Monday, February 12, 2018

Diverging Paths in Education: Someone Else's School (Part 2)

I recently wrote about the converging trends in education that make it seem increasingly likely that we're on the edge of a major shift in educational philosophy. I want to jump off from that point to look at how all those trends converging together to make a change seem to be leading to two divergent paths becoming visible.

As many public schools seem to be doubling down on standardization (especially using technology tools to get lots of standardized data on students), those who have access to elite private education seem to be moving in not just a different direction, but one that is diametrically opposed to these trends.

Consider some of these trends:

  • Reading Levels- Many public school kids are being told that they can't read anything outside of "their level." Schools use standardized tests to determine a child's "Lexile level" and then force children to read only within that narrow band. This is despite the fact that "Lexile levels" aren't particularly good at gauging the appropriateness of content and that evidence shows reading both below and above reading levels is important for developing solid reading habits.
  • iPads Replace Teaching- Many public schools are also turning to online, standardized curriculum like Moby Max to provide "individual" instruction. This Louisiana school boasts about its lower costs and higher standardized test scores as a result of switching to a Moby Max curriculum. Moby Max itself brags that the site is in use in 73% of public K-8 schools. Anecdotally, I can tell you that my daughter was enrolled in a "hands-on, project-based" public charter school that handed her an iPad (often with Moby Max on the other side) multiple times a day, even during "sensory breaks," which she got to combat her ADHD symptoms. Yes, they handed my hyperactive daughter a screen during the time she was supposed to be getting rid of excess energy so she could focus on learning. Even at the college level, automation is becoming a common trend with companies like Pearson offering instructor-less general education classes.  
  • Class Size- Public schools are under pressure to do more with less money, and that means larger classes. For elementary schools, the US average is 21 students per teacher, with some states getting over 30. We get report after report about how sitting still isn't conducive to learning, but what is a teacher who is responsible for 30 elementary-aged kids supposed to do? 

Meanwhile, let's take a closer look at how the other half* (*way less than half) lives:
  • Class Size- Private school class sizes are significantly smaller than public school. The US average is 18 students per teacher, with some individual types of private education averaging as few as 14. 
  • Technology Limits- While public school kids are getting an iPad shoved in their faces even during their "sensory breaks," many among the elite are opting for tech-free or tech-limited educations for their own children. A Business Insider article recently headlined the fact that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs both raised their own children with strict technology limits. Many of the parents working in Silicon Valley have chosen a Waldorf school for their own children, a philosophy that avoids technology use in the classroom. Elon Musk said that schools were teaching "to the tools" rather than teaching how to solve problems, so he started his own school for his kids.
  • Freedom for Some- Other experiments with educational freedom are popping up. The Sudbury model is a democratic experiment where there are no teachers or grades and students get to participate in creating the rules through democratic vote. Then there are a growing number of people like me, people who are homeschooling for non-religious reasons. Most of us are doing so because we couldn't find affordable educational settings that met our children's needs. Still, homeschooling is a position of privilege, and it's one that many people cannot afford (literally) to undertake. 
The trend is clear. While public schools get more and more standardized, churning out cookie cutter educational outcomes that allow students to score well on multiple choice tests while struggling to think outside the box, private schools are focusing on curricular choices that privilege creative thinking and creation, problem solving and freedom. 

I cannot help but think that the timing of this divergence is telling. Most experts think that automation will take up to 800 million jobs in the next 10-15 years. Among the most vulnerable jobs are those that are the most standardized. The safest jobs are those that require the very skills that the elite are seeking out for their children's educations: creativity, human interaction, and problem solving. 

There have always been deep inequities in private and public schools, and these have at times been codified in our educational practices. However, since the 1960's or so, we have at least paid lip service to the idea that education should be equal and fair, that everyone deserved the best education available. While we have never been able to deliver on that promise, I fear we aren't even going to try to deliver on it in the future. The trends don't look good. 

Photos: Jens LelieJehyun Sung 

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Adventures of a Planner (Why I Can't Get My Life Together)

Follow my blog with Bloglovin Perhaps it is a side effect of my anxiety and the tendency to project multiple possible intersecting outcomes into the future, but I am a really organized person, and nothing brings me calm like looking at my multi-colored electronic Google calendar.

It makes sense, then, that when I was plunged into insurmountable uncertainty by abruptly losing a job I thought I would have the rest of my life the first thing I wanted was a really complicated planner to fill up with goals that could be methodically crossed off. There's a very thin line between the illusion of having control over your life and actually having control over your life, and I planned to walk right down the center of it. 

After reading some reviews, I headed over to Plum Planner (this isn't a review or an affiliate post. As you'll see in a moment, I haven't even used the thing, so I can in no way speak to its quality or impact on my life). I spent some time clicking through the plethora of options to customize it to my exact specifications. 

Even that customization was a little traumatizing. What categories do I want? Who knows? I have no idea what my life will look like. Will I be working at one place with some kind of stable schedule, or am I going to be hopping from freelance gig to freelance gig with no sense of what day it is? 

Eventually, I picked some key categories I knew I would need to address each day and left a couple of them vague. I hit "Submit" and was told that I would have my shiny new planner by the second week of January, perfectly timed to start with going back to teach for my final semester. Filling out all those neat little boxes would be a welcome distraction from the pain, anger, and frustration that a semester spent as a "dead woman walking" would bring me. 

I got the shipment confirmation and clicked to track delivery. All was looking good. It made it to St. Louis (where I live). It should be there any moment. Then the tracking started doing something weird. It was being bounced around from post office to post office in the city. I couldn't figure out what was happening until I looked closer. I had, in my bleary-eyed-haven't-slept-might-be-having-a-breakdown-cause-I-just-got-fired state typed in the correct street number but my old street name in the shipping information. 

I tried everything. I called all the post offices where it had been. I emailed the seller. I placed a hold on the package. I secretly hoped it would show up at my old address even though the number was wrong. I waited and waited and waited.

About two weeks after it was supposed to have arrived, the shipment activity said it had been returned to the sender, so I contacted them, paid for shipping again, and waited some more. 

My planner vanished. Talk about a metaphor for your plans not going the way you thought they would. Somewhere between leaving St. Louis and arriving back at Plum Planner, the package fell off the face of the earth. I emailed them again, and they, obviously seeing the desperation behind my words, took pity on me and reprinted the entire thing and shipped it again. 

Well, ladies and gents, after several mis-deliveries, wrong turns, and lost ways, it's here.

Will this be the turning point? Will this be the moment when my attempts to juggle homeschooling, teaching, and launching a burgeoning freelance career come together in one beautiful tangle of ink, hopes, and best laid plans?

I don't really believe that a planner is the answer to all my problems, but I do think that the patience I was forced into finding as it was delayed over and over again was a nice little reminder that I don't necessarily have to get my whole life back together in a single day.

It will come . . . eventually, and maybe to the wrong place a few times. 

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Converging Trends in Education: Is It All Coming Together Now?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the history and the future of education. I feel like I’m sitting at a particularly strong vantage point as a parent who has chosen homeschooling because of the limitations I faced in the traditional education options set before me and as a community college faculty member whose full-time position as a professor just got eliminated in what is clearly a move to change the fundamental nature of the school’s purpose. Add to this the fact that my expertise is in studying the historical trajectory of education through the lens of rhetoric, and I feel like I have a pretty good sense of how this particular stew of factors starts to come together. 

This is going to be a two-part post. In Part 1, I will examine some trends that I see converging together at this historical point in American education. Part 2 will discuss the way that education is likely to diverge into separate paths as a result of this convergence. 

Here are the different trends that I see coming together at this particular moment: 
  • On-the-job training: Many companies have decided to supplement or (in growing numbers) circumvent traditional certification and degree requirements by bringing their training in-house. Employees like these options because it takes the guesswork out of trying to get the skills necessary for a future, hypothetical job, and employers like the option because it allows them to make sure their workers have the exact skills necessary to meet their needs. 
  • Online education demand increases: Traditional education is being displaced by online options. Even in traditional classrooms, online work is often being used as a supplement (or sometimes substitute) for face-to-face instruction. In the name of individualization, producing easily analyzed standard results, and increasing the number of students who can be reached, everything from elementary school classrooms to alternative online high schools to graduate courses has seen an increased demand for online options. 
  • A distrust in higher education: Some of this is political. There’s a growing sense of distrust for expertise in general as the Age of Information has brought us the ability to find answers to complex questions in seconds instead of decades. Some of it is economic. As the cost of college increases and the number of jobs available for the degrees sought declines, people just don’t see college as worth the investment. Together, these influences have resulted in a general skepticism about the value of higher education. 

The point that brings all of these converging trends together into a holistic pattern is technology, especially automation. Existing automation and advancing technology has made on-the-job training possible, increased the development of and access to online courses, and been responsible for the rise of a gig economy that further deepens the distrust of education as a wise investment. 

With the promise/threat of automation looming in something between the immediate and quasi-near future, education has been placed in a precarious position. 

Education is necessarily future-focused. Education (from pre-school to graduate school) makes promises about preparing students for what the future holds. While no one has ever been 100% sure about what exactly the future would look like, we are facing an unprecedented sense of uncertainty. All the way back in 2011, Business Insider was considering the ways that a college degree was outdated in the face of an uncertain future workplace. Now, seven years later, those warnings feel even more relevant. Training for a specific technical career over the span of four or five years feels futile. Who knows if the career is even going to exist? And if it does, what guarantees are there that what you learned four years ago will still be relevant? 

It’s a tough time to be in charge of organizing, planning, and marketing education. I can understand why administrators are in a panic, and I don’t envy their position. However, too many of them are responding in exactly the wrong way. Many have decided to focus on the juiciest career options through specialization and hyper-focused “pathways” to specific careers. Just like the dog chasing the tantalizing mechanical rabbit, they’re never going to catch up. Those specific career needs will always remain just out of reach, and in the meantime, companies are finding their own way to meet their actual needs, making education look less and less relevant for those fields every day. 

Pearson recently announced a partnership with Brinker International (the owner of restaurants like Chili’s and Maggiano’s) to offer no-cost education options for employees who work at least 24 hours a week. On-the-job training is being heralded as a savior for the manufacturing industry, which has struggled to match skills with need. While manufacturing already has a very low education demand (with 80% of production workers holding neither an Associate’s nor Bachelor’s degree), we can expect this trend to make traditional education even less necessary. 

I don’t think these initiatives are necessarily a bad thing. They offer people the opportunity to get to work faster and receive the training they need to potentially move up the ranks of their place of employment and receive higher pay and a better standard of living. Not everyone needs to go to college, and I do think that some of these trends are helping to balance out the over-reliance on Bachelor’s degrees as the key to middle class access. 

The problem comes from the reaction to these realities. Instead of recognizing that technical training might be done somewhere else, too many schools (especially those serving low-income and minority students) feel the need to directly compete with these new methods instead of differentiating themselves and offering a different kind of education for different kinds of careers or (and this is the part that's been lost completely in too many discussions) for the sake of learning and being an informed citizen capable of critical thinking. Trump's State of the Union calls for community colleges to be converted into vocational training points directly at this kind of short-sighted, damaging thinking. 

Let’s go back to Pearson. Their partnership directly with corporations should come as no surprise, and they’re happy to take a large slice of as many pies as they can. They’re also working to automate higher education course delivery with self-paced (and mostly instructor-free) general education options. The economic benefits of online options have long been touted, and some see them as a way to make sure that everyone has access to a quality education. Utopia usually isn’t as simple as it first appears, though, and we’ve also known for quite some time that access alone isn’t enough and online options don’t successfully reach everyone. Predictably, it is the most vulnerable student populations (the ones our utopian dreams promised to save) that are being harmed the most. As the New York Times reported earlier this year: 
“But in high schools and colleges, there is mounting evidence that the growth of online education is hurting a critical group: the less proficient students who are precisely those most in need of skilled classroom teachers.”
Pressure to standardize online courses to make them infinitely replicable further eliminates the elements of teaching that reach students who are hard to reach. The result of online education can be meaningfully-crafted online courses that reach extremely motivated students who wouldn’t have access to education otherwise, but that doesn’t negate the fact that putting all of the emphasis on online education cuts off the only viable pathways that many at-risk and just-average students have to meaningful education, and many of them don't see the pay-off as worth the risk in the first place.

So where does that leave education? What will come out on the other side of the space where all of these converging trends come together? I have some theories, and I’ll explore them in Part 2. 

Photos: Photo by Mark Duffel on UnsplashJason Leung on Unsplash