Saturday, December 31, 2016

Purpose of Schools - Preface

After 45+ years of engagement in the public schools - 5+ as a teacher, district administrator, school board member; 10+ as student; and 15+ as a parent, graduate student, and partner (vendor) - I’ve decided I have something to say about them and the changes we are seeing that I believe is important.

Schools are our most pervasive and I believe most important public institutions (beyond the constitutional ones), and debates about them and changes within them affect us all on one level or another. For some, those changes and debates seem to be accelerating and intensifying out of control. Others are deeply concerned about what they see as the glacial pace of change or the public’s complete lack of engagement, and I have some views as to why all of those perspectives make sense.

Schools also carry out some of our society’s most important tasks - including its own replication. For that reason, much has been said about their grand purpose - "public education" - by many more philosophical than me: Socrates and Plato and Aristotle, Horace Mann, John Dewey, John Goodlad, Paolo Freire, E.D. Hirsch, Nel Noddings, Martha Nussbaum, etc. I do not hope to add much to such scholarly thoughts and debates.

But my many roles have given me a practical and insider perspective on the radical changes that either are underway or are being pushed for our public schools - changes relevant to their practical purposes. I think I can explain a lot about what is happening and why it is happening, and where it might be taking us.

The word radical comes from the Latin radix or “root” - and so I will explore one set of roots: The practical purposes that schools serve. For students, I will argue, schools exist to educate, train, socialize, stratify, and babysit. I will argue schools also exist to employ adults and maintain community. I will seek to define each of these purposes both in terms of the scholarship referenced above but also in terms of what is actually happening in and around our 100,000 or so public schools.

I will then explore the ways these purposes are being pursued, the reasons for that and for the changes that are unfolding or being pushed, and the implications of that for the future of public education. You may be alarmed at what you think is changing, or frustrated by what you think is not happening, or somewhere else on our rich tapestry of perspectives about public schools.

Whatever your perspective, I hope my exploration of the purposes of public schools, their practical function around those purposes, and the radical or roots-up changes that are underway around those purposes will inform your view of what is going on, why it is happening, what it means for the future, and what you might do about it.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

High School Apartheid in Ohio (Cuyahoga County too!)

I downloaded from the Ohio Department of Education a spreadsheet of data from all Ohio public schools disaggregated by race (a subset of the 13-14 school year "report card" data).  Pivot table by school, District, and County, choosing high schools by excluding any school that didn't have 10th grade OGT Reading pass rate (there could conceivably be a very small, very new (9th only so far), or 11-12 only HS excluded that way.  There are also some schools serving more than grades 9-12 whose other students are included - I excluded OHVA and ECOT because with 5% of the students in the file, these 2 K12 virtual schools are by far the biggest contributors to non-HS students in this file and removing them doesn't change the statewide % of White and African-American ethnicity.  But this is the overwelming % of HS students in the state and the overwhelming % of students shown here are HS only).

So last year there were 836 high schools in Ohio enrolling 544,249 students, 16% of whom were African-American and 79% Caucasian (actually labeled "Black" and "White" with the other 5% labeled Asian or Pacific Islander, Hispanic, or Multi-Racial). 481 or 58% of them had student bodies reported as 100% "White", comprising 39% of student enrollment.  By contrast, one-third of all "Black" students were reported in 81 high schools that were 100% "Black".

Think it's a rural-urban issue?  Cuyahoga County had 75 high schools (OCA excluded because its population is statewide), 32 of which reported 100% "Black" students (11,293 or  54% of all "Black" students in Cuyahoga County attend an ALL "Black" high school).  17 of the 76 schools had NO "Black" students in 13-14 (one small one had only Hispanic Students). 16 Cuyahoga County schools enrolling 23% of "White" high school students in the County have NO "Black" students.
In an urban county with 50% "White" and 42% "Black" students, only 9556 or 19% attended the 9 high schools that were within 20% points of that county-wide average "White" percentage (32% at Washington Park HS and 74% at Lakewood HS).

28,245 students (56%) attended the 53 high schools (7 of 10 schools) that were either had no White students (and all but one were all Black) or had fewer than 4% Black students  (17 had none).  Here's a list of schools sorted by 13-14 enrollment with the % White and % Black.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Underestimating change in the long run

In the Spring of 2004 I did some PowerPoint pages as part of an educational technology strategic planning effort in which I pointed out that the first website was created only 13 years earlier and that the typical student bookback in 2015 would contain the following:
  • One E-paper book containing all textbooks, supplementary reading material, and reference resources the student normally needs
  • One tablet PC for on-line resources; distance learning, virtual fieldtrips, videoconferencing, etc.; test-taking; personal academic planning; etc.
  • Accessories (headphones, fold-up keyboard, back-up battery, recharger & power plug)
  • Back-up paper pad, pen, and pencil

With 2011 looking like the year of the tablet, ebook sales outstripping hardcopy sales, and more etextbooks (even some excellent open-source efforts) coming on-line, 2015 is looking like a pretty good guess.

But my point 7 years ago was actually not about the technology in a student's book bag, it was about the changes required in instructional planning and materials:

  • Identifying, obtaining, and sharing instructional resources with students, teachers, and parents;
  • Aligning these resources to applicable academic standards and cataloging them thoroughly; and
  • Integrating the resources into lesson planning, student record-keeping, parent outreach, professional development, and flexible and seamless delivery platforms.

Alot has happened there too, with the on-going evolution of what used to be course management systems into more robust learning management systems with increasingly open architecture for "learning objects."

The other frontier I've become aware of since then is the evolution of advanced learning systems. In 2003, the Federation of American Scientists published a roadmap for Learning Sciences and Technology R&D that argued that "For the first time in history, technology exists that can" allow us to cost-effectively implement the one-on-one tutoring strategies that were shown in 1984 to effect improvements in student achievement of 2 standard deviations over group instruction - the equivalent of improving the performance of 50th percentile students to 98th percentile students. (Benjamin S. Blook, "The 2 Sigma Problem: The Search for Methods of Group Instruction as Effective as One-to-One Tutoring," Educational Researcher vol 13: no. 6, June-July 1984.)

There's a lot of working going on with these systems too - it's hard to see the big picture of it and unfortunately, the FAS roadmap hasn't (publicly at least) been kept current.

But it's a safe bet here that the rule holds: "We over-estimate change in the short-run and under-estimate change in the long-run." Advanced learning systems that can facilitate self-paced learning supported by automated tutoring are coming. Just as the challenge of the 21st century bookbag isn't what's in it but how we support it, the challenge for schools of advanced learning systems for schools isn't the systems themselves, it's organizing to take advantage of them and/or get out of their way. And it's time to start working on that too.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Standards vs. Innovation?

Rick Hess made a great point in a blog entry that sums up: "Common Core... enthusiasts... need to do a far better job of thinking and talking about the real-world impact of their elegant stylings, or they're going to build an exquisitely engineered project that is at cross-purposes with the practical concerns of an array of policymakers, parents, and educators." (

I think it can be done, and I certainly believe common standards should not lead to the "locking down" of the curriculum as the mechanism he articulates (what I think of as "embedded assessment" could do). But I confess it's a danger, and I'm not sure all "Common Core enthusiasts" are on the same page about this. Standards should establish the floor and point to the sky, not define the walls, ceiling hight, plumbing and lighting specs, etc...

I loved the 1939 parody of curriculum development one of his commentators linked to: "The Saber-tooth Curriculum" (

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Tom VanderArk's 10 Ways to Hack Education

Nice overview of some of the change trends afoot in K12 education:

Another take on bringing innovation to K12

Disrupting Class has gotten, deservedly, tremendous attention for showing how online learning can and will help change education. But there are other theories of how innovation spreads (or doesn't). Right now I'm trying to read Structuring an Energy Technology Revolution (Weiss and Bonvillian) and am struck by the parallels with Education. I have more to read and will try to report back, but bottom line is that there are a LOT more levers to pull than to merely try and stimulate innovation...

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Another thing the Swedes do better

"Sweden does not allow schools to disaggregate data for ethnicity or race. Instead, Swedish schools report achievement based on whether the student is a first- or second-generation immigrant and by the education level of his or her parents." (Quote from "Swedish For-Profit Chain to Run Charter School in N.Y.C." by Sarah D. Sparks in Education Week, February 9, 2011)

In addition to race, the US uses eligibility for Free or Reduced Lunch, an imperfect proxy for "socio-economic status" in part because of how variable reporting is. But we've always known that education level of the parents is the better predictor and therefore the better "denominator" of student learning to use in tracking the effectiveness of schooling. I don't know how the Swedes gather the data, but if done well it makes much better sense.


Saturday, January 29, 2011

Going to try and revive this

Leaving all the old posts in place - little spotty, some dated, but nothing that doesn't still make sense in terms of my beliefs.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Let's cut to the chase with National Standards...

National standards can reduce our tendency to reinvent the wheel in every state and increase competition among content publishers to do things that really help in the classroom. It won't limit teacher freedom and creativity, any more than using the "food pyramid" affects the meals I prepare. It will give us a common language and structure around which to share best practices.

4 approaches to doing this were laid out two years ago in a report by Fordham ( Standards Final PDF.pdf). Whatever you think of Fordham's "politics" around standards, they're right about the direction we need to take and, in truth, most state standards documents are evolving in a common direction anyway. Let's speed it up, and free those state education department curriculum experts up to spend less time rehashing the same debates and more time helping schools enact good curriculum and assessment.