Far From Home

After twelve hours of flying, airport running around, and the (now) usual security dance, we find ourselves here…

Qingdao, first of five stops on a tour of Chinese cities by the choir in which my wife sings. Me? I'm here for new experiences, learning, and picture taking opportunities.

As time and connections allow, I'm going to try posting one or two pictures a day (subject to the whims of the great firewall), along with a short reflection of the sights and sounds. Enjoy.

Do We Have Vision?

In his comment to an earlier rant about planning for a 1:1 program, Will asks a good question.

So, technology rollouts begin with a clear vision for teaching and learning first, with or without technology. The device should amplify your vision. So, does your district have one?


Well, we have a plan of sorts. It’s called the School Technology Profiles and lists the type of equipment that classrooms at each level should have (assuming the ideal budget situation). But that’s a shopping list, certainly not a vision for learning.

We have a huge committee, with members from IT, instruction and support, that meets once a month to discuss technology in our overly-large school district. But that’s more about a parade of reports from the various offices on their current work. Maybe some short term vision but very little about teaching and learning.

The superintendent has a project called Portrait of a Graduate, which is supposed to define the skills a student leaving our schools should have. Stuff like “Uses technological skills and contemporary digital tools to explore and exchange ideas”. But that’s the only mention of technology in a list of 27 traits most of which, as I’ve explained in other posts, would have been appropriate for a successful adult living in almost any of the past ten centuries. Not much vision there. For learning or the use of technology to enhance it.

Of course, the school board has their “Beliefs, Mission, Vision” page. Doesn’t every organization have something like this? It was likely assembled by a committee with representatives of all the “stakeholders”1, the result being a laundry list of inspiring statements strung together into something that says nothing. We’ll call it “vision”.

So, I guess my answer for Will is that yes, our district has a vision for teaching and learning. It’s muddled, antiquated, vague to those of us whose work it’s supposed to guide, banal sounding to the community, and not nearly far reaching enough to address the needs of students who are entering an increasingly uncomfortable world.

As to his other question about what I mean by learning… still working on that one.

  1. Although probably not more than one student, representing the most important “stakeholder” group

Educational Gaming

I don’t get lotteries.

I certainly understand why state and local governments like lotteries since, according to this article in The Atlantic, they generate $70 billion in sales, “more than Americans in all 50 states spent on sports tickets, books, video games, movie tickets, and recorded music sales”. They collect around 40% of that total, plus taxes paid by the big “winners”. Simple, easy, non controversial income.

What I don’t understand is why people waste their money when the odds of winning more than you spend are beyond comprehension. Especially when most lottery players can’t afford it.

But it’s the poor who are really losing. The poorest third of households buy half of all lotto tickets, according to a Duke University study in the 1980s, in part because lotteries are advertised most aggressively in poorer neighborhoods. A North Carolina report from NC Policy Watch found that the people living in the poorest counties buy the most tickets. “Out of the 20 counties with poverty rates higher than 20 percent, 18 had lottery sales topping the statewide average of $200 per adult,” the North Carolina Justice Center reported.

But the negative impact of lotteries goes beyond states simply pushing new ways for people to descend even farther into poverty.

Last fall on his show Last Week Tonight (almost worth the price of HBO Now all by itself), John Oliver did a great takedown of lotteries, covering the wide array of problems with state-sponsored gambling. Including the widely used justification that proceeds from gambling will benefit education.

The reality, of course, is very different since “lotteries provided no additional funding for education in 21 out of 24 states” where the claim of helping kids and schools is made. In most, lottery profits are not added to education budgets. Instead the money is used to replace existing revenues, often allowing politicians to cut the net amount allocated for schools.

And the state addiction to gaming shows no signs of slowing down as they look to expand gambling “opportunities”, such as slot machines, table games, licensing full casinos1 and even creating lottery apps for your smartphone.

John closes his segment with a good summary of the major problems with state-sponsored gambling.

As I think we’ve seen by now, lotteries are bad for losers, often bad for winners, and a pretty compromising way to assist state budgets.

Think about it this way, gambling is a little like alcohol: most people like it, some people are addicted to it, and it’s not like the state can or should outlaw it altogether. But it would be a little strange if the state was in the liquor business, advertising it by claiming that every shot of vodka you drink helps school children learn.

Finally, there’s one more reason to dislike paying for public education using lottery money. The policy reinforces the image of schools as charitable institutions. Instead of something willingly funded by everyone, because we consider educating our kids to be an essential part of a modern society.

  1. Maryland has one such casino an hour up the road from here at an outlet mall and is building a larger one even closer.

Conspiracy Theory

Last week, Jon Stewart presented a great segment on the array of nutty conspiracy theories that seem to thrive in the desert of Texas. Having lived in Arizona and Nevada, I think there could be something to the idea that the hot, dry weather causes the brain to swell (or shrink?).

Anyway, I have my own conspiracy theory to offer: the probability of any conspiracy actually being real declines by 5% for each additional person whose silence is required for the plan to work.

Moon landing hoax? Alien spacecraft being hidden at Area 51 (for more than 50 years)? The US military preparing to invade Texas?1 Considering the hundreds of people required to keep each of these secrets, all in negative territory of likelihood.

Government agencies conspiring to collect phone data on American citizens? That only took one person, and not even someone high up the chain of command, to expose the deal.

Many, if not most, of these people who claim to see what everyone else has missed (too often on cable “news” channels) also rant endlessly about the incompetency of government. Even though, logically, it is completely impossible for an incompetent organization to formulate complex plots and then keep them totally hidden from everyone except a few loud nutballs.

Of course, logic doesn’t seem to be their strong suit in the first place.

  1. Despite the fact that there are dozens of military bases and hundreds of military contractors all over the state, sucking down millions from the same federal government state leaders seem to loathe.

Moving Forward by Delivering Devices

Continuing on the topic of 1:1 device programs, Wired has a very good review of the lessons learned (and not learned) in the high-profile mess the leadership of Los Angeles schools created for themselves two years ago.

Currently everyone involved is pointing fingers, with the LA superintendent blaming Apple, Pearson, and technology in general. While still buying an additional $40 million worth of iPads and Chromebooks to be used “exclusively for testing”.

Michael Horn, an author and education consultant, hopes the expensive experience of LA “will get people to pause and learn the bigger lesson”. And what is that bigger lesson?

“LA is emblematic of a problem we’re seeing across the country right now,” he says. “Districts are starting with the technology and not asking themselves: ‘What problem are we trying to solve, and what’s the instructional model we need to solve it?’ and then finding technology in service of that.”

I’ll be plastering that quote on the wall at the next 1:1 meeting I attend here in the overly-large school district.

“A lot of schools get into trouble when the conversation starts with the vendor,” Horn says. “Where I’ve seen these programs work is when the school starts off with its vision, and only once they’ve sketched out what the solution should look like do they go out to the hardware and software communities to mix and match to meet those needs.”

Horn goes on to note that ed tech vendors often “design their software in a vacuum” without understanding how their products might be used in a real classroom.

On the other side of the equation many schools and districts are also wearing a mighty set of blinders when it comes to the possibilities for using technology, even tools not specifically labeled “ed tech”, for student learning. That, of course, may require examining and possibly changing our traditional practices

However, after all their problems over the past two years, I’m not at all sure the leadership of LAUSD has learned much, based on this statement from a district spokesperson: “We’re still very much moving forward in technology and continuing to deliver devices to schools.”

Someone probably needs to remind them again that “moving forward” in education is least of all about “delivering devices”.