Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Leaving Personalized Silicon Valley

Paul Emerich is a National Board Certified Educator and International Education Consultant, despite the fact that he's not been in the classroom for very long. He's also a blogger (InspirED: Inspiring Stories from the Classroom), and he's getting attention right now for his piece repudiating the Gospel of Personalized Learning. His rejection is important, because we're talking about someone who devoted several years to one of the most high-profile Personalized Learning schools out there, but his piece is also important because it, perhaps inadvertently, highlights the ignorance and hubris that helps pump up these projects in the first place.

I had gone into the school year with unrelenting energy, thrilled to be opening a brand new micro-school and to work on technology tools that were intended to personalize my students’ learning. The idea sounded exhilarating: I was set to work with real engineers on a technology platform for the classroom. It would allow me to send individualized “cards” to a child’s “playlist.” These cards would house activities tailored to each of my children so that they could, in theory, learn at their own pace and at their own level. It sounded like the greatest idea ever known to man.



Though he doesn't name the school, both the description and his LinkedIN profile indicate that he's talking about AltSchool , a Silicon Valley wunderschool that was backed by big names like Zuckerberg, but which just shifted its mission from actually running schools to marketing personalized learning software.

Emerich started to notice that the approach was both unsustainable and the very opposite of personalized. "Isolated," "impersonal," "disembodied" and "disconnected" are all words he used. He wishes that he had known then what he knows now, which is perhaps one key to the secret of how damn fool things like AltSchool get started and financed and promoted in the first place.

"We were tasked with the never-before-done vision of individualizing every child’s education," he writes, and I'm thinking "never before?!" Nobody in education has ever pursued a vision of personalization before? Because I'm pretty sure I could introduce you to a few dozen teachers for whom personalization has been their North Star for their whole career. They just didn't try to run it by computer, or make investors happy with it.

And then there's this head-slapper:

When I began working in Silicon Valley, personalized learning was very new. No one really knew what it meant, and as a result, it led to us having unrealistic expectations for what we could really achieve in the classroom and what was actually best for kids.

No. No, it wasn't "very new" or even "sort of new." The only thing that was remotely new was the idea of harnessing it to a computer, but even that was not all that new. And lots of people knew exactly what it meant, but guys like AltSchool founder Max Ventilla and funder Zuckerberg and the whole raft of technocrats back to David Frickin' Coleman warriors don't want to do their homework, because-- I don't know-- they have to believe that their idea is fresh and new? They don't think anybody in the actual field of education knows anything? Dude, people were pointing out the unreality of the expectations every step of the way. You guys just didn't want to hear it.

Emerich cites some recent articles about the shortcomings of "personalized" learning, but he wants you to know that he's still the smartest guy in the room:

Interestingly enough, I noticed this within my first year, well before these resources were made available. 

No, dude. Those particular recent articles weren't available back then, but a mountain of similar resources were totally available back then and also back when you were in college becoming a baby teacher. You got excited about this job, and you failed to do your damn homework.

I was so inspired by the company at the outset, excited to be in a private organization that truly valued teachers as 21st century knowledge workers. But as every month passed, my naïvete became resoundingly self-evident. This company I had joined was just that–a company. And their primary concern was not the children’s education: their primary concern was monetizing the tools. Their primary stakeholders were the investors who’d invested a great deal of money in this–albeit interesting–idea.

Again, I am glad that Emerich figured this out. Better late than never and all that, but damn-- this was all patently self-evident and plenty of people were saying so. But he wants to share with us all now. He has come to tell us, to tell us all.

I share this now publicly because I want teachers around the country to know that the vision for personalized learning that Silicon Valley preaches does not work. We proved it time and time again. Hyper-individualization does precisely what the emerging body of research says it does and more: it isolates children, it breeds competition, it assumes that children can learn entirely on their own, and it dehumanizes the learning environment, reducing the human experience of learning down to a mechanistic process, one where children become the objects of learning as opposed to the subjects of their own educational narrative.

I am, frankly, torn. One part of me wants to say, "Yes! You tell it, brother." The other part of me wants to say, "No shit, Sherlock."

Emerich is the guy who got excited about his hot new job hunting snipe at the unicorn farm and ignored the hundreds of people hollering "There are no snipes! There is no unicorn farm!" And then he comes back later (in this case, three years later) to announce, "I want you to know that I have discovered Something Important that I must tell you all. I have discovered that there are no snipes, and there is no unicorn farm."

I've been trying to understand why this piece, which confirms so much of what many of us have said, and does so from the perspective of someone who's been there-- why does this rub me the wrong way. The best explanation is this: Emerich calls himself naive, but I think he's letting himself off easy. I don't think he's so much naive as arrogant, and the same arrogance that was displayed in heading off to charter techno-teaching without doing any due diligence is the same arrogance that leads him to make this Momentous Announcement of things that he has personally discovered, as if a few thousand other folks hadn't already caught on years and years ago.

I appreciate his point of view, and his confirmation that charter school companies are businesses, not schools, and that personalized learning via computer is a sham and a fraud, and I'm happy that people are sharing this like crazy. But dammit-- if more of these tech folks would do their damn homework, we wouldn't have to keep learning the same old lessons over and over, and we wouldn't keep subjecting live human children to foolishness that we already know is foolishness. In the meantime, he's now the Academic Chair at the high-end private Latin School of Chicago. I guess time will tell what lessons he actually learned from his stay in Silicon Valley.

DeVos Assesses the Past

Betsy DeVos was invited to the American Enterprise Institute's USED retrospective, an attempt to figure out what we could have learned from the education policies of Bush and Obama, and her prepared remarks further crystallized her position about public ed and the Core, while also continuing to establish just how little she knows about the system she is nominally in charge of.



Here are some of the highlights.

After the introductions and acknowledgements, she launches with this:

My work over thirty years has revolved around time spent on the outside, looking in. Outside Washington. Outside the LBJ building. Outside "the system." Some have questioned the presence of an outsider in the Department of Education, but, as it's been said before, maybe what students need is someone who doesn't yet know all the things you "can't do."

This is several kinds of disingenuous, since DeVos has spent plenty of time in various back rooms working Michigan's system with all the political clout and checkbook leverage she could muster. "It's been said before" is a nice nod to her boss's rhetorical technique of attributing his own thoughts to the ubiquitous "somebody." And this outsider rhetoric-- sure. I'll bet when a member of DeVos's family has to get a major operation, she says, "Get me a surgeon who's never done this kind of operation before. I want an outsider's view, the view of somebody who doesn't know what you can't do when you're slicing major organs." When she goes out to eat, no doubt she asks for the chef who hasn't cooked before, so her food comes with a real outsider's POV.

To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago.

To her "school's haven't changed in a century" rhetoric, DeVos adds "to the casual observer." It's still a debatable point, but more importantly, so we want education policy set by casual observers. To the casual observer, a poison mushroom looks edible. Maybe if we want to have a serious discussion, we should have it with people who are more than casual observers. But she's not done. She will now link this idea that we have an industrial model of schools, and she'll offer an example:

Think of your own experience: sit down; don't talk; eyes front. Wait for the bell. Walk to the next class. Repeat. Students were trained for the assembly line then, and they still are today.

Gah. First, don't think of your own experience, because your own experience is decades out of date (or, of course, in DeVos's case, not even a public school). Why is one premise of so much reformster rhetoric the notion that schools haven't changed a bit since they were students themselves? What evidence is there that schools have stayed locked in amber? Because I'm telling you-- I'm teaching at the exact same school I graduated from in 1975, and things are not the same here. DeVos's highly regimented picture of an assembly line school sounds mostly like a No Excuses charter school, or the beloved Success Academy.

Now she trots out the old PISA results complaint, along with the context-free observation about spending. Matt Barnum has already fact-checked this point:

The US does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similar sized economies. 

Now DeVos inserts a new point-- that education policy represents a unique unity of goal, that folks from across the aisle and the spectrum, because everyone wants "students to be prepared and to live successful lives." I'd like to believe that's true, but I'm not sure it is. I think what some people want is for the education sector to be opened up so that there are more opportunities to make money. I think what some people want is not to have to pay money to educate Those Peoples' Children.

But DeVos goes on to say one of the few things I've almost agreed with:

The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.

Or at least not as advertised. Again, I suspect that some folks hoped that the federal reform efforts would disrupt public education and make it ripe for privatization. Things worked out pretty well for them. But yes-- for the advertised goals of making education Way More Awesome or at least Raising Test Scores, federal reform has been unspectacular in its results.

DeVos explicitly backs away from impugning motives or criticizing previous goals. However--

We should hope – no, we should commit – that we as a country will not rest until every single child has equal access to the quality education they deserve. Secretary Spellings was right to ask "whose child do you want to leave behind."

No, no she wasn't. Spellings was a cynical politician, using a cheap rhetorical device to avoid discussing the complete foolishness of the "all students will be above average" goals of NCLB. And I'm going to object, as always, to the use of "access." Everyone on the Titanic had access to a lifeboat, but some were still doomed to drown.

But now DeVos will move on to analysis. Why exactly did all those previous policies fail? She does a quick recap, characterizing Bush's NCLB as the stick and Obama's RttT as carrot. NCLB didn't raise test scores, and the SIG money didn't do any good (this is an old point for her, and she continues to draw the wrong lesson from it). So why did they fail, again?

Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem. Too many of America's students are still unprepared. 

You can see where she's going-- it's that damn federal gummint. Ironically, her statement points to an alternate answer (one that she will not examine)-- the continued unsupported, evidence-free assertion that US public schools are failing.

She also wants to say that she agrees with Trump that Common Core is Bad (though there's no reason to believe he understands anything about it) and that at the USED, Common Core is dead. I'm not sure what that means. Most states still have some version of the Core in place; does DeVos plan to kill those, too? Or just pretend she doesn't see them?

She throws in a great Rick Hess reference here (the federal government is good at making states, district and schools do something, but it's not good at making them do it well) on her way to her bottom line. Educators, parents and students don't need bossy-pants baloney from Washington. Reform shifted emphasis from comprehension to test-passing, damaging the teacher-student relationship. (Also, she will mis-quote some info about teachers feeling disempowered). Education, she says, should be all about the relationship between teachers, parents and students.

She notes that federal meddling goes back all the way to the first Bush, and she quotes (inevitably) A Nation at Risk, again missing the opportunity to note that everything she dislikes has been fueled by the same unsupported chicken littling about the awfulness of public schools (a bell that she herself keeps clanging).

But we've been doing it all wrong. She will now share three ideas for moving forward and really fixing things, this time.

First, she wants us to recognize that the feds can't be the national school board or superintendent (and she blames that idea on the unions). ESSA is a good step, she claims, having apparently missed the part where ESSA keeps focus on the Big Standardized Test. And even states, she says, should resist the urge to centrally plan. States should empower teachers and parents, and I notice again that she is having a real teacher-love day here. Oh, but here comes her big advice to the states, who "have the latitude and freedom to try new approaches to serve individual students."

My message to them is simple: do it!

Well, yes. That's simple. Care to elaborate even a little?

Embrace the imperative to do something bold... to challenge the status quo... to break the mold.

Oh, well. Okay. That clears that up. Is she going to offer any useful specific advice at all? Just one-- make information available to parents about school and teacher performance. Which is the same idea Bush and Obama pushed, the same idea that gave us test-driven education. That mold remains, apparently, unbroken.

Second, she wants to empower parents.

Like her boss, she builds her case based on who this will piss off, not what good it will do. As support for parental choice grows, "sycophants entrenched in and defending the status quo are terrified." Choice, she says, will always be available for the affluent and the powerful (like, you know, the DeVos family), and so she says (channeling some more Trump), "let's empower the forgotten parents to decide where their children go to school."

DeVos sets up her favorite dichotomy-- parental choice, she hears, is never bad for parents or children, but just for the system. The example of the Turpin family, which tortured its children under the guise of a state-approved private school, is a pretty good counter-example. But then, so are the schools of Detroit, where a whole bunch of students were left in underfunded schools so that a few other students could have a choice. Pretending that gutting the system does not have bad effects for th students in that system is one of DeVos's most intellectually dishonest talking points, but she does love it.

Third, she wants to rethink school.

What does that mean exactly. It seems to mean asking a lot of questions that DeVos thinks nobody has ever asked before. Except that lots of people have asked them before, but because DeVos has that super-special "outrsider" point of view, she doesn't know it. So she thinks that asking about the school day, the school year, pacing-- she thinks these well-studied issues are radical and new. And of course she would also like to ask why we can't just bulldoze public schools, hand every parent a voucher, and just let them all fend for themselves.

She throws in a patronizing "I know the unknown can be scary" but does not follow through by wondering if maybe we could know some of these things, or if somebody does already know (because someone who already knows is an insider, so, you know, just shut up). She rings the urgency bell-- students need us to do new things RIGHT NOW!

And then she shoots a hole in her argument without even understanding she's done it.

We, the public, can't wait either. Education is good for the public.

Everything else-- our health, our economy, our continued security as a nation-- depends on what we do today for the leaders of tomorrow. It follows, then, that any educator in any learning environment serves the public good.

No, that's half right. Education is for the good of the public. That's why bad educators in unhealthy learning environments are a problem. That's why systemic racism expressed in the deliberate underfunding of minority schools is a problem. That's why systems that silence every member of the public who is not a parent are a problem. That's why schools that teach things that are just plain not so are a problem. And that's why agencies that shirk their responsibility to oversee this public good are a problem.

If the purpose of public education is to educate the public, then it should... not... matter what word comes before school.

This, for my money, is an even dumber statement than the infamous grizzly comment. If the word before "school" is "for-profit" or "flat earth" or "Aryan race" or-- well, good lord, the list is endless. Does she really mean to suggest that as long as it's some kind of school, we're good.

After that, it's all over but the Inspirational Closing.

When our grandchildren tell their  children about this moment in history, let them say we were the ones who finally put students first.

Sigh.

First, it takes a special combination of ignorance and hubris to imagine that you are setting a new standard for calling to put students first, as if none of the millions of people who have worked in education never once thought, "You know, I'd rather like to make students my main focus here." While DeVos has scrubbed a lot of the language that used to be her bread and butter-- US schools are so bad they couldn't get worse, and the whole government school system is just a scam created by unions to get fat checks for so-called teachers who just want to do nothing all day--  this line shows some of the old DeVos creeping through.

Second, let's think about this. Because the short form of the DeVosian position is, "Here at the Department of Education, we will put students first by doing nothing." That's a neat trick, but it goes with that DeVosian disconnect in which the secretary remains unable to imagine a situation where her department would step in and say, "No, you can't do that" to any school. Does she think that any state or federal agency should have stepped in and said, "No, Mr. Turpin, you cannot open a school where the curriculum is to chain your children in the basement without food and water." And if the answer is no, as it seems to be, then how does she think this works? If her beloved marketplace is free to be overrun by fraudsters, scam artists, and cheats, how exactly are parents empowered?

I will say this-- whoever is writing DeVosianj speeches is getting slicker and better at taking off some of the rough edges. But DeVos remains hampered by her ignorance and her desire to dismantle public education.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

CA: The Worst Private School Horror Story Imagineable

By now you've heard about the story of the Turpins, the California couple that kept thirteen children held captive in the basement, some in shackles, all horrifyingly undernourished. Several of the children are, at this point, actually adults, having lived like this for years.

How could such a thing happen? Read this paragraph from further down the page in the New York Times coverage of the story:

California records show that Mr. Turpin had received state approval to run a private school, the Sandcastle Day School, at the family’s home, a one-story stucco house in a subdivision built in recent years. The school enrolled six students this year, in grades six through 12, and Mr. Turpin was listed as the principal.

And as of this afternoon, the "school" is still listed on the state's directory! (h/t Wendy Hirschegger)


This is a worst-case scenario, and I would not attempt to paint other private schools with the Turpin brush because, please God, this is a rare and terrible outlier.

But it is also a reminder of just how bad things can conceivably get when your state exercises no oversight over non-public schools. Does abuse happen in public schools? Sure. Do most private schools operate without horrifying abuse of this sort? Sure. But it's hard to imagine something remotely like this happening in a public school, subject to considerable oversight. And it's hard to imagine how a state like California, where private and charter schools are allowed to function with little or more state oversight, could have caught this.

This is why focusing only on the interests of the family and dismantling public institutions is a bad idea-- because some families are horrible, and if there are no government institutions watching out for the rights of the children, those rights will be buried in a home-built dungeon. This is why a stance of "We don't want to impose any government rules or oversight on private education providers" is an unacceptable stance.

Monsters thrive in the dark and shrink in the sun. Expecting monsters to illuminate themselves is simply abandoning their victims, and that is not okay.

Robot Overlords Due in Decade

This piece is from last year, but it's a reminder of just how bone-numbing stupid some education "experts" are. Sir Anthony Seldon is a vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, and the author of over 35 books about history, politics and education. He's a big-time teacher and commentator on education in Britain, and yet here he is saying things like this:

Robots will begin replacing teachers in the classroom within the next ten years as part of a revolution in one-to-one learning

Programmes currently developed in Silicon Valley will learn to read the brains and facial expressions of pupils, adapting the method of communication to what works best for them.

It will open up the possibility of an Eton or Wellignton-style education for all.

Will it? Will it really. Will we be reading news from Eton in 2027 in which they announce that they are closing their doors because students prefer learning from a computer terminal to learning from the distinguished human scholars of Eton. Will students from the very best families be abandoning private education with their peers because they would rather sit at a computer in isolation?

Because I don't think that's going to happen.

Everyone can have the very best teacher and it's completely personalized; the software you're working with will be with you throughout your educational journey.

Seriously? Because that would be eighteen years, give or take a bit. Raise your hand right now if you are using any piece of software that you were using eighteen years ago. Nobody? That's what I thought.

Teachers would be replaced with human "overseers" who would monitor progress of pupils (the one thing I think software could actually do), leading non-academic activities (what, no robot football coach?) and-- my favorite-- providing pastoral support. You mean religious activities can't be programmed into software?

But Seldon insists that "inspiration" for intellectual excitement will come from "the lighting-up of the brain which the machines will be superbly well-geared for."

Sir Anthony is far too old to have such a childlike belief in computer software and far too well-educated to engage in such magical thinking, yet here we are, with Seldon coming out with a book this year that will lay out his whole fabulist vision of education. And he believes that this has already arrived on the west coast on the US, which would indicate that he's not all that well-informed on the subject of failed software-based schools that end up being beta-testers for low-scale algorithm-driven mass-produced edu-software.

For all the investor-baiting hype, there's still no sign that computers can do this, and no evidence that they should, and no support for the notion that it's what families would choose if they could. And "the children will be excited about it because it's on a computer" is the kind of thing that only someone over 60 (with no grandchildren) believes. Teaching machines remain one of the most long-standing failed dreams of education entrepreneurs. I don't believe that's going to change in the next ten years.


Monday, January 15, 2018

The Ed Tech Revolution Is Late

Tom Vander Ark, king of tech-powered reformsterism, has a curious point to make over at EdWeek. The short summary would be something like this:

A bunch of ed tech was predicted to revolutionize education in 2017. None of that happened. Nevertheless, here are predictions for Big Ed Tech things sure to revolutionize education in 2018.

As is often the case with ed tech, we seem to have a triumph of hope over experience (and I can say that as someone on marriage #2). So what was supposed to be the Next Big Thing last year, and yet wasn't?

AR/VR didn't catch on. Gamification also failed to set the ed world on fire. Could it be that neither of these things offered any particular educational value-- at least not compared to the expense involved for districts?

Vander Ark is also disappointed in various platform systems:

Learning platforms continue to serve the schools we have not the schools we need. Most platforms support whole group learning, don't help personalized learning, can't make smart recommendations for what to do next, and don't support mastery-based progressions.


Would you like to buy this bridge?


Well, the schools we have are, in fact, the schools we have. Creating a product for imaginary future schools that may or may not ever exist, despite what reformsters say we "need," strikes me as a bad business plan, like trying to sell me the electric plastic internet-linked violins that my seven-month-old boys may someday "need." The violins would actually be a better bet, since the things Vander Ark wants platforms to do-- help personalized learning, make pedagogical recommendations, and support mastery-based progression (aka competency based learning)-- are things that nobody knows how to make software do well and/or at all yet. Might as well complain that platforms also fail to synthesize muffins out of atmospheric trace molecules.

In other words, there was a bunch of stuff that tech gurus said they'd have ready to use any minute now, which turns out to be a promise on par with your contractor's pledge that your house will be done in just two more weeks.

Something that did happen was the continued spread of chromebooks, which could be a lesson for the rest of the tech world because, regardless of all the reasons not to googlify your school, chromebooks make modest promises, do a petty good job of keeping them, and don't cost a ton of money. Utility and affordability still tend to beat flash and shiny (expensive unkept) promises. That's my analysis, not his. Vander Ark offers this advice to his primary audience (which, spoiler alert, is not actual educato

After almost a decade of venture investment, it's clear that EdTech is quite different than consumer internet. Few products go viral and freemium business models (free stuff with the hope that you'll upgrade to a premium version) doesn't produce sustainable businesses. With few exits, investors are more risk averse than five years ago.

What does Vander Ark think will happen this year (after all these things that didn't happen last year)? He sees three opportunities to cash in revolutionize education.

Broader aims. Schools are adopting some new learning goals, like social and emotional learning. So maybe someone can whip up some software to pretend to teach that! Also, project-based learning might be an opening for tech, somehow.

Personalized learning. Yeah, that AI powered personalized software will be coming along any day now. Though since we're trying to launch software, not so much personalized as depersonalized algorithm driven mass-produced custom education. Maybe students will find it engaging because it's on a computer, and I hear the children really dig the computers along with twitters and the rap music these days?? No, that ship is still not looking very seaworthy.

Platform plays. By which he means the various companies that keep buying up various platform things, like PowerSchool that was sold off by Pearson and now the new owners are buying up other companies to extend their brand. Or Aesop, the program that let subs and teachers connect Match.com style, which was bought by Frontline, which has great data ambitions but has since been bought. Or education-in-a-box charter school/beta tester Summit, which has also been bought. And all of these companies are going to buy other companies. And add features, and stuff!! This actually seems the most plausible of his predictions, as many of these companies have a foot in the schoolhouse door by virtue of having started out doing something useful, or at least shiny and attractive.

So these are things that are totally going to happen, unlike the last batch of things that were totally going to happen, and then didn't so much happen.

Vander Ark also identifies two areas that Need More Attention from public-private partnerships. Is "attention" a code word for "money"

One is interoperability, the capacity for all these great shiny programs to share and talk to each other. Which shouldn't be any problem at all, because tech companies are known for their willingness to share across platform lines. And the public won't find it at all creepy or objectionable that all these data collecting monsters are passing student data around with wild abandon.

The other is (are?) AI and blockchain. These both need millions of attentions because they still aren't ready for prime time. AI is complicated and hard and not really what most vendors are working on. And blockchain, well, mysterious and not always inspiring trust.  Don't place your bets on paperless credentials just yet.

So there you go. Big things were going to happen in 2017. They didn't. But now they totally will. They're just running a little late. While we wait, can I interest you in a bridge?

Sunday, January 14, 2018

ICYMI: End of Semester Edition (1/14)

We're on to the end of the grading period in my neighborhood, which means I've been spending more time grading papers and less time reading stuff. But I still have a few nuggets for you this week. Remember-- only you can amplify the voices that you think should be heard.

School Segregation Gerrymander Map

The same principles that go into political gerrymandering can be harnessed to segregate (or desegregate) schools. Here's how it works.

Wall Street's New Way of Making Money from Public Education

Folks have been talking about social impact bonds for a while now (yours truly included) but this piece from Valerie Strauss makes this financial legerdemain more understandable for the layperson.

Betsy DeVos harms Higher Ed More Than K12

Surprise. We were all worried about what DeVos would do to K-12 education, but she's been far more destructive for the higher ed world.

Calling Vouchers Sinful

A Baptist preacher in Texas is really annoying the GOP pro-voucher politicians there.


Robert Pondiscio asks a valid question -- are we painting a picture for our children of a terrifying world?


Courtesy of Blue Cereal education, some edu-bingo cards you can use to pass the time at your next education-flavored meeting.


Nancy Flanagan asks some important questions about who gets to be labeled "gifted" 


Jersey Jazzman, again, looks at what journalists get wrong about education


Saturday, January 13, 2018

Data-Driven Excitement! Yay!

Is there anything more exciting than being driven by data? The thrill of spreadsheets! The martial joy numbers regimented in rows! The deep-dish digitalization of all human exploration! I'm just getting all sweaty thinking about it.

Okay, not really. But there are people like this, and some even become teachers and some of those teachers decide to evangelize the gospel of data to their students. And then, lo and behold, they write articles about it. And that brings us to todays entry in the For the Love of God files.


The piece is "Exciting and Engaging Students around Data," by Molly Leger on the CenterPoint Education Solutions website, and it sits at the intersection of several reform factors.

CenterPoint is an educational consulting group, and its reformy bench is deep. CEO is Laura Slover, who spent 16 years with Achieve, including helping them launch the Common Core before she hopped over to PARCC, where she ran the outfit pushing one of the Big Standardized Tests for the Core. And look-- here's Tony Bennett, chief of state services for CenterPoint despite his scandal filled past as a charter-favoring book-cooker in Indiana schools-- behavior so egregious he had to resign his next job. Chairman of the board is Paul Pasternek, who did his best to dismantle and privatize education in Louisiana.

Ms. Leger is a fellow with TeachPlus, a group set up to be an alternative to teacher unions. It was founded and is led by a woman with ties o Mind Trust, a Midwestern reformster group. Leger is teaching in  Lawrence, MA, public schools and is in the middle of her second year in the classroom. She describes her work like this

• Accelerate student learning through the development and delivery of standards-aligned curricula for both an English and composition class
• Drive performance improvements and related systems by seeking out, gathering, and effectively using a wide variety of feedback

So that's where we are. Let's take as look at how she proposes to sow the datafied excitement.

Data is everywhere. As an adult, it weaves itself throughout my personal life and my professional career, and informs the thousands of decisions I make daily. I use data to decide what I eat, when I sleep, and which commute to take home. As a teacher, it drives my lesson plans, determines my performance evaluations, and offers insights on how to better my practice.

Oh boy. If by "data," she means "information I take in with my senses and brain," then okay. If you decide when to eat by responding to feelings of hunger, and you want to call that feeling of hunger "data," then we have no problem. I've long maintained that all teachers take in data a million times a day and use that to make their professional judgments-- we just don't frame that data as numbers and charts and spreadsheets. If you want to say that "following your gut" or "using your best judgment" is about internally processing a whole lot of observation and experience and insight and information, and you want to call that "data," then you and I are just having a difference of semantics. Also, I do not think that word means what you think it means.

But if you're consulting spreadsheet-style digitized data to help you decide when to eat and sleep, then I weep for the younger generation.

Yet, for all its importance in adult life, very rarely does the word “data” feature in our conversations with children. With so much to teach in so little time, we often neglect one of the most important life-skills: data-driven decision-making.

Again, our problem here may be that Ms. Leger is trying to stretch "data" to cover a broad range of ideas not usually included in the definition, like trying to spread a child's sleeping bag enough to cover the Grand Canyon.

On the other hand, if she seriously means to suggest that data-driven decision-masking is an important life skill, well.... no. When my babies cry at night, I don't consult the data o figure out what's happening or what I should do. When my older children were considering marriage, it did not occur to me to suggest that they consult the data. Number crunching, bean counting, and spreadsheet surfing are not useless skills, but they are not among the "most important life skills.

When I started to use the data from assessments in my conversations with kids, the tone of my classroom completely changed. Once students were excited about data, I no longer needed to offer prizes or pizza parties. Students were using data from assessment to make goals, monitor their progress, and demonstrate their achievement. They were more bought into assessments when they understood we would be using and celebrating that data in class.

I'm on record as being adamantly opposed to being jerks to young teachers. But Ms. Leger is working from a sample of 1.5 years here, and at the beginning of her career. She can barely have established a "tone" to be changed. And I blame her supervisers/mentors-- she should never, ever, have "needed" to offer prizes or pizza, and in fact we know that this sort of bribery is a bad idea. And for the rest, I have to ask.... what data? Because if she's talking about test scores and grades, then I suspect two things are happening here

1) She has rediscovered the power of harnessing students' desire for competitive grade grubbing

2) Her students appreciate explicit instructions on how exactly to game the system. Because data systems (like, say, PARCC tests) are invariably meant to be proxies for hard-to-measure elements, but are actually easy to manipulate numbers. EG the classic example of the company bonus for zero accidents. Since it's really measuring how many accident reports are turned in, you don't need to make the workplace safer-- just keep people from turning in accident reports. Tell students exactly what hoops they have to jump through to score points, and they will jump through those hoops-- and do nothing else.

But we've arrived at last at the six tricks to getting students all wired up about data! Here we go--

1) Never let assessment go un-discussed.

So, tell students why you're giving the test, go over the results with them, and let them know how the results will be used to design the work going forward. This strikes me as a basic teaching fundamental, known to millions of teachers. I'm not sure how exciting students find it.

2) For data to be helpful, it must be timely.

So don't turn work back weeks and weeks after it's been done. Again, I'm not sure that this is news to anybody (except, you know, test companies like the PARCC folks).

3) Use data to make and monitor class goals

Again, teaching 101. Ms. Leger wants to discuss this element with the students. Fine. Will it make them more excited?

4) Go visual.

Put up a progress poster! Yikes!! Data walls are problematic for so many reasons, and Ms. Leger makes matters worse by suggesting this technique for ELL and students with special needs. This is a lousy idea.

5) Use conferences to establish individual goals.

Ms. Leger suggests we do this during independent work time. She uses terms like "actionable goals." Yuck.

6) Celebrate progress.

"I frequently stop the class" she says, for "celebratory rituals around data-driven goal setting and achievement."

So.

So this what I find curious about the piece. There is absolutely nothing new, not even new-ish, about any of the teaching behaviors she's suggesting. There are no new insights here about how to handle a classroom (and in the case of #4, at least one technique that is long since discredited). What's new is the attempt to take the business-style language of data-drivenness to it all.

Why? Why tack new language onto what is already known? Is it to create the illusion of change when no actual change or innovation is present? Is it another way to "disrupt" traditional public education, by disrupting the language we use to talk about what we do? Is it a method of co-opting old teaching insights by making them seem to line up with the new ways; are we trying to make data-driven decisions seem less like baloney by attaching them to old-school teaching methods?

Or this just what college teacher programs are up to these days? I recognize that it's old farty of me, but pieces like this awaken one of my great fears-- that a generation brought up with NCLB and RttT and BS Testing out the wazoo will emerge into the teaching profession with no real idea of what being a teacher used to mean. A younger generation that grew up swimming in Kool-Aid, so they don't even know it's toxic.

I don't mean to be a huge jerk to Ms. Leger. It's great that she's young and enthusiastic and time in the classroom has a way, after five or seven years, of knocking some of the foolishness out of you, but if you've got enthusiasm to withstand that, your career can be great. She may well turn out to be an awesome teacher with a great career. But the various reform groups sending her out to peddle this data-driven baloney in public know exactly what they're doing, and shame on them for using a young teacher to push their reformy baloney into the world.

Nobody needs to be excited about data-driven decision making. I'd rather we got excited about using our best judgment, paying attention, listening and looking and becoming better people so that we can make better choices. Being fully human in the world is complicated and complex and, on some days, just plain hard, and suggesting that we can gather up some data points, feed them into a decisionmaker (soon to be an AI software program near you) and the One Correct Decision will pop out, hiding the whole process in business-speak argle-bargle-- well, that's all bullshit. And taking the wheel and not even bothering to reinvent it, but just renaming it so that it appears to support our rickety vehicle-- well, that's just lazy.

The best decisions are not driven by data-- they are made by human beings, and that's worth modeling and discussing in our classrooms, excited or not.