Charter Schools: 25th Anniversary and More to Come (Part 1)

Charter schools are here to stay. Since 1991 when Minnesota became the first state to charter new schools free of most state education regulations, 43 states and the District of Columbia have now authorized 6400 charter schools run by non-profit and for-profit organizations. As of 2014 charters house nearly three million students or about six percent of the U.S. public school enrollment. These charters are public schools governed by separate boards of parents, teachers, entrepreneurs, etc. Charters receive state funds for each student enrolled equivalent to state funds for a regular public school next door. These new and largely autonomous organizations are accountable to their boards (not the  elected school board of the district in which they are located) to fulfill the aims stipulated in the charter they received.

From zero to six percent of total U.S. students in charter schools in 25 years doesn’t sound like a cat video going viral but in institutional terms it is a solid sign that charter schools have become part of daily scene in U.S. public schools and are here to stay. Released from most state regulations and  unionized teachers, charter schools have been expected to create innovative curriculum, instruction, and organization and compete with traditional public schools for students. From that innovation and competition, state legislators expected across-the-board improvement in all public schools.

Publicly-funded charter schools have found a special niche among urban districts. Two-thirds of charter school students are minority (across the country the percentage is half); 56 percent of all charters are located in cities; the rest are in rural and small town districts–many of which are poor with only a tiny percentage found in affluent suburbs (see here and here).

Currently, in New Orleans, Detroit, and the District of Columbia charter schools are a majority (or near majority) of their public schools from which parents choose (14 districts have at least 30 percent of their enrollment in charter schools).  As long as there are urban and suburban schools that fail their students (as measured by test scores, graduation rates, well-being of students, etc.), expanded parental choice that now includes magnet schools, alternative schools, districts with portfolios of options, and yes, charter schools will become as familiar as the morning Pledge of Allegiance in the nation’s classrooms.

Expanded parental choice through vouchers and charters (the former has existed since the 1970s but is largely absent from most school districts while the latter has slowly and steadily grown over the past quarter-century) has become one of the planks in a reform platform to bring innovation and improvement to what critics call a moribund and failed traditional system of schooling. Major foundations such as Walton, Gates, Broad, and the Doris and Donald Fisher Fund have contributed hundreds of millions to promote charter schools and organizations that manage clusters of schools–Charter Management Organizations or CMOs which are not-for-profit and Educational Management Organizations or EMOs that are for-profit (see here). Donors see charters as a way of ridding the nation but especially big city schools of an obsolete model of schooling that fails to prepare U.S. children and youth for either college or an ever-changing workplace. Foundation officials, many urban parent groups, and civic and business leaders support the expansion of charters. Opponents have been teacher unions, groups of parents railing at loss of funds for regular public schools, and other groups who see a lack of accountability to dump those charters who are fiscally and academically failing (here and here).

Warring research studies from camps promoting and opposing charters have unceasingly argued for the past quarter-century whether charters are academically outperforming traditional public schools. It has become a trivial question because there is so such diversity among charter schools.  Some charters (e.g., KIPP and Summit Schools) send nearly all graduates to college ; others are close to closing their doors or have been shut down ; some charters are for-profit such as cyber schools, and dozens of other models. Lumping them altogether  to answer a generic question: which form of public schools is better academically?—is not only goofy but unanswerable. What is clear, however, after 25 years is a lack of  systemic oversight and accountability of charters for poor fiscal and academic performance in various states (see here).

What is also clear is that the promised autonomy to become innovative and competitive with other public schools, the promise of the original mandate for charters, has yet to appear in charter schools and classrooms (see here and here).

These charter school wars will ease over time.  More CMOs will regulate their schools. More state charter laws will increase oversight of school performance. More state caps on the number of charters that can be authorized will disappear. Charters will become a familiar dot in the U.S. educational landscape. Part 2 explains why charters will stick as a reform.

 

 

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America’s Not-So-Broken Education System (Jack Schneider)

Jack Schneider is an assistant professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross. He is the author of From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse and Excellence For All. This appeared in The Atlantic Online June 22, 2016.

 

Everything in American education is broken. Or so say the policy elites, from the online learning pioneer Sal Khan to the journalist-turned-reformer Campbell Brown. As leaders of the XQ project succinctly put it, we need to “scrap the blueprint and revolutionize this dangerously broken system.”

This, they explain, is the sad truth. The educational system simply stopped working. It aged, declined, and broke. And now the nation has a mess on its hands. But there’s good news, too. As Michelle Rhee’s group, StudentsFirst, declares: Americans can “work together to fix this broken system.” All it takes is the courage to rip it apart.

This is how the argument goes, again and again. The system used to work, but now it doesn’t. And though nobody inside schools seems to care, innovators outside the establishment have developed some simple solutions. The system can be rebuilt, reformers argue. But first it must be torn down.

American education has some obvious shortcomings. Even defenders of the schools can make long lists of things they’d like to change. But the root of the problem is not incompetent design, as is so frequently alleged. Nor is it stasis. Rather, it is the twofold challenge of complexity and scale. American schools are charged with the task of creating better human beings. And they are expected to do so in a relatively consistent way for all of young people. It is perhaps the nation’s most ambitious collective project; as such, it advances slowly.

For evidence of this, one need look only to the past. If the educational system had broken at some point, a look backward would reveal an end to progress—a point at which the system stopped working. Yet that isn’t at all the picture that emerges. Instead, one can see that across many generations, the schools have slowly and steadily improved.

Consider the teachers in classrooms. For most of American history, teachers received no training at all, and hiring was a chaotic process in which the only constant was patronage. To quote Ted Sizer on the subject, the typical result was one “in which some mayor’s half-drunk illiterate uncle was hired to teach twelfth-grade English.” There were other problems, too. As late as the 20th century, for instance, would-be educators generally had little if any student-teaching experience prior to entering classrooms, and they received no preparation for teaching particular content areas. Even as recently as mid-century, prospective teachers had no background in adolescent cognition and received no training in how to work with students from diverse backgrounds. All of that has changed. Does that mean that today’s system of teacher education is without flaw? Hardly. There’s lots of work yet to be done. But there is also no question that the average teacher in the U.S. today is better prepared than the average teacher from any past period.

The same is true of the school curriculum. Sure, it’s somewhat arbitrary and, at least for some students, insufficiently challenging. But Americans are regularly told that the modern curriculum is a relic of the past and that it has grown increasingly out of date. That simply isn’t true. Prior to the 20th century, high schools focused heavily on Latin and Greek, required coursework in subjects like zoology and mechanical drawing, and rarely offered any math beyond algebra. In 1900, the average school year was 100 days long—40 percent shorter than the current school year—and classes were commonly twice as large as contemporary ones. And well into the 20th century, girls and students of color were regularly offered a separate curriculum, emphasizing domestic or industrial training. Do students still read books? Yes. Do they sit in desks? Typically. Do teachers still stand at the front of the class? For the most part. But beyond that, there are more differences than similarities. Again, this doesn’t mean that present practices are ideal—but it does mean that Americans should think twice before dissolving into panic over what is being taught in modern classrooms.

Finally, consider the outcomes produced by the educational system. Critics are right that achievement scores aren’t overwhelmingly impressive and that troubling gaps persist across racial, ethnic, and income groups. Yet scores are up over the past 40 years, and the greatest gains over that period have been made by black and Hispanic students. They’re right that the U.S. finishes well behind exam-oriented countries like Taiwan and Korea on international tests. But scores are roughly on par with countries like Norway, which was named by the United Nations the best place in the world to live; and students from low-poverty states like Massachusetts outscore most of their global peers. Critics are right that 40 percent of college students still don’t graduate. But almost half of all American high-school students now head off to college each year—an all-time high. And whatever the doom-and-gloom about schools failing to address workforce needs, it’s worth remembering that the U.S has the strongest economy in the world—by an enormous margin.

Are the schools perfect? No. But they are slowly improving. And they are certainly better today than at any point in the past. So why the invented story about an unchanging and obsolete system? Why the hysterical claims that everything has broken?

Perhaps some policy elites really believe the fake history—about a dramatic rise and tragic fall. The claim that the high school “was designed for early 20th-century workforce needs,” for instance, has been repeated so frequently that it has a kind of truth status. Never the fact that the American high school was created in 1635 to provide classical training to the sons of ministers and merchants; and never mind the fact that today’s high schools operate quite differently than those of the past. Facts, it seems, aren’t as durable as myth.

Yet there is also another possible explanation worth considering: that policy elites are working to generate political will for their pet projects. Money and influence may go a long way in setting policy agendas. But in a decentralized and relatively democratic system, it still takes significant momentum to initiate any significant change—particularly the kinds of change that certain reformers are after when they suggest starting “from scratch.” To generate that kind of energy—the energy to rip something down and rebuild it—the public needs to be convinced that it has a looming catastrophe on its hands.

This is not to suggest that educational reform is crafted by conspirators working to manufacture crisis. Policy elites are not knowingly falsifying evidence or collectively coming to secret agreement about how to terrify the public. Instead, as research has shown, self-identified school reformers inhabit a small and relatively closed network. As the policy analyst Rick Hess recently put it, “orthodoxy reigns” in reform circles, with shared values and concerns emerging “through partnerships, projects, consulting arrangements, and foundation initiatives.” The ostensible brokenness of public education, it seems, is not merely a talking point; it is also an article of faith.

Whatever the intentions of policy leaders, this “broken system” narrative has had some serious unintended consequences. And perhaps the most obvious of those has been an increased tolerance for half-baked plans. Generally speaking, the public has a relatively high bar for replacing something that works, particularly if there is a risk of failure, and especially when their children are concerned. Historically, this has been the case in education. A half century ago, for instance, the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll asked public-school parents what the schools were doing right. The response: Almost everything. The standard curriculum, the quality of teachers, and school facilities came in first, second, and third on the list. Not surprisingly, when parents were asked in another PDK/Gallup poll if the schools were “interested enough in trying new ways and methods,” 42 percent responded that the schools were striking the right balance. Twenty-one percent felt that the schools were “too ready to try new ideas,” and 20 percent felt that the schools were “not interested enough.”

When it comes to replacing something broken, however, the bar for intervention is much lower. Doing something, even if it fails to live up to expectations, is invariably better than doing nothing. Only by doing nothing, Americans are told, can they fail. Thus, despite the fact that there is often little evidence in support of utopian schemes like “personalized online learning,” which would use software to create a custom curriculum for each student, or “value-added measures” of teachers, which would determine educator effectiveness by running student test scores through an algorithm, many people are willing to suspend disbelief. Why? Because they have been convinced that the alternative—a status quo in precipitous decline—is worse. But what if the schools aren’t in a downward spiral? What if, instead, things are slowly but steadily improving? In that light, disruption—a buzzword if ever there was one—doesn’t sound like such a great idea.

A second consequence of the “broken system” narrative is that it denigrates schools and communities. Teachers, for instance, have seemingly never been more disillusioned. Roughly half of teachers report feeling under great stress several days a week, job satisfaction is at a 25-year low, and almost a third of teachers say they are likely to leave the profession within the next five years. Parents, too, have never had less confidence in the system. According to the most recent Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll, roughly 80 percent of Americans give grades of “C,” “D,” or “F” to the nation’s schools—a far larger total than the 56 percent who issued those grades three decades ago. This, despite the fact that 70 percent of public school parents give their children’s current schools an “A” or a “B” rating. In other words, despite people’s positive direct experiences, the barrage of negative messaging has done serious damage to the public school brand. Consequently, many anxious parents are now competing with alarming ferocity for what they believe to be a shrinking number of “good” schools. As research indicates, they have exacerbated residential segregation in the process, intensifying racial and economic inequality.

Perhaps the most serious consequence of the “broken system” narrative is that it draws attention away from real problems that the nation has never fully addressed. The public-education system is undeniably flawed. Yet many of the deepest flaws have been deliberately cultivated. Funding inequity and racial segregation, for instance, aren’t byproducts of a system that broke. They are direct consequences of an intentional concentration of privilege. Placing the blame solely on teacher training, or the curriculum, or on the design of the high school—alleging “brokenness”—perpetuates the fiction that all schools can be made great without addressing issues of race, class, and power. This is wishful thinking at its most pernicious.

This is not to suggest that there is no space for criticism, or for outrage. Students, families, and activists have both the right and the responsibility to advocate for themselves and their communities. They know what they need, and their needs have merit. Policymakers have a great deal to learn from them.

Still, it is important not to confuse inequity with ineptitude. History may reveal broken promises around racial and economic justice. But it does not support the story of a broken education system. Instead, the long view reveals a far less dramatic truth—that most aspects of public education have gotten better, generation by generation.

The evolution of America’s school system has been slow. But providing a first-rate public education to every child in the country is a monumental task. Today, 50 million U.S. students attend roughly 100,000 schools, and are educated by over 3 million teachers. The scale alone is overwhelming. And the aim of schooling is equally ambitious. Educators are not just designing gadgets or building websites. At this phenomenal scale, they are trying to make people—a fantastically difficult task for which there is no quick fix, no simple solution, no “hack.”

Can policy leaders and stakeholders accelerate the pace of development? Probably. Can the schools do more to realize national ideals around equity and inclusion? Without question. But none of these aims will be achieved by ripping the system apart. That’s a ruinous fiction. The struggle to create great schools for all young people demands swift justice and steady effort, not melodrama and magical thinking.

 

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Seventh Anniversary of This Blog

Dear Readers,

This post marks my seventh anniversary as a blogger. I want to thank those readers who regularly read my twice-weekly posts, those who have dipped into them occasionally, those who have subscribed to the post, and finally those who have taken the time to write thoughtful comments. Nearly 1.4 million viewers from around the world have clicked on to the blog since August 2009. Not exactly viral but, for me, most gratifying.

For the 852 posts I have written since 2009, I have followed three rules:

  1. Write about 800 words.
  2. Write clearly on school reform and classroom practice.
  3. Take a position and back it up with evidence.

For anyone who blogs or writes often knows that sticking to these rules has been no easy task. Yet after seven years, it has been very satisfying. I remain highly motivated to write about policymakers, administrators, teachers, parents, and students–all who inhabit the policy-to-practice continuum–and all who in different ways, with varied ideas, seek to improve schooling.

To me, writing is a form of learning and teaching. The learning part comes from figuring out what I want to say on a topic, researching it, drafting a post, and then revising it more times than I would ever admit so that the post says what I want it to say. Learning also has come from the surprises and mistakes I have found in the suggestions and comments readers post—“Did I really say that?,” “Oops!,” “Sorry, I didn’t expect what you said, “ or “I had never considered that point.”

The teaching part comes from putting my ideas out there in a clearly expressed logical argument, buttressed by evidence, for others who may agree or disagree about an issue I am deeply interested in. As in all teaching, planning enters the picture in how I frame the central question I want readers to consider and how I put the argument and evidence together in a clear, coherent, and crisp blog of about 800 words. When readers send in thoughtful and engaged comments–that is the precious interaction that teachers need for learning to occur–I respond and the act of teaching (and, yes, learning) occurs.

Because of my background as a high school teacher, administrator, and historian of education I often give a question or issue its historical context. I do so, and here I put my teaching hat on, since I believe that current policy-driven reforms and their journey into schools and classrooms are deeply rooted in the past. Learning from how earlier generations of reformers coped with the complexities of improving schools and districts, I believe, can inform current reformers about the tasks they face. Contemporary reformers, equally well intentioned as their predecessors, in too many instances ignore what has occurred previously and end up stumbling and repeating errors that occurred before. These frustrated reformers then blame teachers and principals (or “the system”) for not executing properly their reform-driven policies.

Knowing the historical context is important in understanding the cornucopia of policy-driven reforms that have spilled over U.S. public schools for over a half-century. For those unacquainted with that history, in every decade since World War II, policymakers have sought to use public schools–an essentially conservative community institution–as engines of reform to solve national and local political, economic, and social problems. From ending racial segregation in schools to defending the nation against the Soviet Union to ending poverty to growing a strong economy, national leaders have turned to local public schools to end vexing problems. This steadfast belief in education curing problems has trumped time and again political action in the larger society to alter deep-seated economic, political, and social structures that have created and sustained many of the problems afflicting the U.S. That reluctance to look beyond public schools as the solvent for national problems is just as evident in 2016 as it was in 1950.

In the upcoming year, I will look anew and historically at the policy-to-practice continuum in my continuing effort to persuade viewers that adopted policies are merely words unless put into practice. And because too many reform-driven policymakers are inattentive to what has occurred in past efforts and what occurs daily in classrooms, chances of full or even moderate implementation approach nil. It is that journey from making policy in decision-makers’ suites to K-12 classrooms that has occupied me for decades. And so I continue for another year.

Again, readers, thank you.

Larry Cuban

 

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Why I’m Unsure Project-based Learning Prepares Students for College (Ronnie Estoque)

“Ronnie Estoque is a junior at Seattle’s Cleveland High School. He is a staff writer for Cleveland Publications, an intern at The Seattle Globalist and is interested in pursuing a career in journalism.” This appeared in the Seattle Times, June 16, 2016.

As a junior attending Cleveland High School, I am slowly approaching the arduous process of college applications. This has led me to reflect on whether or not Cleveland has prepared me for college-level work.

In the fall of 2010, Cleveland became a STEM high school with a focus on project-based learning. The newly designed curriculum was meant to emulate a work environment for students while teaching them how to use technology in their school work. Cleveland classes revolve around group work and projects. This unique way of teaching helps students build group-work skills, but does it prepare students for college, where students mostly work independently?

Linda Chen graduated from Cleveland in 2015 and is a freshman at the University of Washington. She enjoyed her time at Cleveland, but now sees one major flaw of project-based learning.

“The one thing I hated was that they (teachers) didn’t enforce student accountability during projects,” Chen said. “Most of the time it was me just doing all the work and someone else taking the credit.”

Group projects, in other words, don’t accurately reflect students’ individual knowledge and, more often than not, the students who work hard and complete their portion of projects also have to do more work to make up for the students who aren’t pulling their weight.

Kiet Sam also graduated in 2015 and is a freshman at the University of Washington majoring in computer science. Sam describes in stark contrast his college-level and the project-based learning at Cleveland.

“In college, almost all my work is completed independently.” Sam said. “Depending on your major there may be more projects, but in general, college is mostly to measure a student’s individual ability to perform.”

Cleveland students are judged on their individual knowledge through tests, but not as frequently as other high schools that don’t use project-based learning. Catherine Brown, the School of Life Sciences principal at Cleveland, said she thinks project-based learning has been good for the school.

Before, there were small pockets of success among the student population,” Brown said. “Now success is the new norm.”

And there’s evidence that the changes at Cleveland have made a difference. According to the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, only 17 percent of 10th-graders at Cleveland met state standards for math in the 2009-10 school year. During the 2013-14 school year, that number dramatically increased to more than 80 percent.

Cleveland teacher Steve Pratt, who has taught at the school for 10 years, said the implementation of STEM and project-based learning at Cleveland has also led to a drastic change in student culture. According to Pratt, before STEM and project-based learning, students weren’t as engaged and eager to learn in class. Now, he sees more students striving to take their work more seriously.

“It has done great things for Cleveland even though there are still some things that need to be improved,” Pratt said.

Pratt is one of the teachers who enforces student accountability. In his classes, students can “fire” their group members during projects. Pratt holds a high standard for his students’ group work contributions, but not all Cleveland teachers do the same. He also believes that it can be difficult for students to adjust to project-based learning if they’re coming from a conventional style of teaching, and students can quickly fall behind in the workload. I believe more teachers, like Pratt, should hold students to higher standards.

While project-based learning, along with STEM, has done great things for Cleveland as a whole, I worry that many students won’t be as prepared for college as they need to be. I believe that more teachers at Cleveland need to hold students more accountable for the roles they play in projects. By holding students to higher standards during group projects, teachers will be able to teach them more about responsibility, time management, and prioritization.

Students like Chen and Sam, who do their share of project work — and more — are doing fine in college, although Chen said the adjustment to individual work was tough at first. I am concerned about the students who are piggybacking their way through Cleveland’s system. Those are the ones who will suffer most when they get to college. This worries me, as I also have been a student who has had to do the work of peers who didn’t do their share.

What will happen to them?

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Algorithms in Use: Evaluating Teachers and “Personalizing” Learning (Part 2)

In Part 1, I made the point that consumer-driven or educationally-oriented algorithms for all of their mathematical exactness and appearance of objectivity in regression equations contain different values among which programmers judge some to be more important than others.  In making value choices (like everyone else, programmers are constrained by space, time, and resources), decisions get made that have consequences for both teachers and students. In this post, I look first at those algorithms used to judge teachers’ effectiveness (or lack of it) and then I turn to “personalized learning” algorithms customized for individual students.

Washington, D.C.’s IMPACT program of teacher evaluation

Much has been written about the program that Chancellor Michelle Rhee created during her short tenure (2007-2010) leading the District of Columbia public schools (see here and here). Under Rhee, IMPACT,  a new system of teacher evaluation has been put into practice. The system is anchored in The “Teaching and Learning Framework,”  that D.C. teachers call the “nine commandments” of good teaching.

1. Lead well-organized, objective-driven lessons.

2. Explain content clearly.

3. Engage students at all learning levels in rigorous work.

4. Provide students with multiple ways to engage with content.

5. Check for student understanding.

6. Respond to student misunderstandings.

7. Develop higher-level understanding through effective questioning.

8. Maximize instructional time.

9. Build a supportive, learning-focused classroom community.

IMPACT uses multiple measures to judge the quality of teaching. At first, 50 percent of an annual evaluation was based upon student test scores; 35 percent based on judgments of instructional expertise (see “nine commandments”) drawn from five classroom observations by the principal and “master educators,” and 15 percent based on other measures. Note that policymakers initially decided on these percentages out of thin air. Using these multiple measures, IMPACT has awarded 600 teachers (out of 4,000) bonuses ranging from $3000 to $25,000 and fired nearly 300 teachers judged as “ineffective” in its initial years of full operation. For those teachers with insufficient student test data, different performance measures were used. Such a new system caused much controversy in and out of the city’s schools (see here and here)

Since then, changes have occurred. In 2012, the 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation based on student test scores had been lowered to 35 percent (why this number? No one says) and the number of classroom observations had been reduced. More policy changes have occurred since then (e.g., “master educator” observations have been abolished and now principals do all observations; student surveys of teachers added). All of these additions and subtractions to IMPACT mean that the algorithms used to judge teachers have had to be tweaked, that is, altered because some variables in the regression equation were deemed more (or less) important than others. These policy changes, of course, are value choices. For a technical report published in 2013 that reviewed IMPACT, see here.

And the content of the algorithms have remained secret. An email exchange between the overseer of the algorithm in the D.C. schools and a teacher (who gave her emails to a local blogger) in 2010-2011 reveal the secrecy surrounding the tinkering with such algorithms (see here). District officials have not yet revealed in plain language the complex algorithms to teachers, journalists, or the general public. That value judgments are made time and again in these mathematical equations is clear. As are judgements in the regression equations used to “personalize learning.”

Personalized Learning algorithms

“The consumerist path of least resistance in America takes you to Amazon for books, Uber for transportation, Starbucks for coffee, and Pandora for songs. Facebook’s ‘Trending’ list shows you the news, while Yelp ratings lead you to a nearby burger. The illusion of choice amid such plenty is easy to sustain, but it’s largely false; you’re being herded by algorithms from purchase to purchase.”

Mario Bustillos, This Brand Could be Your Life, June 28, 2016

Bustillos had no reason to look at “personalized learning” in making her case that consumers are “herded by algorithms from purchase to purchase.” Had she inquired into it, however, she would have seen the quiet work of algorithms constructing “playlists” of lessons for individual students and controlling students’ movement from one online lesson to another absent any teacher hand-prints on the skills and content being taught. Even though the rhetoric of “personalized learning” mythologizes the instructional materials and learning as student-centered, algorithms (mostly proprietary and unavailable for inspection) written by programmers making choices about what students should learn next are in control. “Personalized learning” is student-centered in its reliance on lessons tailored to ability and performance differences among students. And the work of teachers is student-centered in coaching, instructing, and individualizing their attention as well as monitoring small groups working together. All of that is important, to be sure. But the degree to which students are making choices out of their interests and strengths in a subject area, such as math, they have little discretion. Algorithms rule (see here, here, and here).

Deeply embedded in these algorithms are theories of learning that seldom are made explicit. For example, adaptive or “personalized learning” are contemporary, high-tech versions of old-style mastery learning. Mastery learning, then and now, is driven by behavioral theories of learning. The savaging of “behaviorism” by cognitive psychologists and other social scientists in the past few decades has clearly given the theory a bad name. Nonetheless, behaviorism and its varied off-shoots drive contemporary affection for “personalized learning” as it did for “mastery learning” a half-century ago (see here and here). I state this as a fact, not a criticism.

With advances in compiling and analyzing masses of data by powerful computers, the age of the algorithm is here. As consumers, these rules govern choices we make in buying material goods and, as this post claims, in evaluating teachers and “personalized learning.”

 

 

 

 

 

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Consumer Choice in Schooling: Algorithms and Personalized Learning (Part 1)

“The consumerist path of least resistance in America takes you to Amazon for books, Uber for transportation, Starbucks for coffee, and Pandora for songs. Facebook’s ‘Trending’ list shows you the news, while Yelp ratings lead you to a nearby burger. The illusion of choice amid such plenty is easy to sustain, but it’s largely false; you’re being herded by algorithms from purchase to purchase.”

Mario Bustillos, This Brand Could be Your Life, June 28, 2016

 

I wish I had written that paragraph. It captures a definite feature not only of our consumerist-driven society but also in recent school reform (e.g., the growth of charter schools and expanded parental choice). I also include the media hype and techno-enthusiasm for “personalized learning.” The centerpiece of any form of “personalized learning” (or “adaptive learning“) is algorithms for tailoring lessons to individual students (see here, here, and here). What Bustillos omits  in the above article about the dominance of consumerism driven by algorithms is that regression equations embedded in algorithms make predictions based on data. Programmers decide on how much weight to put on particular variables in the equations. Such decisions are subjective; they contain value judgments about the independent and dependent variables and their relationship to one another. The numbers hide the subjectivity within these equations.

Like Facebook designers altering its algorithm so as to direct news tailored to each Facebook consumer “to put a higher priority on content shared by friends and family,” software engineers create different versions of  “personalized learning” and insert value judgments into the complicated regression equations with which they have written for online lessons. These equations are anchored in the data students produce in answering questions in previous lessons. These algorithms predict (not wholly since engineers and educators do tweak–“massage” is a favored word–the equations) what students should study and absorb in individualized, daily, online software lessons (see here).

Such “personalized” lessons alter the role of the teacher for the better, according to promoters of the trend. Instead of covering content and directly teaching skills, teachers can have students work online thereby freeing up the teacher to coach, give individual attention to students who move ahead of their classmates and those who struggle.

Critics, however, see the spread of online, algorithmic-based lessons as converting teaching to directing students to focus on screens and automated lessons thereby shrinking the all-important role of teacher-student relationships, the foundation for social, moral, and cognitive learning in public schools. Not so, advocates of “personalized learning” aver. There might be fewer certified teachers in schools committed to lessons geared to individual students (e.g., Rocketship) but teachers will continue to perform as mentors, role models, coaches, and advisers not as mere purveyors of content and skills.

As in other policy discussions, the slippage into either/or dichotomies beckons. The issue is not whether or not to use algorithms since each of us uses algorithmic thinking daily. Based on years of experiential data we have compiled in our heads (without regression equations) step-by-step routines just to get through the day (e.g., which of the usual routes to work should I take; how best to get the class’s attention at the beginning of a lesson). Beyond our experiences, however, we depend on mathematical algorithms embedded in the chips that power our Internet searches Internet, control portions of our driving cars and operate home appliances.

The issue is not that algorithms are value-free (they are not) or data rich (they are). The issue is whether practitioners and parents–consumers of fresh out-of-the-box products–come to depend automatically on carefully constructed algorithms which contain software designers’ value judgments displayed in flow charts and written into code for materials and lessons students will use tomorrow. Creators of algorithms (including ourselves) juggle certain values (e.g., favorite theory of learning, student-centered instruction, small group collaboration, correctness of information, increasing productivity and decreasing cost, ease of implementation) and choose among them  in constructing their equations. They judge what is important and select among those values since time, space, and other resources are limited in creating the “best” or “good enough” equation for a given task. Software designers choose to give more weight to some variables over others–see Facebook decision above. Rich, profuse data, then, never speaks for itself. Look for the values embedded in the algorithmic equations. Such simple facts are too often brushed aside.

What are algorithms?

Wikipedia’s definition of an algorithm is straight forward: a sequence of steps taken to solve a problem and complete a task. Some images make the point for simple algorithms.

algorithmmaxresdefault

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Or if you want a Kahn Academy video to explain an algorithm, see here.

Complex algorithms

Most algorithms are hardly simple, however. Amazon’s proprietary algorithms on searches and popularity of books, for example, are unavailable to the public yet are heavily leaned upon by advertisers, authors, and consumers (e.g., also Amazon’s  algorithmic feature that appears on your screen: “customers who viewed this also viewed….”).  Among school reformers interested in evaluating teachers on the basis of students’ test scores, algorithms and their complex regression equations have meant the difference between getting a bonus or getting fired, for example,  in Washington, D.C. . And for those “personalized learning” advocates eager to advance student-centered classrooms,  algorithms  contain theories of action of what-causes-what that tilt toward one way of learning. In short, software designers’ value judgements matter as to what pops out at the other end of the equation. and then is used in making an evaluative judgment and an instructional decision.

Part 2 will look at values in algorithms that evaluate teachers and customize learning.

 

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Insider or Outsider? : Superintendents in Big Cities

In Los Angeles Unified School District, the school board appointed an insider–Michelle King–superintendent earlier this year after a string of prior superintendents came from outside the district.

In New York City, Mayor Bill De Blasio appointed an insider–Carmen Farina– Chancellor in 2014 after Mayor Michael Bloomberg had appointed three outsiders since 2000.

These appointments of insiders to big city districts, people who spent their careers within the district as teachers, principals, and district office administrators, are the exception, not the rule. For large urban districts the rule has been appoint outsiders who promise major changes in course to solve serious problems.

Why is that?

Outsiders have been appointed time and again in these districts because the unspoken and strong belief was that the serious educational, social, and political problems besetting the schools needed an innovative, energetic, outsider, unbeholden to those inside the district. An outsider, policy elites assumed, would shake the system by the scruff of its neck in turning around a failing district–disrupt is the fashionable word today. Insiders who had risen through the ranks would prize stability while looking for incremental improvements. Insiders have been immersed in a network of relationships with peers and subordinates would be reluctant to disturb bureaucratic procedures, rules in effect for decades, and bonds of affection and respect for long-time peers and subordinates. Insiders would be loath to importing new staff and  innovations from elsewhere. They would rather seek new ideas and programs from sharp, knowledgeable insiders.

These strongly held beliefs about insiders and outsiders have shaped the appointment of superintendents to big city posts for well over a half-century.

In brief, the folk wisdom surrounding superintendents or chancellors heading urban districts says to appoint insiders if you like what has been happening in the system under the exiting superintendent in order to extend and protect what is working well for students, teachers, and the community. Stability and tweaking what works is the order of the day when insiders are appointed school chiefs. However, if you dislike what has been happening in the system, the dysfunctions, mediocre performance, the proliferation of problems, and the accompanying disarray, for heaven’s sake, appoint an outsider.

Washington, D.C. Schools

This situation now faces the mayor of Washington, D.C. who has to replace exiting Chancellor Kaya Henderson who has served six years. Her predecessor outsider Michelle Rhee who brought in Henderson with her was Mayor Adrian Fenty’s first mayoral appointment; she served 2007-2010. Now with the departure of Henderson,  Mayor Muriel Bowser who recently announced a national search for a successor to Henderson is faced with a similar issue of appointing an insider or outsider after the search is completed (see here) The Mayor knows well that the District of Columbia schools have had a long string of school-board appointed outsiders. To be specific,  over nearly sixty years, there have been 14 superintendents (excluding interim appointees) of whom 11 were outsiders (including Rhee and Henderson). The three insiders were Vince Reed, 1975-1980, Floretta McKenzie,  1981-1988, and Andrew Jenkins, 1988-1990. Reed and McKenzie served with distinction; Jenkins was fired.

What Does The Research Say on Insider and Outsider School Chiefs?

Scholars who have written about “superintendent succession”–the academic phrase for picking the next district leader–have studied this issue for over a half-century. Looking at insiders and outsiders who school boards appoint to the highest district post has produced a growing body of literature on a series of questions arising from who follows whom in a school district. Such questions as:

*Do outsider or insider superintendents outperform one another?

*Do insiders or outsiders stay longer?

*Does superintendent succession resemble succession in corporations and other organizations?

*What does matter when decision-makers (e.g., school boards, mayors)  in choosing an insider or outsider?

 

The answer is the first two questions is no. To the third question, the answer is yes. The last question I answer with more than one word.

On performance, thirty years of research have determined that neither outsider or insider school chiefs perform better because of where they come from. Sure, how one defines performance is important and will vary. But on various measures of the district’s  student outcomes,  teacher and parental satisfaction, relationships with community and unions, there is no substantial difference between districts appointing insiders or outsiders (see here, here, and here).

As to length of service for insiders or outsiders, studies of big cities show little difference also (see here and here)

Superintendent succession, researchers have found, similar to  CEOs and other top leadership posts in non-school organizations (see here, here, here, and here).

So D.C.  Mayor Muriel Bowser doing a national search to replace Kaya Henderson–such a search already tilts toward appointing an outsider–should at the very least consider what researchers have found out about superintendent succession.

Were she to do so, she should also consider the factors that come into play in influencing how either an insider or outsider appointee will perform. Such factors as the fit between school boards’ or mayors’ goals and the candidate’s experiences with, for example, the political decision-making that occurs in making educational policy and the features of the organizational setting and community and their match with the knowledge and skills of the applicant. These and other factors have to be considered in deciding whether to pick an insider or outsider to head a district. Simply picking one or the other because it is time to do so,  is a mindless way of making the most important decision for a major city’s schools.

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