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.1

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.

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.2

“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.

Jay Demands the Data

I haven’t ranted about Jay Mathews’ writing in a while, in part because he’s no longer the primary education columnist for the Washington Post (fortunately, they chose Valerie Strauss to fill that role), but mostly because there’s really nothing new to discuss.

He loves the Advanced Placement program and is responsible for the “challenge” index, possibly the worst measure of high school quality ever created.2 What else is there to know about Mathews? He certainly doesn’t address many other education-related topics in his writing.

Anyway, his most recent column continues this AP romance by chastising a prominent local private school for not releasing to him data on how many students take Advanced Placement tests. So he can flatter them by including the numbers in the next round of the index scores, of course.

And that’s about it. Most of the piece is just Mathews complaining about not being able to include private schools like this one in his lame ranking of mostly public schools.

If he had only accepted the headmaster’s very rational justification for their policy, he would have had nothing to write about.

“We believe that parents and students are not helped by rating systems which purport to evaluate school quality based on test data,” Sidwell head of school Tom Farquhar told me. Independent Education, the local private school association, encourages all of its members to keep their numbers to themselves.

Good for them.

Two other minor points.

First, calling Sidwell Friends “our most famous private high school”2 because the president’s children and those of other politicians attend is a prime example of inside-the-beltway pretentiousness. In keeping with Quaker tradition, Sidwell likes to keep a low profile and I’m not sure they would consider themselves the most famous private school in the DC area, much less the whole US.

Second, the fact that his daughter graduated from Sidwell also lends a bias, and not a small dose of privileged attitude, to this column. In addition to letting us know that the Post must pay him very well since the school has always been one of the most expensive in a very pricy market.

Ok, I’ll now return to ignoring Jay Mathews.

Common Core Gives Me a Headache, But Give It a Chance Anyway

Look around and it’s not hard to find negative reviews for Common Core, along with the many education reform “leaders” promoting this latest framework for testing kids.3

However, Jay Mathews’ column from last week sets a new low for arguments in support of this program, starting with the title: I’m no Common Core fan, but give it a chance.

He gets off to a good start by explaining why new standards are the wrong approach and will do nothing to improve learning for kids.

As our national battle over the Common Core standards escalates this year, remember that new standards and curricula rarely improve schools. What does work is families becoming more affluent, teachers becoming more proficient and students spending more time and energy on their studies.

New lesson plans and textbooks such as those being unleashed by the Common Core in nearly all states have no effect on parental income. Some teachers and students may do better when there are changes in what they study, but so far there is little proof of that.

Mathews goes on to say that the standards are “difficult to summarize” and “[r]eading their jargon gives me headaches.”, but he still knows that “in general they encourage a deeper approach to teaching”.

And ignore the research (not to mention a long history of experience) showing that “raising standards doesn’t improve student achievement” (aka test scores).

C’mon, everyone, stop complaining about Common Core and give it a chance.

The Split Over Profits

In his most recent post, Jay Mathews thinks he sees a surprising split in the school reformer monolith.

Critics of current trends in education reform, such as historian Diane Ravitch, often complain that they are up against a phalanx of business executives and rich investors more interested in making money than improving schools. These people, the critics say, march in lock step to replace our traditional public schools with charters, vouchers and online campuses so they can squeeze profits out of taxpayer dollars.

That sense of unity among the corporate types has been shattered in the past few weeks by a bitter quarrel between two of the reform movement’s most prominent leaders.

As it turns out, the dispute between these two “most prominent leaders” started during a prevention at something called the Value Investing Congress and has far more to do with profits and stock prices than it does improving student learning or other educational policy. One says stock in K12 Inc, “the nation’s largest private operator of public schools”, is a good investment, the other is selling short (which I gather is a negative view of the company).

Mathews extends this trivial financial disagreement into a major split in the reform movement. Instead what he has stumbled onto (and largely ignores) is one of the primary reasons why any improvement of American education has been stagnating over the past decade.

The only monolithic thinking here comes from investors who believe that schools are a good place to increase revenues, with politicians happy to help since it means they can move the money that was being spent on kids somewhere else (plus the investors might kick in some campaign contributions).

There’s a reason why “K12 revenue has grown 32 percent annually for the past decade”, and corporations like Pearson and NewsCorp are working hard to develop standardized materials tied to Common Core and testing systems, plus devices to deliver both.

And it has nothing to do with “the debate over what works best for our kids”.