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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.

Stanford’s STEP Teacher Education Program, Social Justice and Dressing in Drag

Mission High School logo

It’s no secret that if you don’t toe the philosophical line in many teacher education programs, you encounter hindrances that range from brick walls to ambushes to professional punji pits. Sometimes it’s the administration; sometimes professors; sometimes peers. And sometimes all three work together to make sure you get the message that freedom of thought is fine – as long as you think the same way as the School of Education.

It plays hell with one’s career in education.

Occasionally we hear about a student whose worldview isn’t as malleable as the EduWeenies would like.

Michele Kerr is a 40-something who applied to Stanford University’s Teacher Education Program and was admitted. After letting it be known that she wasn’t on board with every element of the Program’s ‘social justice’ tenets, the problems quickly mounted. She was threatened with having her offer of admission revoked, including planning legal action to see that through. She was railroaded into being an enemy of the program, with administrators citing that students even felt uncomfortable sitting near her in classes because of her anti-progressive stances. The final straw was when the Program demanded a login and password for the blog on which she wrote anonymously about her challenges both with the program and the school environment in which she was training.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education [FIRE] – a champion of freedom in academia – stepped in. As they have so many times, they set the offenders straight and Kerr was guaranteed fair treatment. Adam Kissel of FIRE summarized the issue:

“Like STEP, too many education programs today are teaching by words and deeds that only one orthodoxy or ideology is acceptable in future teachers,” Kissel said. “This refusal to accept alternative views is no way to prepare teachers to cultivate effective citizens in our democracy. Fortunately, senior administrators stepped in to set things right for Michele Kerr.”

You can read FIRE’s press release about the case: Victory for Freedom of Speech at Stanford: Student Graduates Despite Ed School Efforts to Revoke Admission, Investigate Private Blog, and Declare Student Unfit for Teaching.

That an outfit even has to investigate an issue warranting a title like that should make you balk – and it’s more common than you think.

The Washington Post’s Jay Mathews should also be praised for swallowing that most bitter pill and highlighting Kerr’s case even though he’s on a different philosophical track. He gives a well-detailed account of Kerr’s saga in “They Messed With the Wrong Blogger.”

Too few people, both inside and outside of the education game, understand how common this is – and how pervasive social justice theories are in schools of education. But we’re not just talking about pointy-headed academics who regard 1968 as the high-water mark of American life; it shows up in everyday classes, too.

You know, like “frequently” discussing sexuality in your kid’s geometry/trigonometry class.

Taica Hsu is a 2006 alumnus of STEP. He teaches math at Mission High School, part of the San Francisco Unified School District, in the city’s Mission District. The setting:

“Mission High School has the distinction of being the first comprehensive high school in San Francisco and the first such school west of the Rocky Mountains. The first building was formally dedicated in 1897. Mission High School is proud of its rich history and we have our very own museum on campus which highlights the evolution of Mission High over the past 100+ years. Located in the heart of the Mission District in San Francisco, Mission High is proud of its ethnic diversity and we try to instill positive social values, acceptance and tolerance in our students.”

And “in [Hsu's] world, trigonometry points to justice.”

A MissionLoc@l article about Hsu’s classroom offers an inside view into how STEP students/teachers – and those in similar programs – approach education:

“On one wall, of his purple-painted classroom, posters proclaim the ills of war and social stratification. On another, algebra students’ projects statistically break down the injustices of homeless, drugs and teen pregnancy.

“My ultimate goal is to make students aware of the inequities in society,” he says. “I want to make them want to change their place in society.””

I’d rather they just learned math, but such trivialities are increasingly displaced by the pet projects of the education game’s social engineers.

“And in his class, where a rainbow flag hangs in the back of the room and the teacher wears a “No on 8? pin more than a week after the measure has passed, sexuality also comes up.

Gilberto [a student] had never met an openly-gay person before coming to Hsu’s class, he says. He thought homosexuality was “weird,” and he balked at the idea of having Hsu as geometry teacher.”

I’m pleased that Gilberto is more accepting and tolerant than he was on day 1 – after all, he’ll encounter people of all sorts throughout the course of his life. But Hsu’s efforts impinge on the authority of parents to address these issues at home. Simply put, I’d rather talk to my child about the merits and drawbacks of Prop 8 than have it woven into a lesson about trigonometric proofs.

Extracurricular clubs and events provide opportunities for students to go beyond rigid academic disciplines – and for Hsu to extend a social justice program that includes fostering a ‘them vs. us’ strain of victimization:

““He knows what it’s like to be discriminated against, just like us,” Gilberto says, with “us” meaning all undocumented immigrants. “He relates to us. He understands. So even though it doesn’t look like it, we both have something in common.”

Discrimination is everywhere – perhaps Mr. Hsu would allow me to come in and talk to the kids about Southwest London’s contempt for American, George W. Bush-supporting Republicans who enjoy country music and operate with a decidedly-rural panache?

It’s not all serious, thoughtful curriculum, though – sometimes he and the kids just dress up in drag:

“Hsu encourages awareness of queer issues on campus. He is the faculty sponsor of the gay-straight alliance, which hosts a drag show to honor the Day of Silence in the spring.”"

Surely Mission High School has so much time and so many resources for these forays because they’ve outperformed every other school in the SFUSD, routinely topping the charts in academic performance?

No. Mission High is one of the lowest-performing schools in the District, having received a rating of 1 out of 10 – with 1 being the lowest possible score – in the 2008 Academic Performance Index Report from the California Department of Education. The June Jordan School for Equity competes with Mission High for that last rung on the SFUSD ladder. And the problem isn’t that Mission High has a large population of non-native English speakers and English Language Learners [ELL] – Moscone Elementary, which, according to Mission Loc@l, has a majority population of ELLs, scored a 9 out of 10.

It isn’t necessarily Hsu’s fault – we have no idea how his efforts contribute to those scores. What we do know is that STEP and its graduates would do well to re-evaluate their priorities if they want to institute the fairness and commitment to academic achievement that they purport to uphold.

Or they can marginalize the Michele Kerrs of the education world, mix homosexual marriage rights with Euclidean geometry, dress in drag and retreat from abysmal test scores. Our students won’t be prepared for college, but at least they’ll be ready for the Folsom Street Fair.

“Once they got over the shock, students got hooked on the attention and the sense of purpose”

Joanne Jacobs,

Greg Lippman and Jennifer Andaluz together provided the brains, muscle and elbow grease to found Downtown College Prep, the subject of Joanne Jacobs’ “Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea, and the School That Beat the Odds”. To get the ball rolling, they created a small summer institute that would establish and test the themes that would drive DCP. From page 25:

“To connect with potential students and parents and try out their ideas, Lippman and Andaluz organized Summer Bridge, a free skill-building program for underachieving middle schoolers. Lippman’s parents donated the money for the program; San Jose State provided classroom space. Middle school counselors in San Jose recommended students, mostly Hispanic, who were struggling in school.

Expecting the usual summer snooze, Bridge students found themselves sweating through reading and math skills in an academic boot camp with Lippman and Andaluz as their drill sergeants. But, once they got over the shock, students got hooked on the attention and the sense of purpose. Their parents wanted more. Bridge parents began meeting with Lippman and Andaluz to discuss a charter high school.”

They did that without a fat, taxpayer-driven bank account. Makes you wonder what a public school with a $27,000 per-pupil budget is capable of – and why were aren’t seeing it.

“The complete lack of sugarcoating may seem harsh to outsiders, but students seem to appreciate the honesty”

Joanne Jacobs,

Chapter 1 of Joanne Jacobs’ “Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea, and the School That Beat the Odds” introduces San Jose’s Downtown College Prep, a charter school serving mostly Mexican immigrant families. DCP takes underperformers and develops them to succeed at a 4-year college or university. From page 9:

“”At DCP [Downtown College Prep], low achievers aren’t told they’re doing well; they’re told they can do better, if they work hard. The school doesn’t boost self-esteem with empty praise. Instead, Lippman and his teachers encourage what is known as “efficacious thinking,” the belief that what a person does has an effect. If you study, you’ll do better on the test than if you goof off. Work hard in school, and you can get to college. You have control over your future. So, stop making excuses and get your act together. The complete lack of sugarcoating may seem harsh to outsiders, but students seem to appreciate the honesty.”

Kids are the best fraud detectors alive. Honesty shows love and sincere concern. It’s no wonder that students at DCP – or anywhere, for that matter – prefer respectful honesty as they develop.

A Layman’s Common Sense Take on 21st Century Skills: Process and Content

a tale of two... well, you fill it in with what you want.

I‘m part of a discussion group that shares and analyzes all sorts of education-related information. When a good article comes up [or a particularly bad one, I suppose] we talk about it.

Dan Willingham, whose work I think is top-notch, has a piece on the Britannica Blog called “Education for the 21st Century: Balancing Content Knowledge with Skills” – and it’s worth reading. He makes the case that there’s a conceptual pendulum that swings between content knowledge and skills [which I prefer to call 'process,' so consider the terms interchangeable here]. I’ll go along with the ‘pendulum’ imagery because I can’t think of an example that expresses the push/pull dynamic that I think is appropriate – and a ‘tug of war’ doesn’t fit [vectors in physics? Maybe...].

I’ve pasted below a note I wrote this afternoon that exposes some of my thoughts on the issue. Parts are tangential because it was in the context of a broader discussion. I edited out a few sentences for clarity.

Food for thought below the scroll.

re: “Speaking about the pendulum, Dan Willingham was talking about the pendulum of content and critical thinking and how it always seems to sway too far one way or the other.  We need both content and the ability to analyze it… Anyway, we are now, clearly, at the analyze it – without any content knowledge stage which is terrible.”

I think this pendulum, if there is one, is driven by the lack of talent in the prospective teaching corps and the dolts who run the ed schools… over decades we’ve gradually moved toward process and away from content in a way that matches perfectly the abilities and limits of those involved in education. This is why I rail on about GRE scores and the like – if we get more highly-capable, talented people in education, they’ll a) come with more content and b) be able to handle even more.

Then ed schools and professional development can focus on effective ‘process’ – and I mean actually focus on it in a transparent, accountable way. Fill their halls with students who at least have solid content knowledge and we’ll see more accountability for some of these useless, baseless ideas in ed.

Poof! Process/content pendulum balanced. [BTW, "poof" is Olde English for "over 3 decades, several professional wars and depending on a cultural shift."]

I find some faults with Willingham’s piece here, but it reminds me of how I like to explain how content matters with ‘critical thinking.’ I use movie critics. How can a Kyle Smith or an Ebert critique movies meaningfully? They’ve seen hundreds, thousands. They’ve got a mass of content knowledge that allows them to *gasp* think critically about the subject. No content, no criticism, no analysis, no value.

It takes about 13 seconds to explain this to a kid and see the light bulb go off. Play them some new song, whether it’s a rap song or Britney Spears’ new album [the song "Womanizer" is surprisingly catchy, btw] and ask them if they like it. It’s awesome, it sucks, whatever – ask them why and they’ll tell you in a sentence or two.

Play them… the Hee Haw Gospel Quartet or Kenny Rogers and ask them to evaluate it. They can’t go beyond “HAHA THAT SUCKS” because they’ve never heard the genre. They retreat to the ‘process’/analytical side because they simply have no content knowledge to reference.

Britney or Lil Wayne? They can compare it to thousands of similar songs and evaluate it accordingly. That’s using content knowledge along with process/analytical ability to get a result.

No content knowledge, no worthwhile result.

No “21st century skills” here, either.

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