Tag Archives: policy to practice,

Confessions of a Skeptic of Computers in Schools (Part 2)

Exactly five years ago I wrote Part 1 of why I was a skeptic on computer use in schools.For this post I look back at that confession and update it to where I  am now in 2015.

A quarter-century ago, I wrote Teachers and Machines: The Classroom Use of Technology since 1920. In that book I described and analyzed the history of machines deployed in classrooms (film, radio, instructional television, and the newly arrived desktop computer) to help teachers teach more, faster, and better. Then I did something foolish in the final chapter. I predicted future uses of the computer in classrooms from my vantage point in 1985.

Of course, I was not alone in making predictions. Seymour Papert dove into the same empty pool that I did a year before my venture into prophesying:

“There won’t be schools in the future …. I think the computer will blow up the school. That is, the school defined as something where there are classes, teachers running exams, people structured in groups by age, following a curriculum—all of that.” (Popular Computing, October 1984, p. 11)

Based upon my research in schools and experience as a teacher and superintendent, however, I was far more skeptical about the penetration and use of computers than Papert. Here was my crystal ball look in to the future of computers in schools:

“I predict that … in elementary schools where favorable conditions exist, teacher use will increase but seldom exceed more than 10 percent of weekly instructional time [roughly 3 hours a week]. Pulling out students for a 30-to-45-minute period in a computer lab will, I suspect, gain increasing popularity in these schools…. In secondary schools, the dominant pattern of use will be to schedule students into [labs] and one or more elective classes where a score of desk-top computers sit…. In no event would I expect general student use of computers in secondary schools to exceed 5 percent of the weekly time set aside for instruction. I predict no great breakthrough in teacher use patterns at either level of schooling” (p. 99).

As events unfolded in the next quarter-century, my prediction flat-lined. Access to computers–desktops, laptops, hand-held devices, and interactive white boards–soared. In writing Oversold and Underused; Computers in Classrooms in 2001, I did find higher percentages of students and teachers using computers in preschools, secondary schools, and universities that ruined my 1985 prediction.

Since then hundreds of thousands of students and tens of thousands of teachers across the country have received  white boards and 1:1 laptops. In researching classrooms since 2001, again, I have found higher use by teachers and students in both elementary and secondary classrooms. More teachers—my guess is over 30 percent across different districts—use machines for instruction (I include the whole panoply of available high-tech devices) regularly, that is, at least once or more a week. Another 30-40 percent use computers occasionally, that is, at least once or more a month. The remainder of teachers—still a significant minority—hardly ever, if at all–use machines for instruction. This continues to puzzle researchers and policymakers since they know that nearly all teachers have high-tech devices at home.

So my 1985 prediction on teacher and student use of computers for classroom instruction was inaccurate and died a quiet death. Compassionate readers seldom remind me that I flopped in peeking into the future. The facts are clear that students and teachers use high-tech devices for instruction far more than I had foreseen.

Moreover, a quarter-century ago I ended Oversold and Underused by urging a moratorium on buying more computers. Whoa, was that a loser of a recommendation! Worse yet, I even repeated the call for a moratorium on deploying computers in schools—for largely the same reasons—in 2001. Of course, these calls were ignored then as they would be now.

One final confession. I stated clearly in Teachers and Machines and subsequent writings that the uses of new technologies for classroom instruction would seldom satisfy those advocates of more instructional use in schools because teacher use would tend toward the traditional,  blending both teacher- and student-centered approaches but still be called unimaginative—not all teachers, by any means—but enough to be a central tendency of classroom practice. Both of these predictions have turned out to be accurate, yes, accurate….so far.

Let’s say that if this were baseball, I would be batting .500, a number which sounds so much better than 50 percent wrong in crystal ball gazing.

I confess to my errors in foreseeing the future for no other reason than to remind readers, both champions and skeptics of computers in schools, that memorable predictions are rare. Except for the one I made in 2010 about computers in schools in 2020. Then again with 50 percent wrong in the past…..

  1. Larry:
    Don’t feel bad. Predicting that computers will result in transformative change in education is like predicting that we would have flying cars by now. They have changed the lives of students far more outside of school where teachers don’t control their use. To the extent that they let students leave school altogether and study at home, they can make a difference. Kids schooled at home who can proceed at their own pace using computerized learning software are much better off than those in school who are either bored or frustrated much of the time. One reason for little transformative change can be traced to staff development efforts that just show teachers how the computer works rather than showing them how to teach different. Any prediction that keeps public education in the industrial age is where I put my money. Changing organizations where the workers have masters degrees is more than the available change agents have up their sleeves.

    I just posted my summary of Daniel Pink’s new book on motivation (Drive). Check it out at DrDougGreen.Com
    Best
    Douglas W. Green, EdD

  2. Teaching is a relational, human profession. The Gutenberg Press didn’t take away the need for teachers (or even the use of lecture). The telegraph and “instant access to information,” didn’t take away the teacher as an authority, either.

    I still scoff when I hear someone tell me that my job will be outsourced or tech-sourced (partly because I know that, if nothing else, society needs warehouses to hold kids will grown-ups work – no amount of tech-sourcing can or will change that).

    I am not against computers in school. I use a 1:1 ratio in my class and it’s worked well (or so I believe) but I am a skeptic about the transformative power of any medium. The social, political, economic and cultural forces are all greater than any grand prediction from technocrats and cyberphiles.

    Incidentally, I admit that my thinking on technology in schools has been largely influenced by reading your work.

  3. It is interesting to read your reflection on Teachers and Machines, as my class at William & Mary is reading this book now. As a high school teacher, I see the situations you describe here. Teacher use as traditional and unimaginative…

    One of the problems I see in K-12 education is that imaginative uses are actively discouraged by district-based technology policies that restrict access and make it nearly impossible to create change. The heavy workload and other duties assigned to teachers make finding the energy to enact change while the establishment works against you a burden that most teachers are unwilling to bear.

    • I often hear the access issue cited as a barrier to a the creative use of technology. While we are only an example of 1, we have open access but there’s no flood of creative adoption. We DO have overwhelmed teachers.

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Updating Data-Driven Instruction and the Practice of Teaching

The following post appeared May 12, 2011. Since then it has been the most read post I have written–nearly 28,000 views. I am updating it with a few changes in language and additional studies and comments that were not in the original post.

I like numbers. Numbers are facts: blood pressure reading is 145/90. Numbers are objective, free of emotion. The bike odometer tells me that I traveled 17 miles. Objective and factual as numbers may be,  still we inject meaning into them. The blood pressure reading, for example, crosses the threshold of high blood pressure and needs attention.  And that 17-mile bike ride meant a  chocolate-dipped vanilla cone at a Dairy Queen.

Which brings me to a school reform effort centered on numbers. Much has already been written on the U.S. obsession with standardized test scores. Ditto for the recent passion for value-added measures.  I turn now to policymakers who gather, digest, and use a vast array of numbers to reshape teaching practices.

Yes, I am talking about data-driven instruction–a way of making teaching less subjective, more objective, less experience-based, more scientific. Ultimately, a reform that will make teaching systematic and effective. Standardized test scores, dropout figures, percentages of non-native speakers proficient in English–are collected, disaggregated by  ethnicity and school grade, and analyzed. Then with access to data warehouses, staff can obtain electronic packets of student test data that can be used for instructional decision-making to increase academic performance. Data-driven instruction, advocates say, is scientific and consistent with how successful businesses have used data for decades to increase their productivity.

An earlier incarnation appeared four decades ago.  Responding to criticism of failing U.S. schools, policymakers established “competency tests” that students had to pass to graduate high school. These tests measured what students learned from the curriculum. Policymakers believed that when results were fed back to principals and teachers, they would realign lessons. Hence, “measurement-driven” instruction.

Of course, teachers had always assessed learning informally before state- and district-designed tests. Teachers accumulated information (oops! data) from pop quizzes, class discussions, observing students in pairs and small groups, and individual conferences. Based on these data, teachers revised lessons. Teachers leaned heavily on their experience with students and the incremental learning they had accumulated from teaching 180 days, year after year.

Both subjective and objective, such micro- decisions were both practice- and data-driven. Teachers’ informal assessments of students gathered information directly and  would lead to altered lessons. Analysis of annual test results that showed patterns in student errors  helped teachers figure out better sequencing of content and different ways to teach particular topics.

In the 1990s and, especially after No Child Left Behind became law in 2002, the electronic gathering of data, disaggregating information by groups and individuals, and then applying lessons learned from analysis of tests and classroom practices became a top priority. Why? Because stigma and high-stakes consequences (e.g., state-inflicted penalties) occurred from public reporting of low test scores and inadequate school performance that could lead to a school’s closure, negative teacher evaluations, and students dropping out.

Now, principals and teachers are awash in data.

 

How do teachers use the massive data available to them on student performance? Researcher Viki Young studied four elementary school grade-level teams in how they used data to improve lessons. She found that supportive principals and superintendents and habits of collaboration increased use of data to alter lessons in two of the cases but not in the other two. She did not link the work of these grade-level teams to student achievement.  In another study of 36 instances of data use in two districts, Julie Marsh and her colleagues found 15 where teachers used annual tests, for example, in basic ways to target weaknesses in professional development or to schedule double periods of language arts for English language learners. Researchers pointed out how timeliness of data, its perceived worth by teachers, and district support limited or expanded the quality of analysis. These researchers admitted, however, that they could not connect student achievement to the 36 instances of basic to complex data-driven decisions  in these two districts.

Yet policymakers assume that micro- or macro-decisions driven by data will improve student achievement just like those productivity increases and profits major corporations accrue from using data to make decisions. Wait, it gets worse.

In 2009, the federal government published a report ( IES Expert Panel) that examined 490 studies where data was used by school staffs to make instructional decisions. Of these studies, the expert panel found 64 that used experimental or quasi-experimental designs and only six–yes, six–met the Institute of Education Sciences standard for making causal claims about data-driven decisions improving student achievement. When reviewing these six studies, however, the panel found “low evidence” (rather than “moderate” or “strong” evidence) to support data-driven instruction. In short, the assumption that data-driven instructional decisions improve student test scores is, well, still an assumption not a fact.

Numbers may be facts. Numbers may be objective. Numbers may smell scientific. But we give meaning to these numbers. Data-driven instruction may be a worthwhile reform but as an evidence-based educational practice linked to student achievement, rhetoric notwithstanding, it is not there yet.

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Looking at Children Use of Technologies at Home and School

Parents, as usual are caught in the middle. A recent article by Hannah Rosin–a Mom herself–looks into the dilemma facing parents. Called “The Touch-Screen Generation,” Rosin explores the choices that largely educated, middle and upper-middle class parents face when it comes to deciding whether their infants and toddlers should have the devices and, if so, for how long should they be swiping screens each day. (See four minute video in Rosin article).

On the dilemma facing parents and how much time children should be using devices for games, talking, and facing a screen, Rosin opts for parental judgment on a child-by-child basis. She does not see high-tech devices for toddlers and young children as an enemy to be fought and conquered. She does not, however, speak to the plasticity of the brain and the capacities of new electronic devices altering how children learn, what content and skills they retain, and the habits that children accrue.

With the rush to buy iPads for toddlers and kindergartners and the spread of tablets and smart phones among children and youth, can (or should) parents and schools do anything about use at home and school of the increasingly pervasive technologies?

Keep in mind that there are social class differences in how parents and significant adults allow their children use of screen devices. A number of studies have found, for example, that:

*African-American and Latino children ages 0 to 8 spend more time with screen media, including television, video games, and computers than their white peers.

*Rates of bedroom television are more than twice as high among African-American (69%) and Hispanic (66%) children than for white children in the same age group (28%).

*Children from low-income families (less than $30,000 annually) spend more time with television and videos and have bedroom television rates more than three times higher than children from middle- and upper-income families.

Parents have three choices in managing the dilemma of how much screen time and high-tech devices should their children use at home. Doing nothing and going with the flow–acceding to their son’s or daughter’s request for the newest device is what many parents do. A second option is to make deliberate choices based on parents’ values–rules for television watching, ditto for cell phones and tablets. A third choice is to decide on a case-by-case basis. Obviously, combinations of these choices get made as children get older and parents experience untoward events such as unemployment, divorce, illness, death.

And what about school? Consider what Westside Neighborhood School, a private school in Los Angeles, is doing. An NPR reporter described the school and its use of technology recently:

With kids from pre-K through 8th grade, WNS sits tucked into the shadow of a Home Depot in L.A.’s booming Playa Vista neighborhood. It’s close enough to the ocean that the air is more salt than smog.

When talking about screen time and kids’ access to handheld devices, Brad Zacuto, who heads the school, likes to use an old-fashioned analogy: “It’s like putting a child behind a wheel of a car. There’s a lot of power there.”

Think about how dangerous it was back when cars first hit the road, Zacuto says. No traffic lights or street signs. That’s where we are now, he warns, with kids and all this technology at their fingertips. “It’s here to stay. But at some point you have to teach kids how to drive a car responsibly.”

 Zacuto’s tech policy begins with a few basics: First, no smartphones till sixth grade. Even then, kids can bring them, but they have to check them at the front desk.

Second, engaging and educating parents: WNS makes them sign a commitment to limit screen time at home and to keep kids off of social media — again, until sixth grade.

 Also, at school, no technology until second grade. “We choose to have our youngest children engaged in digging in dirt,” Zacuto says, “and building things and using their hands….”

 In second grade, Zacuto says, kids start using classroom laptops. They get some basic lessons in typing and word processing and their first taste of Internet research….

By sixth grade, WNS students may have to check their smartphones at the door, but they get their own school-issued tablets with textbooks on them. Still, Zacuto insists, little valuable class time is spent simply looking down.

When sixth-grade social studies teacher Caitlin Barry gives her students time to read from the textbooks on their iPads, they often do it in pairs, encouraging each other to explore confusing terms or ideas. Some teachers even put short lectures online, for students to watch at home….

“It sort of flips the content,” Zacuto says. “I’d rather be spending my time in school with the teacher, with the kids — doing interactive, collaborative [things], using what we’ve learned.”

 The reporter ended her story on WSN by saying: In other words: “using screens at home to increase the time students spend working face to face in the classroom. It’s a delicate dance, preparing kids for both the Digital Age and the social world.”

The dilemmas facing parents, principals, and teachers about children and youth use of technologies won’t go away. They can, however, be smartly managed.

 

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Asking the Right Questions for Getting School-Driven Policies into Classroom Practice

Every single federal, state, and district policy decision aimed at improving student academic performance has a set of taken-for-granted assumptions that link the adopted policy to classroom lessons.

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From widespread adoption of Common Core standards, to the feds funding “Race to the Top” to get states to adopt charters and pay-for-performance schemes to a local school board and superintendent deciding to give tablets to each teacher and student, these policies contain crucial assumptions–not facts–about outcomes that supposedly will occur once those new policies enter classrooms.

And one of those key assumptions is that new policies aimed at the classroom will get teachers to change how they teach for the better. Or else why go through the elaborate process of shaping, adopting, and funding a policy? Unfortunately, serious questions are seldom asked about these assumptions before or after super-hyped policies were adopted, money allocated, expectations raised, and materials (or machines) entered classrooms.

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Consider a few simple questions that, too often, go unasked of policies heralded as  cure-alls for the ills of low-performing U.S. schools and urban dropout factories:

1. Did policies aimed at improving student achievement (e.g., Common Core standards. turning around failing schools, pay-for performance plans, and expanded parental choice of schools) get fully implemented?

2. When implemented fully, did they change the content and practice of teaching?

3. Did changed classroom practices account for what students learned?

4. Did what students learn meet the goals set by policy makers?

These straightforward questions about reform-driven policies inspect the chain of policy-to-practice assumptions that federal, state, and local decision-makers take for granted when adopting their pet policies. These questions distinguish policy talk (e.g. “charter schools outstrip regular schools,” “online instruction will disrupt bricks-and-mortar schools”) from policy action (e.g., actual adoption of policies aimed at changing teaching and learning) to classroom practice (e.g. how do teachers actually teach everyday as a result of new policies),and student learning (e.g., what have students actually learned from teachers who teach differently as a result of adopted policies).

Let’s apply these simple (but not simple-minded) questions to a current favorite policy of local, state, and federal policymakers: buy and deploy tablets for every teacher and student in the schools.

1. Did policies aimed at improving student achievement get fully implemented?

For schools in Auburn (ME) to Chicago to Los Angeles Unified School District, the answer is “yes’ and “no.” The “yes” refers to the actual deployment of devices to children and teachers but, as anyone who has spent a day in a school observing classrooms, access to machines does not mean daily or even weekly use. In Auburn (ME), iPads for kindergartners were fully implemented. Not so in either Chicago or LAUSD.

2. When implemented fully, did they change the content and practice of teaching?

For Auburn (Me), LAUSD, and all districts in-between those east and west coast locations, the answer is (and has been so for decades): we do not know. Informed guesses abound but hard evidence taken from actual classrooms is scarce. Classroom research of actual teaching practices before and after a policy aimed at teachers and students is adopted and implemented remains one of the least researched areas. To what degree have teachers altered how they teach daily as a result of new devices and software remains unanswered in most districts.

3. Did changed classroom practices account for what students learned?

The short answer is no one knows. Consider distributing tablets to teachers and students. Sure, there are success stories that pro-technology advocates beat the drums for and, sure, there are disasters, ones that anti-tech educators love to recount in gruesome detail. But beyond feel-good and feel-bad stories yawns an enormous gap in classroom evidence of “changed classroom practice,” “what students learned,” and why.

What makes knowing whether teachers using devices and software actually changed their lessons or that test score gains can be attributed to the tablets is the fact that where such results occur, those schools have engaged in long-term efforts to improve, say, literacy and math (see here and here). Well before tablets, laptops, and desktops were deployed, serious curricular and instructional reforms with heavy teacher involvement had occurred.

4. Did what students learn meet the goals set by policy makers?

Determining what students learned, of course, is easier said than done. With the three-decade long concentration on standardized tests, “learning” has been squished into students answering selected multiple choice questions with occasional writing of short essays. And when test scores rise, exactly what caused the rise causes great debate over which factor accounts for the gains (e.g., teachers, curricula, high-tech devices and software, family background–add your favorite factor here). Here, again, policymaker assumptions about what exactly improves teaching and what gets students to learn more, faster, and better come into play.

Public Education Today

Take-away for readers: Ask the right (and hard) questions about unspoken assumptions built into a policy aimed at changing how teachers teach and how students learn.

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Teachers Putting Reforms into Practice: “The Implementation Problem”

Guess who wrote these paragraphs.

I’ve been struck of late by how would-be reformers have been reacting when things go awry. After all, even some of those bullish on Race to the Top have privately conceded that maybe it didn’t turn out quite like they’d hoped. Champions of teacher evaluation are busy explaining, “Well, that’s not what we meant!” when hit with complaints, lawsuits, and concerns about the reliability and validity of some ill-conceived systems. Common Core advocates are busy explaining that the goofy homework questions and worksheets don’t accurately reflect their handiwork.

In each case, we’re assured, the underlying ideas are sound–it’s just a matter of confusion or inevitable “implementation problems.” Now, it’s true that change is always hard…. But the fact that implementation problems are inevitable doesn’t mean they’re okay. More importantly, the severity of these problems is not a given: it varies depending on how complex and technocratic the measure is, whether it’s being pushed from Washington, on the breadth and depth of political support, on whether the plan is fully baked, and on the incentives for effective execution. I’ve seen precious little evidence that advocates have done much to minimize the problems.

Those championing teacher evaluation, School Improvement Grants, or Common Core frequently sound as if they think no one could have anticipated or planned for the challenges that have emerged. To my ear, the disgruntlement tends to sound like that of a kid who leaves his new bike out unlocked, and then gets furious when it’s stolen. Of course, it’s unfair. But, you know what? He really should’ve known better. Advocates tend to blame their frustrations on other folks (bike thieves, Tea Party members, textbook publishers, principals, data analysts, et al.) getting in the way or screwing up. They rarely, if ever, acknowledge that their vision of how this would go down was perhaps colored by rose-tinted glasses or that their miscalculations may have aggravated the problems.

Sounds like these paragraphs about myopic reformers failing to anticipate implementation problems might have come from reform critic Diane Ravitch  or teacher union chief, Randy Weingarten. No, neither wrote those words.

Prolific writer and blogger Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute wrote the above paragraphs. Note the above ellipsis. I left out one sentence where Hess said: And I’m sympathetic to most of the reforms we’re talking about.

Nor did I include a subsequent paragraph:

Now, I don’t want to make it sound like I’m picking on today’s reformers. The same criticisms [about implementation] have been appropriately leveled at plenty of earlier efforts, including site-based management, block scheduling, equity lawsuits, busing, de-tracking, and much else. When pursued at scale, these efforts received well-deserved critiques for both frequently disappointing and for sometimes leaving lasting problems in their wake. 

Yeah, I was trying to fool the reader. Hess has been both mostly an advocate and occasional critic of these reform policies. And here in discussing the short-sightedness of reformers he hit the nail on the head except for one crucial point.

Hess says repeatedly that policymakers should have anticipated “implementation” problems with better crafted policies and careful forethought about what to expect in putting these ideas into practice. I agree. Yet I was startled by the absence of the word “teacher” in the entire piece. Teachers had to be involved in School Improvement Grants, teacher evaluation, and Common Core but in the post they are invisible. The closest that Hess comes to mentioning teachers is in the following paragraph:

What matters in education is what actually happens in 100,000 schools educating 50 million kids. That’s all implementation, and that means it matters a lot that some reforms are much more likely to suffer bumps, distortions, and problems than are others. The more complex they are, the further away they are from schools and families, the more dependent on intensive retraining–the more likely big ideas will suffer from “implementation problems.” Yet, I rarely find would-be reformers very interested in any of this, or what it portends. I find them much more intent on driving change from wherever they happen to be, using whatever levers they happen to control.

The first sentence tiptoes up to mentioning teachers but stops. To the rest of the paragraph, I say, amen.

He is certainly correct that policy implementation is the single most important aspect of the three reforms mentioned above (and all policies directed at changing what and how something is supposed to be taught). And he is correct that policymakers pay the least attention to it. Where he swings and strikes out is failing to say explicitly that knowledgeable and skilled teachers are critically important to putting any policy into practice.

Hess advises current reformers: Pay attention to implementation. Don’t whine. Do better next time. I would re-write that first piece of advice to say: pay attention to teachers and keep the rest.

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Kyle, and What I Learned about College Admissions (Michele Kerr)

Michele Kerr is a math teacher at Kennedy High School in Fremont, CA. She also wrote about teaching English and higher standards in previous guest posts. This post comes from her blog.

In the fall of his senior year, Kyle Evans1, one of my top pre-calculus students last spring, came to me for advice on his Questbridge scholarship application essay. I was scribbling edits, making comments, emphasizing a strong narrative, when I suddenly realized that the point of his essay was the struggles he’d faced freshman year as a homeless student. And now his family had just abruptly been left homeless again and was living in a single motel room.

Yeah, it was kind of a drag, he told me. Embarrassing. No privacy. Don’t tell anyone. He’d told the school counselor, but didn’t want the news getting about.

He maintained a 4.0 GPA that homeless freshman year, doing homework every night in the library. He ran cross country, although he would occasionally be benched for epileptic seizures. He transferred to our school his sophomore year, missing the first three weeks, which affected his grades and his progress on the math track.

His junior year, Kyle scored a 4 on the AP US History test; he couldn’t afford to take the AP English test and our school ran out of waivers. At this time, Kyle’s overall unweighted GPA is 3.7, weighted 4.2, putting him in the top 9% of the senior class. He took the AP Calculus test, but not the course, and I expect him to pass. He also took AP English Literature (the course and the test).

While his SAT scores were just above average, his ACT score composite was a 25 (super score 26), easily scaling the ACT Benchmarks for college readiness, even though he had no access to test prep courses. He achieved
a “Proficient” ranking in the rigorous California Early Assessment Program tests in both math and English. He received a 630 and 620 on the Chemistry and Math 2c Subject tests; while selection bias makes percentiles useless, any score over 600 denotes strong knowledge—and Kyle didn’t have a calculator for the Math 2c.

To put this in a broader perspective, only 26% of students met all four ACT benchmarks, and Kyle’s ACT scores are in the 85th percentile. Just 14% and 23% of all California juniors who took the EAP met the proficiency standard in math and English, respectively.

What percentage of those students had homes their entire high school careers, I wonder?

For much of his adolescence, Kyle has dreamed of attending an Ivy League university. Given his compelling story, his metrics, and the rhetoric on undermatching, I thought this a reasonable goal. His counselor, who has been incredibly supportive, anticipated that Kyle would have a strong run, with a good number of top 30 schools to choose from.

His results: All the Ivy League schools said no, except Brown. Stanford, Johns Hopkins, and UC San Diego rejected him. In addition to Brown, he was accepted at UCLA, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and UC Santa Barbara.

In no way do I think Kyle is being forced to “settle”; the four schools that accepted him are excellent.

I am, nonetheless, shocked and more than a little angry that so many top-ranked schools rejected him.

You’re thinking I’m overly optimistic, aren’t you? How to put this delicately: a kid can’t just be homeless and poor with high scores and good grades. He needs to be a great athlete in a desired sport, or a fantastic musician. On pure academics, “poor” doesn’t cut it unless the kid is black or Hispanic.

But Kyle is black.

So now consider his numbers again through the prism of race. On the Early Admissions test, 1080 disadvantaged African Americans met California’s EAP Proficiency standard in English; just 162 qualified in math. Five percent of African Americans, regardless of economic status, met the ACT benchmarks for college readiness; in California, just 600 blacks met that standard. Kyle’s composite super-score of 26 puts him in the top 3% of African Americans nationwide–again, of any income. In 2013, 2800 African Americans got a 4 on the AP US History test, while another 800 or so received a 5.

Academically and intellectually, Kyle has perhaps three thousand African American peers his age in the entire country. Culling that number down to economically disadvantaged blacks, he’s one of a few hundred.

I’m not convinced anymore that banning racial preferences solves anything, but the pretense gets tiresome. States can argue about whether to roll back bans, or Justice Scalia can convince his colleagues to declare such racial preferences unconstitutional. It won’t matter. Universities are going to continue to have different standards for blacks and Hispanics than they have for whites and Asians. They have to. There aren’t enough academically exceptional black and Hispanic students to use the same criteria by which Asians and whites are judged.

This year has seen several uplifting stories about exceptional African Americans gaining access to multiple elite colleges. But hundreds of whites and Asians with similar scores and achievements have no chance of getting into even one Ivy league school, or much of a shot at a top public university.

Besides, affirmative action bans only affect elite public universities. Private universities can use whatever standards they like, and they are clearly using different standards for blacks and Hispanics—as they are for legacies, athletes, and anyone who writes them a check for a pile of money.

But the unstated reality always included, I thought, a passionate commitment to helping underprivileged blacks and Hispanics. And it turns out I’m wrong on that point.

Every year, each of the top twenty universities admit between 100 and 200 black students. This year, ten of those twenty schools couldn’t find any room for Kyle.

Some agree with Justice Clarence Thomas about “mismatched” students, that by accepting black or Hispanic students with lower qualifications, elite universities are actually causing academic harm to young men and women who would be better off in a college filled with lower ability students. While other research has called the mismatch theory into question, I think that all colleges are doing harm to many low-skilled students of all races, to say nothing of the value of a college degree, by refusing to demand that all their students demonstrate a baseline ability level.

But Kyle is, as I said, comfortably among the top 15-25% of all US students, regardless of race, and his academic profile demonstrates success in multiple subjects and metrics. I’ve spent a decade or more working with elite high school students who have been accepted to Stanford, Johns Hopkins, the top UC schools, and the occasional Ivy. I’m confident Kyle can perform.

Besides, Kyle’s abilities clearly weren’t a concern. Using the rejecting universities’ Common Data Sets2 , I’ve compiled the percentages of admitted students with section scores from the 60th to 90th percentiles, below 700 on the SAT or 30 on the ACT. Kyle would be in the middle or higher of a population that ranged from 20-60% of the admitted classes of schools that rejected him.

Achievement gap realities being what they are, most of the admitted black and Hispanic students would be in the lower half of that same population. So unless admissions change dramatically, every school that rejected Kyle accepted many black or Hispanic students (and, probably, a number of white athletes and legacies) with scores equivalent or much lower than his.

You could not have convinced me before this discovery that universities weren’t rigorously ensuring that they were accepting blacks and Hispanics by merit. Sure, they might start at a lower metric, but from that point, they took all the kids with the highest scores, right?

Well. Except for athletes.

Harvard has started to take basketball seriously. Stanford has three sports that disproportionately recruit African Americans (men’s basketball, women’s basketball, football). Elite schools would prefer that all their athletes be Richard Shermans and Dave Robinsons, but to field a competitive team, compromises must be made. Asian Americans believe, with a great deal of justification, that their candidates compete against Chinese nationals for a fixed percentage of “Asian” slots. I can’t help but wonder if elite schools recruiting athletes are conscious of how many “low scoring” slots they use up for black athletes and perhaps cut down the number of high-achieving non-athlete blacks they admit.

Moving from athletes to alumni, certainly wealthy black graduates should be allowed to buy their kids in just as white alumni have for generations. Then there’s the network connections. For KIPP, there’s scholarship and admissions pledges. Many media-savvy charter networks have extensive communication and development staffs, determined to reach out and forge networks with top schools to ensure their students receive due consideration. Benjamin Banneker High, where Avery Coffey attends, is a highly selective school with a predominantly black population. It’s not paranoid to wonder if a candidate from a school that routinely provides highly motivated, low income African American students receives more consideration than an equally or even more qualified kid from an East Bay Area suburb, is it?

Not that these universities would ever admit to this sort of favoritism. They’d probably bring up Kyle’s extracurricular record. He only participates in one sport, which is probably more than he should, given his epilepsy. He’s a member of the National Honor Society, which meant he gave selflessly to volunteer his time to the community—Kyle’s efforts on his own behalf don’t count, which strikes me as unfair. Or perhaps they’d bring up his GPA or transcripts—our diverse high school has a much more competitive environment for grades and access to AP classes than a primarily black or Hispanic school. Maybe my recommendation letter was off in some way. Or maybe Kyle’s application essay wasn’t perfect—if I have one huge regret, it’s that I didn’t insist on reviewing his final draft.

None of that should have mattered. Four things about Kyle should have stood out in stark relief: he’s black, he has high test scores, he has excellent grades, and he’s not just economically disadvantaged, but sporadically homeless. In college admissions as outsiders understand it, these facts should have trumped all other considerations.

Universities turned to more subjective metrics as a means of creating an alternative access method for those blacks and Hispanics with lower test scores. They looked for “potential”. Did the candidate get good grades? Was he a good person who participated in the community? Did she take every challenging course she could, whether or not she succeeded, proving her desire to achieve? Now they are using these same “soft metrics” against blacks and Hispanics who actually have high test scores, actual ability.

College admissions is becoming ever more of a game, and universities seem more obsessed with a student’s impact on their endowments, their budgets, their reputations. We are assured that universities just use affirmative action to “level the playing field” but apparently leveling doesn’t entail merit-based admissions process with a different, if lower, objective standard. Instead, universities are using the same process they have for whites: placate the well-connected, find the students that will make the school look good—and then pick whatever smart ones fit in around the edges.

They can get away with this because the media supports their facade of access, acting as little more than cheerleaders. Rarely do I see a reporter acknowledge reality, as David Leonhardt comes close to doing here by describing access as a “patchwork of diversity”. Usually, they don’t look at the quilting too closely.

Instead, they push the narrative with inspirational stories. Any focus on hard-core metrics like test scores is considered….impolite. Acknowledging remedial abilities just interrupts the narrative, raises the politically strained issue of fairness and equal treatment. On that rare occasion when a black or Hispanic actually has competitive numbers, as is the case with Kwasi Enin or ‘Tunde Ahmad, we see several billion versions of the same story as the media leaps gratefully for the opportunity to provide hard metrics that are within range of those a white or Asian would need.

But more common are happy profiles like this LA Times piece on four African American girls from Alliance William & Carol Ouchi High School who are choosing between UCLA and UC San Diego, focusing on their concerns that these elite campuses might be racist. A more rigorously reported story would have revealed that the school’s EAP scores suggest that none of the girls are ready for college-level work, that readiness might be a bigger problem than racism. I’ve been trying to figure out why the Gates Millennium Scholars Program rejected Kyle, but the media is no help, providing only puff pieces short on specifics, often little more than press releases.

Also typical are the sad stories, portrayals of unprepared or struggling students of color who came to an elite university with high hopes only to struggle or completely fail, or stories sounding the alarm about the low rate of black and Hispanic college readiness. This kicks off the usual reproach cycle: Arne Duncan comes in with bromides about higher expectations, conservatives complain about affirmative action and mismatch theory, liberals push public school integration.

Yet no one wants to draw the obvious line from the vague praise of hardworking high-schoolers with no objective metrics to the sad profiles of the unprepared college students, much less the general concerns about readiness. So all of these stories exist in their own separate universes.

Rarely seen are profiles of economically disadvantaged blacks and Hispanics who meet the ACT benchmarks or score over 2000 on the SAT, or who score a 4 or a 5 on an AP test other than Spanish Language. In a much-discussed profile of an unprepared, almost illiterate, black student at Berkeley, just a paragraph was given over to his friend Spencer Simpson, who was clearly thriving. As I mentioned, I can find no rigorous reporting on the Gates Millennium Scholarship program, providing hard data on the winners, asking for SAT averages and perhaps a query or two about their demographic and geographic distribution, so that kids like Kyle can know if it’s worth their time to apply.

When Harvard brags that they’ve admitted more blacks than ever, reporters should be there asking what the average black SAT score was, or if their focus on basketball players has reduced opportunities for higher-achieving low income black students. When schools discuss their efforts to enroll more under-represented minorities, reporters should be there asking if high-scoring members of this population are being overlooked in favor of black or Hispanic legacies or athletes, or if their KIPP pledges led them to reject equally or higher qualified minority students lacking the charter’s promotion machine. When Kwasi Enin held a press conference to announce his selection of Yale, at least one reporter should ask Kwasi what schools accepted the 10 kids who were ranked ahead of him in high school.

I understand the reluctance to reveal just how few high academic achievers are found among students of color. But the media’s determination to focus on race first, objective metrics never, is allowing universities to do the same.

If there were more focus on high achieving students of color throughout their high school years, the ones with high test scores instead of just high GPAs, these achievers would not only receive well-deserved publicity, but universities would be served notice. The harsh truth is this: Kyle was rejected from all those schools because all those schools knew no one was watching.

Yes, I’m cynical. More than ever, I now know that the rhetoric we get from colleges, from the media, even from well-meaning high schools offering encouragement, is not much more than propaganda, unrelated to the gritty reality of building a media-approved freshman class that still keeps all the necessary connections well-oiled and satisfied.

But as the title says, this essay’s also about Kyle.

He’s a great kid–funny, quirky, chatty, upbeat. He was surprised and chagrined at his results, but not bitter. He committed to Brown, which had always been one of his top choices, and got a great financial package. His parents, who found an affordable apartment by the new year, have now sent all of their five sons to college, despite their financial struggles, and are relocating to Atlanta after driving Kyle to his future.

Kyle triumphed over economic insecurity to achieve academic success and acceptance to an Ivy League school, with the help of his loving family and a high school that gave him a good education and a supportive environment. But his success is due most of all to his development of great natural abilities and his determination in the face of considerable adversity—and no doubt, his positively chirpy good-spirited view of life.

So while I struggle with my own disillusionment about the college admissions process that seems not only opportunistic but very nearly corrupt, I still smile every time I remember that Kyle achieved his goal.

1 This is his real name.

2CDS Links: Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Penn, Cornell, Dartmouth, Stanford, UC San Diego, Johns Hopkins

 

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Cursive Writing and Coding: Conflicts over School Goals (Part 1)

Schools as “museums of virtue”* and schools as engines of change have been dominant and conflicting metaphors in the history of school reform. In the mid-19th century, tax-supported public schools pursued Reading, ‘Riting, ‘Rithmetic–the three Rs. Basic literacy–being able to read the Bible, write one’s name, know elementary ciphering, and absorb family and community values–were the primary reasons for creating public schools. In a predominantly rural society, one-room schools sought to preserve the virtues of Protestantism, instill basic literacy, strengthen patriotism, and social custom through the three Rs.

One hundred and fifty years later, public schools are not only expected to instill the traditional three Rs and socialize children into dominant societal values but also expected to be responsible for the “whole child” and change society for the better. There has been an unrelenting expansion of traditional  three Rs to now include a suite of literacies:  scientific , numeracy, technological, and civic. The notion of schools as “museums of virtue” still exists but now competes with the idea that schools were (and are) engines of political, social, and economic changes that could (and should) transform the nation. That conflict can best be seen in the demise of cursive writing and the recent spread of K-12 students learning to code.

Goodbye Cursive

Recent articles (see here and here) have documented the slow death of a traditional subject in the elementary school curriculum for well over a century. Since the 1970s, teaching penmanship, usually in the second or third grades, declined. With 45 states adopting Common Core Standards in which there is no mention of cursive writing has hammered the last nail into the penmanship tradition. Well, not quite.

Efforts to prevent the extinction of an endangered school subject in North Carolina, Indiana and a few other states have led to legislative mandates that penmanship be taught in elementary school. That delaying action, however, will not alter the eventual disappearance of handwriting from the curriculum.

Arguments for dropping cursive handwriting include irrelevance–block printing is now acceptable in replacing cursive, typing is far more efficient than handwriting, standardized tests do not require handwriting–and its difficulty for many students to learn who will not use it much in the rest of their lives. Finally, teaching handwriting takes up valuable time in the second and third grades that could be better spent on acquiring Common Core content and skills and preparing for high-stakes standardized tests.

Arguments for keeping handwriting, while clearly in the minority, stress tradition and heritage for students writing by hand–reading key documents in the history of the nation, notes students themselves take, and an older generation’s continued use of cursive writing.  Moreover, cursive handwriting helps students develop reading, communication , and hand-eye coordination, experts say.

Even with a few states mandating the teaching of handwriting in school, mournful taps will eventually be blown for penmanship skills. Like the teaching of traditiona lgrammar and diagramming sentences or having students take wood and metal shop courses in junior high school some teaching practices and course-taking have disappeared from the crowded classroom and curriculum as times change. Modern substitutes for these extinct subjects and skills, however, eagerly step into the empty slots.

Enter Coding

Even before the current craze for teaching young children how to write code for computer software (see here, here, and here), the appearance of desktop computers in the early 1980s led quickly to teaching students how to use the keyboard and even write code (remember Basic?).

Keyboarding, like typing, was simple to learn. Computer scientists at that time, however, thought that teaching young children how to write code–I am still referring to the 1980s– would unleash children’s creativity and expression while teaching them to think sequentially and critically.  Using constructivist ways of teaching, children would be able to transfer knowledge and skills from learning to program to  other subjects in the curriculum. This innovation would transform traditional teaching and learning. Beliefs in transfer-of-learning through teaching coding and transformation of the traditional school led to the introduction of Logo in U.S. and British public schools.

The brainchild of Seymour Papert (who had worked with Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget) and a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Logo had children using programming language to command a robotic “turtle” on a computer screen. The MIT team sought to teach young children how to face and solve problems, learn geometric concepts, and bring creativity back into the classroom. The designers saw Logo as a student-centered, progressive innovation that would transform teaching, learning, and the institution of schooling. As one former Logo teacher recalled:

[Logo] was a departure in terms of the pedagogical style… we have a term that is now fairly widely used in this country, “constructivism”. Logo was exactly that, the notion of people constructing
knowledge based on their experience of the world and playing with what they already know and working with other people, and the notion that the teacher should be a helper rather than a dictator
or instructor in the old-fashioned sense..

Logo and its “turtle” swept across many schools here and abroad.

Yet within a decade, the glamor of young children commanding turtles to move across screens evaporated. Although Logo continues to exist, few schools now use the programming language or sustain the culture of learning that Logo promised.

The underlying assumption driving Logo was that students learning skills of programming and being creative would transfer when those students would tackle other cognitive skills and knowledge across the school curriculum. This is a variation, as one reviewer of Seymour Papert’s books put it, of Logo as Latin.

Briefly, those who staunchly argue for the cognitive benefits of learning Latin (e.g., increases English vocabulary, sharpens thinking, and increases SAT scores) assume that studying the language will transfer to English grammar, literature, public speaking, and produce collateral benefits. The research literature on these supposed benefits stretches back to the early 1920s and has disappointed champions of the language time and again (see Timothy Koschmann, Logo as Latin)

Failure of transfer-of-learning and school after school changing Logo to meets its institutional imperatives led to the demise of Logo in public schools.

I believe that those current advocates for teaching children to code have ignored this history, the power of schools as institutions to adopt and transform innovations and, most important, the limits of transfer-of-learning.

_______________________

*”Museums of virtue” come from Willard Waller’s essay on “The School and the Community” in William Goode, et. al., Willard Waller on the Family, Education, and War (University of Chicago Press, 1970), p. 257. David Tyack introduced me to the writings of Willard Waller and referred to schools as museums of virtue in many essays and books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under school reform policies, technology use