Follow the Money

Daniel Katz, an assistant professor of educational studies at Seton Hall University offers some suggestions on How to Spot a Fake Grassroots Education Reform Group.

Genuine grassroots organizations cannot just pop up out of nowhere, grow by 1000s of members practically overnight, afford slick web designs, afford Manhattan rent and big staffs.  But without knowing what to look for it can be difficult for the casual observer, or even a working teacher, to spot the signs of a group that is more AstroTurf than grassroots.

Although Katz makes great points all the way through the post, for me it all boils down to his question “Who is funding the group and for how much?”.

When the answer is organizations like “the Koch brothers, conservative financier Rex Sinquefield, Rupert Murdoch, The Walton Family Foundation, and the American Federation for Children, which is a charter supporting organization”, as it was for the group Katz used for his example, the lack of grassroots becomes crystal clear.

In addition to fake reform groups, follow the money is also good advice for assessing educational research, survey results, “miracle” school turnarounds, and “innovative” edtech startups.

Are You “Good” At Math?

Seth Godin on being good at math.

It’s tempting to fall into the trap of believing that being good at math is a genetic predisposition, as it lets us off the hook. The truth is, with few rare exceptions, all of us are capable of being good at math.

So, what does he mean by “math”? I suspect most people believe they are not “good” at math (or as I’ve been told, not a “math person”) because they got lost in and bored with the highly mechanical approach inflicted on most students.

For the math taught in most schools, especially at the elementary level, “being good” is largely a waste of time. Is completing page after page of problems by hand using standard algorithms a valuable skill, when the calculator found on almost any mobile device could get the same result faster and more accurately?1

Understanding the mathematics behind the PowerBall lottery, and why money spent on tickets is likely a really crappy “investment”, now that’s something that would benefit a student for their whole life.

But let’s face it. We all know what “being good” at math really means: passing the test.

Being good at standardized math tests is useless. These tests measure nothing of real value, and they amplify a broken system.

For a business guy, Godin has a pretty good understanding of American education.

  1. Please don’t tell me the kid needs to understand the process to know when the calculator is wrong. Or other such crap. Learning a mechanical process does not lead to conceptual knowledge.

Burglarizing the Future

From the always hazardous intersection of education and politics, comes Reading, Writing, Ransacking, a summary of the systematic process to dismantle public education in Philadelphia and the state of Pennsylvania.

There’s way too much good stuff in the column to quote without copying the whole thing, so take a few minutes to click through and read it. Just be prepared to yell at your screen.

However, I can’t resist posting the final paragraph.

They all have so very much to answer for, the people who have decided to enrich themselves by bashing public school teachers and, in doing so, putting the entire philosophy of public education, one of the lasting contributions to society of the American political commonwealth, at serious risk. No wonder they operate secretly, and in the shadows, and beyond the reach of public accountability. They are burglarizing the future for their own profit.

I can think of stronger criminal metaphors than “burglarizing” but, ok, let’s go with that.

Gotta Fill Up Those Young Brains

Jay Mathews believes we are not teaching young children enough facts.

Before continuing I should note that I’ve spent most of my instructional time working with middle and high school students and adults, which means I have very few qualifications to pontificate on elementary education. However, there are a couple of thoughts in Mathews piece that need to be challenged.

First, he quotes the parent of a first grader and president of the Fordham Institute, a conservative educational think tank.1

“Notice what’s missing,” Petrilli said. “Proper nouns. Which historical figures will he study? Time periods? Which countries or continents? People who study education for a living understand what’s going on — this is straight out of the standards promulgated by the National Council for the Social Studies, a professional organization that has long prized such ‘conceptual understanding’ over ‘rote facts and figures.’ ” He had found the kindergarten fare similarly mushy.

I can’t help thinking that if elementary teachers were able to do more with that “conceptual understanding” early, instead of all the drilling on “rote facts and figures”, kids might be better prepared for advanced study later in their educational lives. Not to mention less inclined to dislike school by the time they reach the middle years.

Of course, since the standardized tests that Mathews and the Fordham people adore so much depend heavily on kids being able to spit back the facts and figures, I understand the longing for stuffing the curriculum with more of them as early as possible.

Then there is this statement from Mathews himself: “But filling young brains with useful facts has to start early if they are to read.”

Again, I can’t speak to the process of how young children learn to read, but the concept of “filling young brains with useful facts” is straight out of the classic, simplistic concept of education as a transfer of knowledge from teacher to student.

It’s an incredibly clueless idea, one still widely embraced by “reformers”. And one of the major impediments to ever bringing true reform to American schools.

  1. The National Zoo also has a “think tank”… for orangutans. I wonder which one gets more useful results. :-)

Solutions in Search of Problems

The soap opera that is the Los Angeles school district’s quest for technology continues.1

There really isn’t anything in that article of interest to someone not living in Southern California but some of the statements by the players in this drama are very revealing of how many of our leaders view the place of technology in schools and learning.

For example, the head of the district’s facilities division, responsible for purchasing equipment, noted that “We’re just looking for devices.” in discussing the suspension of the infamous iPad contract. Which highlights one huge error in our approach to instructional technology.

We go shopping for “devices” without knowing how they will be used. We buy “solutions” before clearly understanding the problems they’re supposed to solve.

Then there is this little portion of the purchase.

The district also wanted authorization to spend $16.5 million to buy computers for every middle and high school teacher as well as for office staff. The immediate purpose is to help teachers use a new online student data system that malfunctioned across L.A. Unified at the start of the school year. The computers can also be used for instruction. [emphasis mine]

Also not unique, using computers for instruction as an afterthought.

However, as with discussions of just about any aspect of American education these days, we eventually get around to the primary reason anyone wants to spend large amounts of money on digital devices of any kind: standardized testing.

New bidding has yet to begin, however, and the district said it needs $25 million more in computers right away to be ready for state tests. Those exams will expand to their full length this spring, requiring twice as long, about eight hours, to complete.

A longer test means more computers will be needed at campuses where students are sharing the devices, said Gerardo Loera, who heads of the office of curriculum, instruction and school support.

Especially at high schools, with students moving from period to period and having to fit in Advanced Placement exams and other tests, scheduling the state testing with limited computers is “like an engineering project to pull it all together,” he said.

But members of the oversight committee challenged a district option to limit testing to two hours a day, all in the morning. [emphasis mine]

Oh, and there’s also the matter of the “lack of an inventory of devices the district already owns”.

Of course, none of this happens here in our Lake Wobegonish, overly-large school district. We never throw lots of money at devices (tablets, interactive whiteboards, clicker systems, wireless “slates”, etc.) without having a solid plan for using them to improve instruction. None of our schools suck up every computer in the building (not to mention instructional time) for days and weeks of standardized testing throughout the year. And then ask for more.

That kind of stuff only happens in places where the local media actually bothers to investigate what schools are doing with public money.

  1. Thanks to Will for the link.