy, October 31, 2014 at: http://www.insidephilanthropy.com/home/2014/10/31/be-afraid-the-five-scariest-trends-in-philanthropy.html Retrieved December 2, 2014.

 

 

 

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Student Compliance and Buy-In to a Class: Comments from Readers

A month ago, a post I wrote on different kinds of secondary school students in classes I and colleagues have taught stirred an exchange between a number of readers. Mike Goldstein suggested I post the back-and-forth between Michael Merry, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam (Netherlands), and me. Here it is. I also appended Mike Goldstein’s comment since he offers his views of charter school teachers  who wrestle with different roles to play in teaching compliant but disengaged students.

Michael S. Merry January 4, 2015 at 7:54 am

I think this is a fairly accurate description of three different student “types” and I recognize them from my own experience. And while I won’t pretend to have observed nearly as many classrooms as you, Larry, I’ve observed well above the average, having spent several years training student teachers and observing/critiquing their practices, but also (of course) having attended years of school myself (with more than my share of dull teachers), and finally, watching the experiences of my three kids in school, one of whom has now graduated. And while it is never “cool” to criticize teachers – indeed, one is branded a right-winger if you don’t unreservedly support teachers – one also has to say, I think, that in order to make sense of student engagement, it is alarming that only a small fraction of the engaged students (nevermind the tiny percentage of ALL students) could be categorised as being inspired by the teacher. You write that teachers are dependent on their students for their compliance and buy-in. Well, that’s true, and I’ve certainly taught the same way with two separate groups of students only to find that 1 group is seemingly more engaged than the other. The student mix does count for something. On the other hand, it is an open secret that a teacher’s knowledge, skill & enthusiasm in bringing a subject alive is crucial to student engagement. I would like to see – if you are inclined – a discussion on the reasons for so much uninspiring teaching. We might include the usual suspects (e.g., teacher training programs, school leadership, a test-driven climate, poverty, student mobility, etc.). Having this conversation does not mean that we scapegoat teachers. But if the issue before us is student engagement, I think it is completely fair to ask about the role of the teacher in this equation.

 

larry cuban January 4, 2015 at 6:39 pm

Thanks for the comments, Michael.These are fair points, in my opinion, that you raise about the teacher’s responsibilities for “inspiring” students. My hunch is that so little occurs–I agree with your observation–for the very reasons you offer: the outer environment for public school teaching has become increasingly toxic, the school workplace has become increasingly regulated,teacher preparation institutions too much out-of-touch with these conditions, etc. etc. These are powerful influences on teachers daily lessons, in my opinion. Insofar, as engaged teaching and the different groups of students who simply comply, buy-in, or become inspired, I have no measure that is reliable to characterize how much or how little engaged teaching occurs. Surely, the teacher is part of the equation, as you say, because teachers are dependent on students as surely as doctors are dependent upon patients, therapists on clients. But other factors–the chemistry of relationships among students,teacher expertise, and many others come into play making general statements about the teacher’s part nearly impossible to defend. What do you think?

 

Michael S. Merry January 5, 2015 at 7:15 am

All of this is true, as it concerns non-ideal conditions in which teachers work – and these of course are not uniquely American problems. Further, the factors that you also name, Larry, which change the chemistry of any particular class, certainly have an impact on teacher effectiveness and student engagement. But now to touch upon another open secret, certainly to those who have watched year after year the folks who are drawn to the teaching profession, and that is this. While there are marvelous and resourceful and dynamic teachers in every cohort, in every school, and in every teacher training program, the painful fact remains that far too many uninspiring individuals – who, perhaps, are more compliant with the non-ideal conditions, finding it easier to yield to them – are drawn to teaching in the first place. Without minimizing any of the critique about schools, their inequitable structures, and the copious challenges that teachers face, it seems to me that we cannot deny this as being a significant part of the problem as it concerns lack of student engagement. This is not a “teacher slamming” moment so much as a lament. I think that even if we were to improve – by whatever means – the conditions in which teachers teach, and optimize classrooms, we would still find far too many lackluster teachers and consequently far too little student engagement. How can this be changed? I honestly don’t know because there is always a demand for teachers, and students spend a lot of money getting their training, and hence there is a lot of pressure to simply give out licenses provided all the boxes can be ticked and all formal qualifications are met.

larry cuban January 5, 2015 at 10:37 am

Thanks for the follow-up comment, Michael. You say: “I think that even if we were to improve – by whatever means – the conditions in which teachers teach, and optimize classrooms, we would still find far too many lackluster teachers and consequently far too little student engagement. How can this be changed?” I believe that you hold teachers to a higher bar than lawyers, doctors, engineers, etc. your comments about “lackluster” teachers is not about ineffectiveness or mediocrity but insufficiently inspiring to gain student engagement. My research and direct experience with doctors, for example, show that many doctors have low levels of communication skills, offer little empathy, and have restricted listening capacity yet they are competent, make diagnoses, and know what they are doing in recommending treatments. My point is that in every profession I know,”lackluster” is commonplace–the bell-shaped curve, so to speak.It is teachers with expertise in subject matter, classroom moxie, and communication skills that are needed in every classroom. Whether they inspire students is a dividend, not a requirement.

Michael S. Merry January 5, 2015 at 11:39 am

I agree, Larry, that I hold teachers to a higher standard, and that may be unfair. But while teachers can be competent yet uninspiring (like lawyers, doctors, etc.), only teachers spend thousands of hours with children and are in such a position to have so much (or so little) influence. Doctors and lawyers, conversely, can be uninspiring, but still provide you with solid medical or legal advice. (That doesn’t mean they always will, of course.) And, one is rarely with a doctor or lawyer for very long! But to reiterate, mine is a lament, and the problem of low student engagement – and its relation to uninspiring teachers – probably has no cure. Sigh.

 

larry cuban January 5, 2015 at 3:01 pm

Thanks for raising the issue of teachers inspiring students, Michael. The back-and-forth with you, I found helpful in my thinking.

 

Mike G commented on Student Compliance and Buy-In to a Class February 5, 2015

 

I found the back and forth exchange in the comments between you (Larry) and Michael M quite provocative. Might be worth pulling it out as its own blog post. I think it goes somehow to the core of our educational debate.

Are teachers essentially to be like “personal trainers” in that they should precisely expect many clients who, like your compliant-but-not-that-interested student, will try to wriggle out of exercise? And that to become a personal trainer is to sign up for a job where you try to “flip” as many of us exercise laggards (I am one) as you can?

Or is the teacher job more akin to the doctor, who most typically will explain to you that you should exercise more, but does not expect to hound you, to really drive that behavior change?

In the handful of charters that are high-performing, I think teachers knowing sign up for the “personal trainer” gig — and that explains the 75 hour week. The school is up front about it. The teacher knows what he/she is choosing. 55 hours of being a regular teacher and 20 additional hours of “trying to flip reluctant students.” Then after 4 years or so, they go on to something else. The implied cost of this amount of labor at scale would be huge.

 

 

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The Lack of Evidence-Based Practice: The Case of Classroom Technology (Part 3)

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Parts 1 and 2 of this series made the case that when it comes to putting technology into classrooms, political reasons trump evidence from research and experience time and again. The lack of evidence supporting policymakers putting new devices and software into classrooms (e.g., produce gains in student test scores, transform teacher-centered into student-centered classrooms, and prepare children for entry-level jobs) is an open secret. Because public schools are political institutions reliant upon taxpayers and voters, beliefs–a.k.a. political ideology–have far more clout than evidence-based studies when  purchasing new technologies. And these beliefs (e.g., technology modernizes schooling, increases confidence of stakeholders in public schools, and saves time and money in testing) dominate policymaker thinking now.

While it would be forthcoming of top public and private decision-makers to stop using a fig leaf of evidence to hide the nakedness of their arguments, the official  reasons for deploying new technologies remain in play.  Part 3 removes the fig leaf in turning to technologies for young children. That is why the above photos launch this post.

The main point is that the push to arm kindergartners with iPads, put laptops into little hands, and place earphones on tiny heads has no basis in hard evidence. Few, if any studies, have dealt with toddlers or kindergartners. It is the political reasons noted above that school boards, superintendents, state and federal officials hide behind when they spend public dollars to equip four- and five year-olds with new technologies that will be obsolete in a few years. So in the rush to deploy devices into little hands, important questions go unasked.

Does the combination of screen time at home (e.g., television, smart phones, tablets, etc.) and then at school help or harm young children grow and learn?

To what degree do classroom screens isolate young children from one another in the name of personalized learning and thereby reduce collaborative activities?

What exactly do children learn (both intended and unintended) from clicking keys when viewing software for 15 or 20 minutes a day (or longer)?

How does the introduction of tablets or laptops alter the relationship between teachers and young children?

Asking such questions should be part of any public discussion when considering new devices for young children. They are not now asked. School boards and superintendents continue to trip over one another in equipping young children with devices that will soon be obsolete

When I answer parents emails or respond to journalist questions about new purchases of brand-new hardware and software for little kids, I ask the parents and journalists what reasons do school boards and superintendents give to the community. Since evidence is paltry on academic achievement, few policymakers ever say “research studies show….” What they do say, according to parents, journalists, and from what I have gathered in the media, is that these tablets, smart boards, laptops engage the children. Young children are enraptured when finger-swiping a screen, overjoyed with dancing colors and unexpected sounds–it is like a spanking new toy.

Two thoughts come to mind when I hear top decision-makers say”engagement” is the reason for  young children using these devices. First, four- and five year-olds can get “engaged” with popsicle sticks and cardboard cylinders from toilet paper rolls. It doesn’t take much to “engage” (or distract) a young child.

Second, the concept of “engagement” becomes a stand-in for student achievement. Policymakers assume that a child engaged in an activity is learning what was intended and when assessment rolls around will demonstrate that learning. The fact is that engagement may be a necessary condition but it is insufficient to show that the child has, indeed, learned what was intended. In short, there is a novelty effect that accompanies new technological devices  and, yes, as readers know well, the novelty wears off in time. Thus the linkage between engagement and achievement is hardly iron-clad. Yet top decision-makers assume, without evidence, that the two are locked together.

So policymakers have manufactured yet another reason–student engagement–for persuading parents and taxpayers why they use scarce education dollars for soon-to-be-obsolete technologies.

And beyond the noisy hype and the ever-hungry news cycle, what happens in these classrooms  equipped with new devices?

Except for those schools where young children are sent to computer labs, I have been in many classrooms where the majority of young children do not yet have row- after-row of devices. Usually there are a few machines in the classrooms. Most early childhood teachers allocate limited time for children to rotate through different activities such as a reading corner, art station, blocks, sandbox, and math center, and a center equipped with computers.Yet as preschool and kindergarten have become academic boot camps for first grade in the past decade and hype for having kindergartners use iPads increases, I do worry.

Especially, I worry about those Rocketship-like schools  where children sit in cubicles–see first photo–tapping away at keyboards for two or more hours daily located in mostly low-income neighborhoods where parents seldom ask the above questions.

When it comes to policymakers deciding on placing new hardware or software in classrooms serving small children, after thirty years of computer use in schools, evidence-based decisions are missing-in-action. The real reasons for such purchases have far more to do with beliefs and ideology than data-driven decisions.

 

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