Virtual schools: flying with broken wings

The National Education Policy Center ( is out with the latest in a series of “Virtual Schools Reports”, presenting data and analysis on the state of virtual and blended schools around the country. The 103-page report has three parts: [1] Full-time virtual and blended schools: Enrollment, student characteristics, and performance; [2] Still no evidence, Increased call for regulation: Research to guide virtual school policy; [3] Key policy issues in virtual schools.  Note that the “virtual schools” for the purposes of this report have no face-to-face interaction between students and teachers, while “blended schools” have varying proportions of in-person vs. on-line activity. In what follows, I will focus on the “virtual schools” strand of the report.
The increased emphasis on “choice” in education, championed with fresh energy by USED Sec. DeVos, but part of the education agenda in the Obama years as well, is likely to add further energy to the virtual/ blended school “market,”  one of many sectors in the “education market.”   (Sorry for the scare quotes, but I continue unreconciled to the construal of education as just another economic process.)   Especially in areas where there are not lots of alternatives to public schools, but authorities do not wish to invest in school improvement, virtual schools are increasingly advocated as the solution of choice.   The growth in such schools is documented in this report:  in 2015-16, they write, there were 528 full-time virtual schools, in 34 states, with an enrollment of 278,511 students.   Moreover, there is “virtual school legislation” under consideration in a large number of states (37 in 2016), and this trend is likely to continue at least for a while.

Now, as with labor-force projections, it’s important to keep track of what is being counted in reading accounts of the shape and structure of the virtual schooling phenomenon.  Case in point:  Who’s in charge?  Well, if you look at percentages of schools, it looks as though private “Education Management Organizations” (EMOs) are a small portion of the whole — just under 30% of the total.  However, the private EMOs account for 70% of the student enrollment across the country.

There are significant implications just related to this point alone, since increasingly these private institutions (managed by not-for-profit and for-profit entities of various stripes) are recipients of taxpayer funds,  as public education money is allowed to “follow the child”  in one of various ways.

Meanwhile, accountability to state or local entities is (as has been widely reported and is documented in this report) either lax or non-existent (as with charter schools). Indeed, “many states have frozen their accountability systems,”  or are loosening whatever financial or operational oversight is being exercised on charters as well as virtual schools.   The authors of the report were only able to get school performance data on schools form 18 out of the 38 states that have virtual or blended schools.   The news that emerges from the available data, however, is not reassuring:
• teacher:student ratios are higher in virtual schools (1:34) than in regular public schools (1:16), and in for-profit virtual schools it’s even higher (1:44).  Meanwhile, other data suggest that in many cases the teacher’s role is more circumscribed than the typical public school teacher’s, for example because the EMO purchases curriculum and associated assessments, and expects parents to take on some of the teacher’s role in overseeing and coaching the student.
•  For-profit virtual schools have lower proportions of lower-income and minority students than do mainstream schools;  not-for-profits seem to be closer in their demographic make-up to the mainstream school population.
• Available data about on-time graduation rates show virtual schools with much lower success than mainstream schools (about 44% for virtual schools vs 82% for public schools), with some for-profit virtuals even lower (schools operated by K12 Inc at about 37%).
• Some states rank school performance, on the basis of variables relating to academic performance.   Data from 19 states were available for the study period.  Looking across all full-time virtual schools, about 37% received an “acceptable” rating.  Interestingly, district-operated virtual schools had a much higher percentage of “acceptable” ratings (56%) than did for-profit schools (26%).

There are data on teacher quality and the sources of teachers;  more details on demographic factors; and an interesting examination of available data on the qualifications of principals or other administrators of virtual schools.

Another broad area is in accounting for costs, and here the data are also murky — indeed, the authors suggest that virtually (sorry) no state has required consistent accounting of the cost-structure of these schools, especially for-profits, which are no less expensive then brick-and-mortar schools.  The authors suggest some possible reasons that virtual schools might not cost less per pupil than mainstream schools — but these are conjectures, and cannot be tested as yet with actual data.

One of the many unfortunate consequences of market-driven innovation is that markets tend to be created for new products before there is any strong evidence that the new thing is a better thing.  So we try one thing after another, using teachers, students, and everyone else in the system as experimental subjects quite as a matter of course, and quite without consent.  Of course, education is not the only arena in which we allow such trial-and-error intervention — nor the only area in which we can carry on the intervention (one cannot call it an experiment) for long periods of time without even collecting reasonable data about the outcomes and impacts.  It has become common-parlance to use terms borrowed from economic modeling such as “cost-benefit analysis,” but a model is only as good as the data used to test and refine it, and I have seen no educational modeling yet that seems adequate to the multi-variate problem presented by almost any educational policy.


Note:  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent those of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation. 


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Models of teacher learning– What’s yours?

As one does, I found myself reading over the National Academies 2015 study on science teachers’ learning (you can download it here), and thinking again about the range of models of teacher learning that the MSPs and STEM-C projects include.

The study starts from a premise that NGSS represents a major change in the understanding of sciece education:

Conclusion 1: An evolving understanding of how best to teach science, including the NGSS, represents a significant transition in the way science is currently taught in most classrooms and will require most science teachers  to alter the way they teach.

The study gives a good overview of the qualities needed in a good teacher PD program.

Conclusion 4: Science teachers’ learning needs are shaped by their preparation, the grades and content areas they teach, and the contexts in which they work. Three important areas in which science teachers need to develop expertise are
• the knowledge, capacity, and skill required to support a diverse range of students;
• content knowledge, including understanding of disciplinary core ideas, crosscutting concepts, and scientific and engineering practices; and
• pedagogical content knowledge for teaching science, including a repertoire of teaching practices that support students in rigorous and consequential science learning.

Allowing for variations in jargon from one “reform wave” to the next, these have been core desiderata for science teachers during my whole career (and long before!).  They are clearly difficult to ensure. It is to be hoped that pre-service will change to address these needs, but meanwhile there are a lot of teachers already teaching who could benefit from some strengthening on one or more of these bullet points.  More specifics of the vision emerge in a later conclusion:

Conclusion 5: The best available evidence based on science professional development programs suggests that the following features of such programs are most effective:
• active participation of teachers who engage in the analysis of examples of effective instruction and the analysis of student work,
• a content focus,
• alignment with district policies and practices, and
• sufficient duration to allow repeated practice and/or reflection on classroom experiences.

These and other conclusions of the report almost constitute a theory of action — the latter points (and elaborations of them) are particularly important, because the changes needed are more than cognitive shifts, or matters of technique, since they demand of the teacher an ability to diagnose where a student is “on the fly,” and to provide guidance that involves a schooled imagination by which the student’s growth is envisioned and translated into suggestions for revision, alterations of tasks, connection with collaborators, or new resources.  This improvisational work is no secret, but it does not get included in policy documents, even those as well-founded as this NAS study.

The MSPnet library has a range of discussions and reports that describe, elaborate, or hint at theories of teacher change that underlie their work. Just to take one line of work that has recently been posted in the library, there are two papers (here and here)  from the SF Bay Integrated Middle School Science Project in which lesson study (in a form modified for use in an American system) is the mechanism to make possible “repeated practice and/or reflection on classroom experiences,” as the NAS study advises — with the added dimension of peer collaboration, building the rudiments (at least) of a culture in which teachers in a school take active ownership of their professional growth.

One piece of the picture that I have not come across, either in the NAS study, nor in my unsystematic browsing of recent MSP/STEM+C projects, is teachers actually doing science, so that they are not just learning about the nature of science, and about science practices as they are seen in a classroom.  It has always seemed to me that science teachers should have at least modest experiences participating in actual science, which has no direct bearing on lessons they will teach, but instead adds to their capacity to think scientifically, on topics of interest to themselves, and provides insights into the learning experience that only come from reflecting on what one might call first-order engagement. (You can see a report here on a project that Joni Falk and I were part of, that was aimed at such teacher learning.)  The obvious analogy is with teachers of music– we expect them to have command of an instrument (or voice), as well as the ability to talk about the theory and history of the music they’re teaching.  Not only do they have the capacity to play, but they also have available to them the whole history of how they acquired that capacity, and what it takes to keep it up — as well as what it takes to talk about it, and bring along new, inexpert practitioners into their art.

How in your project do you effect change in teachers’ imaginations, their relation to the practice of a particular science (or kind of mathematics, etc. )?  Where in your model do actual practitioners of the subject take part?


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Personalized: What questions to ask?

Personalized learning, and its close companion, “competency based learning,” are now the wave of the future, and indeed the very near future.  The Obama administration, in Race To The Top and ESSA  (Every Student Succeeds Act), supports it;  so do high-tech voices such as the Chan Zuckerberg Foundation, the Gates Foundation, and Eli Broad; so also major business interests such as Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Hewlett-Packard, and others.  It is a favorite focus for the Nellie Mae Foundation, whose vision combines personalized education, competency-based learning, student control of learning, and the claim that learning takes place anytime, anywhere. Many states are moving in this direction;  New England is a hotbed of personalization (see here and here for very fresh news from Massachusetts, for example.  Tip of the hat to the blog Wrench in the Gears).

i have written before about the abundant use of “straw man” arguments (such as the “factory model“)  to create a sense of urgency and indeed inevitability — now is our chance to break the chains of tradition, so that we can meet the demands of the 21st century economy, and “unleash greatness” (though we also need to move from “great” to “excellent,” as Michael Fullan puts it. ).  Apparently, never before have we realized that learning can take place anytime, anywhere, nor has it been possible….

Because “personalization” is a current nexus for many different strands of policy, rhetoric, marketing, and technical development, it is worth attending to from various angles.  One of these angles is the state of the evidence.  Of course, what “personalized” means varies a lot, but still one can identify some claims, and ask what evidence there is to warrant large investments of public and private funds and large shifts in education policy to adopt the new approach.

The state of research in any field is a moving target, but here is a reasonable read-out on the research base on personalized learning as of 2016, thanks to Data & Society.   The report, authored by Monica Bulger, puts the aspirations for personalized learning thus (page 2):

New technology is promised to level the playing field, effectively creating equal access to learning opportunities by democratizing information and instruction. Advocates hope that a technology- enabled shift (e.g., from teacher-based classroom interventions to personalized tablets and data-driven individualized learning plans) can provide a new incarnation of the one-teacher-one-student model— tailoring the learning experience to individual progress, interests, and goals. Classrooms could then be spaces in which advanced students and struggling students alike not only have their needs met, but are supported in the curious and creative pursuit of their own paths. Through personalized learning, these lofty goals seem within reach.

It’s nice to read a discussion of such a topic that acknowledges some history — that good teachers have always personalized their teaching a lot, for example — but Bulger focuses on the recent vision, which is inextricably linked with technology.   Technology is intrinsic to this movement both as justification (the New Economy is high-tech, and so education must prepare our children to compete), and as mechanism (the goals of the new education can’t really be realized without lots of technology for content delivery, for student expression, and for massive data collection through which smart systems can inform students, teachers, and administrators or policy makers about How It’s Going, and how to do better).

The report also notes that “personalized learning” has become woven together with other ed ideas (also more and more tech-implicated):

The promise of personalized learning is often bundled within competency-based education and/or Common Core, making it difficult to separate the performance of one from the other, or truly distinguish personalized learning from associated assessments or teaching of competencies. At the same time, the controversies surrounding Common Core and competency-based education also tend to shape impressions of personalized learning.


Bulger goes on to describe and illustrate various ideas or approaches embraced by this increasingly comprehensive approach to “21st century” education — adaptive technologies,   big-data and data-driven instruction, and so on.

She then examines what evidence there is for the promised benefits of personlization, differentiation, data-driven instruction, and a few other typical claims.   The basic message is, the promises are being made, and policies are being adopted, on the basis of very little evidence, but rather on the basis of inferences, hopes, and anecdotes.  As with so many innovations in education in recent decades, we are beginning another round of large-scale social engineering, with schools, teachers, students, parents as experimental subjects.

There are some basic underlying assumptions that need to be clarified, as well, before ever the edu-technological interventions could actually be properly evaluated.

Underlying adaptive personalized learning systems are algorithms—analyses driving programs to serve content that increases the likelihood of reaching a desired end goal. But which goals are being encoded in the design of personalized learning systems? Multiple goals are described in marketing materials (e.g., improved scores on quizzes or preparation for Common Core), yet optimizing for multiple goals is ineffective. It is currently unclear from descriptions of personalized learning  systems, what goals each are optimizing for, and how they are differentiating between interim goals (e.g., testing to represent mastery) and larger end goals (progressing to the next grade level).

There are other questions — student privacy is a big one — still wide open.  One of the biggest is, as always, equity — what resources will get diverted to make the massive investments that the new vision will require?  What human or other resources will be reduced or eliminated,  in these times of austerity thinking, to make the investments possible? What outcomes will we watch for, and which will we not know to measure, until after we’re already committed to surfing the new wave?

No doubt one or another aspect of this newly favored approach is taking shape near you.  How does it look?  What difference is it making in policy, in teaching, in students’ experience, in actual learning?

Because there is so little research on many aspects of Personalized Learning, some of the most interesting thinking is to be found in the gray literature, the world of reports, presentations — and blogs:  the hunting ground of the Bloghaunter.

Note:  Opinions expressed in this blog are those of the writer alone, and are not to be attributed to MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.

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Questioning assumptions: Connectivity leads to prosperity

My title may not sound like there’s a connection with STEM education, but here’s the link, at least in my mind:
Schools are under tremendous pressure to integrate more digital technology into the STEM curriculum — with special emphasis on Web-based resources and activities. “Technology integration” becomes an endemic problem for teachers (and their schools and IT and finance departments) to address. Because “technology” is always changing, driven by strong market pressures, the integration of technology (which? how much? for what purposes? with what results?) is very often not driven by pedagogical considerations, but by many others — obsolescence (sometimes real, sometimes not); purchasing economies (real or imagined); sales campaigns that suggest that the new product is so good that you’d be doing a disservice to your students and teachers by not buying it — the story is familiar enough.
Well, one of the lines of argument used to sell digital equipment, especially Internet-enabled equipment, is that connectivity by its very nature is good enough, productive enough of well-being, to justify massive investments in products and the necessary infrastructure to support them. It is this assumption that’s on my mind this week, stimulated by Audrey Watters’s March 3 Hackeducation news roundup.

Here is a nice, clear statement of the basic claim, from a report on the impact of the Internet in Africa:  “The Internet is a tremendous, undisputed force for economic growth and social change. Not only has it unleashed new forms of connectivity, but it has also provided an outletfor new forms of innovation, entrepreneurship and social good.”  You can see other such optimistic claims, mostly not evidence-based, here, in a story from the Council on Foreign Relations.   The Obama administration created the Global Connect International Connectivity Steering Group in 2015, whose mission is “Accelerating entrepreneurship and economic opportunity by expanding Internet access globally.” Whether this initiative continues under the new administration or not, its mission encapsulates assumptions about connectivity as a prime strategy for economic and social (including education) policy.

Yet in this area, as in others, caution is advised.  Nicolas Friederici and colleagues have published a paper examining the evidence for claims about the role of connectivity as a positive economic force in Africa, where live a substantial proportion of the estimated 4 billion un-connected people.  Obviously, economic development is a central concern for many of the nations of the global South — but is getting everyone on the Internet the best way to expend local, regional, national, and international resources?

Friederici et al. examined a collection of policy documents and reports on the impact of “connectivity”, and identified several common categories of claims.  For example, there are claims about how connectivity improves economic development or similar outcomes.  Some assert, in essence, that “by adopting [technology], a country about be able to transform into an information and knowledge-rich economy, and thereby reach higher levels of development.” [itals in original].  Others suggest “an indirect effect:  connectivity is seem to facilitate ongoing economic processes (e.g. through increasing efficiency and productivity) or enable new economic processes in the information and knowledge-based economy.”   Both the more vaporous (my term, not Friederici et al.’s!)  and the more theory-driven claims share the basic assumption that “participation in a globally integrated information or knowledge economy will produce growth and development faster than other types of economic activity.”  Finally, the documents also assume that connectivity will overcome digital divides, and integrate currently marginalized groups into mainstream economic life.

And yet. The authors note that “not a single policy cautions against connectivity potentially deepening inequality and existing digital divides, ” even though there is clear empirical evidence that this is a significant effect of our rapid leap to the digital world.

Moreover, there is an element that appears in the documents reviewed that will seem hauntingly familiar to educators in this country:  The assumption (the authors call it “optimistic technological determinism”) that when we deploy all this expensive new technology, it must necessarily be a Good Thing — so if it isn’t, the problem is “local factors” or “cultural factors” that prevent the arrival of the inherent goods of connectivity.   I have certainly heard such claims made about technology integration in schools — and for sure, I have seen cases where “school cultural factors” of various kinds play an important role in the fate of technology-mediated innovations.  However, acquaintance with teachers and schools in the throes of technology adoption (or not) has also convinced me that merely identifying such factors, or other aspects of “resistance,” is only a first diagnosis, and that there are underlying rationales, sometimes very cogent ones, which drive the attitudes of the cautious and the unwelcoming.   (As Ahab said to poor Starbuck, “Hark ye!  the little lower layer!” )

The available evidence seems to be that some of the touted benefits of connectivity can be documented — but very often, it’s the “haves” who benefit more than the “have nots.”  That is, the poor, uneducated, marginalized, or disenfranchized may reap no benefits at all, or if they do, the effect is proportionally much smaller than the benefits received by people who are better off, already more connected, and otherwise have pre-existing conditions such that connectivity has a catalyzing, releasing effect.   Friederici et al. note that few of these policy documents quote actual data to back up their claims, and that data are often just not available anyway.  Beyond that, there is an assumption that “all positive developmental outcomes come from an open and accessible Internet.”  With the exception of a very few reports, they find bad news is ignored or dismissed (e.g. by arguments such as those mentioned above).  One result is that the hunger for actual research to examine and test assumptions is dulled, and investments and policies are made and implemented based on speculation.

They conclude with a paragraph that has real application to trends in technology in education (and technology through education):

Our worry here…is that the Grand Visions of connectivity will themselves lead to an exacerbation of the very things that they purport to solve.  For instance, by framing inequality as something that can be effectively tackled with connectivity, we might take away focus from the structural economic processes bringing about widening inequalities. What is worse than a developmental intervention not working is believing that an important issue has been effectively addressed when it, in reality, clearly hasn’t. (pg. 17, emphasis added)

Note:  opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.


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Good Stuff

What does “stuff” — physical objects — contribute to the science classroom?  I think a lot, but there’s certainly another point of view.  To be quite argumentative about it, my prejudice is that if your primary concern is that students get excited about the world and ways of learning  more about it, then you like having stuff around.  If you are primarily focused on outcome measures and “student achievement,” you worry about students being distracted from officially approved learning goals.

My dad was a junior high science teacher, and though I never had a class with him, I spent a lot of after-school time in his room, while he cleaned up, shuffled papers, and did the other things a teacher needs to do before heading home. There were terrariums, samples of rocks and  minerals (mostly gathered by us on weekend excursions), skulls, birds’ nests, beach-combing trophies, balance scales, geometric solids, field guides. maps, star charts —a microcosm world-jumble. Always something to see, handle, watch, tweak.

Maybe it’s because of this early exposure that I have always felt that a healthy science classroom needs to be full of stuff — some of it to some obvious curricular purpose for this week’s focus, some of it present as a result of past moments of curiosity or narrative.  In moments of distraction or rumination, natural objects, machinery, instruments can raise questions, invite an idle probe or an object lesson, which suddenly clicks into a real interest, or adds to the “mulch” of acquaintance with the world that nourishes the inquiring mind (“mulch” a favorite word of John King, experimental physicist and educational experimenter at MIT, and longtime TERC ally).  As James Lovelock said, of connecting with natural places and objects, “Well, I think if you can, you feel part of the world, you feel much more interested in it, and your sense of wonder is stimulated.”  (in Wolpert & Richards, Passionate minds.)

I have been influenced in my own work by  David Hawkins’s essay “I, Thou, and It”. In this piece, Hawkins proposes that in the science classroom, the learning situation includes teacher (he speaks from this point of view, as “I”), the student (“Thou”), and It = the subject matter, the phenomenon which serves also as a boundary object, upon which the I and Thou each have their own perspective — so they have something to talk about, look at, make sense of together,  which is not “mine,” or “thine,” but is a common puzzle — the world itself (in part).

My attitude is not related to any particular pedagogical technique, such as project-based learning.  Rather, I simply believe that there are many reasons, some of them intellectual, some affective, and some ethical/moral, to ensure that learners have a lot of experience with physical objects — actual physical objects, not 2-D or even 3-D representations— and that some of this experience should NOT be driven by curricular imperatives.  I could cite Dewey or other educators before and since, but the testimony of scientists about the origins of their engagement speaks very clearly on this point.  (A good place to start reading about this nexus might be Sherry Turkle’s book Falling for Science:Objects in mind.)

It’s been hard to find research on this general topic.  There are definitely good practical resources, many of them based in the “informal ed” or museum literature (not surprising!), such as Teaching with objects and photographs  by Ellen Sieber and Sarah Hatcher — which argues for the importance of realia in stimulating curiosity, in providing opportunties for small-group collaboration, improving conceptual learning and sensory literacy.   More theoretical in tone,  there’s lots of work on “embodied cognition,” which might feel relevant (see for example this useful if slightly grouchy review article by Margaret Wilson, who seems never to have done any hunting or gathering).   There is recent research that shows that sensori-motor systems of students with relevant practical experience are activated in new learning situations, to improve their learning about physical phenomena in physics lab.

None of these are about “stuff”, however.  With the continuing emphasis on achievement and competitive advantages, we may not see research about this topic for a while.  More likely, we will see more research based on the desire to enforce attention to tasks, which takes a dim view of distraction.

In commenting on a previous post (on Money), Talbot Bielefeld wrote:

Regarding the value of all the “stuff” in classrooms, there is research out of Carnegie Mellon suggesting that visually crowded classroom environments may actually interfere with learning. See Fisher, Godwin, & Seltman, 2014 (

While this study focuses on young kids, for whom acculturation to desk work and learning on schedule is a major challenge, I have seen it quoted in many other contexts.  A good enough result in itself, it is also serviceable to certain views and aims of education policy, so I expect it to serve as the vanguard of many similar studies, and quickly to be incorporated into policy guidelines about classroom environments.

For myself, I close with a comment from that old psychologist, Walt Whitman:

There was a child went forth every day;
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became;
And that object became part of his for the day, or a certain part of the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years…

(The full poem is here among many other places).

What is your experience of stuff in the STEM classroom?

Note: The opinions in this blog are solely the author’s, and do not necessarily represent the views of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.

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Guest post by Christine Cunningham — Fostering Engineering Affinity and Identity, 3 views from the 2016 Videohall

We are pleased to have a guest post by Christine Cunningham, from the Museum of Science, Boston.  Christine Cunningham is an educational researcher who works to make engineering and science more relevant and accessible, especially for underserved and underrepresented populations. A vice president at the Museum of Science, Boston, she is the founding director of Engineering is Elementary.

“Hidden Figures” recently became the highest-grossing movie nominated for Best Picture in 2017. One of the impacts of the remarkable film is that it is inspiring kids, particularly girls and children of color, to imagine a possible future for themselves that could include mathematics, computer science, or space science or engineering. It also models pushing against societal norms.

Big budget movies are one tool for sending such messages. But other ongoing projects can also be effective at helping students, particularly those from groups that traditionally have been underrepresented in engineering, develop accurate understandings of engineering and consider it as a career path. Let’s consider how three NSF-funded projects that presented to the 2016 STEM Videohall are breaking down stereotypes as they create resources and experiences that help students build affinity and with engineering.

1. SciGirls Profiles: Women in STEM

SciGirls Profiles: Women in STEM is one tool developed by the SciGirls Strategy project. The larger project aims to help educators recruit and retain high school girls from diverse backgrounds into STEM pathways. To help them do this, they provide access to role models. Adult engineers engage with students face-to-face but their stories are also shared more widely through short-form videos. One of these, featured as their 2016 NSF Showcase Video, profiles an impressive software engineer—Caroline. Her story highlights a number of elements that resonate with young women. For example, software engineers can be engaging, articulate, and well rounded. Caroline earned her undergraduate degree English and American Studies. In a clever association, the video highlights Caroline’s facility with two types of languages. She speaks three languages—English, Swahili, and Kikuyu—as well as the six computer science programming languages she has learned.

Caroline’s path to coding has not been through a traditional computer science major. Instead, she describes how her curiosity and desire to make a website for an English project led her to teach herself to code, by using online tools. Caroline connects her work to problem solving and helping people. She articulates that she considers technology “empty” if you do not think about how humans experience it. In the video, Caroline celebrates teamwork, community, and networks as critical to her work. She describes the “huge community of engineers and developers that are willing to help each other learn the latest and greatest in coding.” And she evokes her network of mentors as a community she taps for support when she faces the challenge of what people expect women can and can’t do.

2. #ilooklikeanengineer

The #ilooklikeanengineer video echoes many of the same themes. Part of Iron Range Engineering, this project aims to help high school and college women learn more about what “it actually means to be an engineer.” The women featured in 2016 STEM Showcase Video explicitly call out some of the stereotypes of engineers—they are exceeding smart, good at one thing, sit in a corner, get all As, and are introverted. The idea that there is only one type of person who is good at engineering is a barrier that the project seeks to break down. They do so in part with role models. During an overnight experience, young women have the opportunity to meet and interact with working engineers from the community. Hearing stories from practicing engineering can help develop more accurate perceptions. It also can highlight the fact that engineers design many different types of technologies (they work with more than mines, automobiles, and computers) and that people take many different paths to becoming an engineer.

The video and program communicate that engineering can be a “helping” career, and is appropriate for “anyone who wants to see the world be a better place.” Research shows that emphasizing that engineers help people, animals, society, and the world can help attract women. Another key message about engineering communicated through the video (and, presumably the programming) is that engineering benefits from a diversity of ideas and people. Students are invited to bring their own unique experiences and told they can strengthen engineering solutions. People who think differently generate original ideas, thus bringing more options for solving problems. Celebrating a diversity of people, perspectives, and ideas is a strategy that can make engineering be much more attractive to groups that might not associate with stereotypical images of engineers and engineering.

In addition to talking with more experienced role models, participants of the overnight program engage in workshops. Trying their hand at an engineering problem can be a powerful tool for encouraging students to think about their potential as problem solvers and engineers. As they design or problem solve, young women can begin to identify with the work, recognize their enjoyment or skill with engineering tasks, and begin to construct an engineering identify.

3. DIMES: Immersing Teachers and Students in Virtual Engineering Internships

It’s active engagement with engineering problems that the third video also uses to develop students’ abilities to see themselves as engineering capable. The DIMES: Immersing Teachers and Students in Virtual Engineering Internships project is creating virtual experiences for middle school students, male and female. As part of their science class, students are called to participate in an online engineering internship. A virtual project director (controlled and customized by the teacher) describes the project and assigns them (the engineering interns) problems and tasks. Students tackle on real-world problems such as drug-resistant malaria. Using digital tools, students conduct research, engage in an iterative design process, and create a proposal for a design solution they communicate to the client. Assuming the role of a problem-solving engineering intern allows students to envision themselves as capable and creative engineers. Student engagement is critical for prompting children to think about themselves and their abilities in new ways—in this case that they can problem-solve and engineer.


As we work to educate a next generation of problem solvers, we want to do so in ways that invite, attract, and retain a diverse group of students. These three featured videos all use strategies that research suggests can help students, particularly those traditionally underrepresented in engineering fields, to begin affiliate or identify with engineering. Role models are powerful resources for demonstrating that people “like you” can do it. Debunking traditional stereotypes while providing information about the variety of people, perspectives, and pathways that contribute to innovative ideas can also make engineering seem more welcoming or attractive. Emphasizing that engineers fundamentally help people to solve problems and make the world a better place is a message that resonates with many youth. Finally, there is nothing like actually engaging with engineering practices and problems to build students’ knowledge about and confidence in their engineering abilities and identities.

The views expressed on this blog are those of the writers, and not to be attributed to MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.

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The extensive edublog reflections upon the new Secretary of Education have provided a convenient list of Hot Topics in Ed Policy. One that has not much been in the forefront is simple, and of course related to almost every other policy theme: Money, the staff of life for institutions and sine qua non for most policy priorities — and for conditions on the ground in schools. At every level of government, decisions about whether and how to fund schooling are taken all the time, and there are at least two lines of connection that link the national with the local (and back again). One is the flow of dollars, and the other is the flow of ideas, since it is ideas ( in various guises— hopes, prejudices, philosophies, economy, science, etc. ) that determine where the money-pipelines will flow, which spigots are opened or closed, what the flow-rates are, and where you meter the system.

So it is useful to have to hand a survey of research about a simple topic: Does money matter in education? When we translate this into slightly more concrete terms, nuances appear, as they should: What harm will we do by cutting education budgets? What benefit can be gained by spending more (any?) public money on education?

Long ago, the meme that “you can’t fix education by throwing money at it” was replaced in sober policy discussions by the better meme, “What matters is what you’re spending the money on.” Eric Hanushek and others who share his generallly “economist” view of education use as their most important metric the impact of dollars on “student outcomes,” generall “achievement,”  despite the acknowledged difficulty of Attribution:  being able to say with sufficient certainty how a dollar spent could be linked to individual student test scores.  People with other foci will frame the discussion very differently (see, for example, most any blog in our Blog Roll, or for variety’s sake this article by Dana Goldstein in the Nation — from 2012, but framing our question energetically in terms of classroom resources and the lives of teachers).

Bruce Baker has provided a full-but-compact overview of studies about the impact of money in education, with particular emphasis on evidence of how money is being spent effectively (tip of the hat to Derek Black’s blog post on this report).  Baker’s report, “Does Money Matter in Education?,” includes a brief and useful overview of the “does money matter” debate over recent decades, and then moves on to answer three questions, accepting as the “dependent variable” the “student outcomes” that are the Coin of the Realm in ed policy circles:

Does Money matter?   Baker says, Yes:  “on balance, in direct tests of the relationship between nancial resources and student outcomes, money matters.”  Baker does not avoid the nuances — some studies show more impact than others, there are many mediating variables, you can’t establish a “dose-response” relationship of dollars input to points of student achievement gained, but the trends are clear and persistent.

Do schooling resources that cost money matter?  This is a very valuable re-phrasing of the basic question.  After all, how can we decide what to spend our money on?  The answer again is Yes, but again nuances matter:  “On the whole…the things that cost money benefit students, and there is scarce evidence that there are more cost-effective alternatives.”  Baker mentions some specific “things” postively associated with improved student outcomes:  “smaller class sizes, additional sup- ports, early childhood programs and more competitive teacher compensation.”     Baker notes that some of these (e.g. smaller class sizes) have been shown to be particularly of value to more challenged, lower-performing students — the ones we keep saying we most want to help cross  the “achievement gap,” that persistent chasm.

Do state school finance reforms matter?   Again, Yes. The executive summary is:  “While money alone may not be the answer, more equitable and adequate allocation of nancial inputs to schooling provide a necessary underlying condition for improving the equity and ade- quacy of outcomes.”

For me, the great value of this paper is  precisely that while clear answers are given,  some specific mechanisms behind the answers are provided, and nuances are included or alluded to.  Too often “ideas” in policy debates or funding documents are not accompanied by much in the way of a theory of action, or any hint that other factors may be at work which might affect how or whether the hammer you are wielding actually drives home the nail you’ve chosen to strike.


Note:  The opinions in this blog are solely the author’s, and do not necessarily represent the views of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.

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Still unsettled: evolution in the science curriculum

Every year, bills are introduced into state legislatures aimed at decreasing the credibility of science, starting with the theory of evolution. That’s not what they say, of course. It’s been some time since anyone explicitly wanted to mandate that creationism be taught in the schools, instead of (or more usually, along side of) the mainstream scientific view. Years ago, “creation science” became the alternative proposed; this was followed by “intelligent design,” and as that lost viability, the anti-evolution advocates decided to urge us to “teach the controversy.”
This was a clever move, for a couple of reasons. First, it removed the hot-button language into the background a bit — it came across as a simple, common-sense plea for fair-mindedness. Second, over the decades, scientific research and development have brought forward other matters that are problematic to a significant proportion of the same people who oppose evolution education: climate change, cloning and some kinds of genetic research… If you merely advocate for “teaching the controversy,” you don’t even have to specify which controversy people need to hear about.
In the past few years, the language as shifted again — we aren’t urged to “teach the controversy” — after all, for climate change and evolution, the two most important targets, there is no controversy. That is, the basic scientific understanding has been long established, and controversies focus on important but subsidiary issues — elaborating, fine-tuning, deepening the power of the theory to make sense of (some aspect of) the world.  Instead, the rationale became “academic freedom,” and “teaching strengths and weaknesses…”  The Discovery Institute developed model legislation which provides protection, and encouragement  for teachers to teach “scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories,”  especially on questions where there is controversy (read: social/political controversy). This legislation has been used as the basis for a successful bill in Louisiana in 2008, and for numerous unsuccessful filings in Iowa, Florida, Maryland, Oklahoma and elsewhere (with variants in my own state, New Hampshire a few years ago).

This year has seen three such bills filed already, in South Dakota, Oklahoma (again), and (with notational variants) Indiana.  (For more information, links to press coverage,and background information, the best source is, of course, the National Center for Science Education.).

As a biologist, I care that evolution is taught, and (more important) understood.  I want people (students and grownups) to understand why evolution works as the answer to some fundamental questions in biology (I have never been a fan of teaching evolution starting with the evidences, taking it for granted sort of like a geometrical theorem to be proved, rather than the result of a grand inquiry to make sense of a very complicated biological world).   Evolutionary biology, and its intimate relative, ecology, are the two areas of biology of most importance to the most people  in the 21st century (IMHO).

But leaving that aside, the debate about evolution in the curriculum is a debate about the social understanding of science, and also a debate about pedagogy.  It makes no sense to ask students to understand the “strengths and weaknesses” of any theory which, however simple its basic premises seem, is established on the basis of an enormous about of work on myriad systems and organisms, with which students are just not familiar.  Even well-educated teachers are not likely to be prepared for such a task, as stated.

But of course no one really expects students or teachers to have specialist knowledge of all the various controversial topics addressed by the legislation that keeps coming forward.  Perhaps the legislators do not themselves realize how big a task it would be to “understand the strengths and weaknesses” of such a theory (or of climate change, or the big bang, or some other “controversy”).

The persistent impulse to legislate against uncomfortable science reflects the inclination to see science as a matter of opinion, in which anyone’s voice carries equal weight (teachers are familiar with policies and political rhetoric that conveys the idea that teaching is so simple that anyone off the street could probably do as well).  There is much to criticize about the over-valuing, or the “cult”  of expertise, Heaven knows;  yet that does not mean that expertise does not exist, nor that its advice within its own sphere should not be taken seriously.  Beyond the loaded question of expertise, however, is the recognition  that science (like other fields of endeavor) represents the fruits — not final! — of an international, centuries-old community of labor, imagination, persistence, critique, and integrity.

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Bloggers take stock at the end of 2016

As we move into 2017, much of the press and commentary on Current Events talk about unprecedented this, disruptive that, and uncharted t’other. Still, this year is also a continuation of last year, so it is good to think about recent trends and ideas, which one way or the other have prepared the ground for what comes next. One of the purposes of this blog is to scan other people’s blogs, and bring things to your attention which you may not have had time to encounter. So, herewith a couple of such overviews, which will certainly inform my reading and writing this year — please write in suggesting other year-end roundups you have found useful!

  1. Hackeducation: What happened in Ed Tech in 2016 (and who paid for it)Top Ed Tech Trends for 2016. This is my nominee for most wide-ranging analysis of the previous year.  Blogger Audrey Watters each year writes 10 post over the course of December, each exploring an important trend.  For each trend, there is a corresponding, additional blog post in which she provides additional commentary and links to sources, and these are accessible here, from the index page (linked above).  Each “trend” receives  extensive and thoughtful treatment — hours of fun, but also a thorough education about the educational landscape.  (You can also go back to prior years’ “trends” essays as well, and it’s often very useful to do so.)  Don’t be put off by the “technology” part, if that is not a favorite interest of yours.  Watters is alert to educational policy, philosophy, and experience, and pays attention to K-12, higher ed, economics, privacy, and other dimensions of education as it is lived now.This year’s trends:  Education Technology and the year of wishful thinking; The politics of educational technology; The business of educational technology; Education technology and the promise of “free” and “open”; Education technology and the “new” for-profit higher education; Education technology and the  “New Economy”;  Education technology and the history of the future of credentialing;  Education technology and data insecurity; Education technology and the ideology of personalization;  Education technology’s inequalities. 
  2. Larry Ferlazzo’s Best, Worst, and Other Education News  of 2016.  (You get a two-fer here, because the link takes you to the Answer Sheet). Ferlazzo’s blogs are a great resource for education news, and a good complement to Hackeducation — as with all good education bloggers (here’s Peter Greene’s list, which doesn’t include some of my favorites).Ferlazzo’s choice of “best news” (with supporting links)  includes:  the defeat of the Massachusetts charter-cap ballot initiative; 3 successful voter initiatives in California raising money for education including bilingual ed; rising high school graduation rates; positive new trends in student discipline practices; a study showing that teachers in lower-income communities are comparable in quality to those in higher-income communities; court victories for teacher unions, affirmative action, and teacher tenure; the continued spread of ethnic studies courses in schools, and his concluding note:  “Millions of students had great learning experiences in their schools this year.”His “worst” list:  increase stress and a “hate-spike” in recent months; likely increased support for school vouchers; school shootings;  decreasing spending on education; trends in attrition among teachers of color; the continued widespread legality of corporal punishment in public schools; discouraging progress on de-segregation; changes in the GED for the worst. Finally, “Millions of students should have gotten a better education than they did this year.”

    His choice for the most important 2016 ed news that’s neither bad nor good: The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).  He writes:

     The federal government is working with states to try to figure out how to implement The Every Student Succeeds Act.  It seems like it could be an improvement on No Child Left Behind, but it’s still too early to determine if this is going to be bad or good for teachers, students and their families.  There is hope that it will bring positive change to our classrooms.  However, as they say, the devil is in the details — and it is unclear what the upcoming Trump administration will do in regards to enforcing it.

    Lots of good fodder for discussion!  Add your voice this year!

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Three angles on sustainability education from the 2016 STEM Videohall

The STEM for All 2016 Video Showcase repays a re-visit. The archive of 156 videos invite reflection on trends, themes, and strategies.  I went there to spend some virtual time with teaching and learning, colleagues and ideas.  After sorting on various themes and categories, I found myself returning to three videos which represent three different strategies for “sustainability education”  — I use the scare quotes because, though useful, the label is to me a faint and colorless pointer to a very rich landscape of ideas, activities, and implications.

The first video I encountered was “Exploring systems thinking in Connected Worlds.”  from the NY Hall of Science (and other partners). The project has designed and installed a supremely interactive and imaginative environment at the Hall, intended to help visitors (especially children) begin to think in terms of systems as they explore, modify, and in part construct fanciful ecosystems which nevertheless obey real ecosystem constraints.  The visitors are invited to observe and interact with  its dreamlike and beautiful organisms and landscapes, and engaged with the challenge of maintaining or establishing “balance” in the systems.  The learning about function & process is thus interwoven with the activity of caring for the systems, first and foremost by seeing what makes for the flourishing or failing of specific organisms, groups, or landscape features — and coming to see how nothing in these systems can be cared for or even understood in isolation.   The video is so charming that it almost makes me want to go to New York City to see the installation.

Stop #2 on my little tour was at the video for “Teaching Environmental Sustainability with Model My Watershed” (TES-MMW), from the Stroud Water Research Center, Concord Consortium, and Azavea, an R&D organization focusing on geospatial data applications.  The project is intended, as the video abstract says, to develop “interdisciplinary, place-based, problem-based, hands-on set of resources, models and tools…to promote geospatial literacy and systems thinking.”  In the context of realistic decisions about resource management and watershed health. students can collect data at sites within their watershed (using probes connected to mobile devices),  and import that data into a rich computational environment which allows them to visualize, analyze the data, and investigate dynamics (including possible management decisions) in a modeling system that makes use of the data they have collected, in the context of other data sets, taking into account landscape features at different scales.

My final Sustainability stop was at “Back to the earth- Y3.” This project, conducted by a partnership of the University of Idaho, and the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene tribes, has multiple STEM learning goals.  The science is set in the context of the indigenous cultures’ identification and interaction with the landscape and the organisms upon it.  Knowledge and understanding of the ecological systems is integrated with song, narrative, and indigenous science knowledge and management methods.  The students see how the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene are themselves participants in the system very directly.  Mobile devices are used in the field and in the classroom, but so are nondigital tools for observation, collection, analysis, aquaculture,  and construction (constructing understanding, but also dwellings, nets, etc.).  Personal investment is an explicit part of the experience — in a clip from a field trip, we hear the leader encourage them to pay attention to their inner response to what they’re encountering:  “It’s important to let that heart piece come through…What parts of the whole ecosystem here are making our hearts sing?”

These three videos make for interesting contrasts along many dimensions.  All the projects aim to increase students’ understanding of STEM ideas, by direct engagement with complex, dynamic systems in which the students have some personal stake. I ended up thinking about these dimensions: Virtual vs actual;  the where of place (fantasy in Connected Worlds, subject-object in TES-MMW, place-of-identity in Back to the earth); the role of technology (highest in Connected Worlds, essential/constructive in TES-MMW, supportive/instrumental in Back to the Earth).


“Back to the Earth” engages the children at many levels of personal identity, so that the project activities awaken or connect to the feeling of the landscape as an extension of the self.  This I recognize, growing up in a landscape of Maine forest, field, and tidal water which I can still feel, though I haven’t lived there in 40 years. The visceral feeling of interdependence can be a powerful motivation for inquiry and for conservation.  Maps, hand-lenses, aerial photos, soil tests, and other scientific representations add layers of meaning — and provide the basis for comparison with other landscapes.

TES-MMW uses rich technical tools to build knowledge and insight, and one can imagine that the modeling system is the place where the students get a feeling for what their watershed is, as they can “see” it (both the “natural” and the built elements) at the scale of pH or DO measurements, soil characteristics, or landscape features of boundaries, corridors, edges, and various compositional elements.  Identification can help drive the inquiry, or can grow as a result of the inquiry (“from the outside in,” so to speak).  The technology is an integrated meditational environment, necessary to the learning goals of the project.  The whole watershed is not directly experienced, but sampled (by visits as well as measurements), with the modeling system allowing a fuller representation than the field trips and data-collection could provide.

In contrast to the other two projects, in which the environment is “out there,” and the students go to it, draw from it, etc., Connected Worlds is the environment, the locus of experience, and in that sense the wonderful technology is largely invisible, and not instrumental.  Its imaginative and dynamic elements are deeply rooted in the way we have learned that systems operate, so that the fantasy world is in effective continuity with the “real” world, but simplified enough that it can be learned and learned about fairly quickly.  You can’t “identify” with it, in the sense that you see it as connected to your understanding of self — except in the ways that art can always involve those who experience it.   What are the links that the children see to the landscapes in which they live, day to day?  Do the dynamics and patterns of Connected Worlds enable them to see (experience) their landscape in new ways (I am trying to avoid the dread word “transfer”)?

One final note:  Part of the framing for all of these projects is caring, nurturing agency, supported or enabled by knowledge, reflection, and investigative method. This is “engagement” but not only to motivate learning content.  It seems to me that the fundamental “methods” here, and shared across all these very different experiences, are getting-to-know, and story-building.   These can involve (sometimes must involve) quantitative learning and knowing, but also, and deeply, qualitative understanding.  This makes sense to me:  identity, inquiry, and agency come together for me in two qualitative puzzles:  What sort of a world is this, anyway? and What is to be done?



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