Romney floats radical education idea

Education policy had a few moments in the Obama-Romney debate last night.

President Obama said education would be gutted, if Republican challenger Mitt Romney is elected, Ed Week reports.

“I’m not going to cut education funding . . . and grants that go to people going to college,” Romney said.

Obama touted his plan to hire an additional 100,000 math and science teachers.

Romney countered that Obama’s $90 billion invested in green energy (“You pick losers.”) would have paid for two million teachers.

Obama linked his education reform agenda to Common Core Standards, which are supposed to be a state effort, Ed Week notes.

Obama, who doesn’t refer to Race to the Top much on the campaign stump, invoked his signature education-reform brand three times in the debate as having “prompted reforms in 46 states.” (Clearly a reference to the common core, without naming the common-standards movement, which is a politically dicey thing for the federal government to support these days.)

Both candidates said improving education is a key to economic prosperity.

 Romney “floated the most radical, furthest left idea” in education in his debate with President Obama, writes Dana Goldstein on Slate. Romney called for letting poor and disabled schoolchildren use their federal education funding to cross district lines to attend a better school.  The idea is included in his education policy white paper released in May.

“Historically, affluent and white parents and school districts have gone to great lengths to keep poor, nonwhite kids out of their own kids’ classrooms,” Goldstein writes.

  The Obama administration’s signature school reform program, Race to the Top, did nothing to encourage school integration or allow children to attend schools outside of their home districts—an important right, since many failing schools are located in districts where almost every school is underperforming, and those that aren’t have overflowing wait lists.

Romney hasn’t explained how his proposal would work and the chances it would happen are slim, she predicts.

What would President Romney do on education? Rick Hess looks at Romney’s record as governor of high-scoring Massachusetts.

Romney’s education record as Massachusetts governor from 2003 to 2007 looks a lot like President Obama’s has. Romney inherited a strong reform tradition — built around standards, testing, and accountability. He maintained and strengthened this commitment by adding a science test to the state’s accountability system and supporting high school exit exams. He also pushed a controversial plan to mandate parenting classes for parents in low-performing districts seeking to enroll their kids in kindergarten.

In terms of school choice, Romney vetoed a bill to place a moratorium on opening new charter schools, and the number of charter schools increased modestly, from 46 to 59. He unsuccessfully championed merit pay for the top third of performers and for math and science teachers, offering bonuses of up to $5,000. He pushed for addressing low-performing schools with strategies that are quite similar to those favored by the Obama administration, including making it easier to replace principals and teachers in such schools or turning them into charters.

President Romney probably would push an Obama-like reform agenda, “but would do so with a lighter touch, less spending, and more emphasis on choice,” Hess predicts.

Romney on education

At NBC’s Education Nation, Gov. Romney said the federal government shouldn’t push states to adopt core standards or “financially reward states based upon accepting the federal government’s idea of a curriculum.”

Here’s a transcript.

Romney: My school plan is ‘revolutionary’

Students should ‘go to the school of their choice’ with funding following the student, said Mitt Romney on NBC’s Education Nation. Romney called his education plan “revolutionary.”

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Help wanted: educated workers

Worldwide, demand for high-skilled labor is growing faster than supply in advanced economies, concludes a report by the McKinsey Global Institute. Demand for low-skill labor remains weak. Lower-skill workers —including 75 million young people — are struggling with unemployment, underemployment and stagnating wages.

The global labor force will approach 3.5 billion in 2030, the report predicts. By 2020, the global economy will face skills shortages:

– 38 million to 40 million fewer workers with tertiary education (college or postgraduate degrees) than employers will need, or 13 percent of the demand for such workers

– 45 million too few workers with secondary education in developing economies, or 15 percent of the demand for such workers

– 90 million to 95 million more low-skill workers (those without college training in advanced economies or without even secondary education in developing economies) than employers will need, or 11 percent oversupply of such workers

The population in China, as well as in many advanced economies, is aging. Most new workers will live in India and the “young” developing economies of Africa and South Asia.

Scientific illiteracy disqualifies many young Americans from good white-collar and blue-collar jobs, writes Rishawn Biddle on Dropout Nation. “The average American working in science, technology, engineering, and medical fields will earn $500,000 more in their lifetime than peers outside of those fields — and are more likely to stay employed even in periods of economic recession.”

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.

Knowing when to stop

In a paper delivered at the 2010 conference of the European Association of Conservatoires (AEC) in Ghent, Samuel Hope, executive director of the National Association of Schools of Music, spoke about the complexities of assessment in higher music education. His speech emphasizes the “centrality of content” in educational policy, particularly assessment policy.

Assessment at the higher levels must involve the language of the field; musicians in an orchestra, for instance, assess themselves continually as they play but have no need to document such assessment. (Samuel Hope is not disparaging documented assessment; he’s saying that in this particular context, at this level, it would burden the work instead of lifting it.)

Which aspects of musical composition and performance require highly advanced knowledge and judgment? Which are particularly resistant to standardized assessment? Hope draws attention to one in particular: knowing when to stop.

This means knowledge of when to stop doing something and begin doing something else and how to work effectively with relationships among stasis and change, and speed and time. Knowing when to stop is an aspect of mastering many relationships and balances in music. Mozart, Beethoven, and other great composers are consummate masters of knowing when to stop, when a chord or key or musical figure has been continued long enough, and when there is time for a variation or a change altogether. The performer of such music has thousands of choices about how to make the structural decisions of the composer come alive in performance. Great performers are also masters in this area. In many artistic dimensions, knowing when to stop is an essential determiner of the line between fine works of art and kitsch.

Knowing when to stop is important in all fields, but it isn’t a transferable skill. You may have a general sense of what is excessive (in art, music, or poetry), but you cannot make  fine decisions about stopping, or asssess the decisions of others, unless you know art, music, or poetry itself.

Hope points out that knowing when to stop is also essential to institutional review. You can establish frameworks for music instruction at the higher levels, but how detailed should they become? When should the frameworks stop and leave the remaining decisions to the individual institutions? It is essential that review and accreditation organizations such as AEC and NASM take on these questions, according to Hope, because they have the requisite knowledge and understanding.

One of the problems I see in K–12 education reform is precisely the lack of a sense of when to stop. Let’s take group work as an example. It’s one thing to say that certain kinds of group work, used in the right contexts, can foster certain kinds of learning. It’s another to require group work in every lesson (or even in most lessons). Similarly, it’s one thing to regard test scores as limited measures of intellectual attainment of a particular kind. It’s another to treat them like numerical oracles.

To know when to stop, one must consider the subject matter itself. For instance, the Common Core State Standards have specified a ratio of informational and literary text for each grade span. But the proper ratio depends on what the students are learning. The ratio should not precede the content; if the content is well planned, then there’s no need to worry about the ratio. It could vary from year to year, for good reasons.

Formulas are important, useful, even beautiful things, but they only do what they say they’ll do. You can somehow calculate a curriculum of 70 percent informational text and 30 percent literature, and that’s all it will be. It will not be, by virtue of this ratio, a good curriculum. It might coincide with some good curricula and conflict with others.

Back to music: in Beethoven’s “Waldstein” sonata, there’s a syncopated passage near the end of the third movement. It is twelve measures long and has an evanescent, ethereal quality. When I was a teenager, I would listen to the sonata every day and wait eagerly for that passage. Once it came, I wanted it to go on longer but knew that it couldn’t.

But its beauty cannot be attributed to its length alone, or to its syncopation, or to its key changes, or to its place in the movement and in the sonata; it is all of these things and many more.

You can listen to this passage as performed by Jacob Lateiner. (It starts at 8:52, but I recommend listening to the full second and third movements, which are included in this clip). This recording and Vladimir Ashkenazy’s were my favorites for many years. Lateiner plays the first movement too fast, I’d say, but his rendition of the third movement has something like a third ear to it, a sense of something beyond the notes. I have started listening to more renditions of the sonata; Claudio Arrau’s has something remarkable as well.

Solitude of time

Ted Leach, an English and journalism teacher with a blog, posted a piece recently about the quiet of the early morning. He explains how he started the habit of rising at 5 a.m:

This is something that I’ve been doing for years, so long that the original reasons for it no longer hold true. When I first started teaching, I had about an hour drive to work, and I found that I wanted to ensure that I was awake when I got behind thewheel of the car. I thought the other drivers would appreciate it as well. So I started intentionally waking up, having breakfast, and getting on the road at 6 a.m.

And you know what? I came to like this time of day.

There’s a quiet to this time of the day, broken only by the sound of my fingers hitting the keyboard.

I came upon the piece when doing  some, er, “self-searching.” I have enjoyed Leach’s blog before and am glad to return to it. I’ll be a more regular reader now.

In his treatise De vita solitaria, Petrarch describes three kinds of solitude:

that of place, with which my present discourse is specially taken up; that of time, as in the night, when there is solitude and silence even in public squares; that of the mind, as in persons who, absorbed in deepest contemplation, in broad daylight and in a crowded market-place, are not aware of what is going on there and are alone whenever and wherever they wish.

Many people think of solitude in terms of physical isolation. My book, Republic of Noise, focuses mainly on solitude of the mind. But solitude of time has a special quality. It is place, mind, and time at once.

When I was in high school, I used to arrive early in the morning so that I could enjoy the quiet of the halls. I would sit in my homeroom or walk around, and listen as people started arriving and the voices mixed and multiplied.

There’s solitude of season as well. In college, I liked to stay near the campus over the holidays. (I lived off campus after freshman year, so I didn’t have to clear out.) Walking through the courtyards alone, entering buildings and hearing nothing but the echo of my footsteps, I seemed to be in dialogue with the place.

In some way, these quiet times of day and of year are important to education, but how? They allow not only for untrammeled thought but for a different view of a familiar place. One recognizes gradations of light and sound. These gradations are important for study as well; you come to welcome those hours when you hear the book’s words more clearly.

And essential for teaching, from a practical standpoint, if you have a long commute or wish to get to school early. I like to have half an hour (ideally) at school before the first bell rings. For that, I have to leave home no later than 6:30. This is fine, though; I get to enjoy the long, sleepy train ride, where few people talk and there are usually empty seats. 

I first “met” Ted Leach on his blog when he criticized my article “The Most Daring Education Reform of All.” I responded to his criticism, and we ended up having an interesting and enjoyable exchange.

Centralization is to decentralization as Scylla is to…

In education, at least in this country, it’s treacherous to go too far toward centralization or decentralization.

Let’s consider curriculum. In the United States, a centralized national curriculum would cause far too much political turmoil. Or, rather, if such a thing could be pulled off, it would turn out bland and incoherent, after all the additions and compromises had been made. Well aware of this, policymakers have pushed for the “voluntary” nationalization of standards (not the same as curriculum) instead. Since standards usually focus on skills, they carry less threat than curriculum, at least on the surface. Hence the Common Core State Standards.

Now, it makes no sense to have common standards without common implementation. If people around the country interpret them in their own way, you might as well not have common standards at all. Thus, the standards and accompanying directives veer into curriculum and pedagogy. It’s inevitable, but that’s where the trouble begins. For instance, the standards specify the ratio of literary to informational text for each grade level. A guide for publishers (written by the main authors of the CCSS for English Language Arts) encourages close reading and discourage “pre-reading” activities; in the most recent version, the authors changed the wording to make it less prescriptive (in response to fierce criticism). The assessments based on the Common Core will likely carry even more implicit pedagogical directives and cause still more uproar.

Standards come with unofficial directives as well. District leaders pass on messages to administrators, who pass them on to teachers. Some of these get crass by the time they reach the classroom (e.g., “Only one novel per year“). Some are vague and voluminous; teachers hear that they will be expected to do all sorts of things they haven’t been doing, but it isn’t clear what. All sorts of “stuff” comes along with the standards, a great deal of it insubstantial.

In other words, nationalized standards are difficult to pull off in moderation and with discernment. They start to resemble the Scylla of education: that twelve-footed, six-necked monster that peers over the cliff and fishes for dolphins and bigger creatures.

In response, many argue that curriculum and standards should be left to local communities. This sounds like a great idea, if you live in a community that shares your view of education. Woe (or Charybdis) to you if you don’t.

Why be wary of local control? Oh, because the community’s likes, needs, and preferences might clash with yours. What’s more, they can be limiting. Some communities will try to guard their children from anything that conflicts with their religion. Others will seek curricula with immediate real-life application. Still others will want curricula that focus on their cultural heritage. Still others will focus on job skills and whatever seems to be in vogue. Others still will want anything that gives the children a competitive edge.  Others will insist on the beautiful and classical.

If education is supposed to take you into a larger perspective and larger world, then curricular decentralization, taken too far, works against this goal. Disparities will grow, and they won’t be only economic. Schools will be ingrown entities, confined to what the local communities value and know.

Now, most advocates of common standards and advocates of local curricula avoid the extremes I have described above. They keep some sort of counterbalance in mind. In education discussion, though, people tend to defend the principle they think needs defending, even if it isn’t the sum total of the truth for them. So their views may sound more extreme than they actually are.

Ultimately what makes sense is a  combination of centralized and decentralized curriculum. Getting the combination right is tricky, but it’s worth figuring out. For instance, we could have a few common texts per grade (nationwide), and leave it to districts and schools to shape the rest of their curricula. We could have institutes where teachers and principals immersed themselves in literature and other subjects, thus building a culture together. There are many more possibilities.

We need a common curricular basis of some kind, but it must not stifle initiative, limit variety, or drag down what is good. Finding the right mixture of the common and particular may be one of education’s most difficult challenges. Are we willing to undertake it? Is there a good place to begin?

Sometimes it seems that we are clinging to the fig tree, our legs dangling down, as Odysseus did in order to escape both Scylla and Charybdis. Not being Odysseus, we can’t count on such agility or fortune. Fortunately our Scylla and Charybdis aren’t quite as ferocious as the old ones. Things are bad, and plenty bad, but they aren’t quite that bad.

Emergency measures for everyone?

There was a comedian, I forget his name, who had a joke about airplanes.  To paraphrase: “The black box,” he said, “Always survives the crash.  Why don’t they make the entire plane out that stuff?”  That’s obviously not a serious question, but it touches on a notion that is somewhat serious.  To get to the serious core of that notion, we’ll have to talk about something even more serious: cartoons.

Many children’s cartoons from the 70′s and 80′s (and shows like Power Rangers) have a similar notion running through them.  (Modern cartoons may have the same dynamic; I don’t watch them anymore though, so I can’t really comment.)  The formula is pretty stable: the “good guys” always seem to have trouble dealing with the bad guy/problem of the week, but then they form Voltron/turn into He-Man/use their Care Bear powers/Summon Godzilla and the evil is defeated, the problem solved, and everyone lives happily ever after.

The question that pops into one’s head after watching a few years of this is, of course, “Why don’t they just form Voltron in the first place?” In other words, why wait until you’re getting your head beat in to do what works?

Barry Garelick writes something in a very similar vein about mathematics education, in an EducationNews opinion piece. It’s fairly long, but it’s worth reading.  He includes a great deal of detail, some of which I was unaware (such as IDEIA’s definition of “learning disability” being based on a delta of IQ and achievement).  Here’s the core of his argument:

IDEIA required instead that states must permit districts to adopt alternative models including the “Response to Intervention” (RtI) model in which struggling students are pulled out of class and given alternative instruction.

What type of alternative instruction is effective? A popular textbook on special education (Rosenberg, et. al, 2008), notes that up to 50% of students with learning disabilities have been shown to overcome their learning difficulties when given explicit instruction. This idea is echoed by others and has become the mainstay of RtI. What Works Clearinghouse finds strong evidence that explicit instruction is an effective intervention, stating: “Instruction during the intervention should be explicit and systematic. This includes providing models of proficient problem solving, verbalization of thought processes, guided practice, corrective feedback, and frequent cumulative review”. Also, the final report of the President’s National Math Advisory Panel states: “Explicit instruction with students who have mathematical difficulties has shown consistently positive effects on performance with word problems and computation. Results are consistent for students with learning disabilities, as well as other students who perform in the lowest third of a typical class.”

Garelick argues that, like the hapless good guys on Saturday Morning cartoons, schools are waiting until they are getting their heads beat in (i.e., when students are falling behind in math achievement) to do what actually works.  Why not simply do what works in the first place, and have “emergency” measures for everyone?

His arguments aren’t perfect, but they’re provocative and probably have more than a little truth to them.  Read the whole thing.

AP gets more expensive… for some

The College Board offers (in part because the government gives them money) fee waivers on the AP Tests.   But apparently the scope of fee waivers is getting cut due to cuts in federal funding.  While some states are picking up the tab (go federalism), others, like California, are not.  Poor kids are feeling the pinch.

But we poor kids have always felt the pinch.  Whether it’s skipping dances because you can’t afford to go, or running an intertube with five patches on it… life as a poor high school kid is rough.  But I think this little vignette from the LA Times story really says it all:

But at schools like El Rancho that do not receive those state funds, low-income students must foot the entire bill.

In May, Rocio, a senior, plans on taking the English literature, physics, statistics and government AP exams. And although she’s not taking the AP courses in Spanish and French, she figured she’d take those tests as well, possibly receiving college credit and freeing up time next year for courses geared toward her goal of becoming a doctor.

The fees, however, have left her and her mother looking for ways to come up with the extra money.

“It is a lot of money, especially since it was unexpected,” she said. “But I talked with my mom and she said that we’ll find a way — she knows how important it is to me.”

You find the money for the important things, even if it means not going with your friends on a trip or not getting your drivers’ license.

But are the AP tests really that important?  For my part, I think the tests themselves are a little overrated.  The value of AP, I think, is in taking the classes which are (because of the tests, of course) actually taught to something like a real standard.  But I suppose if you’re heading off to a big state school with impacted classes, avoiding having to take Freshman Composition could be the difference between graduating in 5 years or 6… which could be a substantial chunk of change.