Arne and Michelle vs. Larry: The Statistical Battle

By Robert Plants
Editor, Schools for the 21st Century

I opened my newspaper this morning to an article titled “ACT Scores Dropping but More Students Are Prepared for College.” I asked myself how is this possible when other reports say that schools and teachers are not preparing students for future learning.

But I’m getting off my topic, which is the research-based finding that “more than 90% of the variation in student gain scores is due to the variation in student-level factors that are not under the control of the teacher.”

Another interesting note from those who have evaluated value-added methods and particularly the one used in LA is that there is opportunity for as much as 26% error in teacher ratings. If you want to put it another way, 26% is a large labeling error to make regarding someone’s chosen vocation. It sort of opens one to litigation in my mind.

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e-Book Readers: Attempting to Bugger the Blind Is Bad for Business

Accessibility 4 All by Claude Almansi

DoJ’s and DoE’s letter to college and university presidents on e-book readers

On June 29, 2010,  Thomas E. Perez (Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division, U.S. Department of Justice) and Russlynn Ali (Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Education) sent a joint letter on electronic book readers:

Dear College or University President:

We write to express concern on the part of the Department of Justice and the Department of Education that colleges and universities are using electronic book readers that are not accessible to students who are blind or have low vision and to seek your help in ensuring that this emerging technology is used in classroom settings in a manner that is permissible under federal law.  A serious problem with some of these devices is that they lack an accessible text-to-speech function.  Requiring use of an emerging technology in a classroom environment when the technology is inaccessible to an entire population of individuals with disabilities–individuals with visual disabilities–is discrimination prohibited by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) unless those individuals are provided accommodations or modifications that permit them to receive all the educational benefits provided by the technology in an equally effective and equally integrated manner.(…)

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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.

India Steps Forward in Science Education

Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

A recent press release in The Hindu newspaper, titled “Virtual lab for exploring science in top 10 institutes,” explained a new initiative by the government of India.

The release states, “Students pursuing higher studies at the country’s top technical institutes will now be able to do any experiment without going to a laboratory but through virtual labs.” It goes on to note that the government will be spending $40 million (Rs 2 billion) to complete this project within a year.

Coming on the heels of new virtual science lab commercial products from Romania, Turkey, and Scotland, this announcement should have our attention for two reasons.

It shows that India has made a huge commitment to gaining ground in science and engineering. They have decided to increase their ability to graduate qualified students in these fields from their premier education organization, the India Institutes of Technology.

The announcement also highlights our own problems. Rather than engaging in our own initiatives, we are spending our education tax dollars to import simulation software from foreign countries. We’re sending our stimulus dollars to the Middle East! As I have noted previously, the end of this process could be outsourcing not just of software services, but of entire courses including the teachers to foreign countries.

keller_21apr2009aFor a relatively paltry fraction of the money that India is spending, we could be promoting great science education technology initiatives right here at home. A few million dollars to make us more competitive in science education seems like nothing compared with trillions in spending and even with $40 million being spent on a single project by India.

I contacted our Department of Education about this topic and received a polite letter informing me that the Department does not do this sort of thing. I should contact the states, all 50 of them, one at a time! I have contacted many of the states too. They say that I should contact the individual districts, most of which say to contact the schools. Talk about buck passing!

I have a vested interest in all of this. My modest company produces a solution for online science labs that uses prerecorded real experiments. I do my best to avoid bias and like to think that my involvement just allows me to focus better on what’s going on. I see little support for innovation and entrepreneurship in education. As a scientist, I have great concern about this entire issue, which is why I entered the virtual lab business in the first place.

This journal is the perfect place to discuss these matters. It’s all about technology and change, after all.  While these two can be discussed separately, I prefer to discuss the use of technology to effect change in education. In fact, I see technology as our only hope for bringing about real and useful change, at least in science education.

The well-known challenges in science education today include:

  • increasing class sizes, sometimes over forty students
  • decreasing budgets made even worse by the recession
  • loss of lab time to high-stakes testing
  • complete removal of some labs due to new safety regulations
  • increasing costs for hazardous waste disposal
  • greater insurance costs for science labs where overcrowding causes more accidents
  • reluctance of overworked and underpaid teachers to change their methods
  • high teacher turnover due to the stresses of some current school environments
  • lack of new teachers trained in science, especially physical sciences

Great efforts have been made over the last quarter century to improve science education. The National Science Education Standards (NSES) were published to great fanfare, and have not fixed the problems. New professional development efforts also leave the science classrooms unimproved. Billions of dollars have been spent.

The Obama administration has proposed new curriculum standards, new science labs, and more professional development. These solutions require an abundance of two things we have little of: time and money. The sort of technology that involves physical materials, for example, smart boards, also requires lots of money and professional development to utilize them well.

Internet technology, on the other hand, requires only Internet access, which now is available nearly everywhere, and Internet-literate teachers. This evolving technology, if applied well, can overcome all of the above list of challenges except for the reluctance of many teachers to change methods to employ the new ideas. Given the potential benefits, we should certainly be investigating this approach in as many way as possible.

Why should our government talk about bold steps and yet be so timid compared with India?