Category Archives: General Thoughts

Educational Technology is a false savior

As a child, I was a student of technology. As an adult, I was a teacher of technology. The most important thing I learned from these experiences is that effective Ed Tech comes from tech-savvy teachers who use tools in their own unique way. These technophile teachers still taught traditionally (myself included); they simply used technology to streamline and improve its delivery.

So let’s be clear: I do not espouse abandoning educational technology, but I think we have to be much more intelligent and methodical about purchasing it. In my own classroom I used technology, but only in ways I felt helped me do my job better, almost never by administrative mandate. In fact, I’ve always suspected top-down mandates and purchases of classroom technology are rarely effective, especially the haphazard way it’s implemented.

This morning, the BBC  reported on a study by the Organisation for Economic Co‑operation and Development that seems to confirm my suspicions:

[The] frequent use of computers in schools is more likely to be associated with lower results. . . If you look at the best-performing education systems, such as those in East Asia, they’ve been very cautious about using technology in their classrooms . . . Those students who use tablets and computers very often tend to do worse than those who use them moderately.”

I believe our recent attempts in the U.S. to measure and quantify Education have exacerbated the issue.

Teachers are evaluated on their use of technology. Their raises and even their employment are at risk if they don’t leverage computers to teach English or History. How many teachers know enough about effective use of computers to use them intelligently? How many teachers are sufficiently knowledgeable about technology to be able to take this increase in funding and translate it to an improvement in student learning? Almost none. Yet all of them are forced to take time away from traditional teaching to leverage these technologies they (quite understandably) don’t know how to use properly.

This well-intentioned but misguided thinking largely applies to how we approach Educational Technology. If a teacher is not extremely comfortable with technology — or if this technology creates more work rather than streamlining existing tasks — it will probably not have the desired result.

My experience as School Technology Coordinator and high school teacher (of Math, Science and Computers) has taught me a few things about Educational Technology. Here is my experience; others may have different experiences or may disagree, and that’s fine. Here is what I’ve observed:

  1. Technology advances are purchased without proper research.
  2. Technology advances are applied recklessly without proper transition or training once purchased.
  3. A significant percentage of technical advances purchased are best described as “solutions without problems”, which are invariably forced upon teachers who neither want nor need them.
  4. I have never seen User Acceptance Testing implemented prior to completion of an Ed Tech project.
  5. Borderline-inexcusable oversights (I certainly hope they’re oversights) like:
    • Issuing computer-based curriculum without making sure there are enough computers to deliver the curriculum to all students using it.
    • Issuing Macintosh-based curriculum to teachers without issuing Macintosh computers to teachers.
    • Issuing a class set of laptops or tablets without Wi-Fi access points that can handle an entire classroom.
  6. Replacing Intensive Reading (“remedial”) textbooks with iPads.
    • iPads are great, but a waste at $500-$700 a pop. Why not, for example, this $99 Kindle for Kids bundle that includes cases (to take the abuse students will inflict) plus a 2-year replacement warranty? And this $99 is a retail price, not a bulk contract price.
    • Again: these iPads were issued to classrooms without installing WiFi hotspots capable of handling 30 wireless clients at once.
  7. Everything is rushed. Superintendents and politicians have short terms, so they have to “do” something or “change” something in order to give the appearance of success.

I think of stories where American Government textbooks were removed and replaced with online curriculum. At any given time, there were always significantly more American Government classes than there were computer labs. And during standardized testing season (which is scattered throughout the entire school year), instruction would grind to a halt, unless teachers prepared their own lessons from scratch. This means the introduction of technology (a.) lowered the quality of instruction for students, and (b.) created extra work for teachers.

Technology should be a tool that makes formerly manual jobs more easily accomplished, and/or with better quality. Too often, it is quite the opposite in my experience. Educational technology is a false savior; we can’t just throw money at it and expect it to work. We have to be intelligent and informed in our purchases. And again, this is not scientific, just an observation that may be flawed. But I think there’s a strong basis of reality beneath the observation.

I can’t help but think that looking at ways to improve how Ed Tech is purchased and implemented would be a very interesting project and might alleviate some of the problems found by this study.

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Education is not the solution; it is an opportunity

Education is not the solution for poverty, injustice or even ignorance. Education is an opportunity — no more, no less — for each individual student to work their hardest to escape these evils. If we actually want to improve Education, we have to accept this.

When we lose sight of the fact we’re here to provide opportunities, we spend billions on redundant exams and unneeded curriculum changes while dissolving libraries (to save mere millions) and failing to prepare teachers properly for the constant change. We spend billions to fulfill the demand for guaranteed outcomes, when nearly any guarantee in Education outcomes is a fantasy; most variables are outside our control.

I think it’s obvious this trend stems from businesspeople lobbying and advising our government to run Education like a business. I actually think the people wanting to run schools like businesses are overwhelmingly well-intentioned — with some exceptions — but it doesn’t work. I’ve lived in both worlds, and they are extremely different. By nature, businesses have much tighter control of their input and processes. When you hire someone, you choose the person you think has the best chance for success and tell the other applicants (nicely) to hit the road. When an employee disrupts your business processes, you might fire them. If someone is valuable to your company, you have powerful incentives at your disposal like raises or bonuses to retain them.

But schools are not factories, students aren’t widgets, and they certainly aren’t our employees. Students have minds of their own. They have different backgrounds, aptitudes, desires and work ethics. In Education, we can’t (and shouldn’t be able to) hire and fire them, give them raises, or control their study habits, strengths and weaknesses.

And since students are the only ones who live with the privileges or consequences arising from their performance, all we can do — and must do — is ensure we provide students with the best opportunities possible, and encourage them to take advantage. But we still can’t guarantee any level of student success, because the rest is up to them.

Administrators say, “Kids don’t read much; why should we provide libraries for books to collect dust?” Administrators say, “Kids never take their textbooks home to study, why should we buy a book to issue to each student?” Even if many kids don’t use these resources, it doesn’t matter. If we are to reasonably provide children with the best opportunities, all of them should have the choice to take a book home for a couple of weeks (as I’ve pointed out numerous times, restoring librarians would be incredibly cheap), or their textbook home at night, and read it. Whether or not they do so, is up to them. Education is here to provide opportunities, not make guarantees.

I am not pretending that all, or (let’s be honest teachers), even most students are conscientious enough to take full advantage. That doesn’t matter, because the children who have (or develop) initiative should have the choice to better themselves. To take a textbook home, and study. To take a vocational book home, and get started on learning a trade. To take a novel home, learn to love reading and become better readers (And who knows? Reading scores might even improve if you provide kids books to read). Whether or not kids do so, is up to them. Some will, many won’t. We hope and strive to encourage  as many children as possible to do so.

I say this with the firm belief that we have already won 90% of the battle in Education over the past century with two strokes of the pen (Child Labor Laws/Compulsory Education Laws) and the struggle to enforce one Supreme Court decision that sets the ideal of equal opportunity for all (Brown v. Board of Education).

Yes, there are legitimate concerns and debates, but they pale in comparison to progress already made. The opportunity is there for the taking; parents and students must seize it. And as anyone who runs any kind of enterprise should know, unnecessary or improperly applied changes are at least as likely to harm than help. For this reason, I advocate common-sense boosts and moving spending towards the work of teachers and students, rather than sweeping reform that shifts spending towards administration and exam publishers. A bit of calming down all the way around may be what we need. This is much easier when we acknowledge Education is not the solution, but an opportunity for all.

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“What was taken away from my children’s education in order to make them better at taking standardized tests?”

This decades-old quote from Alfie Kohn is as true today as it ever has been, because everything in life is a trade-off. We have limited time and resources. If we increase the importance of testing in our schools, we decrease the importance of something else. We must ask ourselves: what is that “something else” that’s being taken away?

The arts? Creative learning and teaching? Physical activity? Recess? Joy in learning for its own sake? Joy in reading for its own sake? Weeks of instruction per year?

We may want to take time to think about what we lose when we introduce “accountability” and seek “higher test scores” at all costs.


March 13, 2015 · 11:46 AM

The Metaphor of Teaching as Painting a House

Peter Greene of the curmudgucation blog wrote an entry on the Huffington Post that’s gotten a lot of attention. He lost me at first, but when I got to this metaphor at the end, I thought it was one of the more eloquent critiques of standardized testing I’ve seen so far:

Here’s your metaphor for the day.

Teaching is like painting a huge Victorian mansion. And you don’t actually have enough paint. And when you get to some sections of the house it turns out the wood is a little rotten or not ready for the paint. And about every hour some supervisor comes around and asks you to get down off the ladder and explain why you aren’t making faster progress. And some days the weather is terrible. So it takes all your art and skill and experience to do a job where the house still ends up looking good.

Where are school reformy folks in this metaphor? They’re the ones who show up and tell you that having a ladder is making you lazy, and you should work without. They’re the ones who take a cup of your paint every day to paint test strips on scrap wood, just to make sure the paint is okay (but now you have less of it). They’re the ones who show up after the work is done and tell passersby, “See that one good-looking part? That turned out good because the painters followed my instructions.” And they’re most especially the ones who turn up after the job is complete to say, “Hey, you missed a spot right there on that one board under the eaves.”

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Common Core, even if horrible, will improve classroom instruction

A great friend and superstar teacher asked a great question about Common Core on Facebook today:

My name is Susan Bailey. I am a right winged, conservative, Republican.

If you know me well, you undoubtedly know that I am about as conservative as they come. Red is my favorite color, I even see better out of my right eye, and Reagan is my all time favorite president!

And I support the implementation of the Common Core Standards!

I am scratching my head as to why my conservative friends are so against the implementation of the standards, and so I am inviting you to share your reasons with me. This is not an invitation to bash a party or the president! I am genuinely curious as to why you stand in such opposition. If you leave a comment, please only make reference to the standards! And for my own research, could you also reference the source you used to obtain your information?

This is an honest and sincere attempt to understand – again, do not use it as a platform for heated rhetoric! If you really feel the need to “vent”, please respond in a private message!

Ms. Bailey, the partisan (sometimes bipartisan) controversy surrounding Common Core surprises me as well. So, thank you for reminding me to write about this, even though I’m not really all that conservative. And for the record, I would love to hear an intelligent argument against Common Core. I’m sure some exist, but I have yet to hear one.

To directly answer your question, I would imagine many conservatives see Common Core as a violation of States’ Rights. Which is odd, since states have the right not to adopt Common Core. Five states have exercised this right.

I think such arguments miss the mark, regardless. Because even if it were mandated, some things, like educational standards, are better when consolidated: Think “Critical Mass” and “Economies of Scale”. I believe it doesn’t matter whether Common Core standards are “good” or “bad”, as long as they’re not complete nonsense. You and I know, Ms. Bailey, good teachers can take bad standards and make good lessons; bad teachers can take good standards and make bad lessons.

To reiterate, the main aspect that makes Common Core a Good Thing is critical mass. Tens of millions of students using identical standards will cause an explosion of quality resources for teachers and students. Did someone write a perfect lesson in Idaho? We can now use it in Florida without tweaking.

Why does this matter? Last year I spent hours mapping Khan Academy to Sunshine State Standards for Algebra II. Obviously, Khan Academy can’t trudge through standards for 50 states and thousands of school districts. And if I had unsupportive administration, they could have taken issue with my unofficial mapping and prevented me from using Khan Academy.

But with Common Core, they can map every lesson for every school in the USA… and they have!

For me, the effort of mapping Khan Academy was a roadblock. For others, they are uncomfortable using unofficial resources. This prevented many teachers from being able to use an outstanding resource.

But now, with Common Core, it became worthwhile for Khan Academy to embrace the exact same standards as the teacher. There is no time roadblock, and no political roadblock… both roadblocks removed by Common Core.

Today, millions of teachers can now seamlessly use Khan Academy lessons and exercises that match the standard in their class that day.

If anyone can legitimately tell me why this is bad, I’d love to hear it.

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Khan Academy’s best use for the average teacher? Differentiated instruction.

For those who don’t know, Khan Academy is an outstanding web site funded mainly by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation that provides online lectures and exercises in multiple disciplines. It is completely free, and provides amazing tools for differentiating instruction and gleaning student data.

In the interest of full disclosure, some educators love Khan Academy, some hate it, yet few seem to understand it — which is why I’m writing this. You can count me firmly in the “love” category; I think it’s one of the greatest things to hit Education in years. So when I found out I was teaching some math classes in a computer lab last year, I was very excited to give it a shot. I asked my principal (Dean Ledford) and assistant principal (Aaron Lakatos) for permission to use Khan Academy as the daily driver for my Algebra II classes, and they agreed to let me use it in class (very supportive administration at Sandalwood in my experience!). I pushed the envelope a little bit and ended up almost exclusively using Khan Academy to teach Algebra II (both Standard and Honors) last year, with, I think, very good results.

I will say that the pure “flipped classroom” model Khan Academy espouses (where watching video lectures is “homework” and the math problems are completed in class with teacher assistance) did not work for me, mostly because (a.) most students (even Honors students) don’t do a lick of homework, and (b.) a shocking number of kids have no computer at home. However, a hybrid version of the flipped classroom that I settled on worked wonderfully.

Basically, I mapped all Algebra II Sunshine State Standards to Khan Academy video lectures, then mapped about 75% of the standards to Khan Academy assignments. The textbook was used to fill in the gaps (there were surprisingly few). I asked students to watch the lectures at home, knowing full well almost no one would do so. I then “reviewed” the video lecture with a quick 15-25 minute lesson with example problems from either the textbook or Khan Academy. The last 60-75 minutes of class, I let the kids do their “homework”, usually on Khan Academy. This, to me, was the main thing the “flipped classroom” experiment taught me as a teacher: shut up, stop lecturing so much, and give the kids time to do their work in class so that (a.) I’m there to make sure they actually do it, and (b.) I’m around when they get stumped.

Khan Academy was an exciting tool to use as a teacher for a number of reasons:

  • True differentiated instruction: I gave enrichment lessons to advanced students and remedial lessons (like fraction arithmetic, the bane of most math students’ existence) to struggling students as needed without using class time.
  • I taught all lessons live, but my pacing guide listed Khan Academy videos that reinforced the day’s standard. This was wonderful for students who needed a lesson explained a different way, or for students who missed a lesson.
  • When stumped on homework, students could ask for “hints” on problems with neither penalty nor credit (very powerful, see below).
  • Students worked unlimited problems until proving “proficiency” in a topic to earn credit.
  • “Proficiency” is earned by answering a consecutive number of problems correctly the first try.
  • I had real-time lists of “struggling” and “proficient” students. When “struggling” with classwork, I walked to their desks and said, “I see you’re having trouble.” They usually were relieved, especially the proud or shy.
  • Homework grades skyrocketed despite higher standards for receiving credit (Proficiency = 100%, anything else = 0%), and dipped down to normal levels on paper assignments.
  • The best part: we can literally see each student learn. Data on one student’s assignment is below:
    Student's Khan Academy Results
  • Blue bars are correct answers, red bars are incorrect answers.
  • Question marks indicate where the student asked for hints. A hint marks the problem “incorrect”, but students are encouraged to use hints as a learning tool, as this student did here.
  • The height of the bar indicates the amount of time spent on the problem.
  • On problem #11, she spent five minutes, then got her first correct answer.
  • She struggled through problems 12-14, then answered 17 of the next 18 correctly on the first try, proving proficiency.
  • A paper assignment of 10-12 problems may have resulted in wrong answers and no mastery. The use of Khan Academy both allowed and required her to press towards mastery.

Khan Academy gives you exactly as many problems as you need. If you get the first five right, and quickly, Khan Academy generally marks students proficient. Students who struggle keep getting more problems until they show proficiency.  As you’d expect, students initially complained about sometimes having to do 30-40 problems to get credit. But the strangest thing started happening: eventually, they started complaining when I gave textbook assignments because (a.) the textbook couldn’t help them as well when they were stumped, and (b.) the textbook didn’t demand proficiency! Students actually complained about this!

This use of Khan Academy (combined with my work in the IT Academy) was featured in an article in the Florida Times-Union complete with one of the worst pictures of me ever taken (“Teachable Moments: Technology Meets Tradition”).

I realize most teachers do not teach in a computer lab. If I ever teach math in a regular classroom again, I would still use Khan Academy for differentiated instruction (enrichment or remediation). It’ll make you look like a champ to your administrators, and more importantly, it’ll help your kids! Khan Academy is also fully available in Spanish for your Spanish-speaking students who are still learning English. Khan Academy has lessons for the following subjects:

  • K-12 Math
  • Science (Chemistry, Biology, Physics, etc.)
  • American Government
  • Economics
  • World History
  • Art History
  • Finance
  • Computer Programming

You seriously can feel free to contact me if you want pointers on getting started on Khan Academy.


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