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.

Pay to Play

Speaking of the Post Magazine (as in the previous post), this week’s education edition also featured a profile of a local private school. A long, glowing story about an expensive institution for gifted students and their success with those kids.

On the previous page we find an expensive, nearly full page ad for the same school.

My wife, who works with arts organizations in the DC area, is always trying to get the Post to cover their activities. Often the groups also buy ads in the same section of the Post as the story. She calls it “pay to play”.

But I’m sure in this case, it’s just a coincidence.

Spray and Pray Technology

The cover story of today’s Washington Post magazine, one of their two or three times a year “education editions”, asks Do kids learn more when they trade in composition books for iPads?.

Of course, the writer doesn’t really address that question since this is more of a big picture story about the one-to-one programs of two local districts and about how a few teachers are using devices in their instruction.

But the article does manage to highlight several major problems that have come with adding technology to the “normal” classroom. First, is the fact that there is little research showing that computers improved student learning.

Research on technology’s impact on K-12 achievement is limited and mixed, partly because it’s difficult to isolate the role of technology from other things that occur in a classroom, says Elliot Soloway, a University of Michigan professor who studies technology use in schools.

Darryl Joyner, who helps lead Arlington’s technology initiative, says while there’s no “direct line” between test scores and digital devices or any other tool, research shows engagement is linked to performance.

So, like Mr. Joyner, many tech advocates look past the lack of evidence, that direct line, and go with the anecdotal observation that students are “excited to learn” to justify buying all the devices.

Or you have the “preparing students for the tech world” argument.

“These kids are going to leave school and enter a world where technology is ubiquitous,” says Cathy Stocker, a PTA leader in Bethesda. “Their ability to access that technology in school gets them ready for that world. I understand there needs to be balance. But to me the Chromebook is a powerful tool.”

Except most kids already live in that “world where technology is ubiquitous”. We just do very little to help teachers adjust their classroom practice to incorporate that world and to make good use of the power that comes from the devices and network connections.

“It’s a major movement,” says Ann Flynn, director of education technology for the National School Boards Association. What’s important, she and others say, is to adjust teaching methods to make learning deeper and more engaging. “If all you’re doing is automating the old practices … you didn’t change anything,” Flynn says.

Too many school systems buy big before thinking through how devices can be used to improve teaching and learning, says Leslie Wilson, chief executive of the One-to-One Institute, a nonprofit organization that helps implement tech programs. Her organization urges schools to avoid “the spray and pray approach,” and to emphasize learning rather than devices, Wilson says.

The lesson activity examples described in this article reflect that automating old practices. They are little different from those that teachers were using twenty years ago and really don’t require technology. Substituting Google for the reference section of the library and doing poster projects on iPads instead of chart paper does not justify giving a computer to every student.

However, the biggest problem with this article is that it ignores the fact that districts in the DC area (including Fairfax County, the largest and my former employer) have been using the “spray and pray approach” for decades. Spending lots of money on new devices, software, and websites while changing little or nothing about what and how students learn.

Replacing standard desktop and laptop machines with Chromebooks and iPads is no different.

Dumb Headline

In their new education blog, Grade Point, the Washington Post reports on a study showing My smartphone is making me dumb. Actually, that headline is probably making their readers dumber.

Researchers gave college students their first smartphone and asked them “whether they thought the devices would help them learn”. Of course a large majority said yes.

But a year later, when they were asked the same questions in the past tense, the results were entirely different – the college students felt the phones had distracted them and hadn’t been helpful, after all.

So, of course, we blame the technology, instead of any number of other factors (start with this being their first smartphone) that don’t necessarily translate into provocative headlines.

Finally, tacked onto the end of the post, the writer did manage arrive at the far more accurate conclusion of research like this.

Just providing access to mobile technology wasn’t enough, they concluded; educators would need to offer more structure or guidance if they wanted phones to enhance students’ academic experience.

Teachers must learn how incorporate mobile devices into their practice before students can understand how to use them for their learning.

Not exactly link bait.

Some Serious Navel Gazing

By my count, one that is likely off a little bit, the Washington Post paper edition published more than 40 different stories about their own sale between Wednesday, the day after it was announced, and today. I have no idea how many variations of them appeared on the website.

That total includes feature stories (at least one on the front page on four of six days), specialized writing in the Style and Business sections1, multiple profiles of the new owner, regular2 and guest columns, and opinion page pieces. One at the top of the Sunday main page gave a byline to six different writers so they are devoting many people to this effort.

I understand this is a major local story, and potentially a significant shift for the business of journalism in general, but at what point does news reporting cross over into obsession3?


1 Never thought to check the Sports section or the real estate listings.

2 George Will has been writing in the Post for 40 years??? That’s one starting point for the new owner.

3 Fox counts as obsession that never began with news reporting.