The Child Predator We Invite into Our Schools

th

There is a good chance a predator is in the classroom with your child right now.

He is reading her homework assignments, quizzes and emails. He is timing how long it takes her to answer questions, noting her right and wrong answers. He’s even watching her body language to determine if she’s engaged in the lesson.

He has given her a full battery of psychological assessments, and she doesn’t even notice. He knows her academic strengths and weaknesses, when she’ll give up, when she’ll preserver, how she thinks.

And he’s not a teacher, counselor or even another student. In fact, your child can’t even see him – he’s on her computer or hand-held device.

It’s called data mining, and it’s one of the major revenue sources of ed-tech companies. These are for-profit business ventures that produce education software: programs to organize student information and help them learn. They make databases and classroom management tools as well as educational video games and test prep software.

As schools have relied more heavily on technology to enhance lessons, they’ve invited big business into a space that is supposed to be private.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects student privacy, but it also gives school districts the right to share students’ personal information with private companies for educational reasons.

Companies are supposed to keep test scores, disciplinary history and other official records confidential. They’re not supposed to use them for their own ends. But the law was written in 1974 before the Internet went mainstream or many of these technologies were even conceived.

It’s unclear exactly who owns this data or whether FERPA protects it.

For every child utilizing these programs, there’s a good chance their data has been put into a portfolio with their name on it. That portfolio could be sold to advertisers and other business interests so they can better market their products to young consumers. With this information, these companies are turning children into guinea pigs so they can improve the profitability of their products.

Let me be clear. It’s not that technology is essentially evil. There are many ways in which it can be used to enhance student learning when provided under the supervision of a trained educator. But the current laws offer little protection for children and parents from rampant abuse by the ed-tech industry.

In most cases no one explicitly gives permission for student data to be shared. No one knew it was even happening.

This is an area that is almost completely unregulated. Hardly anyone is investigating it. After all, why should they? It’s just harmless big business. It’s just corporations we invited to the party; we may even have paid them to be there.

Individual school districts could write privacy protections into their contracts with ed-tech corporations, but few do.

According to a nationwide study by the Center on Law and Information Policy at Fordham University, just 7 percent of the contracts between districts and ed-tech corporations barred the companies from selling student data for profit.

Few contracts require companies to delete sensitive data when they are done with it. And just a quarter of companies clearly explain why they need personal student information in the first place, according to the same study.

To make matters worse, the publicly stated privacy policies of these corporations can be extremely dense and full of provisos. You may need a lawyer specializing in this field to truly understand what they’re promising to keep private and what might fall under a loophole.

For instance, even if a company promises not to share student information for nonacademic reasons, it can farm out some of its services to third party companies that have no such compunction about student privacy. These third party vendors or even the primary ed-tech company can put cookies on your child’s computer or device that continue to gather data on her and report back on it indefinitely. Moreover, even if the ed-tech company is diligent about protecting student privacy, that policy can change without notice and without parents being notified. For instance, many of these ed-tech companies are rag tag start-ups that are just hoping to be purchased by a bigger organization. In that case the privacy policy will almost certainly alter, possibly without notice.

Data mining isn’t exclusive to education software applications. If you’ve ever passed up a product on-line and then immediately saw an advertisement for that product on a different Website – congratulations – You’ve been data mined. Many of the applications adults use every day in their virtual lives practice this to some extent – Facebook, Google, Netflix, etc. However, there’s a difference between an adult user who enters into virtual relationships with eyes wide open and a child just completing the classwork her teacher assigned in school.

But even beyond the philosophical difference is the extent to which our children are being data mined. No where is it more pervasive than in our schools.

A really efficient ed-tech firm can collect as much as 10 million unique data points on each child, every day. That’s exponentially more than Facebook, Google or Netflix collect on their users.

Moreover, the ed-tech industry hungers for even more data on our children.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded a $1.4 million research project to provide middle-school students with biometric sensors designed to detect how kids responded on a subconscious level to each minute of each lesson. Like Common Core State Standards – Gates’ attempt to force uniform academic standards on the nation’s public schools – data mining is all about turning real children into information. Intelligence and knowledge are reduced to numbers. Biological functions, heat indexes, even eye movements are tabulated as a function of a salable commodity – your child.

In the not too distant future, ed-tech companies could sell information about which prospective job applicants or college students have the proper aptitude to be successful. In some ways, this is just an extension of the ways standardized tests like the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) are used to unfairly label students worthy or not of a post-secondary education. However, those tests are taken by high school juniors and seniors. The coming data mining boom would judge children based on their performance all the way back to kindergarten or even pre-kindergarten.

As usual the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is already planning for this dystopian nightmare. The conservative lobbying organization has drafted a model bill to make this a reality.  If picked up and offered in any state legislature, the bill would set up a central database for student records and allow colleges or businesses to browse them in search of potential recruits.

In addition, these student portfolios could allow corporate vultures to prey on customers vulnerable to particular sales pitches. For instance, young adults who had struggled at math in high school would make dandy targets for high-priced payday loans.

In the meantime, hedge fund managers and other investors are pouring money into the ed-tech market. More than $650 million flowed into technology firms serving K-12 and higher education each year for the past three years. That’s nearly double the $331 million invested in these markets in 2009. The national market for education software and digital content is nearly $8 billion, according to the Software & Information Industry Association.

Yet there is little evidence these applications are truly helpful in educating children. Even the technology-loving Gates Foundation, found in a national survey that only 54 percent of teachers thought the digital tools used most frequently by their students were effective.

Let’s get something straight: the reason most of these firms exist is not education. It is spying on children. It is stealing their valuable data for corporations’ own ends.

The ed-tech market is intimately entwined with the latest fad in education policy – Competency Based Education (CBE).

This has come to mean teaching and assessment conducted online, where students’ learning is continuously monitored, measured, and analyzed.

However, the goal seems to be replacing big end of the year standardized tests with daily stealth assessments. In this way, it would be more difficult for parents to refuse testing for their children. It would hide the ways in which a standardized curriculum narrowed student learning to the very basics. It would hide how children’s every tiniest action is being used to judge and evaluate their schools and teachers. And this information of dubious validity could be used to close public schools and replace them with shoddy but more profitable charter schools.

Education historian Diane Ravitch talks about a meeting in August of 2015 with The State Commissioner of Education in New York, Mary Ellen Elia, and several board members of New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE), a highly successful state opt out organization.

She says:

 

“At one point, Commissioner Elia said that the annual tests would eventually be phased out and replaced by embedded assessment. When asked to explain, she said that students would do their school work online, and they would be continuously assessed. The computer could tell teachers what the students were able to do, minute by minute.”

The plan has been laid bare. Our students privacy has been compromised and is being used against them. If big business has its say, our children will be forever pawns in a system that reduces them to data and profit.

That’s not what public school should be about.

It should be a place centered on learning not earning.

It should be a place that values the student and not her data.

It should be a place of creativity, imagination and wonder.

But as long as we allow ed-tech companies to run unregulated in the shadows, it will always be susceptible to these dangers.

The only one who can stop these predators in your child’s classroom is you.

Make Tons of Money Doing a Terrible Job – Start a Cyber Charter School

Screen Shot 2016-05-05 at 3.18.27 PM

 If you’re a parent, you’d literally be better off having your child skip school altogether than sending her to a cyber charter.

 

LITERALLY!

 

But if you’re an investor, online charters are like a free money machine. Just press the button and print however much cash you want!

 

Ca-ching!

 

Nowhere else is the goal of corporate education reform as starkly clear as in the cyber charter industry. Nowhere else can such terrible academic results reap such tremendous financial gain.

 

Cyber charter schools are elementary and/or secondary institutions of learning where all or most lessons are given online via computer. Like brick and mortar charter schools, they are funded by taxes but are free from much of the regulations and oversight of which traditional public schools are subject. By every discernible report, the education provided by these online charters is truly execrable.

 

A recent nationwide study found that cyber charters provide 180 days less of math instruction than traditional public schools.

 

180 days!

 

There are only 180 days in an average school year. So cyber charters provide less math instruction than not going to school at all.

 

Amazing!

 

Ever watched an episode of Sesame Street? Then you got a better math education than an entire year at an online charter!

 

Dora the Explorer, Barney the purple dinosaur, Mr. Rodgers Neighborhood, the Teletubbies – all are more mathematically rigorous than cyber charters!

 

But what about reading?

 

When it comes to that essential skill, online charters come out much better. They only provide 72 days less instruction than traditional public schools.

 

That’s 40% of the school year!

 

So at a traditional public school you’d get a better education in reading if you simply took off at the end of February. You’d get more instruction if you only went slightly more than every other day!

 

The same study found that 88 percent of cyber charter schools have weaker academic growth than similar brick and mortar schools.

 

They have an “overwhelming negative impact” on students, according to researchers. Not only do they have fewer learning days in math and reading, they have a higher student-teacher ratio and much more limited opportunities for live-contact with teachers than brick and mortar schools.

 

For instance, student-to-teacher ratios average about 30:1 in online charters, compared to 20:1 for brick and mortar charters and 17:1 for traditional public schools.

 

And THIS is somehow a viable alternative to traditional public schools!?

 

Well caveat emptor, suckers! Thank goodness for the ignorance of the public!

 

But at least it’s easy to set up these failure factories.

 

Here’s all you have to do:

 

Give a child a computer with Internet access.

 

Buy a cheap, generic programmed package of study.

 

Then sit back and watch the money roll in.

 

From an education standpoint, the model is clearly unsound.

 

Here’s how a cyber charter teacher describes the reading curriculum at his school:

 

“Most cyber schools get their curriculum from K12, a company started by William Bennett, a former federal Secretary of Education. My school gets the majority of its high school material from a mail order company called Aventa.

 

When Aventa creates a course it is fairly bare bones. They choose a textbook from one of the major textbook companies, and cut it up into lessons. The lesson will contain a few paragraphs introducing the topic, they will have the students read a section of a chapter, they will ask the student to do a few problems from the book, and lastly, there will be some form of graded assessment, taken from textbook review problems. That is all.”

 

This is like giving out nothing but worksheets and expecting high academic performance. Here. Read the book, answer the questions at the back, and call it a day.

 

Even though it’s an online school, you do need a few flesh and blood “teachers” occasionally. Their job is to contact students every now and then, but – get this – in most states they don’t even have to be certified. In my home state of Pennsylvania, only 75 percent of cyber charter teachers need to be certified and even those are not subject to the same educator effectiveness accountability regulations as traditional public school teachers.

 

So you could have your cousin Vinnie calling students and asking how they’re doin’. It really doesn’t matter. Most times the kids won’t answer the phone anyway.

 

That’s about all it takes. And boy does it pay!

 

Nationwide there are about 200 online charter schools enrolling about 200,000 children. They raked in $426 million in 2013-14!

 

It’s almost like stealing, but it’s totally 100% legal!

 

Cyber charter operators pull in the same amount or more of tax revenues as traditional public schools – and here’s the best part – what they don’t spend on students is all bank for them and their shareholders!

 

Everything is set up to benefit online charter investors to the detriment of students and families. Take the very way online charters are paid.

 

They get money for each student enrolled. That money comes from the school district where the student lives.

 

However, in many states like Pennsylvania, each district spends a different amount of money per student. These expenditures reflect varying costs and available funding from the local tax base.

 

So cyber charters get whatever that local per-pupil expenditure is. It doesn’t matter if a district spends $8,000 on each student or $20,000. Whatever the amount, that goes to the cyber charter.

 

However, the cost of educating kids is drastically reduced online. Their programs are bare bones compared with what you get at a traditional public school. Most online charters don’t have tutors or teacher aides. They don’t offer band, chorus or extra-curricular activities. You don’t have to pay for any building costs, grounds, upkeep, large staff, etc. But funding formulas in most states ignore this completely. Cyber charters get to keep the difference – whatever it is. In fact, they have an incentive to keep as much as possible because they can do almost whatever they want with it. That includes putting it into operators’ pockets!

 

They just call it profit.

 

Even many online charters that claim to be non-profit do this.

 

For instance, take Pennsylvania’s Insight PA Cyber Charter School. On paper, it’s run by a nonprofit board of directors. However, the board gave over all day-to-day operations to a for-profit company, K12 Inc. On paper it’s one thing. In practice, it’s something else entirely.

 

And in some states when it comes to special education funding, it gets worse. In Pennsylvania, our funding formula is so out of whack that charters schools of all stripes including cyber charters often end up with more funding for students with special needs than traditional public schools. However, because of this loophole in the Commonwealth, Pennsylvania online charters have been increasing the number of special education students they enroll and even working to add that label to as many of their students as possible. The state Department of Education has been so underfunded it does not have the resources to oversee these changes.

 

Issues like these permit a bait-and-switch that sends an awful lot of tax dollars earmarked to help children into the maw of private industry.

 

Sure there’s a lot of turnover. Few students stay enrolled in online charters more than a year or two before realizing they’ve been had. But they are easily replaced.

 

And – get this – when they return to their traditional public school hopelessly behind their peers, who has to pay to remediate them? Answer: you do! That’s a problem for traditional public schools and the taxpayers that support them – not cyber charters.

 

With all these issues, why do online charters keep getting approved? Ask the your local state Department of Education.

 

Unlike brick and mortar charters, which require approval at the district level, in most states cyber charters are approved by the Department of Education. Admittedly the online charter boom has slowed somewhat after news of fraud and abuse has become an almost a weekly occurrence in the national media.

 

For instance, PA Cyber Charter founder Nicholas Trombetta allegedly stole at least $8 million in public dollars only a few years ago. He bought an airplane, a $900,000 condo, houses for his girlfriend and mother, and nearly $1 million in groceries and personal expenses, according to the grand jury. Trombetta allegedly set up numerous for-profit and nonprofit businesses to provide goods and services to the cyber charter. Federal investigators filed 11 fraud and tax conspiracy charges against him and indicted others in the case.

 

While Trombetta awaits trial, the school continues to do business awaiting a potential state audit.

 

Another cyber charter founder, June Brown, was also indicted for theft of $6.5 million. Brown and her executives were indicted on 62 counts of wire fraud, obstruction of justice and witness tampering. She was well known for student test scores and had a reputation for claiming large salaries and filing suits against parents who questioned her, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

 

Brown is also awaiting trial. She ran the Agora Cyber Charter School, which was part of the K12 Inc. empire of virtual charters.

 

With this kind of fraud and a record of academic failure, perhaps the most amazing thing about cyber charters is that taxpayers allow them to exist at all.

 

You hear educators say it’s all about the children. But not at online charters.

 

There it’s all about the Benjamins. Heck! The McKinleys! The Clevelands! The Madisons! The Chases! The Wilsons!

Co-opting the Language of Authentic Education: The Competency Based Education Cuckoo

Reed_warbler_cuckoo

Cuckoo!

 

Cuckoo!

 

Such is the incessant cry of the hour from one of the most popular souvenirs of the black forest of Germany – the cuckoo clock.

 

Time is demarcated by the chirp of an 18th century animatronic bird jumping forward, moving a wing or even opening its beak before making its distinctive cry.

 

However, in nature the cuckoo has a more sinister reputation.

 

It’s one of the most common brood parasites.

 

Instead of investing all the time and energy necessary to raise its own young, many varieties of cuckoo sneak their eggs into the nests of other birds. When the baby cuckoos hatch, they demand an increasing amount of their clueless foster parents’ care often resulting in neglect of the birds’ own children.

 

Parental care is co-opted. The love and affection natural to raise parent birds’ own children are diverted to another source. And the more parent birds try to help the interloper’s child, the less they can help their own.

 

Corporate education reformers must be bird lovers. Or at very least they must enjoy antique cuckoo clocks.

 

In fact, one could describe the entire standardization and privatization movement as a Homo sapien version of brood parasitism.

 

Profiteers co-opt authentic education practices so that they no longer help students but instead serve to enrich private corporations.

 

When parents, teachers and administrators unwittingly engage in corporate school reform strategies to help students learn, they end up achieving the opposite while the testing industry and charter school operators rake in obscene profits.

 

But some of us have seen through the scam, and we think it’s cuckoo.

 

We’ve seen this kind of bait and switch for years in the language used by oligarchs to control education policy. For instance, the defunct federal No Child Left Behind legislation had nothing to do with making sure no kids got left behind. It was about focusing obsessively on test and punish even if that meant leaving poor kids in the rear view.

 

Likewise, the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program has nothing to do with quickening the pace to academic excellence. It’s about glorifying competition among students while providing them inequitable resources. Teach for America has very little to do with teaching or America. It’s about underpreparing poor children with unqualified instructors and giving cover to privatization operatives. School Choice has nothing to do with giving parents educational alternatives. It’s about letting privatized schools choose which students they want to admit so they can go through the motions of educating them as cheaply as possible and maximize profits for shareholders.

 

And on and on.

 

The latest such scheme to hoodwink communities out of authentic learning for their children is Competency Based Education (CBE) a term used interchangeably with Proficiency Based Education (PBE). Whatever you call it, this comes out to the same thing.

 

Like so many failed policy initiatives that came before it offered by the same group of think tank sycophants, its name belies the truth. CBE and PBE have nothing to do with making children competent or proficient in anything except taking computer-based tests.

 

That’s what the whole program consists of – forcing children to sit in front of computers all day at school to take unending high stakes mini-tests. And somehow this is being sold as a reduction in testing when it’s exactly the opposite.

 

This new initiative is seen by many corporate school reformers as the brave new world of education policy. The public has soundly rejected standardized tests and Common Core. So this is the corporate response, a scheme they privately call stealth assessments. Students will take high stakes tests without even knowing they are doing it. They’ll be asked the same kinds of multiple-choice nonsense you’d find on state mandated standardized assessments but programmers will make it look like a game. The results will still be used to label schools “failing” regardless of how under-resourced they are or how students are suffering the effects of poverty. Mountains of data will still be collected on your children and sold to commercial interests to better market their products.

 

The only difference is they hope to trick you, to hide that it’s even happening at all. And like a cuckoo pushing its egg into your nest, they hope you’ll support what’s in THEIR best interests while working against what would really help your own children.

 

And the method used to achieve this deception is co-opting language. They’d never enact what real classroom teachers want in school, but they will take our language and use it to clothe their own sinister initiatives in doublespeak.

 

So we must pay attention to their words and tease out what they really mean.

 

For instance, they describe CBE as being “student-centered.” And it is – in that their profit-making machine is centered on students as the means of sucking up our tax dollars.

 

They talk about “community partnerships,” but they don’t mean inviting parents and community members into the decision making process at your local school. They mean working together with your local neighborhood privatization firm to make big bucks off your child. Apple, Microsoft, Walmart – whatever huge corporation can sell computers and iPads to facilitate testing every day.

 

 

They talk about “personalized instruction,” but there’s nothing personal in it. This just means not allowing students to progress on their computer programs until they have achieved “mastery” of terrible Common Core standards. If standardized testing is a poor form of assessment, these edu-programs are worse. They don’t measure understanding. They measure zombie cognitive processes – the most basic surface type of spit-it-back to me answers.

 

And if that isn’t bad enough, such an approach subtly suggests to kids that learning is only valuable extrinsically. We don’t learn for intrinsic reasons like curiosity. We lean to get badges on the program, to progress forward in the game and compulsively collect things – like any good consumer should.

 

Today’s children already have problems socializing. They can more easily navigate cyber relationships than real flesh-and-blood interactions. And CBE will only make this worse. Not only will children continue to spend hours of after-school time on-line, the majority of their school day will be spent seated at computer terminals, isolated from each other, eyes focused on screens. And every second they’ll be monitored by that machine – their keystrokes, even the direction their eyes are looking!

 

I’m not making this up! It shows engagement, tenacity, rigor – all measurable, quantifiable and useful to justify punishing your school.

 

They call it “one-to-one computer technology.” Yes, each child will be hooked up to one device. But how does that alone help them learn? If every child had a book, would we call it one-to-one book access? They call it “blended learning” because it mixes instruction from a living, breathing person with sit-and-stare computer time. It sounds like a recipe. I’ll blend the sugar and milk until I have a nice whipped cream. But it conceals how much time is spent on each.

 

Don’t get me wrong. There are effective uses of technology in schools. But this is not one of them.

 

Students can make Keynote presentations, record movies, design graphics, write programs, etc. But taking endless testing disguised as a video game adds nothing but boredom to their day. A few years ago, I was forced by administrators to put my own students on iStation twice a week. (I’ve since convinced them to let us be.) In any case, when we used the program, it would have been more effective had we called it nap time. At least then my kids wouldn’t have felt guilty about sleeping through it.

 

The corporate education reformers are trying to sneak all of this under our noses. They don’t want us to notice. And they want to make it harder to actually oppose them by stealing our words.

 

When public school advocates demand individualized learning for their children, the testocracy offers us this sinister CBE project. When we decry annual testing, they offer us stealth assessment instead.

 

We must continue to advocate for learning practices that work. We can’t let them steal our language, because if we do, they’ll steal our ability to engage in authentic learning.

 

And to do that, we must understand the con. We have to deny the technocrats their secrecy, deny them access to our children as sources of profit.

 

We must guard our nests like watchful mama birds.

 

The cuckoos are out there.

 

They are chirping in the darkness all around us.

 

Don’t let them in.

Standardized Tests Every Day: the Competency Based Education Scam

rocketship-charter-schools

IN THE NOT TOO DISTANT FUTURE:

Welcome to class, children.

Please put your hands down, and sit at your assigned seat in the computer lab.

Yes, your cubicle partitions should be firmly in place. You will be penalized if your eyes wander into your neighbors testing… I mean learning area.

Now log on to your Pearson Competency Based Education (CBE) platform.

Johnny, are you reading a book? Put that away!

Are we all logged on? Good.

Now complete your latest learning module. Some of you are on module three, others on module ten. Yes, Dara, I know you’re still on module one. You’ll all be happy to know each module is fully aligned with Common Core State Standards. In fact, each module is named after a specific standard. Once you’ve mastered say Module One “Citing Textual Evidence to Determine Analysis” you will move on to the next module, say “Determining Theme or Central Idea for Analysis.”

Johnny, didn’t I tell you to put away that book? There is no reading in school. You’re to read the passages provided by the good people at Pearson. No, you won’t get a whole story. Most of the passages are non-fiction. But I think there is a fun passage about a pineapple coming up in your module today. Isn’t that nice?

Laquan, you haven’t put on your headphones and started your module yet? You’ve been on module three for the past week. How can you learn at your own rate if you never progress beyond module three?

What’s that? Your mother wrote me a note? Let me see that.

Huh. So she wants to know how come you never get beyond module three. You should be able to answer that question for her, yourself, Laquan. (At least you could get that one right.)

Laquan, tell your mother that you haven’t passed the proficiency standard yet. You’ve taken all the remediation available on the computer program, haven’t you? Yes, that fun game where you answered multiple choice questions and when you got one correct the spaceship blasts an asteroid. And then you took the daily assessment but you just haven’t received a passing score yet. But don’t worry. I’m sure if you continue to do the same thing again today… eventually… you’ll get it right. It’s how the state and federal government determine whether you’ve learned anything on a daily basis.

In ancient times, teachers like me used to make up our own assignments. We’d give you books to read… Johnny, have you started yet? …whole books, novels, literature. And then we’d hold class discussions, class projects, act out scenes, draw posters, relate the books to your lives, write essays. But now all that silliness is gone.

Thanks to the good people at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Gates Foundation, and the Foundation for Excellence in Education, The state and federal government have mandated a much more efficient way of determining student learning. Back in the day, they forced schools to give one big standardized test in Reading and Math every year. Teachers would have to scramble with test prep material to make sure all learners could pass the test, because if students didn’t get passing marks, the teacher was out on her butt.

We’ve done away with such silliness now. Thankfully the government got rid of yearly high stakes standardized testing. What we do now is called Competency Based Education. That’s what this program is called. It’s kind of like high stakes standardized testing every day. So much more efficient, so much more data to use to prove you know this set of basic skills written by the testing companies with hardly any input from non-experts like classroom teachers.

That’s how the district became composed of 100% charter schools. No more inefficient school boards made up of community members. Today our schools are run by corporate CEOs who are experts at finding ways to cut corners and increase profits for their shareholders. And, ugh, make you learn good.

Hm. I seem to be talking too much. No one’s paying me to impart any information. I’m just supposed to make sure you’re all hooked up to the program and making satisfactory daily progress. Otherwise, I’ll be out of a job again.

You laugh, but it’s hard to get minimum wage work like this. Since the U.S. Supreme Court made labor unions all but illegal and public schools instituted CBE programs, teachers like me could no longer demand such exorbitant salaries. Now I make an honest living. Speaking of which, I may have to get out of here a few minutes early today to make it to my shift at WalMart. I’m greeter today!

And if you work hard, someday you can be, too!


NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association Blog and quoted extensively on Diane Ravitch’s blog.

 

If School Computer Use Reduces Standardized Test Scores, Doesn’t That Prove the Tests are Inadequate?

ipad-kids

Melvin’s hand is up.

He’s a 13-year-old African American with too much energy and not enough self-control.

He’s often angry and out of his seat. He’s usually in trouble. But today he’s sitting forward in his chair with his hand raised high and a look on his face like he’ll explode if I don’t pick him right this second.

So I do.

“Mr. Singer! Can I show my imovie now!?”

This is a first. He hasn’t turned in a lick of homework all month.

“Wow! You’re really excited about this, aren’t you?” I say.

“Yeah,” he responds. “I was up all night finishing it.”

I start to doubt this, but he does look awfully tired underneath that urgent need to share.

Airdrop it to me from your ipad,” I say, “and I’ll put it up on the SMART Board.”

This takes a few minutes.

Let’s face it.

We live in a world of high technology.

Our cell phones have more computing power than the Apollo missions to the moon.

The best, high paying jobs opening up on the world stage require increasing levels of computer literacy.

Yet according to a new study, America’s students don’t succeed as well academically if they have access to computers at school.

How can this be?

How can exposure to new technologies cause a nation of young people to fail at a system supposedly designed to prepare them for the jobs of the future?

Doesn’t real world experience usually make you better prepared?

A future chef would be helped by more time in the kitchen.

A future doctor would be helped by more access to dissection.

But a future computer-user is hurt by more time at a computer!?

Something is very wrong here.

But according to a new study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), students who use computers more at school earn both lower reading and math scores on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

The organization studied 15-year-olds across 31 nations and regions from 2012. The study just released in September even controlled for income and race.

Yet here in my classroom I see the exact opposite. Computer use increases my students test scores – on my teacher-created tests.

Melvin’s movie was ready. He had been tasked with explaining the differences between external and internal conflict. I pressed play.

High adrenaline music poured from the speakers. Pictures flashed across the screen of boxers and football players.

“This is external conflict,” came rushing forward followed by a brief definition. Then an image of Homer Simpson with an angel and devil on his shoulders. “This is internal conflict,” came zooming by our eyes.

The film might not win any Academy Awards, but it was pretty impressive work for 40 minutes of class time and however long Melvin decided to spend at home.

It’s the kind of thing my students never could have done before they each had ipads. And when they took my test, few of them got the questions wrong about conflict.

Yet according to the OECD, I was somehow hurting my students academically!?

Even in my high poverty district, students have always had access to technology. But the nature of that technology and how we use it has changed dramatically this school year.

I used to have eight computers in my classroom, but they were slowly becoming obsolete and inoperable. Some days they functioned best as extra illumination if we shut out the overhead light to show a movie.

Still, I tried to incorporate technology into my lessons. I used to have my students make their own Webpages, but reserving time in the computer lab became almost impossible. And even then, the district couldn’t afford to keep the devices in the lab updated enough to run anything but the most rudimentary software.

The one lab in the building that had new devices was reserved almost exclusively for a drill and kill test prep program we had received a state grant to operate. THIS was the apex of school technology – answering multiple choice look-a-like questions. It bored students to tears and didn’t even accomplish the stipulated goal of increasing standardized test scores. Yet we were blackmailed by the state government into initiating the program so we could gain additional funding to keep the school operational.

THIS is the kind of technology use you’ll find at most poor schools like mine. And it’s one of the reasons the authors of the OECD study came to their conclusion. It’s also one of the reasons why teachers like me have been skeptical of technological initiatives offered to impoverished districts.

However, the best use of technology is something quite different.

This year my district received a gift of ipads for all the students, and it’s changed everything. No longer do I have to beg and plead to get computer lab time for real high tech lessons. I don’t need it. The technology is already in the classroom in the palm of their hands.

But policymakers clutching their pearls because of this study have already began to make changes to international school curriculum. Schools in Asia have begun cutting back on student computer time. Should America follow suit?

Absolutely not.

The problem clearly is not computers. It’s the antiquated method we use to measure success.

Standardized testing has been around since 206 BC as an assessment for civil servants in ancient China. The same process spread to England in the 19th Century and then to the United States during WWI. Through all that time, the main process of rewarding rote learning through multiple choice questioning has remained the same.

But the world hasn’t. We’ve moved on a bit since the Han Dynasty. We no longer live in a medieval society of peasants and noblemen where the height of technology is an abacus. We live in an ever-changing interconnected global community where a simple search engine provides more information than could be stored in a thousand Libraries at Alexandria.

How can we possibly hope to rely on the same assessments as the ancients? Heck! Even as far back as 970 AD, standardized testing was criticized as being inadequate.

But a global multi-billion dollar industry relies on these primitive assessments. It’s the basis of an exceedingly lucrative business model.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that the same people who promise standardized testing and Common Core will best prepare students to be college and career ready are passing the blame.

They claim this report isn’t an indictment of their cash cow industry. It’s a warning against over-reliance on computers. And, yes, they’re right that technology is not a panacea. The mere presence of a computer won’t make a child smarter. Likewise, the mere presence of a book won’t make a person wiser. One must know how to use said computer and book.

But what I’m seeing in my classroom primarily is an opportunity – not a danger. Students like Melvin are more engaged and willing to take chances. They have greater freedom, intrinsic motivation and excitement about learning.

Many times when sharing Keynote presentations, after one or two, students ask to have their work back so they can improve them. That doesn’t happen with test prep.

They often elect to take ipad assignments to lunch and work on them between bites. That doesn’t happen with Pearson worksheets.

I’m not saying it’s easy. It’s up to me, my colleagues and administration to ensure technology is used to its full potential. Never should these devices be time fillers or babysitters. Nor can they ever replace the guidance of a thoughtful, creative educator to determine their best use. Teachers need to create and assign lessons that promote creativity and critical thinking skills.

Education professionals are constantly advised to individualize their lessons to meet the needs of diverse learners. Technology allows them a unique opportunity to do so. With district ipads I can talk to an English Language Learner in his own language. A struggling reader can have the device read test questions aloud. A student with poor motor control can type journal responses and have his writing be understood.

And these opportunities for enrichment don’t even need to be planned ahead of time. For instance, when discussing a short story about a character that was exceedingly proud, one of my students brought up the Seven Deadly Sins. She wasn’t exactly sure what they were or how exactly they related to pride, but one of her classmates quickly looked it up on her ipad. Then another found a medieval woodcarving to which someone else found a related manga text. The subsequent discussion was much deeper and relevant to these children’s lives than it would have been otherwise. And none of it was pre-packed, planned or standardized. It was individualized.

This is really no surprise. Administrators in charter or private schools aren’t asking themselves if they should close their computer labs and put their devices on ebay. They know the value technology can provide in the classroom, but they aren’t constrained by high stakes testing.

Even rich public schools don’t have to worry to the same degree because their students already score well on federally mandated assessments – after all, standardized tests are designed to favor children with wealthy parents over those from impoverished or minority backgrounds. It’s only in poor school districts where technology is either second hand or a charitable donation that administrators and school directors are being pressured to cut back.

As usual, best practices for the privileged become questionable when applied to the poor and minorities. You want technology? Prove it will boost your test scores!

It’s nonsense.

Think about it. Even the best use of computers won’t boost standardized scores. Computer skills aren’t on the tests.

Nor could these things ever be assessed effectively in this manner.

Yet such skills are exactly what education researchers tell us demonstrate the deepest levels of understanding and an ability to meet the demands of the best jobs of the future.

I wonder what Bill Gates thinks of this report. The Microsoft co-founder is also one of the biggest advocates for school standardization. If he had to pick between his two favorite children, which would he choose – laptops or Common Core tests? Maybe we needn’t wonder. His own children go to a private school with no standardization and a plethora of technology.

There comes a time when you have to admit the truth staring you in the face: standardized tests are poor measures of academic achievement. They are suitable only for turning our children into factory drones. They are for pawns, patsies and robots.

If we really want to prepare the next generation for the jobs of the future, we need to scrap high stakes testing. We need to invest in MORE technology, not less. We need to ensure technological lessons are being overseen by trained educators and the devices aren’t used as a babysitting tool. As such, we need to provide teachers with support and professional development so they can best take advantage of the technology they have.

America can prepare its children for the world’s high level management and administrative positions or we can prepare them to do only menial work that will soon by replaced by machines.

Computers do the former. Tests the latter.

Choose.


NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.