Tag Archives: school reform

The AltSchool: Progressivism Redux (Part 2)

[Progressive schools] as compared with traditional schools [display] a common emphasis upon respect for individuality and for increased freedom; a common disposition to build upon the nature and experience of the boys and girls common to them, instead of imposing from without external subject-matter and standards. They all display a certain atmosphere of informality, because experience has proved that formalization is hostile to genuine mental activity and to sincere emotional expression and growth. Emphasis upon activity as distinct from passivity is one of the common factors….[There is] unusual attention to …normal human relations, to communication …which is like in kind to that which is found in the great world beyond the school doors.

John Dewey, 1928

Were John Dewey alive in 2016 and had he joined me in a brief visit to the AltSchool on October 20, 2016, he would, I believe, nodded in agreement with what he saw on that fall day and affirmed  what he said when he became honorary president of the Progressive Education Association in 1928.

The AltSchool embodies many of the principles of progressive education from nearly a century ago–as do other schools in the U.S.  Just as Dewey’s Lab School at the University of Chicago (1896-1904) became a hothouse experiment as a private school, so has the AltSchool and its network of “micro-schools” in the Bay area and New York City over the past five years (see here, here, here, and here). Progressive schools, then and now, varied greatly yet champions of such schools from Dewey to Francis Parker to Jesse Newlon to Alt/School’s Max Ventilla believed they were already or about to become “good” schools.

One major difference, however, between progressives then and now were the current technologies. Unknown to Dewey and his followers in the early 20th century, new technologies have become married to these progressive principles in ways that reflect both wings of the earlier reform movement (see here).

In this post, I want to describe what I saw that morning in classrooms–sadly without the company of Dewey–and what I heard from the founder of the AltSchool network, Max Ventilla.

Alt/Schools

There are five “micro-schools” in San Francisco. I visited Yerba Buena, a K-8 school  of over 30 students whose daily schedule gives a hint of what it is about. I went unescorted into three classes –upper-elementary and middle school social studies and math lessons (primary classes were on a field trip to a museum)–which gave me a taste of the teaching, the content, student participation, and the level of technology integration. I spoke briefly with two of the three teachers whose lessons I observed and got a flavor of their enthusiasm for their students and the school.

For readers who want a larger slice of what this private school seeks to do (tuition runs around $26,000 for 2015-2016) can see video clips and read text about the philosophy, program, teaching staff, and the close linkages between technology in this and sister “micro-schools” (see Alt/school materials here)

Since I parachuted in for a few hours–I plan to see another “micro-school” soon–I cannot describe full lessons, the entire program, teaching staff or even offer an informed opinion of Yerba Buena. For those readers who want such descriptions (and judgments), there are journalistic accounts (see above) and the AltSchool’s own descriptions for parents (see above).

Yet what was clear to me even in the morning’s glimpse of a “micro-school” was that theoretical principles of Deweyan thought and practice in his Lab School over a century ago and the evolving network of both private and public progressive schools in subsequent decades across the nation was apparent in what I saw in a few classrooms at Yerba Buena. One doesn’t need a weather vane to see which way the wind is blowing.

But there was a modern twist and a new element in the progressive portfolio of practices: the ubiquitous use of technology by teachers and students as teaching and learning tools. Unlike most places that have adopted laptops and tablets wholesale, what I saw for a few hours was that the use of new technologies was in the background, not the foreground, of a lesson. Much like pencil and paper have been taken-for-granted tools in both teaching and learning over the past century, so now digital ones.

What I also found useful in looking at a progressive vision of private schooling in practice was my 45-minute talk with the founder of these experimental “micro schools.”

Max Ventilla

The founder of AltSchool has been profiled many times and has given extensive interviews (see here  and here). In many of these, the “creation story” of how he and his wife searched for a private school that would meet their five year-old’s needs and potential and then, coming up empty in their search. “We weren’t seeing,” he said, “the kind of experiences that we thought would really prepare her for a lifetime of change.” He decided to build a school that would be customized for individual students, like their daughter, where children could further their intellectual passions while nourishing all that makes a kid, a kid.

In listening to Ventilla, that story was repeated but far more important I got a clearer sense of what he has in mind for Altschool in the upcoming years. Some venture capitalists have invested in the for-profit AltSchool not for a couple of years but for a decade. He sees beyond that horizon, however, for his networks to scale up, becoming more efficient, less costly, and attractive to more and more parents as a progressive brand that will, at some future point, reshape how private and public schools operate. And turn a profit for investors. Ventilla wants to do well by doing good.

His conceptual framework for the network and its eventual growth is a mix of what he learned personally from starting and selling software companies and working at Google in personalizing users’ search results to increase consumer purchases (see here). Ventilla sees the half-dozen or more “micro-schools” in different cities as part of a long-term research-and-development strategy that would build networks of small schools as AltSchool designers, software engineers, and teachers learn from their mistakes. As they slowly get larger, key features of AltSchool–building personalized learning platforms, for example–will be licensed to private (see here) and eventually public schools.

Ventilla mixes the language of whole child development, individual differences, the importance of collaboration among children and between children and adults with business ideas and  vocabulary of “soft vs. hard technology,”  “crossing the threshold of efficacy,” “effects per costs,” and scaling up networks to eventually become profitable.

Progressivism–both wings (see Part 1) are present in AltSchool’s collecting huge amounts of data about students and  engineers (on site) with teachers using that data to create customized playlists for each of their K-8 students across all subject areas . Efficiency and effectiveness are married to progressive principles in practice.

That is the dream that I heard from Max Ventilla one October morning.

Part 2 will describe my visit to a nearby micro-school, South-of-Market (SOMA) where 33 middle school students (6th through 8th graders) attend.

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Revisiting Progressivism: Then and Now (Part 1)

Since January, I have visited classrooms, schools, and districts in Silicon Valley to see exemplars of technology integration. Posts appeared regularly over the past months describing individual elementary and secondary school teachers teaching lessons that put technology in the background, that is, laptops and tablets were as mundane as paper and pencil, in order to reach the content and skill goals they have set.

I intend to complete all of my observations and interviews by early December. Then I will re-read everything I wrote, reflect on what I have seen, read about “best cases” elsewhere in the U.S., and talk to people across the country whose work intersects with mine, place all of this in a historical context, and finally begin tapping away on my keyboard.

Oh, do I wish that the process in the above paragraph were so linear. But it ain’t. I have thoughts and intuitions now that have accumulated with every visit to schools and classrooms. This blog is a place where I can try out these thoughts before getting hip-deep in my analysis of what I have observed over a year and tackle the writing of a book. So here goes.

Recently visiting the private San Francisco AltSchool and two public elementary schools in Milpitas (CA) have triggered my pausing to write down emerging thoughts. Those three schools pushed me to mentally scroll through all of the classroom lessons I have observed since  January. Those visits occasioned much thinking about John Dewey and Edward Thorndike intellectual leaders in the progressive movement that was the dominant reform between 1900-1950. I saw many parallels then and now between deepened interest and practice of student-centered learning and the persistent quest, again then and now, for efficient operations in Silicon Valley and elsewhere.

What I am thinking about is the periodic blossoming of yet another progressive reform surge anchored in the principles of student-centered learning and increasingly efficient schools of the earlier movement but this time fueled by new technologies and much money that make possible what has been considered impossible during recent market-oriented reforms concentrating on standards, testing, and accountability.

Since I have a blog where I can try out these intuitions and thoughts publicly, I will be writing a multi-post series  showing links that I see between past efforts of progressives to reform schools that were then thought to be “too traditional and teacher-directed” and increasing numbers of contemporary reformers operating again on progressive principles that the current “factory-model”used in public schools—need I point out these schools were a product of an earlier reform movement?–have to be replaced with child-driven, experience-laden, highly efficient schools connected to the real and ever-changing world.

So I begin with that earlier progressive school reform movement.

In the decades between the 1890s and 1940s, “progressive education” in the U.S. was the reigning political ideology of schooling. There were two main ideas, anchored in what was then emerging as a “science of education” that spurred and divided U.S. progressives in those years. First, student-centered instruction and learning (adherents were sometimes called “pedagogical progressives“) and, second, advocates of “scientific management” (sometimes called “administrative progressives” who sought to prepare children and youth to fit into work and society far more efficiently than the traditional schooling of the day. Both wings of the progressive movement cited John Dewey and Edward Thorndike and their embrace of science as the royal road to achieving “good”schools, as defined by each wing of the movement.

Educators, including many academics, administrators and researchers of the day glommed on to “scientific management.” Proud to be called “educational engineers” during these years, these progressives created lists of behaviors that principals would use to evaluate teachers, designed protocols to follow to make a school building efficient, and measured anything that was nailed down. A “good” school was an efficient one, they said.

Academics, school boards, and superintendents–then called “administrative progressives” –adopted scientific ways of determining educational efficiency. These reformers were kissing cousins of “pedagogical progressives.” The latter wanted to uproot traditional teaching and learning and plant child-centered learning in schools. Their version of a “good” school was one where the “whole child” was at the center of curriculum and instruction and learning through experience was primary. These progressives made a small dent in U.S. schools but the efficiency-minded progressives triumphed politically in shaping schools in the early 20th century.

That efficiency-driven progressive crusade for meaningful information to inform policy decisions about district and school efficiency and effectiveness has continued in subsequent decades. The current donor and business-led resurgence of a “cult of efficiency,” the application of scientific management to schooling, appears in the current romance with Big Data, evidence-based instruction, and the onslaught of models that use assumption-loaded algorithms to grade how well schools and individual teachers are doing, and customizing online lessons for students.

Even though the efficiency wing of early 20th century progressives has politically trumped the wing of the movement focused on the whole child and student-centered pedagogy, it is well to keep in mind that cycles of rhetoric–wars of words–and policy action on efficiency-driven and student-centered progressivism have spun back-and-forth for decades. The point is that while most policymakers are efficiency driven and have succeeded in dominating public school policymaking for decades, that political domination has hardly eliminated educators and parents committed to holistic, student-centered schooling.

Even now at the current height of efficiency-driven, top-down standards and testing, schools committed to educating the whole child have persisted (see here and here) within regular public schools as well as charter schools that label themselves as progressive (see here and here). The progressive impulse with its two wings lives on in 2016.

Which brings me to the private AltSchool and two public elementary ones in Milpitas (CA) that I visited recently. In subsequent posts I will take up those schools.

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Why the History of School Reform is Essential for Policymakers, Practitioners, and Researchers

History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read.  And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past.  On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.  It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.

James Baldwin, 1965

The quote from essayist, novelist, and civil rights activist James Baldwin captures the essential truth about the importance of the past in our living each day of each year and making sense out of what we encounter. As it (was) and is true now about white-black relations, so it is true of coming to grips with the history of school reform in the midst of grand efforts to envision the high school of the future and “personalized learning” through technology.

There is, of course, nothing wrong about these aspirations for fundamental change in a two-century old institution. What is awry is the staggering amounts of money invested in altering these community institutions harnessed to the conscious indifference to the past when similar efforts by earlier generations of  just as dedicated reformers unfolded. As Baldwin pointed out:  “history is literally present in all that we do.  It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.”

Seems to me that current well-funded efforts to launch and sustain such changes upon U.S. schools should, at the minimum, be informed by similar experiments that occurred in the past.

Were well-intentioned reformers now to tap that wisdom and study the history of similar reforms it would not lead to pessimism, throwing in the towel, or similar acts of giving up. It would, I believe, lead to more informed strategies and outcomes for current reforms. A greater concern for solid incremental changes, implemented fully, that accumulate into moving an institution from here to there. But that is not the case now.

The current crop of school reformers, both on the political right and left, have a full agenda of Common Core standards, test-driven accountability, expanding parental choice through charters, spreading virtual teaching and learning, and ridding classrooms of ineffective teachers based upon students’ test scores. These reformers have their eyes fixed on the future not the horrid present  where schools, in their charitable view, are dinosaurs. These reformers are allergic to the history of school reform; they are ahistorical activists that carry the whiff of arrogance associated with the uninformed.

*They do not know what happened in schools when political coalitions between the 1890s-1940s  believed that there was a mismatch between student skills and industrial needs.  Vocationally-driven schools cranked out graduates who could enter skilled and semi-skilled industrial and white-collar jobs (See Benavot voc ed and Kanter voc ed). That was then. The current vocational drive to get all students into college and equip them with 21st century technological skills that no employer could turn away might give reformers pause in learning of the strengths and limits of that earlier reform-minded generation’s impact on vocational education.

*They do not know what happened in past efforts in various cities throughout mid-to-late 19th century schools in introducing widespread testing, evaluation of teachers based on those scores, and accountability. See here and Testing in 20th century.

*They do not know what happened when previous efforts to introduce innovative technologies into schools stumbled, got adapted in ways unforeseen by reformers, and even disappeared. See history of technology and here.

*They do not know how personalized learning is the most recent incarnation of many determined past efforts to get around the lockstep of age-graded schooling by differentiating teaching and individualizing learning (see here and here).

Uninformed reformers forget James Baldwin’s wisdom as they unknowingly forge ahead with their grand plans to transform public schools.

“the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”

Practitioners, researchers, and policymakers look at school reform through a grimy windshield; they have yet to see clearly that ignoring previous reform efforts only means that they unknowingly re-invent changes that have an influential history already deeply embedded within their shiny reforms.

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“Truthful Hyperbole”

*My history teacher is so old, she lived through the Civil War.

*My dog is so ugly, he saw himself in a mirror and ran away.

*My teacher is so mean, she eats first graders for lunch.

*My sister uses so much makeup, she needs a paintbrush to put it on with (see here)

Yes, these statements are hyperbole. They are exaggerations. Stand-up comics use hyperbole often in the one-liners they deliver and the shaggy dog stories they tell. It is also a rhetorical move seeking to make a point through overstating. Awareness of exaggerated statements has risen dramatically in the 2016 campaign for the U.S. presidency. Republican nominee Donald Trump acknowledges that he exaggerates to make a point. In Art of the Deal (1987), Trump said:

I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.

Journalist Tony Schwartz ghost-wrote Art of the Deal and reveals how the phrase “truthful hyperbole” originated with Trump thirty years ago in developing New York City real estate projects.

So the phrase “truthful hyperbole” has entered the presidential campaign leaving most of us unclear on what is fact and what is fiction. Of course, in previous presidential campaigns, other candidates have made exaggerated claims but now journalists and pundits have enjoyed a Trumpian cornucopia.

To be direct, “truthful hyperbole” is as oxymoronic as “accurate exaggeration.” While in the next two months campaign talks, presidential debates, and TV ads will surely add to the list of examples of “truthful hyperbole,” such exaggeration surrounding school technologies contains many examples (I was going to write a “gazillion” but did not want to add to the list).

“Truthful Hyperbole” in Computers in Schools 

Remember MOOCs?

Massive Open Online Courses beginning in 2012 were going to “revolutionize” universities making degrees accessible to anyone with an Internet connection (see here and here). Well, the obituaries have already appeared less than five years later (see here and here). Surely, MOOCs still exist–the truthful part–although the hyperbole has been cremated.

Remember the introduction of iPads?

As one headline put it in 2012: How the iPad is Transforming the Classroom.

Or an online newspaper article from the San Jose Mercury News:

As teachers, administrators, parents and students continue to argue about how best to incorporate digital technology into the classroom, Apple (AAPL) strode into the center of the debate Thursday with a promise to transform the classroom the same way it changed music with iTunes and the iPod.

Then there is the commonly used word “transformation” to describe what will happen with the onslaught of technologies in classrooms.   It is “truthful hyperbole” in action.

For computer technologies:  Among ourselves, we educators and policymakers discuss the transformation of schools, recognizing how great the changes in these institutions need to be.  Unfortunately the public does not like the term “transformation,” probably for the same reason many people dislike the idea of transforming the health care system.  The public fears that something familiar and important will be lost as institutions are transformed.  In fact, we know that the United States faces greater risks if our schools fail to improve fast enough than if they change too slowly.

Computers, the Internet, online courses, smart phones, cameras, interactive whiteboards, and other digital tools play an important role in improving and, yes, transforming schools.  The role of technology in schools will increase, and as we use these new tools wisely, they help make schools more effective and engaging. (2012)

For online learning: What does stand to happen in K-12 education is a transformation, where the schools of tomorrow look radically different from schools of today as a result of disruptive changes in subsystems beneath them, i.e. classes, after-school services, etc. Schools may become community hubs where students come to collaborate, work online, get mentoring, tutoring, and individualized help – a stark contrast from the whole group instructional model of today where whiteboards and desks reign supreme. (2016)

For adaptive or “personalized” learning: How Computer Technology Will Transform Schools of the Future (2014)

And on and on. The hyperbole attached to the use of technologies in classrooms are exaggerations anchored in magical thinking, not fact. When it comes to hyperbole, the “truthful” part is a casualty of rhetorical overkill.

 

 

 

 

 

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Charter Schools’ 25th Anniversary: Why This Reform Has Lasted (Part 2)

In investigating school reforms that have taken place over the last century and a half, I have divided them into incremental and fundamental changes (see here and here). Incremental reforms are those that aim to improve the existing structures of schooling; the premise behind incremental reforms is that the basic structures are sound but need improving to remove defects. The car is old but if it gets fixed it will become dependable transportation. It needs tires, brakes, a new battery, and a water pump–incremental changes. Fundamental reforms are those that aim to transform, to alter permanently, those very same structures; the premise behind fundamental reforms is that basic structures are flawed at their core and need a complete overhaul, not renovations. The old jalopy is beyond repair. We need to get a completely new car or consider different forms of transportation–fundamental changes.

If new courses, new staff, summer schools, higher standards for teachers, and increased salaries are clear examples of enhancements to the structures of public schooling, then the introduction of the age-graded school (which gradually eliminated the one-room school) Progressive educators’ broadening the school’s role to intervene in the lives of children and their families (e.g., to provide medical and social services) in the early 20th century, and more recently the introduction of charter schools in the 1990s are examples of fundamental reforms that stuck.

The platoon school, classroom technologies from film and radio to laptops and tablets, project-based learning, and charter schools, however, are instances of attempted fundamental change in the school and classroom since the early 20th century that were adopted, incorporated into many schools, and, over time, either downsized into incremental ones or slipped away, leaving few traces of their presence. Why did some incremental reforms get institutionalized and most of the fundamental ones either became just another part of the “system” or simply disappeared?

Some scholars have analyzed those hardy reforms that survived and concluded that a number of factors account for their institutionalization (see here and here).

They enhance, not disrupt existing structures. Many prior reforms added staffing, particularly specialists, to deal with the variety of children that attended schools. Separate teachers for children with disabilities, math and reading teachers, counselors to help children pick courses to take and to prepare for college and the job market. Similarly, additional space for playgrounds, lunchrooms, and health clinics enhanced the school program. charters remain age-graded schools just like traditional neighbors. Moreover, after 25 years some charter school heads are working out cooperative arrangements with district school boards that help one another (see here and district_charter_collaboration_rpt).

They are easy to monitor. These reforms were visible. They could be counted (e.g., hot lunches, health clinics, year-round schools, and charters. Such easy monitoring gave taxpayers evidence that the services were being rendered and changes had occurred.

They create constituencies that lobby for continuing support. New staff positions such as special education teachers and counselors created demands for administrators and supervisors to monitor their work. Newly certified educators, imbued with a fervent belief in their mission, argued for more money. Consider that the spread of charter school and competition for state funds flowing to school districts created interest groups (e.g., charter advocates) that lobbied donors and state officials for more funds. Commercial interests serving new programs (e.g., for-profit cyber schools, vendors of computer products) championed charters. Finally, parents persuaded by the influence of the services and programs on their children joined educators to create informal coalitions advocating the continuation of these reforms.

This answer to the question of why some reforms stick has a superficial neatness that omits some reforms that fail to fit nicely into the above categories (e.g., desegregation of schools since 1954). Moreover, there is a static quality implied in the notion of reforms that attained  longevity, that is, such reforms were incorporated into public schools and remained as they were as if frozen in time. Those fundamental reforms that became incrementalized and stuck, however, continued to change as they adapted to ever-shifting demands and resources.

Studies of non-school organizations offer richer clues that go beyond the crisp, static answers suggested here. For example, the theories of Robert Merton, Philip Selznick, Alvin Gouldner, and their students produced numerous studies of organizations founded in the heat of reform movements whose original goals have been transformed over decades although their names remain the same. The imperative for organizational survival vibrates strongly in Selznick’s (1949) analysis of the Tennessee Valley Authority, and Mayer Zald and Patricia Denton’s (1963) investigation of the Young Men’s Christian Association.

Other studies, closer to public schools, also document adaptability in organizations founded to end social ills. These institutions maintained their professed goals yet shifted in what they did operationally in order to survive. David Rothman’s (1980) analysis of 19th century reformers’ inventions of rehabilitative prisons, juvenile courts, and reformed mental asylums records the painful journey of institutions established in a gush of zeal for improvement of criminals, delinquents, and the mentally ill; within decades, the reformers ended up pursuing scaled-down goals that maintained the interests of those who administered the institution. Barbara Brenzel (1983) analyzed a half-century’s history of the first reform school for girls in the nation (State Industrial School for Girls in Lancaster, Massachusetts). Here, again, the initial goals of reforming poor, neglected, and potentially wayward girls through creating family-like cottages and separating younger from older girls gave way to goals that stressed order and control.

The point is that there are institutional reasons why some reforms are like shooting stars that flare and disappear and some reforms stick. Organizational and political reasons (e.g., vague and multiple goals, innovations that fit existing structures, are easy to monitor, and have active constituencies) explain how schools and districts adapt their goals, structures, and processes to an uncertain, ever changing environment to incorporate new ideas and practices.

And that is why charter schools will be around for the next quarter century.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

2. Explain content clearly.

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

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

5. Check for student understanding.

6. Respond to student misunderstandings.

7. Develop higher-level understanding through effective questioning.

8. Maximize instructional time.

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

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

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

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

Personalized Learning algorithms

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are algorithms?

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

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

Complex algorithms

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

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

 

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Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies, technology use