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Leadership and Activism, Philosophical Meanderings

Return on Investment

A few weeks ago, I ran across Educators for Excellence (@Ed4Excellence) and their online campaign to give teachers “an independent voice in the debate surrounding education reform.” This morning I read “Klein Meets With Hired Thugs” on NYC Educator. NYC Educator takes on Educators for Excellence over their funding:

[A Gotham Schools article's] “clarification” explained while this faux-grassroots group was called “entirely unfunded,” its website was actually paid for by Education Reform Now, the same front group that funded the faux-grassroots commercials urging people not to listen to the teachers’ union.

Here is the Education Reform Now website.

I went back to the Educators for Excellence website and followed the the “Media Mezcla Campaign Engine” link at the bottom right of the page. I took a look at Media Mezcla’s education clients. They are solidly in what Alfie Kohn characterizes as the “enemy of good teaching” #edreform camp.

Regarding the client list:

I support parent-education and parent-choice like those advocated by Harlem Parents United, though not as much as I support student-education and student-choice re: schooling.

I am a democrat – although I feel like I’m so far left there’s not a kind word to describe me. So, while I generally support democratic initiatives, I decry the “bold and revolutionary leadership” called for by Democrats for Education Reform as typified by the more-of-the-same-testing-and-punishment RTTT initiative advertised on their website.

I am not an urban educator, though I have worked with students from all kinds of privileged and disadvantaged backgrounds. I recognize the appeal of #edreform that promises to keep traditionally underserved students safe in structured environments that give them access to privilege as bestowed by college. However, I think that we won’t really reform education or help students learn, live, or care for one another and their world any better until all of public education, colleges included, repurpose for authentic, sane education.

I’m fine with most of the Educators for Excellence pledge (I clicked submit), but find the group’s website to be information-poor on how to accomplish the organization’s goals. I also find it far too teacher-centered. #Edreform should be student-centered. Our essential question should be: How are we freeing students to learn? Initiatives that suck in that regard should be dismantled, and their resources re-allocated – even put into students’ hands. Reforms that affect teachers should be shelved until we reform what it is that schools do for kids.

What bothers me most here is the underlying notion of “Return on Investment” (ROI) – the idea that #edreform is exclusively dependent on government managers, private firms, and parent and teacher proxies who can “innovate” and “scale up” “real reform” meant to boost test scores, high school graduations rates, and college admissions rates (which are no guarantee of identical college graduation rates) in return for lucrative government contracts and merit pay for teachers who comply with the standardized testing regime. The idea that “an independent voice in the debate surrounding education reform” gets underwritten by an NPO directed by a former program officer in the community investment [read: investment in government policy regarding schools] arm of an oil firm. The idea that we have to do something to teachers to get a return on our over-investment in and over-reliance upon the education industry. The idea that teachers can’t innovate or reform education in meaningful ways. The idea that teachers or schools are “failing America’s children” for any other reason than that American public education demands it.

For all the talk against “throwing more money at the problem” (achievement? learning? students? teachers?) #edreformers are throwing money at the problem of getting teachers and their leaders to buy-in to the privatization of their work so that a profit can be made on learning.

What will the vendors do when everyone passes their tests? Make new, more rigorous tests with new and improved curricula to match. Make new, more adaptive proprietary programs to help kids pass those tests at a rate acceptable to their profit margins and R&D cycles.

It’s an utter catastrophe that with all the possibilities for learning and helping one another afforded us by technology, our reigning #edreform camp wants to cash-out public education and give its seat at the tax-table to companies designing “blended learning,” “adaptive software,” and “personalized learning” that will further fetter students to their desks, their classrooms, their schools, and the vendors’ products, away from the world, its problems, and its authentic joys. These new technologies will make it feel good to sit at the computer using proprietary software designed to scale its difficulty until it makes you feel successful in pursuit of individual achievement. It’s the camouflaged realization of our fear of a video game planet.

Is there any service, entrepreneurship, or community-based learning inherent in this kind of #edreform? If not, we need to balance every piece of “personal learning” we bring to the classroom with collaborative, community-based problem-solving. We need to balance every 1:1 initiative with one-for-all work. Authentic learning can helped by classroom technology – particularly by social media – but it should never be extinguished by it.

Do we think a classroom of students sitting in rows at computers will educate workers in a fundamentally different way than 20th Century factories did? Do we think that becoming more efficient at what we do now will fundamentally change any outcomes for our country or world?

We need to reform schools so that they give students a stake in their communities and give communities a stake in students. We need to align passion and learning – we need to align needs and giving – not standards and tests.

Here are three ways I plan to pursue real #edreform as I plan for next year:

  • Practice open education. I will find and suggest free alternatives to the curricular materials in my building. I will volunteer to help colleagues find and learn these tools. I will ask my supervisor for the money I save to be given to my school for student-management in resourcing project-based learning and/or managing social venture capital through something like a school or class Kiva account. If refused, I will ask what will happen to the money I save and publish the answer. I will ask if my school or system wants me to save money or not. I will ask if my school or system wants students learning financial literacy or not. I will problematize profiting our vendors at the expense of students’ authentic learning.
  • Practice authentic education. I will facilitate connections between students and community experts for every major assessment students undertake so that audience and application become relevant drivers of their learning. I will offer to help network colleagues and community experts. I will secure permissions from parents that let students share their work in ways that provide them with personal meaning, authentic audiences, and constructive feedback. We will get out of our room more and free our learning from lowest common denominator school work.. I’ll finish the lengthy to-do list I’ve compiled over the past year in this area.
  • Extend @dancallahan’s “Thing’s That Suck” conversation from EdCamp Philly to my school and division. I will find way to bring together any one who wants to discuss what sucks about our school and school in general so we can identify our wants and work towards meeting them as a community of practice including teachers, students, parents, and division staff interested in advancing what schools can be.

I will return on the investment of trust placed in me to teach by my students, their parents, and my coworkers.

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About Chad Sansing

I teach for the users. Opinions are mine; content is ours.

Discussion

5 thoughts on “Return on Investment

  1. Chad,
    you raise a number if interesting points here, and I agree with your conclusion support of open tools and authentic work. Education and economics are intrinsically bound to each other. As I see it, economics determine how we access/distribute resources while education determines what we do with those resources, and why.

    Clearly the education industry is starting to panic, afraid that they will go the way of Blockbuster and the phonebooth. But I’m not too worried by their smoke and mirrors. My belief is that change will not happen as much through “movements” as it will through “projects.” Microsoft Empire didn’t lose it’s strangle hold on the web browser because of an anit-microsoft movement, but because Firefox is a better better browser– and because consumers were given a choice.

    The key is for educators to make sure that there are viable alternatives. There is a lot we can learn from Open Source programmers and businesses. It seems to me that rethinking/rebuilding the “textbook” based on their practices could be a real game changer. Of course such a project requires a huge investment of time and effort. Perhaps Chris Anderson’s discussion of Free! can help us reframe what we think of as a return. Web 2.0 technologies now give us the ability to quantify things like reputation and attention that used to be intangibles. They are new types of currency that do indeed have value. We should be careful not to sell ourselves short.

    Posted by Rick Ashby | June 16, 2010, 1:33 pm
  2. Great framing of the issue, Rick.

    How do we scale up great projects in education? I asked Shelly a version of the same question: how do we take great teaching viral? How does the promise of one kid’s excellent work on an idiosyncratic inquiry project compete with a multi-billion dollar government-industry complex?

    To put it another way, locally, despite their results, why aren’t Murray’s practices standard issue in other division high schools?

    I think great work will eventually burn through through the dross-laden surface of test-prep education, but I also think that some out and out resistance to harmful school practices is needed to help kids now and that we need to draw attention to the resistance and our reasons behind it.

    Let’s not forget that Firefox and IE are both web browsers. Traditional public schooling and what we’re working for here on the Coöp share no common foundation, interface, operating principles, or language.

    Let’s value resistance alongside excellence. Let’s scale up both.

    Let’s keep asking how.

    Thank you, Rick,
    C

    Posted by Chad Sansing | June 16, 2010, 7:21 pm
    • Murray is an interesting case, and certainly worth a deeper look. I think it’s a great school and doing my student teaching there was an enormously valuable experience. Clearly they have shown that we do not have to teach to the tests in order for our students to pass them. Much of their success is due to the tight-knit community at the school. A shared sense of being outcasts rebelling against the system bonds both students and teachers. I don’t think that their goal is to change the system so much as to provide an alternative to it. Murray is not a catalyst, it’s a refuge.

      Posted by Rick Ashby | June 18, 2010, 4:20 pm
  3. The question of how to make “great teaching” go viral on a blog called The Cooperative Catalyst raises an interesting question for me. What metaphors are most useful for framing our discussion. Do we want our ideas to be viruses that infect victims, or do we want them to be catalysts that facilitate interaction? Do we want to resist</i. the pressure of harmful practices, or do we want to reduce the energy necessary for change by providing a new reaction path?

    George Lakoff discusses the value of cognitive metaphors in rhetoric and social change. (scaffolding the fundamentals of cognitive linguistics for secondary school students is one of the contribution I hope to make as an English/Humanities teacher ).

    Posted by Rick Ashby | June 18, 2010, 4:58 pm

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