Monday, September 25, 2017

Shock Treatment


This story is from back in May, but it's still alarming right now. Philip Perry at Big Think reports that DARPA is financing research on ways to "educate" you by jamming some electricity into your brain.

DARPA announced this new initiative back in March of 2016. Targeted Neoplasticity Training (TNT) would involve delivering some "mild electric shocks" to a specific nerve "in order to facilitate learning." The idea is to hook up to the peripheral nerves ( the same network used to promote healing and operate robot prosthetics) and use electric impulses to stimulate the growth of neuronal connections inside the brain, releasing the neurochemicals "responsible for reorganizing the brain in response to new experiences."

DARPA is handing out $50 million to eight teams that will be working on this.

Yes, there's some research that sort of kinda backs this up, like this paper about Vagus nerve stimulation helping verbal memory and fighting off Alzheimers and battling depression and treating epilepsy.

Of course, we've also learned that plain old exercise helps grow brain cells, too. But that's not as cool as Matrix-style plug-and-play humans who can learn martial arts by jamming a wire into the port in the back of their neck.

Back in April, Xiaoqin Wang, a biomedical engineering professor at Johns Hopkins announced that he expected to start zapping some live humans within a few months, so this stuff may already be going on. There are many questions left to be answered-- is it better to zap before or after the learning takes place? How big a zap? And does this work any better than coffee or sleep?

Certainly this would be a game-changer for schools, and even the advent of computer-based personalized learning would be altered as hardware designers would have to figure out how best to wire up the students. USB ports? And would teachers get control of the system? "Pat, you just can't seem to grasp adverb clauses, so I'm going to up your voltage."  A brave new world, indeed.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

McKinsey Non-Research PISA Thing

From the first sentence, I could tell how much I was going to hate this:

By applying advanced analytics and machine learning, we have identified factors that play a critical role in student achievement. 

This is a new mini "report" from McKinsey, one of the world's top management consulting companies, a group that has occasionally dipped its claws into the education biz.

The report-- "How To Improve Student Educational Outcomes: New Insight from Data Analytics"-- is one more example of using data to get the desired results from carbon-based life forms. The corporation has been applying analytics internationally across five different geo-political groupings, and they crunched numbers from the PISA (both the test and the survey that goes with it). They offer findings in two areas:


Well, look. Vindication for Ben Carson:

Our conclusion: after controlling for all other factors, student mindsets are twice as predictive of students’ PISA scores than even their home environment and demographics.

Yup. According to McKinsey, grit and growth mindset are all you need to overcome difficult circumstances at home. The report does not explain how researchers assessed a students' "calibrated motivational mindset," but they are sure it's super-important. Sure, they admit, being rich and not poor can be helpful. And they also note that research on the mindset-outcomes link is "both nascent and predominantly US-based."

But the lesson is clear-- poor kids need to stop whining and start calibrating their motivation.


The report casually notes that there are two "dominant" types of teaching-- teacher directed and inquiry driven (so I guess, thankfully, we're going to skip over "student stuck in front of a computer).

The data suggests that the sage on the stage gets better test scores than the guide on the side, until you "dig deeper" and then see there is a "sweet spot" of combining the two. As with the first finding, the writers offer absolutely no details on how they were able to figure this out from PISA test and survey results.

This combo holds more true in top-scoring systems. On the developing end of the scale, inquiry-based isn't much help. The authors conclude that students must have to gain enough knowledge via teacher-directed instruction in order for inquiry-based to work.

Even a survey as large and rigorous as the PISA assessment provides only some of the answers. Nevertheless, we believe that our findings provide useful insights to guide policy makers as they make their way to their ultimate destination—improving the education and thus the lives of students all over the world.

And that's our generic conclusion.

Honestly, some of these results might be interesting, and some of them might be bunk. The report refers to a "series of reports" so maybe somewhere out in the world there is a more thorough piece of work. But this is like nothing at all. "We look at some data and we decided some stuff 'cause of that. 'kay?" We are left to imagine how any of these conclusions were reached.

Our guides on this non-journey? Emma Dorn (practice manager in McKinsey's Silicon Valley office), Marc Krawitz (an associate partner in the New Jersey office),  and Mona Mourshed (senior partner in the Washington, DC, office). Dorn is a Harvard Business School grad. Krawitz has a PhD in math from U of Michigan. Mourshed has a PhD in economic development from MIT and did some McKinsey work on Education to Employment. Which means that none of these folks have any education background, but are highly educated and surely know how to show their work in a research paper.

Maybe the other reports, wherever they are, contain more legit explanation of how these various conclusions were teased out. But as it stands, this is a big nothingburger.

ESSA: No Answers in Washington

Betsy DeVos went to talk to all the rich, white Republicans at the Mackinac Island leadership conference last week. “The time of ‘Washington knows best’ is over,”she said, and for non-fans of DeVos, it would be easy to retort, "Yeah, now that you and your boss are there, we're pretty sure Washington doesn't know a damned thing. Har!"

We're pretty sure Betsy doesn't know best, but then neither did John King, and the number of things Arne Duncan didn't know were also legendary. So let's not pretend that there was some golden age when the US Department of Education provided wise and informed leadership to America's schools. Looking for great education leadership for the Secretary of Education is like looking for true love on The Bachelor-- it's not impossible, but as the years and iterations pile up, it looks less and less probable.

This is the background that got us ESSA, the current mish-mosh of laws and regulations governing US education. Congress set out to create a law that deliberately pushed USED out of the room, and the John King's USED set out to interpret the law through regulations that let USED climb back in through the window, and then the whole thing was handed over to an administration whose only clear policy goal seems to be "Make things look as if Barack Obama was never actually President at all."

In the meantime, the law's birth was attended by the usual pack of profiteers, making sure that there was language in there somewhere to give their favorite fat piggies access to the public trough. So personalized [sic] computerized learning and social impact bonds and data-mining young humans and de-professionalizing the teaching profession and charter giveaways all have an open door in there somewhere. And of course ESSA continues the devotion to test-centered schools.

As I wrote in 2015, ESSA solves nothing. But it does change the venue of the debate, and that's not a bad thing. I would much rather deal with my state legislature than try to get a member of Congress to listen to me. I would much rather have bad choices affect one state instead of fifty. I would much rather have the corporate stooges scrambling back and forth between fifty states than let them do one stop shopping for lawmakers in DC.

DeVos has encouraged states to stretch the rules to the breaking point and see if the feds (ie her department) will stop them. Nudge nudge, wink wink. Heaven only knows what this will mean, or which states will have the cojones to try.

But it underlines that there are now at least fifty education debates, and they each have their own issues. Some states are under siege by personalized learning advocates. Some are being pressed hard by charter fans. Some are hard at work dismantling teaching. And almost everyone is staging a different version of Common Core Kabuki Theater.

I was someone post of being discouraged, that they thought a few years ago that we might win this. I don't want to be a bummer, but no-- this fight will never be won. It's a marathon, a race against people who have a lot of money and want to get a lot more. I don't envision a day when they say, "You know what? We just give up."

I hate warfare metaphors, but I'm reduced to one here. We will win battles. We will lose battles. There will always be more battles. I like ESSA because it decreases the chances that one battle will be critical to everything. Eggs and baskets and all that. There will be no answers in Washington.

The shape of the resistance is changing, and it will continue to change. Local concerns will loom larger than national ones, and that in turn will loosen the ties that have bound liberals and conservatives together. We can potentially waste a great deal of time and energy arguing about who is really on which team and who gets to wear which team jersey (and if it makes you feel any better, the reformsters have been caught up in similar debates).

We are still going to need each other, for support, resources, information. But relationships all across the world of the ed debates are changing, and they're going to change more.

I've never much cared for calls for "unity." It always seems to mean "Shut up and agree with me." But I think we each have to remember what we value, work toward that in the ways we do best, and support people where our values coincide (while recognizing that there will rarely be 100% agreement). There is a comfort in Big Movements, because they usually come with Big Leaders, and lots of folks are comfortable finding someone they can just follow all the time. But my sense is that we are moving toward a time of many smaller movements, with many normal human sized leaders, linked together, but fighting more local fights.

Know who you trust. Know what you believe. Pay attention. Stay rested and ready. Every win matters.

ICYMI: Hurricane Season Edition (9/24)

Here's some reading for the week. Don't forget to share!

College Board Set to Frack Philadelphia Students

Wrench in the Gears with a reminder that the SATs (and other tests) are all about getting students to give up a ton of personal data for free.

School Segregation Makes a Comeback

Yet another look at how many communities are rolling the clock back to pre-integration days

The Nation's Report Card Says It Assesses Critical THinking but the NAEP Actually Gets an F on That Score

Even a little bit of, well, critical thinking would lead to the conclusion that a standardized test can never measure critical thinking. Valerie Strauss passes on some actual concrete study data to back that up.

What David Osborne Should Learn about Philadelphia

Osborne is kind of a jerk, but right now he's out there pushing hard for replacing public schools with charters. In fact, he's pushing so hard that he's busy making stuff up.

Skipping Classes I Don't Need

Jose Vilson with some thoughts about standardization, among other things.

Audacious Hack

This story has been making the rounds. It's a reminder to be specific with your instructions. Well played, indeed.

Should Fifth Graders Be Studying the KKK?

Nancy Flanagan with a thoughtful response to the South Carolina KKK flap.

I Taught at the XQ Super School

Laurene Jobs' infomercialtainmentganda special sank without a ripple, so I'd be happy to move on, except for this cool piece. Gary Rubinstein has been a prolific debunker of miracle schools, but this time it turns out he actually worked there.

Your Bar Graphs Don't Impress (or Inspire) Me

Bill Ferriter with a great little reminder about the proper place of data in examining our work.

Call for Stories

Finally, believe it or not, there's a person out there working on a musical about teaching in high-stakes testing environments, and she wants some real-life stories about it. Vamboozled has more information.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Food Affects Testing

I don't have a lot of value to add to this item, but I don't want you to miss it.

Turns out that schools that serve high-poverty populations that want to improve their test scores may want to pay closer attention to when SNAP benefits arrive. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is what we used to call "food stamps," and researchers a have determined that SNAP is just as important to your test scores as a few rounds of test prep.

Chad D. Cotti (University of Wisconsin), John Gordanier (University of South Carolina), and Orgul D. Ozturk (University of South Carolina) looked at standardized test scores plotted against the SNAP benefits cycle and discovered, lo and behold, that students who tested during the final weeks of the benefit cycle (when families have typically used up the benefits and are making do with less food)-- those students get lower scores. There's also an effect when the benefits arrive within the four days before testing, and that score-lowering effect primarily hits African-American males. The researchers suggest it's a weekend thing.

The data was from testing in South Carolina from 2000-2012. It involves some equations that I don't understand and a great deal of economist jargon. If a student's family receives benefits 26 days before testing, the researchers find the "student performs between 14 and 4.5 hundredths of a standard deviation" worse than they would have on a better day.

So if you'd like a paper that shows that 1) SNAP has positive benefits and 2) Big Standardized Tests measure factors that have nothing to do with educational achievement, here you go. Because that's where we are now-- needing actual proof that students do better when they are well fed. 

Friday, September 22, 2017

CRPE: Public Schools Should Assist Their Own Execution

The Center for Reinventing Public Education is an advocacy group intent on pushing corporate reformy agenda. They've taken shots at holding schools and teachers acountable, and they've fought for charter schools in their home state of Washington. And like many of these corporately-funded reformily-networked pseudo thinky tanks, they like to publish the occasional "report." Their newest one offers some bold and ballsy solutions to the problems of shrinking public schools.

Better Together: Ensuring Quality District Schools in Times of Charter Growth and Declining Enrollment is a masterpiece of concern-trolling self-serving For The Children with a side-order of PR spin advice for charters. And I have read it so that you don't have to.


Robin Lake, the director at CRPE, sets a tone with the very first introductory adverb clause--

When districts go into a major period of “declining enrollment,”

So it's only so-called "declining enrollment," meaning that something else is really going on?

Whatever it is, it's happening to many districts, like Detroit. Lots of folks want to call charter schools a factor in this phenomenon, but Lake is not so sure. So she got together with the Economics Lab at Georgetown and Afton Partners, a DC consulting firm that specializes in school finances, along with some un-named various edu-leaders gathered in Houston.

Lake is not going to make us read the whole thing to get to her point:

The bottom line: public charter schools are not to blame for districts’ financial struggles, but it is in their best interest to be part of a solution moving forward.

That's the pre-concluded conclusion of this paper-- all that's left is the how's and why's. Nothing, Lake says, will change the inevitable marching onslaught of charters, and school districts are just going to have to figure out how to be more nimble and learn how to compete. And CRPE wants to "help lead that work." Because of their deep concern for public education and also, for the children.


A quote from an unnamed "District superintendent" says that there are always transition costs and the charter movement "forgot that in the transition from the monopoly district system to individual schools" transition costs would rear their pricey heads. Man-- which district superintendent referred to traditional public schools as a "monopoly district system"? But let's move on.

Declining public school enrollment has led to the "perception" that charter expansion is coming at the cost of public schools, and that perception "even if unfounded" has led to "tensions" between charter and public schools. Yes, and the declining number of hairs on my head has led to the perception that I'm balder than I used to be.

There's a message here for charteristas from CRPE-- you can pooh-pooh these "perceptions," but you just got your ass handed to you over Question 2 in Massachusetts. But CRPE doesn't want readers to think they're simply discussing a tweakage of charter marketing-- the defeats of charter initiatives could hurt the children who are trapped in public schools that "decline in quality." So charters have got to up their PR game. For the children.

Also, the writers are concerned-- really concerned-- that public schools are not holding up well under the pressures created by declining enrollment, because that would be bad For The Children, and so CRPE would like to offer some suggestions, just to help. Because they're so concerned. About the children.

What We Know (And Don't Know) About District Transformation

Lots of districts had declining enrollment before charters showed up. But it sure does look like more recently, charters have certainly contributed to public enrollment decline. In Detroit and DC, public school enrollment dropped. In fact, in DC charter enrollment grew more than public enrollment dropped  over 18 years "implying that a significant minority (11,000) of charter students had come from private schools or outside the district." There are some interesting numbers being thrown around, though I'm kind of wondering if CRPE knows that new students can also be, you know, born.

CRPE notes that public schools are designed to grow rather than shrink, and I'm not sure I believe that, but they do manage to describe, with a handy graphic, a district financial death spiral-- cuts in money leads to cuts in service leads to drops in enrollment leads to cuts in funding etc etc etc.

But CRPE has some thoughts about what public schools need to do to better respond flexibly to the various cuts they suffer from. Let's see what they have in mind to "help" public schools.

Oh, This List Again

Eight items. All familiar.

1) Close schools and make some money selling real estate.

2) Redistricting and tweaking enrollment set ups.

3) End FILO so that you can fire the more expensive senior teachers. In discussing this CRPE barely pretends there are issues of quality here (the old "save our great young teachers and can those washed up burnouts"). No, if you fire old staff, you can keep more warm bodies.

4) Advocate for reform of long-term, fixed-cost obligations. AKA, ask your legislators to get you released from your pension commitments.

5) Ending unsustainable/unfunded salary commitments, such as automatic step-and-lane raises. You can save so much money if you don't have to pay those damn teachers jack. Also, though CRPE doesn't mention this, if public schools weren't paying teachers so much money, charters wouldn't be under pressure to keep their own salary offers competitive.

6) Create a uniform funding system that would blah blah blah "pay charters more" is where I think we're headed here.

7) Commit to long-term decision-making to help manage decline. In other words, you may just think that public schools are sick and need some treatment to get better, but we think it's time to check them into a hospice. Stop trying to save them, and start working on death with dignity.

8) Keep looking for "operational efficiencies, in part by making more costs, such as transportaion and special education, variable." Which I think is business-speak for "find ways to squeeze and screw your suppliers and subcontractors."

Notice that none of these suggestions include mitigating the outside pressures on public schools. For instance "Cap charter growth" or "Fully fund schools" did not make it onto this list.

CRPE notes that the issue can be complex. They even note that the financial crunch is often felt worst by the students who need support most. A one-size-fits-all strategy won't work, but, CRPE, "it is also important to transcend  finger-pointing." No single party is to blame and no parties are blameless. There's trouble created on many sides. On many sides. (And don't forget, charters-- though none of this may be your fault, you've still got to have a plan for managing the optics and politics of it.)

Anyway, here are some specific issues/thoughts/stuff that they came up with in their Houston meeting with all those anonymous folks.

The charter-district dynamic can no longer be thought of as a zero-sum game.

Um, no. That's exactly wrong. Under current charter laws, it is exactly a zero-sum game. Every student who attends a charter is a student who doesn't attend a public school. Every dollar sent to a charter school is a dollar that public schools no longer have. It is the very definition of a zero-sum game.

But the folks at CRPE's meeting were really talking about something else.

Participants agreed that the issue must be framed around creating better opportunities for all students, meeting their widely varying needs and learning styles, regardless of what kind of school they’re in.

In other words, if charters want to handle their PR more effectively, they've got to stop saying out loud, "Those kids still in public school aren't our problem. Screw 'em." Charters must at least pretend to care that all students are "buffered" from the effects of "disruptive change." CRPE doesn't really know what that looks like. But I am going to give them credit for at least talking about how charters affect all students in a community-- not just the ones at the charter.

Districts have a responsibility to act in the best interests of students-- existing and future

This is a cool new spin on For The Children. Basically, we have to cut costs and keep staffing cheap so that we will be viable, and when we have to cut even more, it won't hurt the children.

Note that it does not mean to go lobby hard for legislators to fully fund all schools.

Legacy Costs

More of the same. This may seem kind of hard to read about, but whenever you see "legacy costs" just think "financial promises made in the past that we find it inconvenient to live up to in the present."

The charter sector needs to have a credible answer to concerns about harm to district

Well, that is a challenge, because the public has eyes and ears and, for the most part, brains, and over the past decade or two they've been able to plainly see how charters do, in fact, harm public school districts. Not only that, but charters leave the vast majority of students in those public schools that are being harmed-- and they do so after deciding which students they feel like "saving."

The old answers don't work. "Charters are cooking up awesome game-changing innovations" has turned out to be false. "Just pay attention to the ones we're saving," is less and less effective. And nobody has ever really addressed the biggest charter lie of all, which is the notion that we can run three or six or ten parallel schools for the same money we spent to run one. If you really want to have four different school systems serving the same community, you need to fund four school systems. For some reason, nobody wants to be the one telling taxpayers, "We are going to raise your taxes to pay for schools to duplicate the work of the school's you are already paying for."

CRPE knows this, because one of their pieces of advice is "close school buildings" because operating fewer buildings is cheaper. So what do you suppose it does to overall costs in a community if we close one district school building and open four charter buildings?

Charter schools and districts alone don't own all the problems.

And by "problems," we mean "pensions." And laws about teacher tenure, and how schools are financed. Legislators need to fix some of this. Not, mind you, by using caps to manage charter growth, or by expanding financing to cover several school systems.

First Steps Toward Solutions

So how do we fix all of these things? CRPE has some thoughts.

Districts need to close schools and negotiate contracts that don't spend so much money. The closing school solution seems to run up against the "don't take on long-term debts and costs" solution, as schools frequently manage consolidation of schools by taking on construction projects.

They would like to see more partnership, but their example is "if charters find a way to give cheap retirement plans might encourage public systems to adopt similar systems." So, yeah, charters that want to pay teachers less could, I suppose, try to convince public schools not to outbid them. That's cooperation, sort of.

And there would need to be city-level strategy sessions. Which should be a hoot as long as nobody ever addresses the underlying zero-sum game that is charter vs. public schools. But that's not going to happen, since one proposed solution is that districts "publicly identify" their legacy costs in exchange for a charter funding formula that more closely resembles public per-pupil costs:

For example, charter schools might receive less per-pupil funding under such an agreement but would be able to tell the public, with confidence, that charter and district students received the same classroom funding and that charter schools weren’t contributing to a district’s impending insolvency.

Yeah, that doesn't even make sense. "Getting same classroom funding" doesn't equal "not sucking public school dry." So maybe the suggestion here is that charter's get their funding and public schools admit that they're insolvent because their buildings and pensions and teacher pay are all just way expensive. In other words, charters agree to get paid public tax dollars, and public schools agree to publicly say it's their own damn fault they're having financial problems. Why would public schools want to enter into this deal, exactly? And would the funding formula include all the "philanthropic" contributions to charters?

CRPE also suggests that public schools be given some limited extra funding to be used only as a means of down-sizing. Or if districts can prove they're shrinking as fast as possible, charters would agree to a voluntary growth slow down. Or some other grand bargain that basically involves charters conducting business as usual while public schools agree to work harder at dying, already.

CRPE also has a list of Things To Discuss and Research Further. Gather more data about how much financial vampirage charters are really committing, and how much is just, you know, other reasons for districts to lose money. More data about "fixed costs" and just generally how teachers are draining money by wanting to be paid. Figure out the greatest number of students the charters could handle, because that's the ideal, apparently--  as many students taken out of public school as possible. More power for superintendents. They don't say which power, exactly, but context suggests that old favorite-- hire, fire and set salaries without stupid rules and unions. Learning from other sectors like energy and healthcare, because they're just like schools.

Bottom Line

CRPE is correct in one thing-- we do have to look at how charters affect the whole local educational eco-system. But their belief in the inevitable supremacy of charters gets in the way of a useful conversation.

The report seems to boil down basically to "Charters and public schools should work together to make employment conditions worse for teachers. Also, they should team up to help charters thrive and to help public schools die more efficiently and without making charters look bad. For The Children."

Maybe this is supposed to be an innovative approach to the Socratic method, and public schools are just supposed to take a hemlock bath because it would make life easier for charters. But I don't imagine many takers will line up to take CRPE's offer. Not even for the children.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Computer Limitations

I had my first encounter with computer programming in a college math class in 1978. Turing machines, if-then switches. Fun times. A year or so later, I took an actual programming course; we wrote programs in BASIC on punch cards. Really fun times.

Software and hardware have changed, but not so some of the most basic lessons I learned at the time, and one of the most important lessons about computers is this.

Computers are stupid.

They are tireless, and they are insanely fast. But they are stupid. And as we contemplate the increasing wave of edtech products that claim to have artificial intelligence baked in (though in virtually all cases what's actually baked in is a complex algorithm), we must remember one simple truth about these stupid, stupid machines.

A computer cannot do anything that a human does not know how to do.

Take for instance the many programs that now claim they can read a student's character and personality by monitoring facial expressions and answering patterns. The first question we have to ask is, are there any human beings who know how to do that?

Is there any person who can look at still pictures or video shots of a single human face and definitively analyze that person's character?

Because if there's no human who can do it, then there's no human who can program a computer to do it because (say it with me) computers are stupid.

There may well be actions that a human could not complete, because it would take a gazillion person-hours to do it, like compute Pi out to a zillion places-- but a human still knows how to do it, and so a human can tell a computer how to do it.

Can a human predict exactly what the stock market will do next? Does a human know how to predict who will win the 2020 Presidential election? Does a human know how to read personality via facial expressions (and remember-- we already debunked phrenology)? Can a human look at ten multiple choice questions and know definitively how well a student understands algebra? Can a human use only sentence length and vocabulary choice to determine whether an essay is any good or not? Does a human know how to look at one test and predict exactly how a specific student will fare on an entirely different test?

The answer to all of these is "no." And that means that a computer program can't do any of these things, either.

When someone presents you with a computer program that allegedly does something magical, the question to ask is, "How can it do that, exactly?" If no human knows the algorithm for achieving that goal, then no computer programmer knows how to tell software to achieve that goal.

Computers are not magical. They're just fast, tireless, persistent, and stupid.