Archives for category: Technology

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.

Let’s just say it upfront. If you wanted to know more about “The State of Education,” and how to “rebuild a more equitable system,” the last person you would ask is a billionaire. Right? Specifically Bill Gates, who has spent billions over the past 20 years promoting high-stakes testing, charter schools, merit pay, value-added measurement of teachers, the Common Core, test-based accountability, and every failed reform I can think of. The media think he is the world’s leading expert on everything, but we know from experience with his crackpot theories and ideas that none of them has made education better, and all of them have demoralized teachers and harmed students and public schools. What hubris to have foisted one failed idea after another and then to convene a summit on how to fix the mess you made, probably by doing the same failed things you already sponsored.

So how can we build a “more equitable system”? Well, one way would be to have higher taxes for people in Bill Gates’ economic bracket. He lives in a state with no income tax. That’s not fair. He should pay his fair share–to his local community, to the state, and to the federal government. So should every other billionaire. I don’t mean to pick on Bill Gates–well, actually I do–since he is the only billionaire who thinks he knows how to redesign education without either knowledge or experience. And he is only the third richest person in the world right now (sorry, Bill). But if he and Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk paid more taxes, they wouldn’t be poor. They wouldn’t even be middle-class.

So here are some ideas for the conferees:

  1. Pay your taxes
  2. Demand an increase on taxes for people in your income bracket so that wealth is more equitably distributed
  3. Insist that class sizes be reduced, especially in schools that educate the neediest children
  4. Leave education to the educators.

Here is your invitation. Please, God, don’t tell me they want everyone to go virtual all the time.

 
A reminder: Our live virtual event, The State of Education: Rebuilding a More Equitable System, is this Wednesday, March 3 at 1:00 p.m. E.T. / 11:00 a.m. P.T.

While the pandemic has exacerbated existing disparities, it’s also presented a unique opportunity to dramatically overhaul the education system.

We’re excited to share with you our full program agenda for this week’s virtual event, filled with voices who will outline the innovative solutions that should be implemented to create an equitable learning environment for all students. Visit our website to learn more and register today to reserve your spot.
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Tom Ultican, retired teacher of physics and advanced mathematics in California, is a dogged researcher who uncovers the mysteries of privatization and the education industry. In this post, he responds to a parent who asked him about an organization that was providing free airfare for her school district’s leaders. He was on the case.

He begins:

A North Carolina resident asked “what do you know about the Urban Collaborative?” She was concerned about a company providing free airfare to school leaders in her child’s district; airfare to meetings in far-off cities. She wondered, “What is their motive? Is it more about money and power than special education?”

The Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative was founded by Dr. David Riley, Educational Co-Chair of the Summer Institute on Critical Issues in Urban Special Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Riley was the Executive Director of the Collaborative until he succumbed to cancerMay 2, 2016. The Collaborative is a national network of education administrators responsible for youth with disabilities in urban school districts. It is a national version of the Massachusetts Urban Project, a state-wide network that Dr. Riley founded in 1979. In 1994, The Education Development Center (EDC) expanded the Urban Collaborative into a national organization.

Ultican then goes on to describe the history of the organizations and their collaborations with a foray into changes in the physics curriculum.

EDC once had noble ambitions and accomplishments:

In the early years, the EDC was an organization making liberal ideology a reality. They developed a science curriculum specifically for the realities of Africa. They led a consortium of U.S. universities in founding the Indian Institute of Technology at Kanpur. The EDC produced educational TV shows noteworthy for their African American and Latino casts. They engaged in educating village health workers in Mali.

Unfortunately, in the 1980s, EDC seems to have become distracted by power and money while it dove into education technology.

And then, oh my, money and power begin to change things.

He concludes:

The relationships that Urban Collaborative fosters and the curricular development activities at EDC may have value. But sadly, these organizations have been corrupted by billionaire dollars and the lust for national prominence. They have lost their focus on improving public education and have become power players in the world of corporate education reform.

Thirty-one years ago, I was invited by Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander to join him at the U.S. Department of Education as Assistant Secretary of Education in Charge of Research and Improvement. Before he invited me, he learned a lot about my work and my views. It was a big jump for me because I had never planned to work in government and was surprised to be invited. After I was confirmed by the Senate, I selected the person I wanted as my Deputy Assistant Secretary of Education. It was Francie Alexander, who had been Deputy Superintendent of Curriculum and Assessment in the State of California. I had gotten to know her when I worked on the California history-social science framework in the late 1980s.

Given this brief personal history, I am puzzled that the Biden administration is staffing up the key jobs in the U.S. Department of Education before any of the top officials (Secretary of Education, Deputy Secretary of Education, Undersecretary of Education) have been confirmed. The next layer of officials–the Assistant Secretaries–have not even been named.

Yet the administration continues to roll out lists of people who will be deputies to Assistant Secretaries who are as yet unknown; “chief of staff” to an official who has not been confirmed; “confidential assistant” to a high official. Most of these appointments have one of two things in common: 1) they worked on the Biden-Harris campaign; or 2) they worked in the Obama administration.

It is likely, highly likely, that Secretary-designate Miguel Cardona and his Deputy Secretary-designate Cindy Marten have never met or even heard of any of these people who will be their closest associates. They will not pick their team; when they take office, their team will be in place, chosen by someone else. Who? Arne Duncan? John King?

The important job of Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy and Programs in the Office of the Secretary went to Scott Sargrad, who was until recently vice-president for K-12 education at the Center for American Progress. CAP, as is well known, is pro-testing and pro-charter schools.

Will the Biden administration revive Race to the Top but call it something else?

Asking for a few million friends.

During the pandemic, most schools turned to remote learning as a matter of necessity. Some in the education biz think that the pandemic has created a new market for their products. Actually, most parents and students are eager for real schools with real teachers to open again. Contrary to popular myth, teachers too want schools to reopen, as soon as they are safe for staff and students.

Historian Victoria E.M. Cain of Northeastern University has written an engaging account of the hype associated with new technology in the classroom. It is a tool, it should be used appropriately, but it is not a replacement for teachers.

She writes:

The lessons for today’s enthusiasts are clear. It is wise to be humble about the possibilities of classroom technology. No one would deny that technology can provide invaluable tools to improve learning. (What teacher today would not want to have classroom access to the internet?) Too often, though, instead of being seen as a tool to help schools, new technology has been embraced as a silver-bullet solution to daunting educational crises. In desperate times, desperate leaders have clutched at overblown promises, investing in unproven ideas without demanding reasonable evidence of efficacy. 

In the current pandemic, it might be tempting for education leaders to hope that if only we can find the right balance of learning management systems, home Wi-Fi access, and teacher training, we can continue to provide the same education we always have, virus or no virus. But it is not that easy, and it never has been.  

If we have learned anything from the past two centuries, it is this: New technologies provide assistance, not solutions. Whether it was Lancasterian school buildings in the 19th century, television in the 20th, or Zoom classrooms today, new technology will not solve our problems on its own. In the past, overhasty investment has wasted millions of dollars. Perhaps more pernicious, it has given well-meaning reformers false confidence that they have taken care of the issue. It is far better to take an approach that might not be popular or simple, one that acknowledges the scope of the crisis and the variety of solutions we will need to address it. We need to avoid the temptation to grasp too quickly at a single technological response. 

Wise counsel. Hope and hoax are both four-letter words that start with the same two letters. Hype is also a four-letter word.

The National Education Policy Center frequently engages researchers to review studies, reports, and evaluations. NEPC recently released a review of a RAND study that looks at online learning and whether it deserves federal funding. The title of the RAND report is “Remote Learning is Here to Stay,” but the body of the report does not support that conclusion, according to reviewer David R. Garcia of Arizona State University.

Garcia summarizes his review:

The RAND Corporation recently released a report based on a national survey of school district superintendents and charter management organization (CMO) directors (or their designees) about their experiences navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey asks non-biased questions about how school districts and charter schools have responded to the pandemic and about their greatest educational needs. But some issues arise with the report’s reporting of results and with one of its two recommendations. The report is curiously titled, Remote Learning is Here to Stay, but that headline is surprisingly unsupported by the sur- vey responses. In fact, the respondents expressed much higher concerns about three other areas: (1) “addressing students’ Socio-Emotional Learning and mental health needs” (the area with the greatest need for additional resources), (2) “addressing disparities in student opportunities to learn that result from differences in supplemental supports provided by families” (the most anticipated challenge), and (3) inadequate funding (the top staffing chal- lenge). Relative to these concerns, remote learning is a minor consideration. The report’s first recommendation does follow from the respondents’ need for more funding to address inequities and socio-emotional learning. But the other recommendation, for more funding to support remote learning, does not appear to align with needs expressed by district lead- ers. Finally, the report combines two different types of local education agencies (school dis- tricts and CMOs). Thus, while the report suggests that its most important finding is that “about two in ten districts have already adopted, plan to adopt, or are considering adopting virtual schools as part of their district portfolio after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic,” it is unclear how much of this result is driven by CMOs rather than school districts. For these reasons, readers are encouraged to go beyond the title and read deeper to get a complete picture of the challenges, needs, and future of education from district leaders’ perspectives.

Nancy Bailey is fearful that the stage is being set for a big-tech takeover when the pandemic is gone. Scores of tech vendors have longed to gain a permanent foothold in the schools, and their day may have come, even though there is nearly universal agreement that remote instruction is a poor substitute for in-person instruction.

Here are the warning signs:

First, there is sure to be a teacher shortage when schools reopen because so many are taking early retirement, due to health concerns.

Second, several districts have recently passed urge bond issues for technology.

Third, due to the pandemic-caused recession, there is unlikely to be sign I can’t improvements in teachers’ salaries or working conditions.

So we face this conundrum: teachers, students, and parents are frustrated and voted with online learning. They yearn to be back in class with face-to-face, human interaction. Yet after the pandemic, we can expect to have more of what we abhor.

The ultimate killer of robograding os Dr. Les Perelman of MIT, who recently retired as a professor teaching writing to students at MIT. Les Perelman and his students cracked the code of robograders and showed how easy it is to fool the computer scoring essays. Use long sentences. Use o score or multisyllabic words. Don’t worry about whether your assertions make sense or are correct. The robograder doesn’t care if you say that World War II started in 1902, because facts don’t matter. Perelman and his students created a device called a Babel Generator, into which you insert any three words and it will spit out a high-scoring incoherent essay.

Peter Greene describes an effort to reclaim the soiled reputation of the robograder. He describes several states where robograders are currently in use.

This is the scariest article of the week or month, not counting the violent rampage of Trump allies on January 6.

Dominik Dresel writes in Edsurge about Jeff Bezos’ entry into the education “market.”

He begins:

Bezos, more than any other tech entrepreneur, is known to play the long game, masterfully. In a now-famous 1997 interview, he candidly explained why Amazon started out by selling books. (Hint: It had nothing to do with Bezos’ love for literature. Books were simply a stepping stone, the “best first thing” to sell.) Less than three decades later, Amazon has become not just the world’s largest online retailer, but also a global leader in areas as diverse as cloud computing, home security and digital content production. And we’ve only seen the beginning—within the next few years, the company is poised to disrupt the healthcare market, become the market leader in online advertising, establish itself as a competitor to USPS, FedX and UPS, and provide global access to broadband internet through a network of satellites orbiting the planet… to name but a few examples.

It would be easy to think that Amazon’s rapid expansion into industry after industry is just the natural, opportunistic path of a cash-flush company seeking to invest in new, lucrative markets. But Jeff Bezos, himself a graduate of a Montessori preschool, doesn’t think in short-term opportunities. His early annual shareholder letters bear titles such as “It‘s All About the Long Term” (1997), “Building for the Long Term” (1999) and “Taking the Long View” (2000), and they are testimony to the fact that every strategic decision he makes is part of a larger, long-term plan.

Becoming a driving force in public education may, at first, seem like a long shot for Amazon. While Google, Microsoft and Apple have been pursuing their ambitions in K-12 and higher education for more than a decade, Amazon has mostly remained at the sidelines.

But foraying into the complex sphere that is public education is a matter of when, not if, for Jeff Bezos. To understand why, it is worthwhile to consider three principles that have guided Amazon’s strategic investment and growth decisions since its founding days.

Read the article to understand Bezos’ three principles and why he might see public schools as ripe for disruption, like the other billionaires before him. As I explained in my recent book Slaying Goliath, the tech billionaires love to disrupt the lives of other people’s children. They have had no success, only failure. But that doesn’t stop them.