Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Karen Stout wins latest Spotty!

the_spotty Regular readers know that I have written quite a bit lately on “school reform” Karen Stout, a research associate at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration, had an excellent op-ed in the Star Tribune yesterday about this subject. Karen wins a Spotty™ for this thoughtful article. Here are just a few grafs:

Just what is the [Secretary of Education] Duncan agenda, and does it hold up to the scrutiny of research -- the highly touted mantra of the current and most recent regimes? Besides the emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- privileging some knowledge over other -- substantial points were awarded for improving teacher and principal effectiveness based on performance, promoting charter schools, turning around low-performing schools, and developing and adopting common academic standards. Note the emphasis on those things which can be measured, however reductionist those measurements might be.

But data underrepresents reality. Jaron Lanier, sometimes called the “father of virtual reality,” and the author of a book just out called You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, Alfred A. Knopf (2010), discusses this very issue. There is an article excerpted from the book in the February issue of Harper’s Magazine, entitled The Serfdom of Crowds. There was one passage, well, there were several, that caught my attention:

. . .  Education has gone through a parallel transformation [to Facebook’s transformation and degradation to the concept of “friendship”], and for similar reasons. Information systems need to have information in order to run, but information underrepresents reality. Demand more from information than it can give and you end up with monstrous designs. Under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, for example, U.S. teachers are forced to choose between teaching general knowledge and “teaching the test.” The best teachers are thereby often disenfranchised by the improper use of educational-information systems. [italics are Spot’s]

What computerized analysis of all the country’s school tests has done to education is exactly what Facebook has done to friendships. In both cases, life is turned into a database. Both degradations are based on the same philosophical mistake, which is the belief that computers can presently represent human thought or human relationships. These are things computers cannot currently do. Whether one expects computers to improve in the future is a different issue. In a less idealistic atmosphere it would go without saying that software should be designed only to perform tasks that can be successfully carried out at a given time. That is not the atmosphere in which Internet software is designed, however. When technologists deploy a computer model of something like learning or friendship in a way that has an effect on real lives, they are relying on faith. When they ask people to live their lives through their  models, they are potentially reducing life itself.

Ms. Stout continues:

What a boon for the testing industry, while teachers, who have no say over what happens outside of school, will have their jobs dependent on something for which they ultimately have only minimal control.

And what the kids bring to school is critical, as has been discussed here a number of times, including a post called A tale of two schools. And by the new contributor here, Rob Levine, in a post on his own blog, The Triumph of Conservative Philanthropy, quoting from, I think, HuffPo [I should go back and look it up, but you can, too]:

While Barack Obama blithely goes about blaming teachers for the children who do poorly in their schools - all the while cheering the destruction of those same schools, Diane Ravitch goes about her lonely duty of debunking the Washington consensus on education. In the words of a blogger whom she quotes, citing poverty as a key reason for poor educational performance:

"We can't fire poverty." Since we can't fire poverty, we can't fire students, and we can't fire families, all that is left is to fire teachers.

Indeed. Ravitch concludes:

It would be good if our nation's education leaders recognized that teachers are not solely responsible for student test scores. Other influences matter, including the students' effort, the family's encouragement, the effects of popular culture, and the influence of poverty...

This strategy of closing schools and firing the teachers is mean and punitive. And it is ultimately pointless. It solves no problem. It opens up a host of new problems. It satisfies the urge to purge. But it does nothing at all for the students.

There will probably be another post or two about Ms. Stout’s Spotty™ winning article. Remember, a Spotty™ is awarded to the author of a letter to the editor, an op-ed piece, or a blog post or comment that Spot wishes he had written himself.

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