Reading, ‘riting and coding

“I think everybody in this country should learn how to program a computer because it teaches you how to think,” said Steve Jobs.

Code.org is launching a campaign to persuade schools to offer computer programming: Nine out of 10 high schools do not.

Less than 2.4 percent of college graduates earn a degree in computer science, fewer than 10 years ago, despite rising demand for programming skills, according to the nonprofit group.

Code’s site includes links to online apps and programs that teach programming. Some are geared to young children.

Should kids learn programming, as they might study a foreign language, to develop thinking skills?

Coding isn’t just for boys – but sometimes it seems that way – reports the New York Times.

Gates: Measure to improve

Measurement matters, writes Bill Gates in the Wall Street Journal. His foundation fights child mortality and polio in desperately poor countries. It also funds education reforms, such as improved teacher evaluations, in the U.S.

You can achieve incredible progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward that goal in a feedback loop,” writes Gates.

At Eagle Valley High School in Colorado, he observed the 12th-grade English class of Mary Ann Stavney, a master teacher. The Gates Foundation is funding a three-year evaluation and feedback project in Eagle County.

Drawing input from 3,000 classroom teachers, the project highlighted several measures that schools should use to assess teacher performance, including test data, student surveys and assessments by trained evaluators. Over the course of a school year, each of Eagle County’s 470 teachers is evaluated three times and is observed in class at least nine times by master teachers, their principal and peers called mentor teachers.

The Eagle County evaluations are used to give a teacher not only a score but also specific feedback on areas to improve and ways to build on their strengths. In addition to one-on-one coaching, mentors and masters lead weekly group meetings in which teachers collaborate to spread their skills. Teachers are eligible for annual salary increases and bonuses based on the classroom observations and student achievement.

“The most critical change we can make in U.S. K–12 education . . .  is to create teacher-feedback systems that are properly funded, high quality and trusted by teachers,” Gates concludes.

Trust will be a challenge.

This infographic looks at how data mining and can improve education.

Gates: It’s completion, not costs

Completion is a bigger problem than rising college costs, argues Bill Gates.

Completion numbers are better than previously reported, according to a new analysis which tracks more students, including transfers,

Gates funds game-based learning

Kids’ enthusiasm for video games could be harnessed by the classroom of the future, Bill Gates told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Gates Foundation is investing $20 million in teacher tools, including learning games.

Students are grouped according to skill set. One cluster huddles around a computer terminal, playing an educational game or working on a simulator. Another works with a human teacher getting direct instruction, while another gets a digital lesson delivered from their teacher’s avatar.

Gates envisions games as “an adjunct to a serious curriculum.” His foundation is working with the Center for Game Science at the University of Washington to develop learning games, said Vicki Phillips, education director for the Gates Foundation.

 The idea is that in coming years, there could be a digital mall full of low-cost or free online games teachers could download to use with the entire class or individual students.

“Part of what we’re trying to do is make more robust the array of things teachers have access to at their fingertips that are aligned to standards, that are high quality, that engage kids though technology and let [teachers] be the orchestra leader,” Phillips said.

“Motivation is such a huge part in what ends up differentiating student outcomes,” Gates said. And games are motivating.

Do our schools support innovation?, asks Aran Levasseur, a middle school teacher turned technology coordinator, on Mind/Shift.

Technology widens the spectrum of how individuals and teams can access, construct and communicate knowledge. Education, for the most part, isn’t creating learners along these lines. Meanwhile, computers are challenging the legitimacy of expert-driven knowledge, i.e., of the teacher at the front of the classroom being the authority. All computing devices — from laptops to tablets to smartphones — are dismantling knowledge silos and are therefore transforming the role of a teacher into something that is more of a facilitator and coach.

. . . Great teachers are needed now more than ever. But what it means to be a teacher and student is changing . . .

In the comments, Barry Garelick argues the “content of the future” will look a lot like the content of the past, at least in math. “The 21st century will require mastery of the same math skills needed in the 20th century,” he writes.

The Serious Play Conference next month in Seattle will look at measuring the effectiveness of educational games.

The TED bubble

This is my last guest post, so I thought I’d take on one of my favorite big topics: the fad of the big idea. In an era of TED talks, “essential questions,” and so-called “higher-order” thinking, we are witnessing a shiny bubble that will pop sooner or later. Eventually it will come clear that we need much more than grand ideas. We need a better grasp of details and their relation to larger structures.

 TED (“Technology, Entertainment, Design”) is a nonprofit organization devoted to “ideas worth spreading”; it is chiefly known for its conferences and online videos of talks.

Over at Salon, Alex Pareene nails what TED talks tend to have in common. (Note: not all TED talks fit this formula–and not all talks that fit it come across as formulaic.)

The model for your standard TED talk is a late-period Malcolm Gladwell book chapter. Common tropes include:

  • Drastically oversimplified explanations of complex problems.
  • Technologically utopian solutions to said complex problems.
  • Unconventional (and unconvincing) explanations of the origins of said complex problems.
  • Staggeringly obvious observations presented as mind-blowing new insights.

What’s most important is a sort of genial feel-good sense that everything will be OK, thanks in large part to the brilliance and beneficence of TED conference attendees. (Well, that and a bit of Vegas magician-with-PowerPoint stagecraft.)

Pareene takes issue primarily with the TED conference’s smug elitism and its avoidance of controversial topics. My criticism is related but different; to me the main problem is the insistence on bigness, and, with it, the avoidance of the sort of modesty, tentativeness, and probing  that could make the speeches even more interesting.

Take Salman Khan, for example. I bring him up not to pick on him (I’ve questioned the viability of the “Khan Revolution” before) but to turn toward the subject of education. At the time of his TED talk, Khan had created a library of some 2,200 instructional videos on mathematical and scientific topics. Now there are about 3,200, and the range has expanded. The talk begins with a montage of videos and topics: a hypotenuse, a map of animal fossils, integration, galaxies, and more. “If this does not blow your mind,” he says, “then you have no emotion.”

He then tells the story about how it began, how it grew, and how, bit by bit, he realized that it was more than a collection of videos. It was a way of flipping the classroom; that is, with the help of these videos, students could learn the content at home and then come to class to work in groups, receive extra help, engage in projects, and so on.

A dialogue starts up in my mind:

—But wait! I want to hear more about the hypotenuse.

—Oh, you can, in your own time. Let’s focus on the big idea for now.

And there lies the problem. If we are content with a swift montage of topics, if we choose not to bother with the actual geometry, astronomy, or calculus of Khan’s videos, then our trust in his “flipped classroom” is wishful trust indeed. By this I don’t mean that an error or flaw in the videos would invalidate his project. Rather, his presentation  excites the audience precisely because it doesn’t go far into the subjects (or at least partly because of that).

Now, we find a similar phenomenon in classrooms that emphasize ungrounded “big ideas” and “essential questions.” For example, you have classes that emphasize the “scientific method” without making clear that in order to apply it well, you have to know the science. Yes, certain principles apply to all scientific investigations, but they must be translated properly into the nitty-gritty.

Or take “interdisciplinary thematic units” that focus on a theme such as identity, prejudice, or progress. The danger of such a focus on a “theme” is that it can (and often does) encourage sloppy analysis. For instance, if you’re studying Sophocles’ Antigone in a unit on dissent, you may think the play is primarily about dissent and gloss over whatever doesn’t fit. To work well with themes, one must handle them loosely and with great caution.

Now, big ideas are not bad. Whether they’re ideas about the past, present, or future, they can help make sense of phenomena. The challenge is to determine when they do and when they don’t. To this end, one must be willing to bear with the details, to admit to error, and to do without bigness for long stretches of time.  A “big idea” economy can’t sustain itself. In fact, it could land us in a rut. If we’re too hooked on the grandeur of ideas, we won’t know what to do when they wobble or break down.

We have seen the rise of the entrepreneurial geek (e.g., Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates), the person who can turn an intense, specific intellectual interest into something popular and huge. It’s dazzling, but some of the dazzle deceives; the person had to do the unpopular work behind the scenes. Spectators come to believe that they can jay drive straight to the big stuff; it rarely works that way.

So, let’s expect students to delve into the details–to practice a scale until they get it right, to memorize a poem and thus learn all its tones and turns, and to learn the binomial theorem and its proofs. Through such study, students will encounter ideas of many sizes and will learn to tolerate their temporary absence. They may not make it big; why should they have to? But whether or not they do, they will have something solid.

Now that’s a big idea. But it isn’t revolutionary, and its implementation isn’t easy.

Note: I made a few edits to this piece after its original posting but before any comments appeared.

Creativity isn’t learned in class

Japanese visitors asked Fordham’s Mike Petrilli how the U.S. produces innovative leaders like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg.

It’s not a school thing, he replies. It’s an after-school thing. While Japanese adolescents are going to cram school, American kids are doing “sports, music, theater, student council, cheerleading, volunteering, church activities, and on and on.”

If you are looking for sources of innovative thinking, leadership and teamwork skills, competitiveness, and creativity, aren’t these better candidates than math class?

Or course, some “are just hanging out, smoking pot, getting in trouble, etc.,” Petrilli writes. But “some of these young people end up creating successful start-ups too!”

And then there’s the American parenting style. U.S. parents don’t teach their children self-discipline and delayed gratification, asserts Pamela Druckerman in Bringing up Bebe.

This, she suggests, fosters out-of-control toddlers and may lead to serious problems down the road, particularly for kids growing up in neighborhoods where community bonds have frayed.

On the other hand, by allowing our young to negotiate endlessly with us and stand up for what they want, we are also teaching them a form of self-assuredness. Treating little kids as equals might wreak havoc in the short term, but it’s possible that it creates non-hierarchical, confident, transformational leaders in the long run.

Certainly, Steve Jobs exemplified the brilliant brat, but I’m not sure that self-discipline and creativity are antithetical.

NYC releases teachers’ value-added rankings

After a long legal battle, the New York City Education Department released individual performance rankings of 18,000 public school teachers on Friday, “while admonishing the news media not to use the scores to label or pillory teachers,” reports the New York Times.

The reports, which name teachers as well as their schools, rank teachers based on their students’ gains on the state’s math and English exams over five years and up until the 2009-10 school year.

Over the five years, 521 teachers were rated in the bottom 5 percent for two or more years, and 696 were repeatedly in the top 5 percent.

But citing both the wide margin of error — on average, a teacher’s math score could be 35 percentage points off, or 53 points on the English exam — as well as the limited sample size — some teachers are being judged on as few as 10 students — city education officials said their confidence in the data varied widely from case to case.

A teacher’s score can’t be considered in isolation, said the Education Department’s chief academic officer, Shael Polakow-Suransky. “No principal would ever make a decision on this score alone.”

If the margin of error really is that wide, I don’t see any value in the value-added scores.

While Bill Gates editorialized against publishing teachers’ names and scores as “shaming,” Eric Hanushek calls it “prodding”.

 

Dropouts are job creators

The U.S. education system trains students to follow the rules and collect degrees, writes Michael Ellsberg in a New York Times op-ed. Dropouts are the job creators who can save America, he argues.

I typed these words on a computer designed by Apple, co-founded by the college dropout Steve Jobs. The program I used to write it was created by Microsoft, started by the college dropouts Bill Gates and Paul Allen.

And as soon as it is published, I will share it with my friends via Twitter, co-founded by the college dropouts Jack Dorsey and Evan Williams and Biz Stone, and Facebook — invented, among others, by the college dropouts Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz, and nurtured by the degreeless Sean Parker.

American academia is good at producing writers, literary critics and historians. It is also good at producing professionals with degrees. But we don’t have a shortage of lawyers and professors. America has a shortage of job creators. And the people who create jobs aren’t traditional professionals, but start-up entrepreneurs.

From kindergarten through undergraduate and grad school, students learn few entrepreneurial skills or attitudes, Ellsberg writes. Students don’t learn about sales, unless they take a class on why sales and capitalism are evil. They don’t learn to network with others. Creativity is stifled. Worst of all, they don’t learn how failure can lead to success.

Our education system encourages students to play it safe and retreat at the first sign of failure (assuming that any failure will look bad on their college applications and résumés).

While some jobs require a college degree, many people find jobs in the informal market, where who you know and what you’ve done matter more than paper credentials, he writes.

Parents could refuse to pay for useless degrees, but most are ”caught up in outmoded mentalities about education forged in the stable economy of the 1950s (but profoundly misguided in today’s chaotic, entrepreneurial economy).”

Employers could overturn the system “if they explicitly offered routes to employment for those who didn’t get a degree because they were out building businesses.”

OK, for the exceptionally talented and self-educated few.  But most college dropouts aren’t Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.  And some people do learn useful things in college.

 

Treating unequals equally is unjust

Treating all students equally is unfair and unwise, argues science-fiction writer Jerry Pournelle on Chaos Manor.  Schools should educate bright students for higher education and “teach the others stuff that will be useful to them in their actual future lives.”

Pournelle recalls his early days in the aerospace industry.

. . . Boeing could in those days count on the Seattle public school system to deliver workers capable of learning to do useful work. There would be failures, but in general, high school graduates could be taken into the work force and taught skills. They didn’t have to learn to read or to do elementary math, they understood the concept of measurement, and they could generally be relied on to have something approaching satisfactory work habits.

Commenter Margaret Ball agrees that a college-prep education means “years of pure hell” for some children. One daughter, who suffered in school, is now a sweet, energetic, “amazingly good” employee at a nursery school.  The other was a high achiever whose school  “wasted hours of her life making her mess around with construction paper and shoeboxes making dioramas to illustrate scenes in a book instead of just letting her write a book report.”

Pournelle’s followup, responding to Bill Gates’ call for education to serve as an equalizer, drew this comment:

I was born in 1969 in Flint, Michigan and got to see this first hand in a hyper-intense environment. In the beginning of my educational career it was all about options: I could go on to become a welder or an electrician if I wanted to. GM/Flint collapsed in 1980. By the time I had graduated high school (1987) the guidance counselors preached endlessly about the fact that manufacturing jobs were gone, and vocational schools were closing quickly to suit. Everything was about retraining factory workers to become computer programmers, because no-one should be flipping burgers in their 30?s, right? Completely missing the fact that we still need electricians and welders.

. . . My son — now 18 — will . . .  take some community-college level courses to fill out his vocational training but that’s it. He’s a bright boy, but doesn’t have the work ethic or studious nature to learn for learning’s sake. He doesn’t want to. College-prep high school was awful for him (B- averages, and he hated it), but there were few alternatives in a district where 97% of the HS graduates were expected to go on to college. My son would have been the brightest electrician or best mechanic you could hire, but alas, it’ll take him years to get the experiences he should have gotten in school while learning Advanced English Composition.

“Injustice consists of treating equals unequally and treating unequals equally,” Pournelle writes. “Our school system is designed to be unjust.”

Pournelle’s wife is a reading teacher.

Via Instapundit.

Gates: Was the $5 billion worth it?

After spending $5 billion on education grants and scholarships, Bill Gates tells the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Riley,  “It’s been about a decade of learning.”

The Microsoft co-founder’s foundation is worth $34 billion, more than the next three largest foundations (Ford, Getty and Robert Wood Johnson) combined.

Small schools, an early Gates Foundation initiative, didn’t improve achievement. I was impressed by the foundation’s willingness to admit that.

Small schools improved students’ attendance and behavior, but “didn’t move the needle much” on college attendance, which is a foundation priority, Bill Gates told Riley.  “We didn’t see a path to having a big impact, so we did a mea culpa on that.”

The foundation decided to focus on curriculum — Gates strongly backs a core curriculum — and teacher quality — the foundation is researching what makes good teachers effective.

Many worry that a multi-billionaire has too much power, even if his intentions are noble. (And not everyone thinks they are.) And Gates tells Riley he’s trying to use his money to influence how public money is spent.

 Instead of trying to buy systemic reform with school-level investments, a new goal is to leverage private money in a way that redirects how public education dollars are spent.

However, the foundation’s approach is scientific, not political, Gates say.

“I believe in innovation and that the way you get innovation is you fund research and you learn the basic facts.” Compared with R&D spending in the pharmaceutical or information-technology sectors, he says, next to nothing is spent on education research. “That’s partly because of the problem of who would do it. Who thinks of it as their business? The 50 states don’t think of it that way, and schools of education are not about research. So we come into this thinking that we should fund the research.”

Gates supports charters — he’s a KIPP fan — but not school vouchers.

. . .  the politics, he says, are just too tough right now. “We haven’t chosen to get behind [vouchers] in a big way, as we have with personnel systems or charters, because the negativity about them is very, very high.”

Gates’ approach is doomed to fail, responds Jay Greene. While trying to influence education policy is sensible, “education does not lend itself to a single ‘best’ approach.” The foundation invokes science “to advance practices and policies they prefer for which they have no scientific support,” Greene charges.

Attempting to impose particular practices on the nation’s education system is generating more political resistance than even the Gates Foundation can overcome, despite their focus on political influence and their devotion of significant resources to that effort.

Greene’s part 2 on the Gates Foundation is here.

In a new mini-book, Greene advocates school choice as the way to create incentives for school improvement.  Here’s his interview with Jason Riley.

Community College Spotlight, which I write for the Hechinger Institute, is funded, in part, by Gates money. Gates is funding almost every innovative idea involving community colleges, notably research on how to improve remediation and boost graduation rates. I think it’s money well spent, though the research isn’t likely to find a silver bullet.