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Posted by on in Education Policy

money and computer

We have seen the future, and we can't afford to live in it.

Altschool has just let out word that the tech-powered boutique of personalized education will become one more purveyor of off-the-rack computer-centered education-flavored product. There are many lessons underlined here-- I want to focus on the reminder of why, exactly, we can't have nice things.

Altschool's original vision was ambitious. Hire really good teachers. Keep class sizes small. Back up that teacher with a high-powered array of tech resources, allowing the teacher to perfectly track each student's progress in nearly-real time, then give that teacher unparalleled power to select a perfectly personalized set of materials for every single student. Keep a full IT department right on the site.

What do we dream of when we dream of True Personalized Education? Teacher-directed, with support from a powerful array of resources and facilities.

The problem is, this would be really, really expensive. Really expensive. You have to pay top dollar to lure those super-star teachers, then design your perfect educational ecosystem, then get top-of-the-line tech and hire IT people to keep it running, then buy up the resources needed to meet every possible individual student need or interest that might arrive. Ultimately you have several staff people hired for every single child. Expensive. Altschool was dropping something like $40 million a year.

You can't afford it. Hell, even the rich folks in Silicon Valley couldn't afford it.

So what happens? And how does the Personalized Education dream turn into the "personalized" education nightmare?

There are only a couple of ways to deal with the huge expense of a personalized boutique school.

One is to cut corners

To be prepared for any individual interest or need, really prepared, you'd need a library of tens of thousands of units, covering tens of thousands of content areas at dozens of different ability levels cross-filed by particular skill or knowledge sets involved. The library would be huge, and would need to be reviewed and updated every year. That would be expensive, and the software needed to search it for the material with just the right qualities for Pat or Chris would have to be pretty heavy duty as well.

So let's, you know, cut that library down to a couple hundred items. Let's just focus on the most common stuff, and if we find some students who aren't a perfect fit, well, if we've got materials that are Close Enough, that should do. And we can reduce some of this coursework to simple sequencing. Take the pre-test, and if you miss numbers 1 and 2, you get Drill Sheet A, and if you miss numbers 3 and 4, you get Drill Sheet B. Simple, easy to manage, fewer materials to store. Cheaper.

And getting the very best teachers to run the classroom-- well, that would be pricey, too. Let's just round up some teachers who are Good Enough. In fact, since really good teachers might start to question all the corners we've cut, let's just grab some warm bodies, train them in how to operate our system, and let it go at that. If we let the classroom be driven by the software system and not the teacher, then it's easier and cheaper to just fill in the meat widget job with a handy warm body.

But if I started this "personalized" program because I thought I could really make school awesome, why would I cut so many corners that I hurt the quality of the school.

Because I need investors

The other way to take care of the enormous amount of money I need is to get somebody to give me that money. And investors look at my classroom a little differently.

First of all, the corner cutting appeals to them hugely. To them, every dollar I spend on that classroom is one of their dollars. Do we really need three tech guys? Couldn't one handle everything by himself? Couldn't we scale back on the library of units that we're buying every quarter?

And having a highly-qualified and experienced super-teacher in each classroom-- that's great and all, but we can't really monetize that, can we? We can't sell it as a special secret. That proprietary software, on the other hand-- we could sell that to other schools and sell them the computers to run it on. And if we could streamline that whole software program and lesson library a little more, it would be easy to package as one-size-fits-all "personalization" for any classroom in the country. Because the more All our One Size fits, the bigger the potential market for this.

By all means, keep the Original Boutique School going-- when we bring people to see this or we show them videos or we send the master teachers out to talk about it, people will pee themselves with joy and fight to buy our off-the-rack version. We will make a mint.

But investors are not showing up to pump money into a Personalized School just so every schlubb's kid can actually attend there.

And asking those investors to work around a mountain of delicious, valuable student data and leave it alone is like asking someone to come to work every day and work at a desk that sits on a mountain of $100 bills without ever touching one. Theoretically possible, but sooner or later some investor is going to say, "You know, as long as the software is already working with all this student data anyway..." In fact, that's why some of the investors are going to show up in the first place.

This is how it works

This is how "personalized learning" ends up meaning two things-- actual personalized learning in which teachers lead a classroom armed with mighty tools and resources, and faux personalized learning where the classroom is software-directed, education is algorithmically-centered, and data is mined daily and promiscuously.

We cannot afford real Personalized Learning. Okay, if we can afford trillion dollar wars without end, we could afford real Personalized Learning. But as a country, we want education cheap (particular education for children who are not our own). So real Personalized Learning remains one of those things we know how to do, but we won't do it because we don't want to. So we'll cut corners and hustle for some ROI and just generally try to look like we're doing Personalized Learning when we're really doing something else entirely.

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Posted by on in Education Technology

computer frustration

It has been a typical couple of days with tech.

I spent a bunch of time on the phone with various offices of a major telecommunications company (rhymes with "Shmerizon") in an effort to upgrade our wireless plan, but this, it turns out, requires an actual phone call which in turn involves being passed around to various departments, each one of which requires a new explanation of what you're trying to do and why. This is all because we were using a Shmerizon feature that allowed us get just one bill for all of our services, but because our wireless is sharing a bill with "another company", there were extra steps. So apparently this large corporation is really several corporations, or one corporation whose internal communication is so bad that it might as well be several separate companies.

Which seems not uncommon, as meanwhile I am trying to settle issues with my tablet from Shmicroshmoft which has strange glitches that keep it from working well with other Shmicroshmoft products, for some reason that nobody knows. This particular issue I solve on my own, pretty much by randomly switching some settings and stumbling across something that neither the message boards.

Both of these take a while because on my home computer, I must deal with a browser that balloons up to huge KB use until it has to be restarted, which is also slow because the Shmerizon DSL into my home is a terribly noisy line that repeated attempts by the  company to fix have, in five years, been unsuccessful. It is especially bad when it rains, to the point that you can't have a conversation on the land line. There are no other reliable internet providers locally,

That's actually why we need the improved wireless plan-- for when we anchor our household wi-fi on the phones. This trick does not work at school, where signal is bad that the phone is basically unusable (and has to be either plugged in or turned off to avoid draining all power). I can take care of some prep work at school, provided I have what I need unblocked. And because our school has gone Google, the sites and services that are Google uncompatable are a no-go at school, too.

Many of these issues are exacerbated by the age of my equipment, but I can't afford to upgrade every six months to keep everything high grade and current. My home desktop is practically a dinosaur at five years old, which may be one more reason I need to reboot the modem almost daily to keep the connection working.

And I am not a Luddite or a digital dope. But this kind of constant maintenance and nursing and workarounds is part of my daily tech routine.

So tell me again how ed tech is going to revolutionize schools.

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Posted by on in School Culture

clock

Talk to teachers-- or former teachers-- across the country, and you hear similar complaints. An increase of job responsibilities, without the necessary time or resources to complete them. When we talk about unfunded mandates, we usually mean some program for which the government has told the district, "You must do this, but we will not give you any money to pay for it." But it is another kind of unfunded mandate when a school says to a teacher, "You are being given new tasks to complete, but we expect you to donate the time to do them on your own."

In addition to your regular teaching duties, and preparing to teach, and grading papers, and recording the grades, we would like you to also administer some pre-testing tests and then crunch the data. We'd like you to create your lesson plans in a new piece of software, and use that software to build scope and sequence for your courses. Create some emotional and social development programs for the students. Call every parent. Keep everything up to date and entered on your school website (using the new software that we expect you to teach yourself).

Before you squawk back, here are two things I know about this.

One is that teachers are not alone. I have nurses in my family, and I have watched how the health care providers solve budget issues by the not-very-clever method of simply reducing the number of staff, which can be done by declaring, "You still-employed people will now do your old job and also somebody else's old job." Many companies also use the technique of cutting employee hours, but not employee responsibilities. "Do what you've always done-- just do it in half the time." So, yeah-- I now that teaching is not the only place suffering from these unfunded mandates.

Another thing I know is that teachers are professionals and not hourly wage workers. When I signed up for an English teacher job, I knew that those essays wouldn't grade themselves, and I wouldn't have six unassigned hours during the school day in which to grade them. Any teacher who thinks she can do the job within the hours of the school day and no more is kidding herself. The out-of-school hours are part of the gig.

But teachers are good team players, and therefor terrific institutional enablers. Administrators add hours to the teaching day like drunks add gin to their glass, and some teachers just keep saying, "Well, that's okay. I'll make sure the kids have a normal Christmas and take the phone calls from your mother."

Teachers suck it up and squeeze in the new duties instead of telling their administrator, "I can do this, but I'll need direction from you on which duties you wold like me to stop performing." They donate the extra hours to the district, and then complain that administrators aren't fixing the problem, but here's the thing-- from the administrator's perspective, there is no problem. The fact that Mrs. Bagshot is sad about all the hours she spent at work is not an administrative problem. It's not an administrative problem until the job doesn't get done and Mrs. Bagshot is telling her boss, "No, I didn't get it done. I ran out of time."

Of course, if Mrs. Bagshot works in a charter school or a state that has "freed" its teachers from the "inflexible" union rules, Mrs. Bagshot will donate the extra hours or else suffer unemployment.

But for the rest of us can draw lines.

That raises the question of where, exactly, to draw those lines. Because in some cases, failure to donate free time to the district creates more problems for us or the students than we really want to see. It's decision that everyone has to make on their own; you're the one who has to live with your choice. For me, it boils down to this-- my job, the job I signed up for, is to use my expertise and knowledge to help students learn how to be better at reading, writing, speaking and listening. On the bigger scale, my work is to help them discover and grow toward the best version of themselves, to help them better envision what it means to be fully human, how to be in the world. So anything that helps me do my job is worth my time. And anything that doesn't, isn't.

I can't tell anyone else where to draw their lines. But if we want to be respected as professionals, we need to be careful about giving away our time for free. After all, how can we expect someone else  to value our time if we don't seem to?

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Posted by on in General

ocean wave

This article is actually from 2014, but it touched a nerve that has been raw since I was a student in the 1970s. The author is talking about the issue of students asking "Why do we need to learn this anyway" and after setting up the problem, he drops this:

The best solution to this problem is to make every lesson relevant to each student. However, given the impossibility of achieving that goal, I offer a few teaching tips that can mostly make that dreaded question about relevance a thing of the past. 

And to make matters worse, the link to this article called it "Three Ways To Make Your Lessons Relevant."

No. No no no no no, and also, no.

The instant you decide you want to "make" your lesson relevant, you've lost, because you have admitted that the lesson is not actually relevant. After all, you don't look at the ocean and say, "We'll have to find a way to make that wet." If your spousal unit says, "I'm looking for ways to make myself like you," that is not a good sign.

 
 

Your lesson should BE relevant, and you should know why it is relevant. And if your students ask why it's worth their time, you should be able to answer that question.

Put another way-- if you don't have a good reason for teaching the lesson, then why are you teaching the lesson? Note: "Because we always have" and "Because that's just one of those things teachers do" are not good answers. "Because I've been told I have to," is not much better, but in the current day and age, it is sometimes the honest answer.

So any time you find yourself trying to think of a way to make a lesson relevant, take a step back and instead ask yourself why you are teaching that lesson at all. As teachers, we have been given stewardship over a sizeable chunk of our students' lives. The most fundamental responsibility we have is to avoid wasting any of that precious time.

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Posted by on in General

back to school shopping

I'm a little late on this, since most retailers rolled out Back to School displays months ago and are currently starting to clear those out so that they have room for Christmas Sale displays. But I always mean to write about this because like so many things from which people can make a buck, Back to School shopping has gotten out of hand.

So as a father and a professional educator of several decades, I have an important message to parents about your back to school shopping.

Chill.

People are trying to get you to panic. Do not do it.

In some cases, the pitch is strictly commercial. Which is fine. That's what businesses do. Work your way into Office Depot's Back to School offerings. Everything you could conceivably or inconceivably need is here, with the exception of the Winnebago needed to cart all of this stuff to school, because for a place like Office Depot, Back to School is Christmas and Mother's Day wrapped up in one revenue generating package.

But here's the non-business Great Kids website, offering parents a list of Back to School necessities that may also necessitate a second mortgage (if, as a parent, you are able to afford a house in the first place).

Back to School supply lists seem to have the longevity of cockroaches, surviving unchanged over centuries. For instance, like many other sources, Great Schools includes this on their list of "basics."

Scissors (blunt ended for younger kids, pointed for older ones)

Um, no. Do not send your older children to school with pointy-ended scissors. And while Great Kids recommend highlighters, they do acknowledge that these "are probably unnecessary for kids in kindergarten through second grade." Yes, because five-year-olds have a tendency to highlight walls and desks and their own faces.

What about a site like Real Simple, the website/magazine devoted to helping wealthy folks make their consumption less conspicuous?  Their "essentials" list includes an art smock for elementary and pre-school students. Okay, fine. My own children had art smocks at home (from the popular dad's Old Shirts brand). But essential for school? I'm imagining twenty-five children arriving on the first day and asking the teacher, "Where do I put my smock."

And glue. Specifically glue sticks. Every single list has glue sticks on it. Do we have a national epidemic of Unglued Things in Schools?

Oh-- and these. I see them on lists, in stores, in the mall. Everywhere, in fact, but in actual classrooms:

The worst notebooks ever! You can't make mistakes, and when you rip one page out, another one falls out, too. And if you've taken important notes elsewhere, you can't add them to this, unless-- oh, wait!! NOW I understand the glue sticks!

Backpacks, folders, organizers, twelve different kinds of writing utensils, seventeen different kinds of bound and unbound paper, lunch boxes, a dictionary and a thesaurus!! Cozi gets a bonus point for putting a flash drive on their list, but most lists are composed of the same classic items that Great-Great-Grandma's mom was guilted into buying for Back to School.

So, parents, here's my Back to School to-do list for you.

Step One: Wait

Prior to the first day of school, do not buy anything except things you want your child to have. If your child is organizationally challenged and needs the world's most aggressive trapper-keeper, go ahead and get it. If you and your child agree that a Phineas and Ferb lunchbox is essential to get off to a great new start, I applaud your good taste. Go for it.

But if you are eying the glue stick display or the utility box loaded with 143 colored pencils strictly because you think the school will put your child back on the bus if she shows up without those items, just wait.

Neither my wife (elementary) nor I (high school) expect students to show up on the first day with anything other than a sleepy smile and a hopeful attitude. If the school actually needs your child to bring anything to school, they will tell you. Backpacks may have to fall within particular guidelines. Teachers may want particular notebook configurations. And every school now comes with its own batch of tech requirements.

Contact

Talk to your child's teachers before you need to. Go to open house. If scheduling is tight, make a phone call or an e-mail. Let your school and your teachers know what your expectations are. These are easier conversations to have when you're not in the midst of a child-related crisis. The school or teachers may give you the impression that they are too busy to have a non-critical conversation with you. Too bad for them. Have it anyway, but be focused and businesslike. Whenever dealing with teachers and schools, it's helpful to remember that we measure time out in very short increments. "Just one more thing," may mean nothing to your schedule, but to your child's teacher it may mean the difference between getting to pee or not today.

Gather contact information. Know who to contact about what, and how best to contact them.

Build partnerships

Some of the most effective work for Getting Things Done or Fixing Screwy Policies involve partnerships between teachers and parents. We know what is going on, but you are far more likely to be listened to. I can tell my boss that the new brown widgets are a terrible idea, but it's when the office starts taking phone calls from cranky parents that things will actually happen.

Where there is bad policy (and right now there is bad policy everywhere), parents and teachers have to build coalitions to fight back, as well as fighting back in their own ways. As a parent, you're going to have to find out who your allies are within the system.

Find out what the needs are

My school does not need glue sticks. On the other hand, the district stopped buying facial tissue for classrooms a few decades ago. My sister-in-law would send boxes of kleenex to school with her kids every month or so. It was greatly appreciated. Just ask a teacher-- what is something you're going to have to buy with your own money that I could get for you.

But mostly, relax

Despite what the world of consumer marketing is suggesting, there is very little that your child must absolutely have for the first day of school. There's little data to suggest that students who show up without art smocks and glue sticks all end up working for sub-minimum wage and living alone in a one-room apartment over a bar while eating cat food warmed on a hot plate.

What your child needs the first-through-last day of school is a positive attitude and support, along with constant reminders that school is important and that the child herself is a valuable and worthy human being. Yes, the ritual of Buying New Stuff for Back to School can be a great way to build excitement and enthusiasm for school, but it doesn't have to break the bank. Meanwhile, the school year is a marathon, not a sprint. I've seen hundreds of students hit that first day bright and happy and full of hope, fully intending that This Year will be different, but the dailiness of school wears it away. They don't need your support on just one day, but every day.


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