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The Revolution Will Be Crowded

According to Thomas Friedman, there’s a revolution coming in post K12 education and he uses this “rather charming” explanation from Andrew Ng, associate professor of computer science at Stanford and cofounder of the online course delivery company Coursera, to illustrate his point.

“I normally teach 400 students,” Ng explained, but last semester he taught 100,000 in an online course on machine learning. “To reach that many students before,” he said, “I would have had to teach my normal Stanford class for 250 years.”

Friedman raves about this approach, saying that it would give more students access to “quality higher education” at a cost that’s much lower than the fast-rising price of attending in person.

He also marvels that this would “enable budget-strained community colleges in America to “flip” their classrooms” by having students watch recordings of “the world’s best lecturers on any subject”.

However, is that what people want from a college education? Can you call what Ng does “teaching”, or is it more about managing a large group of self-directed learners? For someone who isn’t self-directed, is the only alternative then accumulating a pile of student loans?

As someone who wasn’t thrilled by most of my undergraduate classes in college and actually likes self-directed learning, this is not judgement, just questions.

I also wonder, just as college-level classes were pushed down into high school in the form of the AP program, when will this type of massive approach to instruction arrive for us here in K12?

A district accountant somewhere is probably already thinking that one teacher working with only 150 kids per year sounds awfully expensive.

A Little Homework Wouldn’t Hurt

In her Answer Sheet education blog at the Washington Post site, Valerie Strauss* tells Tom Friedman a few of the things he got wrong in a recent column about the importance of education.

Starting with Arne Duncan’s big money game show, praised as energizing reform by Friedman.

First of all, Race to the Top funding didn’t go to states with the most innovative reforms to achieve the highest standards. It went to the states that promised to make the reforms that the Education Department liked most. A comprehensive analysis of who won the money concluded that winners in the first round (and the same process was used in the second) were chosen through “arbitrary criteria” rather than through a scientific process.

Besides, the “reforms” aren’t exactly innovative. Education historian Diane Ravitch has written that merit pay schemes have been tried repeatedly since the 1920s but never worked very well.

And then there’s the matter of Finland and Denmark, the countries whose teachers and education systems Friedman (and others) write so glowingly about as a point of comparison with the US.

But on that topic, he also manages to miss one glaring point of disparity.

Friedman never mentions the issue of poverty, which today’s education “reformers” see as an excuse for poor teaching even though the research on what living in poverty does to children and their ability to learn is overwhelming.

Finland, it should be noted, has a poverty rate among children of under 3 percent; the United States, 21 percent.

Anybody who doesn’t think that doesn’t affect student academic performance in a big way is deluding themselves, as is anybody who thinks teachers alone can make up for the effects of hunger and violence and sleep deprivation and little early exposure to literacy.

So, does anything Friedman says, right or wrong, in his column or on his appearances on the talking heads channels, really matter?

Yes.  Because many readers of the so-called “paper of record” take him seriously, and have the right to expect opinion/analysis based on research.

In this case, Friedman didn’t do his homework.


*Why doesn’t the Post retire Jay Mathews as their lead education writer and put Strauss in that position?

Concerned With The Wrong Element

In his New York Times column, Mr. World is Flat, Thomas Friedman, takes a brief glance at the quality of American education, comparing it, as you might expect, to that of other countries.

His motivation for the column comes from reading a new study, “The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools” (which I can’t find online).

Based on that Friedman comes to the conclusion that things are bad and getting worse. So bad that student “performance” is at least partially responsible for dragging down the economy.

The answer, says McKinsey: If America had closed the international achievement gap between 1983 and 1998 and had raised its performance to the level of such nations as Finland and South Korea, United States G.D.P. in 2008 would have been between $1.3 trillion and $2.3 trillion higher. If we had closed the racial achievement gap and black and Latino student performance had caught up with that of white students by 1998, G.D.P. in 2008 would have been between $310 billion and $525 billion higher. If the gap between low-income students and the rest had been narrowed, G.D.P. in 2008 would have been $400 billion to $670 billion higher.

Wow! I have no idea how the researchers arrive at making a direct correlation between education and economic performance, especially since the measurement tools used most often are one-size-fits-all standardized tests that largely assess basic skills.

Anyway, for all his writing about how the world has changed, Friedman, as with way too many other “experts”, still seems to view “education” in terms of the traditional assembly line model from the previous century, one in which generating easy-to-spreadsheet numbers passes for quality control.

And the skyrocketing use of tests such as those cited by him only serves to further lock the American education system into that same industrial model.

I have to admit that part of my annoyance with Friedman’s column comes from the fact that I’m currently listening to the audio version of Ken Robinson’s book The Element (after reading the dead tree edition).

In it he tells the stories of many people who are successful in spite of their formal education, while discussing how every person is intelligent in some way, with passions and talents that don’t necessarily fit the patterns dictated by society.

While some of his subjects found their “element”* with the assistance of an insightful teacher, more than a few simply abandoned the whole process of school and developed their unique skills through other forms of learning, sometimes long after their formal education ended.

We are rightly concerned about the rising drop out rate in the US and I’m sure some of that is built into the formulas used to determine the economic toll of this “international achievement gap”.

However, I wonder how many students we have currently sitting in our high schools who will add their numbers to the graduation rate without acquiring at least an inkling of something at which they are both talented and passionate.

To me that is a far more important problem than all the low test scores and negative economic statistics over which Friedman frets.

* Robinson defines a person’s “element” as the point at which natural talent meets personal passion.

Update: Thanks, Brett for finding the link to the study. He knows how to use the Google better than me. :-)

100 Calorie Innovation

After writing the last post about Friedman’s NY Times column, I’ve been thinking more about innovation and what it looks like.

It’s a hard concept to describe but while wandering through the supermarket aisles this afternoon, I found some good examples of what it doesn’t look like.

All over the store, traditional products now have companion packages that are nothing more than minor derivatives of the original, led by those single serving 100 calorie packs.

The food companies would like you to think this is innovation but these new formats are really nothing more than the same old crap in new wrapping, usually with a higher per unit price.

Now I don’t know enough to write intelligently about innovation in most areas Friedman writes about but I do know something about the subject when it comes to education.

For example, many people claim that charter schools and vouchers are important innovative concepts that will improve education for all students.

Wrong. They are the educational version of sour cream and chives Wheat Thins.

In all but a very few cases, charters and vouchers simply move students from schools that are not good at getting kids to pass standardized tests to ones that are.

The curriculum isn’t different. The textbooks are largely the same. The teaching process is very traditional. The primary goal (get every kid into college whether it’s right for them or not) remains.

The only change is that they are not public schools and that’s hardly innovative.

Then there’s the online “curriculum resource tool” introduced this fall by our overly-large school district.

Our administration would like us to believe this is a significant change for instructional practice but it’s not.

While this new online database may assist our teachers with their lesson planning, it’s really nothing more than putting old ingredients (standardized test questions and other materials blessed by the same curriculum specialists) into new packages.

100 calorie packs for educators.

And what about No Child Left Behind, supposedly the greatest educational innovation of the 21st century? Well, that’s pure crap.

NCLB is the Jimmy Dean Chocolate Chip Pancakes & Sausage on a Stick of the educational market: a mixture of mediocre ingredients that come together in a form that could be considered child abuse.

Let’s face it, in education, as in most industries, innovation rarely comes from above. Meaningful change doesn’t originate from administrators and politicians.

Genuine improvement in the way we educate our children will only come from teachers, principals, parents, community members and others who work directly with kids – and from the kids themselves.

It comes from people who are given the freedom to experiment, test new ideas, and then share what they learn with the larger community.

Making America Stupid

According to Thomas Friedman, writing in the editorial section of today’s New York Times, that’s exactly what the “debate” in this presidential campaign is doing.

Sometimes Friedman can be pretty full of himself (ok, most of the time), but in this case, he get’s it exactly right.

Who cares how much steel John McCain has in his gut when the steel that today holds up our bridges, railroads, nuclear reactors and other infrastructure is rusting? McCain talks about how he would build dozens of nuclear power plants. Oh, really? They go for $10 billion a pop. Where is the money going to come from? From lowering taxes? From banning abortions? From borrowing more from China? From having Sarah Palin “reform” Washington – as if she has any more clue how to do that than the first 100 names in the D.C. phonebook?

Sorry, but there is no sustainable political/military power without economic power, and talking about one without the other is nonsense. Unless we make America the country most able to innovate, compete and win in the age of globalization, our leverage in the world will continue to slowly erode. Those are the issues this election needs to be about, because that is what the next four years need to be about.

There is no strong leader without a strong country. And posing as one, to use the current vernacular, is nothing more than putting lipstick on a pig.

It’s the economy, stupid.

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