Archives for category: Technology

Steve Nelson is a retired educator. He was headmaster of The Calhoun School in New York City. He writes here about the reactions to the decline of NAEP scores since the onset of the pandemic.

He writes:

“The beatings will continue until morale improves” is a rather familiar quip of unknown origin.  Two recent news stories remind of just how apt the saying remains.

The first was an astonishing New York Times report on the reinstitution of paddling as a disciplinary tool in a Missouri school district. Surprisingly, paddling children in school remains legal in 19 states, although the practice is not widespread. Paddling children is barbaric, humiliating and utterly ineffective. Corporal punishment makes children more aggressive and disruptive. The Missouri abusers attempt to mitigate their own cruelty by saying they only whack kids whose parents give permission. It takes little imagination to understand why a child of such parents would have difficulty in school and draw more negative attention.

Few readers will disagree with my condemnation of beating childen. I suspect the rest of this post will be more controversial.

The educational world was aghast at the news this week of the “alarming” results from the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). NAEP is the supposed gold standard of measurement, also called the nation’s report card. The 2022 tests of reading and math were conducted to assess pandemic “learning loss” and produced the data that researchers anticipated. Reading scores were down 5 points and math scores down 7 points compared to 2020 levels.

“The beatings will continue until scores improve” is the nearly inevitable consequence as education pundits, economists, policy-makers and most parents, wax apoplectic over the “precipitous” drop.

“I was taken aback by the scope and the magnitude of the decline!”

“No more of the arguments, and the back and forth and the vitriol and the finger pointing. Everybody should be treating this like the crisis that it is.”

Pity the children, especially poor children of color for whom the results were somewhat more statistically “significant.” This is a tempest in a teapot and the solution will be far more damaging than the problem.

It is likely to be a reprise of the reaction to A Nation at Risk, a 1983 report that allegedly showed educational achievement in serious decline. It was not true – a statistical phenomenon led to misinterpretation of the data – but the report drove a frenetic response of testing and accountability that continues until today. And here we go again.

Read on to learn Nelson’s response to the doom-and-gloom prescriptions for the nation’s children: longer days, longer weeks, longer years.

Steve Nelson disagrees.

Maureen Downey of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution posted this essay on her “Get Schooled” blog by Peter Smagorinsky. He is professor emeritus at the University of Georgia.

He writes:

I recently spoke with an Atlanta metro area high school teacher about the start of the new school year. Her school is like a lot of schools nationally. On the Friday before classes began, after a week of orientation, many teachers did not know their assignments or schedules. To manage the business side of teaching, everyone had to learn yet another new system and its technology.

Once students arrived, there were jitters about safety. COVID-19 remains in the air, and monkeypox is up next. Masks remain optional. After so much remote learning, student behavior doesn’t fit classroom expectations, creating management problems that can be threatening.

The Uvalde school shooting has left many unnerved and waiting for the next incident. Teachers appreciate Gov. Brian Kemp’s initiative to raise pay and provide some money for supplies. But these increases, unfortunately, provide more a surface patch than a deep investment in quality education. With teacher absences up and the pool of substitutes down, teachers are often summoned to cover classes when a colleague is out, shrinking time to plan, grade, and fill out forms.

Yet, in spite of all these problems, after a few weeks of classes, the teacher I spoke with was remarkably upbeat. A new school rule, she said, has already been a “game-changer.” That rule, she believed, has made her school the envy of every school in the country. The school has decided that students can’t have access to cellphones in class.

Imagine what a teenager with unfettered phone access does all day. If you’re a teacher, you don’t need your imagination. You know that you spend most of your time telling kids to get off social media and focus on the academic work. And then do it again. And again.

But kids shouldn’t be blamed for being kids. Parents are often as addicted to phones as their kids. Recent studies have found kids wish their parents would get off their phones and spend more time with them. Many parents have asserted their need and right to text and call their kids throughout the day to check in on them.

Some concerns make sense to me, such as using phones during emergencies or, heaven forbid, an assault. They might come in handy if cellphone footage would help identify who did what in a conflict. If there’s an emergency at home, a parent might need to talk to a child or teen.

Just checking in, though, is disruptive, and creates the need for the phone to always be available. Because it is viewed as a distraction, girls’ clothing is policed in school. But cellphones, which distract students all day, are viewed as a right.

In this school, the administration has listened to teachers. They have created a policy that makes student cellphones unavailable during class. The change has been difficult for kids and their parents, but it’s been a godsend to teachers tired of spending much of their time and emotional energy trying to get kids’ attention.

They also have a way to respond to a student who says, “But my mom says I have to answer when she calls.” They can say, “Tell her to call you when you’re not in class. You can’t have your phone out here.”

I know of another school in North Georgia where the administration has punted the problem to the faculty. Teachers have three options for cellphone access: no phones, phones sometimes, phones all the time. The teacher I know there started in the middle, went to a full ban. Fighting kids over just how long “sometimes” lasts wasn’t working out.

This approach, she says, has its ups and downs. On the one hand, she can teach phone-free and without the distractions they cause. On the other hand, she finds that teachers who allow unlimited phone access tend to take a sink-or-swim approach to kids. If students want to learn, they can put the phone down and pay attention; if they don’t, then that’s their problem. Teachers appear to have the choice to take a callous approach to students who may need personal relationships.

Beyond ceasing to care about whether kids learn or not, there may be other reasons to allow students to be on their phones in class. I just can’t think of any.

Technology has often been considered the present and future of education. Remote learning during the pandemic suggested that it doesn’t solve all problems and creates a few more from a school standpoint. The typical kid seems more interested in TikTok than Shakespeare or algebra. On a remote computer or on a cellphone in class, the fun option is easy to take. And when mom calls, you’d better answer.

But, in at least one area school, the administration has taken responsibility, and teachers don’t have to compete with phones anymore. It’s put a spring in their step and produced an uptick in their kids’ time-on-task and learning.

And it’s something that any school could do.

A reader called “Retired Teacher” read Peter Greene’s reflections on Amazon as a model of schooling and posted this comment:

Devious DeVos had the nerve to call public schools a factory model of education. It seems to me that rows of zombie students staring at screens and fed content from an algorithm on a screen much more easily qualifies as a “factory model.” Public education is a model whose goal is mostly about being “through and efficient.” It aspires to bring young people access, opportunity and civics preparation in order to become responsible citizens. It is a pubic institution with noble goals, not an Amazon Warehouse.

The so-called “free market” is a scammer’s delight where the strong feed on the weak and the predators hunt for prey. Believing that the free market will solve education’s problems is as naive as it is reckless. Our young people should be valued, protected and taught well to prepare them for the future as they are the future of this country. They must be ready to address our future needs, and they deserve so much more than being considered a monetized line item in some rich person’s portfolio.

A new virtual reality charter school will open in Florida in the fall of 2022. It is called Optima Domi, and it presents itself as the most innovative step forward in homeschooling/virtual learning.

Unlike old-fashioned virtual charter schools, Optima Domi will immerse students in “virtual reality.” Each student and their teacher will dons headgear that immerses them in the sounds and sights of an actual classroom, even though their classmates are avatars, not humans. The curriculum, says the promotional material, will be classical, based on the Great Books.

The Governing Board of Optima Domi is heavy with financial executives and two medical doctors. The Optima Foundation is deep into school choice. Many of the leaders have experience in the charter school sector. Several are graduates of Hillsdale College, a small, ultra-conservative college in Michigan that refuses any form of federal aid for students or for any other purpose. The CEO of the Optima Foundation is a CPA and wife of a very conservative Florida Republican member of Congress, who was endorsed by Trump.

One may safely assume there will be no teaching about “divisive concepts” here. It seems to be the perfect site for programming students, although I can’t imagine many teenagers who would enjoy getting their “schooling” in complete isolation, with a headset turned on for most of the day. Most schools have teachers who come from different backgrounds and bring different perspectives to their work; students too come from different worlds and enrich class discussions by offering their views. In the virtual reality world, the lessons will be carefully designed to enforce the school’s perspective, without the intervention of teachers or students.

In part one of its review of union busting, written by Jo Constantz, Capital & Main examines how employers use technology to defeat unions.

It begins:

During a Zoom call set up by union representatives and employees who had organized a worker organizing committee, “We noticed that managers of the company had busted into the meeting — they had crashed our Zoom call,” recalls Lorena Lopez, a director of organizing with UNITE HERE Local 11. “Workers started to get very nervous and shut down their cameras so they wouldn’t be recognized. I was running the meeting and asked everyone to ID themselves. But the company people refused.” During the meeting, a worker on the cleaning crew had volunteered to be the spokesperson for the group. According to Lopez, this worker was confronted by management the next day and pressured to quit.

“They were spying on us — and it was easy to do via Zoom,” she says. Under a settlement agreement with the NLRB, the company agreed to post flyersinforming employers of their right to unionize and pledged not to ask them about organizing efforts and not to surveil their Zoom meetings. A lawyer for the company did not return requests for comment.

Workplace surveillance, already widespread in the U.S., has become even more prevalent during the pandemic as employers try to enforce public health measures and monitor remote workers. According to research by Gartner, a market research firm, 60% of large employers use workplace monitoring tools, twice as many as before the pandemic. Coworker.org, a labor research nonprofit, recently compiled a database of over 550 of these commercially available products, which it dubs “little tech,” and published a study outlining potential harms and noting the industry’s general lack of regulation.

Open the link and keep reading.

Steven J. Koutsavlis, a research associate at the National Center on Privatization in Education reviews Audrey Watters’ new book on the history of education technology in schools. Its title is Teaching Machines: The History of Personalized Learning.

Koutsavlis writes:

On account of the pandemic, there has been a seismic shift to remote or hybrid instruction. However, long before COVID-19, forces to harness instruction to technology were at play within the American school system. In Teaching Machines: The History of Personalized Learning (MIT Press, 2021), Audrey Watters masterfully explores this story and explains the consequences technology has had on the nature and architecture of American schooling.

As many policy analysts know, Watters has been writing incisively about this important topic since 2010 on her blog, Hack Education: The History of the Future of Education Technology. With Teaching Machines, she cements a decade of lucid, riveting commentary.

In this NCSPE excerpt, in particular, Watters establishes the foundation for her analysis with a depiction of the first efforts of the Harvard psychology professor B.F. Skinner to mechanize learning. Skinner would go on to develop several teaching machines during the Sputnik era and beyond. Watters explains how he incorporated his work as a behaviorist into the design of these learning devices.

Skinner, along with other progenitors of teaching machines such as education psychologist Sidney Pressey, aimed to pioneer the automation of pedagogy, “freeing the teacher from the drudgeries of her work so that she may do more real teaching, giving to the pupil more adequate guidance in his learning,” Watters writes. In doing so, they prioritized the interests of private entities looking to engineer systems of learning at the expense of teachers and school leaders who aimed to engender more democratic modes of education.

The posture of automated learning presumes that the work of evaluating student responses and guiding them to new levels of understanding can simply be outsourced to a programmed device and does not require the nuanced touch of a seasoned practitioner with deep content knowledge. Yet the word “assessment” itself derives from the Latin assidēre, meaning “to sit down to.” The role of the teacher to sit beside children and listen deeply and intently, not only to learn how students are approaching a particular task, question, or problem, but also to hear from them about what piques their curiosity about the work at hand and motivates them to persevere. Watters deftly details how even the most well-designed or well-intentioned teaching machines fail to achieve this. She moreover describes how critics of Skinner such as Paul Goodman raised these concerns as they saw these devices dehumanizing the educational process.

“Who, then, will watch the puzzlement on a child’s face and suddenly guess what it is that he really doesn’t understand, that has apparently nothing to do with the present problem, nor even the present subject matter?” Watters quotes approvingly from Goodman’s 1960 book, Growing Up Absurd. “And who will notice the light in his eyes and seize the opportunity to spread the glorious clarity over the whole range of knowledge; for instance, the nature of succession and series, or what grammar really is: the insightful moments that are worth years of ordinary teaching.”

Even with advanced programming and interactive computer displays, personalized teaching machines or programs may not be able to elucidate nuanced understandings of difficult concepts with struggling learners. Independent work with these programs is often unsupervised, and students may receive unauthorized assistance to particular questions instead of actually supplying their own authentic response. A recurring issue with struggling learners is also the motivation to complete the tasks themselves. Extended independent assignments often, in fact, result in fatigue and non-completion for students who are still building task stamina.

Watters also writes about the very challenges of implementing such programs, where private demands for technocratic control over the levers of schooling have clashed with the needs of actual practitioners and students. As we see in contemporary education settings, Watters documents that programs were often rolled out in a hasty and haphazard fashion, unsupported by research evidence demonstrating their effectiveness or appropriateness for students and without adequate levels of teaching training or adoption.

Programmed instruction in the form of teaching machines as well as the modern incarnation of computerized learning engines, Watters likewise makes clear, represent a highly systematized and standardized form of education that collides with more progressive, constructivist, and student-led pedagogical methods. They also reify practices and norms within school systems that promote a highly functionalist model of education, where students are fed bits of information as they are trained to complete discrete tasks serving little more than the informational needs of private companies.

While programmed learning systems and algorithms aim to provide individualization and personalized learning, Watters demonstrates how they can conversely serve to stifle creativity and individual expression, on the student, teacher, school, and system level. “These technologies foreclose rather than foster possibilities,” Watters writes.

For longtime followers of Watters’s blog, which is now on hiatus, Learning Machines will fulfill all expectations. For those who haven’t read Watters’s blog, this excerpt should pave the way to reading the book. Agree or not with Watters, readers will be glued and challenged.

Nancy Bailey has assembled a devastating review of a three-decades long effort to destroy the teaching profession and replace it with models derived from the corporate sector.

She begins:

The pandemic has been rough on teachers, but there has for years been an organized effort to end a professional teaching workforce by politicians and big businesses.

In 1992, The Nation’s cover story by Margaret Spillane and Bruce Shapiro described the meeting of President H. W. Bush and a roomful of Fortune 500 CEOs who planned to launch a bold new industrial venture to save the nation’s schoolchildren.

The report titled, “A small circle of friends: Bush’s new American schools. (New American Schools Development Corp.),” also called NASDC, didn’t discuss saving public schools or teachers. They viewed schools as failed experiments, an idea promoted by the Reagan administration’s A Nation at Risk, frightening Americans into believing schools were to blame for the country’s problems.

The circle believed their ideas would break the mold and mark the emergence of corporate America as the savior of the nation’s schoolchildren.

The organization fell apart, but the ideas are still in play, and corporations with deep pockets will not quit until they get the kind of profitable education they want, for which they benefit.

They have gone far in destroying public education and the teaching profession throughout the years, not to mention programs for children, like special education.

Here are the ideas from that early meeting, extracted from The Nation’s report, with my comments. Many will look eerily familiar.

. . . “monolithic top-down education philosophy,” which disrespected teachers, parents and communities alike.

NCLB, Race to the Top, Every Student Succeeds Act, and Common Core State Standards disregarded teachers’ expertise and degraded them based on high-stakes test scores.

These policies also left parents and communities feeling disengaged in their schools.

Please open the link and read the rest of this perceptive post.

I had the pleasure of reading the galleys of Audrey Watter’s fascinating new book—Teaching Machines: The History of Personalized Learning—about the origins of education technology, which began with the search for a machine that could replace teachers: a teaching machine. She goes into detail about the pioneers of this innovation, notably B.F. Skinner, who tried relentlessly to find a publisher to produce and monetize his invention.

Watter’s’ book was published by MIT Press. You will enjoy it.

The search for the best “teaching machine” seems akin to the search for the Fountain of Youth or Shangri-La, but with a big profit when on the market.

You can listen to Audrey talk about her new book with Leonie Haimson on Leonie’s radio show.

Darcie Cimarusti, communications director for the Network for Public Education, reports on the assault on public school funding in Iowa. K12 Inc., the for-profit virtual charter chain, listed on the New York Stock Exchange, is noted for high attrition rates, low graduation rates, low test scores, and high profits. Its top executives are each paid millions of dollars.

In multiple states across the country omnibus schools choice bills with sweeping charter and voucher provisions have been introduced. NPE Action has been following these bills here. Just such a bill was introduced in Iowa, SSB 1065 which would modify the state’s existing charter school law, which requires the approval of a local school board, to allow charter applicants to apply directly to the state board for a charter with no local approval required. Lobbying disclosures show that K12 Inc., which recently rebranded as Stride, Inc., has lobbied in favor of the bill

Should the Iowa legislature send this bill to Governor Kim Reynolds’ desk, no doubt K12’s lobbying efforts will intensify. Currently K12 operates 51 online charter schools in 20 states. 

Iowa may be next.

Les Perelman, former professor of writing at MIT and inventor of the BABEL generator, has repeatedly exposed the quackery in computer-scoring of essays. If you want to learn how to generate an essay that will win a high score but make no sense, google the “BABEL Generator,” which was developed by Perelman and his students at MIT to fool the robocomputer graders. He explains here, in an original piece published nowhere else, why the American public needs an FDA for assessments, to judge their quality.

He writes:

An FDA for Educational Assessment, particularly for Computer Assessments

As a new and much saner administration takes over the US Department of Education led by Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, it is a good time, especially regarding assessment, to ask Juvenal’s famous question of “Who watches the Watchman.” 

Several years ago, I realized computer applications designed to assess student writing did not understand the essays they evaluated but simply counted proxies such as the length of an essays, the number of sentences in each paragraph, and the frequency of infrequently used words.  In 2014, I and three undergraduate researchers from Harvard and MIT, developed the Basic Automatic B.S. Essay Language Generator, or BABEL Generator that could in seconds generate 500-1000 words of complete gibberish that received top scores from Robo-grading applications such e-rater developed by the Educational Testing Service (ETS).   I was able to develop the BABEL generator because I was already retired and, aside from some consulting assignments, had free time for research unencumbered by teaching or service obligations.  Even more important, I had access to three undergraduate researchers, two from MIT and one from Harvard, who provided substantial technical expertise.  Much of their potential expertise, however, was unnecessary since after only a few weeks of development our first iteration of the BABEL Generator was able to produce gibberish such as

Society will always authenticate curriculum; some for assassinations and others to a concession. The insinuation at pupil lies in the area of theory of knowledge and the field of semantics. Despite the fact that utterances will tantalize many of the reports, student is both inquisitive and tranquil. Portent, usually with admiration, will be consistent but not perilous to student. Because of embarking, the domain that solicits thermostats of educatee can be more considerately countenanced. Additionally, programme by a denouncement has not, and in all likelihood never will be haphazard in the extent to which we incense amicably interpretable expositions. In my philosophy class, some of the dicta on our personal oration for the advance we augment allure fetish by adherents.

 that received high scores from the five Robo-graders we were able to access.

I and the BABEL Generator were enlisted by the Australian Teachers Unions to help the successful opposition to having the national K-12 writing tests scored by a computer.    The Educational Testing Service’s response to Australia’s rejection was to have three of its researchers  publish a study, “Developing an e-rater Advisory to Detect Babel-generated Essays,” that described their generating over 500,000 BABEL essays based on prompts from what are clearly the two essays in the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), the essay portion of the PRAXIS teacher certification test, and the two essay sections of the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and comparing the BABEL essays to 384,656 actual essays from those tests.  The result of this effort was the development of an “advisory” from e-rater that would flag BABEL generated gibberish.  

Unfortunately, this advisory was a solution in search of a problem.  The purpose of the BABEL Generator was to display through an extreme example that Robo-graders such as e-rater could be fooled into giving high scores to undeserving essays simply by including the various proxies that constituted e-rater’s score.  Candidates could not actually use the BABEL Generator while taking one of these tests; but they could use the same strategies that informed the BABEL Generator such as including long and rarely used words regardless of their meaning and inserting long vacuous sentences into every paragraph.

Moreover, the BABEL Generator is so primitive that there are much easier ways of detecting BABEL essays.  We did not expect our first attempt to fool all the Robo-graders we could access to succeed, but because it did, we stopped. We had proved our point.   One of the student researchers was taking Physics at Harvard and hard coded into BABEL responses inclusion of some of the terminology of sub-atomic particles such as neutrino, orbital, plasma, and neuron.  E-rater and the other Robo-graders did not seem to notice.  A simple program scanning for these terms could have saved the trouble of generating a half-million essays.

ETS is not satisfied in just automating the grading of the writing portion of its various tests.  ETS researchers have developed SpeechRater, a Robo-grading application that would score the speaking sections of the TOEFL test.  There is a whole volume of scholarly research articles on SpeechRater published by the well-respected Routledge imprint of the Taylor and Francis Group.  However, the short biographies of the nineteen contributors to the volume list seventeen as current employees of ETS, one as a former employee, and only one with no explicit affiliation.

Testing organizations appear to no longer have a wide range of perspectives, or any perspective that runs counter to their very narrow psychometric outlook.  This danger has long been noted.  Carl D. Brigham, the eugenicist who then renounced the racial characterization of intelligence and the creator of the SAT who then became critical of that test, wrote shortly before his death that research in a testing organization should be governed and implemented not by educational psychologists but by specialists in academic disciplines since it is easier to teach them testing rather than trying to “teach testers culture.”  

The obvious home for such a research organization is the US Department of Education.  Just as the FDA vets the efficacy of drugs and medical devices, there should be an agency that verifies not only that assessments are measuring what they claim to be measuring but also the instrument is not biased towards or against specific ethnic or socio-economic groups.  There was an old analogy question on the SAT (which no longer has analogy items) that had “Runner is to marathon as: a) envoy is to embassy; b) martyr is to massacre; c) oarsman is to regatta; d) referee is to tournament; e) horse is to stable.   The correct answer is c: oarsman is to regatta.   Unfortunately, there are very few regattas in the Great Plains or inner cities.