Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Case Study in “Wrongness”

Here I examine a case study in almost everything that is wrong with the status quo in American public schooling. Despite what Michigan’s House Education Committee Chair Lyons* would have you believe, the status quo defenders are not greedy, unionized teachers trying to protect their own perquisites over the needs of children. No, “status quo” is Latin for the “existing state” of things. The state of public education for a generation of children now has been a regime of testing, competition, choice, and punishment — firing of teachers and administrators and closing of schools and entire districts. What passes for education reform in Michigan — and has for some time now — is what John Austin, President of the State Board of Education, has called “a ‘Wild West’ of unfettered, unregulated new school creation, decoupled from the goal of improving learning and student outcomes.”

Amy Biolchini of did some great reporting on a new charter school set to open in Ypsilanti in the fall of 2014. This story illustrates almost all that is wrong with our actual educational status quo in Michigan.

Schools fail but get to begin again with new names

The new K–5 school is being opened on the same site by the same owners (Global Educational Excellence) as a failed previous charter school, Victory Academy. That school had operated for six years before its authorizer, Bay Mills Community College (not known for its exacting standards), chose not to renew its charter due to its “financial condition and academic performance.” Financially, the school budget was in deficit. Academically, its final 2010–11 MEAP scores showed one student proficient in writing (4th grade) and none in science (fifth grade). The four-year trends in reading and math scores show volatility in the percentages rated “not proficient,” as one would expect with such small numbers of students, but those percentages of failure were higher (generally much higher) than state averages in all cases:

Accountability measures spelled out by state and federal laws depend upon multiyear data and trends, so the easiest way to avoid failure and sanctions is to cut off those trends and begin from scratch. That is what is happening here, where the same operators in the same location with a similar student population just get a do-over by obtaining a new charter and renaming the school.

Teachers are replaced by devices

"One-to-one computing" and a "digital curriculum" are touted as a more efficient (read: "cheaper") and "student-centered" (meaning "do-it-yourself") way to deliver educational services. I doubt there is a single soul involved in education who does not think that it should be student centered, but there is a yawning gap between the label and the reality. For example, the Education Achievement Authority (EAA), home to “persistently failing” schools in Detroit taken over by the state, provides this allegedly newer and better kind of education. The model cannot possibly work, however, when students must share devices and when the promised digital curriculum is not available. Numerous reports (see the EclectaBlog series for examples) from teachers, former teachers, parents, and students subjected to the EAA allege that only about half the necessary platforms have been available for use and that the touted curriculum often does not exist. This is a particular problem for the many beginning and/or minimally trained Teach for America staff members who are not experienced with developing and implementing curricula themselves.

Adaptive software that offers just the right degree of challenge for each student can be a helpful part of a complete educational program, especially for students who are far behind on basic skills, but a completely on-line education leaves out a lot of important aspects of an excellent education. Calling it “student centered” does not mean that it serves all or even most of a student’s genuine educational needs.

Students work alone, not together; at keyboards, not hands-on

I experienced a very regimented elementary education in the overcrowded classrooms of the 1950s, wherein student participation was tightly limited and controlled. I still managed to learn, but that system worked poorly for a very large percentage of students. By the 1970s, educators had a good grasp of the importance of interactive discussions in class, both in engaging students more completely and in encouraging them to think in complex and evaluative ways. By the mid-1980s, educators knew that hands-on learning was much more powerful and effective than memorization for fostering deep conceptual understanding. By the 21st Century, educators understood the importance of having students work collaboratively on authentic problems in project-based learning. This model helps students to develop the cooperation, communication, and presentation skills they will need to be effective in both college and the workplace. Throughout these decades, more and more students did well in school, achieving higher scores on achievement tests and higher graduation rates.

Using devices to deliver a digital curriculum is simply not enough to provide a well-rounded education and to develop important collaborative and social skills. This model can be expected to fail at least as many students as did the similarly restrictive one of the 1950s. After well over a decade of increasingly prescriptive and decreasingly creative classroom methods mandated by the new status quo, achievement levels have stagnated or receded — but “reformers” refuse to admit to this obvious failure. They have, in fact, created the very crisis they invented to justify their ersatz reforms, when public schools had been on an upward trajectory for many, many years before the test-and-punish regime began with No Child Left Behind.

The educational design is driven by profit considerations, not educational concerns

The fact that for-profit vendors seem to be poised to run the show at the planned new school is also emblematic of something wrong with our new, “improved” educational status quo. Each student at the new school will be assigned an Android tablet “programmed and provided by Amplify, a company that provides devices programmed with classroom-ready curriculum.” Amplify is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Forbes Magazine, a publication not exactly hostile to business, published an article on Amplify last fall. Author Jordan Shapiro reported on what sound like killer educational games, such as Fruit Ninja geometry and Lexica, a role-playing game that includes interaction with literary characters and incentive to read more outside the game in order to do better within it. He did express reservations about the message implicit in the humanities games looking “old-fashioned, antique, and fantastical” while the “science and math games look modern, polished, and innovative.” But I agree with the premise that well-designed games can be a great way to engage today’s students in learning they might otherwise resist or avoid.

But Amplify also won a multimillion-dollar contract to develop Common Core formative assessments, thus ensuring a long-running profit stream from all the schools and districts that will be forced to use them. It can make money on designing curricula, delivering it, and assessing the effectiveness of its delivery. As another Forbes article, “Charter School Gravy Train Runs Express to Fat City,” noted last fall, “dozens of bankers, hedge fund types and private equity investors gathered in New York to hear about the latest and greatest opportunities to collect a cut of your property taxes [at] the Capital Roundtable’s conference on ‘private equity investing in for-profit education companies.’”

Very rich people have jumped into the charter movement not simply out of philanthropic concern, but because it is a terrific way to get even richer. “It’s the tax code that makes charter schools so lucrative: Under the federal ‘New Markets Tax Credit’ program that became law toward the end of the Clinton presidency, firms that invest in charters and other projects located in ‘underserved’ areas can collect a generous tax credit — up to 39% — to offset their costs. So attractive is the math, according to a 2010 article by Juan Gonzalez in the New York Daily News, ‘that a lender who uses it can almost double his money in seven years.’”

The billions of public dollars once spent almost exclusively by non-profit educational organizations are now out there for the picking. What could possibly go wrong, when those in control are motivated by profit rather than by “what is right for kids”?

So, we have a new school rising from the ashes of a failed one, where kids can be taught cheaply by devices rather than people, where achievement is defined strictly in terms of mastering a particular curriculum that includes no collaborative skills beyond role-playing games and no authentic hands-on or project-based learning, by providers who are all guaranteed a good profit no matter how the students do. THIS is today’s educational status quo — and no one has been able to demonstrate that it works well, let alone better than the allegedly “failing” system it is replacing. Yet “reform” proponents — really defenders of the current status quo — keep doubling down on what has patently not been working, as exemplified by this one proposed school. As the old movie admonition goes: Be afraid. Be very afraid.

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* In a recent radio interview, Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons said, of critics of the EAA, “We have found that there’s no depths that the defenders of the status quo won’t go to stop innovation and change.”