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“Eat Less, Exercise More” Isn’t The Answer For Weight Loss | TIME


Going Beyond the Core

Almost from the start of my term on the Board, I have struggled with how to understand value and affordability metrics in education.  As an engineer, I’ve been taught to analyze any system for its structure of performance, feedback, and control.  This is the essence of any accountability system.

Of course, the difference is that schools are not machines and students are not widgets that we can mass-produce, but they are systems.  Both schools and students are vastly more complex than machines, so we should not hope than any simple system of metrics can adequately guide us with feedback or control, as they might with more simple systems.  This is why we have to be very cautious about using the PISA and NAEP reports, interesting though they may be, to guide our perspective on the full range of services and courses that we offer at our schools.  Producing quality adults requires a much broader set of experiences than can be measured by the simple math and language arts testing that is currently done, and we certainly cannot limit or guide funding based on a desire to generate high performance in only those subjects.

One major challenge is: how do we measure a quality educational experience, one that produces a productive, creative, and engaged population; and thus how do we get credit for and be accountable for providing the kind of education that produces that population.  And this accountability applies to everyone in the system, not just a subset, say, of teachers.

Given that we are, today, driven by these few metrics, another challenge is: how do we embed broader knowledge exposure into these core courses so that students have the full enrichment needed to appreciate a subject and the bigger picture.  I have begun to see research and implementation of project-based learning as a way to do exactly this.  I’m encouraged by the new ideas and have supported examinations of project learning in our local discussions.

From what I’ve learned in just the last year, school districts are under intense pressure to cut costs for all but the “most essential” courses and services.  But who makes these decisions and how do we decide what is most essential?  Today, it is often the state legislature with little input from district leadership or teachers.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  As an engineer, I’m a big fan of math, science, and technology education, so-called STEM education, but one obvious casualty of our laser focus on math and language arts has been our fading offerings in the arts and humanities across the nation.  While we are required by state laws to offer certain courses outside of math and language arts, cost constraints are placing great pressure to do only the bare minimum to meet those requirements and to focus much of our effort on performance on a only a few metrics.  This is just wrong with potential serious consequences.

Our democracy and, indeed, our humanity is dependent on the maximization of population with knowledge across a broad array of subjects.  Only then can we hope to benefit from the diversity of perspective that will enable us to continue to solve our greatest cultural and scientific challenges.  We have to find a way to make offering a broad range of courses part of the the economically incentivised accountability, feedback, and control systems.

I’ll close with two recent articles that highlight the importance of supporting the humanities and encouraging students to “go beyond the core”.  While costs are always a factor, I believe we cannot let the economics tied to using a narrow set of metrics drive the humanity out of education.

Don’t underestimate value of a liberal arts education“, Professor Victor Hanson, Hoover Institution, Stanford University

Minnesota program encourages 8th graders to “go beyond the core” in selecting their high school courses. 

I welcome your perspective on this subject.

Thoughts On An Educational Technology Plan

In reference to this article,  I believe the 2010 National Educational Technology Plan is a good general approach and should not be over-politicized.  It seems to be moving the ball in the right direction.  The educational community should use it for the good parts and reconsider anything that doesn’t seem to work.  Far better to keep the dialog going than to throw stones as so many seem to do.

I concur that a rubric is a good approach.  KISS and Keep It Positive, Productive, and Collaborative.  Rubrics are good at pointing the way toward increasing improvement.

I also believe, in relation to concerns that technology is moving too fast to respond to or manage, that we can’t lose sight of what the technology is supporting, i.e., learning and development.  If we keep that in mind, I don’t believe any technology will come along that we can’t handle by first considering how it will affect learning, and student/teacher engagement, motivation, and collaboration.

Finally, technology goes well beyond the classroom and standards should be set for administrative use, as well as parental, community, and industry/academic use in support of K-12 learning.  We’re only scratching the surface on the ways that technology can work to support our nation’s next leaders.

ROWE, ROWE, ROWE Your Learning

Here’s a quick one.

I was passed this great video (very fun and worth 10 minutes), which prompted me to get Daniel Pink’s book, Drive (available at our library).

In both is a great discussion on new research and thinking by the author and those he writes about regarding how we are all motivated in different ways at different times under different circumstances.  I urge you to read it.  If you’re a fan of Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, you’ll enjoy this, too.  Same vein of gold.

Pink’s work focuses on finding ways to build intrinsic reasons for employees to achieve their goals and produce results efficiently.  He argues that businesses (run by Type A, Theory X managers) offer too many extrinsic (Type X) rewards for things that employees would do better if the rewards were more intrinsic (Type I and encouraged by Type B, Theory Y leaders).   [Keeping up?  Too much management theory and coffee today, I guess.]

Research shows that extrinsic rewards work in circumstances where the tasks are well defined (or algorithmic or step-by-step), but those types of rewards can actually hurt performance when tasks require thought, creativity, or other non-linear paths toward a result (called heuristic tasks).  For these tasks, performance improvements are best gained by removing the reward and supporting internal motivations.  (For example, no one could pay me enough to write this blog.)

The point of this specific post is that Dan Pink writes about the Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE) and businesses that are trying out this radical shift in their work rules.  Very creative in its approach, a ROWE focuses employees on the results, not the incentives or compensation, as the motivation for performance.  Employees are paid sufficient to support their families and goals, but they are free to establish whatever work rules apply to the results they need to achieve.

I won’t spoil the rest of story, but I jumped immediately to the idea of a ROLE (L for Learning).  I’m familiar with New York City’s experiments in their “School of One” concept schools.  We’re all watching that one, but a ROLE would have many of the same characteristics as a ROWE (without the salaries, of course).  Namely, that students would be coached (maybe by teachers in a ROWE!) to focus on certain educational requirements, but allowed to pursue their own path to them under their own learning styles.  Pretty radical, too, and I would never claim to be an educator, but it is at least interesting. 

I know that certain skills have to be explicitly taught, but there are times, too, when students (and I’m still a student) just want to be left alone to explore their world using their new skills.  I find this to be true very often and I know personally that it serves to reinforce learning better than anything repetitive might be (a la homework).  Maybe that’s just me (but I don’t think so).

As usual, though, my “idea” of a ROLE was not new and I quickly found out that another teacher (a real one) had jumped to the same conclusion and was pursuing it further.  Though I’m mainly focused on the ROWE stuff, I wish him well on ROLE and will be watching, and learning.  Hopefully, he’ll share his results.  Watch and learn with me!  (And watch the video.  It’s good.)

It’s Inputs That Matter

One of my passions is economics.  Not just because I’m heavy into math, but because economics collects together under one umbrella the measures of both benefit and cost, demand and supply, output and input.

The recent Newsweek article that ranked Cheltenham high school among the top 1600 schools in America (that’s the top 6% for the math folks) is fascinating as an example of  just such an economic perspective and I can’t resist remarking on it.

It is the inputs to a process (a school, a factory, a family, a car, they’re all processes in action) that are one of the most critical parts of the process.  We’ve all probably heard the phrase “garbage in – garbage out”.  This is exactly the concept I’m talking about and exactly what the article measures, but in a positive way. 

You can read about their choice of a metric in their online discussion of how the rankings were done, but the Newsweek staff used as their key metric for quality the number of “Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge (AICE) tests given at a school each year.”  This is an input metric. Here it’s more-in/more-out.  Knowing that these advanced courses are good things just to participate in, regardless of grade received, “more in” also means “better out”.  “More in” means more students that are prepared for college level work.  And while measuring the value of that preparation is just too hard, we know that more is better.

As more evidence, Time Magazine also had an interesting article on almost the same topic.  Specifically, should we pay kids for certain behaviors.  They actually studied paying for both inputs and outputs, in this case for reading books or for good grades and found that it was the input metric that most correlated with improved student performance.  And why do we know this?  Reading is fundamental to nearly everything we do and good readers are efficient learners, hence the output of better performance will almost certainly be improved with better quality input provided with the incentive to improve the basic skill of reading.

Returning to the Newsweek article, if we want more students to graduate with college level experience and possibly with college level credits, we first need to increase the number of students taking these tougher courses.  Increased quality in terms of college-prepared students will come naturally from more students being exposed to college-level work.  We can never expect more prepared students out than we put in.

I applaud this metric as one that is both something we can actually and most directly effect, and it is a metric that will correlate well to increases in quality output.

Garbage-in/garbage-out is real and so is quality-in/quality-out.  I’m glad that Newsweek recognizes that schools like Cheltenham are working on improving the inputs because it’s the inputs that matter most.


Knowledge Sharing…Two Great Examples

I’ve written and spoken before about the importance of sharing knowledge.  I encourage it in my work and wherever I’m able, but I was reminded of its value in two events this week so I thought I’d at least note them — for my own benefit if not for others.

I’ve begun reading Dr. Myron Lieberman’s most recent (2007) book entitled “The Educational Morass”, in which he reviews a wide range of recent and still very “hot” issues in K-12 education.  He provides a tour of much of the research and commentary on the topics, but perhaps as importantly, he also provides his opinion.  He noted in the introduction that he does so not because he believes that his opinion is the only opinion to have, but because unless we share our opinions, openly and honestly, we cannot fully explore the key ideas surrounding a topic or objective.  Dr. Lieberman shares his knowledge and insights not to direct others but to shed light and allow others a basis upon which to explore their own ideas.  He does so as a way to measure progress in the debate and the resultant activities.  While his opinions are controversial to many, he’s making an attempt to encourage what I’ve also discussed elsewhere as a listening rhetoric — one in which the objective is not winning arguments, but building clarity and collective insight.  What a mature perspective and approach to demonstrate, and one that I’m still learning how to do with any consistency.

In the other event, big news actually, a friend and fellow board member, though we’ve never met, has announced that he will seek election as the state representative for his legislative district.  Though we haven’t known each other long, Dr. Fred Baldwin, longtime School Director for the Carlisle Area School District, has shared his knowledge and insights on being a good board member with me and he regularly shares his experienced opinions with everyone on his blog, School Board Transparency.  Dr. Baldwin is no slouch in the commitment category either, having 16 years on the school board, 12 as board president, and he willingly shares his experiences, resources, and encouragement with wit and great style reflective of his skills as a writer and historian.  He has built up a strong reputation in support of education and his opinion on transparency is refreshing and challenging to the secrecy by and resulting distrust of government.  His knowledge is definitely worth sharing across the state.  We NEED more good eggs like Fred in public office and I look forward to listening to his rhetoric as he explores the new challenges of seeking, and soon executing, a legislative position for Pennsylvania.

Here’s hoping I can be as rhetorically mature as Myron Lieberman and as committed to excellence and openness for Pennsylvania as Fred Baldwin.