Computer Science – A Field of Dreams

By Robert Plants

[Editor's Note: This article was written in response to Bonnie Bracey Sutton's call for submissions from selected writers. Bonnie is ETCJ's editor of policy issues, and the focus of her call was Erik W. Robelen's "Schools Fall Behind in Offering Computer Science" (Education Week, 7.14.10); WebCite version. -js]

You can’t build it and expect people to come. We cite statistics on what is and what isn’t but fail to dig into the symptoms. We point out initiatives that may influence supply and demand but don’t go on to look at what influences K-12 education that results in the dearth of interest in computer science. In most states, the emphasis lies in producing enough teachers to staff the education that we have. We have an educational system focused on a standardized curriculum, rote memorization, nationalized testing, curriculum standards. Dig a little deeper and you will find that the structure of schooling is about the little red brick building we have always known, grades, classrooms, curriculum, teaching strategies – one size fits all. In many ways, our system of schooling has not changed in 100 years. Continue reading

i3 Funding Process Unfair to Small Businesses

keller80By Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

The comment period for the $650 million Department of Education’s “Investing in Innovation Fund,” referred to as i3, has ended. An article in Education Week discusses the main thrusts of these comments. For the entire text of the proposed priorities, click here.

Some large urban school districts object to small rural districts being favored. Small rural districts have problems with devoting resources to writing such complex grant applications and with conducting the studies requested in the guidelines. A requirement for 20% matching funds from the private sector, including foundations, has also received criticism because of the very short time frame. Some districts complain of the “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) requirement.

My perspective is that of a small business president. For this purposes of comment, it only matters that I have been working on innovation in education for over ten years and have encountered just about every road block to having schools use my innovative services as you can imagine.

The i3 guidelines allow three different types of proposals: scale-up grants of up to $50 million, validation grants of up to $30 million, and development grants of up to $5 million. The last of these requires a two-stage application process and does not require the high level of studies with proven results that the other two do.

Here’s the description of the scale-up grants. (Emphasis added.)

Scale-up grants would provide funding to scale up practices, strategies, or programs for which there is strong evidence (as defined in this notice) that the proposed practice, strategy, or program will have a statistically significant effect on improving student achievement or student growth, closing achievement gaps, decreasing dropout rates, or increasing high school graduation rates, and that the effect of implementing the proposed practice, strategy, or program will be substantial and important.

Validation grants are described in the following way. (Emphasis added.)

Validation grants would provide funding to support practices, strategies, or programs that show promise, but for which there is currently only moderate evidence (as defined in this notice) that the proposed practice, strategy, or program will have a statistically significant effect on improving student achievement or student growth, closing achievement gaps, decreasing dropout rates, or increasing high school graduation rates, and that with further study, the effect of implementing the proposed practice, strategy, or program may prove to be substantial and important.

types of awards available under i3, explained in a table. Columns: Development, Validation, Scale-up; Rows: Estimated funding available, Evidence required, Scaling requiredClick the image for the PowerPoint presentation.

This is how development grants are explained.

Development grants would provide funding to support new, high-potential, and relatively untested practices, strategies, or programs whose efficacy should be systematically studied. An applicant would have to provide evidence that the proposed practice, strategy, or program, or one similar to it, has been attempted previously, albeit on a limited scale or in a limited setting, and yielded promising results that suggest that more formal and systematic study is warranted. An applicant must provide a rationale for the proposed practice, strategy, or program that is based on research findings or reasonable hypotheses, including related research or theories in education and other sectors.

Only school districts and nonprofit education businesses may apply. Entrepreneurs who provide tools are not eligible.

Note that the largest awards require “strong evidence.” Those districts that choose to submit “scale up” proposals must include innovations with this evidence. “Strong evidence means evidence from previous studies whose designs can support causal conclusions . . . and studies that in total include enough of the range of participants and settings to support scaling up to the State, regional, or national level . . . .”

It’s a very reasonable assumption that most of the new, innovative tools for education will come from small businesses. In the difficult education marketplace, having a new and better way to provide some aspect of education provides an edge over large existing businesses. The large education companies have an established way of doing business and usually will not seek change unless forced to do so by the market.

The i3 guidelines, however, are skewed toward large entities by their requirements for studies, which are quite expensive to carry out.

The i3 guidelines, however, are skewed toward large entities by their requirements for studies, which are quite expensive to carry out. My business has not been able to do a study and most of those I’ve looked at have the same problem. This basic problem seems to pervade many federal and state operations. The large businesses that can afford lobbyists, studies, extensive marketing, and other activities not accessible to their smaller kin get the bulk of federal largesse.

Besides, education studies often have flaws. I’ve seen two studies produce opposite conclusions on the part of the investigators. Generally, education studies compare a new method or device in classrooms with the status quo. Of course, the teachers and students know that they’re doing something differently and react to that fact as well as to the actual new method or device.

The “new math” was studied and found to be the great savior of our student mathematical literacy. What happened? When rolled out at scale, it just didn’t work, and a generation of students was hobbled in its mathematics learning by this idea. Suddenly, it was “back to basics” again.

The i3 study requirement is therefore doubly flawed. Studies do not produce reliable black-and-white results. Understanding their data requires very knowledgeable people and often they will conclude only that the new idea may help students. It’s much too easy to bias the study results in the direction that the investigator wishes.

The second flaw in the requirement is the institutional bias that such requirements have against our greatest innovators, small organizations and individuals. The greatest new idea in education could be out there right now seeking acceptance, crying in the wilderness and unheard by the districts, agencies, and foundations. You can be sure that a number of good ideas are struggling to be recognized.

The i3 program also appears to assume that innovation will come from within schools. But schools tend toward inertia. An entire system of school districts, state departments of education, and colleges of education has been built to keep things stable, to avoid change. Good ideas have originated within schools to be sure. However, this approach of the i3 program ignores our greatest resource, entrepreneurship. The program should reward schools that reach out to the entrepreneurial community to find new, exciting, and innovative ways to improve education.

We do not know yet what we’ll see in the final guidelines. However, none of the comment summaries in the Education Week article suggest a movement toward encouraging entrepreneurship. If we’re to make a real difference in education, we must engage all of our resources including the most powerful agent for change we have. While, as an entrepreneur myself, I am biased, I believe that the facts support my conclusions.

Let’s engage all of our national resources in this important effort.

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