K-12 MOOCs Must Address Equity
February 5, 2015
Is MOOCs going into the K-12 arena a good thing?
Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, the new wave of distance education offered by elite institutions like Harvard and MIT, are moving into high schools, and—contrary to what many think—that could be a problem.
Last September, the MOOC provider EdX released 26 free courses covering Advanced Placement, high school, and college-level material.
In theory, disseminating such free or low-cost instruction will democratize high-quality education in much the same way public schools are meant to democratize general education. In practice, however, MOOCs’ lecture-based format, their inability to reach the most-vulnerable populations, and their low passing rates could broaden K-12 learning gaps rather than shrink them.
Politically and pedagogically, K-12 schooling is very different from higher education. There is a greater focus on inequality in the former, due in part to the compulsory nature of attendance. As such, teacher quality and instruction are critical. Elementary and secondary school teachers, especially those in public schools, are expected to motivate the most-disadvantaged and disengaged students.
The didactic, lecture-based nature of MOOC instruction, however, is narrow and may not engage traditionally marginalized students, including ethnic and racial minorities, low-income students, children with disabilities, and English-language learners—the very groups policymakers and researchers have focused on in K-12 education policy reform.
In addition, these groups tend to have less access than their better-off peers to high-speed Internet.
Only 64 percent of African-Americans, 53 percent of Hispanics, and 54 percent of lower-income Americans overall (meaning those making less than $30,000 a year) have broadband access at home, compared with nearly three-quarters of white Americans generally, based on 2013 research from the Pew Research Internet Project.
Without universal access, MOOCs are pointless. On the good-news front: This situation is beginning to improve, as the Federal Communications Commission increased funding in December to prioritize support for broadband and wireless connectivity.
As it is, the nature of MOOCs attracts advantaged learners. A 2013 analysis of the University of Pennsylvania’s 32 massive open online courses found that participants tended to come from developed countries and were employed, with 80 percent already in possession of a postsecondary degree of some kind. Most students took classes to advance professionally or to satisfy their curiosity. Such findings suggest academically oriented students and those with developed habits of the mind, like the gifted and talented, would thrive in an online learning system. Without such advantages, however, at-risk and even working-class students will require intervening support and oversight to have an equal chance to succeed.
Perhaps most disconcertingly, online courses have yet to demonstrate they can close the performance gap.
In a highly publicized San Jose State University experiment, minority high school students in an Oakland, Calif., charter school performed worse in online pilot classes than those who took the same classes on campus. The result reinforced research highlighting the struggles of at-risk groups in an online context, compared with advantaged students.
On a related note, African-American students, as well as males, younger students, and those with lower grade point averages, had difficulty adapting to, or persisting in, online courses compared with face-to-face classes, according to researchers Di Xu and Shanna Smith Jaggars of Teachers College, Columbia University.
For online courses to have any chance to succeed, developers and e-learning companies must understand the K-12 landscape. Ambitious rollouts have fared poorly, as the iPads-for-all project in the Los Angeles Unified School District demonstrated.
The previously mentioned San Jose State effort, which involved a partnership with the company Udacity, ended its MOOC experiment in 2013 because only 12 percent of high school students earned a passing grade in algebra, among other disappointing findings. These failed examples reinforce two well-worn lessons: Venture philanthropy cannot work unless students’ needs come first, and how you use technology is more important than the technology itself.
Developers also need to address teacher buy-in and professional development in new ways. The novel nature of MOOCs will undoubtedly require overhauling how developers support teachers, a consideration that should make them think twice about jumping into the K-12 market.
If only certain types of learners can thrive under MOOCs, the innovation will have failed as a 21st-century technology and education platform. Its success, therefore, depends on the developers’ ability to address inequality; specifically, to reach a critical mass of students that includes learners from diverse socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds. Only then will MOOC providers be perceived as offering legitimate platforms for K-12 schools. Without such attention, the MOOC foray into K-12 will be doomed to repeat, and even exacerbate, inequalities in American education.
Article originally published in Education Week.
Should U.S. Panic Over Latest International Creative Problem Solving Test Scores?
May 8, 2014
The gap in problem solving test scores between U.S. and Asian countries reflects the reality that the way students operate in school often has little to do with how they operate in real life.
U.S. educators may be surprised to see that students in Asian countries scored significantly higher on creative problem-solving tests than American students, but they shouldn’t be. It merely reinforces what most of us have long known: School and work often have nothing to do with one another.
The results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2012 Creative Problem-Solving exam found that U.S. 15-year-olds scored above the international average, but at 18th place, still lag behind the top seven education systems (Singapore, Korea, Japan, Macao, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Taipei, respectively), all of which are in Asia. Educators and analysts may wonder how a nation like the U.S., which prides itself on creativity, innovation, and individuality, could possibly fall below collectivist systems that emphasize traditional instruction and conformity.
The truth is more complex. First, unlike in the U.S., students in Japan, Korea, and Singapore actually spend extended periods of time learning fewer topics, an approach that Common Core State Standards developers have recognized and attempted to duplicate. Instead, Asian systems focus on the depth—rather than breadth—of topics, which allows them to manipulate information beyond memorization. A typical seventh-grade textbook in Japan, in fact, has less than half the amount of pages (200) as one in the U.S. (475).
Second, lower U.S. scores do not necessarily mean East Asian students are more creative. In fact, their high scores, especially those in Shanghai, may not even reflect the norm in China, as OECD Deputy Director of Education Andreas Schleicher has admitted. The gap reflects the sad reality that the way students operate in school often has little to do with how they operate in real life. This is true in U.S. as well as in many top-performing education systems abroad. Learning in school is largely characterized by narrow, detached, and contrived experiences, whereas work— especially the highly skilled jobs that drive the economy—incorporates more active, cross- disciplinary, and out-of-the box thinking.
Such mental processes characterize the work of entrepreneurs like former Apple chief executive Steve Jobs and SpaceX chief product architect Elon Musk, according to a Fortune magazine article. They leverage their “deep understanding of technological possibility, strong design instincts, a clear grasp of the economic ecosystem surrounding a potential product, and an uncanny ability to enter the head of a future customer” to produce innovations like the iPod or launch vehicles for the International Space Station.
Students rarely experience this sense of possibility and ownership while at school—even less so in a high-stakes accountability system. The thousands of families who opted out of the recent Common Core state tests highlight the growing disenchantment with the U.S. education system. Is it any wonder so many creative-types, including Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg decided to bypass college to do something different?
Third, Asia’s market demand may also explain their relatively lower rate of innovation, despite their students’ higher test scores. China’s economy remains driven by manual labor and low-cost and low-margin manufacturing, so firms tend to seek many more workers than managers or thinkers. These “top-light” firms, as MIT Sloan School of Management professor Yasheng Huang calls them, are more akin to factories than startups. Moreover, government agencies hire a significant portion of Chinese college graduates, who compete fiercely for civil service positions. The reality is that firms rarely leverage students’ creative problem solving potential.
Fourth, the cultural emphasis on hierarchical authority, social relations, and group harmony (over frankness and honesty) can also inhibit graduates’ creativity and individuality. Age-based seniority runs deep in most Asian institutions. In fact, many Koreans, when meeting strangers or new colleagues, will quickly establish each other’s age to work out how they should behave and speak to each other, according to a 2012 article in the Wall Street Journal. In Japan, subordinates may make decisions only if they reflect what their bosses would have done. This hierarchical structure also contributes to the stifling of talent, particularly among those who have just graduated.
Finally, research suggests tests like PISA’s creative problem-solving exam have little predictive value to workplace productivity; in fact, they predict only about 6 percent. More important is the drive to create something that solves a real problem. These characteristics, which include both cognitive and non-cognitive skills, must combine with the right external conditions such as culture, market demand, organizational environment, and policies.
Right now, the U.S. still leads the world in that regard. Its free market policies, individualistic culture, and entrepreneurial spirit have been compensating what it lacks in public education for a long time. Adequate creative problem-solving test results merely reinforce the need to shore the gap between school and work. High schools, for instance, rarely partner with local businesses— including laboratories, offices, and factories—to provide glimpses into work life. Internships only help students enrolled in higher education. We need alternatives.
Perhaps some good news is coming. President Obama has recently announced grants intended to update school curriculums to better integrate work experiences and real-life opportunities. It will finance partnerships with local education agencies and employers, which would enhance job shadowing and mentor opportunities. Six-year high school programs focused on career and technical education and partnered with corporations like IBM are giving many students alternatives to four-year colleges. Yet, they are at the experimental stage and not yet the norm.
Equally important, we need an education approach that syncs with the fluid way we live and work in the 21st century. This includes more inquiry, student-driven projects, and cross-disciplinary experiences apart of the current accountability and Common Core focus. They prepare our students more productively than a performance- and outcome-based approach ever will. China, ironically, has been trying to adopt a more western approach to educating its students, despite their high test scores. We would do well to remember that when considering policy implications to improve U.S. students’ creative problem-solving abilities.
Article originally posted in the American School Board Journal.
Expanding the Six-Year High School Model
February 22, 2014
Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about the six-year high school model, where four years of high school are combined with two years of college for an equivalent of an associate’s degree. Known as the Pathways in Technology Early College High School (or P-Tech for short)—made famous by the high achieving P-Tech school in Brooklyn, New York, and by President Obama in his State of the Union speeches, this approach allows students to learn in-demand 21st century workforce skills—with the help of industry partners like IBM. Time magazine recently profiled another P-Tech school, the Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy in Chicago.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, “middle skills” jobs (like technical support, medical technicians, and high-tech manufacturing workers) are increasingly in high demand. In fact, they are as much in demand as high-skilled STEM jobs, which only account for 5% of all U.S. jobs. Not everyone needs a four-year degree, but they need more than a high school diploma. Workers with an associate’s degree will earn 74% more than those with only a high school diploma, according to the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University.
A six-year program would be more in line with a career and technical education (CTE) model, where students learn real world skills from tech firms and would graduate with concrete job skills. Corporate partners, in turn, are eager to hire those they have trained. Connecticut and upstate New York are also rolling out this approach. The question is, can this model be expanded at the national level?
A few issues to consider. One, how will the teacher’s union react to this? So far, the P-Tech approach has operated within the public school system, rather than outside it (like charter schools), so unions don’t seem to be opposed to the idea. Problems might arise, however, during teacher training. Who trains the teachers–education schools or corporations? Traditional teacher preparation programs will not have the expertise, which can open the door to corporate influence. Issues of power and politics will certainly play a factor. This will be the most significant obstacle to expanding the six-year high school model.
Two, how do we expand funding? President Obama has been pushing for more CTEs and alternative models of education that involve public-private partnerships, and as such, has earmarked $100 million in new grant funds for schools like P-Tech. Funds can also come from the Perkins Act of 2006, which seeks to provide more focus on the academic achievement of CTE students. It is up for congressional reauthorization this year.
Finally, we will need the help of more local leaders and industries. P-Tech programs are easier to implement in large cities where Fortune 500 companies are located, but what about rural and depressed areas? Local leaders, like governors, mayors, and school superintendents must push for these programs.
The benefits of a six-year high school or CTE model are obvious. It would drastically improve the inequality issue as we improve the majority of students—i.e., those that are struggling and those that are average performers (i.e., B or C level students) by giving them opportunities. Not every student needs to learn algebra II or trigonometry, and they need multiple pathways to succeed. Four-year colleges would be reserved for academically talented and/or motivated students. Furthermore, six-year programs would reduce student apathy and the dropout rate – a significant problem in the U.S.
The key, however, is to allow students and their families to decide which track they wish to go, rather than be assigned. Schools can provide counsel. That simple move will minimize problems associated with tracking (the practice of separating children according to ability), such as apathy and mobility.
European countries like Germany have long understood the importance of providing alternatives for students who are not academically inclined. But can we institutionalize them at a larger, and perhaps national, level? It seems we are starting to understand that accountability is not enough to prepare our students for the 21st century. The move to CTE and six-year high school models suggest we are beginning to understand the balance between individuality and the national economic wellbeing.
Common Core: The Conservative Dilemma
February 2, 2014
The Common Core State Standards is furthering a rift within the already embattled conservative party. For pro-business groups—who tend to lean toward de-regulation and other conservative, laissez-faire measures—the standards are essential to their interests and the long-term economic viability of their states. They believe high school students are not college- or career-ready, and that they need improve their reading, writing, STEM, and other business skills to compete in the 21st century. A national standard like the Common Core would begin to address this problem. For political and fiscal conservatives, on the other hand, the Common Core represents federal overreach into state matters. They also believe its quality is lacking, and that developers of these standards have not thought this through.
Both sides are jockeying for position. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is providing state chambers of commerce with tools to address opposition in their state, funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. With their long-standing relationships, networks, and well-established resources, state chambers have the influence to sway state government leaders, state legislators, and state school chiefs to address what they consider a vital economic matter. Pro-business groups also have momentum, since 46 states (along with the District of Columbia) have adopted the Common Core. On the other end, Republican leaders are voicing some opposition. Many feel the pressure to roll back the Common Core or face repercussions from Tea Party activists. As such, the conservative base is facing a sensitive dilemma that could affect their party’s standing in the next election.
Right now, it appears the pro-business community’s arguments make more sense. The issue is consistency. Students who performs well in, say Mississippi, ought to do the same in Massachusetts—which has not been the case under No Child Left Behind. Their scores ought to reliably indicate the performance of U.S. students when compared with those in other countries. This foundation—or baseline—is critical to informing policy and instruction. Without it, we cannot know if policies and instruction are effective or if students are improving. The fact that the new Common Core is imperfect is not a reason to scrap it.
The bigger problem appears to be the politics. Despite the state-led, bipartisan collaboration among teachers, researchers, and other educators, the Common Core has become a toxic brand in the eyes of many Republicans. They associate it with the Obama’s administration and feel that any attempts to centralize control is un-American. “If we removed the ‘common core’ branding, it would defuse some of the issues,” according to a GOP candidate for state superintendent in Georgia. This “soft” protest suggests that political conservatives are not necessarily opposed to the Common Core principles, and that they are trying to move past the divisive elements undermining their recent support.
The Educated Society strives to evaluate issues based on a holistic perspective. As an educator who faces ongoing pressures from students, colleagues, administrators, and other interests, I continually ask myself: What is in the best interest of the students? The answer becomes obvious. In this case, we ought to streamline standards and allow states to pursue them in ways they feel is most appropriate. Students will know where they stand regardless of location. States keep their autonomy while the United States remains, well, united. Despite my mixed feelings about the Common Core, the principle behind it—that all children have clear, consistent learning expectations (no matter what part of the country)—is sound. We should not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.
A Socially-Conscious Orientation in Education
October 5, 2012
No matter our ideology, education will always be closely linked with a nation’s economy. We saw a ramping up of science and math education during the Sputnik era in the 1950s-1960s, another call for rigorous standards when fears emerged about international competition from Japan (and Germany) in the 1980s. Of course, the past decade has been all about meeting the demands of the global 21st century knowledge-based economy under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the call for more STEM education.
Too bad. The “excellence” march will always trump the “equity” one when a nation’s economy is at stake. Such initiatives might make us economically and militarily powerful, but not necessarily a better nation. Once countries reach “maturity,” (i.e., industrialization or advanced development stage), they need a more post-modern approach that considers its people and its responsibility to the world. And that requires a socially-conscious approach to education.
Countries that are rapidly developing in order to catch up the the U.S., such as China, India, and Brazil, will generally forgo social/environmental progress in order to reach economic ones, which is exactly what we did in the middle of the 20th century. Environmental concerns and civil rights didn’t come about until after World War II, when the world recognized this period as “the American Century.” We can afford to be more socially and ecologically aware when we’re at the top, while other countries will probably follow our footsteps as they progress. Yet the gini coefficient indicates an economic inequality not seen since the Great Depression (not to mention social and political polarity). Nothing exemplifies this zeitgist more than Occupy Wall Street.
Do other countries want to follow this American Dream? Maybe not.
As nation’s are seeking to define their place in the world, they may not necessarily want what we have; some in fact resent it. Thomas Friedman’s recent article in the New York Times, entitled China Needs Its Own Dream, pointed to the conscious change that many Chinese citizens are making in shaping their 21st century identity. Peggy Liu, the founder of the Joint U.S.-China Collaboration on Clean Energy, argues that the Chinese today are yearning to create a new national identity, one that merges traditional Chinese values like balance, respect, and flow, with its new modern urban reality.
China’s latest five-year plan is based on sustainability for its burgeoning middle class that seeks to counter the growing conspicuous consumerism. The younger generation does not necessarily want to follow the typical growth path–the rising consumption, “now it’s our turn” kind of mentality–that Americans went through.
Instead, the creation of a “Chinese Dream” that redefines personal prosperity by merging the unique traditional Chinese values with the burgeoning urbanization to create more access to better products and services–not necessarily owning them–so everyone gets a piece of the pie. This includes better public transportation, spaces, housing, e-learning, and e-commerce. For a society, isn’t “better access for all” preferable to “exclusive ownership”? It’s certainly greener and infinitely more egalitarian.
This socially conscious mindset amongst its students appears to be more prevalent as well. One student Friedman interviewed, Zhou Lin, said that it was in China’s best interest to find a “cleaner” growth path.
Part of this change, I believe is that they spend a lot of time reflecting on what other nations have done as a blueprint for success (such as America’s innovation and higher education) and on what dangers to avoid (e.g., American social values). No doubt they want to define their own path to trumpet as a 21st model to emulate. A lot will be riding on the new leadership’s ability to address increasing prosperity and inequality.
For the U.S., the current education culture is exclusively focused on maintaining economic hegemony and STEM competitiveness. Where is the socially conscious models that George Counts and Nel Noddings advocated for? Despite the calls to close the achievement gap, it seems far too much is placed on standards and testing in the interest of economic expediency. Perhaps excellence in education for the 21st century should consider more of the socially-conscious and heterogeneous model that values individual growth and global collaboration.
Edu-Philanthropists’ Dangerous Zero-Sum Game
May 14, 2012
I don’t think education philanthropies like the Gates Foundation are conspiring to “buy schools,” as some critics think. Nor am I against school choice. For that matter, I don’t care for bloated teachers unions, either. But, as an education researcher, I am wary of their increasing interest in K-12 education over the past ten years.
Frederick Hess, the director of education policy studies for the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, defends assertive philanthropy on the grounds that it is, in fact, not new, and that critics who endorsed the Ford Foundation agenda in the 1970s and 1980s are simply hypocrites who dislike Gates’ motive. Yes, policy focus and funding strategies may be similar, but what Hess fails to understand is that, unlike traditional ones, these new, reform-minded foundations can leave lasting debilitating effects on schools.
Enrichment vs. Zero-Sum
Philanthropies of old focused on institution building (or as Hess called it, building programs and practices). It was low-risk and had little downside—if a donor and his program reached many students, they were considered effective. In the 1970s, the Ford Foundation funded women’s and African-American studies, which, if successful, promoted a greater understanding of marginalized groups. Failure merely meant a return to the status quo—one that never had gender and race studies to begin with. No harm, no foul.
American Honda Motor Company still follows this enrichment model. By creating the Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center in Estes Park, Colorado, Honda committed to changing the future for high school dropouts by providing a supplemental program to re-engage young people in becoming productive citizens. At-risk students would be no worse off if they hadn’t taken part in this program. Other traditional foundations bolstered local school reform efforts, redressed inequality, or supported community-based organizations’ work around educational issues, without much public outcry.
On the other hand, the lasting effects for newer, market-based philanthropies tend to have more dramatic effects. Edu-funders like The Broad Foundation, The Walton Foundation, and the Gates Foundation are not concerned with enrichment or institution building per se; they are accountability-driven and advocate for game-changing reforms such as charter school growth, standardized testing, and performance-based teacher evaluations. As a result of their influence, initiatives like Teach for America and the Black Alliance for Educational Options, originally supported with philanthropic funds, now receive significant funding with federal dollars. New York State has also recently adopted performance-based teacher evaluations for all 700 school districts, an initiative that the Gates foundation financed significantly. Its own annual report highlights its role in the development and promotion of the common core standards, which 45 states have adopted.
When the federal government starts to fund philanthropic-led initiatives, we are treading into dangerous territory. It no longer is about low-risk enrichment or building programs and practices; rather, it leads to a high-risk, zero-sum effect for beneficiaries. Consider what happens if:
- Charter schools turns out to be no better than traditional public schools?
- Value-added teacher evaluations turn out to be unreliable?
- Students in voucher programs do no better in their new schools?
- Merit pay doesn’t actually improve teaching?
With about 50 million public school children in America, the price of failure is much greater. Simply put, money that goes into charter schools, value-added evaluations, voucher programs, and merit pay is money taken away from the arts & humanities, physical education, teacher development, social services, gifted & talented programs, special education, technology, bilingual programs, and other school resources. Instead, we will have a generation of students who may be great test-takers, but don’t know how to collaborate, lead, innovate, or think. We don’t have to wait to see how it plays out, because it’s a scenario China is going through right now.
The warning signs
Despite its recent top ranking in the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), China is reaping the undesirable effects of a rote learning and standardized-testing culture; an effect they call gao-fen dineng: high scores with low ability. These are graduates whose academic skills are incompatible with the aforementioned real-world skills managers need for global competitiveness. While the Chinese government is racing to embrace the western ideals of diversity, creativity, and innovation, the American government (backed by conservative philanthropists) is scrambling towards the regimented, uniform, standards-based, and test-driven education model of China, according to University of Oregon Dean of Global Education Yong Zhao. Its educators are now struggling to “undo” thousands of years of regimented thinking that is preventing them from overtaking America outright. Is this what Hess wants to happen here?
There are more warning signs for America. Recent reports are beginning to document the impact of the philanthropic-led accountability movement:
- The 2011 Metlife Teacher Survey, the first large-scale national survey, reported a dramatic 15 percentage point decrease in teacher satisfaction and a 12 point drop in retention from 2009, as well as a 26 point increase in feeling job insecurity since 2006.
- The 2010 Vanderbilt Study documented the ineffectiveness of merit pay systems to improve student test performance.
- The 2011 CREDO Stanford Study and the 2010 NCEE Evaluation Report showed that charter schools did no better than traditional public schools in raising student scores.
- The 2011 Center on Education Policy report found that school vouchers had no clear positive impact on student achievement.
What would happen if the current Gates-supported New York teacher evaluations, set to go into effect in 2013, were found to be invalid and unreliable? Money will have been wasted while teacher morale and retention plummet. Generations of students will suffer. Will Hess then urge foundations to pay for more teachers, more arts programs, and more public schools? Educated critics know its not about money or motives, as Hess claims. Its simply about not playing a high-risk, zero-sum game with our children’s future.