Book Review: The Monsters of Education Technology

As background, here’s a brief summary of my relationship with Educational Technology, from c. 2003 to the present:
My EdTech Arc
Thanks to my Twitter Archive and apps like TimeHop, I’ve been frequently exposed to my EdTech Pollyanna stage. There sure were lots of excited exclamation points

In the more recent past, I’ve been feeling a bit more like the EdTech Curmudgeon:

  • “Hey, have you heard about this tool? Students can make digital flashcards!” Me: “Ummm…”
  • “Look this tool that automatically grades ScanTron tests!” Me: “Ummm….”
  • “Check out these Khan Academy videos! Students can totally get extra help!” Me: “Ummm….”

Usually I don’t say much when friends and colleagues bring up questionable tools. I mean, that’s pretty much exactly where I was c. 2008. Though I do try to bring up issues with the tools, or their parent companies, or (most often) the type of teaching and learning these tools reinforce when there’s an opportunity, usually I just end up feeling like Debbie Downer in a room full of excited cheerleaders.

Perhaps that’s why I enjoyed reading Audrey Watters’ The Monsters of Educational Technology so very, very much.
The Monsters of Education Technology
Audrey Watters self-describes as the Cassandra1 of EdTech. As she notes about herself in the book:

"I don’t tend to talk about ed-tech revolution and disruptive innovation unless it’s to critique and challenge those phrases. I don’t give ed-tech pep talks, where you leave the room with a list of 300 new apps you can use in your classroom."

You're not going to walk away from Watters' writing feeling like a world beater: able to revolutionize the whole education in your classroom tomorrow. Instead she stares deep into the soul of so many Silicon Valley edtech startups and finds them to be empty.

But this is an important thing. Education technology has been, and- apropos the Cassandra comparison- will continue to be lauded as “the way” to “fix” what’s “wrong” with teaching and learning today. It’s flashy. It’s shiny. It looks futuristic and fancy to administrators and politicians. Unfortunately, so many of the tools simply replicate or reinforce questionable practices from our past. Instead, Watters challenges us (emphasis mine):

“To transform education and education technology to more progressive and less programmed ends means we do have to address what exactly we think education should look like now and in the future. Do we want programmed instruction? Do we want teaching machines? Do we want videotaped lectures? Do we want content delivery systems? Or do we want education that is more student-centered, more networked-focused. [...] And instead of acting as though ed-tech is free of ideology, we need to recognize that it is very much enmeshed in it.”

When schools adopt new technologies there often isn’t much thought given to the pedagogical or social implications the new technologies bring to the classroom. Very little consideration is given to what the tools really add to the learning process over already existing tools (besides being shinier and newer), and even less consideration is given to how this might affect who we are as humans, as Watters describes in her critique of algorithms designed to grade student essays:

"We have no laws of ‘ed-tech robotics.’ We rarely ask, ‘What are ethical implications of educational technologies?’ Mostly, we want to know ‘will this raise test scores?’ ‘Will this raise graduation rates?’ We rarely ask, ‘Are we building and adopting tools that might harm us? That might destroy our humanity?’"

Despite the picture I’ve painted so far, Watters goes beyond simply prophesying doom upon humanity at the hands of educational technology. Though deeply skeptical and harshly critical of most educational technology, she isn’t anti-technology.

She champions technologies that give students agency. Technologies that places students in control of their own learning.  Technologies that promote learning outside the artificial structures society has created in schools and universities. Clearly one of her favorite ideas is an initiative started at the University of Mary Washington, called a Domain of One’s Own. UMW gives each student their own domain- not just space on a university server- but a domain they can take with them after they graduate:

“Their own domain. Again, the word matters here. Students have their own space on the Web. A space for a blog or multiple blogs. A digital portfolio for their academic work that can become a professional portfolio as well. A place to store their digital stuff in the cloud. Moreover, a lesson on the technologies that underpin the Web. HTML. CSS. RSS. It's not quite “hosted lifebits,” but it’s a solid step in that direction. The initiative represents a kind of open learning – learning on the Web and with the Web, learning that is of the Web. ‘Domain of One’s Own’ offers a resistance to the silos of the learning management system and to the student as a data mine. It highlights the importance of learner agency, of learning in public, of learning together, of control over one’s digital identity and over one’s educational data, and the increasing importance of digital literacies."

This is an idea that seems so simple yet powerful. It’s something that could be done even at the high school level- maybe students don’t receive their own actual domain, but students could be given a space somewhere online where 1) they are in control and 2) that can be taken with them once they’ve graduated.

Audrey Watters’ work is simultaneously deeply informative, insightful, troubling, and hopeful. I highly recommend The Monsters of Education Technology and pretty much everything she’s written online at Hacked Education to anyone working in or near an educational setting.

The book is available directly through Audrey Watters’ website in a variety of print and e-book formats. You should definitely buy it.

"Indeed humanity and learning are deeply intertwined. They are intertwined with love, not with algorithms." - Audrey Watters

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  1. Cassandra of classical mythology was given the gift of prophecy, but when she spurned Apollo’s love she was cursed to always prophesy truthfully, but never to be believed.     (back)

Rethinking Schools: Hackerspaces

James and Ali Solder

What are "hackerspaces?"

Hackerspaces are "community-operated physical places, where people can meet and work on their projects1. Essentially, it's a community workshop: Some have wood or metal-working equipment and community tools, others have welding equipment, others focus on computing and programming. Each hackerspace is different. To become a member generally you'll pay an annual fee which gives you access to the equipment and the space. Many hackerspaces will offer classes given by members to the general public and have drop-in days when non-members can pay a small fee to use the hackerspace.

A hackerspace is a large, self-directed learning environment. Maybe you want to make your own Geiger counter or build a sidecar for your bicycle. A hackerspace would provide you the space and tools to get it done. On top of the space, the best thing about hackerspaces is that they encourage collaboration. It's a place where you can walk around and see what other people are working on, ask questions, and get some help from smart people if you need it.

Why Hackerspaces in Schools?

I first starting thinking about how schools and hackerspaces fit together after listening to CBC Spark's segment on Hacking the Library, featuring several libraries that are teaming up with hackerspaces to provide additional learning experiences for their patrons. That piqued my interest. Libraries are community learning spaces. Schools are community learning spaces. If hackerspaces are popping up at libraries, why not in schools?

What are the benefits of having a hackerspace at a school?

  1. Real-world application of content. I recently took the Praxis II Physics exam. I spent a lot of time studying content related to electricity & magnetism. Why? Besides not having taken a class on the topic since 1999, I lacked a deeper understanding of the topics- primarily because you can't see magnetism and electricity the way you can see a ball flying through the air. Inductance? Capacitance? These are tricky concepts that I know I struggled to understand deeply. However, if you provide the time and space for students to build things like USB chargers for their iPods, or super-capacitor flashlights- where students can harness inductors and capacitors to build useful objects, then there's a much better chance they'll gain a deeper understanding of what capacitors and inductors are and how they're used.
  2. Student choice. There are amazing communities like Instructables or Make Projects where students can find ideas for projects. Even if you wanted students to all build something related to a specific topic (i.e. electronics with capacitors, for instance), there is such a huge variety of projects available online this would still allow students to pick something that interested them personally.
  3. Giving students agency over their "stuff." Making stuff is empowering. Taking apart and restoring a trashed bike gives you a sense of pride about the bike that wouldn't exist if you had just bought it from the store. If your remote control for your TV breaks, you might just go buy a new one- but if you recently built your own solar battery charger, maybe instead you'd take apart the remote control and fix it yourself.
  4. Connecting the school to the community. Ideally, I see schools as centers of community- a place open to all community members as a place of learning beyond just the school day for students. I envision a school hackerspace run very much like any hackerspace: open to anyone in the community who would like to become a member, available to community members during school hours and students after school hours, providing classes for the community (ideally some classes being taught by students), and providing a place for the community to share their expertise with students and students to share their expertise with the community.
  5. Not just a wood shop class on steroids. I wouldn't want to see the hackerspace used as its own class- like wood shop classes might have been in the past. I think it'd be much more powerful if the school day were arranged so students had independent time set aside to work on self-directed projects (a là Think Thank Thunked). Not just for hackerspace projects, mind you, since not all topics and projects would be hackerspace appropriate, but certainly the hackerspace would be available.

If I was in charge of building a new school2, I'd work my butt off to try to get a hackerspace as part of my school. I realize there would be a lot of potential details and issues to work through to get it done, but I think the learning and community that would result from such a space would be well worth the effort.

Note: I've never actually been to a real hackerspace. Unfortunately there don't appear to be any hackerspaces in Connecticut (according to Hackerspaces.org). If someone would like to get on that as well, I'd be on board.

______________________________

  1. From Hackerspaces.org. (back)
  2. I have some time right now if anyone's interested in trying to do this...seriously people!(back)

Dear Skeptics' Guide: Standards aren't the solution

There's a widespread narrative regarding science education in the United States: It stinks. As a science educator, whenever I hear this two things happen. First, I get my my hackles all up. Second, I realize that despite my hackles I generally agree. I get my hackles up because I've spent a lot of time thinking about, planning, designing, and implementing a science curriculum that I feel has been pretty darn good. However, I recognize that the School System (I'm not picking at any one school district here, but instead at the entire system of schooling in this country) has not done a very good job of helping students to think and act like scientists.

Recently, while listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast (#343), I had my hackles raised. They discussed a recent article on io9 titled, "Your State Sucks at Science.1" This article discussed a report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute that analyzed each state's standards on their "Content & Rigor" and "Clarity and Specificity." The results (summarized on the map below), showed that the vast majority of states didn't do so well. In fact, they did terribly.

Grades for States on Science Standards.

OK, that information doesn't shock, surprise, or upset me. Connecticut earned a not-so-respectable "C." I'd probably give the standards I've worked with (9th grade Integrated Science) a lower grade. Many standards are overly broad. Others are ambiguous. I agree with the Skeptics' Guide, io9, and the Thomas B. Fordham institute that improving these standards would be a good thing for science education.

So, why are my hackles still raised? Well...during the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe (SGU) discussion on the sorry state of science education, the general view was that poor standards are the crux of the problem (followed by poor teachers- more on this later). It was stated that poor standards will cause teachers to fail their students more often than the case would be if states had good standards. As anecdotal evidence of this, Dr. Steven Novella noted his daughter is receiving a sub-par science education at the Connecticut public school she is attending. Dr. Novella specifically described his two big problems with his daughter's science instruction:

  1. Inquiry and scientific thinking is not taught well at all.
  2. Real science education doesn't even really begin until the 7th grade. In grade schools they get virtually nothing.

I generally agree with these assertions. What really bothered me, however, was the discussion of why these problems exist. Here are some quotes from the discussion:

  • "Teachers don't quite grasp how science works."
  • "When the standards fail the teachers, the teachers will more likely fail the students."

Can you see where this is going? They never come right out and say science education stinks because our science teachers stink, but that idea is hovering just beneath the surface. I readily admit there are science educators who don't quite grasp how science works and who don't do a great job of designing science instruction. However, I believe this is more of a systemic issue than an individual teacher issue. Let's look at Dr. Novella's two assertions again:

  1. Inquiry and scientific thinking is not taught well at all.
    • Education is a high-stakes testing world these days. What's valued by our current schooling system are good scores on standardized tests, so effective teachers are labeled as those who help students earn good scores on standardized tests. However, it's can be tricky to assess inquiry and scientific thinking. The best way to assess these skills is to observe students performing scientific inquiry (or at least look at a portfolio of student work) to gauge the level of sophistication in scientific inquiry and thinking the student possesses. So, let's look at how Connecticut assesses science: The Connecticut Mastery Test (given grades 3-8) and the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (given to 10th graders) both assess "experimentation and the ability to use scientific reasoning to solve problems2." The CAPT science test includes 60 multiple choice and 5 open-response questions. In 5th grade, the CMT science test includes 36 multiple choice and 3 open-response, and in the 8th grade edition there are 55 multiple choice and 3 open-response3. Multiple choice questions- even well designed items- are a shoddy way to measure inquiry. Even the open-response questions that require several sentences to answer aren't a very good measure. Yet this is the system of assessment we value and this system of assessment doesn't value inquiry, so why are we surprised when inquiry and scientific thinking take a backseat in the classroom? The problem doesn't start with the teachers, it starts with our method of assessment.
  2. Real science education doesn't even really begin until the 7th grade. In grade schools they get virtually nothing.
    • Again, let's look at what our schools value by looking at what they assess: The CMT is given to every 3rd through 8th grader attending Connecticut public schools. Every year from the third grade and on, students are assessed in mathematics and language arts. Only 8th graders took a science CMT through 2007. Starting in 2008 the state added a science CMT to the 5th grade as well. Why is science instruction getting the short end of the stick? Because we're not assessing it. The focus on math and language arts isn't a bad thing, but it means that subjects not being assessed are being pushed to the side. This isn't the fault of the teachers stuck in this system- it's the fault of the system itself.

What's the solution?

I am not advocating for giving more science standardized tests. I have no problem with improving our science standards. However, unless we change the current methods of assessment I wouldn't expect to see much change. To learn scientific thinking and inquiry, students must be given time in class to explore ideas, rethink assumptions, and test their hypotheses. These things take a lot of class time- furthermore they deserve a lot of class time. Having lots of well written standards is generally a good thing, but it also means teachers are pressured to "cover" all the standards to the detriment of depth of understanding and student exploration.

Dear SGU, you are science educators yourselves, and I love most of what you do. However, I'd like you to think and talk more deeply about what good science education in schools looks like and whether that vision is being supported by the assessment methods employed by the states. A wise person once said, "What we assess defines what we value4" I'd add "How we assess defines what we value," as well. If we value inquiry and scientific thinking, our assessments should be more sophisticated- requiring students to actively demonstrate their understanding of how science works. These assessments would be expensive to design and implement but would more accurately reflect students' actual scientific knowledge and skills. It's not that I think the SGU hates teachers, but you do seem to be jumping on the political narrative that has been placing undue blame for poor education practices on the shoulders of teachers instead of including systemic forces that impact how and why teachers deliver instruction in the classroom.

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  1. The discussion starts about 27 minutes into the episode and runs for 10 minutes on this topic. (back)
  2. See 2011 CAPT Interpretive Guide, p. 5. http://www.csde.state.ct.us/public/cedar/assessment/capt/resources/misc_capt/2011%20CAPT%20Interpretive%20Guide.pdf (back)
  3. Question information from the CAPT Program Overview 2012, p. 11, http://www.csde.state.ct.us/public/cedar/assessment/capt/resources/misc_capt/CAPT%20program%20overview%202012.pdf and Science CMT Handbook, p. 8, http://www.sde.ct.gov/sde/lib/sde/pdf/curriculum/science/science_cmt_handbook.pdf (back)
  4. This was a Grant Wiggins quote, I believe. (back)

Critiquing the CAPSS Recommendations for School Reform

I want to make my classroom the best learning environment possible. Most of my posts on this site focus on lessons, assessments, or ideas on how to improve the learning environment inside my classroom. Improving our individual teaching craft is one of the easiest places (not to say it's necessarily easy) as a teacher to effect change.

However, as I've worked towards improving what happens in my classroom I've frequently run into obstacles. These obstacles were primarily exterior to my classroom. Sometimes they were school or district policies, sometimes national or state requirements, and sometimes they were the result of how we, as a culture, have historically structured this thing we call "school." Most of these policies and structures were created with good intentions in an attempt to improve our schools and our children's education.

Given my generally negative experiences with "traditional1" instructional models and structures, I've found myself more and more interested in systemic school reforms. How can we create modern schools and structures that leverage the advancements in technology and access to information to provide students with an education that prepares them to be active participants in our nation's democracy, economy, and society?

It was no surprise when an editorial in our local paper titled Major Restructuring Recommended for Schools caught my eye. In it, the author briefly describes the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents (CAPSS) new report, "Recommendations for Transformation," a list of recommendations to transform the state education system "so it is able to meet the needs of students in the future." Naturally, I downloaded, read, and critiqued the full 36 page report (here's the official download link [pdf file], here's a version with my commentary [pdf file]).

My critique of the CAPSS recommendations

The report includes 134 individual recommendations for action across ten broad categories. I won't go into them all. Instead I'll give a brief breakdown of each broad category and get more specific around recommendations of particular interest.

The tl;dr version

This is a long article. For those of you thinking, "I'm can't read this whole thing. There is too much," let me sum up. Speaking in sweeping generalities, I applaud the CAPSS recommendations. In many ways the recommendations are progressive, forward-thinking, and focus on the best interests of students instead of on things that would be easy to implement or get through the political process. Recommendations such as competency-based advancement, standards-based assessments, and integrating out-of-school learning experiences into the formal education process suggest that CAPSS is interested in totally reworking what we mean by "school." This makes me happy. Too often reform movements are limited by the inertia of history and that-which-already-exists. CAPSS is clearly trying to overcome this inertia. Schools that followed the recommendations in the report could be student-centered environments that have a laser-like focus on student learning, support and integrate learning experiences that occur outside the classroom, remove conventions of little educational value (e.g. letter grades, traditional homework, and adult-friendly-but-child-poor assessments), and make schools an intrinsic part of their community.

And yet CAPSS puzzlingly makes recommendations that would make schools larger, less personal, and less a part of their community. Consolidating districts might save some money- which is an important consideration- but this seems to fly in the face of entire other sections of this report (For example, Section 2: Make it Personal; Section 4: Retool Assessments & Accountability; Section 8: Involve Students & Parents). Creating fiscally sustainable school districts is important, but eliminating small community schools in favor of large regional schools fosters disconnect between the schools and their community, students skating through schools unknown by their teachers, and an overall less personalized educational experience. Furthermore, many recommendations are so general that they're simply platitudes without any real meat to them (i.e. "Engage parents as partners in their children's education."). More detail and explanation is needed as to exactly what many recommendations are actually recommending. Lastly, how about some references? Surely (hopefully) the CAPSS group that created the report relied on more than the four citations included in this report- three of which are statistics on current educational practices. Nowhere do they cite sources to support their positions- either in this report, on their website, or any other report provided at their website.

I think CAPSS took a step in a positive direction by making many forward-thinking recommendations for the future of education in Connecticut. While none of these recommendations are binding, it heartens me to see an organization of this sort making progressive recommendations. It gives me hope there will be enough momentum to effect some real and positive educational reform in the near term. However, portions of the report conflict with the overall progressive theme- pointing towards deep elements of hesitation toward the large- and in my opinion needed- education reforms.

If you'd like a more detailed breakdown of the 10 categories of recommendations made in the CAPSS report, read on!

1. Raise the Bar

There are essentially two recommendations here: (1) Create "ambitious, focused, and cohesive" education standards, and (2) provide a system that measures student learning and promotes students through school based on content mastery instead of seat time.

  1. Standards. Question: There already are state education standards, how are these standards different? Are these different than the Common Core Standards? Further, the recommendations specifically focus on standards for "college and career readiness." Those are important goals, but I'd also like them to focus on helping students become effective participants in a democracy. On the whole I'm skeptical of the standardization movement. The report spends a lot of time recommending greater flexibility. In my experience standards tend to inhibit flexibility. Have students who are really interested in a topic not included in the standards? Sorry, no time for that- it's not in the standards.
  2. Content mastery. This is one of those bold recommendations that I love. Essentially, they support the idea that as soon as a student shows mastery of a topic they can move on to a new topic. 13 years in a classroom does not necessarily make an education. In this model, students would be able to advance more quickly or more slowly depending on their individual content mastery- they wouldn't have to wait until the end of the year to move on to the next topic. This is essentially standards-based grading on systemic steroids. However, they fall short on proposing what School would look like under this system. How would mastery be determined? How does it impact the organization of classes at schools? These are big questions that need some serious thought for this to be taken seriously.

2. Make it Personal

This thread focuses on creating student-centric learning environments. Of any of the 10 sections, I like these recommendations the most. The two main ideas in this section:

  1. Advance students based on mastery. This restates some ideas from the last section. I still like it. They're still vague on details, offering only, "Establish flexible work schedules," and "Allow credits to be awarded based on mastery." I have a hard time visualizing how this would work in reality, but perhaps that's because I've spent the last 27 years in the existing system. I'm worried by the recommendation to develop a variety of assessments and projects to allow students to demonstrate mastery. This sounds like they'd be state-standardized affairs, which if they're anything like existing state-standardized activites, would be horrible. These should be developed locally (while being shared publicly for other educators) based on individual student needs.
  2. Flexible learning environments. Yes. Please recognize that plenty of valuable learning takes place outside school. The integration of this informal learning with our formal education is much needed. This should go beyond counting a family trip to the Grand Canyon as an educational experience. If a student can diagnose and fix a car's electrical system, spending three weeks in a classroom learning about basic series and parallel circuits is a waste of their time. Schools should partner with and validate our students' out of school educational experiences.

3. Start with Early Childhood

This isn't my area of expertise, but I think the proposal to provide quality preschool for all children starting at the age of three is one of the biggest no-brainers in education reform. The payoff to society don't manifest for nearly two decades, but there is a seeming wealth of research that suggests preschool is a very good thing. I have some concerns with the recommendations similar to "Develop a system of accountability for providing language-rich, challenging, developmentally appropriate and engaging reading and mathematics curricula." The focus on reading and math smacks of No Child Left Behind, and suggests an emphasis on tightly structured learning environments. In the words of Alfie Kohn:

...the results are striking for their consistent message that a tightly structured, traditionally academic model for young children provides virtually no lasting benefits and proves to be potentially harmful in many respects.

4. Retool Assessments and Accountability

Now we're getting into some meat. The CAPSS report suggests standardized testing should be de-emphasized. I'd be willing to bet they'd suggest eliminating standardized tests as we know them were it not for the current national education environment. Props to them for that.

Here's a selected summary of their suggestions: (1) Provide a variety of assessment formats, (2) Assess students as they're ready to be assessed (instead of everyone at the same time), (3) Get assessment results back to students & teachers quickly so they inform instruction, and (4) Make the goals of all assessment transparent. It seems like they're saying one thing here. Yup, it's Standards-Based Grading.

In fact, they do mention SBG by name in this section, but they recommend making it "part of assessments." I'm a fan of SBG (as evidenced by previous posts), and I think this is a stellar recommendation.

I do have some hesitations with their recommendations, despite their SBG-like nature. For one, it's pretty clear from the language used they're not discussing day-to-day classroom assessment. They're discussing a new form for state standardized2 tests. I'm unclear on what this would look like, but it does sound like an improvement over the current system, though I'm skeptical it would come to pass in this improved manner. Another hesitation rests on the description of incentives for high performing schools. The report clearly recommends moving away from punitive measures, yet in my mind, providing incentives to high-performing schools is nearly indistinguishable from punitive measures against low-performing schools. Finally, the report lists subject areas for "base academic accountability." I take that to mean, "These are the subjects that will be assessed," or perhaps more clearly, "These are the subjects we think are important (things that are valued are assessed)." Notably absent are the arts and physical education- meaning the cuts to art and phys. ed. programs we see happening today are likely to continue were these measures put into place.

5. Offer More Options and Choices

Or, the section with the title that most poorly represents its contents. A better section title? "Consolidate School Districts." Their basic argument seems to be that having the current (supposedly high number of) 165 Connecticut districts creates an environment where it is difficult to align state and local initiatives, is economically inefficient, and fosters racial and ethnic isolation. While I agree that you can save some money by consolidating services like busing or food service, you also lose a connection with the community when the district encompasses many, many communities. Having worked in both small and large districts, the small district was much more connected to and valued by the community3. It may be more expensive to have small community districts- and that's not a small obstacle- but it would be worth it. It should be noted that reworking the state education system in the manner recommended by this report would also be expensive. In addition smaller districts would help schools be more flexible, personal, and transparent. Those adjectives would be a fair summary of the recommendations of this entire report, so why include this section?4

6. Reform Leadership

This section makes a lot of recommendations about the relationship between the State Department of Education and the Commissioner of Education as well as the roles of school boards and superintendents. That's a little bit outside my area of expertise, but I do like this statement from the introduction to the section:

Currently, organization and policy making for education are based on bureaucratic assumptions of hierarchy, centralized decision making, standardization and inspection. These characteristics limit individual discretion, depress creativity and foster stasis, not change.

That certainly describes my experience teaching in Connecticut. Despite completing my Master's in Secondary Education project by designing and implementing a student-centric, student-driven project5, I was told I couldn't continue the project unless all the science teachers wanted to use it. That's not exactly how one fosters innovation and creativity...

7. Boost Quality

This is a huge section with 26 recommendations for action ranging from incentives for attracting quality teachers, to improving teacher education and professional development, to revamping teacher tenure as we know it. I'm going to limit my analysis to the recommendations for professional development and teacher evaluation. I think restructuring the current tenure system is a major issue that deserves discussion, but that'll have to happen in another post so it doesn't turn this already lengthy review into a ridiculously long review.

  1. Professional development for teachers.
    • The report (rightly, in my opinion) makes many recommendations related to preparing pre-service teachers and helping new teachers grow as educators. One of my favorite recommendations suggests structuring a teacher's first year in the classroom as an internship with regular coaching and mentoring by master teachers. If it were up to me, I'd have new teachers carry half of a teaching load, giving them plenty of time during the day to observe other teachers, review and revamp instruction and assessment with a mentor, and generally work to improve their craft. Likewise, the mentors should have a reduced teaching load so they have time to both observe and meet with their mentees during the school day. The current system where exactly zero time is allocated for new teachers to review and reflect on their time in the classroom is a horrible model if we want new teachers to show improvement.
    • A second recommendation states that districts should provide professional learning opportunities for teachers as a part of their regular job- and schedules should be configured to give teachers time to collaborate with their peers. Again, I agree. If you value professional learning and improvement, you should schedule time for it- not make it only something teachers do on their own time (which most do, but it's such a valuable thing schools should be purposefully providing opportunities for their teachers). However, a word of warning: I've taught in a school where the schedule was changed to provide teachers with 70 minutes of "collaboration time" each week. Teachers (including myself) were genuinely excited for this time to share lessons, have quick professional development sessions, and critique instruction and assessment. Instead, it was mandated from above that the "collaboration time" be used solely to analyze student standardized test-prep results. While I understand the importance of standardized tests in our current system, the cost was the loss of time for teachers to share their expertise with each other, learn how to effectively integrate technology, and design cross-curricular projects- all things teachers were excited to use that time to do. The moral of the story is that simply having collaboration time in the schedule doesn't mean it's being used effectively.
  2. Teacher evaluation. As it is, the teacher evaluation system as I've known it is in need of reform. Last year I was observed by an administrator three times- each observation lasting approximately 70 minutes. Outside these official observations, administrators spent about 30 minutes in my classroom throughout the year. Okay, so that's a total of 240 minutes of observation for the entire school year by those who evaluate my performance. For some perspective, I taught four 70 minute classes each school day, and there are 180 school days per school year. That works out to 50,400 minutes of instructional time each school year. My evaluations were based on 240 out of those 50,400 minutes, or 0.48% of the total instructional time. It makes me nervous to think I'm being evaluated from such a position of ignorance6. The recommendations by the CAPSS include creating a standards-based evaluation system with regular performance reviews and including peer review as part of the performance review. As long as "regular performance reviews" includes frequent, informal observations by evaluators and "including peer review" can be expanded to provide students and parents a voice in the evaluation, then I think the recommendations are on track.

8. Involve Students and Parents

Schools give a lot of lip service to including parents and students in the education process. I've never been part of school that has done a good job at doing this. I've known teachers who were really good individually at involving parents in their classrooms and other teachers who provide students a large voice in their own education. Beyond the classroom level the furthest extent I've seen a district or (high) school involve parents is to invite them to serve on committees with little influence that meet at times untenable for most working adults' schedules.

I have no problems with the recommendations in the CAPSS report...other of course than the fact that they're so non-specific that they're just platitudes: "Engage parents as partners in their children's education," or "Create structures that encourage family involvement." Yes, those are good things- but what suggestions do you have for how to do these things?

Let me offer a few quick suggestions.

  1. Use technology to make learning and school happenings more transparent. How? Have administrators start a blog or create an online newsletter that is updated regularly sharing goings on at the school. Share a photo a day. Invite teachers and students to do the same. Let students share their learning and reflections through student blogs (or evening events where students show off projects, etc.). In my mind, these things are the low hanging fruit- They're easy to implement and can cost nothing (depending on the tools used).
  2. Form collaborations with people in the community. Examples?
    • Maybe you have an assisted living community near the school. That's a community with a huge amount of knowledge, skill, and disposable time. Provide transportation to retirees so they can read, mentor, advise, or provide academic support to students.
    • Create a community garden on school grounds that "rents" plots to community members. Have students run the administration and marketing of the community garden. Sell the fruits (& vegetables) of the gardens' labor at a farmer's market in the school parking lot on the weekends.
    • Start a hackerspace in the school for the community. Students in class such as design, computer science, engineering, or any other class where they need to build stuff could be given free memberships and all other students can become members for discounted rates. Hackerspace members can access it all day. Let advanced students lead workshops for community members.

    Ideas like these take more effort and money- but in the end the rewards may pay for themselves. In essence, make the school a community learning center and let the community share its skills and knowledge with the students and vice versa.

9. Leverage Technology

This section is surprisingly short (considering the topic), and the recommendations focus around two main ideas:

  • Students and educators should have access to educational resources at any time. They don't quite recommend making broadband internet access a universal right, they do hint at it. I'd agree- though I'm not sure how that gets implemented. The inexpensive computers available today make computer ownership possible for even quite poor families. Paying $30-$50/month for internet access is much less likely to fit into tiny budgets. I also like the recommendation to "leverage online environments [...] for two-way communication, feedback, and collaboration..." Those environments are widely used today (in the form of social network sites), but more often than not are blocked by the schools themselves. It'd be nice to see schools embracing the power of these tools instead of hiding from them.
  • Keep the technology infrastructure up to date. Of course I agree with this, but it's a matter of money. Even though reasonably powerful computers are becoming less and less expensive, it's still a major cost. I'd like to see schools use free and open source software (Open Office instead of Microsoft Office, for instance) or free resources such as Google Apps for Education. These would help keep software costs down and allow for money to be allocated more wisely elsewhere.
  • .

    10. Continue the Transformation Process

    The report makes suggestions on how to avoid reform stagnation at both the state and district level. Several of the recommendations focus on items like changing statutes or education budgets. I don't have too much of an opinion on these items (due to my own relative ignorance on the topics more than anything else). However, two of the recommendations contain a similar idea that I find extremely attractive. Essentially, they say: Let innovators innovate.. One suggests districts can receive waivers for state statues and regulations to experiment with new ideas to improve student learning. The second recommends providing systems for teachers and principals to experiment with innovative practices.

    If you let smart people do creative things- even if those things are outside the state's or school's "mandates"- you'll end up with a ton of great ideas that help everyone in the end (see: Google's 20% time). Instead of alienating smart people and ultimately driving them out of the education sector, you'd be empowering them and attracting more innovation.

    ______________________________

    1. There isn't a single good definition for what I mean here, but think of the stereotypical adult-centric school or classroom. (back)
    2. Clearly the assessments would be less standardized than the existing Connecticut Academic Performance Test or Connecticut Mastery Test, but they'd still be the state standard. (back)
    3. I admit this could simply be due to specific situations in each respective district, but after hearing and reading about other people's similar experience, it seems to be a fair generalization. (back)
    4. For a smart person's perspective on this matter, let me recommend Deborah Meier's article, As Though They Owned the Place: Small Schools as Membership Communities (pdf alert). (back)
    5. That, to toot my own horn, was nominated for a Scholar of Excellence award by my advisor. (back)
    6. I readily admit any administrator worth their salt talks to students regularly and knows more about what goes on inside the classroom than simply what they see when they're personally in the classroom. I still think 0.48% is a pretty sorry basis for an evaluation. (back)