Monthly Archives: April 2013

Part II of Mr. D at the Education Innovation Summit 2013

“His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. And when He was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to the custom of the feast. When they had finished the days, as they returned, the Boy Jesus lingered behind in Jerusalem…Now so it was that after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers.” ~ Luke 2:41-47

The presentations at the Education Innovation Summit left me with little hope about the future.  Our panel discussion that followed, however, did provide a glimmer of opportunity.

At the very least, it created a buzz similar to the boy Jesus at the temple (again, forgive the Biblical references…I’m on a roll).

The panel discussion that followed the presentations would be in the Palo Verde Room, a space slightly smaller than my classroom with lower ceilings and worse light.  Even worse, the chairs were arranged in the typical convention manner: rows of tightly-packed catering seats facing a speaker of nominal importance.

To make it a true discussion, the seats were arranged in concentric circles, with  my colleagues and I occupying most of the center and the conventioneers taking up space in the periphery.  Even as the minutes started to tick toward our start time, I–and most of us, for that matter–weren’t even sure if we could fill the room.

To everyone’s surprise, the room filled rather quickly.  Seat after seat was occupied, leaving many of the attendees to huddle around the perimeter wall.  Within minutes of the presentation’s beginning, the crowd was so large outside the room that a microphone was needed to broadcast what we were saying.

Believe me, we said a mouthful.

The panel was moderated by Michael Horn, founder of the Innosight Institute and an author on digital learning.  It featured the LearnZillion teachers answering questions about education technology, the new start-ups we saw, and the road ahead for education.  Horn is best known for his book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation will Change the way the World Learns, so his role seemed very apropos to manage a group of educators not happy with things as they are.

I’m not going to critique the comments from my colleagues; it would be unfair, and their thoughts were as varied and as valuable as the people themselves.  One (my friend who loved Bloomboard) who’s very tech-savvy and extremely enthusiastic, hit on the need for a more harmonious development of ed-tech products, using tech buzzwords like “convergence” and whatnot.  Another brought home the need for a more active role for teachers in the product development process—a tenet LearnZillion stakes its reputation on.  Others stressed the need for more content instruction (science and social studies), less reliance on numerical data, standardized testing, and the need to reach all learners.

I was one of a handful of teachers that spoke multiple times—and among the most biting and vicious, at least in my opinion.  Here’s some highlights of what I said:

The “Kid-Friendly” problem – This was really pointed both at ed-tech developers and some of my colleagues who raved about certain programs that provide “kid-friendly” graphics and animation to assist in learning.  Now, most readers of this blog know my thoughts on terms like “kid-friendly” (hint: it has to do with waste products).  It’s a buzzword that too often is used to dumb content down.  Furthermore, it misreads the student population: my kids have grown past most “kid-friendly” content and want real, rigorous, often controversial material to read and analyze.  Developers should not be afraid to let children explore the world in a real, meaningful, grown-up way—they’re more ready than you think.

The “Teaching Experience” problem – In an effort to achieve much-needed credibility from both investors and the education community, many of the ed-tech companies tout their collective experience in education.  Their PowerPoint slides show various numbers of years experience on the team “20+ years K-12 experience,” “Over a decade of experience.”  What that actually means is a mystery, and I made it abundantly clear to them: “We’re not fooled…when your pitch says ’20 years experience’, that could mean one teacher with 20 years experience or 10 TFA nitwits with 2 years in who all jumped into the corporate sector.  Not all experience is the same.”

The Content Knowledge problem – Here I’m harping the Core Knowledge line, but it’s a good one nonetheless: the achievement gap goes hand in hand with the knowledge gap.  Without content knowledge, students cannot translate their newfound language and math skills into results.  The new Common Core based tests are heavy in content, so for those of you who pushed aside science and social studies all these years in order to put in more ELA and math time: who’s sorry now?

Even if the content is difficult (and it usually is, in my class anyway), the key to reaching all students is not changing the content, but the approach to the content.  Break up large documents into smaller texts.  Differentiate activities on a text based on ability and readiness.  Don’t dumb down history and science: make history and science accessible to all your students.

The Teacher Involvement problem – I didn’t introduce this topic, but I did add to my colleague’s discussion of teacher involvement.  Too many products in the education universe have little if no input from teachers in their design and implementation.  It still amazes me that an education technology conference like that one never involved teachers at all until now.  Shouldn’t an end user play a meaningful role in product development, as they are the ones that need to use it for their students?

This is the reason I pinned my star on LearnZillion.  If Eric and Alix (the co-founders) simply cranked out video lessons and sold them to school districts to be shoved down teachers’ throats, I wouldn’t have given them a minute of my time.  Yet they didn’t, to their infinite credit. Their model is, admittingly, more complex, more labor intensive and I would guess more costly.  Yet hiring real veteran teachers as product developers makes sense in ed-tech: end users as developers virtually guarantee a product that is professional, high-quality, necessary and useful.  If other companies really care about their products’ effects on education, then their development requires at least a partial bottom-up approach.  Teachers have to be part of the development process, period.

One audience member asked what they can do to help define the Common Core.  I answered that she was asking the wrong question.  The real question is “How can we turn your ideas about the Common Core into tangible products for the classroom?”

The Teacher Evaluation/Data Collection problem—I really hope Bloomboard boy was in the audience to hear this…I saved my most venomous comments for this part.  Someone had mentioned a trend in the corporate pitches towards different products for data collection.  It was as a follow-up that I shared my thoughts on the Bloomboard presentation with the audience and thus my central point: if these collection and evaluation systems are meant to provide meaningful feedback to teachers, then the systems must be more than a dump of numbers.  A number in a category on a spreadsheet like a box score does not define my practice.  Observational, qualitative feedback does.  Data-based systems simply give administrators a number to (a) give to higher administrators, and (b) fire “bad” teachers.  Any ambulance-chaser of a lawyer can fight these evaluations easily.

On this not, one particular colleague of mine said the quote of the conference, and I want to honor him personally.  Cory Howard is a math teacher from Indiana who seems, at first, like a typical shit-kicking hick.  He fools a lot of folks with that drawl.

He’s far from a typical country boy: getting to know Cory, he’s among the most honest, down-to-Earth, and among the most prescient thinkers I’ve ever met.  When asked about evaluations and the use of data, he brought the house down with the following (and I’m paraphrasing):

“You can measure a pig all you want…but it won’t make it grow any faster.”

Apparently, our panel was the hit of the conference that day.  Twitter feeds were ablaze as the crowd outside our room grew and grew.  Horn mentioned to me that it was the easiest moderating job of all, simply passing a mike to each of us who had loads to say.  The room didn’t empty right away as audience members lingered to speak with us.

This was a good sign…or a bad sign.

Now that I’m in my classroom, reflecting on the weekend, I take stock in that the discussions and feedback we gave could be a huge step in changing the way education technology is created.  If the moneyfolks and the entrepreneurs really took our advice seriously, it could create a shift in process and focus that could finally combat the glut of inferior education products that serve little purpose to classrooms and students.

On the other hand, they could be simply paying us lip service and continuing with business as usual once we left.  After all, despite all the posturing and proclamations of doing it “for the children,” it’s doubtful that a class of struggling students in the South Bronx is getting a profit share in the IPO.  No student in Harlem, Detroit, south side of Chicago, southeast DC or south-central Los Angeles is securing seed money for expansion of these folks.

This is, after all, about making a buck.

My only worry is that the chase for the almighty dollar overshadows the need to educate our children.

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Life Among the Moneychangers – Mr. D at the Education Innovation Summit 2013

“And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, and said unto them, It is written, ‘My house shall be called the house of prayer; but you have made it a den of thieves.'” ~ Matthew 21:12-13

True, pure education is never about the money.  Yet money can certainly help spread the gospel to the meekest of the flock…

(Pardon the biblical puns…being among venture capitalists made me a touch self-righteous)

English: Hole #7, The Phoenician Golf Club, Ca...

English: Hole #7, The Phoenician Golf Club, Canyon course, Scottsdale, Arizona, USA Français : Trou #7, The Phoenician Golf Club, parcours Canyon, Scottsdale, Arizona, USA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I kept thinking this as I strolled in with my colleagues into a resort too rich for any of us, to register at a conference many of us never heard of, to talk to power brokers who usually wouldn’t give us the time of day.

This is how it feels to be a TEACHER at an EDUCATION technology conference–now you see how warped this world can be.

I joined my old buddies at LearnZillion in Scottsdale, Arizona for a weekend of pre-conference analysis, test drives of new processes and formats, and nailing down of logistics for TeachFest, our big shindig in San Francisco in a few weeks.  As a second act, we were featured at a panel discussion at the nearby ASU/GSV Education Innovation Summit, a showplace for up and coming ed-tech entrepreneurs to introduce their new products for venture capitalists eager to take a ride on the next big thing.

The first was fun, exhausting, exciting…definitely worth the trip.  It’s the second part of the trip that concerns us today.

The Phoenician, a monstrous resort hugging a rugged desert peak, with golf carts, pools, fountains and lushness everywhere, screamed of moneyed wealth.  Even the toilets practically demanded gratuity for their customer service.  It was the type of place where amongst the hot tubs, golf outings, cocktails and mixers, factories would close, jobs would be lost, lives would be ruined, souls crushed; basically par for the course (no pun intended) for a conference focused on education.

From the first steps in, you could tell who didn’t belong.  Everyone had their blazers, suits, state-of-the-art smartphones and Italian loafers.  Our LearnZillion t-shirts (mine was a size too small…possibly a deliberate move to make me look more menacing) coupled with khakis and skirts of varied tones and wear made us look like pimply-assed pages at a teen clothing store.

It didn’t help that I would go through this sober.

I’ve been to conferences, workshops, seminars, conventions, you name it.  The amount of noise–useless, soul-crushing noise–can only be assauged through copious amounts of alcohol.  I had a full plate of a schedule: presentations and our panel discussion, so a quick trip to the bar wasn’t happening.

The first hour was a series of presentations by start-up companies who openly, and sometimes quite frankly, were shilling for a bite on the tit of a lucky billionaire.  All of them said some blather about how their company has a “proven track record”, or creates “quality data-driven analysis.”  One company (who will remain nameless…nah, I’ll go ahead, it was called A2i) claimed they used “randomized control models” of students to test their work–a claim so ensconced in bullshit it struck me dumb (a rare occurrence).  I didn’t have the heart to tell him that “randomized control model” is (a) an oxymoron, and (b) statistically impossible if you want an ACCURATE representative sample of a large body.  Randomness doesn’t ensure objectivity–it just ensures chaos.

“There goes the next undersecretary of education” I chortled as A2i-Man sauntered off to his seat.

The other presentations continued in the same vein, and unlike my more polite colleagues, I made no bones of demonstrating my pleasure or disgust (at least facially).

Agilix tauts a “learning infrastructure”, a combination of data management, learning system and course registration without actually showing a product.

Aristotle Circle, a fantastic name for a not-so-techy product, is basically a staffing service for tutors, with a Powerpoint so text-heavy the Wall Street Journal would find it verbose.

A teacher training program called Better Lesson showed promise, until a certain founder of a certain charter network (which rhymes with “skip” or “Crip”) showed up on their board of advisors.  No one’s making me shame a kid publicly or clap in unison like a fucking Blackshirt, thank you.

Then came BloomBoard, a company founded by a friend of the LZ founders, Jason Lange.  Now, a friend of mine at the conference, God bless him, is a great teacher, a real motivated go-getter and an invaluable asset to our team.  That said, he was really excited about this product as he saw it on SBSW Edu this year and, to be honest, I didn’t see the value.  Maybe he valued other things than I did.  Maybe it was that cute Midwestern tendency to trust anyone with a clean haircut and a nice jacket.

Whatever it was, something about Lange really bothered me.  He really came across as kind of callous, and by the end I wanted to throttle him.  Lange started with a graph showing that the new frontier was the management of data needed for teacher evaluation systems.  His system would organize data for teacher evaluation and crunch numbers into an evaluation for me based on a numerical score in any number of criteria.  If the price was right, my supervisors could then assign the appropriate support programs for that specific numerical flaw that I have.

People around me saw this as a breakthrough and revolutionary.  Lange certainly was proud of his baby.  Yet…forgive my ignorance, but isn’t this just a system to move a bunch of numbers into new buckets of numbers–buckets that put the livelihoods of teachers at stake without any thought to genuine, REAL feedback?

So I get a 2 in point 4.5, but a 4 in point 4.7.  What determined that?  What determines the system?  How can I know what to actually DO to become better?   This system isn’t helping me at all in this regard.

By the time I left, I not only was bewildered, I was beside myself with rage.  Apart from some rare exceptions, I didn’t see a single individual who gave a shit about education, just a pack of fly-by-night snake-oil salesmen looking to cash in.

What’s even worse…those in charge of education in America are looking to these hucksters for the answer to their problems.

Later that afternoon, we’d get a chance to address these esteemed captains of Edtech industry–and you’ll be shocked at some of our responses.

More on the EIS 2013 tomorrow.


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When the Pagans are Fed to Lions – can Core Knowledge survive as a NYCDOE mandate?

Statue de Constantin Ier, Musée du Capitole, Rome

Constantine: He swapped out one lion meat for another.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Usually, when the conquered becomes the conqueror, the outcome is far from bloodless.

When Christianity became legal through the Edict of Milan 313 under the Roman emperor Constantine, it provided for the religious freedom of pagan faiths as well, the same faiths that worked to persecute Christians for centuries.

Yet over time, as Constantine chose to eliminate his rivals, what was a potentially newly tolerant society simply replaced one orthodoxy for another, as Christianity became THE state religion of the later empire.  Now it was the pagan’s turn to feel the whip and the fire…and no one learned anything.

In education, this cycle of persecution is alive and well—and a good group’s work could be casualty of it all.

Although it took time for me to warm to it, the Core Knowledge Foundation has really become a system I’ve embraced more and more.  Founded by former University of Virginia professor E.D. Hirsch, Jr., Core Knowledge is a philosophy that strives to improve education not just through how children learn, but on what they learn.  According to their guiding principles:

“For the sake of academic excellence, greater equity, and higher literacy, elementary and middle schools need to teach a coherent, cumulative, and content-specific core curriculum.

The persistent gap in reading achievement in U.S. schools can never be reduced until the knowledge gap is reduced. And the knowledge gap will not be reduced unless broad, rich content knowledge is integrated into the many hours devoted to language arts instruction.”

A long time ago, I did a column on Core Knowledge, critiquing its insistence on certain baskets of knowledge as artificially constricting and inherently subjective—that content needed to drive skills to find further content, and especially critical thinking.    It’s flaws notwithstanding, CK has strengths in advancing content knowledge along with language and math skills.  It is rigid, to be sure, but allows room for growth due to its ability to be woven into literacy blocks and natural progressions into subject areas that the class can pursue independent of the program.

Core Knowledge seems useful—which is why I was dismayed when I learned that New York City will be pushing for Core Knowledge to be the curriculum of grades K-2.

Maybe this was CK’s goal all along: to make their system mandatory district by district until it becomes the new dogma.  I really hope not.  History reminds us that when innovation becomes codified in law, it often loses its original intent for other, more sinister goals.

Ask Lucy Calkins, for example.

Her workshop model, designed at Teachers College, was, like Core Knowledge, considered controversial.  It stressed too much free writing.  It didn’t teach grammar effectively.  It didn’t for children to grow in their  writing, much of it stuck on writing about how children “feel.”

Then came the Bloomberg administration, and like Constantine of old, the persecuted was allowed into the palace.  With little checks from on high, Calkins and her minions had almost free rein in training teachers, designing workshops, creating massive new models of planning and learning that became (and in many cases, still is) the only accepted model of instruction in this city.

What happened?  The original model morphed into concepts, models, plans, curriculum maps—most strayed well enough from the original idea of Calkins that it became something of a joke.  Add to this the new pressure of standardized tests, and the dream of creating child prodigal writers turned into factories of learning rote models of answering essays, writing about poems and fairy tales, anything to drive up scores.

It was not designed to make kids more knowledgeable, to be sure.  But even Calkins has to admit the veneer of official sanction twisted her original goal to the ends of people less than enamored with student success.

This is my ultimate fear for Core Knowledge.

It’s a great system, and used correctly, it can be a lifesaver for kids who struggle with basic skills.  Yet the mandate can very easily pervert Dr. Hirsch’s original intention—and it’s already happening.

The alignment of Common Core-based assessments with the CK program already seems like the handwriting on the wall.  As the first results are released and the stats show less promise than expected, how will Core Knowledge address the problem?  Is it designed to address the problem?

Or worse, will CK be yoked to the Common Core as a beast of burden?

Core Knowledge is too valuable to be left to the education reformers to be slaughtered.

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