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Learning To Make Change

Over the years that I worked for the overly-large school district (aka Fairfax County Schools), I have been critical of various policies and decisions by the people who run the system. None of it was intended to be malicious. I’ve just always believed that a good organization can – and should – get better.

In that same spirit, it’s also important to acknowledge when they do something right, and this is something that makes me proud to be associated with the system.

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Our Screwed Up Approach to Instructional Technology

Schools buying iPads is not really news. Unless it’s one of the largest districts in the country, Los Angeles County, spending a boatload of cash, $30 million, on them.

Now I love my iPad, and believe it has great potential as a personal learning device. However, this particular story has many, many elements that illustrate just how screwed up our approach to instructional technology really is.

The Board of Education voted 6 to 0 on Tuesday to approve the contract after hearing senior staff laud Apple’s product as both the best in quality and the least expensive option that met the district’s specifications.

How many teachers and students were involved in setting those specifications? The article doesn’t say but I’m going to go out on a limb and bet that few if any classroom teachers (and probably no kids) had any say in the matter.

More likely, the "specifications" came from the IT department and is based only on the opinions of technicians. Or possibly from a superintendent, based on anecdotes of his children who can do amazing stuff on iPads that he/she extrapolated to every student in the county.

Again based only on speculation (and too many years of experience), I’m betting that $30 million includes no money for professional development, beyond maybe a short here’s-what-button-to-push orientation. Nothing to help teachers understand how to make the best use of these new tools in their instruction. And certainly no consideration of changing curriculum and classroom practice to fit the capabilities of these relatively new devices.

Then there’s the matter of how we pay for all those devices. In this case the money will come from a bond issue, not from continuing funds, which means the iPads purchased this summer will probably be long gone while taxpayers are still paying off the borrowed money.

Rather than building instructional technology into regular budgets, schools and districts seem to constantly fall into this kind of big burst, headline-making, "special occasion" spending. Why do they do it that way? Simple. Administrators, along with many teachers, parents, and other voting members of the community continue to view computers as a nice-to-have extra, something to play with after we finish all that regular school stuff.

But the problem is not just with the people who supported this vote. Those who spoke against the decision also reveal some pretty stupid approaches to making instructional technology decisions.

Hines [senior director of state government affairs for Microsoft] also noted that more businesses still use Microsoft platforms, and that students should be exposed to machines they will encounter in the workplace.

We don’t help kids at all by teaching them specific software, except for the few in specific vocational certification programs. Instead, how about helping kids understand how to use and be productive with any technology they might encounter? The flexibility to adapt to whatever new tools enter that workplace is a far more valuable skill than learning PowerPoint inside and out.

Finally, we arrive at the bottom line to all this.

Officials said they opposed a delay in part because new state and national tests will be taken on computers, and they don’t want Los Angeles students to lack the necessary experience with them.

As we’ve seen close up here in the overly-large school district (and the rest of Virginia), officials like administering standardized tests digitally because the results (aka "data") are available faster and are easier to manipulate. And learning how to generate good data is fast becoming more important than any other skill students might acquire during their time in K12.

Maybe even worth $30 million.

The Revisionaries

If you haven’t seen The Revisionaries from the PBS series Independent Lens, find an hour soon to watch it.* The one-hour program documents the 2010 proceedings of the Texas School Board where a small group of conservatives inserted requirements into the state science and social studies curriculums that fit their religious and political beliefs.

A professor lobbying against the changes in science describes the problem.

There are not many board members who say ‘I am an expert in string theory’ or ‘I am an expert in gravitational theory and I will talk to you about that’. But they’ll sure talk to you about evolution. And that is a mixture of ignorance and arrogance that’s a flammable mixture.

Adding even more to the atmosphere of anti-intellectualism surrounding this process, the former chair of the board and a centerpiece of this film, declared that “someone has to stand up to experts”, like scientists, and he was leading the charge against facts he disagrees with. I don’t envy the people in Texas who have chosen to battle back against that kind of thinking (if you can apply that term here).

To say that “the schoolboard in Texas has been a mess” is an understatement. Unfortunately, that mess slops over into other parts of the country since textbook publishers write to satisfy the largest customers, and in the process they dumb down the materials used by tens of thousands of students. One more reason to support the open textbook movement.


* It’s only free online until February 27th. After that it will probably be available for purchase from iTunes and other outlets.

By All Means, Argue With It!

Tomorrow here in the overly-large school district, we will be electing a new school board, and since, more than half of the incumbents are not running again, it really will be new. Maybe.

One block of candidates is basically running on a platform that begins with an assumption that the system is doing a good job, only requiring a few tweaks, with one even interviewing that “you can’t argue with success”.

However, what if that “success” is based on faulty or outdated measures?

Of course one of the primary evaluations for our schools (and pretty much every other school in this country) are scores on the variety of tests students take every year, from the state SOLs to AP/IB to whatever. But are those many tests really valid assessments of student learning, especially the skills they will need in their life after our schools? It’s a question that needs to be addressed more often, here and elsewhere.

Our district also likes to boast that something like 95% of our graduates go on to “post secondary” programs. But how well prepared are they to succeed in those programs? While that 95% number is found in many places on the website and other publications (including places like the Chamber of Commerce and real estate brochures), any follow-up information on alumni is sparse to nonexistent. I wonder if anyone even tries to collect it.

And then most high schools also like to trumpet their numbers on meaningless lists like the Washington Post’s “challenge” index, one of the most superficial measures of high school quality every invented. Oh, but it does make for good headlines.

So, not only is it possible to argue with our district’s past successes, more people running the show, as well as those who want to, should be challenging many aspects of what we do as a school system.

Instead of spending lots of valuable time tossing around all the trivial, cliched crap that usually passes for serious discussion of education issues these days.

The Students Speak About EdTech

Last week, the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council made their annual report¹ to the school board here in the overly-large school district, this time dealing with their recommendations on the use of technology in schools.

In many ways it was a disappointing presentation.  Disappointing but not especially surprising.

Considering the backgrounds of the students, both those presenting and others on the council (with some noticeable influences from their adult advisors), how could it be anything else?

For example, one major section dealt with their suggestion that the district install more interactive whiteboards (IWB) in high school classrooms² and provide more training for their teachers on how to use them.

Consider that the members of this group are Juniors and Seniors, most of whom are taking lots of honors and AP/IB courses, classes in which teacher lecture/demo, with students busily taking notes in audience-style rows, is still the primary method of instruction.  Who wouldn’t want to dress that up with some flash and gimmicks?  Or to incorporate some of it into their lectures when their turn to be in that role comes up?

Three other recommendations from the students addressed learning online, although still very much within the framework of a traditional school experience.

In one they asked the board to expand availability to classes in our online high school, currently only available to a very small, select audience (homebound, disciplinary issues, special cases), and in another they asked for a mobile app to allow students to connect to our Blackboard installation.  They also advocated for the expansion of the use of online textbooks.

Considering the traditional way all these tools are currently implemented in our system, their suggestions would do very little to alter the teacher-centered, one-way, delivery-of-information instructional format so common in the live version of most of our high schools. Especially when it comes to digital textbooks, most of which differ very little from the analog versions.

Still another recommendation would allow students to use personal computing devices during the school day.  Of course, everyone in the room knew that many kids were already bringing them to school, and most of the board questions on this issue centered around concerns that students would access inappropriate material, not on how the use of these devices might change the learning environment.

Finally, the students asked the board to increase access to “digital literacy” tools like YouTube and Google Docs (oddly Word, PowerPoint and Excel were also included in their list).  As you might expect, YouTube is blocked in many of our schools and, once again, board members concerns centered on the fear students might access materials deemed to be “inappropriate”, not on any instructional applications (like maybe students being producers instead of consumers?). Google Docs is another story and something we are seriously working on.

Then there was a final section where one of the speakers addressed specific technologies the board should not invest in: wireless systems on busses, electronic ID cards, and video conferencing. An odd collection, and I wasn’t clear on why that last one was included since earlier they were enthusiastic about online courses. I would think the two would be connected.

Anyway, reading back through this long rant, I guess I might be a little negative. I especially hate criticizing kids (or anyone for that matter) who put a good faith effort into a presentation like this, even if it didn’t work as well as it could have.

However, as I said at the start, nothing in their presentation was surprising.  It very much reflects the experience of these students, most from upper middle class families and having spent ten to twelve years immersed in very traditional classrooms, especially in their high schools.

For me it also reinforces the idea that, while many if not most kids in our schools are very comfortable with a variety of powerful communications tools, they still need teachers and other adults to help them understand how to safely and effectively apply them to the learning process.

And I also wondered how the presentation would have been different if it was done by 7th graders. Or 3rd graders. Students who had fewer years of school inflicted on them.


1 – That link goes to a stream of the entire board meeting. The student presentation begins around the 20 minute mark and runs to around 1 hour 45 minutes. Unfortunately it doesn’t work well on a Mac, and not at all on iOS devices, since our IT department never met a Microsoft “standard” they didn’t love or an open standard they didn’t hate.

2 – Very naively, they even suggested moving some IWBs from our elementary schools, where they have flooded the classrooms in many of our buildings. You’ll hear the wails in California if someone tries that. :-)

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