Tag Archives: reform policies

The Failure of U.S. Schools as “Guardians of Democracy”

“If 50 percent of a school district‘s graduates could not read, we‘d fire the superintendent. Yet regularly less than half our graduates vote. In our ―accountability era, no superintendent has been fired for failing in this core mission of our ―’guardian of democracy.’ ”

The  quote comes from a paper written by Michael Johanek in 2011 about the century-old history of civic education in the U.S.. However,  since the early 1980s business-minded state and federal reformers “re-purposed”  K-12 schools into building  a stronger, globally competitive economy through higher academic standards, increased testing, and tougher accountability for student results; the traditional goal of civic education has become a “Second Hand Rose.” That has been the case for the past three decades.

Relegated to applause lines in graduation talks, making students into citizens who are engaged in their communities gets occasionally resuscitated by national commissions, occasional reports and books, and pronouncements from top officials (see here, here, and here), but the sad truth is that until the dominant  rationale for schooling the young shifts from its current economic purpose to its historic role as “guardian of democracy,” only   fleeting references to the civic purpose of schooling will occur.

I do not know whether such a shift will occur in the immediate future. I surely want it to occur.  Trimming back the prevailing economic purpose for tax-supported schools and correcting the current imbalance in preparing children and youth for civic participation is long overdue. Consumerism  has enveloped public schools over the past three decades. The role of schools to teach democratic values and skills and insure that students have opportunities to practice the skills and values in their communities has been shoved aside. Were such a political change to occur,  it will be gradual as more and more parents, taxpayers, and policymakers come to see the harmful imbalance among the multiple aims for schools in a commerce-driven democracy. Were that political shift in purposes to occur, the crucial question of what kind of a citizen does the nation want will re-emerge as it had in earlier generations of school reformers.

That question of what kind of citizen has been around since tax-supported public schools were founded two centuries ago. No one answer has sufficed then or now because there are different ways of viewing a “good” citizen (see here and here). Nor has any answer in the 1920s, 1940s, 1960s–when schools were expected to prepare students to participate and engage in the community–sufficed. Arguments over the kinds of citizenship that should be practiced in and out of school, the threadbare quality of the programs, and frequent conflicts over whether teachers should deal with controversial topics within the school day arose time and again (see here, here and here)

Professors Joel Westheimer and Joe Kahne, knowledgeable about the history of civic education in U.S. and Canadian schools, have been wrestling with these different views and have come up with a conceptual map laying out three types of citizen: personally responsible, participatory, and social justice oriented  (WhatKindOfCitizenAERJ).   Westheimers recent book, What Kind of Citizen, summarizes these different views.

Personally Responsible Citizen

The core assumption for this kind of citizen is that to “solve social problems and improve society, citizens must have good character; they must be honest, responsible, and law-abiding members of the community.” Such a citizen would, for example, donate blood, recycle, and contribute food to a food drive.

Participatory Citizen

The core assumption here is that “to solve problems and improve society, citizens must participate and take leadership positions within established systems and community structures.” Such a citizen would, for example vote, serve on juries, form a street Neighborhood Watch to combat crime,  help organize a food drive, join the town’s recycling committee, and help register voters.

Justice-oriented Citizen

For this kind of a citizen the basic assumption is that “to solve social problems and improve society, citizens must question, debate, and change established systems and structures that reproduce patterns of injustice over time.” This kind of citizen would analyze the current structures and culture that create, say, hunger, homelessness or an epidemic of drug overdoses; the person would write letters, meet with local officials, and join committees seeking out ways of solving these problems.

For decades, these different views of a citizen have been embedded in the curriculum, especially in the 1930s and 1960s, and taught in schools. One kind of citizen, however, is not better than the other. In a democracy such divergent views of  citizenship are normal. Of course, these differences also lead to the larger question of what kind of democratic society do parents, voters, and taxpayers want their schools to work toward. No such debate, unfortunately, exists now.

But some public and private schools over the decades, surviving reform wave after wave, have practiced their version of preparing children and youth for citizenship. Often mixes of the above views of citizenship has emerged over time.

A few examples in 2016 are:

Sudbury Valley School–1968 (Framingham, MA)

Jefferson County Open School–1969 (Colorado)

El Puente–1982 (New York City)

Mission Hill--1997 (Boston, MA)

Bell Gardens High School –pp. 22-23 of report and here (Los Angeles, CA)

Westside Village Magnet School (Bend, Oregon)

That such schools (and these are a sampling) enact different forms of citizenship laid out above by Westheimer and Kahne is a proof point that schools enacting democratic practices exist. In these schools, student exercise responsible behavior in and out of school, participate in and out of school in various civic institutions from restorative justice programs to community service, and analyze causes of socioeconomic problems while working to reduce their effects in their communities. These schools, with much variation among them, embody different answers to the question: What kind of  citizen?

But such schools are scarce in the current market-driven reforms harnessing schools to the economy. Whether a swell of popular opinion will rise and crest into political action to reassert the fundamental civic aim for tax-supported public school, I cannot predict. But I sure hope it will.

 

 

 

 

 

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How To Do Adaptive Learning Right (Keith Devlin and Randy Weiner)

Keith Devlin is (@profkeithdevlin) Co-founder & Chief Scientist at BrainQuake and a mathematician in the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. Randy Weiner (@randybw15) is Co-founder & CEO at BrainQuake, a former teacher, & Co-founder and former Chair of the Board at Urban Montessori Charter School in Oakland, CA.

This opinion piece appeared in EdSurge, June 30, 2016.

As one variant of the saying goes, if your strength is using a hammer, everything can look like a nail. Examples abound in attempts to use new technologies to enhance (if not “transform”, or even “disrupt”) education. Technologists who have built successful systems in other domains—and who frequently view education as just another market in which to apply their expertise—often doom their project to fail at the start, by adopting a narrow and outdated educational model.

Namely, they see education as the provision of facts, techniques, and procedures to be delivered and explained by instruction and then practiced to mastery. Their role, then, is to bring their technological prowess to bear to make this process more efficient. In most cases they can indeed achieve this. But optimizing a flawed model of education is not in the best interests of our students, and from a learning outcomes perspective may make things worse than they already are.

In the case of adaptive learning, education commentator Audrey Watters gave examples of how things can go badly wrong on her blog. “Serendipity and curiosity are such important elements in learning,” she asks. “Why would we engineer those out of our systems and schools?” More recently, Alfie Kohn provided another summary of the numerous reasons to be skeptical of education technology solutions.

Watters’ bleak future will only come to pass if the algorithms continue to be both naïvely developed and naïvely applied, and moreover, in the case of mathematics learning (the area we both work in) applied to the wrong kind of learning tasks. Almost all the personalized math learning software systems we have seen fall into this category. But there is another way—as our work, and a thorough review by a third-party research organization—has shown.

We both work in the edtech industry and have a background in education. One of us is a university mathematician who spent several years on the US Mathematical Sciences Education Board and is now based in Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, the other an edtech veteran who is a former teacher and who co-founded Urban Montessori Charter School.

We are both very familiar with the common “production line” model of education, and recognize that it not only appeals to many (perhaps most) technologists, but in fact is a system that they themselves did well in. But collectively, the two of us have many years of experience that indicates just how badly that approach works for the vast majority of students.

Last year, with funding from the Department of Education’s Institute for Educational Sciences, our company, BrainQuake, spent six months designing, testing and developing an adaptive engine to supply players of our launch product, Wuzzit Trouble, with challenges matched to their current ability level. We were delighted when classroom studies conducted by WestEd showed that the adaptive engine worked as intended (i.e., kept students in their zone of proximal development), straight out of the gate.

We developed the game based on a number of key insights accumulated over many years of research by mathematics education professionals that should be applicable to all edtech developers—even those who are not building math tools.

Experience Over Knowledge

First, the most effective way to view K-8 education is not in terms of “content” to be covered, acquired, mastered (and regurgitated in an exam) but as an experience. This is particularly (but not exclusively) true for K-8 mathematics learning. Mathematics is primarily something you do, not something you know.

To be sure, there is quite a lot to know in mathematics—there are facts, rules, and established procedures. Imagine the skills expected of a physician. None of us, we are sure, would want to be treated by someone who had read all the medical textbooks and passed the written tests but had no experience diagnosing and treating patients. And indeed, no medical school teaches future physicians solely by instruction, as any doctor who has gone through the mandatory, long, grueling internship can attest.

In the case of math, the inappropriateness of the classical, instruction-practice-testing dominated model of education has been made particularly acute as a result of the significant advances made in the very technology field we are working in. (Advances we wholeheartedly applaud. Our beef is not with technology—we love algorithms, after all—but with applying it poorly.) In today’s world, all of us carry around in our pockets a device that can execute almost any mathematical procedure, much faster and with greater accuracy than any human. Your smartphone, with its access to the cloud (in particular, Wolfram Alpha), can solve pretty well any university mathematics exam question.

What that device cannot do, however, is take a real world mathematical problem and solve it. To do that, you need the human brain. In order to do that, the human brain has to acquire two things, in particular: a rich and powerful set of general metacognitive problem solving skills, and a more specific ability known as mathematical thinking (a component of which is known as number sense, a term that crops up a lot in the K-8 math education world, since the development of number sense is the first key step toward mathematical thinking).

Human Adaptivity

Another key insight that guided the design of our adaptive engine is that the main adaptivity is provided by the user. After all, the human being is the most adaptive cognitive system on the planet! With good product design, it is possible to leverage that adaptivity.

Most “adaptive” math algorithms will monitor a student’s progress to select the next problem algorithmically. But it is important that these puzzles allow for a wide range of of solutions and a spectrum of “right answers,” leaving the student or teacher in full control of how to move forward and what degree of success to accept. (Of course, such an approach is not possible if the digital learning experiences are of the traditional math problem type, where the problem focuses on one particular formula or method and there is a single answer, with “right” or “wrong” the only possible outcomes.)

Indeed, students still need to grasp the basic concepts of arithmetic, understand what the various rules mean, and know when and how the different procedures can be applied. But what they do not need is to be able to execute the various procedures efficiently in a paper-and-pencil fashion on real world data.

Today’s mathematical learning apps can—and should—focus on the valuable 21st century skills of holistic thinking and creative problem solving. The mastery of specific procedures should be skills that a student acquires automatically, “along the way,” in a meaningful context of working on a complex performance task—an outcome every one of us knows works from our own experience as adults.

Breaking the Symbol Barrier

Mastery of symbolic mathematics is a major goal of math education. But as has been shown by a great deal of research stretching back a quarter of a century, the symbolic representation is the most significant reason why most people have difficulty mastering K-8 grade level math—the all-important “basics.” Almost everyone can achieve a 98 percent success rate at K-8 math if it is presented in a natural-seeming fashion (for example, understanding and perhaps calculating stats at a baseball game), but their performance drops to a low 37 percent if presented with the same math problems expressed in textbook symbolic form.

Well-designed technologies that take advantage of some unique affordances of a computer or tablet can help obliterate this historical impediment to K-8 mathematics proficiency. Students should be able to explore problems on their own until they discover—for themselves—the solution. They don’t require instruction, and they don’t need anyone to evaluate their effort. Students should get instant feedback not in the form of “right” or “wrong,” but information about how their hypotheses varied from their actual experience and how they might revise their strategy accordingly.

An analogy we are particularly fond of is with learning to play a piano (or any other musical instrument). You may benefit greatly from a book, a human teacher, or even YouTube videos, but the bulk of the learning comes from sitting down at the keyboard and attempting to play.

What could be a better example of adaptive learning than that? Tune too easy? Try a harder piece. Too difficult? Back off and practice a bit more with easier ones, or break the harder one up into sections and master each one on its own at a slower pace, and then string them all together. The piano is not adapting. Rather, its design as an instrument makes it ideal for the learner to adapt.

A well-designed math tool should be an instrument on which you can learn mathematics, free from the Symbol Barrier. Now imagine we present a student with an orchestra of instruments.

We think this kind of approach is the future of adaptive learning in math and believe we, the edtech community, should choose to go beyond the “low hanging fruit” approaches to adaptive learning that the first movers adopted.

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This Ed-reform Trend Is Supposed To Motivate Students; Instead, It Shames Them (Launa Hall)

Nearly all reform policies have consequences, intended and unintended, regardless of how well-meaning, empathic, and mindful policymakers may be. The following essay of a former elementary school teacher illustrates the unintended consequence of a familiar reform-driven policy. A former teacher, Launa Hall lives in Northern Virginia and is working on a book of essays about teaching. This essay appeared in the Washington Post, May 19, 2016 

My third-graders tumbled into the classroom, and one child I’d especially been watching for — I need to protect her privacy, so I’ll call her Janie — immediately noticed the two poster-size charts I’d hung low on the wall. Still wearing her jacket, she let her backpack drop to the floor and raised one finger to touch her name on the math achievement chart. Slowly, she traced the row of dots representing her scores for each state standard on the latest practice test. Red, red, yellow, red, green, red, red. Janie is a child capable of much drama, but that morning she just lowered her gaze to the floor and shuffled to her chair.

In our test-mired public schools, those charts are known as data walls, and before I caved in and made some for my Northern Virginia classroom last spring, they’d been proliferating in schools across the country — an outgrowth of “data-driven instruction” and the scramble for test scores at all costs. Making data public, say advocates such as Boston Plan for Excellence, instills a “healthy competitive culture.” But that’s not what I saw in my classroom.

The data walls concept originated with University of Chicago education researcher David Kerbow, who in the late 1990s promoted visual displays to chart students’ progress in reading. Kerbow called these displays “assessment walls,” and he meant them to be for faculty eyes only, as tools for discussion and planning. But when that fundamentally sound idea met constant anxiety over test scores in K-12 schools across the United States, data walls leaked out of staff-room doors and down the halls. Today, a quick search on Pinterest yields hundreds of versions of children’s test scores hung in public view.

Diving Into Data,” a 2014 paper published jointly by the nonprofit Jobs for the Future and the U.S. Education Department, offers step-by-step instructions for data walls that “encourage student engagement” and “ensure students know the classroom or school improvement goals and provide a path for students to reach those goals.” The assumption is that students will want to take that path — that seeing their scores in relationship to others’ will motivate them to new heights of academic achievement. They are meant to think: “Oh, the green dots show my hard work, yellow means I have more work to do, and red means wow, I really need to buckle down. Now I will pay attention in class and ask questions! I have a plan!”

How efficient it would be if simply publishing our weaknesses galvanized us to learn exactly what we’re lacking.

That late night when I got out my markers and drew the charts, I rationalized that it was time to drop all pretenses. Our ostensible goal in third grade was similar to what you’d hear in elementary schools everywhere: to educate the whole child, introduce them to a love of learning and help them discover their potential. We meant that wholeheartedly. But the hidden agenda was always prepping kids for the state’s tests. For third-graders, Virginia has settled on 12 achievement standards in reading and 20 in math, each divided further into subsections. And once blossoms were on the trees, we were just a few weeks from the exams that would mark us as passing school or a failing one. We were either analyzing practice tests, taking a test or prepping for the next test. Among the teachers, we never stopped talking about scores, and at a certain point it felt disingenuous not to tell the kids what was really going on.

I regretted those data walls immediately. Even an adult faced with a row of red dots after her name for all her peers to see would have to dig deep into her hard-won sense of self to put into context what those red dots meant in her life and what she would do about them. An 8-year-old just feels shame.

Psychologists Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener point out in their book “The Upside of Your Dark Side ” that while some uncomfortable feelings can be useful, shame is not productive. Guilt, they say, can encourage people to learn from their mistakes and to do better. In contrast, “people who feel shame suffer. Shamed people dislike themselves and want to change, hide, or get rid of their self. ”

It also turns out that posting students’ names on data walls without parental consent may violate privacy laws. At the time, neither I nor my colleagues at the school knew that, and judging from the pictures on Pinterest, we were hardly alone. The Education Department encourages teachers to swap out names for numbers or some other code. And sure, that would be more palatable and consistent with the letter, if not the intent, of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. But it would be every bit as dispiriting. My third-graders would have figured out in 30 seconds who was who, coded or not.

The data walls made it harder for me to reach and teach my students, driving a wedge into relationships I’d worked hard to establish. I knew Janie to be an extremely bright child — with lots of stresses in her life. She and I had been working as a team in small group sessions and in extra practice after school. But the morning I hung the data walls, she became Child X with lots of red dots, and I became Teacher X with a chart.

Of course, I tried to mitigate the shame she felt. I let her loudly sing a song she made up, and I made time for one of our conversations on the playground. Did my efforts at reconnection help? Maybe a little. But she still had all those red dots for everyone to see.

It’s hard to find research that supports public data walls. In fact, studies suggest that rather than motivating students, they may be detrimental. “Evaluation systems that emphasize social comparison tend to lower children’s perceptions of their competence when they don’t compare favorably and cause them to engage in many self-defeating cognitions and experience considerable negative affect,” according to Carole Ames, a leading scholar of social and academic motivation and a professor emeritus at Michigan State University.

In an article published in March in the journal Educational Policy, Julie Marsh, Caitlin Farrell and Melanie Bertrand warn against data walls and similar practices that stress competition and achievement rather than meaningful learning. They note that federal education policy has “long emphasized status measures of student achievement (i.e., proficiency) and assumed that public reporting of information on performance, coupled with consequences, will motivate individuals to work harder and differently to improve performance.” Now, they observe, that focus on achievement and mistaken assumptions about motivation have trickled down to the classroom. Their study of six middle schools found that “many well-intentioned teachers . . . appeared to be using data with students in ways that theoretically may have diminished the motivation they initially sought to enhance.”

And consider exactly who is being shamed by data walls. Janie is part of an ethnic minority group. She received free breakfast and lunch every school day last year, and some days that’s all she ate. Her family had no fixed address for much of the year, and Janie, age 8, frequently found herself the responsible caretaker of younger siblings. That’s who is being shamed.

And do you see those neat rows of green dots on the chart? If you haven’t already guessed, they belong to children whose families have the resources for new shoes and fresh fruit and a little left over for a modest vacation from time to time, children whose parents attend teacher conferences with their forms not only signed but stapled to a list of questions about how to help with homework.

When policymakers mandate tests and buy endlessly looping practice exams to go with them, their image of education is from 30,000 feet. They see populations and sweeping strategies. From up there, it seems reasonable enough to write a list of 32 discrete standards and mandate that every 8-year-old in the state meet them. How else will we know for sure that teaching and learning are happening down there?

But if we zoom in, we see that education actually happens every weekday, amid pencils and notebooks, between an adult and a small group of youngsters she personally knows and is deeply motivated to teach. Public education has always been — and needs to be still — a patchwork of ordinary human relationships. Data walls, and the high-stakes tests that engender them, aren’t merely ineffective, they break the system at its most fundamental level. They break the connection between a teacher who cares and a kid who really needs her to care.

Teaching the young wasn’t supposed to feel like this. When we imagine the ideal elementary school, we see walls covered with things the kids made. We see kids clustered around tadpoles and taking notes in crooked, exuberant handwriting. We hear “Oh, wow!” from teachers and children alike, and the murmur of many voices talking it over and figuring it out. We smell grass stains on sweaty little kids because they just ran in from a long romp outdoors. And why shouldn’t our elementary schools be what we wish for? The whole ideal of school, this particular means to pass our accumulated human knowledge from one generation to the next, is a construct we made up. Why not make it wonderful? Why not make it work?

We are failing our kids. The writing is on the wall.

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Business-inspired School Reform: Has the Wave Crested?

I saw this cartoon and burst out laughing.

matthew-diffee-once-again-we-re-boarding-only-our-elite-premium-passengers-at-this-time-new-yorker-cartoon

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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