Monday, October 3, 2016

No Digital Leadership for the Future (and No Research Base, Either)

"Future-Ready Schools" is emerging as the umbrella buzzword for the cluster of edu-biz opportunities emerging around the world of personalized learning, competency-based education, and the computer-driven school. There's a lot to learn about this area, and none of it is encouraging for fans of public education or the general idea of having children taught by human beings.

You can read a lot about Future Ready Schools here at a website that exists at a staggering nexus of private and government organizations, and we'll dip back into this slimy ocean many times in the weeks ahead. But today we're narrowing the focus.

On the Future Ready Framework page, we find the claim that the framework is research based. The phrase links to a report from the feds that makes two things clear:

1) The future for personalized learning is disturbing.

2) Anything can be "research-based" if you define "research" broadly enough.

We have seen #2 in action before-- the government definition of evidence-based as found in the Every Student Succeeds Act is less stringent than the standard used by the Weekly World News.

So what is research-based, exactly?

But the Characteristics of Future Ready Leadership paper from the US Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology says it provides a rubric! So you know this is hard data in action here. Research based! Really!! And here are the things that count as evidence according to the department:

Experimental research-- this is the empirical research that uses "an experimental or quasi-experimental approach" to test a theory of action of "explore connections" between inputs and outcomes. So there's no need to distinguish between correlation and causation, and no mention of review or replication of this experimental research.

Descriptive research-- for this one, all you need do is observe, give a survey, or conduct an interview with someone about a program. Fact checkers are unnecessary.

Grey literature-- now we just throw caution to the wind. Any white paper or report from a "reputable source" is fair game. It need not be connected to reality in any measurable way.

Professional standards-- standards put together by any leading organization in the field.

Expert opinion-- "conclusions or conjectures" from any expert in the field.

So if you imagined that "research-based" meant "based in research, like the kind conducted by trained scientists under controlled conditions with solid experimental designs and peer review," you were kidding yourself. A think tank paper based on unicorn breath and fairy tears, a glowing description of a program created under the control of that programs PR department, or just a wild-ass guess from someone who's managed to gain a rep as an "expert" -- that's all perfectly good for building a research base (suddenly the career of Raj Chetty makes more sense).

Does the USED meet this high standard?

The paper we're looking at has a nine-page bibliography. And it makes full use of the very broad definition of "research" delineated above, and embrace so wide that anything that came back on a google search for "education stuff" would count as research.

Here's "The digital learning imperative" from the Alliance for Excellent Education, a full-out reformy group led by former governor Bob Wise. This papers is a good example of the "report as advocate's PR argument" school of reporting. Not really research at all, but a finely woven tale that spins out "Let me tell you why I think you should agree with my policy ideas, based on the thoughts in my head and not really anything else."

Here's a piece on digital backpacks written in 2007, whene all discussion of digital backpacks was purely theoretical and speculative. Or a page on blended professional development that is mostly a presentation of the reasoning arguing in favor of it, with an overview of how it worked in one place (though not a consideration of how well it worked). And another speculative piece about the imagined future of elearning, again from 2007.

And that's just in the As. Cruising through the list of sources we find a piece by iNACOL, the group invested in promoting on-line edubusiness. An article advocating for flipped learning from the Flipped Learning Network. A straight-up advertisement from Digital Promise for their micro-credentials program.

Are there some legit sources as well. Sure. But by this definition of "research," a study about the effects of smoking could go ahead and cite promotional materials from R J Reynolds about the benefits of smoking.

So what are we pushing here?

So all of this sort-of-faux-research is being harnessed in the service of what, exactly? And can we see that leadership rubric now?

Well, second question first-- no, we cannot. Despite promises to the contrary, there is no rubric. There are charts which list "dimensions" for each of the four leadership qualities along with initials indicating which "type" of "research" is being referenced along with an "exemplary" column which-- seriously, we're going to label a column with an adjective. I guess this is supposed to represent the very best version of the dimension, skipping other columns like "good enough," and "not so great," thereby creating the impression that this is a rubric of some sort. It's not. It's a bad, lazy chart being used to dress up non-research.

So let's look at each of the four qualities needed for Futury Leadership.

Collaborative Leadership

Here's the definition of collaborative leadership that we are offered:

Commitment to demonstrating strong leadership aptitude, developing the vision, securing the ongoing funding, building the district-wide leadership team, and garnering the broad-based support needed to ensure a successful digital learning transition for students and teachers.

Do government copywriters go to a special school in which the meanings of words are sucked out of their heads? What part of that definition looks remotely like collaboration? This is sales and marketing-- grow your vision, sell your vision, get backers for your vision, convince underlings to buy into your vision. There's no collaboration here. None.

As we break it down into dimensions, some collaborative moments emerge in which district leaders are supposed to do things like seek "input in decision making" and convene "a team of diverse stakeholders." And then there's the "Culture of Trust and Innovation" in which everyone is supposed to be linked all the time, but somehow also feel free to take risks and operate independently. Big brother is watching, so just follow your muse bravely while you follow the strategic plan for implementing the vision. Gollow the exact same plan in our own way. Let's all be independent together.

Personalized Student Learning 

This is central to the Future Ready School, and the hub around which everything else turns, and this shows a complete lack of awareness of any of the weaknesses and problems of the approach. (You can read some of my research-based writing on the subject here).

The rigorous and relevant learning outcomes should be "defined in terms of competencies," which means they will be neither rigorous nor relevant, but limited to the sorts of hoops best suited to cyber-jumping. The "integrated assessments" should be set up to collect data on an ongoing basis-- all computerized testing, all the time. Students are on a pathway that is part student-chosen, part teacher-chosen, and part software-chosen. There will be all sorts of "high-quality content and tools aligned with outcomes." Meaning that everything is ultimately driven by what the computer is capable of assessing on a large scale across all students.

Oh, and teachers get new roles as "educational designers, coaches and facilitators, guiding students through their personalized learning experiences. Which is not so much "new" roles as just "frewer" roles.

Robust Infrastructure

Equitable access to next-generation bandwidth, wireless, hardware, and devices, managed by support personnel for reliable use-- both inside and outside of school.

Of all the pipe dreams of the CBE/Personalized Learning "revolution," this is the most pipely dreamiest.

While some supporters of CBE get excited about this part because they can just imagine all the money to be made here, but it's not very clear where all that money is going to come from. But this quality calls for specific high speed internet connections and a piece of equipment in every pot, with nifty software to boot. I cannot even begin to imagine the price to actually do this-- and to do it in such a speedy manner that schools have "next-generation" equipment all the time (aka all new hard- and soft-ware every six months).

Personalized Professional Learning

Yeah, let's just plug all teachers in to computers to earn their micro-credentials by passing ridiculous assessments on line. That's dopey enough, but the dimension that renders all the rest of this into sheer nonsense is the one that declares that the only professional development that matters is the one that raises student scores.

There are other dimensions to suggest that we can do this on the cheap by having teachers train and coach each other, and that would actually be a fine thing if we were thinking about actually improving teaching and not just raising test scores. But since teachers' jobs will now be just to coach students through their computerized programs, I guess better teaching is beside the point anyway.

But just like the students, teachers will be plugged in all day, every day, and the professional development will just sort of seep into our pores.

This is dreadful stuff

The future-ready classroom is a deeply unappealing place to actual teachers. Lord knows there's lots of technology that could be-- and is-- useful, but the future-ready classroom is neither student centered nor teacher centered, but software centered and data driven, which means everything will be designed around the needs of the software designers and hardware vendors. Students and teachers will just have to adapt, and education itself will be twisted into a mass of unenlightened hoop-jumpery. Feel free to quote my argument here as research-based.


  1. I'm EdTech teacher ed faculty member and I agree 100%. Stuff like this gives us a bad name.

  2. I have an idea for personalized learning. We hand out real books to students and they read them. It can be personalized by giving students some choices about which books they want to read.

    I'm serious. I teach at a community college and my two sons are in high school. My sons are not reading books in high school, and my community college students don't read much at all. I used to see some CC students sitting on campus and reading books, some just for pleasure. But I don't see much of that anymore. Everyone is looking at a phone.