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The Less Reported Findings of 2015 TIMSS and Explaining the East Asian Outstanding Performance (Yong Zha0)

This post appeared November 29, 2016. Dr. Yong Zhao’s works focus on the implications of globalization and technology on education. He currently serves as the Presidential Chair and Associate Dean for Global Education in the College of Education, University of Oregon, where he is also Weinman Professor of Technology and Professor in the Department of Educational Measurement, Policy, and Leadership.

TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) beat PISA by two weeks. It just released its 2015 results. Within hours of the release, Google News has already collected over 10,000 news stories reacting to the results from around the world, some sad, some happy, some envious, and some confused. The biggest news is, however, nothing new: Children in East Asian countries best at maths. They were the best 20 years ago when TIMSS was first introduced in 1995. They were the best in all subsequent cycles.

Singapore, Hong Kong SAR, Korea, Chinese Taipei, and Japan are the top performers. In 4th grade, the lowest East Asian country is 23 points above the next best country, Northern Ireland for 4th grade, the same gap as was in 2011, and in 8th grade, a whopping 48 points lead ahead of the next best country, Russia, a 17 point increase from 31 in 2011. (See below).

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Much of the coverage is about how well the East Asian students performed and conversation will be about what lessons we can draw from the East Asian education systems. Frankly I am not sure what, if anything, can be learned these studies but below are a few observations I have after a quick read of the 2015 math report. These findings are less likely to be covered by the media and talked much by pundits.

  1. East Asian parents are not “very satisfied” with their schools. In 4th grade, only 7% of students’ parents in Japan reported that they were “very satisfied,” the lowest of all participating countries, 17% for Korea, 47% for Chinese Taipei, 55% for Hong Kong, and 58% for Singapore, all below the international average of 59%. The US, Australia, and England did not have enough participation to be reported.
  2. East Asian schools do not necessarily put a “very high emphasis” on academic success. According to the principals reports, in 4th grade, only 3% of Japanese students’ principals put a “very high emphasis” on academic success, 7% for Hong Kong, 11% for Singapore, 12% for Chinese Taipei, and 26% for Korea, compared with 19% for Canada, 18% for New Zealand, 14% for the US and England, and 12 for Australia. In 8th grade, English schools top the world in emphasis on academic success with 26% of students’ principals reported so, while Jan had only 2%, Hong Kong 6%, Chinese Taipei 7%, Singapore 10%, and Korea 17%. The U.S. has 8% and Australia 14%, on par with Canada’s 13%. Teacher reports show a similar pattern.
  3. East Asian teachers are not “very satisfied” with their jobs. In 4th grade, Japan is at the bottom with only 23% of its students’ teachers reporting “very satisfied,” Hong Kong is third from the bottom, with 33%. Singapore has 37%, while Chinese Taipei has 46%. Korea is the exception with 55%. Countries reporting the most “very satisfied” teachers are Iran, Qatar, Oman, and United Arab Emirates. In 8thgrade, the situation seems to worsen: Japan, England, Singapore, and Hong Kong are bottom four education systems with the lowest percentage of students whose teachers are “very satisfied.” Korea is better, but not by much, with 38%, compared to 44% in the US, 50% in Australia, and 57% in Canada.
  1. East Asian students do not have a “high sense of school belonging.”Japan, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei are the bottom three with 41%, 46% and 46% of 4th grade students reporting a “high sense of school belonging.” Korea is slightly better with 52% and Singapore with 56%. The international average is 66%. The percentage for England is 77%, Canada 66%, and the U.S. 64%. Australia has 62%. The 8thgraders in East Asian systems follow a similar pattern.
  2. East Asian students do not necessarily receive more classroom instruction compared to the U.S., Australia, Canada or England. In 4thgrade, for example, Korea spends the least amount of time at 100 hours, Chinese Taipei spends 128 hours, Japan 151 hours, Hong Kong 159, Singapore 201. The International Average is 157 hours. In comparison, the U.S. spends 216 hours, Australia 202 hours, Canada 196, and England 189 hours.
  3. East Asian systems are not the top users of computers in math lessons.The top 5 are New Zealand, Denmark, Netherlands, Northern Ireland, and Georgia in 4th grade and Sweden, Australia, Kazakhstan, Canada, Chile in 8th grade in terms of availability of computers for students to use in math lessons. Student use of Internet for schoolwork shows a similar pattern.
  4. East Asian students receive the least engaging math lessonsin the world. In 4th grade, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei, Denmark, and Singapore have the lowest percentages of students reporting that they experience “Very Engaging Teaching.” The same pattern is found in 8th grade. Only 8% of Korean students reported having “Very Engaging Teaching.” Japan has 10%, Chinese Taipei 23%, Hong Kong 26%, and Singapore 33%. The International Average is 43%. Canada, the US, England, and Australia all have more engaging lessons.
  1. · East Asian students DO NOT “very much like learning mathematics”. In 4th grade, the bottom 5 countries (in reverse order) are Korea (19%), Chinese Taipei (23%), Japan (26%), Finland (28%), and Croatia (29%). Hong Kong and Singapore are slightly better with 35% and 39% respectively, below the international average of 46%. U.S. students seem to like learning math more with 42% and England has 50% of its 4th graders like learning math. In 8th grade, the similar pattern holds, with Slovenia, Korea, Japan, Hungary, and Chinese Taipei having the least proportion of students reporting “very much like learning mathematics.”
  2. East Asian students have very little confidence in mathematics. Korea, Chinese Taipei, Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong have the lowest percentage of 4th graders reporting “very confident in math, all below 20%, while the International Average is 32%. The situation is about the same for 8th graders: Japan has 5% saying “very confident,” Korea 8%, Chinese Taipei 9%, Hong Kong 10%, and Singapore 13%. The international average is 14%. Canada, Israel, Norway and the US have the most confident 8thgraders.
  1. East Asian students don’t value math much.Again, four out of the five East Asian education systems are at the absolute bottom of the ranking in terms valuing math. Only 10% of 8th graders in Chinese Taipei, 11% in Japan, 13% in Korea, and 19% in Hong Kong “strongly value mathematics.” The percentage for Singapore is 34%, way below the international average of 42%. The U.S. is above the international average with 44%.

The bottom line and the big question:

So compared with most of the students participated in the TIMMS 2015 study, they have less engaging math lessons, they spend less time studying math in schools, they like math or value math less, and they are less confident in math, how did the East Asian students achieve the best scores?

The answer may lie outside schools. To me, the answer has to be chopsticks, something common to all these East Asian students interact with on a daily basis. To improve math scores, we should all begin using chopsticks.*

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*This tongue-in-cheek conclusion explaining the “success” of East Asian students on the TIMMS 2015 study  is a warning to all of those past and current observers–in and out of education–about drawing silly conclusions about improving U.S. schools based on students’ performance in international tests.

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The Palimpsest of Progressive Schooling (Part 4)*

Palimpsest: “A manuscript, typically of papyrus or parchment, that has been written on more than once, with the earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fourth edition, 2000, p. 1265).

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Personalized learning, i.e.,tailoring knowledge and skills to the individual student, has been the dream of Progressive educators since the early 20th century and put into partial practice then, in the 1960s, and in the second decade of the 21st century.

Recent posts on the AltSchool (Parts 2 and 3) and different contemporary versions of online and teacher-student interactions–-a sub-set of what many call “blended learning“–-have written over the original Progressive rhetoric and actions of a half-century and century ago. Knowing that Progressive under-text about past efforts to educate Americans–the “earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible”–could bring a sharper perspective (and deeper understanding) to the contemporary claims that champions of personalized learning–however defined–bring to policymakers, parents, and teachers. That resurrecting of the under-text highlights  the pedagogical and efficiency-driven wings of the Progressive movement then and today.

Earlier Progressive movement, 1890s-1940s

In these decades “progressive education” was the reigning political ideology in U.S. schooling. There were two main ideas, anchored in what was then emerging as a “science of education,” that spurred and divided U.S. progressives. First, student-centered instruction, small group and individualized learning (adherents were sometimes called “pedagogical progressives“) and, second, business-oriented advocates of “scientific management” (sometimes called “administrative progressives”) who sought to prepare children and youth to fit into work and society far more efficiently than the traditional schooling of the day. Both wings of the progressive movement drew from the writings of John Dewey and Edward Thorndike and their embrace of a science of education.

School boards, superintendents, and researchers of the day glommed on to “scientific management.” Proud to be called “educational engineers” during these years, these “administrative progressives” created lists of behaviors that superintendents should follow to strengthen district performance and principals could use to evaluate teachers. They measured buildings, teacher performance, and student achievement. These efficiency-minded progressives triumphed politically in shaping schools in the early decades of the 20th century. “Pedagogical progressives” and their yearning for student-centered, individualized learning figured large in the words and imagination of advocates but made a small dent in school practice.

Neo-Progressive Reforms, 1960s 

Revival of Progressive educational ideas occurred during the 1960s amid desegregation struggles, the war in Vietnam, and cultural changes in society. Neo-progressive reformers, borrowing from their earlier efficiency-driven “administrative progressives,” launched innovations such as “performance contracting.”   Corporations took over failing schools in Texarkana (AR), Gary (IN), and 100 other districts promising that their methods of teaching reading (e.g., new technologies such as programmed learning) would raise test scores fast and cheaply. Partial to the corporate managerial strategies in running schools, these reformers sought accountability through the contract they signed with district school boards. By the mid-1970s, school boards had dumped the contracts.

As for the pedagogical wing of the Progressive movement interested in student-centered classroom activities, small groups, and more interaction with the “real” world, there was Individually Guided Education and “open classrooms“(also called “open education” and “informal education”).

The story of how a British import called “informal education” became the reform du jour in the U.S. begins with critics’ heavy pounding of schools in the mid-1950s. Across the political spectrum, critics flailed U.S. schools because education, they believed, could solve national problems arising from Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, caste-like treatment of black citizens, and a pervasive culture of conformity that suffocated imagination. Richly amplified by the media, “open classrooms” in its focus on students learning-by-doing in small groups and as individuals resonated with vocal critics of creativity-crushing classrooms. Thousands of elementary school classrooms–out of a few million–became home-like settings where young children sitting on rugs moved individually from one attractive “learning center” for math to other stations in science, reading, writing, and art. Teams of teachers worked with multi-age groups of students and created non-graded elementary schools. Both the efficiency and pedagogical wings of the Progressive movement surfaced in the mid-1960s, spread its wings, but plummeted swiftly within a decade as a new generation of reformers promised “back to basics” (see here).

Personalized Learning Today

The pumped up language accompanying “personalized learning” today resonates like the slap of high-fives between earlier Progressive educators and current reformers. Rhetoric aside, however, issues of research and accountability continue to bedevil those clanging  cymbals for “student-centered” instruction and learning. The research supporting “personalized” or “blended learning” (and the many definitions of each) is, at best thin. Then again, few innovators, past or present, seldom invoked research support for their initiatives.

But accountability in these years of Common Core standards and testing is another matter. As one report put it:

Personalized learning is rooted in the expectation that students should progress through content based on demonstrated learning instead of seat time. By contrast, standards-based accountability centers its ideas about what students should know, and when, on grade-level expectations and pacing. The result is that as personalized learning models become more widespread, practitioners are increasingly encountering tensions between personalized learning and state and federal accountability structures.

Except for  AltSchool and other private schools, tensions arise in public schools over end-of-year testing, meeting annual proficiency standards, and judging academic performance on the basis of student scores. Few policymakers and present-day Progressive reformers eager to install “personalized learning” in their schools have yet faced these conflicts in the DNA of this popular reform.

So current innovations such as “personalized instruction,”  “student centered learning,   and “blended learning”  are written over the underlying, century-old text of Progressive education.  Efficiency in teaching students (faster, better, and at less cost) while teachers individualize instruction through use of digital tools combine anew the two wings of the century-old Progressive education movement.

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*This post is an updated version of the one that originally appeared June 9, 2015.

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The AltSchool: Progressivism Redux (Part 2)

[Progressive schools] as compared with traditional schools [display] a common emphasis upon respect for individuality and for increased freedom; a common disposition to build upon the nature and experience of the boys and girls common to them, instead of imposing from without external subject-matter and standards. They all display a certain atmosphere of informality, because experience has proved that formalization is hostile to genuine mental activity and to sincere emotional expression and growth. Emphasis upon activity as distinct from passivity is one of the common factors….[There is] unusual attention to …normal human relations, to communication …which is like in kind to that which is found in the great world beyond the school doors.

John Dewey, 1928

Were John Dewey alive in 2016 and had he joined me in a brief visit to the AltSchool on October 20, 2016, he would, I believe, nodded in agreement with what he saw on that fall day and affirmed  what he said when he became honorary president of the Progressive Education Association in 1928.

The AltSchool embodies many of the principles of progressive education from nearly a century ago–as do other schools in the U.S.  Just as Dewey’s Lab School at the University of Chicago (1896-1904) became a hothouse experiment as a private school, so has the AltSchool and its network of “micro-schools” in the Bay area and New York City over the past five years (see here, here, here, and here). Progressive schools, then and now, varied greatly yet champions of such schools from Dewey to Francis Parker to Jesse Newlon to Alt/School’s Max Ventilla believed they were already or about to become “good” schools.

One major difference, however, between progressives then and now were the current technologies. Unknown to Dewey and his followers in the early 20th century, new technologies have become married to these progressive principles in ways that reflect both wings of the earlier reform movement (see here).

In this post, I want to describe what I saw that morning in classrooms–sadly without the company of Dewey–and what I heard from the founder of the AltSchool network, Max Ventilla.

Alt/Schools

There are five “micro-schools” in San Francisco. I visited Yerba Buena, a K-8 school  of over 30 students whose daily schedule gives a hint of what it is about. I went unescorted into three classes –upper-elementary and middle school social studies and math lessons (primary classes were on a field trip to a museum)–which gave me a taste of the teaching, the content, student participation, and the level of technology integration. I spoke briefly with two of the three teachers whose lessons I observed and got a flavor of their enthusiasm for their students and the school.

For readers who want a larger slice of what this private school seeks to do (tuition runs around $26,000 for 2015-2016) can see video clips and read text about the philosophy, program, teaching staff, and the close linkages between technology in this and sister “micro-schools” (see Alt/school materials here)

Since I parachuted in for a few hours–I plan to see another “micro-school” soon–I cannot describe full lessons, the entire program, teaching staff or even offer an informed opinion of Yerba Buena. For those readers who want such descriptions (and judgments), there are journalistic accounts (see above) and the AltSchool’s own descriptions for parents (see above).

Yet what was clear to me even in the morning’s glimpse of a “micro-school” was that theoretical principles of Deweyan thought and practice in his Lab School over a century ago and the evolving network of both private and public progressive schools in subsequent decades across the nation was apparent in what I saw in a few classrooms at Yerba Buena. One doesn’t need a weather vane to see which way the wind is blowing.

But there was a modern twist and a new element in the progressive portfolio of practices: the ubiquitous use of technology by teachers and students as teaching and learning tools. Unlike most places that have adopted laptops and tablets wholesale, what I saw for a few hours was that the use of new technologies was in the background, not the foreground, of a lesson. Much like pencil and paper have been taken-for-granted tools in both teaching and learning over the past century, so now digital ones.

What I also found useful in looking at a progressive vision of private schooling in practice was my 45-minute talk with the founder of these experimental “micro schools.”

Max Ventilla

The founder of AltSchool has been profiled many times and has given extensive interviews (see here  and here). In many of these, the “creation story” of how he and his wife searched for a private school that would meet their five year-old’s needs and potential and then, coming up empty in their search. “We weren’t seeing,” he said, “the kind of experiences that we thought would really prepare her for a lifetime of change.” He decided to build a school that would be customized for individual students, like their daughter, where children could further their intellectual passions while nourishing all that makes a kid, a kid.

In listening to Ventilla, that story was repeated but far more important I got a clearer sense of what he has in mind for Altschool in the upcoming years. Some venture capitalists have invested in the for-profit AltSchool not for a couple of years but for a decade. He sees beyond that horizon, however, for his networks to scale up, becoming more efficient, less costly, and attractive to more and more parents as a progressive brand that will, at some future point, reshape how private and public schools operate. And turn a profit for investors. Ventilla wants to do well by doing good.

His conceptual framework for the network and its eventual growth is a mix of what he learned personally from starting and selling software companies and working at Google in personalizing users’ search results to increase consumer purchases (see here). Ventilla sees the half-dozen or more “micro-schools” in different cities as part of a long-term research-and-development strategy that would build networks of small schools as AltSchool designers, software engineers, and teachers learn from their mistakes. As they slowly get larger, key features of AltSchool–building personalized learning platforms, for example–will be licensed to private (see here) and eventually public schools.

Ventilla mixes the language of whole child development, individual differences, the importance of collaboration among children and between children and adults with business ideas and  vocabulary of “soft vs. hard technology,”  “crossing the threshold of efficacy,” “effects per costs,” and scaling up networks to eventually become profitable.

Progressivism–both wings (see Part 1) are present in AltSchool’s collecting huge amounts of data about students and  engineers (on site) with teachers using that data to create customized playlists for each of their K-8 students across all subject areas . Efficiency and effectiveness are married to progressive principles in practice.

That is the dream that I heard from Max Ventilla one October morning.

Part 2 will describe my visit to a nearby micro-school, South-of-Market (SOMA) where 33 middle school students (6th through 8th graders) attend.

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Revisiting Progressivism: Then and Now (Part 1)

Since January, I have visited classrooms, schools, and districts in Silicon Valley to see exemplars of technology integration. Posts appeared regularly over the past months describing individual elementary and secondary school teachers teaching lessons that put technology in the background, that is, laptops and tablets were as mundane as paper and pencil, in order to reach the content and skill goals they have set.

I intend to complete all of my observations and interviews by early December. Then I will re-read everything I wrote, reflect on what I have seen, read about “best cases” elsewhere in the U.S., and talk to people across the country whose work intersects with mine, place all of this in a historical context, and finally begin tapping away on my keyboard.

Oh, do I wish that the process in the above paragraph were so linear. But it ain’t. I have thoughts and intuitions now that have accumulated with every visit to schools and classrooms. This blog is a place where I can try out these thoughts before getting hip-deep in my analysis of what I have observed over a year and tackle the writing of a book. So here goes.

Recently visiting the private San Francisco AltSchool and two public elementary schools in Milpitas (CA) have triggered my pausing to write down emerging thoughts. Those three schools pushed me to mentally scroll through all of the classroom lessons I have observed since  January. Those visits occasioned much thinking about John Dewey and Edward Thorndike intellectual leaders in the progressive movement that was the dominant reform between 1900-1950. I saw many parallels then and now between deepened interest and practice of student-centered learning and the persistent quest, again then and now, for efficient operations in Silicon Valley and elsewhere.

What I am thinking about is the periodic blossoming of yet another progressive reform surge anchored in the principles of student-centered learning and increasingly efficient schools of the earlier movement but this time fueled by new technologies and much money that make possible what has been considered impossible during recent market-oriented reforms concentrating on standards, testing, and accountability.

Since I have a blog where I can try out these intuitions and thoughts publicly, I will be writing a multi-post series  showing links that I see between past efforts of progressives to reform schools that were then thought to be “too traditional and teacher-directed” and increasing numbers of contemporary reformers operating again on progressive principles that the current “factory-model”used in public schools—need I point out these schools were a product of an earlier reform movement?–have to be replaced with child-driven, experience-laden, highly efficient schools connected to the real and ever-changing world.

So I begin with that earlier progressive school reform movement.

In the decades between the 1890s and 1940s, “progressive education” in the U.S. was the reigning political ideology of schooling. There were two main ideas, anchored in what was then emerging as a “science of education” that spurred and divided U.S. progressives in those years. First, student-centered instruction and learning (adherents were sometimes called “pedagogical progressives“) and, second, advocates of “scientific management” (sometimes called “administrative progressives” who sought to prepare children and youth to fit into work and society far more efficiently than the traditional schooling of the day. Both wings of the progressive movement cited John Dewey and Edward Thorndike and their embrace of science as the royal road to achieving “good”schools, as defined by each wing of the movement.

Educators, including many academics, administrators and researchers of the day glommed on to “scientific management.” Proud to be called “educational engineers” during these years, these progressives created lists of behaviors that principals would use to evaluate teachers, designed protocols to follow to make a school building efficient, and measured anything that was nailed down. A “good” school was an efficient one, they said.

Academics, school boards, and superintendents–then called “administrative progressives” –adopted scientific ways of determining educational efficiency. These reformers were kissing cousins of “pedagogical progressives.” The latter wanted to uproot traditional teaching and learning and plant child-centered learning in schools. Their version of a “good” school was one where the “whole child” was at the center of curriculum and instruction and learning through experience was primary. These progressives made a small dent in U.S. schools but the efficiency-minded progressives triumphed politically in shaping schools in the early 20th century.

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

Even though the efficiency wing of early 20th century progressives has politically trumped the wing of the movement focused on the whole child and student-centered pedagogy, it is well to keep in mind that cycles of rhetoric–wars of words–and policy action on efficiency-driven and student-centered progressivism have spun back-and-forth for decades. The point is that while most policymakers are efficiency driven and have succeeded in dominating public school policymaking for decades, that political domination has hardly eliminated educators and parents committed to holistic, student-centered schooling.

Even now at the current height of efficiency-driven, top-down standards and testing, schools committed to educating the whole child have persisted (see here and here) within regular public schools as well as charter schools that label themselves as progressive (see here and here). The progressive impulse with its two wings lives on in 2016.

Which brings me to the private AltSchool and two public elementary ones in Milpitas (CA) that I visited recently. In subsequent posts I will take up those schools.

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Cartoons on Teachers and Kids in School

For this month, I am returning to an old theme for cartoons–school interactions between students, teachers, and parents. Enjoy!

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Doing Well By Doing Good: For-Profit Schools

For all of the three-decade hype about how business practices applied to K-12 schools will make them more efficient and high performing, a short hop and skip through the past half-century of for-profit companies failing in the education market might illustrate how applying market-driven practices to improve schools and make money  at the same time is tough for even shrewd entrepreneurs.

The argument that for-profit schools cannot succeed because they seek to make money out of the public coffer is not one I make here. There are such “good” schools and they  do thrive (see here and here). Keep in mind that other institutions entwine for-profits with public operations such as the space program, hospitals, prisons, and transportation. Government and profit-driven companies have  worked together for decades.

And that is why the historical record of businesses contracting with public school authorities is one that should be known well by the current generation of school reformers.

In 1969, Behavioral Research Laboratory, contracted with the largely black Gary (IN) district to raise test scores in reading and math in the Banneker elementary school. They failed. BRL is no more.

Dorsett Educational Systems in 1970-1971 took over a school in Texarkana (AR) contracting to raise 350 children one grade level in reading and math after 80 hours of instruction. They failed. DES is no more.

In 1970, Westinghouse Learning Systems contracted with Gilroy (CA) to take over the Eliot elementary school to raise test scores in reading and math. They failed. WLS is no more.

I could give many more examples of for-profit corporations seeking to make money from operating schools  through performance contracting when districts were flush with federal funds from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act  in the late-1960s and early 1970s–but I won’t. Failure in doing what seemed to be a fairly straightforward job–raise student test scores–proved unattainable by some of the best and brightest business leaders of the day.

These corporations tripped badly and eventually  disappeared or were swallowed by larger corporations.  In the late-1960s and early 1970s, the education market was ripe for money-making ventures to raise students’ low test scores but even then the school market proved unforgiving for those who believed that there were easy profits to be made by simply applying business efficiency and effectiveness principles to teaching and learning.

CEOs and investors learned the hard way that what worked in companies to make  silicon chips, crank out case after case of soda, and create brand-new cereals flopped when managers tried to turn low-performing students around and get higher test scores.

That was then. What about the recent past when start-ups, media conglomerates, and high-tech companies compete for the education dollar? The education market has gotten larger since the 1990s with charter schools, vouchers, and portfolios of alternative school in urban districts. Moreover, with the last decade’s Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind monies available, there were profits to be made. Nonetheless, corporate failures have  piled up.

Consider Minnesota-based Education Alternatives Inc. a fast rising star in the for-profit sector in the early 1990s. They managed schools in Hartford (CT) and nine Baltimore (MD) schools under a $133 million contract. EAI filed for bankruptcy in 2001.

How about Edison Inc.? Entrepreneur Chris Whittle, founder of Channel 1–a for-profit venture in public schools that eventually nose-dived–founded the Edison project in 1992. He and his partners believed that they could get students to learn more and better than regular public school could and, at the same time, return a tidy profit to investors. Edison Inc. was the first for-profit school-management company to be traded on a stock exchange. They got contracts from urban school districts (e.g., Wichita, KN; Philadelphia, PA, Ravenswood, CA) to manage scores of schools but stumbled into one political difficulty after another  with unions, parents, and administrators (see here and here). Their stock had reached a high of $40 a share in 2001 and then, as problems piled up, dipped to 14 cents later in the same year. Dissatisfied with Edison, districts began canceling contracts for financial, political, and managerial reasons. By 2005,  they were still 153 schools for over 65,000 students but the company was already dumping their school management business and had turned to  securing contracts to  provide tutorial services and other products districts wanted. By then, Whittle had found private lenders who aided him in converting the publicly traded company again into a private one.

And then there is K-12 Inc., a for-profit company, that pulled in over $800 million in 2013 through selling online courses and curriculum, software, and blended programs to private and public schools. K-12 Inc also own cyber charter schools.

Recently, investigations have shown how K-12 Inc. squeezed money out of each of their operations to give investors a high rate of return on their shares.  Whether K-12 Inc. will weather the current storm and dip in stock price, I do not know. But such a major player in the school reform business sliding into bad times reminds me of what occurred nearly a half-century ago with performance contracting.

Amplify (billionaire Rupert Murdoch’s addition to his media empire) dove into the educational market with sky-high promises of new curricula loaded on their tablets given free to schools. In 2015, Murdoch dumped Amplify.

Or consider Leapfrog , an education-entertainment company that soared when it opened for business in 2002 but over a decade later, its stock had fallen to a dollar a share and the New York Stock Exchange threatened to de-list the company.

How about another billionaire, Ronald Perelman, who shut down his K–12 educational-technology company, GlobalScholar, after spending $135 million. He saw that the software was faulty and a “mirage.”

And what about those for-profit cyber charter schools? Such virtual schools in Pennsylvania and Michigan have made much money and drawn considerable criticism for their low student outcomes (see here and here).

So what’s the point here? Sure, there is money to be made in the education market. After all, for decades big and small companies have sold textbooks, classroom furniture, transportation, low- and high-tech equipment from interactive white board to  professional development. They have profited from providing basic products and services to this stable market. And there are for-profit corporations that run schools, charter and non-charter, that have long waiting lists. But the numbers are quite small. It is very hard–I repeat, very hard– to turnaround a failing school or create a new school that parents clamor to send their children. Failures outnumber successes time and again.

Today profit-driven companies, and others like them (e.g., Apple’s iPads, Google’s Chromebooks and educational software start-ups) do not take over or create schools or districts. They provide services and products for already existing agencies running schools, not the tough business of turning failing ones around or starting brand new ones. That is a sinkhole that many companies eager to turn a profit have slipped into in the past and are primed to do so now.

Schools are complex institutions, entrepreneurs have discovered time and again. Just as they have discovered that doing good by doing well with schools is easier said than done.

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Teaching 8th Grade Science: Technology Integration

The hour-long science class at Jordan Middle School* that I observed October 13, 2016 began with the daily video announcements produced by Jordan students about the weather, upcoming events, and a segment on the new bike lanes around the school including an interview with an adult crossing guard. I looked around the room and saw that most students were attentive and enjoyed seeing classmates doing announcements.

After the announcements, Erica Goldsworthy launched the lesson for the day. She has taught six years at Jordan and, as she told me, “ I have the hang of it now.”

There are 24 eighth graders sitting four to five students at joined tables facing one another. On each combined table sits a cup filled with markers, colored pencils, and rulers.

erica room.jpgerica agenda.jpg

erica poster.jpg

Wearing a gray sweater over knitted white blouse and dark slacks, Goldsworthy directs students’ attention to the slide on the interactive whiteboard (IWB):

Bell work: day 3

1.Do you think gas molecules move differently if they are cold or hot? Explain your answer.

  1. What is the phase change from solid to gas called?
  1. When does thermal apply in our phase change cartoons/story?

As I scan the class, I see most students writing answers to the questions in their notebooks. A special education teacher is also in the room for the half-dozen students with disabilities. She goes from table to table to see how these mainstreamed students are doing on the questions.

After five minutes, Goldsworthy begins review of student answers to questions, calling on students who raise their hands by name.

On the first question about hot and cold molecules moving differently, one 8th grader says hot molecules move faster and gives as his reason kinetic energy. Teacher explains difference between thermal and kinetic energies and compliments student—“great answer, Michael.”

After finishing the Bell Work questions, teacher says:

“I am going to segue into our storyboard conversation—I checked off your storyboards—you need to double-check—look at your rubrics that I passed out on your tables”

Goldsworthy and her next-door colleague have teamed up in designing a “Phase Change Project” to understand how a solid changes into a liquid and then into a gas (e.g., ice, water, vapor). Concepts of thermal and kinetic energy are central in explaining how solids go to liquids and then gases (see here for slides that elaborate on the project).

The project requires each student to:

Create a cartoon or story about a substance going through a series of phase changes (solid to liquid to gas) to show how energy affects the phase that substance is in.

They are into day 3 of the project. The teachers have each day’s work broken down into a series of activities in which students work. The class has been working on drafting their storyboards and cartoons by hand and today they will complete a draft of storyboard, decide whether to do a final copy by hand, use a computer to type their text and add cartoon panels and even go further by making a video out of cartoon they have created. These student decisions are governed, in part, by the categories in the rubric called “above and beyond.”  See below.**

Above and Beyond

Meeting Requirement – Computer generated cartoons.

Above – Paper or computer generated cartoons with YOUR OWN pictures (either computer generated or hand-drawn).

Beyond – Creating a video that includes voice and your own pictures.

*All categories must meet all requirements listed*

Goldsworthy is ready to have the class working for the rest of the period on the project. Students vary in what stage they are in completing the project; some are drafting their storyboard; others are typing in text and putting their cartoon on the computer and some are figuring out how to do a video.

Before launching into a work session, Goldsworthy says: “Be mindful how you are completing your work” She gives example of how to make project look professional by using a ruler. She gives another example by pointing to student and saying if “Leo wanted to make a stop/motion video of his cartoon, he can do it on the computer.” She finishes by saying: “If you are not sure of what meets a standard check with us. Tomorrow we have Science Friday.

“OK, get started,” Goldsworthy says.

Students go to cart to get a iPad or laptop and return to their table. Students confer with one another and look at each other’s draft of storyboard, cartoon figures in each box and after a bit of shushing from teacher, get down to work. Teacher circulates through room asking and answering questions from individual students.

I look around the room and see all students writing, showing their storyboard to table-mates, or tapping away on their device. Low-level murmuring envelops the class. I do not see anyone off-task.

I go around to various tables asking students to see their storyboards. One student showed me her storyboard cooking with coconut oil . Then she showed me the final product of cartoon panels that she was typing into her iPad. After she finished, she told me, she would compare her cartoon of cooking oil as it went from one phase to another, to the standards in the rubric in assessing her work to see what she needs to add or amend before turning it in.

Another student is working on final storyboard that he will turn in. It is a one-foot square white laminated board showing how a solid—ice—turns to water and then evaporates. He is going to go “above and beyond” by making a video. He has looked at the rubric and wants the highest grade the teacher can give.

As I look around the room, there is a noticeable quiet, a purposeful silence with a few murmurs from students showing one another what they are doing. Many students have pencils and colored markers in hand; others are tapping away on devices (at least half of the class is working in laptops or tablets. Here is a combination of low- and high tools in use for this teacher-chosen project. Students easily shift back and forth between paper, iPads, and storyboards. I see one 8th grader holding an iPad in his left hand and with the right hand draws with colored markers on his laminated story board what he sees on the device.

The teacher announces that: “You have 20 more minutes left in class.”

Both Goldsworthy and the special education teacher move from table to table inquiring of each student if he or she needs help or materials and answering questions.

Some students confer with one another, others laugh and speak softly in showing their storyboards. A few go to Goldsworthy to ask questions.

I see one student working on an iPad and ask him what his storyboard is. He shows me a series of cartoon panels of a man—solid—who goes to a sauna and turns into a liquid. He then goes to a doctor who lowers his temperature to zero degrees so that the man can return to his solid state.

At this point, Goldsworthy tells the class, “we have 3 minutes so it is time to clean up. Put away your rulers, colored pencils. We will work on this tomorrow.

Students with devices return them to the cart. Others pick up paper off the floor and put rulers back into cups on the table. In a few moments the whispering turns into open talking among students. The teacher says “if you are cleaned up please be quiet in your seats.

Buzzer sounds but the teacher doesn’t release students. They wait until she looks around to see that chairs have been returned to their places at the tables and the floors under the table are clean. Teacher lets students go to their 15-minute brunch recess and wishes them a good rest of the day.

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* Jordan Middle School is one of three 6th through 8th grade schools in the Palo Alto Unified School District. The school (2015) has over 1100 students of whom 52 percent are white. The largest minority is Asian (30 percent); Latino (9); African American (3); multi-racial (5). Seven percent of the school is classified as “disadvantaged”, meaning that they are eligible for free and reduced lunch. Five percent are English Language Learners and 11 percent are classified as special education.

On state test in language arts, Jordan students score almost twice as high as students across the state in meeting or exceeding state standards and in math, nearly two and half times more that state figure in meeting state standards (see here)

** I asked Goldsworthy about the rubric and the “above and beyond” category. She told me that her students felt that if they completed the work as assigned they should get an A+ . The teacher felt that completing the work minimally was satisfactory, a C. So she developed in the rubric that meeting the standards was adequate but not “above and beyond,” work that merited the highest grades. She then laid out those specifications.

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