Saturday, September 23, 2017

Equality vs Equity?

This image appeared in my 4th grade classroom this week.


The context was a short discussion about why some students get additional resources or different assignments from others. The image is meant to show that our classroom operates on the principle of equity - each student gets what he or she needs in order to engage with the curriculum. The image, however, is really quite problematic.

It seems to me this image visually reinforces several aspects of inequity. You have the color of the spectators and their exclusion from the audience highlighting both their race and class. There's also the complicated factor of making up for naturally occurring biological differences (height) while so much of equity is focused on alleviating artificial constructs of race and class. The image really falls apart in a number of ways but I think it is an excellent example of where discussions of social justice in the classroom (and elsewhere) often fall short. We've become really good at identifying the shortcomings of an equalitarian approach because not everyone starts off at the same spot. Merely giving access to the same resources doesn't alleviate inequality. Giving a 10th grader who reads at a 4th grade level more 10th grade books isn't going help that kid's reading improve.

We are really bad at addressing the deeper causes of inequality. Why can't the 10th grader read at a 10th grade level and what can be done to fix a system which produces too many 10th graders reading below grade level? The short man in the image needs two boxes to see over the fence but what if he had a seat inside the stadium like all those other people? Sadly, these kinds of questions often escape us. It's too easy for us to look at our classrooms or our communities and seek to fix problems on a case by case basis. It's too hard for us to address systemic issues. I think part of the solution is to force ourselves to think critically about everything we do in and out of the classroom. When we explain why equity matters in the classroom, push for plain language and direct acknowledgment of inequality in all its forms. Be critical of how you choose to represent people in visuals and stories. Make an effort not to reinforce problematic depictions of race, class, gender, orientation, etc.

nota bene: As I searched online for a copy of the image to link in this post, I discovered that others had seen and addressed its problems. If you want to read a little about that, check out this post at culturalorganizing.org. It turns out there is more to the image which never made it into my classroom.




Monday, August 14, 2017

Thinking more about social justice and education


Much of the material and discussion I encounter in my education classes is focused on social justice and those ideas have an interesting interaction with the dilemmas faced by classroom teachers everywhere. I wrote earlier that I am critical of approaches which seem to focus a curriculum on examining specific issues of social justice without recognizing that education has another form of justice to which it ought to aspire; namely, students need to acquire the skills and knowledge to be able to succeed and empower themselves. Without accomplishing the latter goal, what good is teaching students to be critical? My readings for class recently have helped illuminate why this makes sense and I'm going to share some of that here.

Barbara Comber argues that there are issues of economic justice which should motivate teachers to teach "critical literacies" so as to help prepare their students to compete in a world of ever increasing inequality. She pulls from Piketty's comment that people who own only their own labor are at risk for being left out of income growth and other opportunities. The moral imperative is for teachers to push students toward more knowledge production skills, chiefly critical literacy. To accomplish this, she thinks students should be "researchers of language" - that they should not just learn the content but also learn how a particular field approaches and solves problems. That is, in short, teaching literacy instead of teaching content. Being critical, in Comber's case, applies to that role of students as language researchers. Once they take on that role, they can challenge flaws and argue for improvements. 

I think Comber threads the needle on this issue very well. She repeats again and again that critical literacies do entail a focus on the forces that create inequality and injustice but she doesn't think that is the measure of good critical literacy. I struggle, sometimes, to articulate this concept in discussions so it's nice to see someone do it better than I can. Overall, I don't know if I agree with the economic framing if only because so many education reformers reduce the role of education to job preparedness. Her use of Thomas Piketty is crucial, as he argues for significant social reforms and redistribution which I think education reformers would be uncomfortable with. 

Second, I have another article about the role of critical literacy in education. Hilary Janks provides a more conventional justification for teaching critical literacies: combating social injustice through education. 
In the actual world—where a 17-year-old boy sells one of his kidneys for an iPad; where adult men rape babies; where rebel fighters video themselves mutilating and cannibalizing the body of an enemy soldier to post on YouTube; where imprisonment without trial and tor- ture are condoned; where children are molested by adults they trust; where millions of people lack access to drinking water or sanitation; the list is endless—it is even more important that education enables young people to read both the word and the world critically 
Again, I worry about these kinds of approaches because I want tone sure students are not just getting a crash course in how fucked up the world is. They need to tools and the ability to fix it, too. She walks us through a lesson she's taught about access to clean drinking water and includes examples of data, photos, and other texts she brings to the students as they analyze the issue. The students are challenged to think about who gets access to a valuable resource, water, and how it is unevenly distributed. In a social studies context, I think this less works well and can fit both a pedagogy of social justice and a socially just pedagogy. The students don't stop at learning about a problem, they are assessing how the language creates and distributes power. I see this as a task very much inside the domain of a social scientist and the students are, therefore, going to be acting and thinking like a social scientist would. Lastly, the presence of solutions to externalities (plastic pollution) means there's a solution mindset which urges the students to be an active part of making things better. The connection to student empowerment is there. 

For me, these both helped me understand what a socially just pedagogy looks like that also engages specifically in teaching about a specific issue of social justice. I am, maybe, just a little, possibly, biased in favor of more traditional classroom approaches if only because I see so much emphasis on social justice curriculums and so little on making sure the kids can be successful. As I move into the fall and begin more specific coursework related to teaching literacy, I will have to be more open to how social justice can be woven into a socially just kind of teaching. 

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Power and Justice in Education

Two weeks ago I wrote a little about some paradoxes in education and how those made it hard to determine what America considers the role of its educational institutions to be. A brief part of that post was me noting that education is always an exercise in the use of power. I thought more about it this week and how that relates to ideas of justice, in part, because of a discussion I had with a classmate about a socially just pedagogy.

Education is always a exercise of power for a few reasons. For one, it's compulsory in the United States. Even though some parents opt out of the public school system through private or home schooling, the children still have to meet some definition of being educated. Choosing no education is not an option and the government will forcibly remove children from families who do not school their kids in some form. That is, in short, a use of power. The reasoning behind the government's use of power betrays another use of power: knowledge. At its core, the reason education is compulsory is to provide instruction in various kinds of knowledge. These might be specific academic fields. These might be social skills and knowledge needed to work and function in society. There are other. As my previous post points out, I don't think we have a good grip on what exactly we want education to be so it's stuck in a variety of competing modes. We, as a society, empower the government to force children into education so that they may acquire knowledge broadly deemed necessary. Power.

So far so good. An exercise of power by the state in the form of compulsory education is mostly non-controversial. The controversy comes in when the public has differences with the second aspect, the knowledge part. Maybe they don't like evolution being taught in schools because they feel schools should represent christian morals and doctrine. Maybe the public wants schools to be more responsive to the needs of minorities or to provide broader social services. The picture of what good schooling looks like quickly becomes muddled. I'd like to suggest that all these issues ultimately come down to a single idea, justice. When power is exercised in a way which a society broadly agrees with, we consider it just. When power is exercised in a way which a society broadly disagrees with, we consider it unjust. Obviously it's more complex than that binary as societies are capable of holding varied and contradictory views about how power is used by the state. Let's skip the whole discussion of political philosophy, though, because I have other things I'm interested in talking about right now. We can assume that compulsory education is just. Pretty much only extreme libertarians would argue the state has no role in educating children or maintaining an educated populace. Even then, I find most libertarians still accept public schooling but would prefer a more choice oriented model of it.

When is education unjust? Well, we think of it as unjust when schools somehow harm children. Few, if any schools, actively hurt kids anymore. Policy broadly reflects the desire to act justly toward children and attempt to provide them with a good education so that society is broadly capable of sustaining itself. Instead, children are harmed when we perceive their schooling to be inadequate. Maybe they never learn anything. Maybe they are over-disciplined and end up in suspension and, eventually, prison. Maybe they're getting good grades but lack any useful skills. When schools fail to use their power to accomplish their overarching goals, they are not just.

Which brings me to my discussion with a classmate. As I've mentioned before, my current class is about disciplinary literacy. The short version of the thesis for the class is that teachers across various disciplines should envision their classes as opportunities for the students to become members of a discipline (math, science, whatever). Rather than simple knowledge of the facts and procedures required of a discipline, students learn better and have greater opportunities when they are able to walk and talk like a member of that field. Don't just learn about history, learn how to think and speak like a historian. It's also more just. The idea here is that becoming a member of a discipline allows you more opportunities to pursue your own interests. In other words, you are granted the freedom to choose your own path because you have every option available to you.

My classmate disagreed with this approach on a practical footing. She suggested that you can't be certain every student really feels like a member of a discourse and adopts the language and practices of that field. Moreover, just because you teach the students how to think like a mathematician doesn't mean they will have access to those institutions as they age and pursue their interests in college or the workforce. Larger societal forces are at play than just the school environment. She suggested explicitly teaching about those forces as a better and more just alternative. The context of this discussion was an analysis of a math lesson about the Census. We were discussing whether the lesson really did make kids members of math discourse and whether that was a just pedagogy.

My option here is nuanced because I see these as two very separate arguments. On one hand, my classmate is suggesting that the curriculum is only just if it teaches kids about the ways power is used and abused. By helping them see how math and statistics on the US Census can include or exclude various people and, therefore, change how they are represented politically, she is directly teaching students about issues of social justice through her math curriculum. They're still going to do math. They're still going to learn about statistics and how to analyse data but they're going to do so with a lense critical of those methods. The term for this is a pedagogy of social justice. The kids gain knowledge and skills primarily as a means to engage with and critique a field of knowledge. On the other hand, we have something a little bit different although not totally different (remember, I said nuanced). Instead of being concerned only with criticism and the misuse of power, teachers should be concerned with making sure their students acquire power. The way in which students acquire power is by actually learning and actually developing skills which they can use to elevate themselves.

If you've read my blog before, you probably recognize this dilemma because I keep returning to it time and time again.
...I don't see how it could exist outside of very selective areas of the country. How great is your social justice education if it's only happening in New York and San Francisco?
and 
I haven't even brought out the larger critique of ignoring student's language needs to focus on their cultural needs.
There's a paradox here with regards to a pedagogy of social justice. A pedagogy of social justice is not just. Indeed, to the extent where it sometimes leads to ignoring the needed skills and knowledge in favor of a critical approach to learning a field, a pedagogy of social justice could actually be an injustice. If the kids learn all about how the census hurts the poor and minorities but don't learn how the statistics work or how they can be the mathematicians to improve the system, how much social justice is your curriculum really producing? Now, I don't think that's why my classmate was suggesting. I also don't think the two are mutually exclusive of one another but that doesn't mean they go hand in hand either. What a truly just pedagogy allows for is the student to freely engage with the curriculum as an equal - as a member of that field or discipline. This means than in addition to teaching about the US Census and the math behind it, we also teach about the norms, conventions, and practices of math. Can they take this knowledge and use it in real life? Can they take this knowledge and create a career, a cause, or a critique of their own? Ultimately, that is far more empowering than being walked through a series of critiques the teacher determined needed to be discussed.

So let's return to thinking about justice through this lense of power. The pedagogy of social justice my classmate envisions power flowing in one direction. The power to compulsory educate leads to the power of the educator to drive the curriculum in a way she sees fit. Therefore, she decides the best thing for the students to learn is that other institutions in the US abuse power - like how the US Census is a flawed instrument which uses statistics to systematically disenfranchise people. Justice, for a pedagogy of social justice, comes from students learning all about other injustices. The goal of schooling is to help students learn about injustices so they might fight to make it better. Power flows from the government to the schools to the teacher to the students. It's decidedly old fashioned and centered on the teacher and the institution as the center of knowledge and the arbiters of what is and is not worth learning about. Kids are in place to receive this knowledge and act upon it.

Meanwhile, an approach which creates a socially just pedagogy envisions power flowing differently. While school is clearly still compulsory in this model, the teacher is deemphasized as the source of power for the class. Instead, the discipline (mathematics, in the case of the Census lesson) contains the power and the goal of the teacher is to help kids feel like they're part of the discipline. With disciplinary knowledge, the students are the ones with power. They can choose to pursue criticisms and reform, they can choose to pick a different discipline which they find more interesting, they can do whatever they want, reall. Beyond being a more effective way for the students to learn the specific skills and knowledge we expect them to have, a pedagogy which seeks to bring all students into a discipline is one which seeks to give students power.

Between these two, which is ultimately going to prove more just? Which is going to exercise power in a way which society will broadly embrace?

Much of the discussion here pulls from Elizabeth Moje's Review of the Literature on Disciplinary Literacy Teaching published in Review of Research in Education Vol. 31 from March 2007. 

Monday, July 24, 2017

Thinking about educational paradoxes, the purpose of education, and engagement.

I get a little preoccupied sometimes because I don't really know what education is for. No. Really. I'm not sure I have a cogent understanding of what our system of education is intended to accomplish. I'm not sure I understand what it means to be educated on an individual level or as a society. Let me be clear, as well, that I understand there are a lot of answers to this question and I know what many of those answers are but find them unsatisfactory.

Paradoxes

In part, my inability to understand education comes from some serious paradoxes which society and policy create surrounding education. A good example comes from a commenter on Arnold Kling's blog.
People in education tend to believe two things:
1) School is America’s great driver of social mobility. School lifts up the poor. Without our education system, we would be a terribly unequal, unjust, “rich get richer and the poor stay poor” society.
2) It is not just grudgingly acceptable but good and just that the more education you have, the better you are treated.
Arnold Kling is a libertarian blogger and it's important to note that a lot of his commenters probably share a skeptical view of the usefulness of public education. That's not to say views critical of "government education" are right or wrong but to point out that there's a particular bias here. In this case, I don't think that bias negates the usefulness of the critique.

Anyway, the comment above gets to one of the paradoxes about education that keep me up at night. On one side we have the typical argument that education is a great equalizer and adequate levels of education will decrease economic and social inequality. However, what the commenter seems to be pointing out is that education increases inequality. The returns on completing college and getting a degree are higher than ever and higher relative to the non-college educated population than ever. Kids who go to college (a typical 4-year university type education, not 2-year associates degrees or private ITT-Tech type colleges) earn more and have significantly better lives in almost every measure we can apply.

'James, wait,' you might be saying, 'the problem is that not enough kids go to college.' Or something like that. Essentially, this boils down to education not being evenly distributed enough. I don't buy that argument for two reasons. First, it's not feasible to premise our education system on the idea that 100% of people should attend a 4-year college and receive a bachelor's degree. We tried that. It's called No Child Left Behind and one of its goals was literally that every kid would be college ready. Go read up on how well that worked.

Second, educational attainment is climbing. Fewer students are dropping out of high school than ever before. More students are entering college than ever before. More students are completing college than ever before. Advanced degree attainment is also huge and has grown significantly since the mid 2000s. Yet, wages are stagnant and inequality is growing. Upwards of 40 million Americans live in poverty, the highest number since at least the 1950s. As a percentage of all Americans, the number living in poverty has been relatively flat (~12-14%) since about the 1960s. The relationship between education attainment, poverty, and inequality is unclear. Why, then, do policymakers and society at large insist on a view of education as the only (or at least the primary) pathway to fixing inequality?

There is a related paradox which is very well stated by Fredrik deBoer:
9. Education is both a system for creating broad societal equality and for separating individuals into rigid tiers of relative performance. The tensions between these functions are to remain unexamined.
I highly recommend reading the whole post because he gets to the "dogma" that underpins education discourse in the United States. Here, he points out that you can't really have a system of education which accomplishes both of these stated goals. On one hand every student is supposed to come out of school and be able to attain some average quality of life and earn a living. On the other hand, schools and colleges rank and sort students into hierarchies which effectively limit their opportunities. SAT scores play a big role in what kinds of colleges kids access. A degree from Yale and a degree from the University of Georgia differ greatly. A kid graduating from Spiderman's High School, the Bronx High School of Science, has vastly different opportunities than a kid graduating from Herbert H Lehman High School, 5 miles away, where only about 52% of students graduate. Within schools there are class ranks and grades and various honor societies which all have criteria for determining which students are better than others at something (or everything).

In reality, we know that this ranking and sorting matters for students' futures but we pretend like that's all some kind of odd byproduct and the real purpose of education is to fix inequality. It can't be. Schools are a major driver of inequality by design. Our economy, higher education, and pretty much every social institution in the US require ranking and sorting students according to their relative performance on a bunch of metrics. We should stop pretending like it's not something we expect from our schools.

I think both of these paradoxes lead to a third: we think every single student is completely and 100% capable of accomplishing each and every educational challenge set before them. If you take the view that all of schooling is for producing vast amounts of equality, it's really easy to want every kid to accomplish similar levels of learning. The thing is, I taught special education. I know that every kid is not capable of attaining the exact same level of learning. I had students with significant impediments to their learning which placed them at a 1st grade reading level. I had students with behavioral disorders which eroded their productive class time and guaranteed they weren't going be learning that day/week/month. What I learned, among a great many things, is that not every kid is going to learn every thing. Some kids will learn some things. Some kids will learn many things. Zero kids will learn everything. AP Calculus is not the bar by which we ought to measure every child. Neither is AP British Literature.

And yet, when society and policymakers begin considering education, they want every kid in the most advanced and most challenging courses. They want to create a system where the most advanced opportunities are available. And, crucially, they place blame on schools and teachers for not achieving these goals. It's never a question of inappropriate expectations, it's a question of how a school or teacher failed to help that student. Never mind that 14% of our students have IEPs. Never mind that 9% of our students are learning English as a second language. Never mind all the other factors that play into a student's performance. All students have the same ability and are required to meet whatever arbitrary standard is set in some education task.

The Purpose of Education

It should seem pretty clear that I don't think the purpose of education is to solve poverty, inequality, or other social ills. Both the way we've built our educational system and the outcomes which actually occur lead me to believe that the rhetoric surrounding education doesn't match the reality of what our system does. Somehow we prefer to be paradoxical rather than to try and examine these contradictions and make changes.

So what do I think the goal of education ought to be? I don't know exactly. I don't have a complete answer but I'm going to take a stab at a few ideas. Try them on. See if they fit. That kind of thing.

Being a student in a whole new social context has exposed me to the idea of educating for social justice. I wish we had a better word because social justice is a very loaded term these days. Honestly, I'm having a bit of anxiety just typing it because I expect the internet trolls will descent upon me and obliterate me from the earth. If I could condense the ideas I'm encountering to a short statement, it would be that the purpose of education is to make students socially responsible members of society. They should go to school to learn about how they should make the world a better place through alleviating poverty, eliminating prejudice, and being generally the kind of people who care deeply about their fellow human beings.

It's the kind of thing that seems somewhat unobjectionable at the surface. Indeed, I don't think it's really that problematic on principle but rather is highly problematic in practice. I find myself feeling luckier and luckier to have grown up in the South. Being a Southerner gives me a very different view of institutions and their role in the world than I think I would otherwise have had. It's a worldview I'm only just beginning to realize I had.

You see, back home in Georgia, teaching social justice would end your career. People here look at me like I'm an insane person when I say that. They can't comprehend a world in which teachers cannot advocate, say, protesting the president over climate change. They don't see how a teacher advocating same sex marriage might lose her job or how a teacher posting in support of a women's march on Washington might land in hot water.

I attribute part of this to a lack of union protection (yes, they have good uses!) but also to a fundamentally different concept of the role of schools as an institution which the New Yorkers and costal academic types I encounter don't seem to understand. As an example let me quote my good friend Jason Jones:

Children who come to us don’t get a choice, so the least we can do is be careful in how we proceed with their education.  After all, when you have government representatives telling citizens how to think, we call that propaganda.
... High schoolers are mostly minors.  Minors are supposed to have special protections specifically because they aren’t yet mature enough to act as fully responsible persons, and one of those protections is not being overwhelmed with a specific, government sourced narrative.
I don't think this line of thinking even exists up here. I've never heard a single student or professor address an understanding of education as an exercise of power. They like to mention using power in all sorts of other social contexts. They love to mention that, before our more modern and enlightened times, educators and government exercised power to segregate and disenfranchise the poor and minorities. Somehow, they fail to see how educating for social justice is still an exercise of power. Sometimes people don't like institutions having the power do certain things, no matter how noble or justified.

Jason is not some reactionary conservative voice shouting down the system of public education. He's a committed public schoolteacher and an open, accepting humanist. But, like me, he grew up in the South and that context gives us a very different view of the role of government and of public education. Any curriculum and any "purpose" is always an exercise of state power. If we forget that lense, if we simply assume schools are now altruistic arms of the best elements of society, we blind ourselves to potential overreach and abuse. I also wonder how much assuming the institution is altruistic creates the paradoxes above? Social Justice at the beginning of the 20th century differed greatly from social justice in the 1950s and differs greatly from social justice now. That alone makes me skeptical of social justice as the purpose of education.

Is educating for social justice a bad thing? No. I think it's fine but I don't see how it could exist outside of very selective areas of the country. How great is your social justice education if it's only happening in New York and San Francisco? How can you endorse a system of schooling that half the country would reject? My opposition to social justice as the purpose of education is practical rather than theoretical. I would love to be able to have open and engaging conversations about LGBTQ issues with students in every state. I think being frank about it and examining the issues critically would make people more open and more accepting. I also think it would get me fired in about half of those states.

I've had a few occasions to explain this to people and most tell me the same thing: just go teach somewhere that would accept this. It's tough because I do want to return home to Georgia as my family and Lisa's family age. It's tough because the South offers significant cost of living advantages over New York and the Northeast. Moreover, I don't like the solution of ignoring some (most?) of the country. "Just don't teach them" is not a valid answer when considering the purpose of education. Social justice shouldn't leave people out just because they hold inconvenient views. Perhaps that should be another paradox I list: social justice education for some based primarily on the luck of geographic location.

Other often cited purposes for education also seem unlikely when you actually examine them. I hear many people concerned that education isn't doing enough career training. The assumption here is that education's purpose should be career preparatory. Mostly this is directed at STEM careers because those are well paying and in demand. While schools are rushing to push kids toward coding classes and advanced math and science AP placement, 40% of schools don't have any AP courses, much less AP STEM courses. Plus, who is going to leave a 6-figure programming career to teach computer science for $40k a year?

All the above assumes we even want every single kid moving into STEM careers and that school is the best way to prepare them for those careers. People should have some degree of freedom in choosing their life's work and not feel pigeonholed by well-meaning initiatives. Plus, a lot of these careers change rapidly but the curriculums in schools don't. When I worked as a Career and Technical  Education para professional in 2011, the web design course I worked in used methods and software that were 5-6 years out of date. They were learning industry standards which had ceased being industry standards three or more years prior. Schools, as an institution, aren't well equipped to manage this task. Now, there are other moves to make here, like redesigning schools completely and putting all the curriculum in a live-updating digitally delivered "personalized" platform. I have other problems with that approach but, again, is that the purpose of education? Should schools be redesigned to turn every kid into a programmer or physician's assistant? What does the workplace look like when there is an oversupply of these professionals?

We can also dispense with the illusion that the purpose of education is to make children into good citizens, a favorite of social studies teachers I have known. Invariability this purpose appeals to the need of each child to learn how their government and civic society function. First, I don't think anyone understands how any of it works anymore and our system of government is a train gone off the rails. Second, there's a lot of disagreement about this, see social justice education above. The role of government is envisioned differently depending on who is teaching and where they are teaching it. Third, it is not clear how, say, a good chemistry class builds civic virtues. Fourth, schools cut civics and government classes because they're not on the high stakes tests. It seems clear that this isn't the purpose of our educational system.

The signaling model of education is an interesting if depressing one. The signaling model of education is simply that acquiring education is a means of showing some group that you're a part of the group. The skills and knowledge, while important, are secondary. That's why a BA at Harvard often gets you more money and connections than an advanced degree in the same field elsewhere. That's why our CEOs and Presidents and other Very Serious People all went to the same schools and live in the same places.

If you can't tell, I have a little bit of belief in the signaling model. It seems to explain some of the "bubble" that has developed in the country. It is not, however, a good purpose for education. It's inherently exclusionary. It's inherently classist. It's inherently anti-meritocratic. Accurate, perhaps, but not what the purpose of education should be.

Engagement: my current koolaid

Recently I've decided to dig into the idea of "engagement." Prior to doing a little learning, I always felt like engagement was a gimmick. Maybe it was a gimmick for many people who talked about it. My principal used to dress up like a little blonde cheer leader and barge into classrooms shouting school cheers in the name of engagement. Gimmick. Also, not engagement. Engagement isn't fun. Engagement isn't making school some kind of enthusiastic and desirable environment. Those might be good things to do but they're not engagement.

My current understanding of engagement is that it is basically the self-motivated followthrough to interest. If a student is interested in a topic and that student takes it upon herself to seek out more information and deepen her understanding, that is engagement. Engagement is intrinsically motivated and only something that a person can accomplish for herself.

So why is engagement interesting to me? Well, I think engagement may be a good purpose for education. This is a bit of an Aristotelean idea but bear with me. Ultimately teachers and society want schools to produce students capable of accomplishing things. As I noted above, those things are varied and inconsistent. What if, rather than focusing on the "accomplishing things" we focused on the "capable". To me engagement is the primary capability we should be seeking to help our students cultivate (see, totally Aristotelean). We want kids to leave school knowing that they can pursue their interests and develop further in whatever areas they choose. We want to equip them with the skills to handle the new content but we also want to help them realize that they are ultimately the agents of their own education. Engagement places the responsibility for learning on the child and tells her that she needs to pursue what is interesting using what tools she has available. Engagement also means that student may need to develop new tools to further refine her ability to engage.

Now, I'm still trying to wrap my head around what a pedagogy focused on engagement would look like but I think this is a great way to address the various cross purposes and paradoxes we find in the educational world. If a kid is interested in programming, let her become engaged in learning about it. Give her books and activities and practice and turn her loose. The same goes for social justice or civics or anything else.

Hopefully I can refine and better explain engagement as I learn more but I'll summarize with this: I feel like the best thing a good education can do for a child is to build in them the desire to never stop learning. That's engagement. Next I need to learn how to teach it.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Next up: Disciplinary Literacy

I'm beginning the second summer semester and my only course is Disciplinary Literacy. Essentially, the course is going to be a consideration of how literacy plays out across non-ELA and non-reading classes. (Non-reading as in the class is not titled 'Reading' but Math or Science or something like that.) This should be an interesting course as I don't know much about what teachers in other subjects do. Yes, I did teach Algebra I during half of summer school but that was mostly the result of an incompetent and possibly intellectually disabled administrator just parking warm bodies in a classroom full of 40 remedial math students. It wasn't pretty.

Anyway, the overall gist of the class is that every discipline has it's own culture. A scientist, mathematician, computer programmer, or engineer (see, those are the only acceptable careers so they're all anyone talks about) each work within a discipline that expects certain things of them. Some of what's expected is explicit and that's generally what is taught in the classroom: scientific method, pythagorean theorem, object oriented coding, and whatever the hell an engineer learns. The problem is, there's also a lot of stuff that's not communicated.

A good example of this is the differing citation systems. While we teach that every discipline has a different way of creating citations (MLA, APA, Chicago, etc), we don't ever explain why. In the grand scheme of things this particular why is small beans but there's a lot of disciplinary weight placed on how citations are written. Each discipline features dozens if not hundreds of similar signifiers which show someone as either participating in a discipline or not. Added together, these start to make the culture of that discipline.

Now, I don't know much about other disciplines and I can't think of many from, say, science to fill this post with examples but I hope you catch my meaning. It's not enough to take a kid into science class and have them work through a bunch of science information without giving them the inside scoop on the culture that is academic science. Part of the reason scientists think like scientists is that they've been trained in the culture of science. Students don't automatically have that culture unless they're lucky enough to have parents who make that their home culture. Even then, they will lack some other disciplinary literacy.

I'm interested to see what methods the class brings up to support better teaching of disciplinary literacy. I can already see that student discussions and debate are going to feature heavily but I would like to know how structured those are. Just because kids talk about plant biology doesn't mean they're in the discipline. How explicit do I have to be to help them learn to participate in science like a scientist would? And what about math?


Saturday, July 1, 2017

Reflection

Happy Saturday, happy July, happy summer!

Today's post will be a bit of stream-of-consciousness reflecting on the last week and some of what I've started to think about regarding myself as a teacher. I've decided to give these ideas some categorization so it's not too confusing. You also have my sincere apologies for not posting more often. Despite being lighter than a normal course schedule, these summer classes really scaled up the workload for the last week of classes and that coincided with attending a big professional development conference all week. TC's Reading and Writing Project are surprisingly good and I'll mention my experiences in the Reading Institute below but if you are interested, check out their website. While it's probably not going to adequately explain everything, it's a good view into the kind of education I'm about to be involved in.



Cameo!

New York City Commuting

Prior to this week, I was commuting into the city twice weekly for evening classes. It was nice. It was leisurely. It wasn't really commuting so much as a fun train ride.

This week I needed to be at Columbia by 8am every day which necessitated being on a train at 6am. I was squarely in the middle of peak rush hour and got to see the city as most commuters probably see it. My trip includes a train ride and then taking the subway from Penn Station up to the university so I see a decent chunk of the NYC commuting experience. Trains were rerouted due to "track conditions." Subway cars derailed (thankfully I was not on it at them time). The governor of New York declared a state of emergency for the entire transit system. (Also, can we talk about animals on the subway?)

It is amazing. I love it. Sure, delays and cancellations suck but this is very different than driving. You have redundancies built in. There are multiple train lines and multiple subway lines intersecting at numerous locations throughout the city. When one thing breaks, you have options. When my train was rerouted from Penn Station to the much further away Atlantic Terminal, I was able to hop off and change trains to get where I needed to go. Maybe it's my perspective as an Atlanta native but I felt the transit system was very flexible at responding to major problems. Perhaps it should have responded better. Perhaps the problems should never have occurred. Either way, I was able to move myself, on transit, to wherever I needed to go with a minimum of fuss or delay despite both of the transit lines I used daily being shut down. Even dysfunctional mass transit is a revelation for someone like me who is used to mass transit being nonexistent.

Being in New York City

Spending every day in the city from about 7:30am to about 9:30pm (Friday was shorter, but I'll claim it!) really made me feel closer to the city. Sure I have 4 hours of commuting, but I spent most of my time in the city. I took the time to walk around when I had breaks between classes to get a feel for the area around Columbia. It's really the southeast edge of Harlem and there's a lot on offer. Mostly food. I was able to eat from from a different ethnic tradition each day and I consider that a success in and of itself.

Walking through the area was painless and fun because I could observe the variety of people and businesses. It's amazing to me that it all works. There's so much density and so many people that you'd think little screw ups and failures would lead to big screw ups and failures and the whole place would quickly become dangerous and dysfunctional. By and large, it's not. I attribute a lot of that to New York City being so large that it creates it's own social and economic ecosystem. You could become a successful business just serving a need on a single block. You could become a millionaire serving a need on several blocks.

I also spent a lot of time outdoors. No, it's not the Great Outdoors of nature and national parks, but I wanted to be outside of buildings and in the urban environment. Sure, my tune would change if it rained, if it was a hundred degrees, or if it was snowing, but still, I spent a lot of time outside. In fact, I think I spend more time outside here than I did in Atlanta going through similar circumstances. I attribute much of that to using mass transit. Although the trains themselves are steel tubes, often underground, I would be walking to and from subway stops and train stations. Compared to walking to my car in a parking lot, this is probably more time spent outside. I would also prioritize some transit stops so I could enjoy the city more. For example, I'd hop off at 110th street instead of 116th street just so I could crest a hill at a particular spot and look all the way up and down Broadway Ave. for miles in both directions.

It's also more time spent with other people. Maybe I don't communicate with most of them but you don't exactly feel alone on a crowded subway car with someone's face in your armpit (sorry lady, it's just how it is.) I can see why migration to urban centers is typically a liberalizing force - in the classical sense of promoting individual rights and responsibilities, not the current American liberal traditions. When you're one in the crowd, you start to realize that your needs have to be advocated for or you're left out. This isn't some purely libertarian bend either. It's more of a realization that you all have needs, you all have to meet those needs, and we're all in that boat even if your needs differ from mine. While I know that in a technical sense, I think experiencing this kind of environment really helps you feel that connection. You're going to help the lady with the walker get through the subway turnstile because, dammit, we're all waiting here and helping her helps us all. Yes, I consider that liberalism, ha!

Schools

I'm four years out of the classroom and I'm starting to feel it. Technology is everywhere but maybe not as widespread in the ways I was worried about. Teachers have access to many many many more tools than I had access to despite being in a fairly affluent school district. I think that's largely a byproduct of both the slow acquisition process for a large district and that I was teaching in a very transitional moment in education. Almost every teacher I spoke with this week had access to droves and droves of technological teaching aids and their students did too. Many had one-to-one programs in their districts. None lived in the top-down-algorithmic-learning dystopia I am terrified of. In fact, most just use tech as a tool but relied heavily on physical media too. The Institute and its partnered schools use numerous physical books. I found myself jotting down all sorts of websites, apps, and other tech things which would make my life easier once I landed back in classrooms.

I've also started to reconsider my thinking about what schools look like. Obviously my only in-classroom contexts are drawn from the pair of Georgia districts I was in as a teacher and student teacher. While tutoring gave me a window into some classes, I don't know a lot about the schools. That also means I can't assume the schools function similarly to what I remember. Indeed, they don't. One example would be the role of professional development. In my school, I taught a professional development session. Now, as a 2nd year teacher I didn't have a whole lot to offer but I wasn't expected to offer anything. Professional development was basically the principal picking teachers at random and telling them to teach a session on the next teacher workday about, well, anything. In other words, there was no expectation that anyone would learn anything and we were merely doing this to meet some PD requirement.

Here, professional development is typically a school or district-wide initiative. Often they partner with schools of education who send advisors to many classrooms (or probably all of them, if possible) for weeks on end. Observations are done. Data is taken. Scores are evaluated. And at the end of it, those developers stick around for months to help improve and change curriculum, the school environment, or whatever else they're brought on board to change. It's collaborative and done to support the teachers and schools. I had no idea this kind of thing even existed.

The Reading and Writing Institute is basically the professional development arm of the MA program I'm in. My professors and dozens of development staff have been embedded in schools nationwide, sometimes for years, working on improving reading and writing. A number of the attendees I met this week weren't ELA or reading teachers, they were professional development staff and administration for districts in Seattle, Philadelphia, and Indianapolis. They came to the Institute to evaluate its practice and methods to see if they were a good fit for their districts. They would likely go back and recommend hiring developers from the Institute to come work with their elementary or middle schools to improve reading and writing instruction. I just couldn't fathom a district that would bring in any outside help to revamp and improve their schools. It'd be tantamount to admitting you'd been fucking up kids all these years. I think it's a major cultural difference that's at the root of this problem.

How is this a thing? How is it not a joke played on teachers? It's really exploded my idea of what a career in education could look like.

I found myself struggling to answer questions asked by my peers:

What kind of grading did your school do? Uh... the kind where you uh... give grades. It turns out there's a kind of standards based grading that's very intriguing to me but I never considered that there were numerous methodologies to grading. Also, I think I may have been mostly grading things for compliance, especially in my general ed classrooms.

What was your district's literacy plan? Did we even have one? Maybe I don't know that because high schools don't teach literacy.

How did your school approach ESL and ELL students after they exited their ESL/ELL programs? Umm, we didn't?

How have you used students' prior test scores to plan and improve your instruction? Well, see, we weren't actually allowed to see their scores. We instead got a score report which summarized their overall performance in Math/Reading/Writing. I also remarked that the tests scored each standard on a 1-4 scale but the reports used a 1-3 scale to report overall performance. We didn't see what the breakdown on each standard was. It may have actually been illegal...

Me In Schools

Since I was attending the Institute for course credit, I also spent time working with some of the university faculty and planning out my upcoming school placement options. I think it revealed a lot of the shortcomings I had in recognizing that there are a lot of ways to do school. I couldn't adequately explain to them what I was looking for in a placement school because I didn't really know what a school with a reading teacher looked like. I ended up babbling something about how I was okay with being placed in a difficult school because I had experience in a Title I school and with students with behavioral problems. This was to Lucy Calkins, the woman running my MA program and the institute. She's one of those people who answers emails in three separate emails, each kind of staccato, and then admits she was writing them at stop lights while driving home from work. You know the kind of person I mean.

Lucy looked at me for a minute and asked what that meant. Again, I struggled. I meant that it was okay if you placed me in a school that faced a lot of challenges stemming from race, poverty, urban blight, whatever. I'm a cool guy. I want to save the world. Throw anything at me. I can handle it. My mentor teacher skipped town for the first three weeks of my student teaching. I was in that class alone with different substitutes each day. I could handle whatever the school would thrown at me.

I'll paraphrase her response. I think part of the impact comes from the way she said it so think of a person talking very quickly and in a tone somewhere between scolding and pity.

James, why is that your concern? Why do you think we are placing our students in schools that don't promote training our students? Do you want to be in a school which isn't going to help you learn about teaching reading and writing? I think you need to ask yourself why you think two things: why don't you expect to be placed in schools for your benefit and why don't you advocate for being placed in schools for your benefit? They're related and you need to think about how you see yourself in schools.

Fuck, she's right.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Thoughts on Education Research

My friends know I have problems with education research. I think there are a number of reasons for this and I'll return to those reasons at the end of the post. First, I'd like to share a few articles I've read as part of my elective coursework this summer.

Long & Grove (2003) How engagement strategies and literature circles promote critical response in a fourth-grade, urban classroom is a good example of the kind of research that upsets me. The "study" involves the authors observing a classroom as several engagement strategies were used. These aren't the authors' strategies, rather they are pulling from other research to assess those strategies. The three strategies are:
1. Ask open-ended questions; listen to, honor, and respond to students; and encourage students to read between the lines of the text.
2. Invite students to investigate and find out about explicit or implicit text information - to dig a little deeper into the text's meaning.
3. Encourage students to pose and solve problems about important text events.
They also set out to evaluate literature circles - a fancy way of saying that kids discuss stories in small groups. The key difference between the engagement strategies and the literature circles is that the strategies involve the teacher more and tend to include the reading as part of the group's activities whereas literature circles typically assume the reading is done beforehand.

And that's it, really. There's no treatment. There's no breakdown of larger impacts on the students' abilities. There's no comparison to other strategies. The total number of observations was four. The total number of students observed was 27 - one class four times, in other words. It's simply a report of their observations with some pointed language about how they already knew this was the best way to teach reading. The article isn't really even an argument. Long & Grove begin with a quote from a student displaying enthusiasm for reading after participating in these engagement strategies and end with a discussion of how much these engagement strategies are, well, engaging. The stories they picked featured themes of social justice and were aimed at being relevant to the young readers in their class. The students, unsurprisingly, picked up on the relevance and the themes which promoted engagement. Indeed, the only part that seemed to resemble analysis of these strategies compared them with the same class before the authors became involved.
When we observed Belinda Sweet's class at other times, we didn't see the students critically respond in a fluent, automatic way. By integrating engagement strategies and literature circles over a short time in this classroom we positioned students so that they could critically respond to the issues at hand. 
I have many questions: how do we know this is the case? What evidence do we have that the engagement strategies and literature circles were the crucial difference? How often were these students observed prior to beginning the "study"? What strategies were used before? Did the participation of the "observers"change the outcome or would the same results have occurred had only the teacher delivered these strategies?

You get the point. The study accomplishes nothing because it wasn't really a study. It's just a description of something the authors already assume works from their own prior experiences and from the research they cite. (Also, much of the research they cite is similar in form to this article. Observations of small classes. The "right" strategies are assumed and implemented and turn out to be "right".)

I'm upset for two reasons. First, aren't these strategies widespread and obvious by now? Student centered approaches to teaching have been commonplace for 30 years. Group work and discussions have been features of the classroom since I was a child and they were central to my own training in secondary English education. Even the literature circles method cited in the "study" is from Harvey Daniels' 1994 Literature Circles: Voice and choice in one student-centered classroom. (See! ONE classroom.) Second, there is no way for this "study" to participate in the larger dialogue about education. Without broader contexts for the students and broader evaluation of the outcomes of such approaches, schools and districts are unlikely to care about engagement strategies. Educational research needs to push policy and that means it needs to come back to outcomes. Show that these engagement strategies make students better readers. Show that they build comprehension. Because, the thing is, I do think these kinds of strategies are effective in those regards. Kids reading and responding is always better than kids not reading or responding. I just want to see some good indicators that this is the case show up in the research.

Next up is Diane Santori's "Search for the answers" or "Talk about the story"?: School-based Literacy Participation Structures (2011). Santori "explores" how five students respond to three different literacy participation structures. (Yes, only five students.) Shared reading is the most "traditional" of the structures with teachers and students in small groups together reading a story out loud and discussing aspects of the text. Santori notes that this approach is teacher centered when it comes to the discussion and the discussion focuses on particular aspects of the curriculum as directed by Common Core. The kids need to learn about, say, personification so the teacher has them find an example in the text after she gives them the definition of personification.

Guided reading is the middle strategy. Guided reading lets the kids have more freedom in their discussions but still falls short of the author's preferred methods. The kids would, among other things, make predictions, note unknown words for later vocabulary work, and create questions from their readings to ask their groups or the class. Despite this more student-centered approach, the author states she observed many teachers focusing discussion of the text in one direction. While this approach was good for locating features of the text and summarizing it, the kids didn't interact with it at a deeper level. Because the instructor was still guiding the discussion, it also tended to focus on curricular goals.

As you might expect, the third and final strategy is the be-all-end-all of literacy participation structures. Shared Evaluation Pedagogy (infuriatingly abbreviated as SHEP, where does the H come from?) begins the same as guided reading. Students read independently and write questions and difficult words and use sticky notes. The discussion, however, is left mostly open to the students. The author says her role was minimal and that the students directed themselves. According to Santori's reporting, they engaged deeply with the texts and collaborated to construct meaning. If they reached a dead end or the students began talking about the text in a way that didn't relate to the story, Santori would "ask them to provide evidence for their theories." The discussion focused on what the students cared about and what they engaged with instead of on the goals of the curriculum.

Interestingly, this comprehensive study of five students features a quantitative analysis of 9 "text moves" by the students. A text move is when the student does something to improve comprehension during a discussion of a text. If a student makes a connection from the text to personal experience, that is the "connect" text move. The other text moves are hypothesize, recall, genre, clarify, summarize, synthesize, vocabulary, and other. We learn on table 2 that students used a total of 293 moves during shared reading, 291 moves during guided reading, and 403 moves during SHEP. Of the total times the students hypothesized, 57.5% were in SHEP. Other occurred 15.8% in shared reading and 10.9% in guided reading but only 2% in SHEP.

Including this quantitative piece seems like an exercise in parody. I'm not really sure how it helps the author maker her case. Santori barely discusses the numbers and does not use the numbers to draw any conclusions about each approach. Of course, the wisdom of doing quantitative analysis on a sample size of 5 is laughable on its own. I'm not even sure a sample of 5 can be representative of a class of 30 students much less a school or the whole student population of the nation yet we get this semi-statistical breakdown thrown in here for some reason. I think the argument is something like "more moves = more gooder learning" but even that isn't apparent from the data and there's no indication that doing more hypothesizing (which is where 232 of that 403 comes from) is any better than doing more vocabulary or recall (which happened more in shared reading and guided reading). It's as if the author was being forced to include more numerical analysis so she just made something up and tacked it on.

Much like Long & Grove, Santori assumes from the outset that SHEP is the superior approach. She begins the article with the argument that students need to assert their textual agency and that by doing so they learn better. (At least she makes that point because Long & Grove don't even get that far.) Moreover, Santori includes alternative approaches and discusses their implementation. Importantly, she identifies the ways in which policy is cramping classroom activities. Teachers pursue strategies that fit district and federal guidelines but those view literacy and comprehension in a very limited way. By being limited, students don't engage and don't learn as much. Additionally Santori argues they should be able to go off script because actually addressing the issues and discussing them with each other makes them more well rounded. (My language not hers.)

I see this as a much better study when compared with Long & Grove but there's still not much done to assess improvement to the students. So they had some good discussions and connected well with the texts, what next? How did that work out for them? Did they stay engaged? Were they better readers? Outcomes matter and I want research to address that. Merely participating in rich textual experiences is not enough. If our researchers aren't interested in going for longer studies and looking at outcomes, they're going to keep losing ground to other fields doing more robust research. Economists and corporate statisticians are driving education policy at the federal, state, and even district level. Teachers and the colleges that train them are not. Good research is a way to get back into the conversation.

I know this is a long post but I want to look at one more study: Using word study instruction with developmental college students. I think this is kind of the best-case scenario for small sample education research. In this study Atkinson et al. look at a single intervention, a word study curriculum, and assess it quantitatively and qualitatively. They use two classes with one acting as the control group. The idea is you set up a pretest, apply the treatment (word study curriculum) to the experimental group over several weeks, and then give the post test. It's not a pure experiment as that would require the study to be blinded and ideally to have multiple control and treatment groups. But, as I've noted before, it is difficult to get fully experimental models in the social sciences so quasi-experimental are more common.

The word study curriculum is something I'm very familiar with because that's the curriculum I was using in my 9th and 10th grade special education classes. The ideas is that you take students who are far behind in their literacy development and give them a crash course in linguistics. I know that sounds odd as linguistics has a very ivory-tower feel to it but it's not as complex as you might think. By breaking the language down to simple parts and showing students how they fit together to make sounds, words, and meaning, you can help them think explicitly about what they're reading and writing. From there you can work to complex vocabulary, syntax, or any number of other areas.

Atkinson et al. take five weeks to do comprehensive word study with one remedial college class. They only look at a single measure but that measure shows significant growth in the experimental group when compared with the control group. They also survey the students and apply qualitative analysis to determine how the students felt about the intervention. Lastly, Atkinson et al. end with a call for further research and indicate they are conducting a more longitudinal study across more classes.

While not without flaws (possible treatment bias because the study is not double blinded, small sample size, questions of sample selection, instrument bias), this study does what I think good education research should do. It makes the case that following a particular strategy improves student learning and outcomes. It measures the students to accomplish this but it also features some qualitative aspects to help the research feel grounded. It participates in a discussion of the issues facing education, offers evidence of a solution, and pushes for further study. That's something that all education research should endeavour to accomplish.

Why doesn't it?

I don't have a super firm answer to that yet but let me propose a few I've come up with.

  1. Education is heavily siloed and researchers tend to publish in ways which their particular field has always published. English and Literacy seem to promote "action research" and qualitative or observational studies. I should look at the math education literature to see if they are more quantitative. I will also note that I'm quickly learning how much elite institutions like to toot their own horn. For example, the first two articles are from (in part) CTC alumni and the author of the second is actively involved in my Literacy MA program. Public Relations seems to be an activity that every faculty member and some students are expected to perform. Research may follow this pattern. 
  2. Education, in general, dislikes quantitative research. Maybe this is a response to NCLB/RTTT and the current incarnation of the reform movement? Standardized testing is widely misused by states and districts and is a tool used by politicians to break the political power of teachers unions. This has bred distrust of any quantitative measures. In turn, any data which relies on high-stakes testing is seen as illegitimate by many educators whether the use of that data is accurate/valid or not. There are elements of social justice here because testing is seen as a proxy for race, socioeconomic status, and other factors. Any quantitative measure is potentially racist, sexist, classist, or otherwise heavily biased. 
  3. There are vastly different worldviews on education. Some people don't take a problem-solution view of schooling. They don't look at a kid who can't read or write and see that as something which needs to be addressed. Instead they see a kid who might have other ways of learning the concepts meant to be taught. They see a kid who has a story and intrinsic value regardless of their literacy. So while I lament that there's only a focus on having rich experiences, they see those experiences as an end in themselves. 
  4. Education doesn't lend itself to "good" research. While it's easy to scrape a ton of testing data from all over the country, there isn't a good way to design and deliver experiments. There are ethical concerns, for example, about setting kids back in their learning. If a treatment proves disastrous, is a whole class of kids going to have to repeat a grade? If the intervention is so much better than the status quo, shouldn't we end the experiment and apply the intervention across the board?
  5. There is more quantitative research in education that I realize. This is probably the most likely. I am doing a big literature review as a course final project so I expect to have more perspective on this in a few weeks. 

There may be more but that's all I could come up with this morning. I don't want to weigh too heavily on one side of the other, though, because I think I suffer many biases of my own. The application of quantitative research to education has proved highly problematic in the last two decades and my love of good testing stems from the low-stakes environment of my classroom. What I care about is meaningful achievement from students, not some state exam. But I worry that without more quantitative measures coming from colleges of education, educators will be shut out of the national conversation about schools.

Here's my nightmare scenario: The world of education is going to replace teachers with centrally planned, algorithmically delivered instruction. Kids are going to show up to school for free lunch and spend 8 hours staring at a screen which pretests a set of skills, queues up the lessons that the kids score lowest on, and then post-tests those lessons to see if the kid got enough questions correct before moving on to the next. Teachers are going to be unnecessary in this world because the labor of teaching is being removed. No teacher will have to plan a lesson ever again. No teacher will have to grade an assignment ever again. Teachers will simply sit at their desks and help the kids troubleshoot the educational software or help them interpret some instructions.

This is the world of pure constructivism. If all that matters is that students are given access to the raw materials of learning, then teachers can and will be replaced. Looking back to Long & Grove and Santori, we see that same constructivism at work. As the teacher, you should step away, let the kids discuss the carefully curated materials you've brought them, and the learning will happen. That there is a teacher present in the room seems superfluous. Indeed, the teacher could have been in an office six years ago designing the curriculum and the adult in the room is just a babysitter. Pure constructivism is a world in which every student is an autodidact.

If you don't believe me, take a look at this.
DreamBox Learning tracks a student’s every click, correct answer, hesitation and error — collecting about 50,000 data points per student per hour — and uses those details to adjust the math lessons it shows. And it uses data to help teachers pinpoint which math concepts students may be struggling with.
Mr. Hastings [CEO of Netflix] described DreamBox as a tool teachers could use to gain greater insights into their students, much the way that physicians use medical scans to treat individual patients. “A doctor without an X-ray machine is not as good a doctor,” Mr. Hastings said.
And how's that X-ray machine going to help diagnose diabetes, liver disease, heart disease, neurological disorders, or any number of disease unrelated to bones? OB/GYNs rarely use X-rays because, you know, irradiating fetuses isn't great. Should we discuss the role overuse of medical imaging plays in inflating healthcare costs? No, let's not pick at the metaphor. I have doom and gloom to discuss. 

Reed Hastings and other Silicon Valley types are actively pursuing the constructivist vision of education. They're gathering large amounts of data and performing sophisticated analysis of that data to drive further development of their products. Moreover, their money and resources are sorely needed by cash-strapped schools. Policymakers aren't going to be listening to Santori's observational study of 5 third grade students. They're going to listen to Hastings' study of thousands of students with hundreds of thousands of points of data. Whether that's the best approach or not, the numbers are more persuasive. So as the kids plug into DreamBox for their math lessons, what's their teacher doing? Is he grading? Why? DreamBox does the grades. Clearly he isn't designing lessons because those are delivered by DreamBox's algorithms. The teacher who made those lessons is miles away in an office. So why have a classroom teacher at all? 

If we can't prove why, Reed Hastings and others like him will prove why not