Thursday, March 10, 2005

A false promise?

There's been a lot of talk for the past decade or two that computers will revolutionize education. They'll fundamentally transform schools by increasing efficiency, streamlining instruction, and guaranteeing content delivery.

I'm skeptical.

I started reading Todd Oppenheimer's book The Flickering Mind, which covers this very topic from a skeptical point of view.

But I also want to remain open to the possibilities that technology does afford to classroom teachers and students. Consider assessment, for instance. Most states have their annual high-stakes standardized exams in the spring and the results aren't returned till the fall. By then it's too late for last year's teacher to do anything about it. And if the schools rely on those tests, the current year teacher won't have a measure of what the child has learned until he's gone to the next grade. And so on and so on. What if students took their tests at a computer and received instant feedback? Wouldn't that help improve instruction?

I'm interested in getting people's ideas about this topic. The Texas Public Education Committee, where I've been working a bit lately, takes up a bill designed to greatly increase the amount of technology used in the classroom. It's probably a good idea, but, as always, the devil is in the details. What are the legitimate, appropriate, and useful applications of technology in the classroom? And when does it become just another quick fix for all that ails us?

Oppenheimer begins his book with a quote from Thomas Edison in 1922: "I belive that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our education system." Similar claims were made by prominent people about radio and TV. Will computers actually revolutionize education? Or is it, as Oppenheimer claims, a false promise?

I know it when I see it

Good article from CSM about the new SAT's which get rolled out this Saturday. They now feature a 25 minute, 2 page writing section. I've been practicing with some of my students with this exercise and, not surprisingly, find it to be stultifying. To succeed at writing an essay that an evaluator will spend maybe 3 minutes reading (mixed in with 8-10 hours of reading other handwritten essays -- what ring of hell do you suppose that fits into?) a student must absolutely fit their ideas into the old intro-thesis-topic sentence-evidence-conclusion format. Good writing is rarely so formulaic. If students come away thinking that that formula constitutes good writing, the College Board has done a grave disservice to us all. Hopefully, today's teens are more savvy than that. I think they are.

Of course, if you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I'm no expert on good writing. But as a Supreme Court justice once said of pornography, I can't define it, but I know it when I see it. Let's hope the SAT evaluators do, too.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

More Republican opposition to NCLB

It really does seem more and more like the support for No Child Left Behind is eroding quickest in Republican areas. Given the well-known Democratic discontent with its underfundedness (nice word, huh?), this erosion of Republican support must be particularly alarming to the Bushies.

Here's an article from earlier this week that indicates that Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE) wants more flexibility and the Utah Senators who allowed for extra time before they joined the Utah House in rejecting NCLB, sent a letter to Bush, warning him not to mistake their olive branch for weakness. Make no mistake, they said, they want more flexibility and local control.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

The facilities gap

There's been a lot of discussion here -- and in statehouses and supreme courts across the country -- about adequacy and equity. The more I study this, the more it becomes apparent that the root of most -- not all -- education problems is funding. Steps have been made in the last several decades to equalize funding, but remember it was only 50 years ago that segregation officially ended. And it was only in the 1970's that schools began to see an increase in funds based on the number of kids in poverty, special ed, and bilingual ed programs.

There is no doubt, we have come a long way.

The next big step, though, must be facilities funding. The vast majority of states tie their funding to local property taxes. This creates obvious inequalities. States need to ensure that property taxes are collected by the state and distributed evenly. Yes, the suburbs will cry foul, but without taking that step, there will be a permanent underclass of school districts. And that's bad for everybody because it means there will be more people in our prisons and more people dependent on welfare programs. Those costs are a lot higher than the costs of creating an equalized system.

Here's the test we all need to take. Imagine that to determine where your child will go to school, we will put all of the names your state's schools on a wheel and give it a spin. Wherever it stops, that's where your kid goes. Would you feel OK with that risk? Probably not. All states have some districts (and we all know where they are) that are clearly deficient. We must equalize facilities spending.

I understand that money is not everything. But neither is instruction everything. What goes on in the classroom is largely dependent on the condition of that classroom. Is it in a portable building? Is the furniture comfortable? Is the roof leaking? Is there mold in the walls? Are there computers in the room? These questions are important.

Too many states are failing large numbers of school districts and thus, large numbers of children. Where's the accountability for that?

Before we talk about achievement gaps, we need to talk about funding gaps and facilities gaps. We need to talk about creating equitable funding systems. Without this, no amount of testing will improve the quality of education or the quality of America's workforce.

By the way, an anonymous poster suggested that I act too wise for my own good. Please allow me to say, there is a hell of a lot that I don't know. I do this because I want to learn. I hope Jenny D. and Eduwonk and others that I argue with know that I do it with deep respect, even when I do get snarky. I appreciate the dialogue, the knowledge, the free exchange of ideas, and especially the conflict which leads to new insights and ideas.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Newsflash! Funding probably linked to academic success

I've checked out several academic studies on funding levels and academic performance. Of course, from what I've read so far, the studies have shown that they're linked. Duh. But some people (hi, Jenny D.) don't seem to believe this self evident truth so we'll try the old fashioned way: with empirical data.

I'll be reading these books and scouring the evidence for proof. If you have any favorite studies, or other proof or evidence of any kind, please point the way in the comments section below.

And Jenny D., if you have anything to suggest that additional funding would be deleterious to the progress of American schoolchildren and thus to the future of the Republic, I truly look forward to seeing it.

Our children will not be standardized

A state rep here in Austin will host a videoconference event on NLCB called "Our Children Will Not Be Standardized." You can listen in by clicking here this Thursday at 6.

Guests include Dr. Angela Valenzuela (Professor at UT-Austin), Dr. Belinda Flores (Professor at UT-San Antonio), Al Kauffman (Professor at Harvard-Civil Rights Project), and Dr. Linda McNeil (Professor at Rice University).

As I reported last week, NCLB might be in trouble here even with uber-Republican Governor Rick Perry. It's great to see a budding movement against the misguided and underfunded law here, and I'll be happy to be a part of it.

Watch the wascaly wabbit for yourself

Does this bunny look dangerous to you?

If you wanted to watch the Sugartime! episode of Buster (recently banned by the Department of Education for including a family with two moms), you can do so all week by clicking here. And while you're at the Family Pride site, write an email to Secretary Spellings and let her know that her intolerance of homosexuality is unacceptable. (They're encouraging everyone to do so on March 10 as part of a "Virtual Rally.")

I wrote a few weeks ago that even though I intensely dislike No Child Left Behind, we should have national standards. This is one clear example: every school should teach tolerance and inclusion. This is one of the proper roles of the federal government: to ensure that minorities are represented and included as members of our democratic society.

Spellings, so far, has failed to meet national standards. (Maybe she'll make adequate progress on her next test. If not, can we transfer her to another country? get her tutoring? or, even better, have a "turnaround team" come in and fix things?)

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Business Week articles

Business Week's March 14 issue has this interview with Margaret Spellings which is significant only because she managed to say nothing even remotely new or interesting yet again. God she's good at that.

But they also ran this article about the fledgling effort to expand NCLB to high school. Money quote:

Prominent pro-reform Democrats, including Kennedy and Representative George Miller of California, are unwilling to team up with Bush again, burned by what they view as a gaping $39 billion shortfall in funding for No Child Left Behind. What's more, about 50 conservative House Republicans, many of whom reluctantly backed Bush's K-8 reforms out of first-term loyalty, say they are unwilling to extend the federal reach in education. "However well-intentioned, one more unfunded mandate from Washington will not cure what ails our local schools," says Representative Mike Pence (R-Ind.), chair of the conservative House Republican Study Committee.

... "You have both a political problem and a funding issue," says Michael N. Castle (R-Del.), chairman of the House subcommittee on education reform. "There is insufficient support in the House of Representatives now to pass it."

Ouch. We'll see how good Spellings' much vaunted political skills really are. She'll definitely be tested on this one. I gotta tell ya, it feels weird to cheer on anything Mike Pence says, but his quote is spot on: no unfunded mandate will fix schools. Period.

In response to Jenny D.

In response to this post, Jenny D. asked some difficult -- and very important -- questions:

Brink, Newark NJ schools spend $15,000 per pupil, more than any other K-12 district in the state. So tell me again about inequitable funding? If funding is the answer, then shouldn't Newark students be the top achievers in the state?

I'd like to thank you, Jenny, for plunging me into several hours of study on New Jersey schools in the midst of an otherwise perfectly enjoyable weekend. Here's what I found:

  1. In 1988, a New Jersey court concluded (in a case known as Abbott vs. Burke) a seven year trial and ruled that a few dozen poor school districts did not have enough funds to meet their constitutional mandate to provide a "thorough and efficient" education. Over the next 15 years or so, the state dragged its feet so badly, that several more lawsuits ensued and in 2002 in Abbott VIII (yes, there were 8 of these things), the courts ruled that New Jersey had still not complied with court orders to equalize funding. (For a complete timeline, click here.)
  2. The Newark schools which Jenny D. references (I didn't bring them up, she did) have been run by the state for nearly a decade now. The staet has done no better than the districts did, though.

  1. The new money has only arrived in the last few years and hasn't had time to make a significant impact yet.
  2. Newark throws into serious doubt a major piece of No Child Left Behind: the provision that allows for schools to be taken over by a state after four years' failure to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). What makes us think -- especially when looking at New Jersey's record -- that a state's "education SWAT team" (as they're often called) -- will succeed? Where' s the evidence for that? Here's an article from just this weekend from the North Jersey Herald on this very topic. First graf: "Fourteen years after the state seized Paterson public schools, the problems officials sought to erase persist. Test scores are far below standards. Buildings have structural, heating and plumbing problems. Audits report misspent dollars."
So back to Jenny's question: "If funding is the answer, then shouldn't Newark students be the top achievers in the state?" They should be, but the state took over the district and misspent the money. The fourth of year of NCLB is almost upon us. Are we to see replays of New Jersey all over the country?

Ball's back in your court, Jenny. I look forward to your response.
Listed on BlogShares