Category Archives: Education

Is It So Hard to Believe?

There are many times when I wish that I was still in the classroom. It seems like there are so many great opportunities to engage students in new ways of thinking and learning. I imagine an exciting classroom space where kids could write and create and collaborate, where my Nancy Atwell style reading and writing workshops could move beyond the walls of the classroom, encouraging students to pursue and share their ideas and passions with the world.

OK, take a deep breath…I was just beginning to get a good rant going about this post from Richard Byrne about the new Student AR app for Google Glass. I went back to click on the press release and discovered that the whole post was an April Fool’s Day joke. Phew!

So, now what am I going to write about? How about the fact that I believed it in the first place? Throw in names like Bill Gates and Salmon Khan and is it so hard to believe that they are busy creating an app that takes the teacher out of the game of assessment? It isn’t so far fetched. The Hewlett Foundation sponsored the Automated Student Assessment Prize, designed to encourage development in the area of automated assessment, and EdX has created discern, automated scoring software. At least one researcher is busy showing that the computer can grade as well as a person and much more quickly.

The article from University of Akron about the work of Dr. Mark Shermis is interesting and a little ironic. Perhaps the writers should have used the software to avoid the grammatical error in this paragraph:

The study grows from a contest call the Automated Student Assessment Prize, or ASAP, which the Hewlett Foundation is sponsoring to evaluate the current state of automated testing and to encourage further developments in the field.

Did you find the mistake? “Call” should be “called.” I would also suggest that the communications and marketing department should refrain from calling their website the “news” room since this is obviously a press release. It makes passing reference to critics of the research study but doesn’t dig too deeply into the controversial nature of automated scoring. Lucky for us, The New York Times takes news a bit more seriously and describes the real criticism of the grading software: it can be fooled. Les Perelman, the retired professor from MIT who launched a petition against adopting such software, takes great pleasure in both critiquing the research AND gaming the system.

Those who criticize Perelman point out that the purpose of the software is to provide instant feedback to students so they can learn to be better writers. The final product will be read by a real person. So, what of that instant feedback? Karin Klein’s daughter found that the software was more confusing than helpful. And, Barbara Chow, from the Hewlett Foundation and quoted by the University of Akron, seems to undermine that very argument. Automated scoring will mean more writing on tests and less human grading:

“Better tests support better learning,” says Barbara Chow, education program director at the Hewlett Foundation. “This demonstration of rapid and accurate automated essay scoring will encourage states to include more writing in their state assessments. And, the more we can use essays to assess what students have learned, the greater the likelihood they’ll master important academic content, critical thinking, and effective communication.”

It turns out that fact checking is exactly what the software doesn’t do well. It is checking for basic structure and grammar rather than knowledge or critical thinking. As an adjunct for several universities, I laughed out loud at Perelman’s argument for why higher education is so expensive:

“The average teaching assistant makes six times as much money as college presidents,” he wrote. “In addition, they often receive a plethora of extra benefits such as private jets, vacations in the south seas, starring roles in motion pictures.”

Dr. Perelman received a top score for this well designed argument. Oh, if the computer scoring software could only make it so.

I hope you have a great April Fool’s Day…try not to be taken in as I was by jokes that border on truth.

Doing Good

Tim Stahmer’s post about Apple choosing to do good over making profits reminded me of my recent reading of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink. I loved the book for lots of reasons and have been stumbling over real world connections right and left since I finished it. Tim’s post makes one of those connections.

Pink discusses the seemingly anti-capitalistic idea that businesses can make money AND do good at the same time. He highlights Tom’s Shoes whose business model includes donating a pair of shoes for every pair they sell.

Another connection related to Pink’s description of the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow was one of my favorite reads in graduate school. Turns out it is one of Pink’s favorite books about work:

Flow is the mental state when the challenge before us is so exquisitely matched to our abilities that we lose our sense of time and forget ourselves in a function. Csikszentmihalyi’s contemporary classic reveals that we’re more likely to find flow at work than in leisure.

As part of his work, Csikszenmihalyi (Chicksa-ma-hi).researched happiness using a somewhat unique method that took advantage of the technology at the time. According to Pink:

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi did more than discover the concept of “flow.” He also introduced an ingenious new technique to measure it. Csikszentmihalyi and his University of Chicago team equipped participants in their research studies with electronic pagers. Then they paged people at random intervals (approximately eight times a day) for a week, asking them to describe their mental state at that moment. Compared with previous methods, these real-time reports proved far more honest and revealing.

I think Flow is a relatively well-known concept so I was a little surprised when a recent report on National Public Radio described “new” ways to research happiness using an app that pings you several times a day and asks you to complete a survey failed to mention the connection with this earlier work. The researcher’s findings are similar to Csikszentmihalyi’s:

KILLINGSWORTH: So when I look across all the different activities that people engage in, they are universally happier when they’re fully engaged in that activity and not mind wandering, no matter what they’re doing.

The last, and perhaps most interesting, connection I made with Pink related to a comment he makes about contemporary businesses. They are, according to Pink, living in the past, and not even the recent past:

Big Idea: Management is an outdated technology. Hamel likens management to the internal combustion engine—a technology that has largely stopped evolving. Put a 1960s-era CEO in a time machine and transport him to 2010, Hamel says, and that CEO “would find a great many of today’s management rituals little changed from those that governed corporate life a generation or two ago.” Small wonder, Hamel explains. “Most of the essential tools and techniques of modern management were invented by individuals born in the 19th century, not long after the end of the American Civil War.” The solution? A radical overhaul of this aging technology.

This accusation is usually flung at schools: they would be familiar to people from earlier generations. And, ironically, that accusation often comes from businesses who are, according to Pink, themselves outdated and who are not always successful at adopting new technologies. Pink describes the Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) adopted by companies including Best Buy. The focus is on the work rather than the seat time (hmm….again sounds familiar). But, as Best Buy began to struggle, the new CEO disbanded the practice, returning to a more standard top down management, 40 hour work week model. This, along with Yahoo’s decision to end telecommuting, is seen as a step back for flexible work arrangements despite evidence that it can boost worker satisfaction and productivity.


It’s Not About Unions Either

I caught the tail end of this CBS News report this morning. It’s the typical kind of media coverage of teacher unions that gives one hugely horrible example of how tenure protected someone who shouldn’t have been in the classroom in the first place and then suggests we need to get rid of unions completely. If the laws are making it difficult to get an abuser out of the classroom then those laws need to be modified. But doing away with teacher unions, which is the real purpose of the multi-billionaires who are funding this lawsuit, is not the answer if the question is how do we make teachers more effective and students more successful?

How great it would be if the billionaires put their money into the classroom to provide coaching and support for teachers to help them become more effective. Think of how far all that money that is currently going to lawyers on both sides would go if the two groups worked together to identify the most challenging environments where teachers, students and their families need substantial social, emotional and economic support to succeed. Let’s move beyond union busting to have the harder conversations about equity and opportunity in this country. Maybe like they are doing in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

At the end of the piece, the commentators all agreed that providing the best education for these kids is the answer to everything so even though they sympathized with the teacher, we just have to guarantee that a good teacher is in every classroom, and they seemed to support this lawsuit. Certainly having effective teachers is essential, but I’m not sure this lawsuit would really make that happen. And, honestly, the better answer to everything would be to figure out how to lift every kid out of poverty.

A Real Conversation About Education In An Unlikely Spot

It’s a snow day for the rest of the world so I’m kicking back a bit myself and getting caught up on some online reading. I was checking out Ree Drummond’s website looking for her pot roast recipe when a headline caught my eye: Time To Weigh In on the Relevance of Algebra. Written by Heather Sanders, the piece considers Algebra in the larger context of getting an education. It starts with the age old question of when will I use this, something that the commenters on the post answer in some very practical ways. But it also explores the bigger question of when we are going to use most of what we learn in school. I think back to my days as a high school English teacher struggling to help my students connect with Shakespeare. One solution was to find literature that was easier to read but drew from those same stories.

It seems as though that is the same conclusion that comes from many of the commenters as they describe books that make Algebra more accessible by answering the when will I use it question right up front and then going from there. I think it’s lesson for all of us: it is important to help connect what kids are learning with their lives rather than the test they are going to have to take at the end of the year.

The lesson for me, today, was that there are lots of conversations going on about education and sometimes we find them where we least expected them. Drummond offers lots of resources for homeschoolers as well as that pot roast recipe I was looking for.

An Important Five Minutes

Let’s just start with the most interesting thing of all: Noam Chomsky has a Facebook page. And an active one at that with lots of  interesting and intellectually demanding content to explore.

Then, let’s move to this five-minute interview with Chomsky in which he speaks from an historical perspective when it comes to technology. Yes, we are experiencing amazing changes, he says, but they pale in the light of past changes. His first example is startling: the move from the sailing ship to the telegraph. Messages went from weeks and months to moments. A sharp intake of breath in the recognition that we may not be living in the most interesting of times.

His remarks on education make the all important point that it isn’t the technology and it isn’t even the scholarship that are important. The innovative thinkers are able to identify what is significant and use it as a frame for all the rest. Helping our students define a frame to use is an essential part of helping them access and learn from the Internet.

In poking around Chomsky’s FB page, I discovered that he has connections with Alice Walker, who writes about her image of Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky playing tennis. It brings her hope for the world.

Unstructured Time

I was just thinking about getting ready to head to the after school program when I got a text indicating they were going to have to cancel. I was a little disappointed as I had pulled together some digital cameras and was hoping to work on some digital storytelling using Scratch as the production tool…get the girls interested in programming by building on their interest in digital media. I had spent an hour or so today creating two ideas for using digital photos in Scratch:

Farming Friends:

Farm Slide Show:

So, I kept working on them a bit, adding code to make sure they reset themselves when the green flag was pressed. I figured the girls could remix my work, thus learning both about the Scratch community and getting to see some code they can work with.

I finished tinkering and realized I had unstructured time. The last time it happened, I had to listen to a Coursera lecture. Today, I really could take a break from responsibilities. What to do? The dogs benefited as they got an extra walk before their supper. And my kitchen floor got a much needed cleaning.

But I was also able to escape upstairs to my makeshift sewing room where I’ve been working on my first quilting project. I had bought a kit for a small wall hanging several years ago and decided this would be the year I finished it, intending to give it to my mother for a Christmas gift. I had cut squares and done some sewing over the weekend but today’s job was to start creating the whole piece. I pretty quickly discovered just how badly I had done with the initial cutting. Some squares were more like rectangles, points didn’t match and after sewing two rows together, I found that one of the blocks was positioned incorrectly, a mistake that pretty much doomed the project. I could have taken it all apart but that wasn’t going to solve the poor cutting. I used a rotary cutter but just wasn’t as careful as I should have been. I’ll finish it as it is good enough for me but I’m going to try another one to give as a gift. This time, I’ll be better focused on the cutting, first taking some time to read tips from experienced quilters who are willing to share their secrets online.

A well-made quilt has a clean, neat look that results from clean, neat cutting. I knew that and yet it took failure to bring the lesson home. It’s tempting to give it up and go back to crocheting, a craft I do well, but I’m determined to master this new craft. Thank goodness I’m not being judged on my first effort.

Lots of lessons for educators here…first, the unstructured time and the chance to choose my activity, and then the chance to fail. We don’t allow much of this in schools since we are so focused on measurable results.

A Learning Journey

Since mid-September, I’ve been working with a local non-profit to provide an after school tutorial/computer program for local kids. We have a group of about 16 ranging from pre-K to 7th grade that comes to us on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Volunteers help with homework and provide a meal before taking the kids home.

My original plan was to work with upper elementary and middle schoolers to teach them to program with Scratch. I’ve done a bit of that with a few middle school girls but haven’t been able to really dig in yet. With the little bit we did do, only one seemed particularly interested. I am wondering if I need to give them more choice including doing something with digital storytelling. My larger goal is to help them see that they can create rather than consume on the computer and maybe programming isn’t the only way to achieve that.

Part of the problem is space. We meet in one big space, and even with a few rolling walls, it’s noisy and a little chaotic. There’s an empty elementary school just behind our building, and we’re hoping to work with the county to get access.

The other issue that became glaringly clear last evening was the depth of the educational needs in the group. My girls had a pile of math homework so they started with that, and I spent some time with two first grade boys working through a language arts worksheet. This is the first time I’ve really sat with some of the youngest kids. These two boys were really struggling. They can sort of decode, but they aren’t really reading or comprehending. They couldn’t read the directions for one of the assignments so they merrily copied the out-of-order words that they were supposed to be putting in sentences. When I wrote the words on cards, they were able to manipulate them into sentences and then copy them onto the paper.

Other activities didn’t even make sense to me…a series of sentences with blanks and a word bank. We used  a process of elimination to finish it, but with no context for the random sentences, it was sometimes hard to figure out which word made a comprehensible sentence. If I hadn’t been there to supervise and advise, I’m sure they would have simply guessed just so that there was something on the line since that had been their strategy on the first few pages. I couldn’t help but wondering how much feedback they got on the packets.

I also wondered how much time they get to hang out with books. I’m already planning to take my pile of children’s books when I go next week and get them reading together. The middle school kids could sit with the younger ones and help them and probably improve their own skills. And then we could use digital storytelling tools to create our own books. It would tie the program pieces together.

I worry that by just focusing on helping them get their homework done, we are missing an opportunity to give them larger experiences that they don’t seem to be getting in school. There must be a balance. I have to remind myself that we have only been doing this for a few weeks. We had some sketchy plans but didn’t really know how many kids would come and what their needs would be.

We are definitely on a learning journey together….



Watching the School Reform War in New York

I feel like I have much better insight into what’s happening in the New York mayorial race at least as it relates to education reform now that I’ve got Steven Brill’s Class Warfare under my belt. He focused a lot of attention on New York where battles over charter schools, union contracts, and using test scores for evaluation played out on a grand scale. That battle continues and if you’re interested, Gotham Schools provides daily news feeds related to education in the Big Apple.

Today’s links led to an editorial by Eva Moskowitz, famed CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools, whose students have outperformed even the most well-heeled schools on the state tests. She is bashing candidate Bill de Blasio over his plan to begin charging charters for the space provided in public school buildings. She talks about the dismal test scores of most New York public school students, particularly those of color. I thought it was interesting that she didn’t bother to mention her own success rate. Maybe she doesn’t have to.

Or maybe she doesn’t want to have to defend all charter schools. While the Success Academy has lived up to its name, other charters have shown similarly low scores, leading to the conclusion Brill came to in his book: trying to figure out how to “fix” schools is a complex process and just calling something a charter school is no guarantee of success.

Two Views of Unions

Last week’s reading included books with two very different views of labor unions, and Labor Day seems the perfect time to pull together the blog post I’ve been drafting.

Two books–For the Win by Cory Doctorow and Class Warfare by Steven Brill–deal with labor unions from two very different perspectives.  

As with much of his fiction, Doctorow’s story is set in a not-too-distant future where young people work in virtual sweat shops gold farming in games for businessmen. They love playing the games and the money they bring in makes a real difference for families where the only other jobs are in real sweat shops that offer little money and imminent dangers from both people and machines. But much of the story could have been set in America’s not-so-distant past as the virtual and real workers begin the painful process of unionizing. It also draws from current events such as the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building earlier this year. For The Win is not always an easy book to read as the characters we come to know and love suffer violence and death as they seek justice. This book would make great reading for an American history class, opening up the conversation about the functions of unions in a free market economy.

Brill’s book shows what happens when unions become part of both the economic and political landscape, receiving benefits that go far beyond those original desires to be paid a living wage and not to be fired without due cause. While I believe he does so in a biased way, clearly a huge fan of Teach for America and the passionate reformers and policy makers it spawned, his message is not to be ignored. Negotiating contracts that include 8.5% guaranteed rates of return on retirement plans can only lead to financial disaster as municipalities try to balance already out of balance budgets. Harboring teachers in rubber rooms where they sit idle while their arbitration cases make their way slowly through the process is a ridiculous waste of time and money.

I think it was that last example that bothered me the most. I was reading the book as I did summer workshops for teachers who are exploring how to leverage new technologies to create more challenging learning environments for their students. I don’t think there was any reason that the leaders in New York couldn’t work with the teachers in the rubber rooms to help them become better teachers. And Brill doesn’t give any details about what kind of interventions were provided when a teacher received her first unsatisfactory review. Perhaps at least part of the problem lay in principals who, while they seemed to be able to recognize bad teachers, were unable to help them become better teachers. Instead, we hear only the most egregious stories of the drunken educator who managed to beat the system. Principals who are trying to improve their schools by getting rid of teachers instead of developing them are heralded as heroes.

I’ve already written a bit about my summer work. One theme has emerged as I talk, plan and explore with the teachers: how to make sure we didn’t lose sight of the content that would be tested at the end of the year even as we try to incorporate critical thinking and collaboration into the classrooms. Nowhere in the book does Brill suggest that the relentless testing espoused by the reformers he loves might have a chilling effect on innovation.  Rather than engage with someone like Diane Ravitch, Brill dismisses her in a few pages by suggesting that she doesn’t have any new ideas, just complaints. And the book conveniently ends before the cheating scandal that emerged in the DC public schools that may have accounted for the amazing gains touted by Rhee, certainly Brill’s golden girl.

I think the biggest take away from Brill’s book for me was the unreasonable demands we make on teachers. The mantra of the reformers was that a good teacher never sat down. Really? Not to plan? Not to reflect on practice with other teachers or principals? The old comparisons were trotted out: how badly America is doing behind countries like Finland. Brill chose to ignore the organization of Finnish schools where teachers not only sit down, they do so often:

Teachers in Finland spend fewer hours at school each day and spend less time in classrooms than American teachers. Teachers use the extra time to build curriculums and assess their students. Children spend far more time playing outside, even in the depths of winter. Homework is minimal. Compulsory schooling does not begin until age 7. “We have no hurry,” said Louhivuori. “Children learn better when they are ready. Why stress them out?”
Brill’s message was that good teachers can’t have personal lives: one of his main characters ends up leaving the classroom as her commitment to her job is interfering with her marriage. There’s something wrong with that message, and even Brill starts to recognize that by the end of the book.

Spoiler alert! Throughout the book, Randi Weingarten, the leader of the United Federation of Teachers, is painted as the bad guy, standing in the way of reforms, supporting bad teachers, and just generally keeping well-intentioned people like New York Schools’ Chancellor Joel Klein from doing the best he could for kids. Brill does give her a little credit as he describes her efforts to walk the tightrope between her union members and reformers. She endures being told that she is only concerned with the adults even as she opens her own charter school. But, by the end, Brill is recommending her for the new chancellor of the New York schools because she does have the wide view. When asked about his change in tone, Brill says that he learned that school reform was “complicated.” Joe Nocera, in an Op-Ed column in the New York Times written after Weingarten held a book party for Brill, sums it up nicely:

When I asked Brill what caused his change of heart, he responded gruffly: “It’s called reporting.” The two years he spent researching school reform had given him a far richer understanding of the complexities involved in reforming the nation’s schools — and that understanding was sobering.

I would argue that most issues, whether related to labor unions or school reform, do not offer easy answers, and anyone who claims otherwise has snake oil to sell. I’m wondering if Brill is working on his more balanced look at the complexities of school reform?

Fighting the Cynicism

This is the second summer in a row that I've been involved in a professional development project that has me traveling to schools throughout the United States to help teacher figure out how to use mobile devices more effectively in their content areas. The schools are partially chosen based on socio-economic factors and many of them are struggling academically. When the teachers start telling stories about their lives and those of their students, it can be downright depressing. It would be easy for them to despair, and yet, here they are, giving up precious summer vacation days to explore and reflect and learn, excited by the possibilities of engaging their students in ways they couldn't before and of providing them with the kind of access that other, more affluent schools might take for granted.

So, why am I am fighting cynicism? Because even as we cluster together in our learning community, the world outside seems so dysfunctional that it threatens to keep them from making anything of their opportunities. Whether it's the poor quality of the networks and the lack of technical support, the central administration that spews out new initiatives in the hopes that something will stick, the government official that somehow think high stakes testing and accountability can force schools mired in poverty and violence to work miracles even as funding is reduced…oh dear, can you see why I might get a bit cynical? And why I am amazed that the teachers can continue to not only show up every day but believe that if they work just a bit harder, they can help their students achieve and succeed despite all these odds?

I have to leave it at that…time to head out for another day of learning and sharing with the door shut against the rest of it. I can't solve it, I can only work with what I've got and try to make it a bit better.