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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Integrating technology: What does it mean?

A remarkable amount of policy around education (teaching, learning, and assessing) is interwoven with “technology,” by which is usually meant “digital technology” and most often something Web-based — and commercial.  As you know well, our Information Age is said to have transformed the way people learn (or “consume knowledge”) and therefore the role of the teacher has to change (or, has changed).  Moreover, the infiltration of the Web into every nook and cranny of life is generating Big Data, which will provide unheard of insights into the education process, putting Utopian tools into the hands of schools, bureaucracies, and teachers (or whatever they will become).

There is, however, still nowhere near enough research to enable us to critique such claims, or even decide which widgets to buy. Moreover, most technology innovations — getting a classroom connected to the Internet, for example— are in fact more than one innovation in parallel, making it pretty hard to make rigorous or even well-formed claims about impact. Such work takes time and lots of careful analysis, and time is a commodity that is rarely lavished on research once the sales have been made, the machines or software is installed, and actual people use the new system for a solid length of time (something our team at TERC spent some time exploring a few years ago with respect to 1-to-1 computing).

Allow me, therefore, to direct your attention to a growing series of posts at Larry Cuban’s blog.  Larry is (sort of) live-blogging a recent research project trying to get at the mysteries of technology education, and just what kind of impact it is  having.  In the first post, Larry makes the case for a series of closely observed case studies of integration.  His research questions are:

How have classroom, school, and district exemplars of technology integration been fully implemented and put into classroom practice?
Have these exemplars made a difference in teaching practice?


In his second post, Cuban discusses how he decided to describe varying degrees of integration, a notoriously vexed term, and takes a bottom-up approach to creating a definition, asking practitioners to direct him to examples of “best cases”.  From these, he derived a set of indicators for tech integration:

District had provided wide access to devices and established infrastructure for use .
*District established structures for how schools can improve learning and reach desired outcomes through technology.
Particular schools and teacher leaders had requested repeatedly personal devices and classroom computers for their students.
Certain teachers and principals came regularly to professional development workshops on computer use in lessons.
 * Students had used devices frequently in lessons.

In part 3, Cuban, noting that integration is not “all or nothing,” discusses some “stage models” for integration, reflecting on some of their assumptions about what is happening in each stage, or what enables the shift from one stage to another (such as the popular but debatable notions of PCK, or even TPCK) .  Most importantly, he notes that these models tend to assume that when these various levels of use are reached, each can enable us to infer what it is the student is doing — and especially what she is learning.  As he says (in post #4), just because you see lots of functioning technology, being used by the students very often, this does not tell you anything about student learning, nor even about the pedagogy of the class.

Cuban fans will not be surprised that it’s for this reason that Larry asks (his question #2) Has the integration of technology actually changed teaching in the classroom, and in what ways?  As he writes,

Far too little research has been done in answering this question about changes in teaching practices. So in researching and writing this book, I, too, focus on the process of classroom change and not yet how much and to what degree students have learned from these lessons. Once changes in classroom practices can be documented then, and only then, can one begin to research how much and to what degree students have learned content and skills.

Our “wireless high school” study  examined teaching practices in high school science in our case study work, looking at dimensions like curriculum content, pedagogical practices (with a particular interest in student inquiry) and assessment; all in relation to the intended goal of the technology innovation.  We could not look at change in practice, since we had not done a “pre test” on these classrooms, though we did ask teachers to report changes in their practice that they were aware of.  Given how many kinds of instrumentation and technologies (including things like microscopes, multimeters, and glassware) science teachers have, the process of integrating the Web into all that is pretty formidable, and represents not just “teacher learning,” but in a broader sense, teacher growth, as they make choices about what is most important for their students to encounter and wrestle with; the student experience, and the design of tasks, is constantly being revisited.  It takes time to figure out your pedagogical values again, especially when the technology keeps changing.  As Cuban is quite aware, case study work is still pretty important, because our models of the challenge posed by technology integration, and the learning and experimentation needed to make good use of it are quite incomplete

Larry follows his 4-part reflection on his study design with a guest article by Mary Jo Madda of EdSurge, entitled “Did that edtech tool really cause that growth?”  In this post, Madda makes some recommendations for how to evaluate studies claiming student learning impacts from new technology.

First, for educators, she recommends

#1: Look for the “caveat statements,” because they might discredit the study.
#2: Be wary of studies that report “huge growth” without running a proper experiment or revealing complexities in the data.

Then, for tech companies:

#1: Consider getting your “study” or “research” reviewed.
#2: Continue conducting or orchestrating research experiments.

Each of these recommendations is accompanied by a helpful discussion, and all the posts in this series include many links to research and other resources.  In coming weeks, I will review at least some of Larry’s cases.  I encourage you to at least check out the posts I’ve described here (and the vigorous discussions accompanying them!).

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Teacher blog: Doyle

High time for another teacher blog. Allow me to recommend the blog called “Science teacher,” whose subtitle is: “Breaking out of the classroom into the world.” The blogger calls himself “Doyle.”  His profile describes him as:

Very briefly a longshoreman, briefly a lab tech in a booze plant, more recently a pediatrician in the projects, now a high school teacher in my hometown.

He appears to post on no fixed schedule — the most recent one is dated Aug. 26, but sometimes there’s a flurry of posts, then a break.  So despite the long lag (perhaps a result of the onset of the school year), I intend to keep checking in on him.  The voice is distinctive, and as with other good blogs, the subject matter ranges widely. Science is always there, and the kids;  but so is a lot else  (as seen from Bloomfield, New Jersey).

“Why teach?”  he asks, and then answers his own question:

A few children chasing butterflies, mucking in the pond mud, and otherwise doing their best to confound our educational system remind me teaching matters.

His Aug. 26 post, however, tells us more.  It’s entitled “Why I left medicine to teach,” and opens thus:

I used to be a doctor, the kind with a stethoscope, the kind licensed to hurt you for your own good. It puzzles children to learn that a physician would walk away from medicine in order to teach, and there are days I am baffled myself. I liked medicine. I love teaching. I did not know that this would be true when I left medicine, so while it is true, it is not enough to explain why I left. Why leave something you like, especially when it pays ridiculously well? Every year children ask me this, and so far I have not quite gotten it right. I thought I had it right, but high school sophomores would kind of shake just a little bit sideways. I wasn’t fooling them.
I think I got it right now.

Doyle, like the other teacher-bloggers I most enjoy, is both realistic (and often funny) and (com)passionate about his students, but also highly engaged with the world, and gives some evidence that his pedagogical stance, and his mission, is shaped fundamentally by curiosity, delight, and awe.  His June 18 post starts out:

I am going tadpole hunting with my aunt and uncle in an hour. We’ll creep along the edge of a pond, muck around our ankles and nets in hand, dodging poison ivy and biting bugs, because it brings us joy.  Between the three of us we have over two centuries of living and hours to play on weekends, and this is what we chose to do, even in the 21st century. We have evolved little in the past few thousand years, despite what the futurists would have you believe.


He continues with reflections on the importance of children becoming acquainted at first hand with living systems in all their complexity, and of how different such knowing is from the bloodless abstractions of eduspeak:

Without a background in natural history, without a childhood immersed in the natural world, a child in our culture has little chance of realizing the lives of the living beings around us. Without this knowledge, all the talk of “interdependent relationships in ecosystems” is like the love song of a twisted psychotic stalker–not just meaningless, but passionately dangerous.

and concludes

NGSS promotes the practice of science; it does little to promote natural history. This matters. It’s like learning the mechanics of sex by using a mannequin–it can be done, but really, what’s the point? If a child doez nort fall in love with the natural world, with its deep nuances and rhythms, with its internal beauty, then pushing her to become a scientist becomes a cruel exercise. Benchwork is a hard, lonely business.  Take a child tadpole hunting–you’ll do more good for America than anything I can do within the cinder block walls of my classroom.

Doyle keep track of the seasons and their cultural resonances (see his post on Lammas, for example), as well as many other topics that matter (his posts on Hiroshima and Nagasaki days, or Black Lives Matter, for example), and of course science teaching, as in a widely-read post, “The microscope “e” lab kills science”:

Every year students learn the parts of the microscope, and every year we drag them through the infamous “e” lab. Cut out the letter “e” from a newspaper, mount it correctly on a slide, look at it in the scope at various mags, figure out its orientation.
The most interesting part of the “e” lab may be seeing the “e” move left when you push the slide right, up when you push the slide down. But we don’t talk about the why, that’s for physics, and they haven’t had that yet.
We trade stories in the lounge–Can you believe she thought the air bubble was alive? That he cut out an upper-case “E” from a headline? That she couldn’t see anything because he forgot to turn on the lamp?
And then we wonder why a few children don’t even pretend to care when we finally bring in some pond water full of wiggly aliens, full of life, full of wonder. There’s just no reaching some kids.

He continues with suggestions for a first introduction to the microscope, which elicited a lot of thoughtful comment from readers (some of the best blogs are worth reading just for the commenters). As I have wandered through his backlog, I have been refreshed by my encounter with a generous and probing teacher, and I encourage you to wander there, too. And check out a very interesting blogroll on his profile page!

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Pygmalion, Frankenstein, and the rhetoric of “reform”

Proliferation.  Every month sees new plans and blueprints and pathways and strategies for fixing the education “system” (scare quotes mark a vexed question). To try to read them all, and unpack their rhetoric and intellectual antecedents, I would have to quit my day job to read full time — and I’d need to be part of a team of dozens.

Oh, wait —   So I am!  since there are so many sharp and dedicated folks keeping watch and bringing back report:  we have a nationwide observation network, united by cross-posting and overlapping  blog-rolls.  Of course, the edublogosphere is massive in its own right, but it does do some filtering and focusing, and there’s less of an echo-chamber effect than one might imagine, given how different the voices are, and the perspectives from which they are critiquing, reading, and writing.  I am grateful!  All I have to do is resist the urge (rooted in some kind of scholarly compulsion, integrity, or nerves) to follow every single link in every single linked story….

My title this morning comes from reflections on blog posts by Peter Greene that you should read, if you are seeking to keep track of the flows of ideology that are shaping the educational landscape in our times.  Also because Greene’s writing is both trenchant and fun.

The first one is about a new “vision” document from the Center for Education Reform (very neoliberal and pro-charter). The second post from the Curmudgeon is about a blueprint from the Gates Foundation about engineering post-secondary success.  I use “engineering” advisedly here, because in this document we breath the pure technical atmosphere characteristic of much foundation-driven ed reform:

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Postsecondary Success strategy is built on the belief that significant, sustained, and student-centered change is required for higher education to live up to its potential as an engine of economic development and social mobility. The strategy is dedicated to building human capital by closing attainment gaps, focusing on three levers for bringing about that change

Both the documents Greene reviews take it as “gospel” that we need to set higher standards for our students, which will improve their performance, and this is the way that their lot will be better in life, they will all get Better Jobs in the New Economy, and on the rising tide of test scores and Innovation the whole society (that is, the US economy) will be better.

The term “education gospel” and its content have been dissected in detail many times, perhaps most trenchantly and famously in the book of that name by Grubb and Lazerson (nicely summarized in an EdWeek article here by Lazerson). Lazerson speaks with measured but palpable anguish in his conclusion:

The central dilemma of the belief system we call the Education Gospel is that it wants to use education as a substitute for other social policies to reduce unemployment, to alleviate poverty, to narrow the distribution of earnings, and to end racial differences. This substitution is self-defeating. We cannot moderate the enormous inequalities in our society simply by improving education.

As I was reading all this stuff, I suddenly realized that as I dug down, link by link, to philosophical underpinnings, I came into the presence of a Myth, that is, a deeply grounded explanatory narrative that is exerts its power (as so much in culture) regardless of its correspondence to reality.   This is the Pygmalion myth.  In the story told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the (apparently very lonely) sculptor Pygmalion is so smitten by the beautiful statue women he’s created that he beseeches Aphrodite to give him just such a mate.  Upon returning to his studio, his statue has been transformed into a living woman (Galatea), and they live happily ever after.

As it has been applied in educational psychology, Pygmalion is the teacher, the unformed ivory to be shaped is the student, and education is the technology to produce the desired shape.  More directly:  Teacher expectations can make students into better students (and therefore, the story goes, more successful people, etc. ).  Although the classic study Pygmalion in the classroom (Rosenthal and Jacobson) has been much debated (see a lively and methodical review here), the conviction persists that if we only mandate outcomes more precisely, and assess them more intensively, it will all come out as we want.  (But who is “we,” and what is it “we” want?).    Although Jussim and Herber’s review of the controversy suggests that there is a small but discernible teacher effect (under some conditions), it doesn’t seem to work as reliably (nor as cumulatively) as policy-makers seem to think.   Nevertheless, the myth unexamined and over-extrapolated continues to do its own shaping of educational policy thought and action, for well and for will.

Of course, one notes, another version of the Pygmalion myth is that of Dr. Frankenstein and his tragic monster, who once he comes alive undertakes, as far as in him lies, to shape a life according to his own imperatives.  It seems to me that something of the sort has been happening for decades now, with all the incoherence and unforeseen consequences that one might expect from a statue sculpted by committee.

Lazerson makes the point (in one form) concretely, as he speaks about misdirection of effort, opportunity costs, and what happens because of our intent focus on one little part of a very complex fabric:

What is hardest to take is that as the rhetoric of the Education Gospel continues to ratchet up, the social policies essential to make it work have been eviscerated. The fact is that we cannot fix schools without fixing inequality, and we cannot fix inequality without fixing schools. We cannot choose one or the other and expect that either inequality will diminish or education will get substantially better.

The Education Gospel then is a trap, because it turns us into believers that schools can accomplish everything, and therefore we have to do little else. The world does not work that way, no matter how loudly we play our music, no matter how many silver bullets we purport to have, no matter how hard we play the game. The game is played at lots of sites, under quite different conditions, and it does not end when the whistle blows, the buzzer sounds, or the school bell rings. To believe that education is our way to salvation is to live a terrible lie.


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Guest post: Engineer schools for equity and integration

This week, we offer a piece that Arthur Camins posted on Huffingtonpost, which he thought readers of this blog might find interesting. Arthur is Director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education, Stevens Institute of Technology, and is one of the leaders on the PISA2: Partnership to Improve Student Achievement in Physical Sciences MSP. Arthur’s writings also appear on his website

He writes:

Across the United States, students have returned to schools that are engineered to be inequitable and segregated. They are designed to protect the privileges of some at the expense of others. They have been that way for a very long time, but that is an intentional decision — a human-made arrangement — not a natural unalterable occurrence like the rising and setting of the sun each day. Equity and democracy demand a different design. The education designs we accept, ignore, and reject for our children are a window into the soul of our nation, revealing what we care about most deeply.

Look around. Think about your life. Except maybe in a remote virgin forest, almost everything else has the imprint of human interaction, of design. Everything is either natural or engineered- that is, designed by humans who were guided by their goals, values, and by judgments about criteria and constraints.

From an engineering perspective, design begins with identifying the criteria and constraints that frame the problems that are chosen to solve, which features of those problems are selected to address, and the conditions or limits that are imposed on possible solutions.

As I write, I am thinking about the view from my desk where I work at Stevens Institute of Technology. I hear my colleagues at the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education talking in the background and sounds from the street — cars, trucks, lawnmowers, and construction noises. I am lucky to have a view of the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge. The scene also includes boats, trees, grass, electric wires, and campus buildings. The river is natural, although the water that flows certain bears the mark of human design. Everything else is the result of human decisions.

The southerly flow of the Hudson River is a natural occurrence, but inequity in funding and achievement are the outcome of design features of our government and economic structure. Wealthy students attend schools that have more resources than those attended by poor students who live in neighborhoods that are the result of decades of intentional housing policies. Academic achievement is highly correlated with family income and mothers’ educational level. These outcomes are not natural occurrences, but rather the inevitable result of design decisions.

The natural world imposes constraints. Objects do not fall up. If we want an object to go up — to counteract the unalterable force of gravity — we must expend energy. Energy use is a zero-sum game. Spend it in one place. Lose it in another. As we have learned, if we are not careful about design, there is a price to pay. When we take the potential energy out of fossil fuels, some of it is spent on generating electricity, but the rest is spent on heating the atmosphere.

Design decisions about the engineered world of social interactions, such as schools, are different. Those decisions reflect our countries goals and values and judgments about criteria and constraints. For example, design criteria for public schools attendance can either specify acceptance of all children who apply within a designated geographic area or alternatively, enable some of the children to compete in a lottery for entry into a charter school. Similarly, whether or not a school’s zoned attendance area makes it diverse or racially isolated is a design criteria decision. Constraints related to how schools are funded in the United States are the product of a design decision too. Supporting schools through inequitable local tax revenue rather than progressive income tax is a decision based on goals and values. Federal and state aid to schools do not make up for differences in the tax capacity between states or between local districts. As a nation, this reflects a decision to protect the privilege of the wealthy at the expense everyone else.

I know that the term “social engineering” has come to be used as a pejorative to attack government action to advance progressive issues such as equity and diversity. However, to be clear, existing inequity and segregation are also the products of engineering — albeit without transparency about means and goals.

In the current political climate, everyone claims to be on the side education that provides access to the middle class with little talk and even fewer real policy proposals to eliminate poverty or inequitable school funding. There is virtually no discussion about promoting integrated neighborhoods and schools. From a systems engineering perspective, this is a doomed approach that restrains greater equity or education improvement. Inequity and segregation have long been inextricably linked. Segregation — and the economic and racial isolation that accompanies it — are the means by which privilege is protected. Segregation maintains and promotes unchallenged distrust at a distance that allows the “other” to be dehumanized so that common cause on behalf of equity can be thwarted. Alternatively, daily proximity and interaction across perceived difference tend to humanize and provide the potential for a common struggle for equity.

It is long past time to start engineering for equity and integration. Education policy is a great place to start.

We should:

  • Enact and fund housing policies to promote integrated neighborhoods and schools;
  • Adopt equitable school funding formulas with revenue from graduated state and Federal income and corporate taxes with increases on the most privileged;
  • Mediate the effects of income-related disparities through government-supported services, such as universal health care and pre-school;
  • Provide funds to reduce class size;
  • Fully fund services for special education and English language learners;
  • Enact laws that require employers to pay workers a living wage;
  • Fund job-creating investments in infrastructure and research.

Let’s engineer a different future.

Arthur H. Camins is the Director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at Stevens Institute of Technology. He has taught and been an administrator in New York City, Massachusetts and Louisville, Kentucky. The views expressed in this article are his alone.

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Are projects problematic?

Larry Cuban in recent weeks has been  blogging about “project-based learning”  — and bringing in other voices as well.  (Start here and follow the links back to earlier posts.)

Larry, with his finely honed sense of history, sees the rapid spread of talk about, and experimentation with, PBL, as a re-emergence of a favorite idea of progressive education.  His instincts are to be cautious, to beware of pitfalls and detours that may arise for the unwary and the unprepared.   All three of the voices he brings in, as guest posts, voice caution, even while they say positive things about PBL.

PBL is good, because “we learn by doing.”  It gives students “voice” and brings authenticity to classroom work.  It can lead to real depth of understanding, and build up the student’s understanding that knowledge-creation is a social function, with public as well as private dimensions (Cuban’s blog is not focused on STEM alone, and PBL is seen in history and other subjects as well.)

But there are problems.  Ronnie Estoque, a high-school junior whose guest post led off the series in Cuban’s blog, worries that PBL is not a good preparation for college — college students she knows report that the social, group-based approach of PBL is not a big feature in college work, where individual accountability is the key.  Estoque notes also that in teamwork, there’s often a “freeloader” dynamic at work — some do most of the work, some do little, and yet all get credit for the whole — and the do-nothings may get little learning out of the experience.

Then there’s the concern that “depth” may come at the expense of breadth — the students may learn deeply about the subject of their project, but the time spent on it means that they can’t get the coverage that is required for true 21st century education.

Giselle Huff, another of Cuban’s guests, worries that PBL “Is not as personalized” as its advocates might think, and that it’s more about process than content – sure, skills are important, but how good is PBL for knowledge acquisition?

Then there’s the worry that PBL may be deployed only on special occasions, or for selected students.  This worry is surely akin to the attitudes that I’ve encountered with respect to “inquiry”: Sometimes you do it, and sometimes not, depends on the students and the topic and the schedule… This stance, that inquiry is a technique that, like flash cards, has its place, and the educational decision about it begins with the judgment that “now’s the right time for this tool.”   It is not so common to find a teacher who knows that inquiry is a stance which can pervade the culture of a classroom — even when the teacher is giving a talk, or the students are being trained in a technical lab skill or computational method.

Related to this fear of “PBL lite,” as John Larmer of the Buck Institute of Education (the most recent guest blogger on PBL for Cuban’s site) is the concern that not all teachers are equipped or prepared to guide truly educational PBL in their classrooms.  The Buck Institute has a short,reasonable piece on what it calls the “gold standard” for PBL, and they describe fairly well the key features of solid PBL implementation.  The piece also notes the roots of PBL in Dewey’s thinking (which has its own roots), with nods to Piaget — all under the general rubric that it’s good to “learn by doing” — if it’s done right.

I would be surprised if all these considerations come freshly to readers of this blog.  Dewey wrote trenchantly about the great demands of progressive teaching for experiential learning (which goes far beyond “learning by doing” as over-simplified by friends and foes of progressive education) — Much of Experience and Education is aimed at correcting misunderstandings, glibness, and oversimplifications (romantic or ill-tempered) in this arena.    The Dewey Group at TERC, now entering its 11th year, recently read Joseph Schwab’s challenging essay “The ‘impossible’ role of the teacher in progressive education” which explores with great insight just where the challenges for a teacher lie in adopting and implementing this principled stance.

All the cautions voiced in Cuban’s columns are well known— though that’s no reason not to say them again.  What’s curious to me is the sense of urgency in the writers’ tones — as if PBL is being pushed as the next panacea, and is likely to be widely adopted, but in adulterated form, with resulting damage (to whom?  Students?  Teachers?  Ill-advised policy advocates who push PBL without realizing how  hard it is, leading to another 30 years in exile for the idea?).  I also note an interesting subtext about teachers as the problem.

Maybe there is a renewal of interest as a healthy reaction to the reigning orthodoxies of ed policy. Indeed, as a result of policy churn over the past 30 years or so, educators and parents can be pardoned for a sense of exhausted confusion about whom and what to trust.  I note that at least one of the guest posts (Huff) suggests that the problems with PBL can be fixed if only we adopt a competency-based approach– an oxymoronic vision, or Pushmi-Pullyu, if ever there was one.   It seems to me that, unavoidably, there are systemic issues not being examined.

How, if at all, do you incorporate PBL into your work?  What are the drawbacks?  What structural factors in your school or district inhibits the growth of a culture that can foster rigorous, inquiry-rich project learning, as opposed to highly constrained interludes that hint at the possibilties but can only rarely deliver?

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Blockchains, ledgers, and the engineering of education

Some of my favorite edublogs are exploring different aspects of a new fad in educational policy and engineering.  It has a lot of different names, but perhaps the most general “container” for the various components is “personalization.” (I’ve had my eye on this for some time, and written about it in this space, as Constant Readers will know.)

I say it’s a “fad,” but it may well be more than that, because “it” is being advocated by a lot of influential people and institutions.   (I say “it,” but its name is Legion, because of the various bits being developed or favored by different champions. Only from certain vantage points can one see how all the different pieces fit together.  Synergy is, for once, an appropriate term here.)

Key terms include “anytime-anywhere learning” (and its variants), competency-based education (the 2016 version), along with “competencies and skills,”  “micro-credentialing” and “badges” (as in Hillary Clinton’s proposed College Compact, which seeks to incorporate ” badges, specializations, certificates, or Nanodegrees” into the education-funding universe.)

The promise is that you can build up a record of educational attainments independent of any “traditional” educational institution, whose value is warranted by some version of the (admittedly decrepit and unsatisfactory) accreditation process.  “Life-long learning,” coupled with the (as they claim) unprecedented new freedom we now have to learn on our own time, logically “demand” that society develop new ways to get credit for all that learning, in ways that can be used to increase your value in the market.

The rationale for this includes [1] accepting the “hell in a hand basket” view of education; [2] buying into the ideology of the market, and [3] the claims about the “new economy,” 21st century skills, etc.;  [4] equating “knowledge” with “information”, and the tendency to an analytical atomization of “what you need to know and be able to do” which is (unintentionally, for the most part, I think) encouraged by the latest round of standards;  [5] buying into the vision of “gig economy,” everyone-an-entrepreneur, and other fashions which build on the view of people first and foremost as economic atoms whose mobility and transposability is a key virtue for the New Economy.

There is a variety of implementations for this general approach (theorized or actualized), but as the deep thinkers confront the issues of quality assurance, and the development of portfolios or other records of one’s life-long nano-accomplishments, a lot of attention has been focused on the “blockchain” technology underlying “cyber currencies” like Bitcoin.  With the blockchain, personal data (including “assets” like “badges” or “nano-accomplishments” become part of a distributed, permanent, unalterable record.  The benefit is that it can (at least) serve as an always accessible “portfolio” (anytime, anywhere!);  but there remain important issues of privacy and property rights — whose data is it, anyway?  Audrey Watters, at HackEducation, has a very valuable primer on the technology and various proposals for its use in education.

One vision, which is being touted by the ACT Foundation (a foundation that is a spin-off of the testing agency) is “the Ledger,” whose key theme seems to be “learning is earning.”  Peter Greene, of, has a thorough and, well, critical review of a video which seems to be designed to build awareness of, and a market for, this particular blockchain project.  If you follow the links, you quickly get a sense of how broad the coalition is that is trying to create this future for education;  as far as I can tell, it represents a new (another) version of business-based education design, intended (to quote the “National Network” website) to “connect what America learns to how Americans work”  through a competency- and skills-based approach to education and learning.

In a related post (the latest of many on this topic), Emily Talmage asks, “Will public education survive the next administration?”  She points out that the new ESSA act includes provisions that open the door to a wide range of “alternative credentialing,” of the sort envisioned by ACT Foundation and other blockchainers:

The new system is designed to expand the education market by allowing out-of-district providers – including  online programs, non-profits, local businesses, and even corporations- to award credit for student learning.  At the same time, it doubles down on workforce development by aligning educational outcomes to the needs of industry leaders.According to the U.S. Department of Education, students will “no longer [be] tethered to school buildings or schedules.” Instead, the system will require students to earn “digital badges” that they will display in individual competency-profiles accessible to potential employers and investors.

Groups like the Gates Foundation, Mark Zuckerberg,  and other mega-philanthropist education players, organizations like KnowledgeWorks and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), not to mention “education industry” players like the publisher (or whatever it is) Pearson Education, are getting very excited about this general approach.  Talmage quotes from a Pearson publication:

“By collecting skill-based badges, the record of achievement begun in secondary school becomes the foundation upon which workers build their capabilities and tell their stories to employers,” …. Pearson Education.

Following up on this, to track all the voices singing in this choir, you’re not just going down a rabbit hole — it’s entering a whole warren, whose inmates are ramifying interconnecting tunnels so as to reach further and further beneath the educational landscape.  Dissatisfaction with institutions of all kinds, and schools in particular;  the denigration of teaching as a skilled profession;  the increasing acceptance of education as essentially an economic enterprise, and the drive to incorporate ever more technological sophistication for command, control, and monitoring, under the guise of “choice,” “freedom,” and “personalization, all are converging on this model of the future of education.

Of course, the policy dialectic is still in motion, and other, competing,  visions are out there as well, but there is much to learn about educational values and framing in our society, and the machinery by which new policy is incubated and propagated,  by a few hours’ ferreting through the personalization labyrinth.

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