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.

An Early Start to Automated Teaching

I have never taught elementary-age students. My teaching experience was with kids in grades 7 and above. However, I have worked with teachers in elementary schools and I have tremendous admiration for them, especially those who spend their days with the youngest kids.

My memory of what goes on in those spaces that are the first formal classrooms for most kids is fuzzy and I’m sure very incomplete but I’m pretty sure it didn’t look like this.

Step into an American preschool classroom today and you are likely to be bombarded with what we educators call a print-rich environment, every surface festooned with alphabet charts, bar graphs, word walls, instructional posters, classroom rules, calendars, schedules, and motivational platitudes–few of which a 4-year-old can “decode,” the contemporary word for what used to be known as reading.

Because of the Common Core standards, with the associated over-emphasis on testing (even in schools outside that program like here in Virginia), even Kindergarten students are spending large parts of their day on “seat work” and “tightly scripted teaching known as direct instruction”, instead of the guided exploration of their world I remember seeing just a few years ago. The idea of Kindergarten was as a “welcome mat” and a beginning of the transition to a more formal learning process.

The idea of “tightly scripted” direct instruction is bad enough in middle or high school. It’s downright depressing for four and five year olds. And it seems to be souring kids on school early in their lives.

New research sounds a particularly disquieting note. A major evaluation of Tennessee’s publicly funded preschool system, published in September, found that although children who had attended preschool initially exhibited more “school readiness” skills when they entered kindergarten than did their non-preschool-attending peers, by the time they were in first grade their attitudes toward school were deteriorating. And by second grade they performed worse on tests measuring literacy, language, and math skills.

The researchers told New York magazine that overreliance on direct instruction and repetitive, poorly structured pedagogy were likely culprits; children who’d been subjected to the same insipid tasks year after year after year were understandably losing their enthusiasm for learning. [emphais mine]

The writer of this article is an experienced early childhood educator and says the focus in those years should be “not just on vocabulary and reading, but on talking and listening”.

We forget how vital spontaneous, unstructured conversation is to young children’s understanding. By talking with adults, and one another, they pick up information. They learn how things work. They solve puzzles that trouble them. Sometimes, to be fair, what children take away from a conversation is wrong. They might conclude, as my young son did, that pigs produce ham, just as chickens produce eggs and cows produce milk. But these understandings are worked over, refined, and adapted–as when a brutal older sibling explains a ham sandwich’s grisly origins.

Actually, putting the focus on “talking and listening, and those concepts of spontaneity and unstructured conversation, should be at the core of instruction at all levels. High school students also need to learn how things work (at a slightly higher level) and “solve puzzles that trouble them”. Direct instruction in middle and high school doesn’t work nearly as well as many educators think it does.

Anyway, in the end, this educator says the “academic takeover of American early learning can be understood as a shift from what I would call an ‘ideas-based curriculum’ to a ‘naming-and-labeling-based curriculum’”. A curriculum that can be scripted and “delivered without substantially improving our teaching force”.

A school experience that can be automated, “personalized”, and “individualized”. Words and phrases that fill the sales presentations for any number of ed tech startups.