Thursday, November 12, 2015

New Gates Study of-- Oh. Never Mind

It's becoming evident that the Obama announcement heralding the fake repudiation of testing contained some sort of dog whistle or backwards masking message that was a cue for reformsters to unleash the hounds of Competency Based Education and Personalized Learning. Lots of players have laid their bets, and we've seen new heraldry from the big kahunas at Pearson. Now comes a big report funded by the Gates Foundation and conducted by the good folks at Rand.

"Promising Evidence on Personalized Learning" reports on a study about the effectiveness of various personalized learning strategies. As always, someone has paid good money to have the report laid out and graphically sweetened professionally, and the report itself is about thirty-eight pages of report, one page of footnotes, and a dozen-plus pages of appendices.

But don't worry. I read it so that you don't have to. Only here's the thing-- as I started writing about it, I realized that I don't have to read it either. Nobody does. And I don't need to talk about the whole thing.

It's true there are nits to pick, most notably that the bulk of the experimental subjects are mostly charter schools and charter students-- so not remotely a random sampling. We might also note that some of the information is self-reported, so reliability is an issue there. And in all fairness to the report, its list of personalized learning techniques includes baloney like competency based learning, but it also includes the idea of student-directed learning as well.

None of this matters. The report is a big beautiful waste of  time.

Imagine NASA issued a five hundred page report on establishing a Lunar Base, and it talked about the engineering of the structure and the research benefits and showed a solid timeline for probably accomplishments. But on the very first page it read, "We have based all of our planning on the assumption that the moon is made of cream cheese, probably with little pieces of jalapeno mixed in."

This study set out to see if any of these techniques (or combinations thereof) improve student achievement. But the proxy for student achievement was, once again, Big Standardized Test results. But the moon is not made of cream cheese, and scores on a narrow two-subject standardized bubble  clicking test do not measure anything except student ability to take a standardized test. That's it.

So this study asks some interesting questions, and the many pages and the slick graphics and the many, many words about methodology and conclusions might suggest that something deep about education is going on here, but it's not-- this is just one more study asking, "Which of these things might serve as better test prep for the BS Tests." And that's not education. That is a NASA report that says, "Also, we couldn't travel to the moon or study the actual moon, so we just based everything on a painting of the moon in a 1942 elementary science book." This is a big shiny mansion built on a foundation of mud sitting in the middle of a river.

Somebody, somewhere, is probably going to take this study seriously. They should not. It is a study about test prep and raising BS Test scores and really, in public education, we have more important things to do, like, say, actually educating people.


  1. I'm amazed with the relentless funding stream behind these kinds of reports. If all of that brain power, and those beautiful 8x10 glossies, were dedicated to democratic education, we would be moving in a different direction.

    TNTP came out with a similar glossy report entitled The Mirage - Confronting the Hard Truth About Our Quest for Teacher Development. The report is a fancy screed that hides behind the education-for-excellence cloak. A few examples:

    1) I wish the authors were clearer on what "...putting students on the path to success..." means. (p. 5)

    2) I appreciate their finding that "Teacher development appears to be a highly individualized process, one that has been dramatically oversimplified." (p. 7). I think this applies to the experiences of our students, as well. Scientifically, there’s no way to honor our student’s individualism while emphasizing high-stakes standardized tests that simplify “knowing” and “experiencing” to a series of check-off boxes. [See the AERA report on VAM, Nov 2015.]

    3) This is an ad for the Common Core (p. 21): "For example, teachers need to demonstrate to their observers that they are posing meaningful questions to students, which lead students to critically assess information and rely on evidence to put forth a point of view." And who are these observers? This is a variation of the male gaze.

    4) The recommendation to provide “rewards and consequences” for teacher improvement is a symptom of the problem (p. 40). From the report: “Changing one’s professional practice can be difficult and uncomfortable. It often requires teachers to confront weaknesses, disrupt old routines and learn new skills. Even the most intrinsically motivated educator may need additional incentives to start and persist through the improvement process.”

    If we’re going to grow (growth doesn't have to be painful, unless you’re a fan of Dweck, apologists or behaviorists), we should ask “Towards what end?”

    5) The beatings will continue until morale improves. From the report (p. 40): “Creating meaningful rewards and consequences can send a clear message that improvement should be a top priority, and energize teachers about opportunities to innovate and grow."

    6) This makes no sense: “Even as districts continue trying to help more teachers improve on the job, they should also prioritize recruiting teachers who already have a track record of success and retaining teachers after they actually become highly effective. In these areas, there are proven strategies, such as hiring teachers earlier and by mutual consent…,” (p. 42). How do teachers who “already have a track record of success” get hired in the first place? And what does "mutual consent" mean? Is this code for at-will employment, i.e. no unions? I value labor history and it’s role on creating safe and effective working conditions, so where are the authors going with this?

    7) When the authors suggest that teachers’ jobs be “reconstructed,” I wonder if this is a cost-savings strategy that actually de-skills teachers (p. 42). As for on-ramping new teachers, I think it would be great to have hybrid teachers who work ½ time with the their classes, and half-time with new, fully-paid teachers who also work ½ time with the their classes, and 1/2 with their mentors.

    8) And BOOM! There it is: “Rather, it’s worth exploring ways to combine the disaggregation of the teacher’s role, as described above, with alternative models for school design that allow higher-performing teachers to reach more students.” (p. 43). I love the idea of efficiencies, but education is a social, people-centered, labor-intensive endeavor. Sure, I’d like my 10th graders to supervise a gaggle of 6th graders doing field studies, but the ratio should always honor the development of community, student safety, and well-rounded learning.

    It’s amazing how terms like “blended learning” and "personalization" can be so easily co-opted by for-profit corporate interests with little understanding of the human dimensions of learning.

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  3. "scores on a narrow two-subject standardized bubble clicking test do not measure anything except student ability to take a standardized test. That's it."

    I beg to differ. Another thing that the BS test measures is student stamina for compliance to school tasks. At the high school level, where I teach, the kids are mostly savvy enough to realize that these BS tests have nothing at all to do with their lives. As I proctor the stupid things I'm increasingly seeing kids just bubble in random letters as quickly as possible and put their heads down for a little nap.

    1. Dave,
      Why is this worth assessing: "...student stamina for compliance to school tasks?" Should we not measure what we value?


    2. That's fair. It measures not just their ability, but their willingness to complete the whole pointless exercise.

  4. Many flaws in this report. They had no information about the classroom of the "virtual control group" students. While they did match SES, we know there are plenty of peer effects. The charter schools had extended school time or years as well as multiple teachers in the classrooms. These things are rare in public schools and could explain the results.

  5. " and those beautiful 8x10 glossies, were dedicated to democratic education, we would be moving in a different direction." this has been going on for some time with the 5 color brochures -- it is mostly marketing hype. They start with "i have something to sell you; what is the best way to stack cards to get you to buy…" If it is computers, cars, cell phones, or the IT technology gimmicks, then that is their underlain reasoning. They do the same thing in educational "studies" and they stack on the pages and their conclusion is the same preie they started out with "your kids are grit less and now I'm coming to measure their lack of grit"…. these outfits have an ideology and anything they try to sell as "research" has one purpose. There is almost no independent research being done anywhere in this country…. Can you name an honest place writing research that hasn't been co-opted? It's not about the kids… it's keeping their budget so they can survive and it's propaganda to convince school boards to buy something. The bureaucrats in the state department have bought into the "neo-liberal" stance that stem and IT are the only way to go ; again, reducing humanity to the bubble/click tests of what they can measure (even if measured poorly)...

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  7. Spending a lot of time and money manufacturing a shiny new thing that pretends to contain actionable information: the Gates foundation in a nutshell. I'm guessing that the report is really part of a feasibility study on the logistics of replacing humans with software and its associated technology, the part they run up the flagpole.

  8. Part of the push for charter schools has been and continues to be gentrification.

    Young people of modest means buy homes they can afford in less than desirable neighborhoods, in terms of safety and schooling. This is somewhat "ok" until they have a kid(s). At that point they want a better choice of schools because the one they're zoned for is tough with disruptive kids who come from broken homes and violent upbringings.

    This is a very understandable concern for any parent who loves his or her child. The problem comes, though, when the needs of the relative few trumps those of the majority. For all the difficulties in these troubled schools, there are still a lot of very good kids who have been profiting from what their zoned school has to offer. Food, shelter, structure, and an education. No small deal for a kid from a poor family.

    When a school is closed and replaced by a charter or more, the majority of that schools' students are forced to go to another public school because the charter only accepts a relative few. This leads to overcrowding at that "new" school, which creates a BIG problem. Especially when the disruptive kids are included in the influx to the new location.

    Add to this the draining of finances/resources, due, ironically in part, to the requirement to fund private charters (without any oversight) and provide them with rent free space and now you've got the public school between a rock and a hard place.

    Then the dominos begin to fall:

    "Your school is failing. We don't care why. You're done".

    And the charter which is brought in to replace the newly failing, now closed public school excludes the majority of students who are then forced to move to yet another school in an unfamiliar neighborhood which, consequently, becomes overcrowded with depleted funds...

    This is not fiction. It's fact. It's been going on for almost a decade and a half.

    The original intent of charter schools was to set up systems outside of the educational norm that would hopefully better meet the educational and societal needs of kids from neighborhoods in crisis. Programs that showed success would then be incorporated into the list of public school curriculum options. It was a cooperative venture.

    The charter schools that we see now are in direct competition with public schools. They harm them by siphoning resources and leaving their castoffs to the public schools. Competition is a corner stone of the business model that's infiltrated and taken over our public school system. The problem is that we're not dealing with adults who have or have not already developed the skills that are necessary to meet the demands of such a system. We're dealing with kids at all developmental levels. There are a LOT of kids who aren't ready to achieve at a high level during their early years. Sending them shuffling from one overcrowded school to the next is going to make it that much more difficult if not impossible for them to reach their full potential.

    I have no problem whatsoever with a private charter school opening up in a community. Just keep it private. Don't take away the public funding that's necessary to run the existing community school.

    1. Ha...I just realized I posted this on a different blog entry than intended.

      Sorry, Peter.

      But, regarding Gates and his view of the perfect student, classroom, school, government, society (all of which I'm sure he'd love to control):

      He has a LOT of money. That's the only thing that keeps him afloat. The ONLY thing. If he was another working stiff, people would laugh at him.

      "You want my kid sitting in front of a computer screen all day? You're kidding, right?".

  9. This is interesting, as I’ve two article that are critical of computer technology being used, or misused in the classroom.

    The first is from Down Under.

    The headmaster (principal) of the most prestigious private school in Australia is very opposed to any use of laptops in the classroom, let alone the all-day, constant use of laptops that is now going on. He doesn’t dismiss all use of laptops, of course. Students can only use them at home, and in the computer lab, but any use in the classroom proper is banned.

    Here’s why:

    Dr Vallance said multi-billion dollar investment by the federal government to provide laptops to high school students had done nothing but benefit the American tech-giants Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and Apple, while having an obvious detrimental effect on the students in public schools. Citing laptops in the classroom as the cause, he argues that grades are gradually dropping across the country despite (because of?) the investment, according to The Australian.


    ‘If you’re lucky enough to have a good teacher and a motivating group of classmates, it would seem a waste to introduce anything that’s going to be a distraction from the benefits that kind of social context will give you.’

    ‘I think when people come to write the history of this period in education … this investment in classroom technology is going to be seen as a huge fraud.’