Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Have we reached “the end of history” with respect to what education can achieve?

Whereas once people believed that education would change the world, now people across the political spectrum tend to be skeptical.  Academic performance remains stagnant despite a threefold increase in per pupil spending over the past forty years.  We’ve tried thousands of new methods, pedagogies, textbooks, software, testing regimes, teacher training programs, etc. within the existing constraints without progress.  Diverse thinkers (Plato, Rousseau, Kant, Jefferson, Dewey, etc.) in the western tradition believed that education could be transformative.  The current zeitgeist is that we’ve reached the limits of what education can achieve.  Were the earlier dreams of philosophers, humanists, and educators simply wrong about the potential of education?

By contrast, technological innovation over since the Enlightenment has been stunning:  In 1870 the cost of cotton clothing was one percent of what it was in 1770.  The cost of computing power is one ten-billionth (1/10,000,000,000) of what it was in 1950.  Items that are routinely dumped at Goodwill in the U.S. today, such as books, clothing, plates, utensils, tools, toys, etc. were only available to elites in 1800.

Perhaps the field of human development is unlike technological development.  Perhaps it is impossible for significant innovations to take place in human development.  Indeed, because of the stagnation in “education,” most observers believe that significant improvements in educational performance are not possible.

Here I will present an educational innovator’s case that:

*     Significant improvements in educational performance are possible.

*    Government control over K-12 education, teacher training, and occupational licensing prevents innovations from being developed.  Government control also prevents improvements from scaling.

*   With more freedom, we will gradually see significant improvements in human development.  As with technological innovations, these will become affordably available to all.

*   Existing school choice legislation, such as charter schools, while positive, are not adequate to release these innovative forces in education.

To understand the potential of innovation, we must first understand how government domination of education acts as a dominant operating system that prevents important innovations from scaling.

State-managed K-12 education is the norm around the world.  In a long process that began in Prussia in the 18th century, governments have increasingly taken a dominant role in K-12 education.  By the 1930s, a majority of children ages 6-17 in the U.S. were forced to attend government-managed schools, staffed by government certified teachers.  Government domination of K-12 education is a feature of society in nations around the world.

One of the early justifications for school choice in the U.S., from Milton Friedman (1950) through Chubb and Moe (1990) was that it would result in greater educational innovation. After twenty years of the charter school movement, one of the most striking features of school choice is the relative absence of innovation.  Other observers have noted that entirely private education is not particularly innovative either. Should we conclude that school choice will not, in fact, result in significant innovations that will benefit the poor?

In order to understand the paucity of innovation in charter and private education, we need to explain the ways in which the existing system acts as a dominant standard. The default educational system consists of:

A. Grade-level curricula organized by discipline (math, science, language arts, social studies, etc.) along with textbooks, state standards, and high stakes tests aligned with these standards.

B. State-licensed personnel who are authorized to play specific roles in this system (pre-school teacher, middle school mathematics teacher, high school language arts teacher, principal, etc.)

This system, with a few small variations, is legally required in all public and charter schools in the U.S.  In some states elements of this system are also required of private schools.  In most countries other than the U.S. state-mandated curricula are required in both public and private schools.  For this reason, and to simplify exposition, I’ll focus on U.S. education.  It is worth noting, however, that most school choice experiments outside the U.S., such as that of Sweden, Holland, and New Zealand were implemented within the boundaries of national curriculum and teacher certification requirements:  a bit of glasnost, but not quite a free market.

Even in U.S. states where private education is relatively unregulated (only minimal health and safety standards), the foregoing system acts as a dominant operating system that constrains innovation.  Microsoft’s “monopoly” in the field of computer operating systems in the 1990s was neither as extensive nor was it government subsidized and legislatively enforced the way that government educational monopolies have been.  Apple and Linux faced a level playing field vis-a-vis Microsoft in the 1990s in comparison to the challenges faced by small private schools outside the government’s dominant OS.

A private school attempting to provide an education outside the bounds of the standard operating system must build everything from the ground up: create its own curricula, educational materials, evaluation systems, strategies for college admissions, and most importantly, its own teacher training system.  Therefore, most private schools use standard components, so to speak, rather than innovate.

Despite these constraints, private schools have been responsible for a few key innovations, including the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate systems. These are arguably the most important innovations that have grown to scale in the past fifty years. Charter schools have also innovated to a limited extent, within the boundaries of the standard, with KIPP Academies being the best known.

Consider the fact that just four companies – Harcourt Educational Measurement, CTB McGraw-Hill, Riverside Publishing (a Houghton Mifflin company), and NCS Pearson – produce 96% of standardized tests given at the state level.  Hitherto almost all discussions of “school choice” have taken place within the boundaries defined by these corporations.  But why should we accept those boundaries as the definitive standards for human capital development for all American children?

In the existing system of high-stakes testing, it is a high risk move for any educator to devote resources to such approaches given the fact that students might score worse on high stakes tests (and even most private school parents base their judgments of academic excellence on conventional high stakes testing).  Despite a few promising trials here and there, scaling such systems is almost impossible in the face of the dominant operating system.

What about the development of intellectual skills for which there are no widely recognizable metrics, such as programming or design?  Programming and design abilities are arguably two of the most important 21st century “New Economy” skill sets – yet they are almost entirely absent from the K-12 curriculum.  High profile individuals have promoted such programs in schools – most famously Seymour Papert’s Logo programming, which was deployed as a pedagogy of creativity.  More recently there has been a movement with leading figures in the world of design promoting more design thinking in schools (see here and Luma Institute).  But after promoting creative problem solving through Logo programming for decades, Papert wrote “Why School Reform Is Impossible.”  In essence, Papert discovered, as the promoters of design thinking will discover, that it is impossible to introduce high-quality, large-scale reforms into a system in which all of the incentives continue to redirect educators to prepare students for conventional tests in (mostly) conventional ways.

The situation is much worse for attempts to scale the high-quality development of non-academic abilities:  moral, social, relationship, spiritual, aesthetic, etc. qualities cannot be brought to scale in conventional education because the existing incentive structure does not reward educators who systematically develop them.  (And they can all be developed:  consider extracurricular and adult systems for the transmission of athletic ability, musical ability, “personal growth” systems, yoga and meditation, manners and decorum, etc.)  Malcolm Gladwell’s notion that 10,000 hours of practice are required to achieve world-class abilities applies in diverse skill domains, including the foregoing.


Successful teacher and  school adminstrator gets booted out by bureaucracy

I began my experience as an educator training teachers in Socratic Seminars in Chicago Public Schools for Mortimer Adler’s Paideia Project in the late 1980s. Paideia was a public school reform movement that aspired to give poor children as high quality an education as more fortunate children had.  The slogan was Robert M. Hutchins’ “the best education for the best is the best education for all.” Socratic Seminars – text-based open-ended discussions – were a deliberate attempt to integrate higher-level thinking skills as well as meaning and purpose into public school curricula where they had been lacking.

From roughly 1988 to 1996 I spent much of my time training thousands of public school teachers to lead Socratic Seminars. Despite the opportunity to continue working as a public school consultant making $2,000+ per day, I became depressed over the outcomes.  While a few teachers were capable of leading rigorous Socratic discussions, most were not.  I realized that I could not ensure high quality intellectual development among students by means of providing brief in-service trainings of teachers at public schools.

Sadly, even with more in-depth training most existing teachers cannot be trained properly:  Another Socratic Seminar teacher trainer was named the administrator for a $10 million grant to Timken High School in the 1990s, at the time the largest single philanthropic gift to a public school.  Although the terms of the grant stipulated that it could only be spent on educational improvements, and not bricks and mortar, this man quit well before he had finished spending the money.  He realized that the teachers, many of whom were hard-working and conscientious, had never experienced intellectual inquiry themselves.  With no power to hire, fire, or promote staff, he realized that no amount of spending on teacher training would result in the necessary improvements.

Meanwhile programs that I supervised personally were successful. In an inner-city Anchorage public school I created a program in which minority female students gained as much on the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal in four months of Socratic Practice as the average American student gains in four years of high school.  Later at a private Montessori school in Palo Alto, I created a middle school program in which students averaged 100 point annual gains on the SAT vs. 15-30 point annual gains for the average American high school student.

I received supportive letters from leading educational experts, including Project Zero founders Howard Gardner and David Perkins, MacArthur “Genius” Award winning educator Deborah Meier, 1994 National Teacher of the Year Elaine Perkins, brain-based learning experts Renate Numella and Geoffrey Caine, authentic assessment expert Grant Wiggins, and others.

One of the differences between the highly successful projects that I oversaw personally and the inconsistent outcomes in most public school implementations was due to the transition from “Socratic Seminars” to “Socratic Practice.” “Socratic Seminars” were weekly events in which teachers led a discussion. By contrast, “Socratic Practice” was the daily practice of the prerequisites to intellectual dialogue:  Close textual analysis, group dynamics, and the habit of taking ideas seriously (a trait that defines “intellectual” but which is only irregularly encountered in K-12 student populations).

In collaboration with colleagues in Alaska, I had discovered that children without educated parents often lacked the social, emotional, and intellectual skills needed to engage in classroom intellectual dialogue.  This creation of a learning culture rather than merely a classroom activity inspired my book, The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice.  It is misleading to describe the issue as one of skill development:  The process of holding students accountable for their own moral beliefs and, even more importantly, getting students to hold each other accountable for acting in integrity with their beliefs, goes well beyond “skill.”  The goal is to transform culture by means of instilling a new set of interpersonal norms.

While it may sound unexpected that such a focus on interpersonal norms could result in improved academic performance, it is worth considering the extent to which much of secondary school in the U.S. resembles Beavis and Butthead.  At the most banal level, subcultures that watch less television tend to perform more highly than do those that watch more television.  Consider that on an international comparison of test scores (PISA), the U.S. ranks 20th among OECD nations.  But the average score of students from U.S. homes with only one television set would rank us third in the world.  Almost 80% of American children live in homes with three or more television sets, and scores from children in those homes are almost 40 points lower than are those from children from one television homes – a score difference that is roughly the same magnitude as the difference in scores between 20th-ranked U.S. and top-ranked Finland (see Table 2 here).  Simply creating a school in the U.S. at which students take learning seriously can result in significant improvements.

In 2002, after several years creating private schools, I had the opportunity to create a charter school based on Socratic Practice in northern New Mexico. The students there had never taken an Advanced Placement course; indeed, a representative of University of New Mexico-Taos told me point-blank that northern New Mexico students were incapable of passing an AP exam.

Through daily Socratic Practice by the second year of operation our school ranked 143rd best public high school in the U.S. on Newsweek’s Challenge Index.  Our third year we ranked 36th, with a pass rate (score of “3” or higher) on AP exams that was more than double that of the national average.  The schools more highly ranked were either magnet schools or in elite suburbs.

The statewide AP coordinator of New Mexico hired my faculty and me to train teachers from across the state. Parents moved to our area to enroll their children in our school at Moreno Valley High School.

Nonetheless, I was forced out of the school because I had never obtained an administrator’s license.  When NM charter school legislation had originally been signed by Governor Gary Johnson, no such license had been required.  But after I founded the school Governor Bill Richardson signed new legislation requiring all charter school principals to be licensed.  In order to enter an administrative licensure program in New Mexico, I would have needed to have had seven years’ experience as a licensed teacher.  Despite my fifteen years in K-12 education, I had never been a licensed teacher.  Appeals to the State Board of Education fell on deaf ears.

Contrast the existing world of education reform with that of technology:  Steve Jobs as a 12 year old kid picks up the phone and calls Bill Hewlitt.  He spends the next few years learning at HP, then goes to Reed, drops out, and goes to India.  He later sees the mouse and the GUI interface at Xexox Parc.  Xerox fails to develop the technology, Jobs and Wozniak do, and the rest is history.

In order to create an innovation, Jobs did not need to persuade professors of anything.  He didn’t have to ask any governments to change any rules.  All he needed was an idea, a partner, some capital, and customers.  Most business people and engineers ridiculed the personal computer for a long time.  If Jobs had had to get permission from professors, governments, and leading experts at IBM, Apple would not exist.  Ex ante no peer reviewed journal would have accepted an article showing that a college drop-out hippy would create the world’s greatest computer company.


US universities 'seeking to recruit more British students'

Rising numbers of institutions – including many belonging to the elite Ivy League – are marketing themselves to bright school-leavers on the back of a near tripling of the cost of a degree in Britain.

Around 9,000 British undergraduates and postgraduates studied in the US last year and experts predict that the number will soar further this autumn and again in 2013.

The number of students taking the main US higher education entrance exam in this country has already increased by a third in recent years and test centres are expanding to meet record demand.

It comes as British universities prepare to charge up to £9,000 in annual tuition fees for the first time this term.

Figures published earlier this month showed that it has had a serious impact on recruitment rates, with the number of students accepting places onto British universities plummeting by almost 57,000 – 12 per cent – so far this year.

J Robert Spatig, assistant vice-president for admissions at South Florida University in Tampa, said this was a “carpe diem moment for recruitment of UK students”.

“We believe that the floodgates are going to open once British students learn that tuition at many top research universities in the US may now be less than at a comparable Russell Group university in the UK,” he said. “This is a once in a generation opportunity to attract prospective British applicants across the Atlantic.”

US universities traditionally charge between £9,800 and £19,000 a year for an undergraduate degree, although some institutions provide more generous scholarships and grants than those available in Britain.

Janette Wallis, a senior editor of The Good Schools Guide, told how some bright students had been tempted to New York University’s international campus in Abu Dhabi with free tuition, £2,000 living expenses and flights to and from the Middle East.

Rising numbers of parents are now seeking out the guide’s reviews of American universities with a view to sending their children on similar courses, she said.  “They might have been interested before, but that £9,000 fee has tipped their interest into action,” she said.

The comments came ahead of a major US college recruitment fair in London later this week. A record 165 institutions, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and New York University, will exhibit at the USA College Day fair on Friday and Saturday.

The US-UK Fulbright Commission, which stages the event at Kensington Town Hall, said exhibitors had soared by 80 per cent in the last three years, with 3,500 students registering to attend the 2012 event so far.

Lauren Welch, director of marketing at the Fulbright Commission, said: “American universities are chomping at the bit to reach British students. We are seeing universities of all shapes and sizes come over the pond this autumn, including many newcomers.

“Universities are also staying longer, planning longer recruitment trips, tacking on school visits around the country.”

A separate event, The Student World Fair, featuring institutions from the US, Europe and Asia, will be staged in Manchester on Saturday before embarking on a roadshow taking in Leicester, Solihull, Bristol and London. It has reported a 25 per increase in exhibitors, with up to 30 institutions being represented.


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