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Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 12/27/2010

Who in education says 'oops'?

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Larry Cuban, a former high school social studies teacher (14 years, including seven at Cardozo and Roosevelt high schools in the District), district superintendent (seven years in Arlington, Virginia) and professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, where he has taught for 20 years. His latest book is "As Good As It Gets: What School Reform Brought to Austin." This appeared on his blog.

By Larry Cuban
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and top policymakers have promoted and funded small urban high schools for nearly a decade. Then Bill Gates said in his 2009 Annual Letter that while these small urban high schools had accomplished much for students they had largely failed to improve academic achievement. No more big bucks for this initiative. No other foundation executives or federal/state officials, all of whom had tripped over themselves in hailing small urban high schools, said "Oops!"

Ditto for charter schools. Policy elites across both political parties for the past decade have promoted charter schools to offer urban parents and their children choices they would not have in district regular schools. A 15-state study concluded that, indeed, 17 percent of charters offered “superior educational opportunities for their students.” Nearly half of the charters, however, differed little from regular public school “options,” and here is the kicker: 37 percent of the charters “deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their students would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools.”

There’s more bad news on charters (I winced because, in general, I support this public option and sit on a charter school board). In a recent report from the Thomas Fordham Institute, a researcher tracked 2,000 low-performing regular and charter schools between 2003-2009 to see if they had turned around, been closed, or remained low-performing. Eighty percent of these low performing regular public schools were still in business–yes, 80 percent.

But here’s the surprise: 72 percent of low-performing charters also stayed open and continued to perform poorly. In spite of all that talk from policy elites championing charters that “our bad schools don’t last–either they improve or they close,” there has been persistent failure....

Sure, turning around failing schools is tough work but only 1 percent of public and charter schools did, indeed, make it into the top half of their state’s proficiency rankings–a very high bar to cross. OK, another "oops," but one that few officials pushing charters will voice.

Then there is the three-decade long, unrelenting promotion of computers in classrooms and online instruction. Now, we have a new corporate and civic-driven coalition chaired by two ex-state governors [Florida's Jeb Bush and West Virginia's Bob Wise] issuing a report (p. 19 of Digital Learning Now Report FINAL lists corporate, foundation, and top policymakers who participated).

To be charitable, evidence of students’ academic achievement gains attributed to online instruction, laptops, and other hardware and software in schools is scant. Evidence that regular instructional use of these machines will transform teaching and learning is barely visible.

And the dream that school use of these machines and applications will lead to better jobs (except in programs where technical certificates can lead to work–e.g., Cisco–if they are available), well, I won’t even mention the scarcity of evidence to support that dream.

So what do these two governors plug in their Digital Learning Commission report?

“Providing a customized, personalized education for students was a dream just a decade ago. Technology can turn that dream into reality today. The Digital Learning Council will develop the roadmap to achieve that ultimate goal.”

Sure, this is an advertisement pushing for-profit online outfits such as K-12 and non-profit projects such as the Florida Virtual School and “hybrid” schools. See here and here. These ex-governors want states to alter their policies to accommodate this “Brave New World” where students get individual lessons tailored to what they need to learn.

Question: After decades of blue-ribbon commissions issuing utopian reports promising “revolutionary” and “transformed” schools, where is the evidence that such futures are either possible or worthwhile?

Answer: When it comes to technology policy, evidence doesn’t matter.

The rational part of me still expects top decision-makers, even ex-governors, to use the best evidence available to support proposed directions. The real-world political part of me recognizes that policy elites cherry-pick studies and facts to support decisions already determined.

I guess I am still innocent enough to expect top decision-makers faced with an accumulation of evidence that runs counter to their small high school, charter, or technology policies, at the very least, would pull up their socks and admit that they either goofed or would reconsider their decision. They won’t because "oops!" is taboo in policymakers’ vocabulary.

I would find the expression of honest doubts about policies derived from facts, not faith, to be both refreshing and courageous.

-0-

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By Valerie Strauss  | December 27, 2010; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Charter schools, Guest Bloggers, Larry Cuban, Technology  | Tags:  charter schools, education policy, education policymakers, gates foundation, larry cuban, research on charter schools, technology in education  
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Comments

Computers and technology are the placebos of education, not unlike television when it first arrived on the market. If technology taught us anything, it was the cost of those items with little gain vs. pencil and paper.

Technology forces students to learn things that are not basic to any education. Passwords, computer software, and keyboard stroke are unimportant to a primary school child. If it were so important, what helped us older folks get through? In fact, one only needs to look at Facebook or another social program on the Internet and you will see many senior citizens there that never thought about computers until recently.

Computers are not programmed to teach children all they should know. People writing software are not educators in many cases, educators are simply "advisors" from a distance.

We have tinkered with children for far too long. Children are failing because they are continually distracted by those unimportant things adults made up for them. They are failing because they never have time to master information. A fifth grader in an Algebra class is hardly proficitient enough to apply math to other funtions...if they understand the applications at all.

Pencil, paper, books, mastery, enouragement, support, and the warmth of an adult that cares will go much farther than a computer or other technicological item. Back to basics and stop distracting the children.

Posted by: jbeeler | December 27, 2010 7:31 AM | Report abuse

Computers and technology are the placebos of education, not unlike television when it first arrived on the market. If technology taught us anything, it was the cost of those items with little gain vs. pencil and paper.

Technology forces students to learn things that are not basic to any education. Passwords, computer software, and keyboard stroke are unimportant to a primary school child. If it were so important, what helped us older folks get through? In fact, one only needs to look at Facebook or another social program on the Internet and you will see many senior citizens there that never thought about computers until recently.

Computers are not programmed to teach children all they should know. People writing software are not educators in many cases, educators are simply "advisors" from a distance.

We have tinkered with children for far too long. Children are failing because they are continually distracted by those unimportant things adults made up for them. They are failing because they never have time to master information. A fifth grader in an Algebra class is hardly proficitient enough to apply math to other funtions...if they understand the applications at all.

Pencil, paper, books, mastery, enouragement, support, and the warmth of an adult that cares will go much farther than a computer or other technicological item. Back to basics and stop distracting the children.

Posted by: jbeeler | December 27, 2010 7:32 AM | Report abuse

While policy makers jump on and off the caravan of bandwagons in search of a panacea, kids only get one chance at first grade, or fifth grade, or ninth grade. We don't get do-overs with a year in the life of a kid. We've got to stop treating them like lab rats and do everything we can to support the positive outcomes from the relationship between one student and one teacher.

Posted by: buckbuck11 | December 27, 2010 9:26 AM | Report abuse

The problem is that the education industry is fundamentally and structurally incompetent to do the job it is now asked to do. Its leaders and pundits suffer from the same defects as teachers in the field. For far too long the education industry has been allowed to build high walls keeping out research from other, obviously relevant fields. Cognitive psychology, behavioral psychology, neuroscience - these all are rejected as "too medical" when mentioned by industry folks at all. School structure should be informed by organization theory and behavior principles. Classes are just one form of plain old groups, subject to the same group psychology and process principles as any other. Teachers are group leaders, some predictably effective and some not.

Consider the possibility that the K-12 education industry has gone as far as it can go given its current knowledge and skills base. Without some rude breaking down of the artificial walls keeping out knowledge and skills from other fields, the possibility of truly significant improvement is close to nil. We've done the "old wine in new bottles" move via the charter school movement - with precious little to show for it. Ditto for Gates' new, new small schools efforts. And rushing into (allegedly) high tech online learning "solutions" based on virtually no sound research re efficacy is just more of the same, albeit a more pricey "transformation" with no sound rationale.

Public education requires fundamental transformations to deal with the students it actually enrolls. Since the education industry has demonstrated beyond cavil that it is simply not capable of doing so nor, indeed, of knowing where to look for possible solutions, it's time to - rudely - break down the artificial walls it has been allowed to construct and bring in serious professionals from other fields to restructure it and retrain its workforce, bottom right up to the top.

Posted by: deealpert | December 27, 2010 9:48 AM | Report abuse

Excellent observations, Valerie, but really, how common is it for people in any circumstances to say "Oops!" It's becoming a lost art - perhaps a long time in the making. Very worth thinking about.

Maybe someone will design a computer program that will teach people humility, the art of self-assessment and how to say "Oops" effectively and move on before too much damage is done.

But as I've said many times, technology as a learning tool will be limited until Homo sapiens evolve to the point that we no longer need human interaction to grow and thrive.

Certainly the science whizzes who create these programs know this. It needn’t take an “Oops” to change things. A simple “Aha” would do.

Posted by: efavorite | December 27, 2010 10:06 AM | Report abuse

The "oops " factor just supports some harsh realities that our nation needs to deal with quickly before we turn our nation's children into "bubble heads". The push for charter schools and the push for massive technology in the schools is not first and foremost about "the children". It is about profit for big business. Bill Gate's just gets richer and richer by promoting his "sure fire" education panaceas. After making a huge profit it is a lot easier to just say "oops" let's try something new. You can bet that "that something new" will be profitable to big business interests. While technology can be good, nothing supplants human to human contact between a teacher and student. This nation needs to restore "checks and balances" before it is completely controlled by the manipulative whims of those who manage to get super rich.

Posted by: teachermd | December 27, 2010 10:11 AM | Report abuse

As deealpert said, there isn't much real evidence to support much of what is done in education. 'Differentiated instruction' and 'scaffolding' are sensible theories, for example, but there's not enough research to prove these classroom techniques produce higher achievement in students. We 'old fogeys' certainly deride technology in the classroom because so many of us learned so much more without it! Recall Ms. Strauss' post of that 8th grade final exam from the 1800's, I believe; there were no internet nor iPads then, and those students could do more than most HS graduates today.
Many people know that fast food and packaged food generally are not the healthiest choices, yet people still CHOOSE those options. All the studies and alleged research you produce that 'debunks' charter schools means nothing if the CUSTOMERS (parents) still choose that option. The moment we start arguing that parents have been 'duped' or 'deceived' by charter schools is when we become paternal and condescending, implying we know what's best for their children versus parents. Education must return as closely as possible to the individual choice a parent makes for their children, and that choice be based mostly on the relationship between the parent and the teacher in the classroom and adults at the school site. Parents across the socio-economic spectrum sense very well when their child's receiving the education they desire, and I trust them to make the appropriate choices for their child if they have choices to make.

Posted by: pdexiii | December 27, 2010 10:30 AM | Report abuse

There truly would be a Santa Claus if the whole lot of buso-reformers turned into skeptical empiricists. They wouldn't need to say "oops" if they adopted this mindset. Until then, we must suffer with inner-city education reform by capitalistic and commercialistic fiat and the aftermath-like tendrils of these idealistic dreams.

Posted by: DHume1 | December 27, 2010 10:57 AM | Report abuse

Extensive research over many years shows the considerable value of small schools to help improve student achievement. Some of the Gates-funded small schools DID improve achievement.
Same is true with some charter public schools. We've worked with educators all over the country to help them learn lessons from the most effective district and charter public schools. We probably make more progress when we learn from the successes and shortcomings of others.

Posted by: jnathan2 | December 27, 2010 1:46 PM | Report abuse

I am so sick of hearing and reading the word
'achievement', especially when I think about the needs of very young children just starting school.......

Why should a 6, 7 or even 8-year-old have to be put on the line to achieve whatever it is that very young humans are supposed to achieve so that the power adults, aka Bill Gates & Co., can clap each other on the shoulder and gleefully announce to the world that they are great leaders of the reform movement?

It used to be important for young children to be nurtured, to feel secure, that they could depend on the adults around them to be supportive.

Now, with all of the achievement pressure,
childhood, along with imagination, wonderment, curiosity and the worthiness of just being human is evaporating before our eyes.

What kind of adults can we hope for in this generation being chained to achievement, especially as measured by cold, hard data?

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | December 27, 2010 3:12 PM | Report abuse

8 or 9 years ago, my school district, San Francisco Unified (where I am a parent, advocate and wife of a teacher), was beaten bloody by the local, national and even international press for moving to look into closing a problematic charter school run by then-high-flying, for-profit Edison Schools Inc.

The local, national and international press were hailing Edison and the concept of for-profit public schools as the wave of the future, bringing private-sector efficiencies to reform public schools.

Well, it didn’t work. It turned out that Edison client school districts across the nation had the same problems with Edison Schools Inc. that SFUSD did, and Edison has quietly fizzled.

Any “oopsies” or “gosh, sorry about thats” from the press voices who were so vigorously beating up on SFUSD back then? Need you ask?

And, by the way, what they were also doing was attacking the right of a school board to hold a charter school it operates accountable. Now the fad is to call for holding charter schools accountable — even the charter industry and advocates who have vigorously fought accountability are paying lip service.

No “oopsies” on that issue either. We’re still waiting.

Posted by: CarolineSF | December 27, 2010 5:53 PM | Report abuse

It is disappointing to see yet another incomplete discussion of the findings in the now widely quoted CREDO report on charter schools. That report did say things quoted in the article such as, "17 percent of charters offered 'superior educational opportunities for their students.'"

BUT -- aside from some basic issues about the CREDO methodology of creating 'virtual students' -- buried back on page 33, the CREDO study also shows something very important that Cuban doesn't mention:

By the time students have been in charters for three years, they DO outperform traditional public school (TPS) students.

This CREDO finding is summarized on page 45 where the study says:

"Our pooled study also revealed that time plays a significant role in the academic growth of charter school students. First year charter students experience significantly smaller learning gains compared to their TPS peers. Second and third year charter students not only reverse this trend, but can anticipate larger learning gains than those of their TPS counterparts."

This effect over time is perhaps the most important finding in its study, but CREDO largely buried it.

Many who cite this report either didn't fully read it, or didn't recognize the significance, or chose to overlook this finding.

When you think about it, it would be unreasonable to expect charter schools (or any school, for that matter) to perform miracles with formerly poorly educated students who have only attended the charter for one year. Even CREDO admits that many of the students it looked at had not been in charters very long.

Anyway, Cuban isn't alone. Plenty of others, especially those who are hostile to charter schools, only partly quote the CREDO study, as well.

So, as the late Paul Harvey used to say, "Now you know the rest of the story."

Posted by: Richard_Innes | December 27, 2010 9:47 PM | Report abuse

Here is some of the evidence for the 3 things about technology in education that Dr. Cuban said was not visible:

1) academic achievement & online instruction or 1-to-1 laptops:
Here is information about 2 recent meta-analyses that both show superior learning gains in online and blended learning compared to face to face learning:
http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/06/29/online
http://jolt.merlot.org/vol6no2/shachar_0610.htm
As for evidence of the effectiveness of 1-to-1 programs, I don't have specific references handy, but I do know that the most consistent finding is an improvement in students' writing ability when they have access to laptops. Related to that, the Stanford Study of Writing has shown that students' writing skills have been improving over the years with more and more technology (blogging, etc.), not declining: http://ssw.stanford.edu/


2) Evidence that regular instructional use of these machines will transform teaching and learning.
It's a straw man argument to say that technology will by itself fix education. No one said pencils or chalk boards would by themselves improve education. They are tools, and the more teachers are trained to use them, the more the tools can enhance their teaching. A 1998 report (Does It Compute?) by Wenglinsky found for example that student achievement increased when computers were used for simulation and data exploration activities, but actually decreased when used for decontextualized drill activities.

3) the dream that school use of these machines and applications will lead to better jobs.
I am not familiar with this area of research but I'll just mention two things. One is that when talking about career decisions of students, motivation, and not achievement, is the better predictor. Again, a good teacher is key to increasing motivation, but technology can help. When blogging for example, students are writing for a real audience, not just the teacher as when turning in a paper. Educational games and simulations can make dry subjects more engaging. The second thing I'll mention is that when talking about actual careers, I doubt most would disagree that more and more careers are involving technology and computer skills. Can you imagine what our students would face on the job market if they graduated having never even used a computer before as Dr. Cuban espouses?

Posted by: DougHolton | December 27, 2010 10:14 PM | Report abuse

DougHolton says "Can you imagine what our students would face on the job market if they graduated having never even used a computer before as Dr. Cuban espouses?"


-- I read over Cuban's post looking for the part that says Cuban espouses that kids need not use computers in school. Could you point it out? Frankly, I think you misinterpreted it.

Posted by: efavorite | December 28, 2010 8:43 AM | Report abuse

DougHolton,

I've read a few decent meta-analysis studies, but I've read tons of doctored and cherry-picked ones. The two that you cite are certainly of the latter. Here's why: Both have strong selection bias issues. When you do these things, you need to take in the good, the bad, and the ugly. It appears that they only took in what they wanted out of their library and left the bad and the ugly to rot. I think it is very similar to how that one guy (can't recall his name) used a meta-analysis to prove that there is psychic phenomena going on. Yes, I have to agree with Dr. Cuban on this one that they and you both "cherry-pick studies and facts to support decisions already determined."

Posted by: DHume1 | December 28, 2010 10:06 AM | Report abuse

Prof. DHume1 is showing his post-Christmas ed expertise--the kind of beacon of insight that draws me to this blogue.

Note that Gates openly and honestly drew attention to his focus on the wrong size for high schools. He learned something and is applying it.

Wouldn't it be refreshing for the grizzled armies of ed professors, itinerant PhDs, teachers unions (especially), and other drinkers at the ed trough freely admitted their mistakes?

Posted by: axolotl | December 28, 2010 12:34 PM | Report abuse

To the Follower of the Myth of the Salamander,

Gates also figured out not to pee his pants, too. Ravitch learned from her mistake and was open and public about it. Yes, they bleed ethos, but what does that prove? Geez, that is a lame position to hold. A person can learn from one thing but continue to bugger up other things. Gates may have learned not to pee his pants but that guy does have a suspiciously bug-egged, shifty look of someone who just took a major crap in his Depends.

And yes, I agree with you. I would like others to admit their mistakes as well.

Posted by: DHume1 | December 28, 2010 1:41 PM | Report abuse

"Our pooled study also revealed that time plays a significant role in the academic growth of charter school students. First year charter students experience significantly smaller learning gains compared to their TPS peers. Second and third year charter students not only reverse this trend, but can anticipate larger learning gains than those of their TPS counterparts."

And the predominant reason that is the case is those children who are found wanting are encouraged to leave as "they aren't a good fit". Thus leaving the cream to rise higher.

What was the number change in the cohort over 3 years?

Now you know the usual story of charters.

Posted by: oklyntrish | December 31, 2010 3:06 PM | Report abuse

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