Education News Digest: 10/18/2011Posted on: 10/18/2011
Is the Charter School Boom Really Good for Kids?
The latest report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools shows that the charter school boom is showing no signs of abating. In six cities—New Orleans; Washington, D.C.; Detroit; Kansas City, Missouri; Flint, Michigan; and Gary, Indiana—more than 30 percent of students now attend charter schools. In New Orleans, an astounding 70 percent of students are enrolled in charters. But, when it comes down to the sheer number of students attending charters, Los Angeles takes the enrollment crown.
Over the past decade, charter schools' growth in Los Angeles has been meteoric. In 1993, a year after California passed the nation's second charter school law, only 16 charters operated in the city, a mere blip on the region's radar. But, as of the current academic year, that number has ballooned to 183 schools, educating nearly 80,000 students. While charters are designed to facilitate innovation and academic success for students, not all charters are created equal, so the boom might not be entirely good news for kids.
Every city, including Los Angeles, has outstanding charter schools—like certain high-performing KIPP schools—but overall, charters have a mixed achievement record. Stanford's 2009 CREDO study, which remains the largest comparison study of charters and traditional public schools, found that only 17 percent of charters performer better than their traditional peers.
And beyond the academics, charters have a slew of other problems. A recent report by UCLA's Civil Rights project called racial segregation in Los Angeles' charters "apartheid", while a UC Berkeley study called out the extremely high teacher turnover rates at many charters.
And while they offer more personalized learning experiences, charters aren't immune to the pressures of standardized testing. Earlier this year, Los Angeles Unified superintendent John Deasy revoked the charter of six Crescendo charter schools after news broke that cheating on state tests was widespread. Some of the city's charters have also had issues staying financially solvent. In 2010, a group of wealthy philanthropists, including former mayor Richard Riordan and billionaire Eli Broad, had to pitch in millions to save ICEF public schools. The 15-school charter operator didn't have enough cash to make payroll—what would have happened to the students enrolled in ICEF schools if no one had stepped up to save the day?
It shouldn't be shocking that charter schools have many of the same problems as other public schools. Yet, the perception that the charter label means a well-functioning, effective school persists. If that were the case for the majority of charters, their rapid spread would be serious cause for celebration.
The question too few people are asking is what's happening in those highly effective charter schools to make them work so well? Instead of ensuring that those ideas are passed back to traditional schools and to other charters, districts are handing out new charters like candy, creating an atmosphere where pretty much anyone with some semblance of a plan can open a school. Indeed, given that most charters are doing no better than traditional public schools—and are, in some cases, doing worse—we might be wise to hold our applause.
Jeb Bush, Melinda Gates, Sal Khan and the Coming Digital Learning Battle
The debate over digital learning will soon enter a new phase. No longer will educators debate whether or not digital learning has the capacity to transform the American education system. Just about gone are the anti-technology Luddites who insist that every classroom be self-contained, with students and teachers left to their own devices, save for the help of pencils, chalk, blackboards and weighty textbooks stuffed into 10 kilo backpacks.
It is becoming increasingly obvious that digital learning systems can be tailored to the specific interests, learning styles, and levels of accomplishment of each student. As digital curricular materials employ ever-more-sophisticated technologies—3-dimensional videos, game playing, interactive exercises, real-time provision of information on student performance to teachers and students alike, and more—they will be seen as essential 21st century learning tools.
But we can expect a strenuous, highly politicized debate over the way in which digital learning should be provided. On the one side will be those who propose that most digital learning in K-12 public education be of the “blended” variety, that is, take place within public school classrooms under the tutelage of a highly qualified teacher.
On the other side, “online” proponents will argue that blended learning alone is not enough. American education can be transformed only if the power to drive change is placed in the hands of students, who are offered a choice of providers that include not only the blended classroom but also those who offer products exclusively online, supplementing asymmetric video presentations of online materials with interactive systems that employ such tools as Skype, interactive games, social networking, email communications and phone conversations.
All of this became clear at the conference sponsored in San Francisco last week by the Foundation on Excellence in Education, the nonprofit headed by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who is promoting a strikingly innovative, bipartisan reform agenda that combines the Common Core standards promoted by the Gates Foundation and the Obama Administration with the accountability and choice principles to which he was committed during his eight years as Florida’s governor.
It is digital learning that holds together and gives spark to Bush’s agenda. Common standards provide a nationwide platform upon which next generation curricular materials can be built; choice allows students to pick the courses most suited to their needs, abilities, and interests; and accountability ensures that learning is genuine.
Bush put on an impressive show. His self-deprecating wit, extraordinary command of the subject, and undeniable passion generated a level of enthusiasm seldom found outside the confines of a well-orchestrated campaign event. When the former governor interviewed Melinda Gates about her support for Common Core standards, she relaxed noticeably, revealing a personal warmth and depth of knowledge less well displayed in her formal presentation.
But the true star of the show was Sal Khan, a former venture capitalist turned curriculum specialist, who has become a rock star of digital education. Unlike some other proponents of digital learning promoting their wares at the conference, Kahn taught his audience by both precept and example. Not only did he advocate next-generation learning, but, in so doing, he blended a sweater-casual speaking style with a smoothly offered, high-tech digital presentation that was little less than astounding. When he finished, only the most hard-nosed of skeptics walked away unconvinced that Khan had invented the one-and-only way to teach math to young people.
For Khan, next-generation learning combines simple, short, witty videos with problem sets that must be mastered before one moves to the next stage of instruction. To motivate students, he uses, surprisingly, nothing more than badges and other phony rewards reminiscent of the stars that old-fashioned elementary school teachers used to post next to the names of high achievers. Real-time data on success and failure is provided simultaneously to teachers, students, parents and anyone else authorized to access that information. You can learn all about the Khan method by looking at his videos on YouTube.
Yet Khan leaves the debate over blended versus online learning wide open. On one side, the power of online learning is demonstrated by videos that are being viewed by Khan’s distant cousins as well as by the next generation of the Melinda and Bill Gates family, a saxophone player who is self-educating himself into an electrical engineer, and millions of young people in developing countries across the globe.
But the “blenders” will undoubtedly point to certain in-classroom keys to his accomplishments in the public schools of Los Altos, California. There, student success at problem-solving is monitored in real time by teachers, serving as coaches, who intervene when videos are not enough. For blenders, the keys to the intervention’s apparent success include the use of real-time performance information by qualified teachers, not just the videos and problem sets.
Apparent success, it must be said, because the impact of neither the blended nor the online version of the Khan intervention has yet to be documented by a randomized trial. Still, Los Altos school authorities are impressed enough to allow Khan Academy to expand from just a couple of demonstration classrooms to middle schools throughout the district. And other charter and district schools are climbing on board this fast-moving train.
But the debate between blended and online learning will continue. Too much politically is at stake for it to be otherwise. It is not yet clear that blended learning a la Khan Academy will be any more efficient than the current bloated system of public education. At a time of extreme fiscal exigency, legislators will look for ways in which technology can save money, not for new ways to add costs.
Meanwhile, school districts and teacher unions can be expected to fight publicly funded online learning that offers students a choice of taking courses outside their local district school. If online learning should prove to be more effective than the learning that takes place within classrooms, it would provide a serious challenge to the school district-teacher union duopoly that blended learning does not.
Source: Education Next
University studies crowdsourcing for intelligence
Maybe you've got a hunch Kim Jong Il's regime in North Korea has seen its final days, or that the Ebola virus will re-emerge somewhere in the world in the next year.
Your educated guess may be just as good as an expert's opinion. Statistics have long shown that large crowds of average people frequently make better predictions about unknown events, when their disparate guesses are averaged out, than any individual scholar — a phenomenon known as the wisdom of crowds.
Now the nation's intelligence community, with the help of university researchers and regular folks around the country, is studying ways to harness and improve the wisdom of crowds. The research could one day arm policymakers with information gathered by some of the same methods that power Wikipedia and social media.
In a project that is part competition and part research study, George Mason professors Charles Twardy and Kathryn Laskey are assembling a team on the Internet of more than 500 forecasters who make educated guesses about a series of world events, on everything from disease outbreaks to agricultural trends to political patterns.
They are competing with four other teams led by professors at several universities. Each differs in its approach, but all are studying how crowdsourcing can be used.
At stake is grant money provided by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which heads up the nation's intelligence community.
Put simply, crowdsourcing occurs when a task is assigned to a wide audience rather than a specific expert or group of experts. The online encyclopedia Wikipedia is one of the most prominent examples — anyone can write or edit an entry. Over time, the crowds refine and improve the product. Crowdsourcing can range from a simple question blasted to a person's Twitter followers to amateur programmers fine-tuning open-source software.
IARPA spokeswoman Cherreka Montgomery said her project's goal is to develop methods to refine and improve on crowdsourcing in a way that would be useful to intelligence analysts.
"It's all about strengthening the capabilities of our intelligence analysts," Montgomery said.
And if analysts can use crowdsourcing to better determine the likelihood of seemingly unpredictable world events, those analysts can help policymakers be prepared and develop smarter responses. In a hypothetical example, a crowd-powered prediction about the breakout of popular uprisings in the Middle East could influence what goes in a dossier given to decision-makers at the highest levels.
The program at George Mason is called DAGGRE, short for Decomposition-based Aggregation. The researchers have used blog postings, Twitter and other means to get the word out about their project to potential participants. No specialized background is required, though a college degree is preferred.
The project seeks to break down various world events into their component parts. The stability of Kim Jong Il's regime in North Korea provides an example. One forecaster might base his prediction based solely on political factors. But what if the political experts could be guided by health experts, who might observe that Kim's medical condition is flagging?
The DAGGRE participants key their answers into forms on the project's website, and also supply information at the outset about their education and what areas they have expertise in. The scholars overseeing the project will then seek to break down the variables that influence a forecaster's prediction, and use the data in a way that people with disparate knowledge bases can help guide each other to the most accurate forecast.
Military and intelligence researchers have long studied ways to improve the ability to predict the future. In 2003, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency launched research to see whether a terrorist attack could be predicted by allowing speculative trading in a financial market, in which people would make money on a futures contract if they bet on a terrorist attack occurring within a designated time frame. The theory was that a spike in the market could serve as a trip wire that an attack was under way. But some found the idea ghoulish, and others objected to the notion that a terrorist could conceivably profit by carrying out an attack, and the research was halted.
Laskey said George Mason's research bears some fundamental similarities with the discontinued DARPA research, with the crucial difference that nobody participating in George Mason's project can profit from making accurate predictions. But participants who make accurate predictions are rewarded with a point system, and there is a leaderboard of sorts for participants to measure their success. Some can also choose to receive a small stipend for their time, but it's not tied to how they answer questions.
Another team, led by psychologists at the University of California and the University of Pennsylvania who are focused on asking questions in ways that minimize experts' overconfidence and misjudgment, said Don Moore, a professor at Cal-Berkeley.
"Small wording changes in a question can have a huge effect" on how a person answers, Moore said.
Twardy said the George Mason study has already drawn more than 500 participants, but only about half are actively participating. The study continues to recruit people as some participants drop out over the four-year course of the study.
Participants come from all walks of life. While Twardy said he'd love to have, say, agronomists, on his team to help forecast European polices and responses to mad cow diseases and the cattle trade, the overriding principle is that people from various backgrounds can contribute to the crowd's collective wisdom, so participation is not restricted by fields of expertise.
George Mason received a $2.2 million grant from IARPA to conduct the study. If the team remains in the competition for the full four years — weaker teams are at risk of being discontinued — the grant will be increased to $8.2 million.
Twardy expects to publish the results of his research and hopes it will ultimately help world leaders make more informed choices when they confront global crises.
"At some level, you cannot predict the future," Twardy said. "But you can do a lot better than just asking an expert."
Colleges Take Varied Approaches to iPad Experiments, With Mixed Results
Several colleges that have been trying out iPads in the classroom will be sharing their experiences at the annual Educause conference, which kicks off Tuesday in Philadelphia. The officials plan to talk about what they’ve learned, though most still say it’s too soon to judge the long-term potential of tablets in teaching.
At least four sessions at the conference focus on teaching experiments with Apple’s popular gadget, and The Chronicle caught up with the presenters to get a preview of their planned remarks.
Pepperdine University, for example, has been experimenting in a few courses, where some students are given iPads loaded with reading materials and applications, and others stick with laptops and traditional printed books. The initial findings show that iPads increase engagement and collaboration, acting as a facilitator for more easily sharing information, rather than the clunky barrier that a laptop can sometimes be in a group setting.
When observing classrooms with and without iPads, the difference ranged from barely noticeable to a stark contrast, said Dana K. Hoover, assistant CIO for communications and planning at Pepperdine. The most noticeable difference was how students in the iPad classes moved around the classroom more and seemed to be more engaged in the material.
“The goal is specifically to see if the iPad has the potential to impact student performance on learning outcomes in the classroom,” says Ms. Hoover. “Our secondary goal is to see if we can produce some sort of formula for success.”
The study, which began last fall, is now in its third and final semester and is in the data-collection phase. At the conference, Ms. Hoover and a colleague will be presenting some of the preliminary results from their study. The main findings they will discuss, which they did not have when Ms. Hoover was interviewed, will be results from a quiz comparing students in sections with and without iPads.
Colleges have taken a variety of approaches to their iPad experiments.
Oberlin College, a private liberal-arts institution in Ohio, is also in its third semester of its iPad program, and Forrest H. Rose, an instructional technologist at the college, says it values the immediacy the iPad brings to the classroom by giving students an easily transportable tool to use on field trips and in other group settings. But since Apple designed the tablets to be a single-user device, some professors have found issues with having multiple students lean over the machines to try to use them together. And on top of that, some students at the college have been reluctant to embrace the technology in the classroom, saying they prefer pen and paper.
Others, such as those in a music-theory course, seemed more open to a device that let them go paperless to carry around their sheet music. For those students, the iPad applications enhanced their music classes by giving them more options for composing music. But in other classes, such as writing composition, some students said the iPad proved to be a hindrance for detailed note taking and drafting papers.
“Technology isn’t at the forefront here because we’re a small liberal-arts school,” Mr. Rose said. “There have been mixed reactions and there has been some pushback.”
But for the most part the experiment has been a success, officials say, and the college’s technology center has been looking for a way to keep the devices in the classroom beyond the end of the study.
At the Universities of Cincinnati and of San Francisco, officials chose to give iPads only to faculty members, which proved to have both advantages and disadvantages.
For San Francisco researchers this meant they were able to get the devices into more classrooms, reaching up to 40 faculty members to date. But after hearing all the feedback, they’ve decided to run another iPad study, says Kenneth Yoshioka, a graphic, media, and training specialist at the university. Next time the study will include students as well.
At Cincinnati, where the study is also exclusive to faculty members, researchers say the experience has been useful so far, particularly in science and engineering courses because there are a number of useful, interactive apps available for these subjects as compared with the humanities courses.
“We’re looking for people who have clear goals in mind based on what they’re going to do in the classroom,” says Carolyn J. Stoll. They choose the faculty members carefully and purposefully, focusing on the individual’s pedagogical goals and analyzing the methodology.
The university, Ms. Stoll says, is now looking at purchasing new types of tablets to add to the study, and they have no end date for the experiment in sight.
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