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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Collapsing estates and centers of social value

This is a title well above my pay-grade, but as my last post for 2016, I am indulging myself a bit with a reflection on the location of education (including STEM ed) within our social value system.
Back in my 20s, a baby Indo-Europeanist, I had as advisor the remarkable Calvert Watkins, whose abiding interest was Indo-European (IE) culture and poetics. He made sure that we were aware of the ideas of one of his teachers, the great French scholar Émile Benveniste, and those of Georges Dumézil. Among their themes was the tripartite structure of ancient IE society, in which, they argued, there were three power centers, represented in Vedic society by the brahmin (priestly class), the kshattriya (warrior class), and vaishya (merchants and farmers). (Sorry I can’t get the diacritics right on this keyboard!).
This basic division of power, with some variations, was discernible in many of the descendent societies of IE speakers, and indeed shows up even in medieval Europe under a division of all society into oratores (the ones who pray), bellatores (the ones who fight), and laboratores (the ones who do productive labor). This is reflected even later in the French Ancien Régime, which was seen to consist of 3 “estates of the realm”:  clergy, nobility, and commoners — to which post-revolutionary American and Europe informally added a fourth estate — the press.

Of course, these schemes are idealized models which sweep much of lived reality under the rug.  For example, the shudra is the 4th caste in Vedic theory, whose function is to serve the other 3 castes — it corresponds to what are now called “Dalit,” and we used to call “untouchables”; the landless, disenfranchised serfs of Europe might occupy a similar position in the structure.  Another example of things under the rug is the derivation of the Sanskrit word for “caste,”  varna, from a Vedic term meaning “color, shade”  (though Benveniste, in Le vocabulaire  des institutions indo-europeens, adduces evidence from Avestan that this color scheme derives from the characteristic colors of clothing worn by different groups, rather than from skin-color).

The reason I am bringing this ancient history into this blog, however, is that the distinction, however idealized, did convey that the three different power centers represented three different value centers (not without some overlap, and the king in many societies was a bridge among them).  The “warrior” class exerted its power most fundamentally by force of arms, but also less physically by surrounding codes of ethics/honor and responsibility; they derived their wealth from land-holdings.  The “productives” exerted power economically, by means of the trades, agriculture, and trade, and they developed explicit organs of power represented by guilds and similar associations.  The “priests” included in ancient times many people whose role was the preservation and propagation of cultural knowledge — bards, story tellers, seers,  artists, healers, etc. , as well as those who had the care of ritual relations with the spiritual world.

Many and many’s the time that people from these three estates colluded to share wealth and power, and worked to provide mutual support and stability — or through corruption to use the pretensions of one kind of power to dominate the others.  Yet I would argue that, even when the distinction  between these value systems was a mere vestige and sham, it allowed room for the operation of conscience and for reflection on contrasting values and commitments — and this was so even when the “theory” of estates was implicit, hidden within “the way it’s s’posed to be.”

The term “fourth estate” ascribed to journalism yet a separate stance, to inform and critique from a point of view independent of any of the other “estates.”  The press has been proud of this role, over the years;  though of course there are many ways it can in fact be largely complicit with one or another Power, even while continuing to arrogate the dignity of independence to itself.  This always weakens a democracy.

Education has always tended to be in the service of one or another of these power-centers, and in each it has had one or more specific, characteristic forms — often recreated as societies have risen and fallen, because of the requirements of the tasks and the kinds of inquiry that are appropriate to different walks of life or lines of endeavor. Yet in this country (and some others), the commitment to realize a new ideal of democracy in the form of a democratic republic has added in additional questions and concerns, which have sometimes shaken up the “estate focused” education, building bridges, opening boundaries, and challenging or refreshing values, responding to the demands of an energetic, multi-ethnic, expansive society.  While different interest groups have asserted their educational agendas vigorously, other voices have pushed back, in a dynamic and often creative mixture (or mess).

In the past few years, however, economic language and values have more and more become the common language in all sectors.  This has been noticed and studied by economists (for example Robert Nelson) , by journalists (e.g. Thomas Frank), by philosophers (like Michael Sandel), and by theologians (e.g. Harvey Cox). And of course by bloggers (like Emily Talmage and many others). The result among other things has been a general assumption of education as primarily an engine of the economy — appropriate for a social system for whom the “average Joe or Jane”  (Quetelet’s homme moyen) has been replaced by the economic modeler’s homo economicus, the human as economic unit (either consumer or factor of production).

A recent essay in Inside Higher Education brought this forcibly and lucidly to mind, as it discussed the direction that the author believes that higher education is moving, and should move (both to serve the “new economy” and ensure its own survival).  The essay explored the idea of the “Minimum Viable Product” as it applies to education. Ryan Craig, the author, writes

A minimum viable product — or MVP — is the simplest, smallest product that provides enough value for consumers to adopt and actually pay for it. It also is the minimal product that allows producers to receive valuable feedback, iterate and improve.

A bachelor’s degree is not designed to be such a product, Craig writes — it’s too big, too expensive, too vague, and not targeted enough.  “The vast majority of colleges and universities continue to believe they’re not in the business of preparing students for their first job.”   If they finally get with the program, they will understand that

the most important development in higher education in the next decade will be a College MVP.

Craig suggests that in order to address this challenge, post-secondary education will need to think in smaller units than a degree, and take a lesson from a trending practice in Silicon Valley and other exemplars of the New Economy:

Some of the lean start-ups proliferating in Silicon Valley and elsewhere are boot camps, providing “last-mile” training to unemployed, underemployed and unhappily employed young people and — critically — placing them in good jobs in growing sectors of the economy, like technology and health care. This largely technical training is increasingly referred to as last mile not only because it leads directly to employment, but reflecting the last mile in telecom, where the final telephonic or cable connection from trunk to home is the most difficult and costly to install, and also the most valuable.

He suggests that college MVPs will

 emerge from a paradigm shift from how we currently think about college — much more than simply cost and length.

The before and after paradigms are charted thus:





Learning outcomes





Work product

Liberal arts

Critical thinking


Prescribed pathway

Now, I believe that learning is growth, and that education is to encourage growth in individuals in social context.  The goal can be encapsulated by the term “flourishing”:  Education is to increase an individual’s capacity to flourish, bearing in mind intellectual, emotional, social, and moral dimensions — knowing that if one of these is in the foreground, the others are also always present.  The “traditional” column, it seems to me, resonates, however dimly, with this general understanding.

The second column, by contrast, resonates for me with the term “success”, which is rather different in its connotations from flourishing (you could say that success can be one component of flourishing).  The language here of course is aimed at IHEs.  It resonates, however,  with the “college and career ready” language aimed more at K-12 education;  with many of the arguments for “school choice”:  and with the technology-focused “personalization” and “micro-credentialing” fads, among many other strands in recent “reform” language. The general view  is of education as part of the consumer economy, as one product in the market place, competing with other products.

Far be it from me to oversimplify the motives of advocates for productized education, and for education whose pinnacle target is “success” as opposed to “flourishing.”  My reflections here come from my wondering what it means when more and more elements of life are regarded as market commodities (like art, health care, or  fresh water, for example), subject to all the vagaries and rapacities of market forces, and are not also evaluated (assigned value) from some other vantage point. I do not long for ancient Indo-European society, but I do think that the “relentless revolution” (to use Joyce Appleby’s phrase) tends to creatively, blindly, and irreversibly transform the raw materials of the world, and the way we imagine it and dwell within it with our fellow humans and our fellow creatures, into objects considered primarily as materials for some market.  Just wondering….

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



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Test scores: What do they really tell us?

Back when high stakes tests were the Big New Thing, and Massachusetts was bringing in its MCAS tests, researchers noted early on that the strongest predictor of school performance was demography (including things like median household income, educational attainment, etc.).  This was a finding that was not new, and not unique — indeed, similar results were widespread.  The notion at the time was that the test data would lead to the identification of low-performing schools (leading to interventions that would improve them), and of schools outperforming their demography (possibly indicating the presence of contributing factors that could be replicated elsewhere).

Well, as it turns out, the story has not changed that much.  Here we have now a recent study from New Jersey by Christopher Tienken of Seton Hall Univ. and colleagues,  which finds that a model built on just 3 demographic factors provides the most accurate predictor of middle school student results on the statewide standardized tests. (h/t to Curmudgucation again, which see for more commentary).  The 3 factors are: [a] Percentage of families in a community with incomes over $200,000/year;  [b] percentage of people in a community in poverty, and [c] percentage of people in a community with bachelor’s degrees.    Just as Gaudet in the MCAS paper mentioned above found,the fundamental equation remains:

DEMOGRAPHY + school = results

Tienken et al. have a very insightful discussion of what middle school is all about — the subjects targeted by the standardized tests are hardly the most important things young adolescents are learning during these years.

They also point out that demography is a proxy — that it stands in for things like summer learning opportunities, enriched after-school opportunities, and homes and communities that can provide cognitive and affective advantages, especially for children whose parents can afford them.  Despite all the qualifications and caveats one can make about how various public and private institutions can address some of these issues, the fact is that there has been over the past few decades a fairly steady retreat from such equalizing of opportunities, and in any case they are rarely enough, for enough children.

I think of this as I watch the news of the past few months and years,  and see school choice and similar measures gain in popularity again, and as market thinking continues to consolidate its over-extended hold on American thinking about just about anything.  Suppose I can choose to send my child to a more opulent school, thanks to vouchers from heaven.  This will not help me purchase tutors, or summer camp, or enable me to work fewer hours so I can be at home reading books with my children, or playing music with them, or engaging in chores and crafts…. No wonder some advocates of the mainstream “reforms” of the past few decades are feeling a bit blue about how their big experiment (conducted on our children and teachers and parents and…) is turning out.

How does this look from where you are?



Note:  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the writer alone.  Do not blame MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation for them.  In fact, don’t “blame” — post a comment and build a conversation!




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Apples, oranges, and TIMSS

New TIMSS test scores are out, and the commentators are commenting.  Generally speaking, international comparisons are used in the popular media, and in policy debates, as rhetorical weapons, to renew or update the hair-on-fire language of A Nation At Risk about how the poor quality of our educational system is causing the USA to decline from Top Nation status.  The tut-tutting has been muted thus far on this release, since the US election and its aftermath have been the big stories, but the overall story line is set already, as in the blog post  by Ed Week’s  Sarah Sparks, “Rising, but mixed, math science performance.”   I note that the goal posts are shifting, and that comparisons over time must be muddied by the re-design of the tests themselves.  Sparks quotes a researcher at Boston College:

 “When we started [conducting TIMSS] in 1995, our math was all content—algebra, geometry—and in science, chemistry, physics…but now we also include cognitive demands, thinking skills … school is getting to have a broader dimension that is quite different than it was 20 years ago.”

Looking at the horse race, we can see that the US math scores come in well behind the front-runners (US 539 for middle-school, compared to e.g.  Singapore at 618, Korea at 608) as well as some non-East Asian stars, such as Northern Ireland (570) and Kazakhstan (544).  Similar results are seen in science: US high school 530, compared with, e.g. Singapore (top again, 597), Japan (571), and Kazakhstan (533).

What do we think about this?  I have to say I don’t think about it much at all, because there is persistent evidence that these comparisons are not very informative. A paper by Carnoy et al., from the Economic Policy Institute from about a year ago, “Bringing it back home,” argues that country-to-country comparisons are often deceptive — and there are many nuances to this.  For example:  While we sometimes hear that impoverished students in the US are pulling our scores down, Carnoy and his co-authors cite evidence that these “average scores” obscure positive trends among such students:

Focusing on national progress in average test scores obscures the fact that socioeconomically disadvantaged U.S. students in some states have made very large gains in mathematics on both the PISA and TIMSS—gains larger than those made by similarly disadvantaged students in other countries.

In this study, and in another by Carnoy alone, “International test comparisons and educational policy,” the researchers suggest that because of the tremendous differences between the educational systems of other nations, and the 51 systems here in this country, “comparison” is hard to establish rigorously.   By contrast, the important differences among the United States might be more fruitful ground for seeking comparisons to understand why some states rank very high (even on the international comparisons) and others very low.  For example, Carnoy et al write:

As a suggestive strategy for further (qualitative) policy research, we paired off states with different patterns of gains in 8th grade math. This reveals, for example, that 8th grade students in Massachusetts made much larger gains after 2003 than students in Connecticut, that students in New Jersey made larger gains than students in New York after 2003, and that students in Texas already started out scoring higher in 8th grade math in 1992, but still made larger gains over 1992–2013 than students in California, especially after 2003.

This strategy might have the additional benefit of opening paths to more coherence across this country in educational inputs, e.g. in the opportunities for learning available to all children;  or in methodologies, e.g. a significant shift towards an inquiry approach, or a reduction in harmful levels of testing.

Yong Zhao writes about this year’s math scores in a piece that appears in Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog. His piece is entitled “East Asians topped US students again on international tests.  But are their schools really better?”  He points out first that US students have never scored at the top of international comparisons. Indeed, US scores have stayed roughly where they are, relative to other countries’, during all the era of international testing, through one administration and “reform” wave after another.  This has meant that test scores have served as perennial go-to ammunition for people making the case that schools are in decline and national mediocrity will result — even as the US has remained durably near the top in world measures of competitiveness, creativity, and productivity.

Zhao brings some other results from international comparisons that are thought-provoking, rarely mentioned, and in my mind argue for the intra-national comparisons that Carnoy et al. advocate.  For example (I present only the claims, he provides the stats!)

1) East Asian parents are not “very satisfied” with their schools.2) East Asian schools do not necessarily put a “very high emphasis” on academic success.  3) East Asian teachers are not “very satisfied” with their jobs.4) East Asian students do not have a “high sense of school belonging.”  5) East Asian students do not necessarily receive more classroom instruction compared to the United States, Australia, Canada or England. 6) East Asian systems are not the top users of computers in math lessons. 7) East Asian students receive the least engaging math lessons in the world.8) East Asian students DO NOT “very much like learning mathematics.”9) East Asian students have very little confidence in mathematics. 10). East Asian students don’t value math much.

So, he says, what does this tell us about the schools?  What lessons should US schools learn from these high-scoring systems in Asia (which are not all identical by any means!)?     Zhao summarizes:

So compared with most of the students who participated in the TIMMS 2015 study, East Asian students have less engaging math lessons, they spend less time studying math in schools, they like math or value math less, and they are less confident in math. So how did the East Asian students achieve the best scores?

His answer adroitly points up many of the oversimplifying and stereotyping tendencies rife in educational policy — with regard to international comparisons, yes, but elsewhere, too:

The answer may lie outside schools. To me, the answer has to be the chopsticks, something common to all these East Asian students interact with on a daily basis. To improve math scores, we should all begin using chopsticks.

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The social contract of science education

I had occasion this week to read the Pew Research Center’s 2015 reports “Public and scientists’ views on science and policy, ” and a follow-up, “An elaboration of AAAS scientists’ views.”  Got me to thinking about the work of science education, and how our society (the US for sure, and probably elsewhere) is a multiculture with respect to science.

The Pew study ask about a range of topics, from specific (e.g. views on vaccination, fracking, or evolution) to more general, policy-level questions (e.g. how US science ranks in comparison to other countries’, whether government investments in science are worth it).  The analysis disaggregates the data according to various demographics;  the “elaboration” disaggregates responding scientists into “working PhD scientists,” “active researchers,” and (with respect to specific questions) “domain experts.”

Interestingly, the various sub-groups of scientists tended mostly to agree, with occasional sub-group divergence — for example, on the desirability of fracking, 47% of “working engineers” approved, while only 38% of “working earth scientists” did.

For science educators, though, the most interesting differences may be the gap between the opinions of scientists as a group, and the general public.  Some special points of interest:

A. Fifty-four percent of the general public believes that US science is “best in the world”; 34% see it as “average.”  Scientists have an even more positive view:  92% see it as “best in the world,” and another 6% see it as “average.” (Hard to know how “best” is measured, of course.)

B.  On three big topics, the public disbelieves that there is a consensus view among scientists, the 3 being the Big Bang (52% believe scientists are divided), climate change (37%), and evolution (29%)  (The actual figures are considerably higher, e.g. evolution 98%, climate change at least 87%).    This divergence is of great interest, because there’s so much sociology involved. Evolution controversies have persisted since Darwin, and  the imputation of disagreement among scientists has been an important weapon in the arsenal of creationist rhetoric.  The Big Bang theory resembles evolution, in that it replaces a biblical account of “origins” with one relying on natural causes only;  in this case, too, disagreement among scientists is desirable in the eyes of opponents.

The same goes for climate change, of course.  Moreover, the creation of doubt about the science and scientists of climate change has been the aim of a well-documented disinformation campaign over many years.  Yet Pew shows that scientists as a group are seen as more trustworthy than any other group in public life, except the military.   At least one study (Ping et al 2015) provided evidence that when people who disbelieved in human-caused climate change are told the actual extent of scientific agreement about it, that information results in a measurable reduction in “skepticism” or denial.  (I know of no comparable study about public attitudes about the Big Bang or evolution.)   This obviously has potential importance in the effort to mitigate or adapt to climate change.

C. Opinions on the quality of US STEM ed are also interestingly divergent.  Among the general population, 29% see it as “best in the world,” 39% see it as “average,” and 29% see it as below the international average.  Scientists are more negative:  16% see it as “best,” 38% as average, and 46% as below average.

Other studies over the years have shown a high public interest in science topics, so the basic picture is, “We are interested in science, and US science is really good, but we are cautious about accepting guidance from scientists, and we aren’t really satisfied with our STEM education.

The disjunct around specific issues often relates to the ways in which scientific research intersects with other values, all within the context of an anxiety-provoking (post)modernity. I myself am quite clear that science is not the only tool we must use to make our way forward in the world, yet it is a powerful one which can provide an effective approach to many questions both natural and cultural.  To quote Dewey:

Science represents the fruition of the cognitive factors in experience. Instead of contenting itself with a mere statement of what commends itself to personal or customary experience, it aims at a statement which will reveal the sources, grounds, and consequences of a belief.,,,The function which science has to perform in the curriculum is that which it has performed for the race: emancipation from local and temporary incidents of experience, and the opening of intellectual vistas unobscured by the accidents of personal habit and predilection… In emancipating an idea from the particular context in which it originated and giving it a wider reference the results of the experience of any individual are put at the disposal of all men. Thus ultimately and philosophically science is the organ of general social progress.  (Democracy and Education ch. 17)

Perhaps I would demur at calling science THE organ of progress, but science as a method of intelligent action is indispensable.

Like many science educators, I think of the gap, or even alienation,  between scientist and citizen to derive from insufficient exchange.  In discussing controversial topics with nonscientists,  I have often felt it important to get across how laborious it can be to establish even a little new insight into some small question — and how fallible even this excellent enterprise can be, how much in need of reflection, correction, debate, revision.

Thus, it seems to me that, though I am not a big fan of NGSS, the call to engage students with content through ” the practices” is surely in the right direction, and needs to be accompanied by stories of many kinds  — from theory-building to narratives of discovery, disputation, refutation, and further inquiry.  For this, scientists and science educators need to keep working more and more effectively together, each learning from the other more and more attentively.

But there’s another thing:  Who is it we are trying to educate?  Are we bold enough?  Scientists have in the past few years been critiquing the way they take part in the public discourse, playing a leavening part in creative civic ferment. Jane Lubchenko, the great ecologist and quondam NOAA director,   said a few years ago:

In my experience, scientific information is often not taken into account because the information is not readily available, or it’s not understandable, or it’s not seen as being relevant or useful, or it’s not seen as being credible to the person making the decision. Oftentimes, it’s a combination of many or all of those.

Scientists bear responsibility for all of these failures, to varying degrees. And we can be proactive in addressing the reasons why scientific information is often not available, understandable, useable, or credible. For example, in my experience, many, many people, including many politicians, simply assume they won’t understand what a scientist is saying. “It’s too technical!” “I don’t understand all those big words!” “Scientists caveat everything so much; I guess they don’t aren’t confident about anything.” These are statements I’ve heard multiple times. I think this is highly unfortunate.

Later in the same address, Lubchenk0 said

I believe that academic scholars have a responsibility to be proactive in engaging directly with society. I believe that part of our obligation—our social contract, if you will—involves a two-way communication with society. Specifically, in exchange for public funding, our jobs are both to create new knowledge and to share it widely with transparency and humility. When I first proposed this idea of a social contract for science eighteen years ago in my presidential address, the academic culture was so chilling toward public engagement, I was pretty darn sure that I would have rotten tomatoes thrown at me when I gave my speech. However, much to my surprise and pleasure, I was given a standing ovation instead. I was told it was the first standing ovation that an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) presidential address had garnered. I took it as the beginning of a new awakening within the academic community.

Well, and the same  thing needs to be true of learning scientists and science educators — we must learn deeply, research passionately, sure, but also feel it as part of our contract with society to tell the story — of findings and of methods — far beyond our usual circles.  Not just to colleagues;  not just to policy makers;  but to as many kinds  of people as we can.  And when your practice comes to include this kind of public engagement, tell colleagues how it went, so they are equipped and emboldened to do it themselves.


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Thinking about the next 4 years in education

Quite aside from other considerations, a new president will always have an impact upon education policy. The incoming president may possibly represent more of a discontinuity than we have seen for a while, since every president since Reagan has followed roughly the same course, whose recent developments include: an emphasis on standards and accountability (including Big Data about students), an increase in federal involvement, a growing acceptance of market-based thinking about education policy, a concomitant increase in the influence of corporations and activist philanthropy, and a continued normalization of language and thinking about education as an industry like any other, including the growth of privatization at many levels. Also what I might call a continued weirdness in American attitudes towards teachers. (See Emily Talmage’s reflections on this interesting continuity in policy here).

So one might expect that some of these themes will continue or pick up steam under the Trump administration; other trends might diminish. (See Emma Brown in the Answer Sheet for her reflections on this topic).  It is certain that the future of education in the US will be shaped by state and local forces, perhaps even more than federal ones — which in any case are always filtered by local interpretations. I have been trying to scan the blogosphere in the past few days, to pick up straws in the wind. Here are a few gleanings, but I encourage you, if this topic stimulates you to answer, to especially let us know what you are seeing from the vantage point of your locale and also your role in the educational “system”.
EdWeek’s Andrew Ujifusa has an interesting story on the people from the Trump team who seem to be especially influential with respect to education. As Frederic Hess of the American Enterprise Institute (a source from which Trump seems likely to draw much guidance) emphasized recently, “Personnel is policy.”  Until it’s embodied in staffing and reified in regs or statutes, policy has rhetorical power, but not much else.  As Hess writes:

When education does come up, who really knows what a Trump administration would actually try to do on schooling? Sure, Trump’s said… he wants to spend $20 billion for some kind of federal program to promote school choice. He said he wants to abolish the Department of Education. He said that he wants to prohibit states from making schools gun-free zones. I think it’s a mistake to take any of this at face value. As I’ve noted before, “There’s no reason to believe that Trump necessarily means what he’s said on any issue. In truth, he seems to regard policy declarations as performance art.” So we’ll see if he devises a clear agenda on school choice or higher education, and whether he pushes it.

Though some names have been floated for Secretary of Education (Scott Walker, for example, or former governor Mitch Daniels), right now the action is taking place in the transition team, and the names there give a hint about points of view that are resonating with Trump and his team.  Williamson Evers, from the Hoover Institution, has a long education policy pedigree, including positions in the Bush administration.  At the Hoover Institution, Evers has written widely on education p0licy, and been an outspoken opponent of centralization, and of the Common Core.  A piece from 2014, “Against the Common Core,”  lays out his philosophical position fairly fully (IMHO), including his views about the theory of “competitive federalism” as a driver of institutional and social change.

The American Enterprise Institute is supplying several members of the developing Trump brain-trust (for example climate denier Myron Ebell for the EPA transition).  For education, the AEI resource is Gerard Robinson, who has in the past served as Sec. of Ed for Virginia. Robinson’s interests include constructive ideas about educating prisoners, but with regard to K-12 education, his emphasis is on school choice and opportunity, with a Milton-Friedman tinged interest in competitive mechanisms for school improvement; “entrepreneurship” is a word of power for him.  Unsurprisingly, he is also an advocate for “digital learning,” participating as a founding member of the Digital Learning Council, whose natal press release says:

The members of the Digital Learning Council share a sense of extreme urgency about the need to bring digital learning to every school, every classroom and every child,” stated Governor Bob Wise, co-chair of the Digital Learning Council.  “We must not squander the opportunity to promote digital innovation to reform our nation’s schools and ensure that all students are prepared to confront the challenges in our economy and society with the tools and skills that digital technology offers.

Regardless of the point of view that shapes your STEM ed work, now is a really good time to clarify your values in dialogue with those who both agree and disagree with you. As Sontag used to say, “Wake up!” Emily Talmage is very clear about what she sees coming towards us, but advocates for engagement:

So what does this mean for us? For our kids, our schools and our communities?  More than likely, it won’t be much different nor any less dismal than what I wrote when I assumed Hillary would be president: more screen time for even our youngest children, inflated local budgets to support one-to-one tech initiatives, invasive (waymore invasive) school-wide and individual data collection, and a proliferation of low-quality online K-12 and higher education programs.

Unless!  And this is a big unless..

 Unless parents and activists from across the political spectrum can mobilize now and stand up now to say enough is enough. We know what the big agenda is, and we aren’t going to manipulated by superficial policy change anymore.  This means that those who lean right can’t afford to go back to sleep once they hear talk of school choice and vouchers and the elimination of Common Core, and those leaning left can’t afford to throw in the towel or be led astray by phony anti-privatization movements run by neoliberal groups pushing the same darn thing as everyone else.

And Rachel Levy, of “All things Education”, argues for  4  constructive recommendations  which which I leave you, hoping to hear all of you making sense of What Is To Be Done:

Recommendation #1: Read, respect, and support high quality social scientific research that studies people of all groups and researchers that represent people of all groups.

Recommendation #2: Read people who you don’t agree with and who make you uncomfortable–they can tell you things you won’t pick up on by only reading people you agree with.

Recommendation #3: If you are not already, now is the time to get engaged in your local and state governance.

Recommendation #4: Get involved and be present in your community’s schools, in your children’s schools. Advocate for diverse school staffs and diverse curricula.

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Integrating technology: Some class visits

Last week I posted an introduction to Larry Cuban’s current, “live blogged” research on technology integration. By the time I’d written that post, Larry had already posted some classroom observation notes from several different subjects — AP history, AP physics, intro Bio, Spanish, and others.   I was looking especially for cases of STEM classes, but of course couldn’t help scanning the others.  I have to say that I was hoping to find, in AP US History or Spanish or AmLit, some stellar new approach to the subject that clearly was an improvement on earlier technique, impossible without the computer.  IMHO, there were no such surprises, alas.

I hasten to say that I am not judging the teachers here — Larry pays attention to the students’ attention during the class sessions, and notes whether there are students “off task” or perhaps distracted by Internet access.  There are really few instances of this.  The students are paying attention, engaged or at least cooperative, almost all the time.  So the classes are “working.”  When students use computers for language drill, for example, or to write their answers to a “document based question” in US History, the technology perhaps affords a small improvement in efficiencies of various kinds.  Yet the work that they are doing — reading, writing, practicing, etc., — are bread-and-butter tasks that get done in classrooms that have no technology at all — well, except for paper and writing instruments, books, perhaps audio recordings…

In the bio class, the students do a lot of visualization and model-building as they learn about DNA and related subjects — but it’s done in the head, or with pencil and paper.  The principal digital technology used is the whiteboard, and it is used essentially as a screen for projecting slides presenting some content, guidelines or supports for activities, etc.  The students also post analogies they have constructed for chromosomes, genes, and DNA, and can look on the class website to see what other classes have suggested as analogies.  This seems engaging enough, and the work is going on in the students’ heads — reasoning and imagination — where it has to happen in the end anyway.  The technology is not obtrusive, and appears to me to be mildly helpful, but not irreplaceable.

Perhaps the most demanding task using digital technology was reported in the Physics class, and involves creating student reports as simple videos.  For example, in the  physics class, the teacher

 segues to [the] second and last activity of the 90-minute lesson: students making instructional videos to show how the class, divided into pairs and trios, will solve problems about different projectiles’ velocity, range, etc. that teacher had assigned to them.

Teams of students will be given a problem to solve; they need to solve it, and then create their instructional video about how their solution.  All these videos will be posted online, so that the students can use them in preparing for the unit exam.

For the next seven minutes, Hine, standing at the white board in the front of the room, reviews each of the five steps in making a problem solving video: diagram their solution of problem, write the necessary formulas, do the story board, take photos of what they have done, where they put their names, and doing voiceovers…

The teacher here is doing some tech support, for a generic technology which of course they can use in other contexts as well (and maybe have).  And here I want to flag a consequence of technology integration as it seems to occur in the wild:  tech support  becomes a pretty large part of the teacher’s work. For example, earlier in this same classroom, an activity involved students reviewing each other’s lab reports posted in a class area on-line, and do some peer-to-peer critique using a shared rubric.  The reports in digital representations are (I expect) probably legible because typed, and accompanied by data representations of some kind, and perhaps photos taken during the lab, etc.   So there will be some benefit in having them in online form. But again, tech support is needed:

Accessing the rubric,,,from the mixed set of devices and operating systems students have such as Apple tablets, laptops, Windows and other devices including Chromebooks, is cumbersome. The district mandated a Bring-Your-Own-Device program two years ago and students bring in Apple, Google, and other devices. The school makes available Chromebooks to students who lack a tablet. Each type has its own operating instructions and sharing documents from one device to another becomes an oft-repeated procedure in the class.

Hine gives three sets of step-by-step directions to students with different devices. Expressing frustration , the teacher gives another set of directions for students using Chromebooks. In asking students to share lab reports across computers, Hine gives more instructions for how students can share.

Obviously, these are single observations in each class.  Over the course of the year, the classrooms are likely to show a broad variety of activities, participant structures, learning tasks, and tool use (digital and otherwise).   These vignettes, however, are just what I would expect to see, on any random drop-in on a science classroom these days. The technology is there, and is used naturally for writing and communication.  The activities do not seem to me to be different in kind from activities in a classroom from 25 years ago — you may say that making an instructional video is an advance, or at least a notable difference.  I’d be interested to hear, in that case, how it differs from the team of students working up the problem, and presenting it to a class discussion viva voce?  The benefit of re-use (posting the videos for others to refer to) is also of interest, but again there are interesting questions to ask about how to support students’ learning from each other in substantive ways.

Perhaps these quotidian uses of technology are beneficial because digital tools and environments constitute something of a common language in our culture these days.  Moreover, they might (when one is in an optimistic mood) constitute the tip of an iceberg — and below the water (or out of sight of these observations) there are the spectacular, deep, breakthrough things — spreadsheet modeling, student inquiry driving digital data collection and analysis, collaboration across classrooms or schools, access to remote instrumentation…

But all those exciting possibilities represent pedagogical and curricular innovations, towards scientific inquiry and authentic practice, which (with the necessary teacher supports and administrative arrangements) are still the critical, rare, precious ingredient of school reform worth the name.

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