May 5, 2010

How Not to Save the Schools (Necessarily)

During my hiatus, the one issue I wanted to comment on was Diane Ravitch's new book which is sadly filled with much soft-headed thinking.  Apparently, Ravitch has been hanging around our education Siren too long.

Stuart Buck has all ready done the heavy lifting analyzing the flaws in Ravitch's book, so there's no need for me to pile on.

I would like to address, however, Ravitch's proposed solution to our education woes -- a national core curriculum which many other education pundits also endorse.  I'm going to use Don hirsch's review of Ravitch's book as my stepping stone.  Hirsch's review should be read in conjunction with Buck's analysis becasue they approach the flaws in Ravitch's book from different angles and are comlementary.

... Ravitch argues that the recent nostrums of “choice” and “accountability” have not worked very well. What new ideas will?


She makes strong arguments in favor of a widely shared core curriculum. This reform, she asserts, would carry multiple benefits. It would assure the cumulative organization of knowledge by all students, and would help overcome the notorious achievement gaps between racial and ethnic groups. It would make the creation of an effective teaching force much more feasible, because it would become possible to educate American teachers in the well-defined, wide-ranging subjects they would be expected to teach—thus educating students and teachers simultaneously.

It would also foster the creation of much better teaching materials, with more substance; and it would solve the neglected problem of students (mostly low-income ones) who move from one school to another, often in the middle of the school year. It would, in short, offer American education the advantages enjoyed by high-performing school systems in the rest of the world, which far outshine us in the quality and fairness of their results.

There are a few flaws in this line of argument.

The first flaw is that there is no actual field-tested commercially available "shared core" curriculum having a research base in a public school (without selection-bias effects) which shows that the benefits that Ravitch and Hirsch think will flow have actually or will necessarily flowed.  There is some cognitive science research that suggests that some of these benefits might accrue, but there is a large gap between that research and a real-world curriculum that achieves actual results.  And mind you, I'm as sympathetic as the next guy that a (voluntary) common core curriculum is better than the alernatives.

The second flaw is the failure to see the elephant in the room -- the current education system -- which will do its darnedest to thwart, subvert, and otherwise screw-up any reform that upsets the status quo (which they very much like) as they've done in the past with every other "reform."

Under the current system, educators are not responsible for educating anyone.  If the student fails to learn, its the student's fault, not the schools.  Educators have a host of excuses (poverty, lack of parental support, etc.) and labels (learning disabled) they can use to excuse their failure to teach.  Under the current system, they get to largely teach how they want and at the end of the year will point to the kids that learned something (the easily educable) and say "I taught them."  They do what they want to do and the kids that have the cognitive ability to make the inductive leaps needed to learn the material are the ones that benefit.  The others not so much.  And, since most of the "reforms" are mostly directed to the other kids, the plan tends to be to do as little as possible to implement the reform, complain as loudly as possible, and wait until the next reform comes down the pike.

Good luck overcoming that.

Ravitch recognizes that consensus on a core curriculum would not be automatic and that “any national curriculum must be both nonfederal and voluntary, winning the support of districts and states because of its excellence.” She continues:


If it is impossible to reach consensus about a national curriculum, then every state should make sure that every child receives an education that includes history, geography, literature, the arts, the sciences, civics, foreign languages, health, and physical education. These subjects should not be discretionary or left to chance. Every state should have a curriculum that is rich in knowledge, issues, and ideas, while leaving teachers free to use their own methods, with enough time to introduce topics and activities of their own choosing.

Really?  Haven't educators been using "their own methods" to teach the stuff they've been trying to teach without much success?  Those methods simply don't work for a large demographic slice.  How can changing what is taught fare any better if those methods are deficient?  The problem of education today is not only what is taught, but how it is taught.
 
Another improvement over existing state standards is the recognition by the authors of the “Common Core” of its own limits—they devote a section to “What is not covered by the Standards.” The omissions turn out to be major, among them both teaching methods and the curriculum itself. Such acknowledgment of limits is very important. The new multistate document is unique in conceding that it is neither a curriculum nor a curriculum guide, and insisting at the same time that proficiency in reading and writing can be achieved only through a highly specific curriculum—still to be developed—that is “coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.” If these admonitions are taken seriously by the states, Ravitch will have powerful allies in advocating a core curriculum.
 
Agreed as to the reading and writing.  Now throw in math, science and all the rest of the "content" that is desired to be taught. That is the main problem -- how to teach everything such that is actually learned and retained by the students.  Somthing heretofore that has remained largely unaccomplished.
 
To teach that curriculum Ravitch evokes a vision of good neighborhood schools (often destined for closure by the new reformers

I don't remember these good neighborhood schools being able to actually educate the demographic that we want to educate today.  Those kids used to drop out long before high school and often even middle school.  The demographic that gets educated today is the same demographic that used to get educated back in the "good old days."  That's not good enough any more.

Yet if Ravitch’s proposals for a coherent, cumulative national—or at least widely shared—curriculum are to carry the day, she needs to put forward a more effective critique of the intellectual and scientific inadequacies of the anticurricular, child-centered movement. Her vision can hardly be put into effect while an army of experts in schools of education and a much bigger army of teachers and administrators, indoctrinated over nearly a century, are fiercely resisting a set curriculum of any kind. Ravitch has roundly attacked the entrepreneurs’ invisible-hand business model as not corresponding with the reality or the fundamental purposes of education. She needs to expose in greater analytic detail the inadequacies of the invisible-hand theory of child-centered schooling.

See Don gets it.

Except for the "Ravitch has roundly attacked the entrepreneurs’ invisible-hand business model as not corresponding with the reality or the fundamental purposes of education." comment.  To quote the great Adam Smith once again: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages."  The main problemof education is that the incentives of educators are not aligned with their providing a quality education to everyone.  They get paid no matter how poorly the services are provided with little risk of their losing their tenured sinecures. They don't have to provide a good service and so they don't, because it is much easier not to.

46 comments:

B.C. Pham said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dick said...

Did you read the book, Ken or just cherry-pick from the reviews that coincide with your ideology?

The subtitle of the book is: "How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education." The Feds failed with Goals 2000 legislation. They failed again with NCLB. As you indicated before your "hiatus" they're failing again with "The Race to the Top."

Ravitch is an historian. Neither Buck, Hirsch, or you refute the contention of the subtitle. Like other academics, Diane is weak on "fixes" to the situation. But she's not alone there.

How you can still tout Adam Smith's "Invisible Hand" after the meltdown of the global financial meltdown, boggles my mind. But my mind is doing a lot of boggling these days.

Public schools need to be "saved" only because of the powerful interests that are bent on "blowing the up." Again, that you admit to education terrorist ambitions is another mind boggler.

Actually, several things changed while you were otherwise occupied.

The "Race to the Top" is in full swing.

School districts around the country are in worse financial position and doing dumb things to address the situation.

The "Common Core Standards" aka "Rotten National Standards" were released. 10,000 comments were received and are currently "under advisement."

The UK is holding an election tomorrow that will have important ramifications for education in the US.

On the book front, Paul Peterson published a book that reaches about the same conclusions that Ravitch does, except that he sees the "salvation" in "virtual education." He may have a point, but he didn't take it very far.

I could add to the list of events, but history didn't stand still while you were away.

It's good to have you back!

KDeRosa said...

Hi, Dick.

Now Dick the title of the post is "How Not to Save the Schools (Necessarily)" afterall. So I'm focusing on ravitch's proposed solution shich supposedly follows from her analysis and historical narrative. I think she got some of that narrative wrong and the solution doesn't necessarily follow in any event.

I agree that the Feds have failed with their poor regulation of the education system. But, part of the reason the regulation failed was due to the system itself.

Onto Adam Smith. Smith was mostly writing about the virtues of capitalism. I defy anyone to find one word in his treatises were he had a kind word for capitalists. But the finanical insustry meltdown was not an indictment of capitalism as the commonly accepted narrative goes, as much as it is an indictment of poor federal regulation. Sound familar?

I suggest reading Stan Leibowitz's "Anatomy of a Trainwreck: Causes of the Mortgage Meltdown" for an oversimplified, but largely correct telling of what went wrong and what was to blame. Make sure you click on the papers referenced in the foornotes, expecially the Boston fed's guidelines, i.e., the root cause.

History cetainly didn't stand still while I dawdled, but it was largely predictable. At least the education part. I'm still catching up.

Good to have you back as well.

Parry Graham said...

Ken,

Great to have you back! I almost couldn't believe it when I saw a new post title in my feed reader.

Here's my question. You say that you think the incentives are all wrong in public education. Let's say that the incentives were to change -- how do you think education would change? I mean that at a nuts-and-bolts level: how would day to day instruction and learning look different? If the new system is still a configuration of adults working in classrooms with children, using a set of texts to guide the content that the students focus on, how would that lead to dramatically different results? Or would the configuration change and, if so, how?

Parry

KDeRosa said...

Hi Parry, good to hear from you again.

That's a question that only the collective wisdom of the market can answer. If I knew the answer, I'd be a very rich man already.

Toyota, for example, doesn't get to make the car they want to make. They have to make cars that people want to buy more than what's being offered by their competitors. For a long time they've been very suuccessful doing just that and taking market share from their competitors. However, lately they've made some misteps and have lost some market share. They have a very big incentive to fix what is wrong and satisfy their customers.

I suspect that some schools would look very similar to the existing ones. But others would operate differently because there are many different needs/wants out there that are not currently being served.

Dick Schutz said...

OK. So the Ravitch book was just a take-off for your "free market" argument. Fair enough.

The thing is. El-hi schooling in the US is not a "market"--any more than public protection (police/fire/prison complex) is a market. All Charter Schools are paid for with public=taxpayer funds.

Public schools are a public service. If you want to argue that the institution should be privatized, that would be fair. Privatization would "blow up the institution." But I don't think you would get far with that argument.

Public schools provide important services for which they receive no credit. Foremost, they serve as surrogate parents--cheap babysitting. They're also the first providers of health and nutrition.

Where they come up short is in instruction. That's ironic, because parents, employers, and collegiate institutions ask very little.

The true market responsible for the instructional dysfunctionality is the text/ test/media publishing industry. This market is completely unregulated and unaccountable. The industry position has always been, "We only provide what the schools will buy."

So the education market gets treated as a public service and the public service gets treated as a market. How smart is that?

Parry Graham said...

I haven’t read Ravitch’s book yet (although it’s waiting for me on my Kindle), but I am about half-way through Paul Peterson’s book “Saving Schools”. He makes a point that I have been thinking about a lot lately: education is a labor-intensive industry, and it is very hard to improve labor-intensive industries.

Peterson references an article by William Baumol and William Bowen from the 60s that posits a world with only two industries: car makers and live string-quartet performances. Over time, the car makers are going to experience improvements because technology comprises an important piece of industry improvement, and technology can be improved relatively rapidly (e.g., better engines, better materials for construction) and can lead to improvements in productivity (e.g., robotic assembly lines). But there aren’t really any productivity improvements possible with live string-quarter performances.

This is why I think the “collective wisdom of the market” answer is kind of a cop out (no disrespect intended). I think that the K-12 education market is dramatically different from other markets, including the automobile market, because of its labor-intensive nature—it’s more like live string-quarter performances. Improving the market means improving the quality of the labor, and that is very difficult to do at a large scale.

Of course, you can walk down a “Disrupting Class” road (which I am pretty amenable to doing), and you could even argue that expanded school choice might mean greater and quicker expansion of technology-related innovative possibilities within K-12 education, but I just don’t see how school choice, from a nuts-and-bolts changes-to-what-schools-look-like perspective, has much of an impact on K-12 education.

Of course, Dick would probably argue that changing the way the curriculum works would have a big impact, but to my mind that’s just adding a moon roof or switching to leather upholstery. It might have more appeal to certain tastes, but it doesn’t fundamentally improve the underlying quality of the industry because of its labor-intensive nature.

Parry

KDeRosa said...

Dick, my point ew Ravitch was to show that it was the system itself was the problem and would serve as the amin obstacle.

Public schools provide important services for which they receive no credit.

The babysitting service is inherent in the way the schooling function is provided. The schooling service can be separated from the babysitting service (i.e., virtual schooling), but there is no incentive in the current system to reap any cost savings from splitting those services for those parents/students wishing onlyto consume the schooling service.

Public schools are a public service.

They presently are, but they don't have to be.

The industry position has always been, "We only provide what the schools will buy."


I don't see why this position is necessarily false. And, there are many regulations dictating what must go into textbooks nad what must stay out.

Dick Schutz said...

No, I wouldn't contend that "changing curriculum" would do anything, You can drive fleets of trucks through "curriculum"--which is another reason why "standards" are doomed to yield disappointing consequences.

You can "change instruction" and get reliable effects at reduced cost. But you don't do this by "changing people" or by "changing political control. You do it by changing the products/protocols that people use. This "how to" is what "technology" consists of.

The misguided notion of technology as electronic equipment has been foisted off on el-hi education along with the notion that "the teacher is the only thing that counts." That leaves teachers in a primitive "hunter and gatherer" technological environment. The environment is highly regulated but totally lacking in instructional feedback mechanisms to guide the regulation.

Under those circumstances, what one would expect to get is high variability--which is exactly what we have.

We have variability within classes, within schools, within districts, and within states. The thing is, our measures of instruction are insensitive to instructional differences and provide no information re the instruction that has been delivered in the past or that will be delivered in the future.

(Ken keeps reminding us that DI programs are an exception. And that's a whole nother story.)

KDeRosa said...

Parry,

I am somewhat familair with the Baumol argument and I think it is flawed. Most of the labor intensive industries Baumol uses as his examples when he's looking for data to support his position are industries where government regulation and/or presence has distorted the market. As to the string quartet market, the margin cost of that labor is now essentially zero due to technological innovations (sequencers, synthesizers, amplicfication, and digital recordings).

but I just don’t see how school choice, from a nuts-and-bolts changes-to-what-schools-look-like perspective, has much of an impact on K-12 education.


School choice alone does not a market make.

KDeRosa said...

No, I wouldn't contend that "changing curriculum" would do anything, You can drive fleets of trucks through "curriculum"--which is another reason why "standards" are doomed to yield disappointing consequences.


Exactly. I tried to make this point in the post.

The thing is, our measures of instruction are insensitive to instructional differences and provide no information re the instruction that has been delivered in the past or that will be delivered in the future.


I think it's more accurate to say not sufficiently senstive to instruction to provide useful information of the quality of instruction and too sensitive to IQ/SES effects.

Parry Graham said...

The string quarter example emphasized the "live" piece. Sure, anyone can cheaply buy a high-quality recording of a live event, but the "live" event itself is highly labor intensive.

Currently, K-12 education is primarily a "live", labor intensive event, and you can't get high-quality recordings to reproduce the actual event.

Outside of virtual learning scenarios, I still fail to see how any type of free education market is likely to produce solutions vastly different from what we have now: an adult working with a group of children, using some sort of text as a curricular guide, which is highly labor intensive, and the quality of which depends in large part (if not almost exclusively) on the quality of the labor.

Again, outside of virtual learning examples (which is admittedly a big exception), what are the other options? I'm just not seeing how a different system wouldn't end up looking the same in actual teaching-and-learning detail.

If you feel like we're chasing our tails with this, no need to respond.

Parry

KDeRosa said...

Parry, I don't think the quratet example is a good analogy. Due to ints inherent constraints and the nature of the performance it is already efficient. But, broaden out the example and it quickly collapses. Consider how amplification has done away with the need for large orchestras in popular music and how the synthesizer and sequencer has done away with the need for deprate musicians for background instruments. Those represent real labor savings.

Similarly for education, it is likely that the single teacher, textbook, small group of students model will not be the paradigm.
Actually, ehwn it comes to teaching decoding, that paradigm seems to wrk quite well with the right curriculum. And would be even more successful, if our reading tests were criterion based instead of their current design as Dick points out.

Dick Schutz said...

it is likely that the single teacher, textbook, small group of students model will not be the paradigm.

Ah, you've put your finger on it. That model evolved from Grecian-Roman period and worked in the US through the period of the "one room schoolhouse" where the teacher managed the instruction and there was selective attendance and drop-out.

It was only when the goal of "education for all American youth" had been attained post WW II, that flaws in the model were noted. But the model hasn't changed. It's no coincidence that both the Ravitch and Peterson book have a one room schoolhouse on the cover.

Kids today have much stronger prerequisites for accademic accomplishments than in earlier periods and teachers today are much better educated. The weakness in the system is not with kids and teachers. The kids and teachers are what keeps the dysfunctional system together.

The weakness is at the top of the ed chain. Look no further than the Stumble to the Top, the Rotten National Standards, the insensitive instructional achievement tests, and the leveraged takeover of the el-hi enterprise by the corporate oligarchs that Ravitch describes.

The most important unintended consequence of NCLB was that it raised education to a level of national media attention. No telling what would have happened but for 9/11, but that was a blip.

Pre-NCLB there was no national media attention to education. There was no chance that Ravitch's book would have been a best seller or that the President would be making statements about education (albeit vapid) and "news" of the Department of Education would receive national attention.

It's ironic that the best coverage is in the ed blogosphere rather than in the print media, but that is also a harbinger.

Futures are tough to predict, but technological trends can be plotted with some accuracy. The American school system ain't seen nuthin yet.

KDeRosa said...

That model ... worked in the US through the period ... where the teacher managed the instruction and there was selective attendance and drop-out.

And most importantly, liitle effort to educate the left side of the SES/IQ curve as you note in the next paragraph.

Parry Graham said...

"It is likely that the single teacher, textbook, small group of students model will not be the paradigm."

So are you both putting your eggs in the Disrupting Class basket? I think I've probably got some eggs in there, but what are the other options? What other paradigms are available that are not so labor intensive?

This is why school choice, pay for performance, national standards, etc. don't strike me as having the potential to truly improve K-12 education on a grand scale -- none of them are changes to the paradigm, just different ways of defining the details within the same labor-intensive industry.

Parry

Dick Schutz said...

I agree with you, Parry, on the "reforms" that are currently being touted. But I'm not putting my chips on "Disrupting Innovation." I don't find that a useful construct, since it applies only after the fact.

My sense is that there is no general recognition/acknowledgment of either the "age/grade" x "school subject" structure of schooling or of the teacher-student-text-test paradigm/model. Both are accepted without without question as "the way things are and gotta be."

The only alternatives considered are to eliminate grades/subjects, or "virtual schooling", neither of which gets beyond the bounds of the current paradigm/model.

It's wishful and/or deceitful to believe that we can have all kids "career and college ready" by 2020. We can't do that today, and there's nothing in the cards that will enable us to do that ten years from now.

But it's technically feasible to have all kids Internet-ready by Grade 3, starting with the immediate K-cohort.

That's just one example of "things we could do."

In brief, I'd dust off the Planned Variations methodology that was developed in the 1960's-70's. It worked very well technically, but was subverted politically. Today, the interests that pulled off the subversion couldn't get away with it.

That's a short answer.

KDeRosa said...

I'm in the middle of reading through the "Blueprint."

Let me just say, "wow."

If you thought NCLB 1.0 was intrusive and heavy-handed, wait until you see NCLB 2.0.

Robin said...

I used to think it was a matter of not knowing what works but there's a lot more money to be made from using ineffective instructional practices.

If the ed schools were required to teach Jeanne Chall's research and Marilyn Adams and tested on knowledge of the phonemic nature of English, teachers would have that knowledge going forward and permanently.

Less reason to go back for additional degrees.

Have you seen what Ohio State or Lesley charge for Reading Recovery or Literacy Collaboration training?

Have you seen what America's Choice charges for its training?

These models rely heavily on coaches who are in turn more dues paying members.

Then there's the interest in equal outcomes. Effective instruction in math and reading especially inevitably means that the inevitable hierarchy of academic talents becomes apparent. That's unacceptable to many in education today.

In a world of finite public dollars we have to change to effective instruction. We know what works but then again, without an ed degree, our knowledge doesn't count no matter how well supported.

Roger Sweeny said...

Dick Schutz said, "Public schools provide important services for which they receive no credit. Foremost, they serve as surrogate parents--cheap babysitting."

As long as this is true, schooling will be labor intensive, and we aren't going to see any cost decreases.

That's pretty obvious.

What's less obvious is that, the more people value school as day care, the less pressure there is on it to be educational.

If the school has kept your kid safe and warm for seven or eight hours, kept him or her away from booze and drugs and sex and unacceptable ideas, provided wholesome time-filling activities (including lunch), and been caring and nice--well, it's hard to be really mad at them and push for changes.

Roger Sweeny said...

There's a little too much truth is this phony news story (from the Onion)

"Increasing Number Of Parents Opting To Have Children School-Homed"

http://www.theonion.com/articles/increasing-number-of-parents-opting-to-have-childr,17159/

Dick Schutz said...

I buy Ralph Tyler's definition ofthe mission of the public school as "doing for children what the rest of society isn't doing."

American society today being what it is, that places a pretty heavy load on the schools. And the enterprise is performing most functions effectively and at low cost.

The glaring exception is academic instruction--which is what parents and the rest of us are most interested in.

The thread is about "saving schools" My point was that is trying to "reform schools," we're leaving instruction a "black box." None of our "assessment" or "accountability" sheds any light on the instruction kids individually or collectively have received, what they've accomplished or their reasonable choices for future accomplishments. That's just not smart.

The fact that "education" has ranked high in public opinion polls since the beginning of polling indicates that parents as well as the rest of us are dissatisfied with current status.

There is no lack of pressure on the schools to be "educational." The lack is in the capacity to perform. Instructional dysfunction, we might say.

Roger Sweeny said...

"Education" always ranks high in public opinion polls. And if you poll people, they will tell you that it is important for restaurants to offer high-nutrition low-calorie food. Yet, when such food is offered, they won't buy it.

A rigorous education, with high standards, would take more student time and effort, and result in more bad grades, than most parents would approve of.

The present system is a series of compromises that keeps everyone just happy enough.

Dick Schutz said...

A rigorous education, with high standards, would take more student time and effort, and result in more bad grades, than most parents would approve of.

Nah. It can take less time and deliver more reliable accomplishments at less cost.

The present system is a series of compromises that keeps everyone just happy enough.

That adds an "Invisible Educational Hand" to Adam Smith's "Invisible Economic Hand."

Both hands are imagined.

KDeRosa said...

That adds an "Invisible Educational Hand" to Adam Smith's "Invisible Economic Hand."


Actually, it is the same hand.

There is presently a market in education -- a distorted and poorly working market with lots of perverse incentives. But, there is a market. There's always a market because we remain a capitlaist society.

Dick Schutz said...

Actually, it is the same hand.

There is presently a market in education -- a distorted and poorly working market with lots of perverse incentives. But, there is a market. There's always a market because we remain a capitalist society.


OK, one hand fingering different markets. Since the hand is invisible, I don't see much of a difference, but I (think I) understand the ideological distinction.

Roger was contending: The present system is a series of compromises that keeps everyone just happy enough.

I don't see these "compromises" and I don't see anyone who is "just happy enough."

Are you contending that the "invisible hand made us do it" or that "all would be made well" if we could magically effect a private enterprise when the entire enterprise with the exception of public schools is now public funded?

I haven't come across anyone who is satisfied with the educational system. Some parents say "My school is OK." But they say this when everyone else says the school is shoddy. Same with some teachers and administrators.

But there is an instructional blame hierarchy, with kids and parents at the bottom; and governmental authorities, corporate philanthropists, and academicians at the top.

With all of the skirmishing, instruction remains a black box, and the US has abandoned the very feasible commitment to teach all kids how to read and do arithmetic.

I don't see how the Invisible Hand brought about the condition or how it can be expected to fix it. But that's the horse I rode in on in this thread, and nothing will be gained by going around the track again.

kprugman said...

Our parent group has been doing PRRs (our district will be entering into binding conditions next year) We have much to say about reform. While the board was chastising teachers and playing roulette with textbooks - they and their friends were using district money for their own purposes.

It is a financial mess and decades old involving officials at all levels of public service - in one project we cannot account for a $1 million and only one official signed off. There were no records of minutes or hearings.

Nobody should be making decisions about reforming education until the proper guidelines and procedures for school capital expenditures have been nailed down and officials are held accountable for their mistakes.

We have the most expensive elementary school in the world. Thank our school board. our rural elementary school cost twice what it costs in NYC.

How not to save schools? First, you can stop throwing away your money by giving it to rich fools.

KDeRosa said...

Are you contending that the "invisible hand made us do it" or that "all would be made well" if we could magically effect a private enterprise when the entire enterprise with the exception of public schools is now public funded?

The Invisible hand is just a term that describes the self-regulated nature of a market. In contrast, education is ruled by the dead hand of awful regulation. The dead hand forced us into our current predicament.

Public funding comes from private individuals and companies. It is merely private money that has been taxed away.

No, all will not be made well if we just handed over the reigns to private enterprise. That doesn't create a market.

Parry Graham said...

"I haven't come across anyone who is satisfied with the educational system. Some parents say 'My school is OK.' But they say this when everyone else says the school is shoddy. Same with some teachers and administrators."

I think you're stretching here. If memory serves correct, most surveys of public schools find that parents are pretty happy with the schools that their children actually attend. To say that people aren't happy with the "educational system" doesn't mean a whole lot -- I would bet that a very small minority of Americans know a whole lot about the "educational system", but they do know a fair amount about the specific schools that their children attend.

I agree that instruction is a black box, but I think Roger makes an interesting point when he says that the system makes everyone just happy enough, i.e., the system leads to a set of schools that are generally found to be successful by the families whose children attend them.

Parry

Dick Schutz said...

The el-hi enterprise is concurrently highly variable and highly homogeneous. That is, there is variability within classes, within schools, within districts, within and between states. This means that depending on where you look, you can find "evidence" for almost any proposition that you want to make.

At the same time whether public or private, virtual or home school, there is a high degree of homogeneity. The structure is the "age/grade" x "school subject." That structure doesn't fit current conditions, but the system can't be fixed by simply going "ungraded" or "multi-disciplinary." Doing so just adds to the muddle.

Students are also concurrently variable and homogeneous. The enterprise looks only at "individual differences" and seeks to "meet individual needs." That's a losing perspective.

If you examine the nuts and bolts of instruction and tests you see a high degree of commonality. This isn't the place to pursue that point, but consider one facet.

Much is made of the "achievement gap" But if you look at individual test items, you see that kids sucker for the "foils" in the same way. The racial/SES differences are very marginal. The large differences are between items in tests and between tasks in instruction.

All I'm trying to say is that as long as instruction remains a black box, it will remain "out of control" and we'll chase one nostrum after another.

Why instruction remains a black box is a long story. Suffice to say here, it's not due to deficits in kids, teachers, or teacher unions. It could be due to over-regulation of he Invisible Hand. It can be more transparently traced to politically and economically influenced misinterpretations of educational research by academic authorities and government officials.

KDeRosa said...

There are at least three related reasons why instruction remains a black box. 1. The instruction that does work (and it only extends reliably so far) is alien to what educators are familiar with, have learned, and favor and 2. there is not sufficient incentive to make the change, and 3. improvement will not be reliably and necessarily be reflected in the current standardized testing instruments.

Roger Sweeny said...

I said, "A rigorous education, with high standards, would take more student time and effort, and result in more bad grades, than most parents would approve of."

Dick Schutz replied, "Nah. It can take less time and deliver more reliable accomplishments at less cost."

I find that difficult to imagine. No matter how good instruction is, it runs up against a fundamental problem: a lot of what we teach, students just don't care to learn. So they don't.

(This is less true in the early grades, but an elephant-in-the-room fact of life in high school. Students will memorize some of what we say and forget more and more of it as the weeks turn into months. By the following August, most would fail the final miserably.)

I don't think there is an invisible educational hand but I don't think anyone would deny that schools provide services, that the people who work in them get paid, and that some other people have to provide the money to pay them. So, among other things, schools "market" themselves: try to convince other people to provide them money for the services they are providing.

One of the more unusual things about this unusual market is that the immediate customers, the students, aren't the people who are paying.

Of course, to get an education, students have to pay in time and effort. It means something that they often don't.

Tom said...

Ken, you may be interested in our school. See http://www.FrederickClassicalCharterSchool.org

Tom Neumark

Parry Graham said...

I would add some reasons as to why instruction is a black box.

-Kids are complicated. It's not particularly easy to figure out how to meet the needs of 20 to 30 children, who bring a broad range of academic abilities, learned behaviors, social and emotional complications, etc.
-As content becomes increasingly abstract and complex, it becomes correspondingly more difficult to figure out A) what the most important content and skills are, B) the right way to motivate adolescents to learn the content and skills, and C) effective ways to design appropriate learning experiences.
-Teaching is not just technical, it also has a social/artistic component to it. Knowing the content and even having a strong sense of instructional techniques isn't always enough -- the social/behavioral element of working with a group of children or young adults requires layers of skills, and even what might be called "intuition", that go beyond just technical know-how.

In my experience, really good teaching is very complex, complicated work that requires a pretty sophisticated set of skills. In the earlier grades you can get away with highly structured/scripted approaches in some areas, but this becomes increasingly difficult to design and deliver as kids enter the secondary level.

I agree with Dick in that much of our current approach is pretty homogenous, and it relies principally on the ability of individual teachers to master the black box. That's a difficult system to scale effectively.

Parry

Parry Graham said...

By the way, this is why we miss you, Ken. How else are we going to have this kind of conversation?

Parry

KDeRosa said...

I agree with those additions, Parry. Good instructional design is extremely difficult to do right and outside the ability of most practicing educators.

I've also looked around for some good online discussions on education, and I never seem to find any. I must be missing something.

Dick Schutz said...

OK, A few clarifications (or a try at them)

Re kids and the "rigor" thing.

Much of what we try to cram into older kids heads is simply unjustifiable in this day and age. They can get it on the Internet on demand and they're going to forget most of it at best. Kids have a gut feeling that it's "dumb." Some are docile and go along with the act. They're the "good students" we teach to, and we blame the other students.

Few kids enter Kindergarten unmotivated. They're fired up to learn to read and to learn anything else we can teach them. But we start mucking up a lot of kids instructionally from Day 1. And the consequences accumulate.
It's in the instruction, not in the kids.

Re Why the black box?"

1. The instruction that does work (and it only extends reliably so far) is alien to what educators are familiar with, have learned, and favor

It's worse than that. The statement views instruction as the product/protocol that constitutes a "program." The prevailing view is that "programs" don't matter. It's the teacher that matters. So we try to change teachers, not programs. It doesn't work, hasn't worked, and won't work.

2. there is not sufficient incentive to make the change,

The incentivization (new word?) needs to be with the academic, government, and corporate moguls. They have every incentive to remain unaccountable and to displace their responsibility to "anyone but us."

3. improvement will not be reliably and necessarily be reflected in the current standardized testing instruments.

Again, it's worse than that. The test results focus all attention on the "deficiencies" of kids and teachers, supporting the misguided belief that it's "all up to the teacher" and the lousy kids and parents (along with the teacher unions) who are doing everything they can to thwart "reform."

I'll take up Parry's reasons in a separate post.

Dick Schutz said...

Here's a go at Parry's reasons:

Kids are complicated. It's not particularly easy to figure out how to meet the needs of 20 to 30 children, . . .

It's impossible for individual teachers to do this well. The fact that they do it all is the main glue that keeps the dysfunctional system on the road.

-As content becomes increasingly abstract and complex, it becomes correspondingly more difficult to figure out A) what the most important content and skills are, B) the right way to motivate adolescents to learn the content and skills, and C) effective ways to design appropriate learning experiences.

Well, yeah. If instruction is out of control at the beginning, it's going to get worse over time.
But the fatal flaws aren't noted until about grade 3 because that's the time we start to "test." By that time it's "too late." There are exceptions but by and large the instructional die is cast. And we get interactions with the previous statement.

-Teaching is not just technical, it also has a social/artistic component to it. Knowing the content and even having a strong sense of instructional techniques isn't always enough -- the social/behavioral element of working with a group of children or young adults requires layers of skills, and even what might be called "intuition", that go beyond just technical know-how.

Absolutely. But this isn't a reason why instruction remains a black box. "Technical know-how" is almost a dirty word in education. Teachers get "professional development" and "technology" is viewed as electronic equipment. In the absence of "technological know how" teachers have to get by with their personal bundle of "classroom manner" analogous to "bedside manner" of physicians.

All I'm trying to say is that what's in the black box isn't all that complicated when you start seriously digging inside it. But academicians are reinforced (incentivized, if you like) to make matters complicated rather than to simplify matters. And education discourse is so riddled with rhetoric and ideology that there is little or no TechTalk.

How to save/change/reform the "reformers"? That's a whole nother story

Ken says:
Good instructional design is extremely difficult to do right and outside the ability of most practicing educators.

Actually, it isn't all that difficult to do, and doing it right is a self-corrective matter.

It's not outside the ability of most practicing educators. It's outside their education. The academy and the government operate under the mistaken notion that educational "research" is the whole enchilada. There is NO room for serious development. So what goes for "educational R&D" is a head operating without a body to put "knowledge" into practice.

Roger Sweeny said...

Dick Schutz,

Much of what we try to cram into older kids heads is simply unjustifiable in this day and age. They can get it on the Internet on demand and they're going to forget most of it at best. Kids have a gut feeling that it's "dumb." Some are docile and go along with the act. They're the "good students" we teach to, and we blame the other students.

Two reactions:

1) Then why the %$#@! do we force them to go to high school and college? Yes, I know we don't force them to go to college. We just tell them, "whenever you apply for a good job, they're going to ask you if you have a college degree, and if you say no, they won't even consider you."

2) If right now we're unjustifiably cramming older kids' heads, what should be done instead?

Dick Schutz said...

Good questions!

Why high school and college?

Different people will give you different answers, and the answers get very long. But here's my take.

"Education is teaching the tools that humanity has found indispensable." (Josiah Royce)

These "tools" are largely what we call "academic" and they are personally referenced. But other "tools" that humanity has invented are "non-academic"--extracurricular, as we say in the trade. El-hi handles these pretty well and as I've said, the enterprise delivers other indispensable non-educational social services.

"Post-secondary" is a very different system, because it addresses individuals are sufficiently mature to be "on their own." Here we do have at least a quasi-market, but it's heavily subsidized with taxpayer dollars throughout. The system benefits individuals and society, but the goal of "college for all" or "increasing college graduation rates" is silly.

What to do?

Short answer: Deliver all kids "Internet Ready" in primary school. Teach them how to explore options in middle school. Guide them into being contributing adults in high school.

Long answer is in a couple of Social Science Research Network papers:

"Remodeling Schooling: A New Architecture for Preschool to Precollege Instruction"
ahttp://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1366850

"A Game Plan for Dramatically Improving the Productivity of the El-Hi Schooling Enterprise"
http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1361188

Roger Sweeny said...

Dick,

Thanks for the references. I read them and I fear I still don't have much of an idea what you would actually do.

The second says that all children will be able to read by the end of 3rd grade. Great. But (and I use the a-word very deliberately here) I have absolutely no idea how you will do that. Your paragraphs on reading seem to be the written equivalent of waving a magic wand. "If wishes were horses ..."

The other paper makes clear that you don't like the "spreadsheet" model of course relation but it doesn't say what you think should be taught. "Internet ready" is something that sounds nice and can hardly be argued against--but what specifically is it and how can it be taught?

Dick Schutz said...

Hmm. I'll try to lend a hand without moving "zero understanding" into minus-zero.

Re "teaching all kids to read by grade 3" It's not a "wishful" statement. The new UK is committed to doing just that. It entails the use of carefully designed instructional programs.

As Ken has said the design and implementation of instructional programs isn't child's play, But there are a handful of alternative architectures, DI being one. "Reading tests" also have eliminate the confounding of "vocabulary" and "background information." With a reliable program and instructionally sensitive tests, the job of teaching kids to read can be completed with some kids well before grade 3, most all by grade 2. That's actually what the Brits are shooting for. And it's not just a bumper sticker. They really mean it.

All I had in mind with Internet-Ready was that the kid could read, could navigate to Google and had received some instruction in how to search, copy, and paste. Like "reading" the design and implementation has sub-complications, but there is no aspect that isn't currently operationally feasible.

Reading and Internet-Ready are two matters I happen to be personally interested in. But my intention is not to promote those interests here.

All I've been trying to say is that "saving schools" requires getting into the nuts and bolts of instruction rather than the current US government path of Standards, Tests, and Charter Schools.

KDeRosa said...

I somehow lost a longish comment this morning and am too lazy to try and redo it.

But, one point I did want to make is that you can't rely on google to retrieve facts. You still have to learn quite a bit, though not necessarily as perfect as in the pre-google days perhaps, because you are essentially training a neural net in your brain and you have to work through all the information to form the deep connections that are the hallmark of being learned/having expertise.

Dick Schutz said...

you can't rely on google to retrieve facts. You still have to learn quite a bit.

True on both counts, but with a bit of elaboration. You have to know what information to search for. That entails the background information you already have in your neural network pertaining to the "facts." And it also entails your skill in giving google key words.

Google gives you all the instructional assistance it can. If you mis-spell a word, google cleans up your mistake on the spot (usually) without insulting you. It also orders the entries to come as close as possible to "read your mind." If google is "way off" that tells you that you were "way off" and you've gotta take a different tack.

I didn't mean to say or imply that searching and the Internet was the savior, but I would contend that it offers a good road to the salvation of schools.

Learning can and should be a life-long matter. Talk about "choice" in education. The Internet provides tera-choice.

The current concern with "standards" is anachronistic. The present standards, however formulated, just rehash what was formulated at least a decade ago, and that formulation relies on work that goes back to 1918. Ignorance of educational history is no excuse. A brief googling session would close this ignorance gap. But you still have to learn quite a bit. (That starts at birth, if not before, and holds through death, if not after.)

A more productive "debate" would be around what the schools should be cramming into kids memory to best take advantage of the memory the Internet provides.

Parry Graham said...

Dick,

I have seen innumerable teachers assign internet-based research assignments. Simple example: Russian history, in which students pick a famous Russian (e.g., Peter the Great, Lenin) and use the Internet to find out what they can about the person (this is part of the 6th grade social studies curriculum).

Nine times out of ten, the student learns very little from this activity. Do they have access to oodles of accurate information? Absolutely. Do they have at least some sort of framework for their research? Most of the time. But they learn very little.

One problem is that they have little to no background knowledge to rely upon to help them weed through what they find. To their minds, the fact that Lenin smoked a pipe (don't know if that's really true, just as an example) is on par with the fact that he help to spark the rise of communism in the 20th century.

Another issue is vocabulary: the more specialized and abstract the content, the more difficult the vocabulary. They don't know what "Bolshevik" means, so they skip it. And there are too many words that they have to skip for them to be able to look them all up and make sense of them.

The problem is that the content on the internet doesn't exist in multiple, easily sorted reading levels, packaged in ways that make sense for kids.

So then it becomes the teacher's responsibility to design learning experiences that highlight the important information in ways that the students can digest and make sense of.

And then you get back to my earlier point: good teaching is complex and hard.

The internet is most definitely not a good road to the salvation of schools, and I would argue that anyone who believes it is needs to spend a lot more time in middle and high school classrooms.

Parry

Dick Schutz said...

Good points, Parry. Amen-squared to everything you say about the Internet, the importance of background knowledge, and current use of the Internet.

If the Internet is used to complete an "assignment" that has been determined by the teacher, we'll inevitably get the unintended results you describe. The fault is in the assignment, not in the kids or the Internet.

I'm advocating delivering kids who are Internet-Ready ASAP in their schooling. But "Ready" doesn't mean any expertise in using the Internet for learning. The kid's subsequent instruction needs careful guidance. The Internet provides opportunity for considerable more choice than kids presently have. It also opens a way to credit instructional accomplishments other than by "tests" or "portfolios."

Teachers currently have the capability to make intelligent use of the Internet. They don't now know how. But addressing that matter is very tractable.