Change without reform

After all the education reforms, what’s really changed in classrooms? Not a whole lot, writes Larry Cuban in his new book, Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change Without Reform in American Education.

Cuban looks at a 1:1 laptop program in a Bay Area high school in 1998-99 and 2008-10,   writes Mark Bauerlein in an Education Next review.  The project started with generous federal and state grants and funding from Silicon Valley donors, Cuban writes. Teachers were enthusiastic. But problems soon emerged.

The principal who’d spearheaded the idea left just as it was getting started; the school went through four principals from 1998 to 2010. Faculty turnover was high too and some teachers made little use of technology. Those who did rarely changed their teaching.

The school’s test scores fell, pressuring teachers to focus on test prep.

“Connections between student achievement and teacher and student use of laptops are, at best, indirect and, at worst, nonexistent,” Cuban concludes.

It’s not just a problem with digital learning, Cuban writes. Changes in governance, school size, curriculum, and organization “have had few effects on classroom practices and, consequently, students’ academic outcomes,” he concludes.

Encouraging teachers to collaborate and easing test-based accountability might change inside-the-box teaching for the better, Cuban suggests. But he makes no claim to have the answers, Bauerlein writes.

$1 billion for iPads, 1 week to hack security

Beautiful Morris smiles as she works on her new iPad, provided by the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Beautiful Morris smiles as she works on her new iPad, provided by the Los Angeles Unified School District. — Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles Unified is spending $1 billion to give iPads to every student. It took one week for high school students to hack through security so they could visit unapproved sites, reports the Los Angeles Times.Officials halted home use of the Apple tablets until further notice.The hacking “prompted questions about overall preparations for the $1-billion tablet initiative, notes the Times. For example, school officials haven’t decided whether parents will be liable if a $700 laptop is lost or damaged.

New technology, same old teaching

Schools aren’t getting much bang for millions of technology bucks, concludes the Center for American Progress. Education leaders buy the latest technology — whiteboards, laptops, e-readers — without thinking through how digital devices will help meet learning goals.

Across the nation, we found that many schools were using technology in the same way that they have always used technology; students are using drill and practice programs to hone basic skills. Students are passively watching videos and DVDs. Too many students do not have access to hands-on science projects.

. . . schools are not using technology to do things differently.

Technology may be widening the digital divide, the report warns. In many schools, “students from disadvantaged backgrounds are being given the least engaging, least promising technology-facilitated learning opportunities.”

School leaders lack “the tools and incentives needed to connect spending to outcomes and reorganize programs in ways that take full advantage of school technology,” the report finds. No state is looking at technology return on investment.

 As policymakers and other stakeholders invest billions of dollars in school technology each year, we should be asking ourselves: Are these investments the best use of our limited dollars? Is technology allowing us to do things that we do not—or cannot—already do? How are we ensuring that students have the skills that they need to succeed?

In some cases, technology is improving learning and widening access to courses, CAP concludes. Technology has the potential to “kickstart the process of leveraging new reforms and learning strategies.” But, so far, it’s usually an add-on to the same old, same old.

President Obama’s ConnectED proposal would revamp the federal E-rate program to fund high-speed Internet access at 99 percent of schools within five years.

The Leading Education by Advancing Digital, or LEAD, commission has released a plan to expand digital learning, reports Education Week. Updating school wiring to support high-speed Internet is #1. In addition, LEAD recommends putting digital devices in the hands of all students by 2020, accelerating the adoption of digital curricula, investing in technology-rich schools of innovation and giving teachers training and support to use technology effectively.

Students overboard

Photo: Here in Philly the district is closing nearly 30 schools, sending some kids to other dangerous schools to save $$$.  Meanwhile a few miles away it's laptops for every kid.  This could work for other cities' schools, too.

Philadelphia is closing nearly 30 schools, sending some students to dangerous schools to save money, writes cartoonist Signe Wilkinson. “Meanwhile a few miles away it’s laptops for every kid.”

Maine likes laptops, but do kids learn more?

Ten years after Maine started giving a tax-funded laptop to every public school student in grades 7 and 8, teachers and students are enthusiastic, but it’s not clear students are learning more, writes Ricki Morell of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting on the Hechinger Report.

FREEPORT, Maine — At Freeport Middle School, students in algebra class play “Battleship” on their laptops as they learn to plot coordinates on a graph. At Massabesic Middle School, eighth-graders surf the web on their laptops to create their own National History Day websites. And at King Middle School, students carry their laptops into the field as they chronicle the civil rights movement through eyewitness interviews.

Laptops “revolutionized the classroom,” says Raymond Grogan, principal of Freeport Middle School, who was a teacher when the program started. Teachers stop lecturing and started individualizing lessons, Grogan says.

Middle school teachers said “the laptops have helped them teach more, in less time, and with greater depth, and to
individualize their curriculum and instruction more,” according to an August 2011 report. However, the program has been implemented unevenly.

“The benefits are difficult to quantify,” says David Silvernail, the report’s author and co-director of the nonpartisan Maine Education Policy Research Institute. “So many other things are going on in schools, it’s difficult to classify what makes the difference. The laptop is a tool, just like a pencil.”

Students can use the laptops at school and at home. There have been problems with “distraction from unrestricted access to the Internet,” educators say. Breakage problems have improved over time.

The free laptop idea spread to other states and school districts, but has faded because of funding pressures and mixed results, Morrell writes.

Beginning in 2004, the nonprofit Texas Center for Educational Research compared the test scores of students at 22 Texas middle schools where students and teachers received laptops with the scores of students at 22 middle schools where they did not. The study concluded that laptops had a positive effect on some math scores but generally not on reading scores.

In Maine, statewide evidence of how laptops affect achievement is scarce. Test scores for Maine from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card, show that the percentage of students scoring proficient or above in eighth-grade mathematics rose from 30 percent in 2000 to 39 percent in 2011, but that was part of a national trend of rising math scores and can’t be linked directly to laptop use. Between 2002 and 2011, the percentage of Maine’s eighth-graders scoring at or above proficient on the national reading test barely changed, rising from 38 to 39 percent.

 Angus King, who pushed through the laptop program as governor, is now running for U.S. Senate. His opponent charges the free laptops have been a waste of money. The state pays Apple a discounted rate of $242 per laptop per year, which adds up to $10 million this year, less than half a percent of the state’s $2 billion education budget.

A learning revolution — or digital hype?

“The learning revolution is underway,” writes Tom Vander Ark in Getting Smart: How Digital Learning Is Changing the World.

“There is good reason for optimism,” but beware of Hyper Hype, responds Mark Bauerlein in an Education Next review.

. . . digital technology can customize learning and dismantle the old calendars and spaces of schooling. Extraordinary innovations have arrived—online curricula, learning games, customized play-lists—and they are ready for implementation across the land if only educators and public officials break with standard procedure and embrace them.

. . . Every few pages Vander Ark adds a bold prediction sidebar: “In five years…Information from keystroke data will unlock the new field of motivation research…,” “In five years…Most learning platforms will feature a smart recommendation engine, similar to iTunes Genius…,” and “In five years…Science will confirm the obvious about how most boys learn and active learning models will be developed in response using expeditions, playlists, and projects.”

In his enthusiasm, Vander Ark ignores the disappointments (laptops for all had little impact) and the dangers (social media can fuel gossip, bullying and cheating), Bauerlein writes.

All this hype and prophecy is unnecessary. The digital future is here, and its main educational advantage, the individualization of learning, is recognized by everyone. At this point, the pressing questions are practical: how much it costs, how to overcome bureaucracy, for example. Vander Ark does include an appendix of concrete advice, such as urging state leaders to allow students to personalize their learning and base matriculation on demonstrated competency, not on seat time, but these are precisely the points to expound in the main text, not stick in an appendix. . . .  What we need is sound evidence, presented without hyperbole, of scalable and cost-effective digital programs that yield higher reading, writing, and math achievement.

Utah’s digital learning law lets districts and charter schools offer online courses to students throughout the state “and pocket a reasonable share of the state aid that comes with every student enrolled,” writes Paul Peterson. In theory, providers will compete for students by offering high-quality courses. “But that dream may not come true unless various aspects of the law are re-thought,” Peterson writes.

BYOT

Every day is Bring Your Own Technology day at some schools, reports Mind/Shift. In Mankato, Minnesota, students are encouraged to bring netbooks, laptops, and tablets that connect to the school’s wireless network.

“By allowing kids to bring in their own devices, you free up school resources for the kids who don’t have access,” says Doug Johnson, director of media and technology for the Mankato Public School System. (Johnson wrote the book — literally — on the subject; The Classroom Teacher’s Technology Survival Guide is published this month.) For example, in classrooms that have a group of four computers, finding time for all 30 students to use them can be challenging.

Some 90 percent of Mankato students have a wireless-capable device.  Not all schools could count on most students bringing their own technology, though smart phones are spreading rapidly.

‘Click-click’ credits raise graduation rates

K-12 schools are adding — and sometimes requiring — online classes, reports the New York Times.  Failing students try to “recover” credits online; successful students take electives and Advanced Placement classes that don’t generate enough interest to justify a class. But the quality of online learning is suspect, especially for weak students.

Memphis City Schools now requires all students to take at least one course to graduate, starting with this year’s sophomores. School officials say “they want to give students skills they will need in college, where online courses are increasingly common, and in the 21st-century workplace,” the Times reports.

But it is also true that Memphis is spending only $164 for each student in an online course.

. . . “It’s a cheap education, not because it benefits the students,” said Karen Aronowitz, president of the teachers’ union in Miami, where 7,000 high school students were assigned to study online in computer labs this year because there were not enough teachers to comply with state class-size caps.

Idaho will give a laptop to every high school student and require four or more online courses. Critics complain the state will replace teachers with technology.

Chicago and New York City are piloting online learning programs, which include both credit recovery and advanced classes for high school students, as well as “personalized after-school computer drills in math and English for elementary students.”

Nationwide, an estimated 1.03 million students at the K-12 level took an online course in 2007-8, up 47 percent from two years earlier, according to the Sloan Consortium, an advocacy group for online education. About 200,000 students attend online schools full time, often charter schools that appeal to home-schooling families, according to another report.

There’s little research on the effectiveness of online courses for K-12 students, reports the U.S. Education Department.

Even online advocates are “dubious” about online courses that let students who’ve failed a regular class “recover” the credits, the Times reports. These “click-click credits” are used to boost graduation rates.

Sheffield High in Memphis, once a “dropout factory” with a graduation rate below 60 percent, now hopes to graduate 86 percent of the class of 2011. Online classes have helped. The district buys software for the Florida Virtual School, then pays its own teachers extra to work 10 hours a week with 150 online students.

The Times watches Daterrius Hamilton’s online English 3 course.

. . . he read a brief biography of London with single-paragraph excerpts from the author’s works. But the curriculum did not require him, as it had generations of English students, to wade through a tattered copy of “Call of the Wild” or “To Build a Fire.”

Asked about social Darwinism, the 18-year-old student did a Google search, copied a Wikipedia entry and e-mailed it to the teacher.

Online classes aren’t always money savers, writes Sarah Butrymowicz on HechingerEd. In particular, online credit-recovery classes don’t work without “some sort of teacher presence, whether virtual or physical.”

Detroit buys laptops

Detroit’s hard-hit public schools are buying 35,000 laptop computers for all sixth- through 12th-grade students, reports the Free Press.  The district already bought 5,000 laptops for teachers. The money comes from a $49 million federal grant.

The technology “will truly create 21st century learning environments,” said Robert Bobb, the “emergency financial manager” and de facto superintendent of Detroit Public Schools. “Today we opened their classrooms to the world.”

In addition, 4,789 desktop computers will be distributed to ensure every classroom has a computer. Schools will get 4,291 printer/scanners and 4,550 document cameras that capture images for display on large screens.

Teachers will be able to access Learning Village, an online system that includes state standards, lesson plans and tutoring tools. By fall, staff and parents will be able to use the system to record and monitor student grades, Bobb said.

What happens when a disorganized, dysfunctional school gets a bunch of computers?  Nothing.

Is Spending Money on Technology Worth It? asks Larry Cuban, a Stanford education professor, in Ed Week.

Each reason for spending money has so little evidence to support the investment that it is like buying dot-com stocks that lose money year after year. It is, as Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan once said about the stock market, “an irrational exuberance.”

The rest of the piece is subscribers-only, but you get the idea.

Update: More schools are buying their students $750 iPads, reports the New York Times, which quotes Cuban saying there are better ways to spend the money.

World’s best classrooms are low-tech

In nations with the highest-performing students, classrooms “contain very little tech wizardry,” writes Amanda Ripley on Slate Magazine.  “Children sit at rows of desks, staring up at a teacher who stands in front of a well-worn chalkboard,” just like in U.S. classrooms in 1989 or 1959.

“In most of the highest-performing systems, technology is remarkably absent from classrooms,” says Andreas Schleicher, a veteran education analyst for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development who spends much of his time visiting schools around the world to find out what they are doing right (or wrong). “I have no explanation why that is the case, but it does seem that those systems place their efforts primarily on pedagogical practice rather than digital gadgets.”

Kristin De Jesus, a San Diego high school student, is attending a public school in South Korea as an exchange student.

“In California, we use white boards, while in Korea they use chalkboards,” she says. “There is a dirt field outside. We have a projector, that’s about it.” Back home, teachers would hand out Mac laptops for kids to work on in class. But in Korea, the only computers are older PCs, and they remain in the computer lab, which is used only once a week for computer class.

Korean students attend school for eight or nine hours a day and then study hard at night.  “When I was in California, I barely ever studied and did pretty well in my classes,” De Jesus admits.

Finland also excels on international tests — but without long school hours or high pressure, Ripley notes. Both South Korea and Finland have one thing in common: Smart teachers. All teachers come from the top third of the class,  according to a McKinsey survey which found only 23 percent of U.S. teachers were top-third students.

On a visit to a high-performing KIPP school in Washington, D.C., Ripley counted four computers in a fifth-grade math class, “an ink-jet printer, and an overhead projector that looked to be at least 15 years old.”

Later, I asked (Lisa) Suben, who has been teaching for eight years, what the perfect classroom would look like. “If I were designing my ideal classroom, there’d be another body teaching. Or there’d be 36 hours in the day instead of 24.”

Suben praises computer-adaptive tests, which produce instant results she can use to understand how each student is doing.”It might say, ‘You know how to round to the hundreds, but you don’t know how to round to the thousands?’ That’s, for me, an aha moment.”  But Suben’s desert-island teaching tool is the overhead projector. “I wouldn’t be able to give up the overhead, because then I’d have to turn my back to the class,” she said.

KIPP DC founder Susan Schaeffler, a former teacher, says it would cost $300,000 to put an interactive white board in every classroom in the school.  “I’d rather pay Lisa Suben more to stay forever.”