Wasted Space

Exam

There are many things I don’t understand about the writing of Jay Mathews, former chief education writer for the Washington Post and current weekly columnist. Mostly why the paper continues to waste valuable newsprint on his work.

His column from last Monday is a good example.

Mathews begins by condemning the decline in the number of states that require students to pass one or more standardized tests in order to graduate. He says this a “national movement led by educators, parents and legislators”, calling it a “breathtaking turnabout, but without much celebrating”. Because polls related to public perception of school quality have not changed in five years?

He continues by complaining about “creative programs to boost achievement” being used by some states. Mathews says, those efforts are “failing miserably”, according to a report by “45 experts (including many teachers) who peered deeply into the state plans required by the new law”.

After spending the first half of the piece trying to make the case that the lack of standardized testing is hurting schools and students (with his usual lack of evidence), Mathews actually writes a statement that makes sense.

The rash of standardized testing after the No Child Left Behind Act became law in the early 2000s did not raise achievement averages very much, but the Collaborative for Student Success study indicates that reducing exit tests is not likely to bring much improvement, either.

So, maybe the focus of Mathews column should have been on alternatives to standardized testing, which he admits don’t seem to make any difference.

Anyway, this mess ends with some additional odd and unsupported statements, including his usual plug for the Advance Placement program. Which, of course, is another standardized testing program, one run by colleges rather than states.

We love making schools more accountable. Then, we hate the idea. This new decline of exit tests will almost certainly be followed by another burst of outrage and a renewed campaign to raise achievement.

Fortunately, our schools are still attracting many energetic and creative teachers who want to make a difference. As always, that will be what saves us.

Does he understand that the excess of standardized testing has been driving “energetic and creative teachers” out of the classroom for a decade or more?

And why is this crap allowed to appear in a major national newspaper?


Image: Exam by Alberto G. on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

By All Means, Question The Screens

As promised, Jay Mathews is back with a followup to his promotion for a new anti-edtech book, written by two high school social studies teachers here in Fairfax County. If possible, his installment this week features even more cliches and overly broad generalizations.

Mathews begins by citing the long discredited myth of the “digital native”, and follows that by completely misrepresenting (and likely misunderstanding) the work of danah boyd. All in one paragraph.

The rest of the column is a messy collection of anecdotes and unsupported claims from the book.

Citing much research, they concluded, “the new digital world is a toxic environment for the developing minds of young people. Rather than making digital natives superlearners, it has stunted their mental growth.”

I would love to see the academic studies they found using phrases like “toxic environment” and “superlearners”.

But what about the broad range of research that arrives at very different conclusions? While the negative side too often gets the headlines, studies of how technology impacts learning is hardly conclusive. And this blanket statement alone makes me think the authors are not going for any kind of balance in this book.

Then there’s this reasoning:

Social studies teachers, they reported, are being encouraged to move “to DBQs, or document-based questions, which are simply research papers where the teacher has done all the research for the students.” Clement and Miles stick with real research papers, after students learn about different types of evidence and plan investigative strategies. Yet their students often become frustrated when devices don’t lead them to a useful source right away.

Completely ignore the issue of whether writing “real” research papers is even a valid assignment anymore.

Back before the evil internet, very few teachers just dumped their kids in the library and ignored their frustration with finding appropriate material. The process of searching for, validating, and using evidence was a key part of the learning. It still is. If anything, these skills are even more important for students now. And banning the use of “screens” for research borders on educational malpractice.

The only idea by Mathews and the authors in this mess that makes any sense is that parents (and students and teachers) should ask questions about the use of technology in schools. But “May I opt my child out of screen-based instructional activities?” is not one of them.

Instead, go deeper and challenge educators to respond to queries like “How can the use of technology change and improve the learning experience for my child?” or “How will your instructional practice change to help my child make best use of the technology available?”.

Bottom line, I certainly support questioning the use of “screens” in the classroom. However, recommending, as the authors (and probably Mathews) do, that “teachers reject most of ed-tech” is completely unrealistic and extremely short-sighted.

It’s a matter of how, not whether.

Blame the Screens, Not Us

In his regular weekly column for the Washington Post1, Jay Mathews wants us to know about two local teachers who have written a book containing “discoveries that threaten the foundations of the high-tech classroom”.

Wow! But a statement like that is what you might expect from something with the title “Screen Schooled: Two Veteran Teachers Expose How Technology Overuse Is Making Our Kids Dumber.”

I haven’t read more than the excerpts provided by Mathews and the Amazon sampler for the book, but I have a few observations anyway.

Let’s start with the authors’ “three core principles for good teaching”:

(1) deliver instruction in the simplest possible manner; (2) focus instruction on what students are able to do; and (3) foster face-to-face human interaction and opportunities for community building.

That opening phrase “deliver instruction” is certainly at the core of the common view of classroom pedagogy. Someone designated as “teacher” delivers a package of carefully curated information to a group known as “students”. Unstated but assumed, of course, is that students will display the amount of information they have retained at some point.

In the third principle, the idea of “community building” is wonderful. That should be one of the primary goals of classrooms and schools. However, real communities are built by the members, not framed by someone else. Leaders come from within the community, not assigned to that role.

Then there are the opening lines to the first chapter of the book itself.

Something is not right with today’s kids. You know it, and I know it.

That is followed with the far too common indictment of “screen time” and the “misuse” of social media and technology in general, complete with the fictitious example of “typical” teenager Brett as he gets up and goes to school. Just that part of the book includes an incredible number of cliches disparaging both students and their teachers. I’m completely torn as to whether I want to read more.

However, in the course of the article, the authors’ and Mathews do land on a few truths.

They are certainly correct that “these tools in and of themselves do not make for better teaching”. And I do agree with this observation:

Students need no help from schools developing their tablet, smartphone, or Twitter skills. They are doing this on their own.

But not the conclusion that follows.

What they need help with is critical thinking, problem solving, and community building.

Most kids do very well with developing those skills. Just not for the material you are trying to get them to understand.

So, did you consider that maybe the problem isn’t with your students and their use of technology but instead with this structure we’ve designed for them call “school”?

Is it possible the curriculum we expect them to learn is a major part of the problem? Large parts of that material is irrelevant and does little to foster those problem solving and community building skills mentioned several times. Not to mention they way it is “delivered”.

Plus the kids are very well aware of why the teachers want them to absorb the information in the first place: it’s on the SOLs (Virginia’s standards of learning), it will probably show up on a test sometime in the future, and they must pass the test to “succeed” (and keep the schools/district numbers high).

In the end, I do not disagree with these teacher that there is something wrong with how we use technology in school.

The problem, however, is that, for the most part, we are trying to replicate the standard school experience through screens. We want to maintain the same curriculum, pedagogy, and academic framework with some computing devices slapped on the side.

Instead of taking full advantage of the available power from devices and networks to reimagine the entire learning experience.

By the way, Mathews closes the column with this:

Next week, I will get into what they say can be done to turn back the acidic distractions of the tech revolution in our schools, and save just the stuff that works.

You have been warned.


1. The title in the paper, “Teachers demonstrate the power of fewer screens and more human interaction” is completely wrong; the online title “Hitting the return key on education” makes no sense.

Challenging Clickbait

Last week the education RSS feed from the Washington Post was spammed with at least seven stories about Jay Mathews’ “challenge” index. Of course, they were all written by Mathews, who never misses an opportunity to tell you how he created this annual list of the “most challenging” high schools in the US.

So, these posts were not so much news as general clickbait.

In one of the articles, Mathews lets us know that this year is the 30 anniversary of the day this idea first popped into his head. Next year will be the 20th year since the Post and a then paper-based Newsweek magazine first published his list.

And I’ve been ranting about it in this space for almost three-quarters of that time. So I’m not sure what’s left to be said about this simplistic, headline-grabbing, mess. But I’ll say it anyway.

For those not familiar with the “challenge” index, here’s how it works: for each high school that will send him the stats,1 Mathews adds up the number of Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) tests taken and divides it by the number of seniors who graduate. Any school with a score of 1 or higher goes on the list.

What? You were expecting more? Maybe like incorporating the number of students who actually passed the exams? Or other factors that go into making a successful high school beyond pushing kids to take more tests?

Mathews seems to think that his index has improved American education by pushing more schools into adopting the AP curriculum (after complaints a few years back, he grudingly included the IB program). Which assumes that those very limited programs, largely dictated by colleges and framed around the idea that college is the only goal of learning in K12, are appropriate for every student. It also ties nicely into Mathews’ love of charter schools, especially KIPP, many of which tightly embrace AP.

Then there’s the general idea in the public mind that this is a ranked list of the “best” high schools. I know, both Mathews and the Post will say that’s not the intent. They simply want to spotlight the schools that are “working hardest to challenge students from all backgrounds”.

However, that’s not how it works in the real world. Since the start, schools, especially those in the upper levels of the list, local media, public school critics, and others have trumpeted this “challenge” index as THE list of top US high schools.

For the Post, that also helps sell newspapers and magazines, and in the internet age, generates clicks.

The False Promise of Charters

When it comes to charter schools, you would be hard pressed to find a bigger cheerleader in the press than Jay Mathews. Especially if the school has the letters KIPP on the front door.

After all, Mathews has visited “more than 50 great charters” (out of about 7,000 in the US), and, based on his observations, declares the concept to be good.

Ignoring, of course, the financial and management problems, not to mention outright fraud, found in many of the companies running charters (especially the online variety), along with study after study showing that most charter schools provide no better learning outcomes than the public schools in the same area. 

In his Post column today, Mathews tries to find common ground on the topic with education writer, historian, and vocal charter critic Diane Ravitch. Someone who actually understands that very few charters have lived up to their glowing promises and should be reigned in.

“I would call a moratorium for all new charters,” Ravitch said. “All charters would be required to be financially and academically transparent.” She would ban for-profit charters. Charters would have to fill all empty seats each year, she said, so average test scores would not rise just because low-performing students had left. Charters would have to have the same demographics as regular schools in their neighborhoods, she said, with the same portion of students with disabilities and students learning English.

Ravitch also would require characteristics that the best charters already have: collaboration with public schools, charter boards made of local community members and racially diverse student bodies.

Imagine that. Charter schools, which use public money, should be required to serve all of their communities and students first, rather than simply providing profits for their investors.

Mathews, condescending as always, deems Ravitch’s ideas “worth discussing”. He’s worried that those “great charters” (aka KIPP) will also have to fall under the same requirements.

Although the theory of charter schools – innovative educators finding new and better ways to help students independent of state and district bureaucracy – is a compelling one. Here in the real world, it just hasn’t worked.

Going beyond the incompetence and corruptions most often in the news, there is little new about the vast majority of charters. Most use very traditional curriculum and standard teacher-directed pedagogy – adding “innovations” like extended class time, “personalized” learning systems, and student regimentation. And being very selective about which students they will accept and retain.

Unfortunately, too many people leading this country are anxious to privatize public education, and make some money on the deal. As a result, Mathews will likely get his way and charters will continue to expand, likely in the same current ratio of “great” to poor. And continuing to exclude those children most in need of a great public education.