What If There’s No “Fix” For Schools?

Breakdown

A recent opinion piece in the Washington Post asks in the headline “Can we fix the schools?”. Followed by the parenthetical answer “Maybe not”.

The writer, whose focus for the paper is economics, is trying to make the case, based on a “major new study”, that the federal government should let “states and localities see whether they can make schools work better”.

Fair enough. I suppose he may have a point. However, it’s his terminology, also used by many politicians and other education experts, that bothers me.

That idea of “fixing” schools.

“Fix” implies that we only need to make some adjustments to the system to get everything “working better”. Like a car that needs a tune up or new muffler. Or replacing the cracked screen on your smartphone.

Nobody takes their car into the shop for repair and questions the fundamental concept of the automobile. When getting a leak fixed, none of us ask the plumber to re-imagine the idea of indoor plumbing.

But maybe that’s exactly what we should be doing with the idea of school. Rather than trying to “fix” the system by creating new testing programs or abdicating the responsibility of public education to private companies.

The idea of “fixing” schools assumes that the basic structure created a century (or more) ago is still sound and remains valid for a very uncertain future.

It assumes that grouping kids by chronological age, presenting them with a stream of data divided into discrete topics, and using mass assessment tools to determine their understanding is still the best system for learning. (If it ever was.)

What if there is no “fix” for schools and we need to start over?


I shot the image above, of a man working under the hood of his classic Chevy, on the streets of Havana. From what we were told, the owners of those cars need to be very creative to keep them running.

The AP Love Affair

Exam

You would be hard pressed to find a bigger cheerleader for Advanced Placement than Jay Mathews. Except possibly for the people at The College Board who run the extremely profitable program.1

For anyone who has not read the Post regularly over the past couple of decades, Mathews is well-known around here for writing full-throated, uncritical columns championing the AP program. Last month alone, three of his five columns centered on that topic.

The fall Education Edition of the Post Sunday Magazine published in October also featured an eight-page spread by Mathews that was ostensibly a profile of the director of the AP program. It was a sloppy wet kiss that a casual reader might have mistaken as nothing more than an “advertorial” paid for by the College Board, mixed in with the other ads for private schools, tutoring services, and military boarding academies.

And, of course, Mathews also is responsible for the farce known as the Challenge Index, an annual ranking that is embraced by schools and news media as a benchmark of high school quality. A measure that is based solely on the number of AP tests taken.2

In all of this promotional work (including at least three related books), Mathews rarely does much to address critics of the AP program. Mostly it consists of setting up very flimsy straw men and quickly knocking them down with a very dismissive attitude. Anyone who doesn’t agree that AP should be the foundation of a high school academic program is misguided at best.

Toward the end of the Sunday Magazine article, he mentions in one paragraph two rather prominent critics of the AP program, and then allows the subject of his piece to dismiss them with a couple of quotes containing no real rebuttal.

One of those critics is the 2009 documentary “Race to Nowhere”. In the film, produces look at how students are under increasing pressure to “succeed” in school, including by being pushed into taking more AP classes.

The other is a 2012 article from The Atlantic with the provocative title “AP Classes Are a Scam”.

Although I wouldn’t go so far to call the program a scam, the author, a former government professor at Boston College, makes some excellent points that deserve to be part of the debate. His last bullet point is one of my favorites.

To me, the most serious count against Advanced Placement courses is that the AP curriculum leads to rigid stultification — a kind of mindless genuflection to a prescribed plan of study that squelches creativity and free inquiry. The courses cover too much material and do so too quickly and superficially. In short, AP courses are a forced march through a preordained subject, leaving no time for a high-school teacher to take her or his students down some path of mutual interest. The AP classroom is where intellectual curiosity goes to die.

Which relates directly to some of my primary criticisms of the AP program, and especially the huge emphasis the classes receive in most high schools in this area.

For one, the whole AP program drives an assumption that the goal of every student should be attending a four-year college. Indeed, the entire curriculum is dictated by university officials who benefit from the stream of new customers. Too often, kids are given the impression that anything other than a brand name college represents failure.

Looking at the bigger picture, the AP structure reinforces the idea that a pure academic approach is the only way to understand any subject. That subjects can only be studied within their silo, a segmented approach to learning that was already an entrenched attitude in most of the high schools I’ve worked with over the years and now extending down into the lower grades.

That intellectual curiosity the professor spoke of is difficult, if not impossible, in a rigidly designed curriculum that leaves little room for exploration outside of the silo.

Anyway, after all that ranting, I wouldn’t advocate for high schools to drop AP classes entirely (as some schools are doing). I’ve both taken and taught AP courses, as well as spending a few summers scoring them and there is some value in the concept (if not the current execution).

Schools should be providing students with the option to participate. With the emphasis on option.

We need to help students understand and explore ALL their options during their time in K12 classrooms. Structuring high school entirely around a college-level program, which Jay Mathews appears to be pushing with his AP love affair, slams the door shut to those choices.


Image: Exam by Alberto G. Posted to Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.

1. They also own the equally profitable, and questionable, SAT and other related testing programs. You can find more data on the finances of the College Board and other “non-profit” testing groups at Americans for Educational Testing Reform.

2. If you want to torture yourself with it, I’ve written far too much about that crap in this space.

Another Wealthy Education Expert

The latest billionaire who wants to revolutionize education is Jeff Bezos. He says he got the idea from a Twitter “conversation” about where he should put his philanthropy. So you know the idea is well thought out, right?

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is launching a $2 billion “Day One Fund” to help homeless families in the US and create a series of innovative preschools.

The Amazon CEO announced his new organization would be “creating a network of new, non-profit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities,” inspired by the Montessori School model, a child-centered educational method that relies on scientific observations of children from birth to adulthood.

Bezos didn’t offer many details on the preschool project, but his words show that he plans on treating these new schools like he does Amazon. He described the students as “customers” and explained that his new organization would ”use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon” to “learn, invent, and improve.”

Describing preschool children as “customers” is rather clueless and somewhat frightening.

And I always thought the principles that have driven Amazon were to grow as fast as possible, crush the competition, and make Bezos very, very rich. I suppose I could have been mistaken.

Anyway, the writer of this particular report at least manages to land on some good reasons why we should not be relying on super rich people to create education policy in this country.

Bezos’ latest announcement comes at a time of heightened criticism of Amazon’s business practices, and some critics say this latest move is savvy PR by the CEO of one of the world’s most profitable companies. But it also illustrates a deeper problem, which arises when private philanthropy fills a gap that the government should be filling, namely, the lack of quality, affordable early education in the United States. The problem lies both in the US government’s lack of investment in early education, and in big tech companies’ success at avoiding paying taxes, thus depriving states of crucial funds they could use to start their own early education programs.

Yep. Maybe if Bezos and his friends just paid their fair share of taxes, we could afford to develop quality educational programs for all kids at all levels.

Sidenote: As always Audrey Watters has an excellent take on this story, adding the historical context that the general media usually misses. Check the URL on the page for her original title. I wish she’d kept it.


Image credit: Wikipedia, used under a Creative Commons license. The Amazon Go stores are completely self-service. Maybe the Bezos schools will be self-learning.


Observing From The Outside

It has been three years since I left the overly-large school district to set out on a new life as a drain on society.1 Time really does fly when you’re having fun.

But the fact that I’m no longer involved in the day-to-day minutia of instructional technology in the system doesn’t mean I’m not interested anymore. I just have to learn about what’s going on in the school district the same way most of the community does.

There’s the little bit of education-related information that is reported in the local news, although that’s usually only when something bad happens.I can get a little bit of insight from the email newsletter the district sends each week, but that usually reads more like a pile of press releases than any real inside information.

More interesting, and probably more insightful, are the tidbits I get when talking to friends and former colleagues who are still working somewhere in the system. Although, in most of those conversations, we avoid discussing work in favor of more fun topics.

Anyway, out of curiosity about what has been going on, last spring I dropped in on a community meeting about the new one-to-one computing initiative the district is planning to roll out in the fall of 2019 (with the somewhat bland, focus-grouped title FCPSOn).

In my past life I would have been involved with planning this kind of meeting. I was rarely one of the people doing the presentation since my boss knew better than to put me in front of a crowd. I was prone to answer questions honestly instead of sticking to the script.

This particular presentation wasn’t much different from those I remember. Planned and edited by teams in several different offices and led by an assistant superintendent who clearly was working from his briefing notes, rather than a firm understanding of the topic.

In his opening statement, he told us that they wanted very much to hear from the community and we would be spending most of the two hours on discussion and feedback. He then spent the next 90 minutes running through his slide show or having groups of teachers and students talk about their use of technology.

I found those examples especially interesting. They included a mishmash of ideas that provided little or no support for the plan they came to sell. Does each student need a computer for the class to hold a book chat with students in another school? Is publishing an online newspaper innovative if it is directed by the teacher and not seen outside the school?3

The students involved in these segments didn’t help make the case. Many identified as being part of the IB program at the school where the meeting was held, meaning they were certainly not the “average” kid. And their examples of the great use of technology already in their learning included G Suite, Quizlet, Padlet, and even PowerPoint decks posted to Blackboard as.

Missing from the presentations was any discussion about why putting devices in the hands of every student would result in better learning. Nothing about how the district would make changes to the curriculum, pedagogy guides, or assessment as a result of the increased power and capability.

As you might expect, there were many references to “personalizing” or “customizing” learning, but nothing about how students would have a direct say in what they learn or how they learn it. The concept of “flipped” classrooms, in which students watch videos instead of teacher lecture/demos, doesn’t do it. As with most of the other examples, flipped is more about changing teaching rather than changing learning.

On that topic of student input, I found it interesting that the district-created video about “student voices” was dominated by adults taking about giving students voice. The images of 1-1 classrooms showed students in classic rows or groups of four, with everyone working on individual computers. And the students presenters themselves were obviously carefully selected to make the point of the adults who planned the session.

When the assistant super finally finished and asked for discussion from the audience, it was clear the parents and community members (who seemed to be a minority among all the school administrators, teachers, and tech support folks) didn’t want to stick to the script.

Many were concerned about the amount of screen time kids were going to get, especially in elementary school. They wanted to know how taking computers home would increase student stress levels. Is it really necessary to give every kid a device to achieve the district learning goals?

All very good questions. The assistant super and all his assistants in attendance had few answers, and seemed genuinely surprised by the pushback. Maybe if they had done a little reading outside of the bubble, they might have anticipated it.

I have a few questions myself, about 1-1 in general and this particular plan that I never got to ask during this community meeting. But this post has already run too long, so I’ll save them for another rant.

I’ll also be digging a little deeper into what happens with the planning and implementation of FCPSOn over the next year, at least as best I can. It will be interesting to see what this all looks like from the outside.


Image of smiling 1-1 students in a Northern Nevada school district, from an article in the local newspaper.

1. That “drain on society” line is how a former Virginia legislator once referred to the teacher retirement system. Fortunately, he is a “former”.

2. Rule number one for anyone working in Fairfax, and I assume the other area districts, is to avoid making headlines in the Post.

3. I know the IT department still does not allow student work to be published outside the “walled garden” without lots of review and permissions at the district level.

Choosing to Ignore Your Past

Maze

After reading his weekly columnin the Monday Washington Post, I wonder whether Jay Mathews is confused. Or recanting everything he’s written for the past two decades or so.

In the article, he seems to agree with Yong Zhao, who has argued against the trend to standardized testing and for more student choice in their education. Early on Mathews praises these thoughts from Zhao’s new book:

To help each child achieve his or her full potential, we need an education that starts from the child’s passions and strengths, instead of prescribed skills and content.

The education system rarely cares about the children’s individual passions or talents. The only passion it cares about is the passion to become a good student. .?.?. Worse, the current education system actively suppresses individual talents and passions by defining what educational success means and convincing students, parents and the public to accept the definition.

Then Mathews takes all that and goes off the rails to arrive at this conclusion:

I saw why so many critics of the American system have wrongly trashed the true sources of our nation’s power to fuel individual passions. They are high school activities: band, football, field hockey, robotics club, hip-hop club, drama, choir. The list is endless.

I have yet to find an American high school that successfully suppressed individual talents or convinced students and parents to sacrifice all for study.

He uses as “evidence” the lack of homework done by high school students and the popularity of extracurricular activities to declare that Zhao is wrong. That the American education system is already allowing kids the kind of choice to follow their passions and talents. Although I’m not sure high school band and football would be especially good examples for that “choice”.

As for not being able to find American schools that suppress individual talents or convince students to sacrifice all for academic work, Mathews only needs to read some of his own writing.

This is coming from the man who created a ranking of high school quality based primarily on the number of Advance Placement tests taken by students. A scale, coming this spring to a district press release near you, that pressures schools to increase the numbers of those tests taken.

For that matter, Mathews is totally in love with the whole AP program, one of the most standardized curriculums ever created. A collection of syllabi largely dictated by colleges, and which offers students no choice in what they study.

He also regularly writes about heaps praise on the KIPP chain of charter schools, whose regimented and highly structured educational program offers students few options to follow their passions.

Ok, so maybe Mathews isn’t confused or having a change of heart. It’s possible he’s just punking those of us who have been reading his dreck for these many years.

Either way, it’s time for Jeff Bezos and the Post to find a better, more relevant education writer to fill that scarce resource quarter-page of newsprint every week in the Metro section.


This picture is of a maze installation at the National Building Museum from about four years ago and just seemed appropriate for the twists and turns in Mathews’ logic.

Image by Brett Davis, posted to Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.

1. I’m not sure why the online title for this piece is completely different from the headline in the printed version: “Want kids to really achieve? Focus on nerdy clubs, team sports instead of tests.” Starting with the term “nerdy”, there is just so much wrong with that, although both headers could have been written by an editor instead of Mathews.