Tag Archives: reform policies

Fixing Schools Again and Again

School reform over the past century has skipped from one big policy fix to another without a backward look at what happened the first time around. Or even whether the reforms succeeded. Since World War II, U.S. public schools have been in one crisis or another (see here, here, and here). Reform-minded policymakers have offered rhetoric-wrapped cures time and again without a glance backward. If amnesia were like aphrodisiac pills, policymakers have been popping capsules for years. Memory loss about past school reforms permits policymakers to forge ahead with a new brace of reforms and feel good. Since World War II, U.S. public schools have been in one crisis or another.  What have school reformers targeted?

Current and decades-old Big Policy “solutions” for problems in U.S. schools have sought one or more of the following:

*Fix the students (e.g., early childhood education, family education, teach middle class behaviors and attitudes to students from low-income families)

*Fix the schools (e.g., more parental choice in schools, longer school day and year, reduced class size, higher curriculum standards, more and better tests, accountability for results, different age-grade configurations; give autonomy to schools)

*Fix the teachers (e.g., enlarge the pool of recruits for teaching, better university teacher education, switch from teacher-centered to student-centered ways of teaching, more and better classroom technologies)

Public and policymaker affections have hopscotched from one solution to another then and now and in some instances, combined different fixes (e.g., extending school day, raising standards and increasing accountability for schools and teachers, promoting universal pre-school, pushing problem-based learning).

The evidence to support such skipping to and from has been skimpy, at best. But one should not criticize policymakers for having insufficient evidence prior to imposing new reforms. After all, tax-supported public schools are political institutions and voters, taxpayers, and parents are willing (or unwilling) participants in supporting ideologically based school reforms such as lifting state caps on number of charter schools and expanding testing. Regardless of evidence.

Asking policymakers and practitioners to use evidence-based innovations when a wide range of stakeholders in public schools have to be informed and consulted is, well, asking far too much. Ideologies and political power matter far more than research-derived evidence. Very little evidence, for example, accompanied the New Deal economic and social reforms to combat the Great Depression in the 1930s. Nor did much evidence accompany the launching of Medicare or the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in the 1960s. And very little evidence drove federal oversight of U.S. public schools in No Child Left Behind (2002). Reform-driven policies are (and have been) hardly research-based.

Rather than the constant call for evidence-based policy and practice, perhaps a more realistic standard that federal, state, and local policymakers might use is making policy that is informed by evidence. Such a standard at least acknowledges the political and ideological environment in which pubic schools operate in the U.S.

Yet were such a standard to be used, forgetfulness of past reforms and frequent leaping from one kind of fix to another would still continue. Why is that?

For the past two centuries, political and economic leaders have turned to public schools to solve national social, political, and economic problems. This “educationalizing” of U.S. problems has included racial segregation (e.g., the Brown decision in 1954), national defense (National Defense Education Act in 1958), and inequality issues (e.g., War on Poverty in the 1960s). So the frequent turning of civic, business, and foundation leaders to public schools to fix national political, economic, and social issues has become a nervous tic afflicting national and state policymakers. It explains the jumping from one policy solution to another that veteran school-watchers have noted often.

But political ideologies do shift over time. Just as the dominant Progressive movement between the 1890s and 1940s pervaded the language, curriculum guides, and actions of early-to-mid-20th century policymakers, practitioners, and parents, in the decades following World War II, Progressive ideas and practices declined (except for a brief resurgence in the 1960s) as politically conservative ideologies aimed at fixing the nation’s ills came to dominate reform agendas. And since the mid-1980s, increasing U.S. economic competitiveness in global markets has been the driving force behind U.S. school reform. International tests have been used time and again to compare U.S. students to their European and Asian peers. Fixing  school structure from curriculum standards to time in school to expanded parental choice have been on reformers’ agendas for decades now.

Yet even the current conservative ideology of public schools helping to grow a strong economy may be shifting as parents, Republican legislators and teachers push back against too many standardized tests and coercive accountability. Concerns over federal over-reach in local schools have been central to the contested renewal of No Child Left Behind.

Returning more power to states and local districts to solve problems is clearly in the air (yes, another  structural fix for school problems). Progressive lyrics and melodies of decades past are on the playlists of school reformers. Charter schools, universal preschool, better teacher education, personalized instruction, blended learning, problem-based instruction—often driven by technology-enthusiasts—have the makings of a new Progressive agenda.

This generation of reformers, however, has yet to take a hard look at earlier school reforms that sought to “solve” problems by fixing children, schools, and teachers. My advice to reformers is to nail up on a wall the quote of Andre Gide, Nobel Laureate in literature (1947):

andre-gide-novelist-quote-everything-has-been-said-before-but-since

 

 

 

 

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Long Distance Runners Make the Best Reformers

In 1971, John Gardner, then head of Common Cause, a grassroots organization dedicated to keeping government open and accountable, hired a young staffer to work on cleaning up the dirty money that flowed into Presidential campaigns during Richard Nixon’s term of office. Fred Wertheimer lobbied U.S. senators and congressmen and women to put limits to campaign spending and to keep the donations open to public inspection. At that time, Gardner told Wertheimer, “reform is not for the short-winded.” Over forty years later, Wertheimer continues to work on cleaning up campaign financing and says about Gardner’s advice: “He never told me it was 41 years and counting.”

School reform (championed by the political right, center, or left), like campaign financing, is for long distance runners who have overcome short winded-ness. I made that point when analyzing short-term superintendents like sprinters Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C. and John Deasy in Los Angeles Unified. But short-windedness also applies to the long-haul necessary for incremental school reform in districts to accumulate into something that matters in the lives of students and teachers.

Like building a house, putting in a foundation, wall framing, putting on a roof, wiring and plumbing are done in increments that end up being a finished house. So it is for school reform. Most zealous reformers–be they policymakers, school boards, philanthropists, CEOs–know that in their heads but seldom practice it. Building a house, of course, means the purpose and direction of change is obvious. Not so, for school reform.

District policymakers, administrators, and activist parents–stakeholders–seeing themselves as “agents of change”– seldom ask: change toward what end? Change in of itself becomes the desired outcome, not the district’s long-term direction (e.g., prepare students for an information-driven economy, build decent adults engaged in helping themselves and others). And that is why the short-winded are attracted to school reform. From charter schools to “disruptive innovations” to delivering computer devices en masse to students and teachers, rarely is the question asked: Do these new things take us in the direction that we want to take tax-supported public schools in a democracy? If yes, how? If no, why invest scarce resources in them?  Sprinters worship speed and seldom ask these questions; they want to make grand changes fast and cheap. Marathoners have the time and energy to ask the questions and figure out how to get from here to there in chunks, not all at one time. They seek quality–“good”–over fast and cheap.

I have written a few times about long distance runners as urban superintendents (see here). District marathoners means serving at least a decade in the post. Consider Boston’s former superintendent Thomas W. Payzant, Carl Cohn of the Long Beach, Calif., school district, and Laura Schwalm of California’s Garden Grove Unified School District. To be sure, these long-serving chiefs were beset with political, economic, and demographic challenges over which they had no control. Moreover,  because they were mostly minority districts there were continuing problems of low achievement and test score gaps between minorities and whites that were tough to solve. Criticism often stung. Yet these marathoners quietly and steadily chipped away at these problems.  Their teachers, by and large, were supportive of their school chiefs’ efforts even when local teacher unions disagreed with parts of each one’s reform agenda. These urban superintendents sought incremental changes moving carefully and slowly toward their goals walking hand-in-hand with teachers and their unions.

Then there are a few smaller urban districts that have shifted from mostly white to mostly minority and, in doing so, have still maintained academic achievement even though school boards have changed membership, budget crises occurred, governance shifted, and states required districts to alter programs. In such an ever-changing political context rife with socioeconomic problems, these superintendents hung in, starting new programs here, bolstering older programs there. They worked closely with teachers either within collective bargaining contracts or through meet-and-confer. They not only knew that teachers and teaching were central to student improvement but acted again and again to help teachers do what they did best. In these smaller districts, they worked incrementally towards overall district goals amid demographic shifts and ever-increasing state requirements. One such district prided itself on long-winded superintendents who, with its school board, achieved enviable student outcomes over decades.

The urban district is Arlington (VA).  Since the late-1970s, through shifts in school board governance–Arlington went from appointed to elected board members–and long-serving superintendents, the district has established and maintained a reputation for academic excellence (however measured) as it has changed gradually from a majority-white to majority-minority district. Between 1974 and 2015, for example, the district has had only five superintendents. The current superintendent has been in the post since 2009 and was recently selected as Virginia superintendent for 2014. Public participation in an array of citizen committees including parent involvement in school site decision-making have become an Arlington tradition. Although collective bargaining is banned by the state, teacher and administrative unions have worked closely with district leaders in achieving the school board’s strategic plan. Incremental changes aimed at achieving desired student outcomes have been executed decade after decade to achieve that vision. Sure, there are organizational, curricular, and instructional issues that bother both parents and teachers and need attention. But for an urban district, that kind of continuity in district leadership, public participation, and sustained high academic performance is uncommon.

As John Gardner said: “reform is not for the short-winded.”

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High Performing Minority Districts: An Anomaly?

For the past half-century, efforts to improve largely minority and poor schools have occupied the best minds and received substantial private and public monies. Recall the Effective Schools movement of the 1980s and the federally funded Comprehensive School Reform program in the 1990s.  In the past quarter-century, however, there has been a shift from federal and state officials and private donors looking at individual schools to focusing on districts as the key site for academic improvement. This shift in attention from the individual school to the district marks a return to what has been the historic  pattern of improving schools.

Turning around failing urban districts through law (e.g. No Child Left Behind), federal grants (e.g., School Improvement Grants in the Race To The Top program), and cash prizes (e.g., The Broad Prize in Urban Education) are only the most recent of many well-intentioned efforts. There are, of course, urban districts, large and small, poor and minority, that have been high performing academically but in most of these cases, they were like shooting stars—brilliant for a time, maybe enough to snatch an award, and get cited in a study then poof, gone from sight (see here for Chicago and Atlanta as high achieving districts). The suspension of the one million dollar Broad Prize in Urban Education (2015) underscores how enormously difficult it is for urban districts to maintain improved academic performance. There are, then, very few urban, largely minority districts that have sustained high academic achievement (whatever the metrics) for a decade or more through demographic shifts and school board and superintendent turnover. I did say “very few” so there are some.

Examples might help. The Minority Student Achievement Network  of small cities and first-ring suburbs with 3,000 to 33,000 students has academically high performing districts with sustained improvements using multiple measures. Federal Way (WA), Evanston (IL), Brookline (MA), and Arlington (VA) have demonstrated reductions in the white/minority achievement gap, rising test scores, high graduation and low dropout rates. These districts, to the best of my knowledge have gone unresearched and unevaluated by independent agencies and scholars.

The significant and unaddressed policy question is: How can a largely minority urban school system sustain high student performance in its schools, and classrooms for decades?

Unfortunately, district improvement remains a black box into which hunches, anecdotes, and personal experiences are tossed in the hope that dedication, hard work, and luck will turn failure into success. The absence of relevant research on long-term, high achieving urban districts has been painfully, even embarrassingly, obvious. Looking at a few urban districts that have had sustained success in raising and maintaining high academic achievement over time is a research strategy that can have substantial policy payoff since it is the district that has capacity and resources to make key governance, organizational, curricular, and instructional changes.

Some analysts have identified urban districts that have raised and sustained students’ achievement (e.g., Long Beach, California and Aldine, Texas—both past Broad Prize winners) but independent in-depth, longitudinal studies of those districts have yet to be done. A few researchers have discovered such urban districts that have achieved academic success over longer periods of time. David Kirp (Improbable Scholars, 2013) did that for Union City (NJ); Jane David and Joan Talbert researched Sanger (CA) over the past decade (Turning Around a High-Poverty District, 2013). These qualitative case studies of districts with about 10,000 students each documented various factors that researchers believe answer the how-they-did-it question (e.g., superintendent tenure, school board continuity, funding, principal leadership, district culture). What configuration of factors might explain the decades-long high academic performance of these and other districts, I cannot say now. Until researchers investigate systematically such high performing districts, no policymaker, practitioner, or parent would find out whether patterns that have been studied would compliment, challenge, or amend what has occurred in the few urban districts that have already been examined.

But there is one important factor that would need to be added to the research agenda for such studies.  When investigating uncommonly successful urban districts, the classroom impact of policies on teachers goes unreported. Little systematic examination of the link between adopted policies and actual classroom lessons has been done beyond occasional teacher surveys. In any study of high performing, largely minority districts, I and other researchers should examine academic subjects to determine the impact of system policy on classroom content and pedagogy over time. Recently, I have studied the teaching of history over the past half-century in two urban districts. “Teaching History Then and Now: Stability and Change in Classroom Instruction” (forthcoming from Harvard Education Press). Were I to do such a study of successful urban districts, I would not only look at demographic, political and organizational factors that may explain continuity in academic achievement over time but also inspect what happens in classroom lessons to see what links, if any, exist between district policy and classroom practice.

Investigating urban schools that have sustained academic achievement over time is surely worthwhile but limited since such a school may be a few blocks away from a school that continually fails its students. It is the stable, high-performing district as the unit of reform that offers the most gain for the largest number of students that needs to be studied and analyzed.

 

 

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The Day of Three Miracles (Education Realist)

 For over thirty years, market-driven policies to improve schooling in the U.S. such as standards, testing and accountability have had at their core the belief that both academic excellence and equity–two prized values in this culture–can be achieved at the same time. From No Child Left Behind to Core Curriculum standards, these values advance this belief that both are simultaneously achievable. What Jack Schneider calls “excellence for all” approach to school reform. When value-driven policies meet school and classroom practice, when resources are limited and choices have to be made, however, dilemmas occur because values often conflict and resources are limited. Choices have to be made. Education Realist describes such tensions when academic excellence and equity collide in this story about a high school math department.

Education Realist is a math and history teacher. I have visited this teacher’s classes in math and history on two occasions, and have come to respect the method and curriculum I’ve observed. Education Realist, who wishes to remain anonymous, is also one fine writer who explores tensions and dilemmas that teachers face. Here is one.

A colleague who I’ll call Chuck is pushing the math department to set a department goal. Chuck is in the process of upgrading our algebra 1 classes, and his efforts were really improving outcomes for mid to high ability levels, although the failure rates were a tad terrifying. He has been worried for a while that the successful algebra kids would be let down by subsequent math teachers who would hold his kids to lower standards.

“If we set ourselves the goal of getting one kid from freshman algebra all the way through to pass AP Calculus, we’ll improve instruction for everyone.” (Note: while the usual school year doesn’t allow enough time, our “4×4 full-metal block” schedule makes it possible for a dedicated kid to take a double year of math if he chooses).

Chuck isn’t pushing this goal for the sake of that one kid, as he pointed out in a recent meeting. “If we are all thinking about the kid who might make it to calculus, we’ll all be focused on keeping standards high, on making sure that we are teaching the class that will prepare that kid–if he exists–to pass AP Calculus.”

I debated internally, then spoke up. “I think the best way to evaluate your proposal is by considering a second, incompatible objective. Instead of trying to prepare every kid who starts out behind as if he can get to calculus, we could try to improve the math outcomes for the maximum number of students.”

“What do you mean?”

“We could look at our historical math completion patterns for entering freshmen algebra students, and try to improve on those outcomes. Suppose that a quarter of our freshmen take algebra. Of those students, 10% make it to pre-calc or higher. 30% make it to trigonometry, 50% make it to algebra 2, and the other 10% make it to geometry or less. And we set ourselves the goal of reducing the percentages of students who get no further than geometry or even, ideally, algebra 2, while increasing the percentages of kids who make it into trigonometry and pre-calc by senior year.”

“That’s what will happen with my proposal, too.”

“No. You want us to set standards higher, to ensure that kids getting through each course are only those qualified enough to go to Calculus and pass the AP test. That’s a small group anyway, and while you’re more sanguine than I am about the efficacy of instruction on academic outcomes, I think you’ll agree that a large chunk of kids simply won’t be the right combination of interested and capable to go all the way through.”

“Yes, exactly. But we can teach our classes as if they are.”

“Which means we’ll lose a whole bunch of kids who might be convinced to try harder to pass advanced math classes that weren’t taught as if the only objective was to pass calculus. Thus those kids won’t try, and our overall failure rate will increase. This will lower math completion outcomes.”

Chuck waved this away. “I don’t think you understand what I’m saying. There’s nothing incompatible about increasing math completion and setting standards high enough to get kids from algebra to calculus. We can do both.”

I opened my mouth…and decided against further discussion. I’d made my point. Half the department probably agreed with me. So I decided not to argue. No, really. It was, like, a miracle.

Chuck asked us all to think about committing to this instruction model.

Later that day, I ran into Chuck in the copyroom, and lo, a second miracle took place.

“Hey,” he said. “I just realized you were right. We can’t have both. If we get the lowest ability kids motivated just to try, we have to have a C to offer them, and that lowers the standard for a C, which ripples on up. We can’t keep kids working for the highest quality of A if we lower the standards for failure.”

Both copiers were working. That’s three.

**************************************************************

I do not discuss my colleagues to trash them, and if this story in any way reflects negatively on Chuck it’s not intentional. Quite the contrary, in fact. Chuck took less than a day to grasp my point and realized his goal was impossible. We couldn’t enforce higher standards in advanced math without dooming far more kids to failure, which would never be tolerated.

Thus the two of us collapsed a typical reform cycle to six hours from the ten years our country normally takes to abandon a well-meant but impossible chimera. …

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iPads and Teachers: a Response (Matt Candler)

Matt Candler is CEO of 4.0 Schools. He responded to Peg Tyre’s post in Bright, April 6, 2015. I offer my thoughts on the Tyre post and Candler’s response below.

I loved reading Peg’s piece, especially her take on effective personalized learning at Bricolage Academy — a school I’ve watched grow from an idea in Josh Densen’s head to a thriving community fulfilling many of its promises.

While I agree with Peg’s frustrations about personalized and blended learning overall, her focus on myth-busting stops short of explaining how innovative schools like Bricolage actually get the way they are. Valuing teachers is important, but there’s much more to effective innovation than that.

In particular, I think what makes Bricolage and other innovative communities so disruptive is a focus on mindset before resources.

Here are three techniques great innovators use to create communities like Bricolage — techniques that will make your use of personalized and blended learning better tomorrow. For way less than the $1.3B that Los Angeles spent on iPads.

Good innovators start cheap and iterate.

As we’ve seen in manufacturing, software, and even the restaurant business, waterfall methods (spend tons of time and money to plan the perfect solution, then push it over the waterfall) are losing ground to agile development (start small, iterate quickly based on lots of smaller tests) in schools like Bricolage.

This simple reordering — mindset first, resources second — allows members of innovative communities to make tectonic shifts in traditional approaches by making lots and lots of little bets instead of massive $1.3B gambles that inevitably prove unfulfilling.

This is where I wish Peg dug in more in her explanation of Bricolage culture. It’s not the lack of bells and whistles that makes Bricolage special. What makes Bricolage special is investing in a mindset of creative confidence before picking the bells and whistles.

Look at the tools Diana Turner’s using: homemade YouTube videos (free), cell phone or tablet cameras (probably free) and Google Docs (free). Look at how she’s using them; they make her so human, so real. And she’s modeling for kids how to solve their own challenges in a more creative, efficient way.

This focus on making things seeps into everything at Bricolage. You won’t see many bake sales or book fairs at the school; rather, you’re more likely to get an invite to New Orleans Mini Maker Faire.

Good innovators listen to their users.

Starting cheap and iterating only works if you adjust to user feedback in between each iteration.

Before Josh Densen wrote the application to start his charter school, he started doing “pop-up classrooms” at music festivals around town. He’d cleverly set up his table close enough to the blow-up bounce house that all music festival organizers worth their salt set up — so close that you almost wondered if he was the guy who’d paid for it. He had no brochures, no propaganda. He’d just stand there next to his own kids as they played with some really cool new learning tools he wanted to test. Families would wander in to the festival and do a double take. There Josh would be, smiling, ready to talk with parents about school — what they liked, what they didn’t, what they dreamed of in a school.

A diverse mix of families started showing up at the pop-ups, and Josh felt it was time to test his ideas at a deeper level. He struck a deal with Samuel Green Charter School: he would to show up at the school a few times with some of the pop-up kids, and have them join Green kids in a test run of his design thinking class.

The best entrepreneurs do this consistently; they make high frequency attempts at new solutions — each repeated attempt an improvement based on what they learned from users.

Good innovators steal.

Josh stole his early-stage pop-up ideas from food truck operators. There was a big fight going on at the time between old-line New Orleans restaurants and a bunch of cooks working out of food trucks serving more diverse food. We talked about this fight at 4.0 Schools, where I serve as CEO; one of our teammates, Cambria Martinelli, worked with the food truck coalition on the side.

Steven Johnson, in Where Good Ideas Come From, explains how common this stealing — what he calls “exaptation” — is among innovators. Exaptation occurs when someone crosses the membrane between one domain and another, extracts something that’s serving one purpose there, and then adapts it in the original domain for a different purpose. Josh’s application of the food truck concept in schooling is a great example.

We could use more of this in schooling. Teachers — even the good ones Peg raves about — are often too out of touch with the world around them. In a 2012 study, McKinsey found that only 45% of kids and 42% of employers thought schools were doing a good job preparing students for the world of work. Meanwhile back in our schools, when teachers were asked the same question, 72% said they were doing great.

We’ve created a profession that’s entirely too isolated from the world around it. Shoving tools — hardware or software — into that world won’t do nearly as much as changing the mindsets of the people doing their level best to serve kids within it.

My latest exaptation candidate is twitch.tv. Twitch.tv lets experts in World of Warcraft (or any other game) teach others how to play, hack, and win. Seth Stevenson explained the learning that’s actually happening: “Well, those viewers are finding a community of like-minded souls, they’re engaging over a shared interest, and they’re getting tips from superior gamers on how to win at the games.”

On Twitch, I see more than the 24% engagement Peg mentions as the state of ed-tech today. These platforms aren’t perfect, but I’m inspired by the engagement and curious about how we could exapt this kind of platform into schooling. What if a group of kids tried a low-tech version of twitch.tv for an hour in their own classrooms? How fast could we build on those little experiments to truly rethink engagement? What role would the teacher have in that scenario? What could happen if we really mixed what we know about teaching with examples from completely unexpected places?

Peg got this dialogue going with some myths that deserve busting. But we shouldn’t stop there. We can start making personalized learning better right now. We can start by making many more, much smaller bets. This is better for our kids and for our collective wallet. And we should start listening to our users — students, families, and yes, teachers. Doing so will lead to innovation that’s much more fulfilling. I promise.

_________________________________________

After reading both Tyre and Candler, I had these thoughts.  First, Candler deals with what “ought to be”about innovation and technology in public schools while Tyre deals with “what is” when it comes to technology-assisted personalized instruction (a.k.a. blended learning).  The difference between having a dream of a better future and getting through the day well in an urban school is the difference between wearing rose-colored glasses and seeing the world as it is.  Nothing wrong about dreaming–it can be a beginning point to a finer world–but unanchored in the daily (and gritty) realities of school life, Candler’s “should” becomes seriously detached from any workable strategy of urban school improvement.

Second, Tyre’s focus is on the centrality of a knowledgeable and skilled teacher who understands when and how to use available technologies. Candler’s focus mentions teachers, of course, but unrelentingly directs the reader’s attention to innovation and what’s in the heads of those innovators–their “mindset.” No word about the conditions on the ground, the context in which school and classroom innovations are birthed and nurtured.Not a syllable mentioned about the abundance of inexperienced teachers visited upon urban children and youth.

Third, Candler’s takes the one example of Josh Densen, founder of the New Orleans Parish charter called Bricolage, and shows how Schools 4.0, an organization Candler founded, helped incubate the charter to where it is now. Bricolage opened two years ago and now has 150 students in kindergarten and first grade. It is a fine, worthy example. But Bricolage or similar instances of schools cannot do the serious cooking in the kitchen necessary to understand deeply the work facing teachers seeking to improve urban schooling. Tyre’s analysis of myths points to a stronger meat-and-potatoes (or vegan) technology-enhanced diet that can improve urban schools. Candler’s offers bytes of cotton candy.

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iPads and Teachers: Why Technology-assisted Learning Will Never, on Its Own, Solve Our Education Crisis (Peg Tyre)

Peg Tyre is a journalist. This article appeared in Bright, April 6, 2015.

At the Carpe Diem-Meridian School in Indianapolis, row after row of students are wearing headphones and staring into computer screens. Although they look like employees at a call center, they are actually fifteen-year-olds tackling algebra concepts. Their lessons were delivered earlier in the day by a software program offered by Edgenuity and reinforced by an instructor. Now the students are working through problems on their monitors, to show they have mastered it. Their results will be quickly fed back to their instructors, who will use it to shape the next day’s instruction.

Two students finish quickly and check the overhead monitor for their next task. Others are sweating through sophisticated problems. A few, who are struggling with the material, are working on problems that a software algorithm has determined are simpler but will help build the foundational skills they need. And, as in any classroom, some students are using ancient technology that has become less central at Carpe Diem schools — a notepad and a pen — to make abstract doodles.

Improvements in public education, we are told, are going to be accelerated, disrupted, and finally transformed by technology-assisted personalized learning (also known as blended learning). For the first time in the history of schooling, kids can interact with their teachers through personal computers or iPads. With adaptive assessment, continuous feedback will create a constantly changing portrait of what kids know, allowing algorithms to recalibrate lessons to fit students’ needs.

The promise is this: all children, particularly those in isolated rural communities and those in chaotic schools with inexperienced teachers, will be able to get the kind of education that was once reserved for the elite.

Technology will create private tutors that are masters of their subjects. But unlike human teachers — who are expensive and time-consuming to train, have variable levels of talent, and leave the profession in droves — the electronic versions will be cheap, top-notch from the very start, easily updatable, and available 24/7.

In theory, it should work. Kurt VanLehn, a researcher at Arizona State University, conducted a meta-analysis of more than 80 studies of “intelligent,” computer-based tutoring systems — ones used to teach physics to college students, physics, or medical students about cardiovascular physiology — and found that the best of these systems can nearly match the performance of human tutors.

Schools like KIPP Empower, Carpe Diem, and Rocketship, along with sites like Khan Academy, show anecdotal evidence that given the right circumstances, blended learning works. Enticed by incentives from the federal government and deep-pocketed philanthropy, superintendents all over the country, from Tulsa to Ann Arbor, are recasting budgets and issuing bonds in order to invest in the hardware needed to bring blended learning to their struggling districts.

Blended learning models, which were pioneered for corporations and the military, have been around since the 1990s. The rush to add blending learning in classrooms, though, began in earnest about a dozen years ago. Thus far, however, solid research on the effects of K-12 blended-learning is thin. Smaller studies, most often conducted with older students, suggest that blended-learning can produce a modestly positive effect on learning — although researchers warn the uptick is just as likely to be a product of extended learning time and focus, rather than any alchemy of teaching and technology. It seems to work best when students are learning math, which relies in part on students learning, practicing, and applying procedural knowledge.

Still, everyone wants the magic bullet that will help all kids — especially poor kids — learn more with less.

There have been some high profile setbacks. In Los Angeles, the $1.3 billion effort to give iPads to 650,000 public schools students went up in flames. The software was incomplete, and many students used the tablets to play Candy Crush rather than watch historic presidential speeches. Within a few months, the superintendent was out of a job and the entire initiative was under investigation by the FBI. Across the country, the school district in Guilford County, North Carolina, once held up as a model early adopter, struggled and hit the reset button on their program, too.

To be sure, schools are successfully using education technology for targeted tasks, like streamlining parent-teacher communication, collecting homework, disseminating grades, filing permission slips, and letting teachers share lesson plans. But efficient, low-cost, sustainable blended learning in the classroom is turning out to be hard to do right. And in many cases, it is freighted with hidden costs: replacing broken hardware, updating software, retro-fitting old buildings for WiFi, and providing adequate training to new teachers.

These days, it’s common to find schools obtaining impressive student gains with technology-assisted learning — but it may be equally common to find schools where it was announced with great fanfare but died a quick, quiet death. Those classrooms are now littered with racks of unused iPads and broken Chromebooks.

Teaching kids, especially those who lag behind, is hard. It requires focus, energy, deep knowledge and resources. Technology changes the equation — but perhaps not as dramatically as blended learning evangelists want us to believe.

Here are four observations that ground the conversation about personalized learning in the messy realities of educating young people — and especially our vulnerable learners.

1. There is no magic device that helps kids learn more.

When you hear about some grand new initiative to give every student an iPad or smartphone, be very skeptical. No single piece of technology has yet to change the basic nature of teaching and learning. Radio, television, CDs, Smartboards, and personal computers were all hailed as transformative educational innovations in their day. They were not. iPads won’t be either. There is a big difference between finding new ways to deliver information and true educational innovation, which a far more complicated endeavor. Yes, an iPad can make an endless supply of images, books and instructional videos available to students any time, anywhere. But learning is about engaging with that material in deep, essentials ways that help build, extend and ultimately create new knowledge. It takes more than swiping.

2. For the most part, education software is worse than you think.

Teaching may look easy, but great teaching is complicated.

Master teachers are something like NBA stars; they have a seemingly endless supply of tiny, almost gestural moves that can have a big impact on a kid’s cognition. They make split-second choices about how to introduce new ideas, speak in a way that resonates, order concepts for maximum comprehension, and reinforce ideas and skills. Those choices depend on the teacher’s reading of the subtleties of a specific situation.

Technology-assisted personalized learning has come a long way, but it’s hard to get software to replicate what teachers do. And too often, it ends up being a simple lesson and an electronic worksheet buried among some zippy graphics.

Getting it right will require continual investment on the part of many software designers. What’s the holdup? It’s not clear what the financial incentive will be. Great teachers aren’t likely to buy into the vision of any single ed tech company. They want to integrate ideas — likely from several sources, designers, and companies — into their own creative processes. Schools that are trying to move from terrible to so-so might grab hold of a one-size-fits-all software package. But until education entrepreneurs develop easy-to-use, software than can be splintered in many different ways, great teachers won’t use it and the promise of technology-assisted personalized learning will be unfulfilled. “It’s like the printing press has been invented,” said one teacher in New Orleans wistfully. “But the great books have not yet been written.”

3. Tech-assisted personalized learning is not going to be the answer for every kid.

For those in the education reform community, making a visit to a Carpe Diem schools is like the hajj. You are strongly advised to do it once. And for good reason. Carpe Diem schools, which exist in Arizona, Indianapolis, Ohio, and soon Texas, look and run differently than the high school you probably attended: no gym, no lockers, no pep rally. Instead, Carpe Diem instruction is delivered through computers and supplemented by face-to-face instruction. Their tasks are directed by overhead airport-style monitors. There are no ringing bells to mark the end of class. Students advance at their own pace.

Since adapting the blended-learning model in 2006, results at the first Carpe Diem school in Yuma, Arizona have been strong. The sixth graders there were first in the state in math in 2010. Other Carpe Diem schools have boasted similar results. The per-pupil cost is lower than at traditional public schools, too.

Carpe Diem schools are not for every kid, though. Founder Rick Ogston cracked that he opened Carpe Diem to provide kids with a great education — but many of the initial applicants had exactly the opposite idea in mind. “They took one look at the computers, the lack of supervision and oversight, and thought it would be good way to avoid getting a great education,” he said. “And that’s what we have to watch out for.” He’s joking, of course, but there’s a grain of truth there.

Indeed, in a recent survey by the education tech company TES Global, only twenty-four percent of 1,000 U.S. teachers who used their products agreed that technology “improves student engagement.”

In other words, three-quarters of teachers using educational technology — remember, these are not Luddites but teachers that are already logging in — believe it has no effect, or worse, is a distraction.

4. Technology-assisted personalized learning is not going to get rid of a central problem in American schooling: We are not training and retaining nearly enough great teachers.

Everyone wants a plug-and-play school, with cheap, portable, high-quality lessons originated by a single instructor and delivered to thousands of students. It’s a vision — think Khan Academy on steroids — that promises to resolve what has become a seemingly intractable problem in American public education: we aren’t producing that many great teachers. One charter network in Ohio is experimenting with robot teachers — four foot plastic towers topped with a video image of the (off-site) teacher’s face.

Up close, technology-assisted personalized learning doesn’t seem to reduce the need for great teachers; in fact, the most successful programs seem to rely on them. In the Bricolage Academy, a charter school in a middle-class neighborhood in New Orleans, first grade teacher Diana Turner uses technology to amplify what she does best: explain and reinforce complex mathematical concepts so that six-year-olds can grasp and retain it. She then provides the children with opportunities to use that knowledge in a variety of different ways.

It looks like this. First, Turner gives her full class a high-energy lesson on how to add two digit numbers in their heads. “What does 54 plus 24 equal, Ce’ Leb?” she asks. Ce’ Leb knits his brow. She waits for the answer. “88,” he says finally. “Why do you think that?” she asks. While explaining how he broke the numbers down into tens and ones, he realizes his mistake and amends his answer.

By her students’ facial expressions and body language, Turner can tell which kids are getting it (most) and which kids aren’t (four kids in particular seem a little foggy on the whole idea.) She puts the bulk of her class to work on a simple pencil-and-paper worksheet and quickly reteaches the concept to two of the laggards.

After a few minutes, she reformulates her class again. A group of eight kids begin representing a list of two-digit numbers by counting beans into tens and ones cups, giving them a physical sense of place value. Five others grab chunky plastic covered iPads, don headphones, and listen to Turner via some homemade videos she posted to YouTube. In the videos, she is coaching her students to add two digit numbers on a dry erase board, photograph their results, and send it to her Google Docs account. With fourteen of her students learning with iPads and YouTube or Dixie Cups and dried beans, Turner is free to give a quick private lesson to two students who need it re-explained.

Bricologe principal Josh Densen believes blended learning is great “because it allows us to enhance the teacher’s effect. But it only works so well because we have a great teacher who is running it.”

Can technology-assisted personalized learning work with sub-standard teachers or teachers who work remotely and never meet their students at all? “I’ve seen schools try that,” said Densen, with a shrug. “It’s not something we think is viable.”

School staffing is notoriously unstable. Superintendents come and go, principals are increasingly on the move, and most teachers leave the profession in five years. What happens when superstar teachers like Turner move on?

Densen’s formula is to make sure technology enhances but doesn’t replace the relationship between teacher and student, which from his perspective, “needs to be at the center of every kid’s learning experience.” And that means investing in technology for the classroom but also investing in coaching to help Bricolage teachers grow.

Finding and growing great teachers is devilishly hard. Retaining them is very expensive. Without them, though, technology-assisted personalized learning is just not a way to do more with less. Rather, it is a way to deliver less with less. And that would be a promise unfilled.

Part 2 of this guest post will be a response to this post from Matt Chandler, CEO of 4.0 Schools.

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Charter Schools, Politics, and Democracy (Part 3)

Yes, publicly-funded charter schools in the U.S. are here to stay. More than 6,400 exist in the U.S. with most located in big cities (there are 100,000 regular schools). Charters enroll over 2.5 million students (over 50 million attend U.S. public schools). No, charter schools will not become the majority anytime soon. But they will be an important albeit small fraction of U.S. schools in 2050.

The “charter wars” over whether they are efforts to “privatize” public schools or whether charters are more effective than regular public schools or whether they are really “public” will continue to be fought by pundits, politicians, and warring factions but they will be skirmishes that won’t even deserve a footnote in the next generation’s doctoral dissertations. For better or worse–I believe better–the political invention of charter schools a quarter-century ago has been one of the legacies left by market-based school reforms, a movement dating back to the early 1980s. Largely located in urban districts, charters have offered hope to highly motivated parents trapped by poverty and circumstance that their children can escape the ravages of imposed economic inequality. The next generation of publicly-funded charters extending into the middle of the 21st century will be better monitored than they are now but, as before, will be largely found in urban districts unless major changes in the socioeconomic structures of the U.S occur to rid cities of residential segregation and severe economic inequalities.  Minority parents in 2050 will continue to be stuck and publicly-funded charters will, as they do now, offer a rung to grab climbing the ladder out of poverty .

Why am I so sure about charters being around mid-21th century?

Because the history of public schools in the U.S. has been a gradual stretching of the word “public” when it comes to schooling the young. Few remember or consult the history of U.S. education to note that nearly all schooling in the 18th and early 19th centuries was private. There were a handful, at best, of tax-supported public schools. Sure, the Puritans in New England mandated that communities with at least 50 families had to establish a school funded by property holders. Few were established, however. Those parents who wanted their children to read the bible, compute numbers, and write had to pay tuition to send their children to private academies and “dame” schools. For the urban poor in early 19th century cities like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, philanthropists organized “charity” schools where young children could learn to read, write, and do arithmetic. Still, most children went unschooled.

The mid-19th century  “common school” movement established tax-supported public schools for children (none, however, for slaves or free “colored” of those times) across the Northeast and Midwest. Taxes went to school the young, both male and female, to make them literate and law-abiding adults who would contribute to their communities and the nation. Reformers of that generation saw public schools as the “balance wheel of the social machinery” and making democratic citizens. They were political institutions.

After the Civil War, the idea of tuition-free public schools was stretched again to include ex-slaves. The establishment of tax-supported public schools, legally segregated by skin color, lasted until the late-20th century. Then the idea of “public” stretched to include other minority children and youth previously relegated to segregated schools or who went unschooled such as children and youth with disabilities.

Private schools–those earlier academies–run by religious and non-religious groups, of course, continued over two centuries expanding and contracting as time passed. The success of tax-supported public schools can be seen in the 90 percent of U.S. children attending those schools (2011). But as any reader knows, the quality of those public schools vary tremendously, especially across and within urban, suburban, exurban, and rural districts.

Toward the end of the 20th century, another stretching of the meaning of “public” occurred, again, aimed at mostly under-served urban minority children in the nation. Alternative schools (magnets, “open” and “free” schools proliferated from desegregation and challenges to the K-12 structures), began in the 1960s and spread. An in the early 1990s, publicly-funded chartered schools opened in Minnesota, one of the first being City Academy High School in St. Paul where three teachers welcomed 25 high school dropouts. Since then more charter schools have spread across the country, mostly in cities. Charters are now 6 percent of all public schools (24 percent of the nation’s schools are private).

Looking through the telescope rather than the microscope permits me to take the long view when it comes to publicly-funded charter schools. I see 2015 as part of another stretching of the term public to include charter schools. And that is why I believe charter schools are here to stay.

 

 

 

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