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.

Continue reading

What Should Pres. Obama Do About Educational Reform?

Bonnie BraceyBy Bonnie Bracey Sutton
Editor, Policy Issues

[Updated 8.2.10 – links added: “A Blueprint for Reform: The Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act”; “In the News: More Opposition to Duncan’s Reform Policies: Defending Obama’s Education Agenda”; “Our Communities Left Behind: An Analysis of the Administration’s School Turnaround Policies.” -bbs/js]

The problem that President Obama is having should be addressed. I think he is between a rock and a hard place in his efforts to change the face of education. What do you, our ETCJ readers, writers, and editors, think he should do?

To post your comment, click on the title of this article and scroll down to the comment box. To start the discussion, here are a few documents that you might want to read:

Valerie Strauss, “Obama, Education, Snooki, Civil Rights and Bryan Bass” (The Answer Sheet, Washington Post, 30 July 2010): The president’s “terribly misguided $4.35 billion competitive grant program is, apparently, more important than health care reform, the economic recovery program, improving the student loan program, increasing Pell Grant payouts, and, well, anything else he has accomplished since becoming president.” Continue reading

Is It Time to Say Goodbye to Universities?

On June 8, Harry Keller shared Philip E. Auerswald’s article, “First Newspapers, Now Universities: It’s Transformation Time” (Washington Post, 8 June 2010), with the ETCJ staff. As a result, Harry and two other ETC writers, Judith McDaniel and John Sener, submitted articles responding to Auerswald:

Harry Keller, “Universities Vanishing?
Judith McDaniel, “View from an Online Classroom
John Sener, “Chill Out at a Tailgating Party

Here are the opening lines from Auerswald’s article:

The commencement season that has just drawn to a close has been, once again, a wonderful time to celebrate our enduring rituals of collegiate education.

Now prepare to say goodbye to them.

This isn’t to say that traditional four-year colleges are going to disappear overnight. They won’t…not any more than major-market newspapers have. But leaders in higher-ed have reason to pay serious attention to the disruptive changes technology has forced upon journalists and other knowledge workers: our industry is next.

[click here to read the rest of Auerswald’s article]

View from an Online Classroom

Judith McDanielBy Judith McDaniel
Editor, Web-based Course Design

After reading the article and the comments (Philip E. Auerswald’s “First Newspapers, Now Universities: It’s Transformation Time,” Washington Post, 8 June 2010), I was certainly disappointed in the quality of the conversation. Many of the comments are written by those who have never taken or taught an online class, nor have they considered the things that make an online course an exciting intellectual experience. Without the knee jerk reactions, I think it is past time to recognize that online education is with us for the duration. It won’t go away because it is a very exciting and viable alternative to traditional education. Continue reading

Chill Out at a Tailgating Party

John SenerBy John Sener

I’m tempted to say “see my previous commentary on this topic” — this article (Philip E. Auerswald’s “First Newspapers, Now Universities: It’s Transformation Time,” Washington Post, 8 June 2010) is similarly annoying. But I’m beginning to wonder whether it’s the form or the substance which is annoying, or both. (I think it’s both.)

First, the form. The article’s next-to-last paragraph seems reasonable enough at first glance:

What all of this means for leadership in higher education is that while resistance is futile, obsolescence is far from assured. The coming transformation in higher education will be gradual, and it will be incomplete. Many of today’s elite institutions will not only survive, they will prosper. Other institutions that clearly define, measure, and communicate the value they bring to individual students – and not just to society as a whole – will prosper. As for those whose strategy is to repackage past glories as a vision for the future on forlorn trips to bankrupt legislatures, [it won’t work] . . .

Why then create such cognitive dissonance by covering a plausible conclusion with an attention-grabbing, contradictory, absurd coating? “Prepare to say goodbye” to universities? “Learning is still in for today’s students, but school’s out”? Continue reading

Is a Virtual Revolution Brewing in Colleges?

John SenerBy John Sener

The idea that US colleges and universities are on the brink of demise, or at least radical transformation, has been around for a long time. It’d be interesting to see how long, exactly, but Peter Drucker seems to be the progenitor of most current thinking. Over the past 20 years, based on his musings on education in his 1989 book The New Realities and accelerating with his 1997 prediction that large universities would become relics in 30 years, commentators have been concerned about the obsolete “business design” of the university (1996), echoing Drucker’s predictions of demise (2005) etc.

This year, the pace has picked up: David Wiley asserted that the “university will be irrelevant by 2020“; commentators are predicting that colleges are facing the same doomed fate as ailing newspapers for much the same reasons; and now we have this article, “A Virtual Revolution Is Brewing for Colleges” by Zephyr Teachout (Washington Post, 13 Sep. 2009).

What is really going on here? Certainly it is ridiculous to take these predictions at face value. Every time one looks at them closely, they dissolve into irrelevance on the surface. This WaPo article is no exception: it goes completely off track by the end of the fifth sentence. “The market” is not the force for change in education; colleges are not like newspapers; education is about a lot more than sharing information; the social ritual of getting a dorm room is not disappearing anytime soon either. Teachout, as with other business-oriented commentators on education, does not understand that education is a complex system animated and sustained by a variety of important competing forces interacting dynamically with each other and operating fundamentally differently from business.

Tellingly, when I first tried to find the article on WaPo, the first article I found was a piece on how the University of Maryland is trying to crack down on drinking. It’s not a pretty scene, but social drinking is a much more powerful and cohesive force in university life than the cost of online learning (wasn’t paper-based correspondence learning cheaper also, BTW?). And anyone who thinks that universities will become “relics” in 18 years or so needs to chill out at a tailgating party. Drucker was brilliant, but even geniuses get it way wrong sometimes.

Teachout’s article, and indeed this entire line of thought, only makes sense to me in two respects (other than being flat out wrong): ( 1) the authors are just trying to get attention by provocative exaggeration, and (2) they are trying to move public opinion by asserting a position that is only casually related to rationality or actual facts. Both these are very much in tune with the times, but the numerous disconnects between superficial attention-seeking headlines or sound bites and the underlying reality bother me.


What really bothers me, though, are the possible negative consequences of excessive hype. For example, online education has changed the face of higher education, but has it been “revolutionary” or “radical?” I would argue that it hasn’t.


What does it mean, for example, to say that “universities will be irrelevant by 2020”? They have already been irrelevant for decades in some ways, which is why small liberal arts colleges exist and why community colleges, private for-profits like University of Phoenix, et al. have filled the vacuum in those areas that universities have mostly ignored during the expansion of higher education in the US over the past 40+ years. But maybe Wiley was merely aiming to provoke or prod in a particular direction rather than to predict. Perhaps this has become commonplace because, in our “blink“ered” world, subtle or complex messages get lost while only simple messages gain traction. Take, for example, the recent USDE report on online learning. The report’s summary messages don’t match its actual content, and its methodology is deeply flawed. But the basic message (online learning is even better than classroom) is getting out there and starting to cause some pushback.

Teachout’s article does not even rise to the level of “Drucker Lite” quality. The ingredients are there, but the article makes a hash of it. “Colleges also sell information?” Redundant Sociology 101 courses are all that stand between the academy and its imminent “structural disintegration?” The drive to cut costs will come to rule higher education policy? Please.

What really bothers me, though, are the possible negative consequences of excessive hype. For example, online education has changed the face of higher education, but has it been “revolutionary” or “radical?” I would argue that it hasn’t. Are the predicted changes greater than the creation of community colleges, the GI Bill, or the growth of private for-profit institutions? If so, how? If not, why all the fuss? I worry that the hype of such pronouncements may actually retard the progress of needed, substantive change; if big changes are afoot, then other needed changes will be overshadowed and ignored.

Here’s what I would really like to see: a deep, reflective examination of what changes are really needed — what would be truly transformational? Ironically, I find more useful material in the reactions to these articles than in the articles themselves. For example, why does a Smith co-ed believe that the “personal touch” is only possible in classroom and campus interactions? (Has she not heard of Facebook?? OMG… ;-) What does “personal touch” actually mean in this context? Why do so many college faculty believe that they have this magic ability to gauge the ‘aha’ moment of all the students in their classrooms? Because as readers’ comments and writers’ reactions show, a myriad of unexamined, deeply held assumptions are out there. At the same time, Drucker and the line of thought he engendered are on to something: change is happening, mostly nibbles around the edges, but there are some serious issues that need to be resolved pretty soon. My bias is that a more thoughtful approach is better. But maybe these articles are a necessary part of the process?

Poetic Faith—the Magic of Belief

adsit80By John Adsit
Staff Writer

Bill Turque’s January 5 Washington Post article on Michele Rhee’s reform efforts contains this interesting comment in reference to staff development efforts:

  • Within the first five years on the job, most enroll in The Skillful Teacher, a program of six day-long sessions devised by Jon Saphier of the Massachusetts-based Research for Better Teaching program.
  • Saphier said the program fosters teachers’ belief in their power to lift student achievement despite conditions outside school.
  • An independent study in 2004 showed that before taking the course, Montgomery teachers rated students’ home life and motivation as the factors that most influenced learning. After the course, home life dropped to 11th on the list, and teacher enthusiasm and perseverance were described as most important.

A skeptical reader’s response would almost certainly be “So what? What difference would that change in attitude make?” In my experience, it is the most important difference-maker of all, for it is the basis of all other positive change.

In my own teaching, nothing transformed what I did more than adopting that attitude. Once I believed that all students could succeed if I made the right instructional decisions, I became diligent in seeking those approaches, but before that I just accepted student failure as a problem beyond my control.

When I was still a relatively young teacher, I was assigned sections of sophomores with a history of failure in writing. I saw that they universally wrote in fragments and run-ons, so I dedicated the next few weeks to intense, traditional, grammar-based instruction on sentence structure. When I saw scant improvement despite my most diligent efforts, I determined that they were incapable of doing better and moved on. There was no reason for me to change because their failure was their fault.

Not many years later I was a department chairperson trying to improve a school’s horrid writing achievement. I created an innovative (and controversial) approach, and, as a part of it, I assigned myself a class of sophomores with a history of writing failure. Once again, I had an entire class writing in fragments and run-ons, but this time I was armed with a new belief, a belief that they had the ability to succeed if I did the right thing. I therefore abandoned that intense, traditional, grammar-based approach that had failed in the past and did something totally different.

I taught almost all mechanics through editing. In my mastery learning system, students could not get credit for a piece of writing until the conventions met standard. A draft might be met with a response like, “Great ideas and support! This makes a lot of sense! Now, just fix those fragments and you’ll be done with it, and you’ll get a great grade!” Within a few weeks, 100% of the students were writing in complete sentences.

coleridgeNot long after that, I was part of a research team examining the results of a writing assessment given at the elementary, middle, and high school levels in a low SES area in a large school district. The overall results (a little over 50% proficient) had been reported for each grade level, and we surveyed the teachers to try to get more information. What none of the teachers knew was that none of them had anywhere near 50% proficiency in student performance. Teachers had either nearly all of their students proficient or nearly none of their students proficient. Even though our survey was anonymous, it was therefore easy to tell from their responses to certain questions which camp they were in.

We asked them for their overall beliefs about student achievement, using the kind of wording you see in the Turque article. All the teachers with high success rates believed that their actions were the primary forces determining student success. Every single teacher with high failure rates believed student success was entirely determined by student ability and other factors beyond the teacher’s control.

Just after Turque’s article was published, my hometown newspaper published an article about a similar survey done by the state department of a school with a history of failure to meet No Child Left Behind achievement goals. The school has a large Hispanic population, and the audit revealed that teachers believe that their population is not capable of achieving at a high level on state tests. The report noted that “Some parents and students feel that some of the teachers do not believe that all students can achieve at high levels. . . . It was observed and reported that there are some populations of students held to higher standards than others.”

Once you have accepted a reason for failure that is beyond your control, you are freed from any obligation to try to succeed.

In his Biographia Literaria, Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the famous phrase “willing suspension of disbelief,” which he called “poetic faith.” In modern terms, this is the human trait that allows us to weep as a movie actor pretends to die. It causes us to jump in fright at the flickering image of a monster on a TV screen.

Poetic faith is a trait that serves a teacher well. The effective teacher looks at every student and thinks, “I believe that if I make the right instructional decisions and follow the right approach for you as an individual, you will succeed, despite all that stands in the way of that success. If I look long enough, I will find the path to your success.” The effective teacher searches education literature for strategies that will lead to that success.

In Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, Clayton Christensen predicts that technology and online education will transform education because it will enable the teacher to identify student learning needs and take the appropriate steps to meet those needs. That cannot happen, though, until teachers fully believe there is a reason to make that effort.