Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Quick Thoughts on Canaries, Coal Mines, and #EdReform

This is (Maybe) not going to be a TL;DR blog post. I am in the last week of setup before teachers return and have two labs, 40 teacher computers, two renovated classrooms and more to finish.

Yesterday, AP reporter Tom LoBianco broke a story that Tony Bennett, then State Superintendent was heavily involved in reassessing the Indiana A-F school grading system on behalf of one particular charter school.

Late yesterday afternoon, State Impact released an article where Bennett justifies the approach:
But Bennett, now Florida Commissioner of Education, defended his actions, saying Christel House is one of four charter schools widely recognized as the best in Indiana. 
“Tindley, Signature, Herron and Christel House — I made many comments that by any measure those would be four A schools,” Bennett told StateImpact Indiana. 
Bennett says his department ran into problems when initial calculations indicated the school would receive a C under the statewide accountability system, which didn’t sit well with the then-superintendent. 
“So when we looked at our data and saw that three of those schools were A’s and Christel House was not, that told me that there was a nuance in our data,” says Bennett. “Frankly, my emails portrayed correctly my frustrations with the fact that there was a nuance in the system that did not lend itself to face validity.”
Now lots of people will be talking about this over the next few days (Ravitch's Blog is LOL funny), but the debater in me noticed something that may not be picked up in all of the gleeful shouting.

Tony Bennett is basically running a "Canary in a Coal Mine" defense (named for those brave little birds who sacrificed themselves so that miners would have a chance to escape carbon monoxide poisoning).

If we believe that a) The charter school in question is clearly on par with the others named and b) that all four charters are clearly what "we" mean when we refer to an "A" level school. Then for any of those schools to not receive an "A" indicates a flaw in the system.

That is a consistent pleading. But in debate world, it opens itself up for a dilemma style attack. Either:

1. The accountability system which impacts school grades, reputations, teacher evaluations, grants, and more is flawed enough that it was worth a quick-scramble fix to "get it right" before the powers-that-be got upset


2. Bennett and his team hold that a school in which only 1/3 of the 10th grade students passed the Algebra test can still be an "A" worthy school:
E-mail response from Joe Gubera, Chief Accountability Officer
What is interesting, is that neither of these positions seems consistent with the #edreform rhetoric that calls for strong, data-based accountability that is well-researched and not prone to political influence. Teachers have been arguing for YEARS that there were problems with hanging a school by a few data points, particularly when the analytics experts themselves haven't quite got a handle on the data (see last year's Educational Analytics post which was confirmed this year by the head of BlackBoard's Data division).

The response has been that "we" (being the whiny teachers who are against #edreform and the invasion of #EdBiz in our schools -- or, you know, are skeptical of amorphous data -- or, you know, that think) just need to get on board and trust the numbers. Of course, that would fly in the face of proposition 2. Because those numbers do not look good from an accountability standpoint.

Bennett's solution?

E-mail from Tony Bennett, Same source as above

What would "solutions" that are "not explanations" be? The idea that this school might not be up to "A" snuff is not even considered. The Canary died so it is time to fix the problem.

When a dilemma is revealed, the best thing to do is to take a deep breath and step back.
Analyze your presumptions and premises. Something is wrong.

The problem isn't that Tony Bennett discovered that something is wrong. The problem is that the thing that was "wrong" flew in the face of his deeply held beliefs in how teachers, schools, students and education should be measured.

Maybe now we can have that discussion on a larger scale.
Maybe Bill Gates can accept the consequences of his role on this world of high-stakes accountability. Maybe other states can join (hopefully) Indiana in stepping back from PARCC before we enter into that can of murky data and expensive investments in non-educational resources.

We have a dead canary on our hands. This is our chance to escape.
Let's make sure that the problem we fix is the right one.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Guest Post: Parenting in a Post-Post Racial Society -- Teach Your Children Well

Opening up the space to guest-bloggers may become a more regular thing this year. This post comes from Elizabeth Ferries-Rowe (the seldom posting +Elizabeth Ferries-Rowe or @wishbabydoc), mother of 3 and Chief of OB/GYN at Wishard Memorial Hospital in Indianapolis, IN. She happens to be married to me, but after reading her thoughts this weekend, I felt it was important to expand her audience beyond FaceBook.

Being a parent is scary. You keep your kids close for a short time, and you teach them what you can to keep them safe when that time is up. Sometimes, though, that isn’t enough. When I heard the verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman, my first thought was of my friend Rana. We’ve known each other for years. We were residents together, and we joined the same practice after graduating residency. We’ve had our kids together, and we’ve shared the struggles of raising a family as busy full-time moms. We’ve swapped stories of pumping milk for our babies between C-sections at 3 a.m. and laughed as our precocious kids learn to speak like grown-ups through tiny mouths. Of course, as our kids get bigger, we’ve started to see where our parenting experiences will differ. I have three girls, and Rana has two boys. Also, Rana’s family is black.

The early commentary on the verdict has been revealing. From a legal standpoint, the verdict seems to be justified in light of Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law*. The law permits deadly force and does not require a person to attempt to escape a situation where he or she is threatened. The problem, of course, is that the degree to which one feels threatened is subjective. George Zimmerman reported to police that he feared for his life, and a jury of his peers believed that he was right to fear. What was it about that night that justified his fear in the eyes of a jury? Trayvon, 160 pounds and armed only with a bag of Skittles, was not perceived as a credible threat based on superior physical strength or overwhelming firepower. The jury accepted that Trayvon posed a threat because he was young and male and black. Of course, some will argue that Trayvon was a bad kid, and that bad outcomes are inevitable when you make bad choices. After all, he had a history of marijuana use and fights at school – as if those would justify his death. When George Zimmerman aimed a weapon at him that night, though, he knew none of that. He knew only that a young black man was walking through the neighborhood after dark - and that alone was enough to justify following him through the night, and ultimately killing him. If Trayvon had been anything other than who he was – white, or female, or elderly – and all other facts in the case remained the same, I doubt that Zimmerman would have been acquitted. If Zimmerman had reported fear for his life when faced with a 16-year-old white girl, the jury simply would not have believed him. Not that this theoretical 16-year-old white girl and Trayvon Martin would be meaningfully different in the threat they posed – only that Trayvon’s very person made him legitimately dangerous to those determining Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence.

The crime of being young and black is hardly news, despite our self-congratulatory claims of being a post-racial society, and I do not pretend to understand how it must feel to raise children under that cloud. We all face our parenting challenges. As my eldest hits puberty and only gets taller and blonder and tanner with every passing day, events like the sexual assault and social media humiliation of a teenage girl in Steubenville, Ohio last year make me wonder how to best protect my girls. Should I tell them never to attend parties? Should I tell them to be afraid of boys as they grow into young men? Should I tell them to be cautious that the way they dress doesn’t imply openness to sexual advances? I shouldn’t have to, but part of parenting girls in our society is teaching them that they can’t count on others to treat them as human beings, and that they must make smart decisions to protect themselves. The difference between me and Rana, though, is that I can teach my girls how to minimize the risk. I can teach my daughter not to wear short skirts, lest some young man conclude she was “asking for it”. How can Rana teach her boys not to black? Why should she have to try?

On the night of the verdict, I sent Rana a text: “Thinking of you tonight. Give your beautiful boys a hug for me, too.” She responded: “Thanks E. I’ve already cried…and will continue. My babies are not safe.”

I don’t know where to go from here. The case highlights the flaws of the “stand your ground”, but to focus only on that is to miss the bigger picture. There are a multitude who are more learned and more articulate that I am on the stereotype of the Angry Black Man in America, but I know that until we find a way to see a 16-year-old boy in a hoodie as just a 16-year-old boy in a hoodie, our society will continue to be constructed around fear. Rana’s boys are smart, funny, unique little people. When she sends them out at night in a few years, though, they will be smart, funny, unique young black men. It’s up to all of us to find a way to help her keep them safe.

* In light of the attention this article is getting today (Thanks, FARK :) ), the author (and wife) pointed out that she had corrected the Stand-Your-Ground line on her Facebook page as the details of the case were being publicized. Since I am not on FB much, I missed the update: 
"The early commentary on the verdict has been revealing. From a legal standpoint, the verdict seems to be justified based on the premise of self defense. The law permits deadly force and does not require a person to attempt to escape a situation where he or she is threatened." 
There is probably some room for discussion about SYG influence given the statements of at least one juror (example HERE), but I will leave that topic for the Fark message board. :)

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Speed Dating -- A Redhead, Mixed Messages, and a #BbWorld13 Call to Action sans Notes

It began with an invitation that was given to all of the #BbWorld13 Bloggers: Come for a reception that will include food, drinks, a digital sketch artist, and SPEED DATING.

wow. I mean, you have to understand, not only am I very happily married, but I am intensely introverted. I am the blogger that scared off other bloggers and made them feel bad about talking to me. I practically invented the hashtag #tweetfrom10ftaway.

Was I ready for this? Well, I did look pretty good in my Google Glass and I was wearing my lucky Dr. Who shirt. So, with a lot of hesitation, I entered the a live-action version of the blogosphere.

They plied us with food and drinks. The sketch artist was AMAZING (I'll share the pic soon, but I never got my digital copy). And then one of the organizers approached me and said that I would be paired off with @MedinaTech.

Catalyst Winner,
Wait a minute? That isn't how speed dating works!

I will give it to BlackBoard, they really did their homework. She was a 40-something, midwestern mother of three two. She was a redhead. Sure, she was a little into checking her phone, but who among us is not? I mean, there seemed to be no downside.

Then they told the two of us that we were speed dating together and that our first table had another two people already at the table! Well, I certainly knew where Blackboard sat on the political spectrum. Talk about innovative!

My introverted sensibilities were reeling. What had I gotten myself into?!? But, WTH, we were in Vegas after all....

Speed Dating Table #1: Social Learning
We were paired off with two experts in social learning. And then came that awkward moment where we had to break the ice. What to say?

  • "So, think this twitter thing will ever take off?" - stupid
  • "Are LOLcats the zen koan of the modern age?"  - i mean, i want to be generous, but how do you even hold a Big Mac with those paws?

Greg, casually dropping bombshells
Then I realized. I was a blogger. I was here for the hard-hitting questions!

"So, think Blackboard will ever make a play for MySpace?"

A silence fell over the table. In a hushed whisper, our social media guru looked at us and said "No. That is not going to happen"

Mind. Blown.

At our first table. On the first real question...

We had discovered a company that Blackboard would not buy!!

and then it was time to move on...

Speed Dating Table #2: Mobile and Mosaic
Oh this guy was smooth.

He made us feel comfortable by lulling us into a conversation about whether he was table #1 or #2 or #3. He used latin words like de jure and de facto. I knew from my time on the interwebs that girls go for Latin men. Would @MedinaTech be swayed?

He was there to sell. He had a product called Mosaic. It's a big deal here at #bbworld13. It is social and mobile and gives news and...stuff. I would love to tell you more but just as the conversation was getting interesting...

It was time to move on (look, I told you in the title I didn't have my notes).

Speed Dating Table #3: Analytics
(NOOOOOOOOOOooooooo! - emphasis added by jd)

He tried to cover it up with words like data analysis and aggregation. He talked a good game, but finally I sussed it out: "Wait, you're the analytics guy!"

Now long-time readers of this blog (or, you know, from yesterday) know my feelings about analytics. I switched into debate mode. I had one of the enemies of education in my sights and I was ready for it!

He began talking about the systems he worked on that allowed institutions to pull information from a variety of sources and generate reports based on student demographics, course content, common core state standards, up-time, usage logs...you name it.

Oh. I had him.

"Soooo, you do a great job pulling information, but is education really at the point that we can do much with this information? I mean, we aren't Google or Amazon. Insurance Actuarial number-geeks had years worth of data before they were willing to say anything other than smoking was bad for you."


Paraphrased Response:
No. You are absolutely right. We don't even know what some of the matrices and permutations are yet. This is a very early field and we are just beginning to tap into the power of numbers. It takes a lot of thought and lots and lots of data for the experts to begin to tap into the long range potential.


"So, does Blackboard provide this analysis?"

"No. We give the tools to generate the reports. Figuring out what to do with the data is the responsibility of the individual institution. It's complicated but there is some really great information you can get even at this early stage."

...and it was time to move.

Speed Dating Table #4: MOOCs
If you haven't heard, "MOOC" (which is Massive Open Online Classroom) is the "Flipped Classroom" of 2013. Every company is an expert. It will be a game-changer. It will solve all the problems of education without addressing a single social ill (that actually has some of that analytic validity).

Internet History, Technology
and Security Badge
I was still off my game from the analytics guy basically agreeing with my whole problem with the movement in Big Data.

Then this guy (he is the pretty awesome @drchuck) gave me a sticker. Oh, man, he is good. I am a sucker for an external motivator. I am totally taking his course! -- this could be the one...my first MOOC I actually complete!

That led into a conversation about the online class movement. Dr. Chuck, one of the original players in the field, was concerned with the proliferation of "experts" both corporate and consulting that didn't really understand how students learn or how technology can and cannot be leveraged to address these needs.

We talked about the potential of MOOCs beyond 5th year differential calculus. Could it be used for remedial education? Is there a chance to access the motivational barriers that derail so many people. Do these motivational solutions arise from the MASSIVE or the ONLINE?

Exciting stuff...but it was time to go *sigh* -- I am not cut out for speed dating.

Speed Dating Bonus: Are you a Man or a Puppet?
and then I saw him.
From across the room.
I couldn't believe he was here.
I mean, there was a rumor that he had applied for a press badge and been soundly rejected (and by that, I mean no one replied to his tweet).

But here he was. And he came to see me!

A man's puppet. An #edtech legend. Interviewer extraordinaire:

Wokka Patue and his handler Sam
Maybe I am pretty good at this speed dating thing after all!

On Reflection: Calling Blackboard to a Become Digital Citizen and Educational Advocate
What I like about Blackboard, despite their categorization as an educational business and all the profit motive angst that goes along with it is this:

At its core are people who are excited about the potential for the future of education and the role of technology within it. They have people who know what it means to be on the cutting edge and the uncertainty, exploration, occasional failures, and potential payoff that comes with it. 

These are people who site at the core of some of the major movements in educational technology not just for this year or next year but for 10 years from now.

So, my question for Blackboard is "where are you in the conversation?"

When the Gates Foundation's paid politicians talk about the data gleaned from a glorified digital bubble test as if it is the analytic cornucopia that bypasses years of teaching experience, do you tell them publicly "We are not there yet!"

When every vendor is fighting for a slice of the MOOC pie and struggling school districts are requiring online courses for every students, do you tell them that we really don't have the full picture on human motivation in the online world yet and that the students with the most potential to benefit might also not be ready for the technology being offered?

When Common Core stands as the good guy of education while the PARCC test stands in the wings waiting to give us another half-generation of test-obsessed, noise-ridden data, that has no actionable use in the classroom, do you shout from the roof tops: The Common Core demands that you assess students' ability to think critically, collaborate, and use the internet. PARCC does none of this, but our system can do it!

When the CEO, Jay Bhatt, calls for the company that leads the way in educational technology to become a better digital citizen, he has to come to the table with more than an auto-routing text service.

The teachers and the students of the nation need an advocate who can combat the half-truths and testing/publishing monoliths and deep-pocketed foundations. You have the knowledge and expertise and clout to be that advocate.

There is your gauntlet.
Please, pick it up.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Making Sure the Juice is Worth the Squeeze: A #BbWorld13 Rant

MMM. so much work
My wife has a simple rule about eating. She refuses to eat food, no matter how good it tastes, that is not worth the effort. No crab legs; no lobster. Fresh squeezed orange juice? right out. This typically works to my advantage since i get to look like a superhero just by cracking a lobster tail for her.

This thought was going through my head this morning as I started to reflect on the conversations that I had yesterday evening entering the vendor fair. If you have not been to one of these conferences, it is a sight to behold -- booths from all of the big names in Educational Technology: Blackboard (duh), Macmillan, Pearson -- you get the idea. If they have made money off of teachers and students (and, in this case, hook into the Blackboard ecosystem), they are here.

As I was walking in, I was wrapping up a conversation with two Blackboard administrators who were discussing the best practices for rolling out new versions of the software (a generally thankless task). They asked how we did this at Brebeuf Jesuit and I had to go into the elevator speech about why a school-geek would present at Blackboard World since we don't use Blackboard (our school uses the k-12 product that was acquired by the LMS-megalith two years ago: EdLine).

The conversation turned to our BYOT program and I made a comment along the lines of 
“but BYOT isn't limited to a device. We encourage our teachers to try new things and new products. They just need to link into it from the LMS so parents and students know what is going on." 
Sometimes these experiments cost a little money and sometimes the program grows big enough to warrant a site license or broader training and development (“Flipped Classrooms” are a good example of both of these).

The response was striking:
“That is a wonderful idea. That’s just how it should be. How do you pull in the data and activity from all of these different sources so that you can report it?”

My response: The juice isn’t worth the squeeze.

Interlude: #EdTech Worshiping at the  Altar of Analytics
My colleague’s question is legitimate in this day and age.  In modern education, if you can’t attach a number that can be processed as an analytic permutation that shows adequate yearly progress, personalized student growth metrics, or widgets per cognitive unit then your program is dead in the modern educational water.

We had a vendor who was very excited to come to our Jesuit school and show us a program that would give district level curriculum administrators incredible data with drill-down (a wonderfully popular buzzword) potential all the way down to the number of students within specific grade-bands who correctly answered a multiple choice question on an in-class quiz.

Think about that: Why would a district level admin need to know that 32 percent of students getting a "C" in Mr. Smith’s English classed missed question 3 on the pop quiz? She wouldn’t.

But that is what sells. Thanks Gates Foundation.
End Interlude.

My actual response:
"We don’t collect the data. Given the choice between forcing teachers to use only those products that can be effectively parsed for data of questionable value (see last year’s bbworld post on Analytics), we would rather err on the side of academic freedom."

But what I meant was "The Juice Isn’t Worth the Squeeze."

Some technologies being touted at Blackboard World ‘13:
  • Lockdown systems: create a browser that does NOT have access to the largest repository of human knowledge ever
  • Monitored Proctoring Systems: Use webcams to make sure that students are actually taking the test, paying attention, not using tools inappropriately
  • Lots and Lots of analytics w/ Drill-down
  • eTextbooks with student activity features including how many seconds each student spends on a particular page
  • "Flipped Classroom" video software that records the number of times a student watches a segment, quizzes them for attention, and notes the number of blinks per second (one of these might be snark).
All of these systems gather data and report it back in very pretty charts and graphs. Many of them, by nature of the blackboard ecosystem, can cross apply this data to grades and demographics.  Most of this makes data gurus (of which I am one) drool and harken to the Big Data Acolytes’ dreams of the future of education.

But very little of this has a practical application in the day-to-day life of the teacher. The day-to-day life of the teacher does not afford time to get through all of the class material, let alone parse and analyze data to find trends that might indicate an individual learning difference.

But it is for this data that we are willing to place handcuffs on the creativity of our teachers and our students and deny them access to emerging, innovative technology that is often free!
  • Before we invest in the newest product on the vendor floor...
  • Before we become dazzled by reports that may never be printed let alone impact our classrooms...
  • Before we forbid the use of tools or websites or apps simply because they don't contribute to AYP...
Let's take a collective step back and think about the purpose of data. When the CEO of Blackboard says in his keynote: "BIG DATA unto itself doesn't matter that much", it may be a good time to reflect.

Data is a tool that has the potential to inform our educational practices, to give new opportunities for students in the classroom, to provide appropriate and indicated experiences.

But at the point that we sacrifice new opportunities, innovative experiences, and best practices because it doesn't fit our data gathering methodology... The cost has become too high.

The Juice is no longer worth the squeeze.

Stumbling into Relationships -- Reflecting on Twitter and SMS at #BbWorld13

Look on my works ye mighty and despair!
Blackboard World is in Vegas!
Decided to end my self-imposed blogging hiatus with #bbworld13. I should have a post about why I went offline for a month (standardized testing depression mixed with catastrophic data failure) and some posts focused just on Google Glass (yes, I have them. Feel free to be jealous) coming up soon. But this week is devoted to Blackboard World...or at least the random thoughts that occur to me as I attend the largest corporate bash celebrating educational technology vendors! This year I am going to try more posts that don’t take quite the commitment to read...no promises...I might decide to get Ranty.

Session 1: Twitter!

So, there is this new thing the kids are using called Twitter. Maybe you have heard of it? It is, like, all the rage - Taylor Swift is even on there. Cheryl Boncuore and Aurora Dawn Reinke from Kendall College presented their experiences using twitter in their classes, focusing in particular on a capstone project class.

Two quick impressions:

Sharing the results of a semester of Twitter
1. given the amount of time we spend talking, blogging, and sharing about the use of Twitter on #edchat, #patue, and #edtechchat (as well as so many other places, conventions, policy meetings), it was a little bit of a disconnect to hear people talking about this fresh and new -- it was a good way to revisit this little microblogging service with fresh eyes.

2. They had data! Bless the college folk and their need to actually prove the things that we talk about anecdotally all the time!

Major Takeaways:

The Good
  • Twitter is awesome! (woot!)
  • Twitter is very useful for finding and sharing research in particular fields
  • Twitter has the potential to allow students to connect to industry leaders and interact with them on a limited basis -- some leaders respond enthusiastically to this interaction, particularly if it is authentic and does not appear forced.
  • Twitter is a powerful tool for engaging students and forming relationships between students and faculty. It is a quick and easy way to encourage positive behaviors and affirm students (through favoriting and retweets).

The Bad
  • Twitter should NOT be used as homework reminder system. This leads to negative impressions of the platform and decreased engagement (note: while I know teachers in my school who do this, it is not exclusively this or a majority -- will be an interesting discussion for next year though).
  • Twitter should not be used to stalk students. Focus on the classroom aspect and not what the students did over the weekend. Unfollow if necessary. (another note: There was very little in this session about my personal obsession with developing #digcit skills in students. Thus, there was a high level of comfort with “have students create a professional account” rather than “talk to students about why their drunken dancing should not be broadcast on Vine” -- not sure if this was due to the college environment or if there is some other disconnect).

And the oh-so-very-ugly
There was a conversation at the end about the appropriate way to assess the use of twitter. I actually heard the comments “It is just not feasible to grade every single tweet.” It is cold comfort that it is not just the k-12 set that has become obsessed with testing culture.

Session 2: SMS Marketing for Prospective & Current Students
(note: I only attended part of the session. Had to get ready to live-tweet the keynote)

This session gave some of the most staggering number about the sheer amount of texting that is done worldwide, in the US, and by kids. A few interesting tidbits out of the gate: the US now leads the world in texting. there was a period of time when that was not true, but it is a reality now.


The session focused on the sheer practicality of texting. This included using short-codes to encourage the downloading of apps or to facilitate engaged responses. Using SMS for follow-ups during the decision making process in order to accurately gauge yield of students from the accepted pool, and using responses to establish communication lines that could encourage a student to come or at least give the real reason why she is attending somewhere else.

On Reflection: Stumbling Across Relationships

What struck me about both of these sessions is that both sessions started with the hard-hitting numbers: Metrics for engagement, potential audience, yield, etc. But both of them ended up focusing on the the environment that is created when adults communicate informally and personally -- both sessions talked about relationships!

“60% response rate -- that is incredible. And you get that response rate because you are having a conversation with a real person. It starts with a simple text, but when the response to a question is personal -- that means something to the student” 
“A student gets a favorite, or even better a retweet, and that student is excited that something they did was noticed” 
“Students were able to go beyond what was required -- they wanted to”

In Jesuit education, the foundation of the system lies in the relationship between the student and the teacher -- understanding their context, creating an environment where they feel empowered to seek out Truth and have the time and resources to reflect on their experiences and ask questions.

In each of these sessions, the real revelation was partly obscured by the numbers and the data and the metrics: students learn better when they are known by their teachers. Students want to attend a school where they feel a personal connection with another human being.

It is easy to paint technology as the dystopian-disconnector of our modern age. I have certainly had discussions with the 8yo and the 11yo about the siren-song of TIny Castle and Candy Crush Saga. But in reality, most of time that teenagers are engaged with technology, they are also engaged with people.

Our responsibility is, in part, to help them engage appropriately and effectively. But as educators, the takeaway from this is that learning happens with most students not because the textbook is so riveting or because the subject matter is so enticing -- learning happens because someone with whom they have an authentic relationship cares about something enough to share it.

...And that beats sharing tomorrow’s homework assignment anyday.

Up Next: Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky, and the irony of leveraging freeware in Vegas