Tag Archives: reform policies

Business-inspired School Reform: Has the Wave Crested?

I saw this cartoon and burst out laughing.

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The cartoonist takes airline frequent flier practices that sort out passengers for best-to-worst seating and applied it to school busing.  The New Yorker cartoonist’s pen  gives satisfaction to critics of business-influenced school reform, by poking at the unrelenting “privatization” of public schooling over the past three decades.

Although no critic of such reforms that I have read or heard has suggested this practice, those who criticize  the charter school movement, expanded parental choice, the standards/testing/accountability movement, and evaluating teachers using student test scores have pointed to  hedge fund managers, philanthropists who made their money in business, corporate CEOs, Business Roundtable executives and Chambers of Commerce knee-deep in these initiatives. Critics see such support for these reforms as strong evidence of “privatization.”

Both critics and champions of these reforms, however, seldom mention the decades-long commercial penetration of schooling in everything from ads displayed on high school gymnasia and football fields, or curriculum materials supplied by corporations, or deals with soda companies in vending machines–and on and on. And don’t forget ads on school buses.

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Researchers have documented the spread of this sort of business influence for decades. This nexus between commerce and public schooling has a long history and is not a recent phenomenon. As early as the 1890s, business leaders have lobbied for vocational education and succeeded in adding such courses of study to public schools. Since then, reformers have turned to using successful business practices in schools time and again (e.g., Malcolm Baldrige Quality Awards to schools).

Educationalizing” national problems from racial segregation to national defense to economic growth has been a definite pattern in the history of school reform. But is the current instance business-minded reform tying schooling to economic prowess fading in U.S. public schools?

There are some signs that it is. With the slow-motion retreat from the punitive No Child Left Behind law in the U.S. Congress reauthorizing the Every Student Succeeds Act (2015), increasing evidence that National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores have leveled off and even fallen, a growing “opt-out” movement of parents objecting to standardized tests, and increasing public awareness of non-school factors strongly influencing students’ academic performance, talk about “privatization”  is slowly waning as policymakers, practitioners, researchers, and parents see that simple-minded applications of business “best practices” fail to deal with core issues in schooling U.S. children (see N-gram mentions of “privatization” peaking in 2003). And so has the failed adoption of business-inspired practices such as determining teacher effectiveness on the basis of student test scores.

Yet there are signs that counter such evidence of waning interest in business-inspired reforms. Charter school annual growth continues at a six percent rate; 43 states now allow charter schools (see here). In some urban districts, more than half of public school students attend charter schools (e.g., New Orleans, Detroit) and others are approaching that (e.g., Washington, D.C., Cleveland, Ohio). Widespread adoption of charter schools have left what appears to be a permanent footprint in U.S. schools.

Moreover, while growing popular resentment to testing is clearly in evidence, and the number of annual tests will probably decrease, ending annual standardized testing is not about to happen simply because quantitative school outcome measures are essential accountability tools in any $600-plus billion industry, public or private . And standardized test scores are an inexpensive way to measure school output, as top business leaders might say.

Signs and counter-signs, feathers in the wind, do not encourage certainty over whether these reforms are continuing to flow or ebb. While I am unsure whether business-inspired reform has passed its peak, unadorned enthusiasm for such changes has clearly diminished. So what’s on the horizon for the next school reform?

School reform has been cyclical—rising support for changes that conserve the best of current teacher-centered practices and restore confidence in authority  giving way over time to rising support for ways to cultivate new knowledge and skills that prepare the “whole” student for an unknown future while releasing their individual potential–for well over a century. These cycles occur because public schools are political institutions highly vulnerable to national policymakers who  “educationalize” social problems. Given that knowledge, I do see an emerging “progressive” coalition aimed at resurrecting the “whole child” as the target for school reform on the cusp of being ready for prime time. Growing clamor for installing “social-emotional” curriculum in schools, less testing, and more online instruction, “personalized” learning, and integrating technology into daily lessons  suggest the outline of another effort to re-focus attention on more than test scores in judging school success.

The nature of political and popular school reform is that it occurs in fragmented, incremental steps often in a zig-zag and jagged, not linear,  fashion. Then, after awhile, it is noticed, reported on, and becomes “real.” I believe that is what is occurring now.

The New Yorker cartoon is one of those feathers in the wind.

 

 

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Does Pre-Kindergarten Education Work – or Not? (Isabel Sawhill)

Making policy to improve schooling has been popular for the past century. And constant. Because making policy is a political decision and schools have been vulnerable to every gust of the reform wind, research and best-available- evidence has played a part in that decision-making process. The past three U.S. Presidents and Congress have supported pre-kindergarten programs with both words and dollars. Yet critics have pointed out shortcomings to both the research and argument for bringing three- and four year-olds into a school-like setting. Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., summarizes well the point-counterpoint of the policy debate. This op-ed appeared April 19, 2016.

 

In this tumultuous election year one wonders whether reasoned debate about education or other policies is still possible. That said, research has a role to play in helping policymakers make good decisions – if not before than after they are in office. So what do we know about the ability of early education to change children’s lives? At the moment, scholars are divided. One camp argues that pre-k doesn’t work, suggesting that it would be a mistake to expand it. Another camp believes that it is one of the most cost-effective things we could do to improve children’s lifetime prospects, especially if they come from disadvantaged homes.

The pre-k advocates cite several earlier demonstrations, such as the Perry Preschool and Abecedarian programs. These have been rigorously evaluated and found to improve children’s long-term success, including less use of special education, increases in high school graduation, reduced crime, and higher earnings. Participants in the Abecedarian program, for example, earned 60 percent more than controls by age 30. Mothers benefit as well since more of them are able to work. The Abecedarian project increased maternal earnings by $90,000 over the course of the mother’s career. Finally, by reducing crime, improving health, and decreasing the need for government assistance, these programs also reduce the burden on taxpayers. According to one estimate, the programs even increase GDP to the tune of $30 to $80 billion (in 2015 dollars) once the children have moved into and through their working lives. A careful summary of all this research can be found in this year’s Economic Report of the President. The Report notes, and I would emphasize, that no one study can do justice to this issue, and not every program has been successful, but the weight of the evidence points strongly to the overall success of high-quality programs. This includes not just the small, very intensive model programs, but importantly the large, publically-funded pre-school programs such as those in Boston, Tulsa, Georgia, North Carolina, and New Jersey. Some estimates put the ratio of benefits to costs at $7 to $1. Very few investments promise such a large return. Pre-k advocates admit that any gains in IQ may fade but that boosts to nonacademic skills such as self-control, motivation, and planning have long-term effects that have been documented in studies of siblings exposed to differing amounts of early education.

The pre-k critics point to findings from rigorous evaluations of the national Head Start program and of a state-wide program in Tennessee. These studies found that any gains from pre-k at the end of the program had faded by the time the children were in elementary school. They argue that the positive results from earlier model programs, such as Perry and Abecedarian, may have been the result of their small scale, their intensity, and the fact that the children involved had few alternative sources of care or early education. Children with more than adequate home environments or good substitute child care do not benefit as much, or at all, from participating in a pre-k program. In my view, this is an argument for targeted programs or for a universal program with a sliding scale fee for those who participate. In the meantime, it is too early to know what the longer-term effects of current programs will be. Despite their current popularity among scholars, one big problem with randomized controlled trials (RCTs) is that it takes a generation to get the

answers you need. And, as is the case with Perry and Abecedarian, by the time you get them, they may no longer be relevant to contemporary environments in which mothers are better educated and more children have access to out-of-home care.

In the end, you can’t make public policy with RCTs alone. We need to incorporate lessons from neuroscience about the critical changes to the brain that occur in early childhood and the insights of specialists in child development. We need to consider what happens to non-cognitive skills over the longer term. We need to worry about the plight of working mothers, especially single parents, who cannot work without some form of out-of-home care. Providing that care on the cheap may turn out to be penny wise and pound foolish. (A universal child care program in Quebec funded at $5 a day led to worse behavior among the kids in the program.) Of course we need to continuously improve the effectiveness of pre-k through ongoing evaluation. That means weeding out ineffective programs along with improving curriculum, teacher preparation and pay, and better follow-up in the early grades. Good quality pre-k works; bad-quality does not. For the most disadvantaged children, it may require intervening much earlier than age 3 or 4 as the Abecedarian program did — with strikingly good results.

Our society is coming apart. Scholars from AEI’s Charles Murray to Harvard’s Robert Putnam agree on that point. Anything that can improve the lives of the next generation should command our attention. The evidence will never be air-tight. But once one adds it all up, investing in high quality pre-k looks like a good bet to me.

 

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Learning to Code vs. Coding to Learn (Michael Trucano)

Michael Trucano posted this on his blog December 8. 2015. From the World Bank blog: “Michael Trucano is the World Bank’s Senior Education & Technology Policy Specialist and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, serving as the organization’s focal point on issues at the intersection of technology use and education in middle- and low-income countries and emerging markets around the world. At a practical working level, Mike provides policy advice, research and technical assistance to governments seeking to utilize new information and communication technologies (ICTs) in their education systems. Over the past 18 years, Mike has been advisor on, evaluator of, and/or working-level participant in, educational technology initiatives in over 45 middle- and low-income countries.”

 

“Coding”, it is said by some, is the “new literacy”. The ability to write and understand computer code, some contend, is increasingly fundamental to understanding how to navigate one’s way through, to say nothing of succeeding in, a modern society where more and more of our lives are enabled and/or constrained by the actions of devices and information systems that run on computer code.

Few would argue with the notion, I would expect, that efforts to expose some students to ‘coding’, and to develop some related skills, is a bad thing. That said:

Should *all* students learn how to code?
All? That’s ridiculous! some would answer.
All? Absolutely! others respond.

I’ve sat in on a number of related discussions in ministries of education and at education policy forums around the world. At times, it can seem like members of these two groups are not only on different pages, but reading from totally different books. Those people just don’t get it, I’ve have heard representatives from both groups lament about each other after the conclusion of such meetings.

For what it’s worth, and in case it might be of any interest to others, here are, in no particular order, some of the most common arguments I hear made both in support of, and against, educational coding initiatives:

Coding education will help students acquire vocational skills that are immediately relevant to today’s job market.
Look at all of the IT-related jobs available in the world, coding education advocates say. Shouldn’t our schools be specifically preparing our students to compete for them? Setting aside larger questions about the proper place of vocationally-oriented classes and approaches within an education system (some folks have a bit more expanded view of what ‘education’ should mean than something that is only meant to prepare the workers of tomorrow) and agreeing that some perspectives are a bit extreme (“Latest Craze for Chinese Parents: Preschool Coding Classes”), critics respond that many related efforts are a waste of time in practice for a number of reasons. These include that: (a) they focus on developing largely mechanical processes that are easily learned in other venues; (b) they are largely concerned with “job-relevant” skills of today, not tomorrow; (c) initiatives of this sort are largely driven by the business sector (a group whose motives they view with great suspicion); and (d) many current efforts have little pedagogical value in and of themselves. Often cited with particular disdain are projects purportedly about coding but which amount to little more than learning how to use basic office tools such as word processors and presentation software. Proponents counter that arguing that something shouldn’t be done in the future because it is often done badly today doesn’t always make for a winning argument, and that just because the private sector supports a particular activity in schools doesn’t necessarily mean it is bad or that nefarious intentions are at play. Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, they respond.

Coding helps develop important logic and problem-solving skills.
Steve Jobs remarked that “coding teaches you how to think”. Few would argue against the notion that, when taught well, education in coding can help develop important logical thinking and problem-solving skills. Indeed, most coding education is at its very heart about logic and meant to be oriented to help people identify and solve specific problems (whether they are as basic as “have a greeting appear on the screen” or “move this turtle up and to the left” or as complex as trying model projected rainfall patterns or the transmission of a virus throughout a population). In response, critics argue that coding courses have no monopoly on the development of such skills, and that in fact such skills should be embedded throughout an entire curriculum, not the focus of a single school subject 

Understanding coding helps students better understand the nature of the world around them, and how and why increasing parts of it function as they do.
Computers play increasingly large roles in our lives, and so it’s important to understand how they function. There tends, I find, to be general agreement about this statement among education policymakers, although different groups nevertheless disagree on its practical relevance, given many competing priorities. That said, it is perhaps worth noting that many critics of educational coding efforts may perhaps not fully grasp the potential import of this observation. Computers don’t have minds of their own (at least not yet, anyway!), they act only according to the instructions that have been programmed into them. The price you are charged in the market, why your government or a private company thinks you might do (or not do) something, why a search result appears on your screen – such things are increasingly not directly determined by the whim or a person, but rather by an algorithm (or combination of algorithms) that someone has created. Understanding what such algorithms enable, and how, will increasingly be important to understand our increasingly digitized world. (Technology is neither good nor bad, Melvin Kranzberg noted, nor is it neutral.) Those who acknowledge the potentially profound insights that might follow from such observations may still argue that there is a very practical and immediate opportunity cost here: If you add coding to the mandatory curriculum for all students, what comes out? Some places are considering doing things like letting coding courses be used to meet foreign languageor basic mathematicsrequirements – is this a good thing?

Teaching students to code can serve as a gateway to subsequent study of STEM topics — and hopefully to jobs and careers in related fields.
Reasonable people can disagree about the exact nature and magnitude of the ‘STEM challenge’ (i.e. problems that arise because insufficient numbers of students are studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics … a topic for another blog post, perhaps). That said, even where critics concede that such a challenge exists, they may ask: Is ‘coding’ really this really the ‘best’ gateway to boost general interest in STEM? If coding is not well taught, might it in fact dissuade some students from further study of STEM topics, and thus decrease the likelihood that they pursue STEM-related careers? Is coding education in schools indeed a gateway to coding, or is it in practice just ‘edutainment’, something to do with all the computers that schools have purchased and still haven’t figured out how to use productively — better than nothing, to be sure, but not better than many potential alternatives?

Introducing coding in schools can be a force for greater equity and equality of opportunity.
There can be little doubt that the tech industry suffers from a real problem related to diversity (or, more accurately, a lack of diversity). Efforts to introduce coding in schools in some places are seen as a measure that can help with this. Advocates maintain that, when coding is something that everyone does, it is no longer something just e.g. for boys, or for kids with computers at home, or for people in California or India, or who are Caucasian or Asian or ___ [feel free to insert your own stereotype and/or ‘privileged’ group]. Providing more exposure to coding for a wider variety of kids can certainly help to some extent, critics might counter, by helping to providing some initial opportunities for those who may not otherwise get them and by chipping away at some stereotypes, but the situation is rather complex, and much more needs to be done. Such critics worry that, because there are coding initiatives in schools, certain leaders will declare that the diversity challenge is being ‘solved’, or at least ‘handled’, and leave it at that. Supporting international efforts like Girls Who Code or more localized programs like GirlsCoding (in Nigeria) is all well and good, such critics say, and certainly a good start, but it isn’t ‘solving’ the problem.

Being able to code enables new avenues for creativity and creative expression.
Efforts to teach coding skills to young students through the use of tools like Scratch, or as part of robotics courses or initiatives to promote “making” (and/or “physical computing”), are often cited as compelling examples of what (good) coding education efforts may comprise. Here again, many critics may laud such efforts but still argue that, even if you concede that coding is a new literacy in our increasingly technology-saturated world, it is still worth asking two rather basic questions before moving ahead with new, large-scale, mandatory educational coding initiatives in school:

*How are we doing with the old, basic literacies of reading, writing and arithmetic?

*Shouldn’t we ensure that these fundamental “literacy skills” are in place before we start tacking new ones on to our already bloated curricula?….

 

 

Should we teach coding in schools? What does ‘coding’ mean in our context? Who should teach it, and who should learn it – a certain few, or everyone? Can we afford to do this do? (Conversely, given that our neighbors and competitors are doing this, can we afford not to do this?) Are we interested in making sure more kids ‘learn to code’ and then stop there, or is it more about developing the skills that would help students eventually ‘code to learn’?

Whatever the situation or context, how a policymaker answers these and many of other related questions is probably colored quite a bit by how she views the role and process of education, and the activity of learning, more broadly.

 

 

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Reflecting on School Reforms: Scaling Up versus Short, Happy Life or Hanging in

For decades, under the influence of efficiency-minded policymakers the “wisdom” of reform has been as follows:

To solve serious school problems federal, state, and district policymakers take “good” ideas, find the right people to implement them faithfully on a small scale (e.g., pilots, “experimental” projects), and then, spread the results across a larger playing field to reach the largest number of students. Or scaling up, in policy-talk. That is how reform should be done.

That policy “wisdom”–so rational on its surface (often called a research and development strategy to jump-start innovation)–has dominated reform for the past half-century. The results, however, have been sometimes disappointing, and occasionally disastrous.  Unanticipated issues arose. Faulty implementation occurred.  Unexpected consequences popped up. Sufficient resources went unallocated. Educators lacked capacity. The list of reasons documenting the failure of scaling up innovations from pilots to entire districts or states gets longer as reforms entered the public school arena decade after decade.

How about some examples?

*NCLB and over-testing married to federally-imposed coercive accountability;

*Decentralizing authority to school sites where councils of teachers, parents, and principals make major decisions;

*Mandating that districts and school use new technologies in classrooms to improve instruction.

I could easily cite instances between the 1950s through the 1970s (e.g., math and science “new” curricula, performance contracting, the self-esteem movement, outcome-based schooling) but won’t elaborate. These failures to alter districts, schools, and classrooms in substantial ways have been well documented. This conventional R & D wisdom of starting small and then scaling up reforms to larger populations–has anyone tried to scale up Socrates’ success with students?– all to install supposed efficiencies and apparent successes continue as the dominant way of thinking about school reform in the face of disappointing evidence and outright failure.

There is, however, another way of looking at innovations and school reform historically. This way-of-seeing, anchored in the complexity of classrooms, schools, and districts, builds in high degrees of interaction between and among staff, parents, and community to cope with inexorable political changes that occur inside and outside the district and school. Such a way of conceptualizing reform recognizes that people who work in these complex, interactive community institutions don’t scale up reforms easily or quickly because contexts differ, resources dry up, determined people work hard and create success and, over time, get fatigued and leave. Even the very best results cannot be sustained without further changes in what worked initially.  Thus, even the best-planned solutions, flawlessly implemented by educators with requisite expertise, solid political support, and sufficient resources at work in one or a few schools–may only last a short time (anywhere from five to ten years or longer) and eventually wither away. Occasionally, exceptions do occur and can last many years. Examples range from Individually Guided Education (for exception, see here), Coalition of Essential Schools (for exception, see here), Paedeia (for exception, see here)

I call these  “happy but short-lived” reforms. Why?

Such efforts come in with a splash, do well for limited numbers of students and teachers for a few years and then, in time, for various reasons, falter and expire. The short time they were in full bloom were “happy” for those touched by the innovation; such reforms excited great hopes that they could be scaled up to benefit more students and teachers. But scaling up was then (and now) seen as a technical task that capable managers could easily replicate to do good elsewhere. Reproducing a complex  innovation anchored in thousands of human interactions in a sea of uncertainty is neither technical or easily reproduced in a highly political and uncertain environment. Such in-vitro-fertilization is beyond the ken of current educational policymakers and scientists. So these “happy” reforms expired. They were “short-lived” but left a residue of hope that similar smart people coming together and working hard could again create a program, a culture of learning, that would help students and teachers. Thus, “happy but short-lived” innovations and reform are worthy and should be encouraged without high hopes of being scaled up. So this is another way of viewing the history of school reform.

And there is even a third perspective beyond traditional R &D and “happy but short-lived” innovations. There are scattered districts, charter management organizations, and schools that have learned how to retain focus on what they do daily while problem solving again and again to sustain a culture of improvement, stable leadership, and adherence to the founding principles. All of this done while  adapting, sometimes smoothly, sometimes jerkily to the political, economic, and social changes that inevitably appear. Such districts, CMOs, and individual schools change over time as theystick to their founding principles. Hence, occasional “happy but short-lived” reforms slowly but determinedly morph into satisfying, long-term changes that benefit students, teachers, and communities.

For district examples, look at Union City, New Jersey as captured in David Kirp’s Improbable Scholars. Or Long Beach, California, (see here and here). For charter management organizations, look at Aspire (1999) with 35 schools in California and three in Tennessee and KIPP (1994) with 183 schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia. For individual schools, see the above exceptions I noted to “happy but short-lived” reforms and other long-term examples such as H-B Woodlawn School in Arlington, Virginia (1972) and the Urban Academy in New York City (1986).

Here, then, are three very different ways at examining school reforms over time in a highly complex, political, and uncertain environment that depends upon much social and individual interaction for success, however measured. Scaling up remains the dominant policy goal for innovations. “Happy but short-lived” is what commonly happens when scaling up doesn’t occur or is botched; there is, however, no shame in a reform lasting a short time. A third way of seeing school reform over time is constant problem solving, sticking to founding principles, and stable leadership. Although practiced by a tiny minority of schools and districts, it is an alternative, very difficult to sustain, to the patterns captured in the other two ways of trying to change schools.

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Kludge: A Metaphor for Technology Use in Schools

Kludge

  1. (electronics engineering) An improvised device, usually crudely constructed. Typically used to test the validity of a principle before doing a finished design.
  2. (general) Any construction or practice, typically inelegant, designed to solve a problem temporarily or expediently.
  3. (computing) An amalgamated mass of totally unrelated parts forming a distressing whole.

Any definition of “kludge” that you pick among the three above–I lean toward the second one but I do like the third as well–fits what has occurred over the past three decades with the introduction of desktop computers into schools followed by laptops, tablets, and hand-held devices with scads of accompanying software. Computing devices and accompanying software have been (and are) adds-on to education; all were initially introduced into U.S. manufacturing and commerce as productivity tools and then applied to schooling (e.g., spreadsheets, management information systems). Software slowly changed to adapt to school and classroom use but the impetus and early years applied business hardware and software to schooling. That birth three decades ago of being an add-on tinged with business application has made it a “kludge.”

The initial purposes over thirty years ago for buying and distributing desktops to schools were to solve the nation’s economic problems: U.S. students performing at levels lower than students in other countries. Teachers teaching an outmoded curriculum in traditional ways that failed to exploit the wealth of information available to them and their students electronically. Unpreparedness of students entering the job market in an economy that shifted from industrial- to information-based (see the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk). These were problems that higher standards, better teaching, and new technologies could solve. To end those problems, solutions of stiffer graduation requirements (e.g., four years of each academic subject), uniform and tougher curriculum standards (e.g. Common Core), and, yes, lots of electronic devices and software (e.g., computer labs, 1:1 laptops and tablets) were adopted to speed along more efficiently the improvement of U.S. schools to strengthen the economy. The push for more business-flavored high-tech in schools has become the “kludge,” that is, “an improvised device, usually crudely constructed” and “typically inelegant” that has become “an amalgamated mass of totally unrelated parts forming a distressing whole.”

I say that because the evidence thus far that increased access and use of these technological tools has, indeed, solved any of the problems is distressingly missing. Student academic achievement surely has not risen because of teachers and students using technologies in their lessons. The dream of high-tech advocates that teaching would become more efficient and constructivist (an earlier generation would have said “student-centered” and “progressive”) has yet to materialize in the nation’s classrooms. And high school graduates displaying technological skills learned in school do not necessarily step into better-paying jobs. Thus, high-tech infusion in schools designed to solve problems “temporarily” or “expediently” has become a “kludge.”

Nowadays, the rationale for using tablets and hand-held devices in classrooms has shifted to their potential for engagement (assuming that it leads directly to achievement), the necessity for all students to take tests online, and the mirage of exiting students marching into high-tech jobs. From flipped classrooms to blended learning, to personalized lessons, the hype continues even in the face of sparse evidence. This approach, then, remains a “kludge” that policymakers, entrepreneurs, and vendors continue to push for solving teaching and learning problems.

Fortunately, there are district officials, school principals, and classroom teachers who avoid the “kludge” effect by reframing the problems of teaching and learning as educational not technical (e.g., getting devices and software into the hands of students and teachers) or grounded in economic reasons. The problems are educational (e.g., how will these machines and software be used to help students understand essential concepts and apply necessary skills)—see here, here, and here. They know in their heart-of-hearts that learning is not about the presence of technology, it is about teachers and students interacting with subject-matter and skills and using paper, pencil, tablets, and Google docs to achieve learning goals. Learning is about teachers using these technological aids to get students to say “aha” about what they have learned, to acquire confidence through practice of skills.

But the “kludge” effect–add-ons to solve deep and abiding problems in U.S. schools–continues to dominate policy action. Escaping the origin of technologies imported into schools is very hard to avoid. Technologies in schools remain a band-aid promising solutions to ill-framed problems. Too often it functions as another Rube Goldberg invention to solve the wrong problem.

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The Puzzle of School Reform Cycles

Anyone over the age of 40 who is familiar with public schools knows that similar reforms come again and again as if policy makers suffered amnesia. Consider, for example, the fundamental (and familiar) question that has launched periods of reform like changing seasons: Should all students study the same content and acquire the same skills?

The policy question was asked initially in the 1890s–a politically conservative era–and answered yes (see here and here). Then two decades later after World War I, policymakers working in a liberal political climate, asked the question and answered no. Students should be able to choose whether they want to go to college, work in white- and blue-collar jobs (see here and here). Then in the late 1950s in the middle of the Cold War–a politically conservative era, the policy question arose again and the answer was yes; all students should study rigorous subject matter in math, sciences, and social studies (see here and here). Between the 1960s and the 1970s, policymakers asked the question again, and answered it yes at one time and no at another (see here and here).

And since the early 1980s ( a Nation at Risk report being a marker of that politically conservative era) the curriculum standards, testing, and accountability movement now including the Common Core standards, all students are expected to learn the same content and skills.

In each instance since the 1890s, then, as times became conservative and liberal, school curricula cycled back and forth between all students studying the same content and skills and students (and their parents) being able to choose what content and skills they want to focus on.

Similar reform cycles on how best to teach (teacher-centered or student-centered) have marked policy debates then and now (see here). Ditto for how best to organize districts and schools–centralized authority in district offices or delegate authority to school sites (see here). Again and again these cycles of reform have occurred. How come?

Before turning to an answer to this question, keep in mind that cycles are part of our lives. There are animal and plant life cycle of birth through death. There are seasonal cycles of weather. And there are non-biological and non-climate cycles as well. Economists have documented business cycles of boom and bust. Political scientists have pointed to electoral cycles of liberalism and conservatism. Historians and health care scientists have focused on cycles in medicine and medical education alternating in the past century between care for the patient and producing research-based physicians. So public schools are surely in step with other institutions insofar as having periodic cycles of reform.

The beginnings of any answer to the question of “how come”? is found outside of public schools. Like all cliches there is a grain of truth at the core of the trite saying that when the U.S. has a cold, public schools sneeze. Historically, economic, political, demographic, and cultural changes in the larger society reverberate across tax-supported public schools because they are at their core political institutions that respond to both conservative and liberal movements. Each of the above reform cycles in curriculum, pedagogical, and organization occurred at moments when conservative or liberal ideology gained more adherents and elected officials congenial to those ideas.

The most obvious example in the lives of current U.S. educators has been the linking of the economy to school reform beginning in the late-1970s and lasting until the present day–although changes are in the air (see below). Two economic recessions (1973-1975 and 1980-1982) when high unemployment (9% and 10% respectively) led to the Republican twelve year hold on the Presidency (Ronald Reagan, 1980-1988, George H.W. Bush, 1988-1992). The issuing of A Nation at Risk laid out an agenda of school reform around high curriculum standards, tougher graduation requirements, testing, and accountability that tightly coupled schools to a stronger economy. For three decades, then, this politically conservative (both Republicans and Democrats) ideology of harnessing public schools to build a strong economy has brought the U.S. education to a Common Core Curriculum and preparing students to be “college and career” ready. This generation of school reformers has answered yes to the question: Should all students study the same content and acquire the same skills?

My answer to the question of cycles of school reform, then looks to the periodic shifts in political ideologies among policymakers and the populace, often prompted by social, economic, and cultural changes.

But there may be a shift in the offing. America may be moving to the left side of the political spectrum after decades on the center-right. Growing parental and educator protests against testing and Common Core standards point to a slowly evolving popular movement against federal intervention into local schools. Moreover, policymakers signaled shifts in the re-authorization of No Child Left Behind (2002) into Every Student Succeeds Act (2015). The law devolves responsibility for low-performing schools back to the states.  Far more acceptance of social-emotional learning, project based teaching, concern for the “whole child” may be further markers of a turn to the liberal bend of the historic political cycle.

If the nation has a cold, public schools sniffle.

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Flawed Assumptions about School Reform Strengthening the U.S. Economy

“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.”
John Maynard Keynes

For years I have seen Keynes’s quote and thought little of it. In the past week, however, this economist’s reflection of nearly a century ago pinched me and got me thinking about school reform in the U.S. for the past three decades. Taken for granted is the rationale that U.S. students don’t measure up to international students; low test scores are signs that U.S. students are unable to enter successfully the new information-driven workplace. Moreover, jobs have disappeared. The new economy requires different and far more complex skills than the industrial-based one since the late-19th century. Students need to learn more, faster, and better. And graduates equipped with those skills–schools growing “human capital” is the jargon –will get high-paying jobs benefiting themselves and the economy will be stronger in the global marketplace benefiting society. That has been the rationale for over thirty years of school reform.

And here is where the influential ideas of “defunct economist[s]” enter the picture. Turn back the clock to A Nation at Risk (1983). The idea of the U.S. losing its global technological, scientific, and economic position was due, the report claimed, to the mediocrity of U.S. schools. Data showed that U.S. schools were failing. Evidence cited in the report pointed to low test scores of U.S. students compared to international students, high numbers of high school dropouts, low curriculum standards, and low salaries for teachers. The call for strengthened curriculum standards and tougher graduation requirements would lead, the report said, to a stronger economy.

Harnessed to the then dominant economic concept of  “human capital,” the public school’s job is to increase students’ knowledge and skills geared to a fast-changing world where information and services drives the economy. Those students equipped with high-tech and thinking skills will be more productive workers thus contributing to economic growth. Few policymakers challenged economists’ confidence in public school investments building a stronger economy.

Since then, beliefs in the growth of new technologies powering economic growth and productivity have led to state and federal laws–influenced strongly by economic thinking of “human capital,” economists–that called for far more intervention into local schools. No Child Left Behind (2002) crowned that intervention with the U.S. Department of Education monitoring state test results for students grades 3-8 and then naming, shaming, and blaming schools and districts that failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress. A culture of testing, enhanced by students’ increased access to computers, produced an industry of test prep, narrowed the curriculum, and strengthened traditional teaching. All of this increased policy activity turned the assumption that a stronger schooling would lead to a stronger economy into a fact.

These ideas continue to motivate research by current economists who produce studies (see here and w21770)  that show state investments in schooling produce not only economic gains for individuals but also strong gains in the Gross Domestic Product. Suppose, however, that these policy assumptions that have driven school reform for over three decades are wrong.

Consider the following. The assumption that economists made about the importance of U.S. students acquiring more knowledge, skills, and expertise in computers has severe holes in it, given the depressed salaries of college graduates since 2000 and growing income inequality in the U.S.

As Paul Krugman put it:

Something else began happening after 2000 …. After decades of stability, the share of national income going to employee compensation began dropping fairly fast. One could try to explain this, too, with technology—maybe robots were displacing all workers, not just the less educated. But this story ran into multiple problems. For one thing, if we were experiencing a robot-driven technological revolution, why did productivity growth seem to be slowing, not accelerating? For another, if it was getting easier to replace workers with machines, we should have seen a rise in business investment as corporations raced to take advantage of the new opportunities; we didn’t, and in fact corporations have increasingly been parking their profits in banks or using them to buy back stocks.

Big corporations (including hedge funds) have failed to invest in commerce but they have used their market power politically to change the rules of the games. Krugman again:

Rising wealth at the top buys growing political influence, via campaign contributions, lobbying, and the rewards of the revolving door. Political influence in turn is used to rewrite the rules of the game—antitrust laws, deregulation, changes in contract law, union-busting—in a way that reinforces income concentration. The result is a sort of spiral, a vicious circle of oligarchy.

Economists Krugman, Robert Reich, and others see the prevailing ideas of new technologies powering economic growth and productivity–the theories that have fueled the “human capital” thrust to school reform for over thirty years–as flawed. The concentration of U.S. economic power into fewer and fewer corporations (e.g., banking, transportation, agriculture, media) generating profits that have been used to increase their political leverage leaves the current agenda of school reform, based on previous ideas of investing in “human capital” stranded on a deserted island. Lost and failed.

If only current school reformers can give serious thought to the questioning of the socioeconomic assumptions that ground current U.S. policies and practices, then, perhaps the reform palette can shift from painting with Common Core standards, extensive state and local testing, and coercive accountability to project-based teaching, socio-emotional learning, arts and the humanities, wraparound community services, and concerns for the whole child.

I end with another John Maynard Keynes quote: “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?”

 

 

 

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