Tag Archives: school reform

A Plea to Ed Tech Entrepreneurs (Randy Weiner)

Randy Weiner is a co-founder and CEO at BrainQuake, a co-founder at Urban Montessori Charter School in Oakland, CA and former Board Chair, a former teacher, father to two elementary school-aged daughters. In this post, he uses the phrase “we” to refer to those who, like himself, are high-tech entrepreneurs, start companies aimed at the school market, produce software and “solutions” to educators’ problems, and, in general, want to improve the quality of schooling in the U.S.

Weiner anticipates that some readers will disagree with his definition of ed tech. In comments, if you do disagree, offer your amended or new definition and indicate reasons for changes you would make.

 

Last month, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called for education technology companies to focus on addressing problems that matter. Implicit in the Secretary’s challenge is the assumption that education technology can, in fact, actually have an impact on important education problems and opportunities.

To date, however, precious little efficacy research exists to support this assumption, and it is easy to find data that raises questions about ed tech’s potential.

For example, we ed tech entrepreneurs are flooding schools with ed tech offerings, arguably in a counterproductive manner. Numerous studies and surveys, including Digital Promise’s late 2014 “Improving Ed Tech Purchasing”, find school leaders and teachers are overwhelmed by the number of ed tech offerings foisted upon them, making the task of simply identifying those products that might solve problems that matter unnecessarily challenging.

Also, according to the Annie. E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Center, between 2005 and 2013, the number of American children living in poverty increased by 3%, from ~13.4M to 16.1M. During roughly that same time period, nearly $2B flowed into ed tech ventures and 2014 alone saw over $1B in U.S. ed tech investment. $2B hardly registers within the context of the U.S. Department of Education budget, but it is roughly one-third of Los Angeles Unified’s school budget and nearly one-tenth of New York City’s Department of Education budget. If one of education’s goals is to increase economic opportunity and lift children out of poverty, ed tech dollars have yet to demonstrate a meaningful impact on children’s prospects.

To rise to the Secretary’s challenge, we in the ed tech community must take a few steps backward to clearly define what we mean by education technology itself.

Ed tech’s fundamental responsibility is to re-imagine the very interface to education. That is, technology, intelligently applied, should reveal insight to previously inaccessible, actionable teaching and learning opportunities that impact student outcomes, whether they pertain to the student, the teacher, the parent, the administrator and/or the community.

We need an ed tech definition that has a sense of pedagogical and education product development history. We need an ed tech definition that reflects an understanding of how to identify and assess a potential innovation related to an education problem that matters. With such a definition, we will improve the probability of aligning technology to opportunities to impact stagnant education problems.

My proposed definition pertains to both existing low tech solutions (for example, Audrey Watters has rightly observed that windows in a classroom ought to be considered instructional technology) that are generally not considered to be “education technology” and future ed tech product development that emphasizes demonstrably improved student outcomes ahead of a product’s codebase.

Education technology is a previously unavailable, best possible and proven interface that increases student achievement on one of the nation’s top three education problems or opportunities.

Let’s take a closer look at the definition’s key components.

*”Previously unavailable”: If your problem is not already successfully addressed by a person, product or service, then you may have an ed tech opportunity.

We in the ed tech community can help simply by checking ourselves: there is no need to develop redundant offerings when schools are already distracted by an overabundance of products.

*”Best possible”: Ed tech developers must force themselves to articulate why the use of technology in their product is unquestionably the absolute best possible choice for impacting student outcomes. Unfortunately, we ed tech entrepreneurs have yet to evolve the following to the cliché it should be: Focus needs to be on problems first, solutions second.

*”Proven” – This word echoes Secretary Duncan’s call for ed tech companies to conduct comparison or control group research – a relative rarity today — to justify a product’s adoption when America’s teachers have not a minute to waste in preparing children to participate in tomorrow’s economy.

*”Interface”: Refer to my initial comments above regarding what it means to view ed tech as an interface to accessing and experiencing education in new ways.

Taken together, “previously unavailable”, “best possible”, “proven” and “interface” combine to form a concise, outcomes-oriented focus for ed tech product development that any education technologist can apply to his or her work.

The last phrase in my definition, “that increases student achievement on one of the nation’s top three problems or opportunities” is equally important.

My own biases suggest that the nation’s top three opportunities include:

1. Future-proofing our children by teaching the concrete creative problem-solving skills and mindsets that consistently produce breakthrough organizations, products and services (non-profit or for-profit

2. Developing a national, lifelong learning culture that imbues children with the creative confidence to change the worl

3. Scaling pedagogy and assessment that recognizes that a “one size fits all” approach may not fit anyone

My point, however, is not to establish that my priorities are correct – of course there will be plenty of disagreement. Rather, the larger point is that we in ed tech should unite to prioritize our efforts so as to minimize redundancy and increase investment focus. Intensely disciplined focus on one to three problems at a time will minimize distractions at the school site and incentivize ed tech entrepreneurs to concentrate on deeply understanding critical problems that limit children’s futures and constrain economic growth.

Fortunately, there is a tool that drives such focus: the X Prize’s community platform, HeroX.

HeroX is not the X Prize, though it is related. HeroX crowdfunds prizes for solutions to problems that matter. At the time of this post, searches for “education technology” and “ed tech” do not yield a single relevant result. The ed tech community could lead by example, banding together to establish a disciplined priority list for U.S. students. Each year a new prize (assuming a past year’s prize has been claimed) could arise to drive focus and innovation on problems that truly matter.

A more focused definition of ed tech can provide guidance for entrepreneurs and stakeholders looking to use technology to improve educational outcomes for children. To date, we in ed tech have flooded the market with unproven products that distract schools from otherwise focusing on serving their children. In doing so, we have attracted billions of dollars that have not changed children’s future at scale. We can do better and we should start with an inspiring definition of and laser focus on what it is we are trying to deliver in the first place.

 

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Coding for Kids: The New Vocational Education

There is hardly any work we can do or any expenditures we can make that will yield so large a return to our industries as would come from the establishment of educational institutions which would give us skilled hands and trained minds for the conduct of our industries and our commerce

Theodore Search, National Association of Manufacturers, 1898

[K]nowing something about programming makes us competitive as individuals, companies and a nation. The rest of the world is learning code. Their schools teach it, their companies are filled with employees who get it, and their militaries are staffed by programmers — not just gamers with joysticks. According to the generals I’ve spoken with, we are less than a generation away from losing our technological superiority on the cyber battlefield, which should concern a nation depending so heavily on drones for security and electronic trading as an industry.

Finally, learning code — and doing so in a social context — familiarizes people with the values of a digital society: the commons, collaboration and sharing. These are replacing the industrial age values of secrecy or the hoarding of knowledge. Learning how software is developed and how the ecosystem of computer technology really works helps us understand the new models through which we’ll be working and living as a society. It’s a new kind of teamwork, and one that’s under-emphasized in our testing-based school systems.

Douglas Rushkoff, author, teacher, film-maker, 2012

 

Beginning in 1917 and continuing through the 1960s, the federal government appropriated monies for states to spend on vocational training for industrial and commercial jobs. This support made the NAM version of vocational education dominant in public schools for three-quarters of a century. Since the 1980s, however, vocational education has largely disappeared as a formal choice in the curriculum. Career academies and scattered high school courses do pinch-hit and offer some choice to those students uneager to spend four additional years sitting in college classrooms. With the disappearance of the “old” vocational education, a shiny new one is being touted to replace it. Yes, I refer to the shrill cries for more computer science and the teaching of coding to children and youth. Enter the “new” vocationalism.

You do not need a Ph.D. to figure out that the past thirty years have forged strong links between the economy and public schooling. The primary purpose for K-12 schools in recent decades has been crisply defined as preparing each child for college and career. Completing college, of course, is basically geared to getting decent paying jobs. So becoming college-ready means that higher education is really a vocational school. Advocates for coding and requiring computer science as a subject seek to expand the K-12 curriculum (or replace other content and skills) by adding a C to the three Rs.

Let’s say that champions of coding and the subject of computer science succeed in lobbying policymakers to mandate the teaching of programming in elementary and secondary schools. And, further, they strike gold in getting policymakers to insert coding into the national Common Core standards and state graduation requirements. Their success would be unstoppable were a coalition of coding supporters to hit the even larger political jackpot. That is, adding new multiple choice questions to state tests that ask students to demonstrate their knowledge and skills in programming a piece of software. In an already jam-packed curriculum of reading, math, social studies, science, foreign language–don’t forget those prerequisite courses in middle school that put students on track to take math, science, and history Advanced Placement courses in high school–what would get less class time or is dropped completely? Those opposed to dropping required subjects for graduation could then–in concert with coding champions call for a longer school day by adding an hour to the daily schedule. By now, readers should get the picture of growing support for a “new” vocational education.

Public schools, then, have experienced two spasms of vocationally-driven reform. One created the  “old vocational education” in the early 20th century endorsed by the National Association of Manufacturers and now the “new vocational education” nearly a century later, endorsed by high-tech CEOs spreading the gospel for teaching children to code and take computer science courses. Then and now, policymakers saw an intimate connection between a strong economy and strong schools. And that is why Theodore Search and Douglas Rushkoff could easily have sat down and had a cold beer together.

 

 

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How Many Teachers Teach a New Kind of History?

Policymakers continually seek to change the content of what teachers teach (e.g., Common Core standards) and how they teach (e.g., direct instruction, project-based learning). After adoption of new Common Core aligned textbooks and scads of professional development workshops in different pedagogies, how much change has occurred in how teachers teach lessons? That is the first question that has to be answered. Subsequent and crucial questions that have to be answered like who (e.g., policymaker, researcher, teacher) determines whether the change is, indeed, a change in what teachers do and whether the desired changes have led to increased student achievement come later.

But even answering the first question, superficial as it may be, is (and has been) a hard nut to crack. Take, for example, the teaching of history. In earlier posts (see here) I pointed out tensions between teaching for “heritage” and teaching with a “historical” approach. Strains between these two approaches have persisted for well over a century in the teaching of history. In earlier reform movements such as the New Social Studies of the 1960s, the conflict was apparent. Since the late-1990s, a slowly growing movement to have students learn, through extensive use of primary sources, how historians read, think, and write has spread across the nation. To determine whether this approach to content and pedagogy in the teaching of history is working is to ask the straightforward question: how many teachers regularly use lessons crafted to simulate how historians read, think, write, and come to understand the past?

Answering the question is tough because no national studies of nearly 60,000 social studies teachers in the U.S. have been done since the mid-1990s that cover their classroom practices. But there are data pieces, fragments, even slivers that might be assembled into a chipped mosaic from which emerges a fuzzy picture of how teachers are teaching history now.

Here are a few other shards. Data on materials that teach students how to read, write, and think like historians come from Advanced Placement courses that have been taught since the mid-1950s. The Document-Based Question (DBQ), a way of analyzing a primary source, was created as part of the Advanced Placement exam in 1973. One of the authors said: I want students to “become junior historians and play the role of historians for that hour” that they worked on the DBQ. For those able, college-going students who took AP history courses, then, they were clearly exposed to materials and tasks that replicated the work of historians. [i]

So those high school teachers in high schools who teach AP history courses–they have at least one section of students and teach other history classes as well–already use hybrids of teacher-centered instruction for a College Board, textbook-bound curriculum heavily geared to how historians read, think, and write. The vast majority of history teachers, however, do not teach AP courses.

Another sliver of data is to consider the large-scale effort undertaken on a shoestring by the Reading Like a Historian Project at Stanford University under the leadership of Sam Wineburg. That project has recorded nearly 2 million viewers (all 50 states and 127 countries) who downloaded these free curriculum materials since they were first posted in 2009. Just in 2014, there were more than 630,000 visits to the website to copy over 100 different lessons for U.S. and world history courses. Moreover, Wineburg and his team are now providing professional development to history teachers in big city and suburban school districts on how to use these lessons and do classroom assessments. [ii]

Downloaded lessons, though, do not necessarily transfer to classroom use. Finding out the degree to which these lessons and similar ones designed by teachers themselves are used weekly, occasionally, or not at all requires studies of classroom practices among history teachers. I have not yet located such studies. Thus far, no researchers have documented how widespread is (or has been) the use of these lessons or similar materials with students is.[iii]

What little data there are about the degree to which history content and pedagogy have moved from textbook-bound conventional pedagogy to the inquiry, primary source-driven historical approach come from scattered small reports of social studies teachers, again through surveys rather than direct observations, interviews, and examination of classroom materials. Like the above fragments, they add a few more chipped tiles to the mosaic of teacher use of these materials and approaches.

One national study (2004), for example, used a random sample of social studies teachers to determine the purpose for and the classroom use of primary sources. The authors concluded that although respondents agreed with the importance of using historical sources and having students do historical inquiry, “…teachers’ actual use of both classroom-based and web-based primary sources was somewhat low.” [iv]

A similar report of social studies teachers in one Virginia county to determine the purposes and use of historical primary sources found that teachers “report that they are only occasional users of historical primary sources; however, when they do use these sources, they obtain them primarily from textbooks and the web.”[v]

I have one more shard to add to the blurred mosaic picture that emerges from bits and pieces. Over the past five years, I have visited 13 teachers observing 17 lessons and examined classroom materials classrooms mostly in Northern California as part of different studies I was doing on technology use and at the invitation of these teachers. Clearly, the sample was non-random, but I offer it as another isolated piece of evidence. Six of these 13 teachers (three of whom taught Advanced Placement history) used primary sources and questioned students to get at historical thinking on a particular topic. [vi]

Finally, over the years, researchers have published individual case studies of novice and experienced history teachers who taught students to inquire into the past using primary sources to teach students to read, think, and write as historians. In many instances, such teacher case studies were exemplars of how to convert textbook-bound lessons into ones that included historical thinking. These studies made a simple point that as hard as it may appear to social studies teachers to alter their teacher-centered pedagogy, given the contexts in which they teach (e.g., state tests, accountability regulations, age-graded school, and poverty-ridden neighborhoods), this approach to teaching can be done within the framework of existing public schools, including those located in cities. None of the case studies declare that the profiled teachers and lessons are the norm for history teachers although authors imply they should and can be. It is clear that these teachers are exceptions, not the rule. [vii]

So what is the answer to the question: how many teachers teach a new kind of history? No one knows.

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[i] Mike Henry, “The DBQ Change: Returning to the Original Intent,” College Board AP Central for Educators at: http://apcentral.collegeboard.com/apc/members/homepage/10467_print.html?type=popup

[ii]Email from Joel Breakstone to Larry Cuban (in author’s possession), January 23, 2015; Theresa Johnston, “Stanford-developed History Lessons for Grades 6-12 Adopted Worldwide,” GSE News, Graduate School of Education, March 17, 2014 at: https://ed.stanford.edu/news/stanford-developed-history-lessons-grades-6-12-adopted-worldwide

[iii] Thus far, New York State has included document-based questions into its statewide assessment of social studies (including the Regents exam). When more states include such items in their tests, I would expect increases in the number of teachers who build into their daily lessons how to analyze primary sources, bias, and corroborating sources. See: http://www.archives.nysed.gov/education/showcase/dbq.shtml

[iv] David Hicks, et. al., “Social Studies Teachers’ Use of Classroom-Based and Web-Based Use Historical Primary Sources,” Theory and Research in Social Education, 2004, 32(2), pp. 213-247. Quote is on p. 232. The response rate to this random sample was 40 percent.

[v] John Lee, et. al., “Social Studies and History Teachers’ Uses of Non-Digital and Digital Historical Resources,” Social Studies Research and Practice, 2006, 1(3), pp. 291-311. Quote is on p. 296. Response rate from teachers was 70 percent.

[vi]I observed nine lessons from six teachers at Gunderson High School in San Jose Unified School District during 2009-2010; one lesson of a teacher at Mission High School in San Francisco Unified School District in 2013; two lessons of one teacher at Roosevelt High School in the Washington, D.C. public schools; four lessons of four teachers at Aragon High School in the San Mateo Union High School District in 2014; one lesson of one teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in the Fremont Unified School District in 2014.

[vii] Here is a sampling of individual case studies and collections of cases that describe various teachers using inquiry to investigate the past in ways that historians do: Robert Bain, “ They Thought The World Was Flat? “ Applying the Principles of How People Learn in Teaching High School History,” in Suzanne Donovan and John Bransford (Eds.) How Students Learn: History, Mathematics, and Science in the Classroom (Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 2005), pp.179-213; Bruce Lesh, “Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer?”: Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12 (Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers, 2011); Bruce VanSledright, The Challenge of Rethinking History Education New York: Routledge, 2011); Sam Wineburg and Suzanne Wilson, “Models of Wisdom in the Teaching of History,” in Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001), pp. 155-172.

 

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Some Thoughts about Change, Innovation, and Watching Paint Dry

Let’s face it, in the U.S. change is far sexier than stability. Words like “innovation,” “revolution,””disruption,”and, of course, “reform” have replaced the 19th century common word of “progress.” With so much evidence about war, civil war, torture, poverty, in the world, the concept of “progress” is a hard sell. But not the idea of change. Especially, technological change. From iPhones to Chromebooks to driverless cars to controlling all home appliances with clicks on smart phones, Americans will line up outside stores days in advance to buy the next new thing.

Stability, continuity, day-after-day routines hardly excites Americans or makes films (except perhaps Andy Warhol creations). Stability is, you guessed it, ho-hum, prompting open-mouth yawns. No pizzaz, no cheerleaders, no drum rolls accompany calls for more stability in daily routines or in life. Political leaders from U.S. presidents to local school board members promise to turnaround the status quo. Particularly, when the topic is tax-supported, compulsory public education for children and youth ages 6-16 across the U.S. For the past thirty years, civic, business, and philanthropic leaders have targeted U.S. public schools for their mediocrity, as compared to international economic competitors. Calls for “transformation” of school governance, curriculum, organization, and instruction have rolled off the tongues of politicians, CEOs, and superintendents. What policymakers,  practitioners, parents, and researchers too often overlook or ignore is the dual purposes (and paradox) of compulsory public education in a democracy. Tax-supported public schools are expected to conserve and change.

Consider public opinion polls on what schools should do for U.S. children and youth. One illustrates the rich array of collective and individual purposes that parents and taxpayers expect schools to achieve. In order of importance, the top five purposes were as follows:

*Prepare youth to become responsible citizens;

*Help young people become economically sufficient;

*Ensure a basic level of quality among schools;

*Promote cultural unity among all Americans;

*Improve social conditions for people.[i]

The numerous and competing goals would not have surprised education scholars who have documented these public expectations for children attending schools. In the late 1970s, John Goodlad and associates conducted a major study involving 38 urban, suburban, and rural schools in seven states across the country. Their “Study of Schooling” examined the historic goals of U.S. schools and those they found stated in district, state, and school documents. There were 62.[ii]

Of course, I do not need to lean on public opinion polls to assert that public schooling’s socializing role remains a powerful expectation among parents and taxpayers since schools historically have been agents of preserving civic and moral values. Go into any preschool or kindergarten classroom and see how the teachers train young children to take turns, wash their hands before eating, to talk things through rather than hit one another–you get the picture. For older students, what they should learn in class has prompted battles over school prayer and ugly spats over whether “creationism” or “intelligent design” should be taught in high school science courses.

Historically, public schools have been expected to both conserve community values and traditions while simultaneously giving children and youth the knowledge and skills to make changes in their lives, communities, and yes, in those very values and traditions they absorbed. Some commentators see this as the ongoing conflict between the school’s traditional purpose of transmitting the dominant culture and the purpose of becoming a modern institution in step with the ever-changing society. That dual purpose of public schools has been often lost in current and past reformers’ enthusiastic embrace of schools becoming modern change-agents solving grave national problems.

This conflict in values prizing both continuity and change help explain the laundry list zealous reformers and ardent supporters of the traditional purposes have compiled about change and stability in public schools.
*Schools are resistant to change;
*Schools adopt one fad after another
*Schools change at a glacial pace;
*Schools move at warp speed in embracing innovations.

The contradictory complaints go to the paradox of what parents, voters, policymakers, and practitioners expect of schools and what seems to happen after reform-driven policies are adopted. Even after many changes are introduced into districts and schools, abiding routines and practices persist. Some social scientists call this phenomenon “institutional stasis” and “dynamic conservatism” where the Siamese twins of change and stability keep the organization in balance. In public schools it is not change or stability; it is both at the same time. Coping with this paradox of reform requires policymakers and practitioners to recognize the conflict embedded in the two-fold function of tax-supported public schools and then to—I use a metaphor here–master the art of jiu-jitsu in bringing opposites into harmony in a gentle, supple, and gradual way, a task that few policymakers achieve.

Educators often get flummoxed when they are expected to preserve community and national values while simultaneously being asked to make changes in school organization, curriculum, and instruction in order to solve larger economic and social problems harming the nation. Repeated criticisms of public schools over decades arise from this misunderstanding among fervent reformers of the public school’s basic role to both conserve and change.

Transmitting the dominant values and beliefs in the culture is far less sexy a proposition–more like watching paint dry–than “disrupting,” transforming,” and “revolutionizing,” public schools.

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[i] Lowell Rose and Alec Gallup, ” The 32nd Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools”Phi Delta Kappan, September 2000, p. 47.

 

[ii] John Goodlad, A Place Called School (New York: McGraw Hill, 1984), pp.50-56.

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Technology Enthusiasts, Pragmatists, and Skeptics among Practitioners and Policymakers: Where Are You?

I wrote this post five years ago this month. In it, I mentioned two recently published books that divided advocates of and opponents to technologies in schools into two camps: enthusiasts and skeptics. For the past few months I have been thinking anew about those policymakers, pundits, and practitioners (including blogging students and parents) who write about technology. I want to broaden the familiar continuum of positions on technology in schools beyond those at either pole. I want to include a rich array of those who inhabit the middle. So here is a revised and expanded post.

In reading Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology: The Digital Revolution and Schooling in America (2009) by Allan Collins and Richard Halverson, they, like many other writers on technology, create a continuum of advocates and critics of technology in schools. At one end of their continuum are the “Technology Enthusiasts” and at the other end are the “Technology Skeptics.

Collins and Halverson do not bash either the cheerleaders or doubters at either end of the continuum although many of those gleeful about school technologies do dump on those who express doubt with the position they take. The authors cite points for each side but clearly believe that the world has become digital and schools as they are currently operated will be undercut and overwhelmed by home schooling, cyberschools, charters, private learning centers, workplace learning, and distance education. “These new alternatives,” they say, “will make us rethink the dominant role of K-12 public schools in education as children and adults spend more time learning in new venues” (p.4). Thus, the “digital revolution” will alter the nature of schooling completely by making learning life-long and, in their words, mere “schooling” will finally become “educational.” Maybe.

The problem I have with such scenarios—and, God knows, there have been such claims for decades from Nicholas Negroponte, Seymour Papert and many others (see here and here)—is that these peeks into the future carry the assumption of inevitability—it’s gonna happen and no one can stop it—and no middle ground for folks who may say: “wait a minute, let’s look at this again.”

Seldom do these futurists acknowledge in either their celebratory or dismal predictions that while many parents, practitioners, policymakers, and researchers inhabit either the Enthusiast or Skeptic pole, many others cluster in the middle of the continuum. Many of those–more often than not, teachers and principals rather than policymakers–who hug the middle know that present and past school uses of technologies show great promise for student learning but contain serious flaws; sometimes they even wince at especially foolish claims made by one or the other side. Overall, however, most writers and actual players in the school technology game, especially policymakers, believe technologies in or out of school will ultimately benefit students and teachers.

Those middle-of-the-roaders, however—let’s call them Pragmatists— may tilt toward the Enthusiasts in their heart-of-hearts, but in practice, shy away from the unrealistically rosy future digital millennials imagine. Pragmatists see merit in the arguments and evidence laid out by the Skeptics and have doubts about the too bright and too dark futures that advocates at both end of this continuum forecast. These Pragmatists see the institutional limits of schooling, the varied purposes that schools serve in a democratic society, and the inevitable glitches that arise. They do not worship at the shrine of technology.  If push comes to shove, those in the middle might tilt toward the Enthusiasts’ side but would not pooh-pooh Skeptics or call them names.

These Pragmatists are neither unvarnished fans of the newest software application—some Enthusiasts have yet to meet one they didn’t like–nor doom-saying Skeptics who claim that any new device shoves teachers further down that road of dumbing down the art and science of teaching, isolating individuals from one another and confusing students by equating information with knowledge.

I believe that most teachers are Pragmatists and most policymakers are Enthusiasts. As schools have been the pushed into  trying out the most recent technological innovations, teachers have learned over time that some devices and software can be very helpful in reaching their objectives and some applications cannot (or will not) be helpful. More and more teachers have incorporated new technologies into their daily lessons  since the early 1980s. Using mixes of traditional teaching with new technologies (e.g., smart boards, tablets, laptops) have led to increasing instances of “blended learning.” Such teachers using mixes of old and new classroom approaches illustrate Pragmatists in action.

Where do you fit on the continuum?

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The Lack of Evidence-Based Practice–The Case of Classroom Technology (Part 2)

In  the No Child Left Behind Act (2001), the phrase “scientifically based research” is mentioned 110 times. Not a typo. Evidence-based practice, a variation of the NCLB phrase, and data-driven decision-making are popular among policymakers, administrators, and researchers. What is common to all of these phrases is the idea that systematic inquiry into a question or problem–either through evaluation or research (or both) will yield solid data useful to educators in making and implementing policy.

Yet the historical record is rich in evidence that research and evaluation findings have played a subordinate role in making educational policy. Often, policy choices were (and are) political decisions. This is not a criticism of politics or even ideology in schooling but a recognition that tax-supported public schools are political institutions where stakeholders with competing values vie for resources.

There was no research or evaluation, for example, that found establishing public schools in the early 19th century was better than educating youth through private academies. No studies persuaded late-19th century decision-makers to import privately-funded kindergartens into public schools. Ditto for introducing desktop computers into schools a century later.

So it is hardly surprising, then, that many others, including myself, have been skeptical of the popular idea that what policymakers and teachers should do is pursue unrelentingly evidence-based policy-making and data-driven instruction. The strong belief persists among educators that when policy and practice are anchored in scientifically researched findings, then and only then, rational and effective policymaking and classroom teaching can occur.

As Part 1 indicated, that has hardly been the case when it comes to monies spent on charter schools and classroom technologies then and now. Why is that?

Political and practical reasons, not research and evaluation, often guide policy decisions–or as two scholars put it: “evidence-based decision-making is sometimes framed as an antidote for ideology-driven decision-making [when] people make decisions precisely by drawing on what might be considered ideology … as a fundamental part of the decision-making process.”

Politically smart state and local policymakers believe–here is where ideology enters the picture–that buying new tablets loaded with software, deploying them to K-12 classrooms, and watching how the devices engage both teachers and students will work; it is considered “best practice” because, well, “we believe in it.” The theory is that student engagement with the device and software will dramatically alter classroom instruction and lead to improved  achievement. The problem, of course (you no doubt have guessed where I am going with this) — is that evidence of this electronic innovation transforming teaching and achievement growth is not only sparse but also unpersuasive even when some studies show a small “effect size.”

When the research pantry is nearly empty and evidence for raising student test scores or transforming teaching is sparse, how do  policymakers and administrators justify buying new devices and software?

Here are three reasons that I see spurring decision-makers to allocate scarce dollars for new technologies.

First, keeping up with the rest of the changing world. Call it “modernization” or recasting schools as less like museums and more like fast-paced companies using technology in daily work. No more jokes about educators being technological slow-pokes. Use of new technologies is considered modern, being with-it, even an unadulterated “good” that all children and youth in age-graded schools should embrace.

Second, because new technologies are highly valued in the culture, school boards and their superintendents feel strong pressures to keep up with other sectors–both public and private–undergoing technological changes. If those leaders do not act, they fear that taxpayers and voters will lose confidence in public schools. And public confidence is like money in the bank since tax-supported public schools are politically and fiscally dependent on the good will of taxpayers.

And there is a less obvious third reason for school leaders to purchase new technologies: increase efficiency in testing and scoring results. Schools have to have computers because eventually U.S. students will be taking state tests online. The Los Angeles Unified School District’s recent fiasco with iPads was triggered by demands to implement the standardized testing required by adoption of the Common Core standards.  Just as the move from quill pens to pencils to computer-adaptive-testing required no research studies but were done on grounds of cost-saving efficiency, so it was when the LAUSD School Board and Superintendent authorized buying iPads.

Note that the three reasons I offer are political–not in any negative sense–but ones that are practical and realistic in the world that policymakers inhabit. Research findings to support the promises that school leaders make for the “good” that high-tech purchases will achieve, are simply not there. And that pattern of pursuing innovations without much evidence or data to support the decisions that school boards and superintendents make is plain to see.

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The Lack of Evidence-Based Practice: The Case of Classroom Technology (Part 1)

When it comes to policymakers calling for data-based decisions and evidence-based practice, the purchase and use of tablets, laptops, interactive whiteboards and academic software miss that call miserably. The fact is that no substantial basis in research findings or existing data on the academic effectiveness of classroom technology warrant the boom-town spread of classroom devices. If so, how come so much money is being spent?

In a New York Times‘ op-ed piece Susan Pinker lays out a once-over-lightly sad story of how technology for low-income children here and abroad has failed. The op-ed format, however, falls short in presenting the full array of evidence of either minimal effect,  no-effect, or even negative effect of technology upon student academic achievement.

Since 2010, laptops, tablets, interactive whiteboards, smart phones, and a cornucopia of software have become ubiquitous. Yet has academic achievement improved as a consequence? Has teaching and learning changed? Has use of devices in schools led to better jobs? These are the basic questions that school boards, policymakers, and administrators ask.

The answers to these questions are “no,” “no,” and “probably not.”

Test scores, the current gold standard policymakers use to determine academic achievement, show little evidence that using new hardware and software have improved students’ performance on tests.[i]

The evidence of transforming traditional teaching practices is equally underwhelming. Nearly all teachers now use these devices. Lessons using interactive whiteboards or carts filled with laptops or tablets are common across elementary and secondary schools. How teachers use laptops or tablets, however, vary from unimaginative to creative, from daily to occasional to non-use.[ii]

These powerful computers have yet to alter traditional ways of teaching that have marked classrooms for years. Laptops, desktops, tablets, and interactive whiteboards continue to support the dominant teacher-centered approach to instruction rather than promoting the hoped-for student-centered approach. Teachers have expanded their teaching repertoire to incorporate new software and hardware to do what they have been doing all along. No surprise there since for decades, teachers have mixed old and new practices in their lessons. New technologies have found a niche in most classrooms but their impact is much smaller than what was initially promised. In effect, new hardware and software have strengthened, not altered, prevailing teaching approaches.[iii]

Finally, the question of computer use in schools prepares students for jobs. Whether using soon-to-be-obsolete hardware and software helps students gain  jobs in a knowledge-based labor market is “probably not.” Most applicants for private sector entry-level jobs–except for software engineers and programmers–learn new hardware and software in a matter of days, not months or years. Few studies of high school graduates getting jobs requiring computer skills even exist.[iv]

Given these answers, why do district policymakers, administrators, and business leaders beat the drum for more and better devices and software in schools? Part 2 answers that question.

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[i] Jason Ravitz, et al., “Cautionary Tales about Correlations between Student Computer Use and Academic Achievement, “ April 2002, paper presented at annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. New Orleans; Larry Cuban, Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change without Reform in American Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2013), pp. 43-45.

 

[ii] Mark Windschitl and Kurt Sahl, “Tracing Teachers’ Use of Technology in a Laptop Computer School,” American Educational Research Journal, 2002, vol. 39(1), pp. 165-205; Larry Cuban, Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001); Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change without Reform in American Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2013).

 

[iii] Larry Cuban, Hugging the Middle: How Teachers Teach in an Era of Testing and Accountability (New York: Teachers College Press, 2009); Larry Cuban, Inside the Black Box, pp. 155-171.

[iv] Anyone familiar with the level of hardware and software used in schools over the past thirty years has seen extraordinary changes in software programs and hardware miniaturization. What software students in the 9th grade in 1985 were using was gone and forgotten five years later; ditto for 2010 and now. Preparing students for jobs in a labor market prizing information usage and rapid communication means constant changes in what software and hardware students will use in schools, a condition that districts find themselves a few steps behind every year. Thus built-in obsolesence of machines and software make it difficult to plan on current students being prepared for jobs. Current interest in teaching all students to learn to code recognizes the constant turnover in technological equipment and skills. See, for example, Nick Wingfield, “Fostering New Tech Talent in Schools,” New York Times, September 30, 2012.

 

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