Bad Questions

I don’t often agree with Jay Mathews.

Mathews was the long time education reporter for the Washington Post and now writes a weekly column for the paper. I’ve written many posts about his adoration of KIPP charter schools, the unrequited love of the Advanced Placement program, and especially his Challenge Index, his annual ranking of high schools based solely on the number of AP tests taken by students.

However, his post from last week, which is not really about education, is one I can get behind. In it, he highlights two popular questions used by polling companies that produce little to no useful information, calling them dumb and deserving of ridicule.

One comes from the annual poll done by Gallup for Phi Delta Kappa, a professional association for educators. It asks people “What grade would you give your local public schools, the nation’s public schools and, if you have children at home, their schools?” The results are pretty much the same every year.

Since 1985, the results have been consistent. Respondents award their children’s specific schools the highest grades, with about three-quarters giving A’s and B’s. About half of them give their local schools A’s and B’s. About a fifth give A’s and B’s to the nation’s public schools.

My kid’s school is great. But those other schools, and the national education system, are crap. Of course PDK asks other questions about many aspects of education (in 2015, 64% of respondents said there was too much emphasis on standardized testing) but it’s that top number that is most widely reported by the headline driven media. And it’s too often used to perpetuate the “failing public schools” narrative. If people tell a survey taker something, it must be true.

The other poll question Mathews ridicules is even worse.

The right-track-wrong-track question is even more aggravating because it is so often extolled as a mark of voters’ desires. The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll uses this question: “Do you think in this country things are generally going in the right direction or do you feel things have gotten pretty seriously off on the wrong track?”

Over the 44 years that polling companies have asked that question “results have been on the negative side nearly 90 percent of the time”. Again, the surveys include other related questions but it’s the right-track-wrong-track number that gets put into the headlines and analyzed by pundits who probably haven’t bothered to read any of the supporting data or metrics used to select the sample.

Both of these examples are why K12 math instruction needs to include a whole lot more statistics. Maybe if more people reading these headlines actually understood something about polling methodology they might push back and question both the results and the reporting of them. Some of those better informed graduates might even become presenters on those talking heads channels and bring those questions to their jobs.

A Very Simplistic Challenge

In this morning’s paper, the Washington Post wasted valuable space in the Metro section on Jay Mathew’s annual promotion of the fraud known as his “challenge” index. If you’re not familiar with this artificial ranking of school quality, take a look at some of my regular rants on the subject.

His premise in the column is that schools need to be more transparent, mostly by giving him their data on how many students take AP tests each year. Mathews is pissed that many private schools still don’t want to play along with his index and this piece is little more than him explaining why they are evading the noble purpose of his list.

However, I do agree with Mathews’ overall idea: schools do need to be more transparent. But with more than just numbers. We need to open schools by involving our communities in some basic discussions around what school is and should be.

Is the basic assumption, made by Mathews and many others, that every student should attend college a valid one? If so, is the AP program, created and marketed by a non-profit organization run by the colleges themselves, the best way to prepare them for that goal?

Are AP courses the best way to challenge students in high school, which is the core concept of Mathews’ index? And is publishing a list based only on the number of students who take a standardized test, ignoring completely their scores, a valid way to judge school quality?1

There are many more questions that need to be asked, as well as including other people who are not currently part of the conversation. Like students, who are most impacted by the decisions made by politicians, administrators, and teachers.

Bottom line is that preparing students for their future after high school graduation is a very complex issue. One that requires more options for students than just college. An issue that is far more complex than the simplistic approach promoted by Mathews, a columnist who gave up being a journalist many years ago.

Looking for Some Journalistic Objectivity

Jay Mathews has been an education writer and columnist at the Washington Post for decades. But the degree of journalistic objectivity in his work has been on a steep downward slope for most of that time.

Take, for example, his column in today’s paper in which he reviews a new book about charter schools that focuses on the KIPP network.

Jim Horn is the most vocal critic of our nation’s (and the District’s) largest nonprofit charter school network, KIPP. Among journalists, I am KIPP’s most enthusiastic supporter.

Is someone calling themselves a “journalist” supposed to be an “enthusiastic supporter” of one side in a story they’re covering? Just askin’

Anyway, Mathews goes on to criticize the author for being one-sided, and then proceeds to take the other side, supporting KIPP management against the “research and personal accounts” in the “252-page book”. Personal accounts that includes “long excerpts from interviews with 23 former KIPP teachers”.

Now, I have not read this particular book (I’ve read other works about KIPP, both critical and favorable), and have no idea if the author’s material makes a compelling case against KIPP’s educational philosophy and how it’s executed in their schools. It’s very possible his book does belong to the “great tradition of American polemics” and is a total hatchet job.

However, Mathews’ “enthusiastic” support for KIPP’s program, based in part on visits to 42 of their schools and his observation of instruction as a non-educator who has never taught, does the reader of his Post column (in the Metro section and not labeled as opinion) a disservice.

He’s hardly in a position to call for another writer to be objective about his subject matter.

Change and Prepare

Following up on my previous rant about the fear of smartphones in the hands of students, Jim Knight, a British education blogger and former UK minister of state for schools, takes pretty much the opposite view to that being promoted by Jay Mathews.

Knight observes that we teach kids “using the tools that are part of everyday life. Some tools can be dangerous and adults learn to teach children about how to use the tools safely.”

Today we call computers and smartphones “technology” and most people use them as indespensible, everyday tools. So, “[i]t seems logical that we should teach children how to use the tools of technology and how to use them safely.”

It’s hard to argue with his logic, although a recent international study on the use of devices in schools seems to do just that.

However, Knight goes on to make several great points about why that study, not to mention Mathews’ anecdotal-based opposition to student devices, are considering the wrong factors in this discussion.

The long-standing research says that technology can significantly improve education outcomes if pedagogy is changed so that the tools are used effectively. Teachers need training in new technology, and its strategic implementation needs to be well led at a school level.

Having discovered that the OECD report simply confirmed what we already knew — that just putting new technology in classrooms is useless without good CPD [continuing professional development] and good leadership — I could relax and enjoy my breakfast. [emphasis is mine]

Exactly. We need to change classroom practice, do a better job with teacher training, and find better school leadership if any of this technology is going to make a different. I would add that our classic curriculum also needs some major revisions.

Anyway, his final statement wonderfully summarizes what should be our approach to using technology in schools:

We shouldn’t be scared of the future. We must change and prepare our children for it.

Blame the Smartphone, Again.

Say what you want about the writings of Post education columnist Jay Mathews (and over the years I have), he does manage to stumble across some insight occasionally. Even if he’s trying to make roughly the opposite point. His most recent example is his column from yesterday’s paper.2

A high school teacher here in Fairfax County (formerly my employer and aka the overly-large school district) complains that student responses in his government classes have been “crumbling” since “smartphones and other such devices were allowed a few years ago.”. Evidentally, before this “invasion”, discussions on his lessons were thoughtful and lively. In just three years, which was about the time BYOD entered the picture, kids have changed that much.

Of course, this is just an observation. He and another teacher are writing a book about the “decline in critical thinking as digital technologies grow”. However, they “admit they have mostly anecdotal data” to use for their work but are are certain – certain I tell you! – that “brain research eventually will back them up”.

Ok, this is nothing new. I heard from plenty of teachers who blamed kids carrying smartphone for all sorts of ills. But I also know many educators who view the spread of personal connected devices in the classroom as an opportunity to enhance student learning and improve their own teaching.

Anyway, getting back to Mathews purpose in this column. He is trying to use the story told by these teachers as proof that technology is “degrading discourse” in the classroom and “hurting students”, to use two phrases from just the headline. But at the end he drops in his personal biases when it comes to technology and completely kills his authority.

As a journalist, my most pressured years are behind me. I can have a rewarding professional and personal life even though I don’t use smartphones or tablets, never tweet or don’t go on Facebook. I am excused of such eccentricities because of my age.

Two things: first, as someone pretty close to his “age”, I really resent the idea that you get “excused” from learning, and participating in the real world, because you’ve passed a certain checkpoint in life. In schools, we use this reasoning far too often to excuse those “older” teachers from the requirements of understanding how connected devices are changing the process of learning for their students. And from actually using those new tools to better connect with those kids.

And second, I’m not a journalist, but I do understand how radically that profession is being changed as a result of technology and social media. Refusing to acknowledge and at least attempt to use such “eccentricities” in his own work should disqualify Mathews from analyzing any changes they are forcing on the American education system.

I say “should” because he will be back soon with more nonsense about the need for traditional educational practices (probably having to do with AP or charter schools) and the Post will print it.