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The Education Community Can’t Read or Research

Cardiff Giant, 19th Century Hoax

The education community has been swindled, hoodwinked, bamboozled – and what it says about the education debate’s commitment to truth is damning.

The Hoax

On July 29, Alexander Russo published a post on his This Week in Education blog called “Television: “Classroom Intervention” Appears This Fall.” It detailed A&E’s announcement that a reality show would debut this September exposing professional interventions for struggling teachers.

News Flash: There’s no show. It’s fake. And the ed community swallowed it right up.

Claus from publicschoolinsights.org was the first to bite:

“This could be very good, or it could be very bad. Depends on who’s creating the intervention, I guess.

Teachers TV in the UK offers an example of how it could work–though in 15-minute segments”

I was surprised that an ed commentary regular took the bait despite the post being listed under the category of “Made-Up News” – that detail went by the wayside. So did the lack of a link, perhaps to a page on A&E’s site, that would have more fully described the show’s premise and goals. That didn’t matter to Claus (and surely many other readers who didn’t bother to comment), who took it as gospel – despite being unverified – and went on with the day.

I chimed in, laying a foundation for my post-to-be and hoping to encourage contributions from others (which didn’t happen):

“From reading teacher-to-teacher discussions on blogs, chats, and events like the weekly Twitter #edchat, I had the impression that all teachers were motivated, future-thinking “lifelong learners” – along with most of their colleagues.

That A&E has rounded up a few teachers in need of improvement will be a difficult reality for many of the education cult leaders to deny.”

Then I posted.

The Natives Are Restless – and Bad at Research

Much is made about “digital natives” – the generation who grew up with broadband internet, fast computers, iPods, iPhones, iEverything – and their ability to multi-task, conduct in-depth research and create media. Some, like Mark Bauerlein in “The Dumbest Generation,” have ripped holes in theories that digital natives use these tools to increase their knowledge and productivity at a faster clip than non-natives. Others have more generally criticized the natives as familiar with technology, but sloppy with its use.

Study after study confirms that students fail to examine information found on the internet, follow up appropriate links/citations, or read beyond the first hit in Google. What the education community omits is that they – teachers, administrators, scholars, professors, policy wonks – are, for the most part, as careless as students when it comes to reading and researching online.

Studies Show…

Emily Alpert, an excellent education writer (and there aren’t many) from San Diego, Tweeted a link to a ReadWriteWeb piece about this problem. From “So-Called “Digital Natives” Not Media Savvy, New Study Shows”:

“A new study coming out of Northwestern University, discovered that college students have a decided lack of Web savvy, especially when it comes to search engines and the ability to determine the credibility of search results. Apparently, the students favor search engine rankings above all other factors. The only thing that matters is that something is the top search result, not that it’s legit.”

They give it a quick read and moved on without thinking twice:

“During the study, one of the researchers asked a study participant, “What is this website?” The student answered, “Oh, I don’t know. The first thing that came up.”

That exchange sums up the overall results from this study: many students trusted in rankings above all else. In fact, a quarter of the students, when assigned information-seeking tasks, said they chose a website because – and only because – it was the first search result.

Only 10% of the students made mention of the site’s author or that author’s credentials while completing tasks. However, in reviewing the screen-capture footage of those respondents, the researchers found that even in this supposedly savvy minority, none actually followed through to verify the identification or qualifications of the site’s authors.”

For the millionth time, kids are sloppy with internet research (though they’re slightly more skeptical when it comes to Wikipedia).

I decided to mix the findings in these articles with the response to Russo’s post to see how closely the ed community actually reads the information it discusses. That night I wrote a post called “Teacher Interventions, Education Policy and Common Sense.” The first part of the post opined on the A&E show and the questions it raises in the context of a seminal problem in public education: that the ed community doesn’t always get the relationship between the forest and the trees.

And readers gobbled it up. Stephen Downes was the first to comment. He thinly criticized my claim to read a lot of ed content, explained that he disagrees with the entire post “point for point,” and that he “won’t bother with the point by point refutation,” case closed. Had he clicked the link to Russo’s original piece – or Googled, or bothered to verify any of it in any way – he would have seen that the content was fake. Instead, indignation and automatic disagreement took priority to informed debate.

Swing and a miss, Mr. Downes. It was an eephus, not a fastball.

Stephen’s response came within 15 minutes of my post. I wanted to encourage him, and anyone reading the post/comment debate after him, to take another look. I replied:

“I know you follow a tremendous number of sources – your RSS feed compilation is more extensive than any I’ve ever seen in education.

As always, you and everyone else can take my word for it, disregard it completely or behave somewhere in between (which is probably best). Then we can discuss the differences and see what’s true and what isn’t.”

I gently pushed for a re-examination – including undermining my own credibility in a subtle way – but that didn’t happen. It rarely happens in the online education debates; instead, folks tend to  go-go-go, pushing their agenda – no homework, smaller class sizes, charter school expansion, etc. – with blinders on. But occasionally, someone takes the time to do all that research, fact-finding and verification they spend their careers  preaching to the digital natives.

At least he (and the friends/colleagues I personally linked my post to) and the other readers aren’t alone: Russo’s hoax grew tiny little legs. On Joanne Jacobs’ site, “Teaching Badly on TV” got a couple comments.

Kim Caise, Our Hero: She Trusted, But Verified

In the Northwestern study (Trust Online: Young Adults’ Evaluation of Web Content, available at the International Journal of Communication), 0 out of 102 did what we’d consider complete research, despite students  (presumably) trying to do their best. I started writing this piece when my post, “Teacher Interventions, Education Policy and Common Sense” hit 102 views. 1 out of those 102 – Kim Caise, who writes about education technology – followed up what she’d read and commented:

“As I visited the website you mentioned regarding the upcoming ‘Classroom Intervention’ show. The category for the post is ‘made up news’ and some of the other posts in that category by the author indicate the posts were fake and actually made up. Seeing that there isn’t any discussion or mention of the show on A&E’s website, I tend to believe that this show is actually made up as well.”

Here’s what Kim did:

  • She read the text closely and with a bit of skepticism;
  • Followed the link to Alexander Russo’s original entry to reference it with my post;
  • Read Russo’s entry, including the category titles, which she followed to place his original “Intervention” post in context;
  • Researched A&E’s website (and probably Google as a whole) to verify;
  • Put together the available evidence to form a conclusion (in this case, that some of us were full of it)
  • Notified the community and added to the debate by leaving a descriptive comment.

In short, Ms. Caise did exactly what the ed community preaches to digital natives, while the balance of readers dropped the ball.

To Lie or Not to Lie

Once I took a class that was filled with the types  those concerned about the quality of higher education lament: mindless neo-hippies, illogical diversophiles (whose lives, paradoxically, are anything but diverse), professional protesters (who seldom grasped either side of an issue) and the well-meaning smart kids who’d encountered too few good teachers. Most had tunnel vision with regard to most complex social/political issues, so when I had an opportunity to read something to the class, I chose a short letter about the lynching of Zachariah Walker.

I edited the letter to make it anonymous in terms of time, place and demographics, though it was clear that a black man had been lynched for killing a white man. I asked a few questions at the end that gauged what the class thought about the letter. They expressed with confidence that it was about a black man being lynched in the deep South in the 19th century and that the letter-writer was a black man, too. Had to be, said one, because no one else could have understood the complexities of the issue – what happened, why, what it said about the community – the way a black person could.

Walker was lynched in Coatesville, Pennsylvania in 1911 – both details were tiny surprises to the other students. And the letter was written by a white reverend. It was the first time I’d seen a number of people have that blank, 5-second “I’ve just realized that I’ve totally misunderstood this issue to the detriment of myself and others” look.

After the class I talked with the professor – with whom I talked frequently, so we were candid and friendly – about my bait’n'switch. I thought it was harmless and perhaps would push a student to a stark realization about how they process, usually without enough consideration, complex issues. She thought that it was a mistake and that in terms of teaching strategy, creating skepticism might have negative consequences down the road.

I’ve never made up my mind on this issue (which is a good discussion for another post, probably on another site). I see the merits of both sides, but I’ve leaned slightly – very, very slightly – toward the position that a refresher on skepticism is a valuable thing when it’s infrequent and about something significant.

Significant, like students, teachers, and the rest of the education community not knowing how to read or research properly.

What Can We Do?

This is not a scientifically rigorous study. It’s not longitudinal and it’s not exhaustive. It is, in my opinion, representative of the sloppy – and downright lazy – approaches to the education debate that we see in too many comment threads and too many back-and-forth arguments.

And what’s worse is that it exposes the lack of commitment the ed community has to ensuring serious debate and the pursuit of truth.

The moral of the story is that progressive debate in education – and any other field – requires a bit of care. It’s hard and it’s time-consuming, but professional responsibility dictates that we do it.

We aren’t perfect. For example, the original Tweeted article cited University of Chicago students as subjects rather than University of Illinois – Chicago students and I re-Tweeted it without catching the error. Mistakes happen. But if teachers, administrators and policymakers are going to maintain credibility and engage in productive debate, they need to practice what they preach.

Trust, but verify.

Teacher Interventions, Education Policy and Common Sense

There are some indisputable laws in our natural world – If you’re gonna play in Texas, you gotta have a fiddle in the band, for example. One such law chiseled into granite over the last few decades is that if there’s one sector that doesn’t understand that relationship between the forest and the trees, it’s American public education.

I follow thousands of teachers, policy players, politicians and other interested parties on blogs (~600 subscriptions), newsletters, discussion groups and social media (namely Twitter). I don’t have to pore over mountains of commentary or content to compile a convincing list of proof; here’s a rundown exposing the blindness and general mark-missing – sometimes deliberate, sometimes not, and sometimes by simply not showing up – that came from 10 minutes of reading.

Teacher Interventions

Alexander Russo notifies us that A&E will introduce this fall a show called “Classroom Intervention” in which struggling, underperforming teachers are smacked with professional reality – namely that they struggle and underperform. Their work will be analyzed and presented to them with strategies/mechanisms to improve performance. I commented:

“From reading teacher-to-teacher discussions on blogs, chats, and events like the weekly Twitter #edchat, I had the impression that all teachers were motivated, future-thinking “lifelong learners” – along with most of their colleagues.

That A&E has rounded up a few teachers in need of improvement will be a difficult reality for many of the education cult leaders to deny.”

I poked around the internet and there’s remarkably little discussion of this show. As I said, it flies in the face of so much discussion I witness – hop on to hashtags.org and search for #edchat. Rhetoric, ego-boosting and back-patting rules the day – every day.

There’s a place for encouragement, but this show raises many fundamental questions about education in 2010:

  • Why are these teachers ill-equipped to teach effectively?
  • Did they go through a teacher training program at the undergraduate level? What faults in teacher education led them to underperform in the classroom?
  • If they were certified to teach by a state, how is it that they enter the classroom without the basic skills they need to succeed? Is the certification process that flawed? If so, how can it be improved?
  • Why is it necessary for A&E to do interventions when colleges, certification bodies and day-to-day administrators – from their department heads to principals to superintendents to school boards – are already in place to monitor, serve and improve teaching?

We know the answers to some of these – and there are many more basic questions. The point is that these are significant issues that aren’t being discussed by the education sector.

Bridging the Gap Between… Something

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute calls attention to the current divide between education research, policy-making and implementation:

“Bridging the divide between education research and education policy can be difficult, but we came one step closer this week when we co-hosted the first Emerging Education Policy Scholars program with the American Enterprise Institute. The program aims to cultivate emerging talent in the education policy sector.”

Yes, it’s difficult – and mostly because our public education players have failed to address seminal issues that lead to the difficulties.

The summit for budding ed policy scholars purports:

  • To enlarge the pool of talent and ideas from which the education-policy arena currently draws;
  • To introduce scholars to key players in the education policy arena; and
  • To increase understanding of how the worlds of policy and practice intersect with scholarly research in education and related fields.

TBF and AEI, for all their good works, shows their fundamental misunderstanding of the problem in the very first sentence: Enlarging the pool of talent is less important than recruiting more talented people. It’s not that all education policy folks are dolts – they aren’t, especially at those two outfits – but the goal doesn’t address education’s inability to attract high-level talent. Applicants to education-related fields are in the bottom quartile for GRE scores as reported by ETS. Do we really need more of the same – stocking the pond with third-rate fish? – or do we need to find out why the whoppers are choosing engineering and physics instead of education policy, and then find out how to change that pattern?

Aside from the quality over quantity issue, we need to call this what it is: A networking event poorly disguised as an analytical conference. Young folks in the D.C. area will get to shake hands with Mike Petrilli and Rick Hess and attend the all-important “cocktail hour”:

“The event will also allow ample time—during discussion sessions, meals, and a cocktail hour—for scholars to build professional connections and share research and ideas.”

Think the cocktail hour isn’t important to policy wonks? In April, I was at an education event in New York City in which a young gentleman stood up to ask a panelist to give him “talking points for cocktail parties” re: school reform.

That’s the education policy culture we’ve got, folks.

46,000 Hours of “Poker Face”

And, on the ground, we’ve got higher ed’s librarians re-writing and lip-synching Lady Gaga songs. There are quite a few students, employees and faculty in this video – I stopped counting at 16 – who I’d love to introduce to the kids on my block. 93% of them qualify for free/reduced lunch and only ~30% of the elementary school’s 5th graders read with any degree of proficiency (~100% are proficient in Gaga).

The librarians can’t be blamed for 638,000 people having watched and laughed through their goofy video (which includes a witty Boolean line), though the opportunity cost of it all could have been considered – roughly 46,000 hours have been spent just watching the thing. And that’s the rub – On Our Minds at Scholastic asks:

“There are librarians, future librarians, shelves stacked high with books…and Lady Gaga! What’s not to love??”

My answer: 46,000 wasted hours within and without the ed community while kids struggle with the basics – the basics those in the video have likely committed themselves to, at least in theory, improving. Harsh, but true.

“No, Really!”

Over at The Educated Reporter, Linda Perlstein advises that we spice up the summer by focusing on the insignificant:

“No, really! One of my favorite pieces to write on the ed beat was about an odd policy on the books of the Montgomery County Public Schools, encouraging teachers to mix up alphabetical order so as to not discriminate against the Z kids. The article took only an afternoon to report and write, and would have been even shorter and sweeter were it not for the Metro editor’s superfluous insistence that I include an expert comment and find out—on deadline, natch—whether every other D.C.-area had such a policy on the books. I got more feedback on that piece than anything else I wrote all month.

Maybe you too should look for some archaic or offbeat policies on the books of your school system, if you can’t figure out anything better to do before pitchers and catchers report.”

I commented on the piece:

“As a guy, I’ve been a “T” all my life. In most of my elementary school years, we lined up for lunch alphabetically. This meant that in a period ~40 minutes, I spent 10-15 minutes in line and had the balance to eat. Those at the front of the line didn’t have to wait for their meals or eat them on a deadline. Hungry 8-year old alphabet cellar dwellers appreciate switching it up now and then.

That it’s policy is the part worth noting. We’ve got such an absence of common sense that we need it to be explicit policy to appear at all – and that’s troubling.”

Believe it or not, Montgomery County Schools has bigger fish to fry – nearly a quarter of the County’s Hispanic students don’t graduate, for example. (In fairness, perhaps it’s an alphabetical discrimination issue?)

At ParentHood.org, Wondermom3 opines on the issue:

“Wondermom3: I always dismiss my kiddos to lunch by who is sitting criss-cross applesauce, but what do I know? LOL.”

LOL, indeed.

Education as a House

If those involved in public education were instead building and developing a household, we’d have the #edchat, ed school and teacher back-patter folks discussing issues like, “What is a house anyway?” while ignoring their inability to produce heads of household who can ensure that the thing actually functions.

We’d have think-tanks talking about how best to build the house while paying too little mind to who’s in the construction crew and too much mind to holding impressive neighborhood barbecues.

We’d have the media specialists giggling over drapes, carpeting and design accessories while the roof leaks, the basement is flooded and the foundation crumbles.

And we’d have the journalists – our home inspectors and code enforcers in this analogy – musing about all the goings-on while dodging the charging 800lb gorillas that lay waste to the neighborhood.

We’ve got some basic questions that need answers.

Why Charter Schools are Billed as “Tuition Free”

Jerry Seinfeld

Charles Lussier is filling in for Linda Perlstein over at The Educated Reporter this week. Today’s rant is about the use of “tuition free” to describe charter schools. You can almost hear him channeling his inner-Seinfeld and asking the world, “So what’s the deal with tuition free?!?” Here we go:

“OK, Pet Peeve Time, readers of The Educated Reporter. Why is that so many charter schools in their promotional messages describe themselves as “tuition free”? I understand that people often are confused about what charter schools are or are not, but they are emphatically public schools, not private schools.”

That has nothing to do with the issue of why charter schools bill themselves as “tuition free.” He continues:

“At a recent meeting I attended where a new Baton Rouge charter school was selling itself, the school’s director used this “tuition free” phrase. He said he’d worked at private schools and public schools and that charter schools were in the middle, “the best of both worlds.” Now, I understand a bit of what he’s saying — they are open to everyone, but have more freedom than traditional public schools — but come on! These are public schools, no question. Yes, some raise private money on the side to supplement their budgets, but so do many traditional public schools.”

Again, that has nothing to do with the issue of why charter schools bill themselves as “tuition free.” The real whine:

“The best explanation for selling yourself in this way, to me, is to persuade parents interested in private schools, but who can’t afford them, that going to a charter school is equivalent to attending a private school and doing so for free! Charter schools, while given some freedom, still have loads of laws to abide by that put them in the same family as traditional public schools. To my mind, it’s purposely misleading.”

No, Charles. You’ve missed the point completely. Here’s what I wrote:

Charles,

This is not a hard question, and it sure isn’t a mystery.

This is a simple PR issue.

Many parents – especially parents of children who can benefit most from charter schools – don’t realize that “charter school” means “at no cost to you.” So, a school bills itself in promotional literature/advertisements as “tuition free” to let parents know that they won’t have to pay a tuition bill to have their child attend.

Yes, it is that simple. End of story.

Perhaps the EWA blog should be renamed to “Educate A Reporter.” This time the lesson was tuition free.

World Trade Center and Pentagon Terrorist Attacks, 2009 Update

Last year we were winning 7-0; now it’s 8-0.

I show no mercy – none – to the folks in education who say that NCLB, various teaching/administrative/reform initiatives, etc. inspire “terror” in children or that their practitioners are “terrorists.” On this point, I am almost entirely alone in terms of vocal, specific criticism.

Watch the video embedded in my re-post below – you’ll see why I never, ever let it slide.

[Originally posted in September, 2008]

We’re winning 7-0, and I’d like to go for the shutout.

I don’t really use the phrases “9/11″ or “September 11.” Instead, I refer to the events 7 years ago today as what they were – a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the United States. I understand that “9/11″ and the like are shorthand; it’s a convenient way to refer to a complex event. But I don’t bother with the day for the same reason I don’t say “December 25″ when I really mean Christmas.

Mark Steyn has reprinted his September 12, 2001 column called “A War for Civilization” and added a bit of perspective – it demands a careful read, and should be read annually.

For those of you who don’t yet read Evan Coyne Maloney’s Brain Terminal, start with his brilliant, harrowing ‘Hell on Earth’ essay. Then watch the video memorial Crystal Morning, edited from David Vogler’s footage:

I got a package in the mail from my brother about two days after the attacks [it was beef jerky and apple cider]. It included this note:

world trade center attack note

The Useless Education Media, Chapter #42,783: EdWeek Edition

The education media is, as a whole, ineffective at educating the public. [Yes, there's a little bit of irony there.] Sometimes ed writers don’t know enough about a subject or practice to write a complete story. Sometimes they turn to tabloid-style baiting, partly because it’s easy, partly because it can be entertaining.

The biggest problem? They’re just plain lazy.

It’s a brash blanket statement, but it’s one that coverage of the most recent education blockbuster bears out.

There’s a bit of fatigue related to the Obama-education-speech coverage, so now’s really not the time to go into detail. Having said that, I’ll present a tiny variation on the theme.

EdWeek’s new “District Dossier” blog is right on top of another controversy [!]. Arlington Independent School District [Arlington, TX] chose not to broadcast President Obama’s speech as it happened – they didn’t want to interrupt instructional time/schedules, they said – but is busing fifth graders to Cowboys Stadium for a Super Bowl-related education event. The list of speakers at that event includes former President George W. Bush and former First Lady Laura.

Fear not! EdWeek’s on the scene!

Well, they’re on the scene – if linking to other news outlets’ stories and failing to present the situation with any degree of relevant detail is “on the scene.” The kicker is that they give you the issue, then make you do all the work to get to the truth.

Lazy.

At the end they ask you to make a judgment based on their useless coverage. They’d like you to spur on that “conversation” web 2.0 wants so desperately – i.e., you comment on their story and they get traffic. Giving you complete news simply isn’t a priority.

Here’s the response I left on the District Dossier site:

“What do you think? Is there a double standard at work or are some people being overly sensitive?”

It’s impossible to tell from such incomplete coverage. In order to answer the question, we’ve got to dredge up the information EdWeek didn’t – or that EdWeek didn’t bother to lay out for us.

EdWeek failed to explain what the Super Bowl ed program is about. By reading this summary, you’d think the event revolved around George W. Bush. Does it? To what extent? What’s on the docket at this event?

Research it yourself, folks – EdWeek’s not interested in telling you.

We want to read facts about the story – real details, not gossipy, incomplete speculation or the illogical rambling of yet another interview subject residing on the fringe.

Give us something to work with and we might be able to answer your question.

The investigative talents of the current ed journalists make Maxwell Smart look like Hercule Poirot. The education sector and the general public are worse off for it.

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