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.

Don’t Call This Personal Learning

Once upon a time, like around three years ago, one of the hottest concepts in education reform was a collection of “micro schools”, called AltSchool. The brain child of a former Google executive, AltSchool mixed concepts from Montessori and other progressive educators with data-driven technology to produce a startup that attracted hundreds of millions in venture capital. 

Today, not so much. AltSchool is now “pivoting” from operating a few expensive boutique private schools to marketing software for “personalizing” learning in regular public schools.

So, what magic is AltSchool selling in their algorithms?

The software allows educators to build curriculum, tailor assignments, set goals, offer feedback, and track a host of metrics from learners. Students using the platform can create customized “playlist” of assignments and monitor their progress with the hope that their learning will become self-directed.

In other words, this one-time darling of Silicon Valley is marketing a more advanced, maybe even more intelligent, version of the teaching machines we were promised in the 50’s. And the programmed learning software schools overpaid for in the 90’s.

Call this personalized learning if you like. Maybe individualized instruction. But this approach, where every part of the learning process is mapped out by adults, is in no way personal.

I’m repeating myself but it’s worth restating…

Personalized learning is something done TO students. Personal learning is something students do for themselves.

One can be automated, the other is uniquely individual.

CS for All? Where Are We Going to Fit It In?

Last November, Virginia became the first state in the US to require computer science instruction – specifically “computer science and computational thinking, including computer coding” – at all levels K-12. For elementary students, teachers will be expected to integrate the concepts into the rest of their instruction. In middle and high school, students can choose elective courses in computer science but will not be required to take one.

Is this a good thing?

Lots of politicians, business folks, and other education “experts” have declared that CS for all students is necessary. Some say that the economic future of the country depends on training many more computer programmers, although the case for that is rather shaky (like that for the emphasis on STEM). Others seem to believe that CS would be beneficial to every high school graduate for a variety of rather murky reasons.

I certainly believe that everyone should have a fundamental understanding of how the hardware and software they use every day works. If we’re going to depend on computers to run our lives and the rest of the world, we should at least know a little about what’s happening.

However, I’m not sure these new requirements from the department of education will ever get that job done.

For one thing, these new Standards of Learning will not be tested which means it’s quite likely that, in most classrooms, the content will be added in when time allows. I also suspect that many teachers will be given the requirements with little or no help implementing them. Professional development of any kind is not given a big priority in most districts, especially for something not tested.

All of which points to a larger problem for not only CS for all, but also for STEM, the maker movement, design thinking, project-based learning, and the other “reform” ideas we have been pouring into schools in the past decade or two: there’s no room for them in the “normal” school day.

Coding is done in an hour. STEM lessons are done in after-school programs. Students go to maker spaces for special activities, in they same way they used to go to the computer lab. We bring out the projects after the “regular” work is complete.

If computer science and the rest of this is really important, it needs to be part of the standard curriculum. Every day for all students, not just on special occasions for the kids we know will pass the standardized tests.

Fitting it in shouldn’t be hard since much of the mathematics and science curriculums used in schools is crap and could easily be trashed (or at least minimized).

Replacing the classical, college-prep academic training that begins early in elementary grades with curiosity-driven, hands-on activities would not only allow plenty of time for CS and the rest, it would also make school more meaningful and interesting for students.

A win for everyone.

Personalizing Students

The US Secretary of Education believes “personalized” learning is the future of schools.

At least she does based on the observational “snapshots” she’s collected in the past couple of years.

What I have observed and also read from others who are more deeply immersed in this, is that students that are in that setting are able to really pursue their learning and take charge and control of their own learning and to proceed at a rate that works for them.

I am optimistic that the places where this customized, personalized approach has been tested and shown to be successful for students, that there is going to be a broader embrace of it.

Those snapshots are more than enough evidence to create policy, right?

The vision of “personalized” learning on which DeVos is heaping praise comes largely from high-profile experiments funded by Silicon Valley billionaires, like the Summit program, largely backed by Mark Zuckerberg’s foundation, and Alt Schools, created by a former Google executive. All of these programs depend heavily on software to customize the educational program for each student, collecting a lot of data on each child along the way.

That educational program, however, is far from personal.

In most of these high tech schools, the curriculum and how it is presented is still determined by adults. Students may get to choose from a short menu of activities at each stage of the lessons, they have little to no choice in the topics they will study. Their data is used to “improve” the algorithms but their thoughts, ideas, and opinions are largely ignored.

Just like most “normal” schools.

But in the past few months, these techie education “experts” have been finding that personalizing the learning process is not as simple as they thought. Alt School has closed many of their boutique schools and some of their parents and educators are having second thoughts. Last year, sales of the Summit system to public districts was much slower than the company forecast.

Of course, “personalized” learning is the hot buzz term for hundreds of edtech companies at the moment and that’s not likely to change anytime soon. But, as responsible educators, we need to question the meaning of the word and how software vendors are applying it. Not to mention how their systems and algorithms are using data collected from students.

Because “personalized” (or “individualized”) is not the same as personal learning. The kind where students work with teachers and their peers to explore their interests and skills, as well as understanding the basic knowledge they will need as adults.

And are a fundamental part of planning their own learning process, not simply responding to software and curriculum designed by hired experts.

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.