There was an interesting recent the74 piece on a Philadelphia charter organization, Mastery, which takes low performing schools and works to “turn them around.”
Embedded within this article is the implication that a shift to a focus on the teaching of conceptual math, rather than “rote” procedural teaching, led to a swift downturn in math scores.
“So this year, the network began reintroducing teaching techniques that had been a staple at Mastery schools for years, while seeking a middle ground between no excuses and restorative practices. It’s a ‘journey of trying to find out what’s the right mix,’ Gordon said.
Specifically, the network is reintroducing procedural math instruction, which focuses on rote instruction like memorization and repetition.”
It seems worth digging into this supposition a bit more.
Is Mastery’s downturn in math scores due to the failure of conceptual math in general as a pedagogical approach? Or is it a failure of the network to attract and train teachers who can teach this type of math more effectively?
Or is it a failure in the assessments that were used as a reference? Or was it that conceptual math takes longer to “stick” and pay dividends? Or was it a failure of the curriculum they used to move in a more conceptual direction? . . .
I know, I’ve mostly stopped posting. A conflux of being-really-busy at work, getting-really-sick (turns out I’m allergic to a certain type of antibiotic), and being-overwhelmed-with-information (I get way too many newsletters) and needing to just kind of hit the pause button on everything. And winter.
I guess there’s some kind of game going on, but I’m not a football person, so I’m posting this instead. So here you go:
Former Secretary of Education John King is moving to CEO of Education Trust. But before doing so, his federal office created a great guide to increasing student diversity: Improving Outcomes for All Students: Strategies and Considerations to Increase Student Diversity. NCSD: http://school-diversity.org/pdf/improving-outcomes-diversity.pdf
I’ve always felt like we have a tendency in the world of education to over-emphasize differences between kids rather than focus on what is relatively similar. Similarly, in the world of science there’s often an outsized focus on gender differences. A recent book pushes against this narrative and stresses the social, environmental, contextual impact on creating those differences: “It’s the social circumstances that the fish find themselves in that sculpt their anatomies and their behaviors.” NPR: http://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2017/01/26/511734926/the-science-of-gender-no-men-arent-from-mars-and-women-from-venus
If you care about education, it’s worth paying close attention to what’s going down in Silicon Valley. The hyperdrive capitalism of venture investment, with its raw focus on the rapid scale of the highest performing and rapid failure of all the rest, parallels and in some ways informs edtech and charter models.
There’s certainly a healthy and necessary space in education for a private marketplace of rapid iteration, scale, and fail. But there’s also a necessity for the less efficient but robust, slow-growth, long-term models of public schools.
In The New Yorker there is an interesting piece on Y-Combinator’s Sam Altman relevant to this. It’s interesting purely as a biopic, but scattered throughout are insights into the driving mindsets and ethics of Silicon Valley. Let’s take a closer look at some quotes from the article with the frame of education in mind.
Altman, as he nursed a negroni after dinner, had his own warning for the timid: “Democracy only works in a growing economy. Without a return to economic growth, the democratic experiment will fail. And I have to think that YC is hugely important to that growth.”
Democracy needs a heck of a lot more than just a viable economy. It needs strong civic institutions and an active citizenry that has a shared understanding of how to engage with those institutions and of their purpose. Public education should serve the public in cultivating shared civic knowledge and values.
. . . In his book “Hackers & Painters,” Graham calculated that smart hackers at a startup could get 36x more work done than the average office drone—and that they would, therefore, eventually blow up employment as we know it. He made this sound patriotic and fun; how could an oligarchic technocracy go wrong?
Indeed? How could a focus solely on only the most productive and efficient members of society go wrong? In education, imagine if we only invested in the most gifted and talented. The rest would be herded into service professions or unskilled labor. A meritocracy! Wait. Isn’t that more or less how things used to be before the advent of a public education . . .
. . . And he told me, “It’s bad for the companies and bad for Silicon Valley if companies can stay alive just because they’re [associated with Y-Combinator]. It’s better for everyone if bad companies die quickly.”
This is a driving philosophy of venture capital and rapid scale that Silicon Valley pursues. Scale the few most successful ventures rapidly, and fail the remainder. With schools, we could only invest in and scale the ones that demonstrated strong academic performance — all the rest we would close. Sounds good, right? Kids should only be in schools that have demonstrated their worth.
But there’s a problem with rapid scale in terms of sustainability:
. . .The truth is that rapid growth over a long period is rare, that the repeated innovation required to sustain it is nearly impossible, and that certain kinds of uncontrollable growth turn out to be cancers. . . Every great startup—Facebook, Airbnb—has no idea why it’s growing at first, and has to figure that out before the growth stalls. Growth masks all problems.”
A school could be high performing, but not such a great place to be.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t a place for markets in the education system. A market doesn’t have to mean Silicon Valley style scale and fail.
…it’s possible to create a huge tech company without taking venture capital, and without spending far beyond your means. It’s possible, in other words, to start a tech company that runs more like a normal business than a debt-fueled rocket ship careening out of control. Believe it or not, start-ups don’t even have to be headquartered in San Francisco or Silicon Valley.
. . . You can simply start a business, run it to serve your customers, and forget about outside investors and growth at any cost.
Schools that do this work are the ones that get better: they put their focus on service to their students and families and adapt accordingly.
But there’s other ways that those who abide by the scale and fail model are investing in, recognizing the limitations of a brick and mortar approach. Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen (you may have heard of AltSchools?) lays out the long-game for software and tech in the education industry in this Vox interview:
Primary education in the US is a monopoly. It’s a public sector monopoly with very little competition. Even the charter schools end up under sustained attack for violating the monopoly. You see this most recently in New York with De Blasio trying to shut them down. A government-sponsored monopoly is not easy to move.
. . . New technologies tend to vaporize on impact with those institutions. The last thing a unionized public school wants to do is to fundamentally change how they operate. Of course they don’t want to adopt new technology. It’s antithetical to the philosophy.
So the solution? Software!
Look, there’s great potential for technology in the education sphere, and I think experiments like AltSchools and Udacity are well worth making. But Andreessen’s premise here is false. Having worked in NYC public schools for even the short length of time that I have, I’ve seen so many tech fads get readily embraced by educators and districts that it’s become ridiculous. Rather than “vaporizing on impact,” new tech fads rather seem to become desperately embraced and then just as hurriedly discarded. Harried educators and administrators would love it if a SMART Board or data system or robot would magically and rapidly improve the outcomes for their kids!
But I do think Andreessen makes a more balanced analysis and point here:
We can’t revamp the entire system. Nobody can. But I think more and more, there are gaps in what the current system can accommodate compared to what people actually want. There are opportunities to build on the edges, around the sides, parallel systems. And at the very least introduce choice. In the best-case scenario, it becomes a real challenger to the status quo.
I fully agree that there are massive gaps and many opportunities to better serve our nation’s students, and I for one welcome the evolution of edtech and tools and software, as well as the vibrant niches of effective charter models and networks. But we’re on a quixotic mission if we’re shooting for supplanting public education systems, rather than supplementing them.
The argument for why this is so can be viewed in statements that Barack Obama and Vox’s Ezra Klein have made about the function of public institutions vs. private ones (I’ve posted this before):
The final thing I’ll say is that government will never run the way Silicon Valley runs because, by definition, democracy is messy. This is a big, diverse country with a lot of interests and a lot of disparate points of view. And part of government’s job, by the way, is dealing with problems that nobody else wants to deal with.
. . . sometimes we get, I think, in the scientific community, the tech community, the entrepreneurial community, the sense of we just have to blow up the system, or create this parallel society and culture because government is inherently wrecked. No, it’s not inherently wrecked; it’s just government has to care for, for example, veterans who come home. That’s not on your balance sheet, that’s on our collective balance sheet, because we have a sacred duty to take care of those veterans. And that’s hard and it’s messy, and we’re building up legacy systems that we can’t just blow up.
I will say one thing about both government and private-sector production, which is something that I do think is important is there is an advantage to being willing to do kludgy, difficult, somewhat unpleasant things.
. . . As you say, there’s an attraction — recognizing the government is inefficient — to just saying, “Well, let’s just do cash transfer for everything. Let’s go UBI for everything.” But there is a lot that government does, often not that well, that somebody needs to be doing, because a lot of the people you want to help are actually really difficult to help. This is something . . . this is one of the things I believe strongly in policy that we underrate.
A lot of what we’re trying to do in government is not help people who want “free stuff,” but is help people who are actually very, very difficult to help. This is particularly true in health care.
And particularly true in education. The work of education is a slow, complicated, incremental process that will benefit from new technologies, software, and schools, but that will not rapidly scale, and provides a public service that makes rapid failure of massive amounts of schools or students a nonviable option.
I’ve been moving apartments this week, so I haven’t been as closely attuned to all things ED, but here’s a few links worth reviewing when you take a break from admiring the swiftly changing color of the leaves on this lovely autumnal weekend.
There’s a school entitled Michaela that has apparently been getting some guff in the UK reminiscent of the strong debate that Success Academy engenders here in NYC.
Tom Bennett, the founder of ResearchED (coming to a D.C. near you in a couple of weekends), writes a defense of the school, noting that while it’s intense structure and discipline are not for everyone, critics need to get off their high horses.
Doug Lemov has also taken a gander, and he challenges educators to learn from innovations that are worth emulating, rather than merely criticize from afar. In that spirit, he is exploring some of the practices he finds worthy of stealing in a series of blogs, beginning with this one on Michaela’s “maximum impact, minimum effort” grading policy. Schools renowned for sucking the pith out of young teachers (like, ahem, Success Academy) would do well to consider it. Teaching is a demanding profession, and the more we can reduce paperwork that bears little impact, the better.
I haven’t been much aware of any controversy around Michaela, but I have been very aware of it’s innovative and research-based approach to instruction and curriculum design, thanks to the consistently trenchant writing of Joe Kirby. This summer I switched to an out-of-classroom role designing professional development, and I’ve found myself continually revisiting some of his posts, as well as blogs of other UK educators such as Daisy Christodoulou, Alex Quigley, David Didau, David Fawcett, and many others. I don’t know what’s in the water over there, but UK educators seem to spend a lot more time blogging about practice and research, rather than politics, and it’s refreshing.
Speaking of Research
Deans for Impact founder Benjamin Riley penned a piece for Kappan presenting the case for educator practice to be informed by principles from cognitive science research. And if you haven’t read Deans for Impact’s The Science of Learning, you should probably make that priority number one. Another resource I’ve found myself continually revisiting when designing professional learning.
The Movement for Increasing School Diversity is Growing
The Hechinger Report took a deep dive in an analysis of the desegregation and resegregation of Greenville, Mississippi. Many insights and lessons to heed here.
The Century Foundation released a report on the increasing efforts at school integration, while highlighting the dinosaur progress occurring in NYC.
And Nautil.us magazine highlights research from MIT that “has shown that in both the U.S. and European Union, wealth is predicted by the diversity of face-to-face communication and that both poverty and crime levels are predicted by the isolation of a community.” This confirms my premise for increasing school and neighborhood diversity: we can only really fight discrimination and bias, and improve long-term outcomes, when we interact daily, face-to-face, with others who are different than us.
We’ve questioned Success Academy’s “success” on this blog before. These statisticians bring a new lens to that question.
I don’t want to denigrate the good work that Success Academy teachers and students are doing. There are practices and systems well worth replicating and investigating in these schools. But Eva Moskowitz’s political framing and marketing of her schools as the solution to poverty is problematic.
“Students do the bulk of their learning independently. They make their own way through online lessons, digital texts and multimedia, and follow links to extra, explanatory resources. They upload all their work. Yet the students and parents interviewed for this story said that they have more one-on-one interactions with teachers than they did in traditional schools.”
Unsurprisingly, one of the few virtual learning schools that demonstrates success is predicated on forming relationships between teachers and families. The competency-based aspect of its curriculum is also intriguing and worth keeping an eye on.
For students with disabilities and other students for whom more traditional schools can present significant obstacles, this form of learning holds great promise.
Last Monday evening, I attended an interesting event at Brooklyn Law School, “Opportunities and Challenges in Integrating NYC’s Public Schools.”
On the panel were City Council members Ritchie Torres and Brad Lander, who co-wrote an op-ed on the issue, and worked to pass the School Diversity Accountability Act in the City Council earlier this year; Clarence Ellis, a Superintendent in Crown Heights; Jon Rosenberg, a former civil rights lawyer and a charter network CEO; Kevin Young, a PTA President at PS 133; and Todd Sutler, a cofounder of Compass charter school. The panel was facilitated by Arva Rice of NY Urban League (who I later also saw at the Common Core Task Force hearing).
Here’s a quick overview of what I found to be key takeaways:
Zoned schools are a barrier to integration
Some possible tools are weighted admissions (at a school-level) and controlled choice (at a district level)
Diversity is a necessity for quality at a systemic level
Lenses for viewing diversity at a school-level can be socioeconomic, racial, language-based, and cognitive
Advocacy needs to focus on changing legislation that prevents integration across districts
We must be persistent and aggressive in advocacy, recruitment, and admissions
Nurturing diversity within a school requires building a common language
Read on for further details.
Lander made the point that magnet schools are one important mechanism for integration, with a hat tip to This American Life episode 2. I agree — though let’s also be brutally honest — quality magnet schools cost money. And even with that money invested, as we can see with Hartford magnet schools, it continues to require a sustained and aggressive effort in recruitment and outreach.
After highlighting the work that PS 133 and 130 have done at a school-level (weighted admissions), and that BK Districts 1 and 13 have done at a district-level (controlled choice), Lander made the great point that we have a real need to “codify the tools” that can be used for achieving integration. The good news is that the School Diversity Act will begin measuring diversity in NYC, so starting this December 31st, we can more accurately begin talking about where and how tools (such as controlled choice and weighted admissions) should be applied.
Rosenberg highlighted the important point that when it comes to integration, “we need to be persistent.” He also highlighted, as did others at the panel throughout the evening, the fact that a major barrier to integration is that elementary schools are zoned.
Rosenberg delineated between a “blunt” method of integration: rezoning, and a softer method, which is either to create “something new” and to be “unburdened by history” (such as charter or magnet schools) to avoid battles such as those that playing out in Brooklyn and the Upper West Side, and to work to protect those few, “fragile” existing schools and areas that are already integrated. However, Rosenberg later presented a challenge that charter operators face, in that even when they wish to work to diversify, they are confined by state zoning legislation, and end up perpetuating segregation. He presented the example of a school in district 2 in Manhattan unable to integrate students and families from district 4 in East Harlem (or vice versa) due to this legislation.
Torres grounded the panel in the more dire reality of the Bronx, pointing out that in districts heavily poor and segregated, there is little opportunity nor will to integrate, either socio-economically or racially. He pointed out that there is a palpable lack of political will in our country and city to integrate, and that segregation has been a public policy choice and mindset (Rosenberg also echoed this sentiment as well — and why his reminder to “be persistent” is important to bear in mind).
I appreciate Torres’ directness in evaluating the situation — he called out Mayor De Blasio and Chancellor Farina’s deliberate inaction on this issue as “disheartening.” He had what I thought was the money quote for the evening when he pointed out that while you can have quality schools without diversity, the reality is that “if you want quality at a systemic level — then you need diversity.”
Young brought some interesting within-school perspective on integration, pointing out that it can be a challenge at first, and that a common language must be built. But this also, as he suggested, provides an opportunity for students and staff to look at what is the same in our human experience, rather than focusing on differences and deficits. He then threw some oblique shade on Success Academy when he suggested that we can better attract diversity at schools that are “progressive,” rather than “test factories,” like the “charters in the news.”
Sutler brought in another aspect of “diversity” that is rarely discussed but I agree is important to mention alongside socio-economic and racial diversity: cognitive diversity — and that this work to include and integrate is the work of our schools and classrooms. This is an issue close to my own heart, as I work in the field of special education, and inclusion is a fundamental principle for me. Sutler urged the audience to push our legislators on this issue, and he also highlighted the critical need for a school to conduct outreach to achieve better integration.
Sutler later made the case that in terms of increasing diversity in the teaching profession, we need to 1) raise the bar for education graduate programs, 2) elevate the craft and profession of teaching, and 3) make aggressive recruitment efforts to attract people of color.
I’m leaving out a lot of other key points made, but these were the ones that most stuck out for me.
Building on my last post, in which I challenged Neerav Kingsland’s presumption that charter systems and schools are inherently superior to that of district systems and schools, here’s an important TED talk by economist Mariana Mazzucato worth watching that presents a refreshing new angle on this topic:
The narrative that charter supporters often promote is one in which traditional district schools are failures because they are:
Mired by bureaucracy and politics
Constrained by teacher’s unions
Unable to innovate and adapt to the needs of the 21st century
Beholden to the state
Unresponsive to the needs of parents and communities
All reasons, they suggest, that require us to turn to the private sector and its proven ability to disrupt, innovate, and provide competitive choice. The market, they claim, has been demonstrated to promote quality and efficiency, whereas the state has proven only to be cumbersome, to stand in the way of change, and to maintain the status quo.
Parallel to that conversation is our national shift away from representative democracy’s mechanisms for political decision-making and deliberation via a balance of power to that of the vagaries of capitalist markets.
NYC stands central to that shift, tracing back to the fiscal crisis of the 70s.
A Short Diversion into History
Prior to the 70s, NYC was the paragon of a social democratic state. City colleges were free to attend*. Public transit, daycare, hospitals . . . The government worked with labor unions to deliver strong public services.
But that beatific vision came crashing to an end when NYC found itself on the verge of bankruptcy in 1975. It had been borrowing to pay down debt for far too long.
Though the unions ended up bailing the city out—most notably via Al Shanker-led UFT’s investment of teacher’s pensions into municipal bonds—that moment is when, as Richard D. Kahlenberg suggests in his book on Shanker¹, “the relationship between democracy and capitalism had shifted.” Quoting journalists Jack Newfield and Paul DuBrul, Kahlenberg notes that at this moment, there was “a revolution in the governance of New York City,’ where bankers effectively took over the running of the city.”
Today, the rituals of fiscal crisis—the blaming of public sector workers, the vilification of the poor who use government services suddenly deemed excessive luxuries—may seem familiar. . . .
The crisis brought about a transformation of the very language and conception of politics, as the rhetoric of fiscal necessity and business acumen replaced a vision of politics as a domain of struggle and negotiation.
. . . the diminished expectations we have for the public sector and the increasing difficulty of living a middle-class life in the city suggest the legacy of the fiscal crisis even now. City governments today—including New York’s—seem primarily to be vehicles to attract and maintain private investment.
Back to Our Narratives on State vs. Private Sectors Today
Thus, the narrative about the efficacy of charterization for delivering what was once solely a government service is placed within a wider context, and it helps to explain why so many pro-charter folks not only denigrate unions, but furthermore the public sector et al.
And this is why Mariana Mazzucato’s challenge is so important to pay heed to.
Mazzucato argues that contrary to the anti-government narrative, innovation occurs as a result of government intervention. At minute 7:00 in her talk, she states:
Now, what’s interesting in all of this is the state, in all these examples, was doing so much more than just fixing market failures. It was actually shaping and creating markets. It was funding not only the basic research, which again is a typical public good, but even the applied research. It was even, God forbid, being a venture capitalist.
. . . In all these sectors, from funding the Internet to doing the spending, but also the envisioning, the strategic vision, for these investments, it was actually coming within the state.
Rather than wasting wind denigrating the state, she suggests, we should instead seek “public-private partnerships.”
This is what I was suggesting in my last post when I stated “Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in between [district or charter systems].”
As a side note, I recently read Peter Thiel’s Zero to One, and I found his ideas about how to innovate as an entrepreneur compelling. Yet I had a moment of cognitive dissonance when he suggested, in his contrarian way, that enterprises are most successful when they can gain a monopoly, rather than endure heavy competition. When I read that, I thought:
But the state IS the biggest monopoly!
The government is not necessarily the enemy of innovation. Unions aren’t either.
And on the other side, the private sector is not necessarily the enemy of democracy and strong social enterprises.
The question becomes: how can we leverage partnerships across government, unions, and private organizations to most effectively serve our nation’s future?