Using better metrics to build better schools

Envision runs a group of three charter high schools in the Bay Area. They champion, as many schools do these days, “deeper learning” and “21st century skills.” Envision enacts this philosophy through a “Know-Do-Reflect” process that uses projects, portfolios and presentations to integrate assessment with learning. They prompt students to turn the lens both inward and outward. The students are asked to self-assess their own progress, and through the portfolio exhibition and performance assessment process, they open up their work to outside evaluators as well.

Education these days is falling into a data gap. There is wide agreement that reading and math test scores alone reflect, at best, a small subset of what we want students to know and be able to do. But concepts like deeper learning, critical thinking, collaboration, and the like are inherently subjective and qualitative. In today’s high-stakes, bad-faith atmosphere, and in a global context, the subjective judgment of teachers, students and school leaders on “is our children learning?” is not trusted as a standalone measure of student progress. For better or for worse, politicians and the public want to see hard data.

One emerging consensus on how to bridge this divide: use outcomes instead of test scores. The idea is that by looking at trends in high school graduation, college entrance, college persistence and college completion, schools can fairly compare themselves by transparent measures that really matter. (Race to the Top provided significant funding to states to create the kinds of databases that make these outcome measures possible). In 2011 KIPP, the charter school chain, released a much discussed report looking at the outcomes of its own students. They found that one in three students who completed a KIPP middle school had graduated from a four-year college at least a decade later.

These were good results. Coming from a population that was 95% African-American and Latino, and 85% free or reduced lunch, KIPP students graduated at quadruple the rates of similar populations. But KIPP publicly declared that they weren’t good enough. They want to create schools where at least 75% of students beat the odds, and have the tools to succeed long after the intensive atmosphere and extra resources of the school are just a fading memory.

The change in metrics has influenced a change in strategy, at KIPP and across the charter school world. To graduate from college, students need to be self-directed, highly motivated, and confident. Bob Lenz, the founder of Envision, believes that those qualities are best cultivated by the performance assessment model integrating learning and assessment. But when it comes to convincing outside observers of the effectiveness of this measure, graduation rates and college persistence are paramount. In a recent case study of two of Envision’s three schools by Stanford University, students demonstrated college persistence far above the norm. At Impact Academy of Arts and Technology in Hayward, CA, founded in 2007, 81% of the first graduating class that started there as freshmen enrolled immediately in college. Of those, 66% made it to their second year. At City Arts and Technology High School, for the class of 2009, nearly 85% of graduates who enrolled in a college stuck with it for at least 4 years.

Tracking outcomes is more complex than reporting test scores. It’s also more relevant.



Almost 70% of teachers are not engaged. Here’s why that matters so much

Wednesday Gallup released a major report on the State of American Schools. Their data paints a picture of schools performing as a complex ecosystem, with the wellbeing, engagement, and performance of teachers, students, and principals all intertwined.

The report combines decades of surveys of 5 million American teachers and principals with the results of the Gallup Student Poll, now billed as the largest survey of American students with 600,000 5th through 12 grade participants, and several large follow-up studies. Gallup’s also drawing on its background developing the Employee Engagement Survey, which has been administered to a total of almost 30 million people in all professions.

The Gallup polls ask students, teachers, principals, and other professionals about their levels of hope, emotional engagement, and wellbeing at work or school. While these qualities may seem like frills, they’ve been demonstrated over time to have powerful correlations with harder metrics, like a company’s profits or a school’s test scores. For example, in 2009, Gallup studied 78,000 students in 160 schools in eight states, finding that a one-percentage-point uptick in a school’s average student engagement was connected to an average six-point increase in reading achievement and eight points in math. Similarly, Gallup researchers have found in peer-reviewed studies that their “hope” measure was a better predictor of grades in college than SATs, ACTs or high school GPA. In a third study, students’ levels of hope accounted for almost half of the variation in math achievement and at least one-third of their variation in reading and science scores.

Brandon Busteed, the executive director of Gallup Education, says that in some ways, the point Gallup is making with this line of research is even more “provocative.” “We definitely want to show that these quote unquote ‘soft’ measures move the quote unquote ‘hard’ measures, like grades and test scores,” he said. “But we’re also asking: is engagement more important or are grades more important? If you ask a parent whether they’d rather have a kid who is getting mostly As and is only mildly interested in what they’re learning or mostly Bs and is super engaged, I can tell you what most parents would pick.”

So how are we doing on these soft measures? According to the survey, 55% of American students scored high on engagement, and just one in three score high on all three measures of hope, engagement and well-being.

Engagement measures have a lot to do with relationships and feeling valued. So it’s not surprising that there’s an intimate connection between the schoolroom engagement of students, and the workplace engagement of  teachers. As the saying goes, “Our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions.”

Gallup found that students who agreed with the following two statements: 1. “My school is committed to building the strengths of each student” and 2. “I have at least one teacher who makes me excited about the future” were 30 times more likely to be engaged.

Unfortunately, most teachers are not in a position to share excitement with students. About 70% are classified as disengaged, which puts them on par with the workforce as a whole. This is surprising in some ways, because teachers score close to the top on measures that indicate that they find meaning in their life and see work as a calling. Unfortunately, the structures that teachers are working in–which may include high-stakes standardized testing and value-added formulas that evaluate their performance based on outside factors–seem to tug against their happiness. “The real bummer is they don’t feel their opinions matter,” Busteed says. K-12 teachers scored dead last among 12 occupational groups in agreeing with the statement that their opinions count at work, and also dead last on “My supervisor creates an open and trusting environment.”

K-12 teachers scored dead last among 12 occupational groups in agreeing with the statement that their opinions count at work, and also dead last on “My supervisor creates an open and trusting environment.”

This takes the measure directly to the top. Gallup’s study found that principal talent had a powerful impact on teacher engagement, which in turn affects student engagement.  They recommend that principals adopt a more collaborative management style and help new teachers acclimate by putting them together to form partnerships with more experienced teachers.

Surveys and polls aren’t perfect, of course. But overall, the message of this research is a powerful indicator that we need to do a better job at looking at the full range of factors that affect school performance. Gallup is promoting its student poll to districts as another means of making decisions about what really counts in school.

Do public schools beat private schools? The quality of evidence

Tuition at many of New York City’s top private schools is over $40,000 a year. That’s more than Harvard. It’s grown almost 50 percent in the past decade–faster than private university tuition.  It goes without saying that parents who shell this money out believe that their children will be getting a better education in exchange for all that money.

But what if they’re wrong?

A book published last year by two professors at the University of Illinois-Champaign, titled The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools, offered a new analysis of two nationally representative datasets–the NAEP test, known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” and the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, which followed a group of 17,000 children from kindergarten through eighth grade. The researchers, Chris and Sarah Theule Lubiensky, chose to look specifically at math scores, in the belief that math is a purer measurement of the influence of school because students tend to learn very little math at home. They found that after controlling for the known effects of demographics, particularly wealth and social class, private schools (and independently run charter schools) demonstrated no advantage over public schools.  In fact, in several grades, students with similar demographic backgrounds did better in math when they attended public schools.

Other independent studies have had similar results. This separate 2006 analysis of NAEP scores  found after adjusting for demographics, fourth grade students did better in math in public schools, and eighth grade students did better in reading in private schools, while all other differences were not statistically significant. And several different studies of charter school performance have similarly found that their quality is uneven, with a tiny positive gain in reading over that achieved by similar students at public schools and an equally small disadvantage in math.

In recent days, the authors of Public School Advantage have been defending their findings and research methodology against a series of critics who advocate school choice reforms. Most of the evidence on the other side comes from small local studies of outcomes where vouchers were given to some students to pay for private schools; the Lubienskis argue that these studies are small and nonrepresentative.

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For the parent or layperson trying to draw conclusions about private vs. public vs. charter, what stands out in all this is the paucity of evidence. No one should choose a school based on math scores alone. Measures that everyone would agree would be more relevant, such as graduation and college persistence rates, are not available. Schools that emphasize teaching to the test may demonstrate gains that are offset by great losses elsewhere. And even though researchers are correct to control for the effects of demographics on average, on an individual basis they are anything but irrelevant. As a parent from a less advantaged background, getting your kid into a more economically diverse school has a high likelihood of improving her circumstances and opportunities.  Nobody disputes that schools full of rich kids do better. Indeed, the same large charter school study found that when you look specifically at the outcome for poor kids, charter schools do have a small advantage, which is highly relevant because charter schools have a greater concentration of poverty than regular public schools.

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In fact, the biggest take-home for parents looking at the evidence on school performance should be this: family income and education level has far more statistical impact on a child’s performance in school than any characteristic of that school. If you are in a position to consider private school for your child, you probably don’t need to.

The fate of big data after inBloom

Yesterday, a $100 million startup lost its last customer. According to a Politico article, the state of New York, inBloom‘s last remaining client, will delete all student data on the repository due to privacy concerns. InBloom’s company spokesperson told Politico the nonprofit was “pushing forward with our mission,” though at the moment there are no known state partners. The rise and fall of InBloom is a cautionary tale for those interested in the intersection of education, technology, and policy.


Back in 2011, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation began work on an unwieldy, unprecedented, obscure  “nuts-and-bolts, multi-state, grand-vision education technology project” called the Shared Learning Infrastructure. The purpose was to provide open-source software to safely organize, pool, and store student data from multiple states and multiple sources in the cloud. That included everything from demographics to attendance to discipline to grades to the detailed, moment-by-moment, data produced by learning analytics programs like Dreambox and Khan Academy. An API — application programming interface — would allow software developers to connect to that data, creating applications that could, at least in theory, be used by any school in the infrastructure.

In February 2013, just a little over a year ago, SLI relaunched as an independent nonprofit named InBloom. The company had nine state partners, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York and North Carolina, representing 11 million students. At SXSWEdu, they made a splashy public debut the following month, hosting parties and panel discussions as an official sponsor, a gathering focused just as much on business as on education.

“Our purpose is to remove the friction in the deployment of technology in the classroom,” CEO Iwan Streichenberger told me at the conference. “It’s not very exciting, but if you don’t have plumbing you can’t have appliances.”

InBloom’s offering is not uncommon — in fact, similar technologies exist all over the internet, and consumers largely embrace them. For example, an API allows you to sign in and comment on the Washington Post or rent a home on AirBnb using your Facebook profile information. You can sign in to personal finance site and see all of your bank accounts in one place, or for that matter, buy products on Amazon with one click thanks to back-end security protecting financial transactions.

But student information, like electronic health records, remains much more sensitive than other kinds of consumer information, and the public response since InBloom’s launch has been equivocal at best. In state after state,parents and other education activists raised concerns that student data would be exploited for financial gain or stolen by hackers. In the words of Leonie Haimson of Class Size Mattersin New York City, one of inBlooms’ staunchest critics, “For-profit vendors are slavering right now at the prospect of being able to get their hands on this info and market billions of dollars of worth of so-called solutions to our schools.”


So what does the demise of inBloom mean? It doesn’t mean that student data is safe, either from marketers or hackers. According to a recent study by Fordham University Law School, 95 percent of schools and districts already use a hodgepodge of third-party cloud providers for data storage and internal data mining. Fewer than 7 percent of these arrangements actually restrict the sale or marketing of student information by vendors, and parents are generally not informed of how their children’s data is stored or used.

Last November, a $5 million class action suit was filed against the makers of the ACTs and SATs for selling personal information about millions of high school students. And the Universities of Maryland and Indiana have recently suffered well-publicized data breaches exposing student Social Security numbers and other sensitive information.

It also doesn’t mean that the use of student data will come to a standstill. A small startup called Clever, launched in 2012, uses a single freestanding API to connect the vast mishmash of student information systems with third-party applications. It doesn’t store the data itself; it just makes it easier to get the data out of silos where it can be accessed by educational software developers — the exact same purpose announced by InBloom. So far, 10,000 schools have adopted it, with no public outcry.

It does mean that, at least when it comes to student data, when tech businesses roll out product pitches to schools, they need to understand the extent to which the concerns of parents and teachers will affect their business plans.

In our conversation, Streichenberger talked about taking down “barriers to entry” and creating an “attractive market for entrepreneurs.” Silicon Valley may generally take it for granted that what’s good for its business is good for everyone else, but for those wary of the privatization of the public school system, these are fighting words.

The same critics who are skeptical of the Common Core State Standards (also Gates-seeded) are skeptical about inBloom because of the underlying notion of “interoperability” in education practice. Standards and interoperability are core tenets of the web. It’s because of shared communications protocols such as HTTP that anyone can create a web page or application that is usable by virtually anyone else. Similarly, proponents of the Common Core argue that having a shared understanding of priorities will allow all schools to improve by sharing best practices.

The principle of interoperability is now coming into conflict with a longstanding tenet of American public education — that of local control. The ultimate outcome is anyone’s guess, but it’s now clear that the transition to a big-data educational future probably won’t come from a centralized mandate or single coordinated effort — at least not now.

(a modified version of this post originally appeared on Mindshift. Gates Foundation supports the Hechinger Report.)

“Unprecedented” numbers opt out of state tests–what’s next?

Today students in New York State begin three days of state-mandated tests in English language arts.  But thousands of families across the state, from Syracuse and Buffalo to the Hudson Valley, Long Island to New York City, will sit out the tests, citing concerns with their relevance and the sense that the curriculum has been taken over by preparation.

“It shifts the entire focus of the classroom,” says Jeannette Deutermann, the organizer behind Long Island Opt Out, a Facebook group with almost 16,000 members. “They seem way too young to have that much testing and that much focus on the tests.”

An opt-out T-shirt worn by kids in Suffolk County.

An opt-out T-shirt worn by kids in Suffolk County.

The spring of 2014 has seen a wave of grassroots activism against both standardized tests and the Common Core that Bob Schaeffer, a longtime activist with the group Fairtest, calls “unprecedented.” The numbers are small, but they’re found around the country. Chicago, site of the 2012 teachers’ strike, and Colorado have seen the most action so far, although opt-out protests have been reported in Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennslyvania, New Jersey, and Alabama among other states.

Now it is New York’s turn. This is the second year that New York State students are taking Common Core aligned exams, which last year showed a 25-30 point drop in scores compared to previous tests, raising the ire of parents. It is unusual for parent activists in heavily democratic Greenpoint, Brooklyn to be on the same page with those in more conservative Syracuse, hundreds of miles away in Western New York. But the same pattern is repeating around the country. The convergence of resistance to the Common Core, a cause championed by libertarian and other right-wing groups, with resistance to state standardized tests, often backed by progressive teachers’ unions and civil rights groups, has led to what Schaeffer calls a “strange-bedfellows alliance.”

But based on organizers I’ve talked to in Texas, Washington State, Colorado and New York while researching my new book, most of the opposition to school testing honestly doesn’t have a prearranged political agenda at all. ”The policy and funding elites–the Gates, Walton, and Broad foundations–major campaign donors, and the elite mass media are pushing for more tests and the Core,” Schaeffer says. On the other side, “There’s really a populist pushback–lots of just plain parents and teachers who think layering on even more test driven curriculum is not going to have the results we want.”

That describes Deutermann. She got involved in organizing “by accident” when the older of her two sons, then in 3rd grade, started crying and begging not to go to school.  ”He had stomachaches at night. We took him in for all kinds of blood tests, allergy tests. The doctor said it was stress related.” Since last spring she has devoted her evenings to driving all over Long Island holding public forums on the drawbacks of testing and how to opt out. She has built a network of volunteer liasions representing 80 of Long Island’s 122 districts.

She also helped found a statewide coalition, New York State Allies for Public Education. As of today she posted on her Facebook page that she expected 7500 students to refuse the state tests.

There are three potential outcomes of this movement.

The first is that no meaningful change will occur. The protests will subside and the ad hoc coalitions will fall apart. Traditional, largely multiple-choice, state-mandated standardized tests will continue for the foreseeable future and the rollout of the Common Core will proceed on schedule, despite hiccups such as Indiana’s dropping out and many other states distancing themselves from the standards in name.

The second is that more states and jurisdictions will seriously scale back on tests, as has already happened everywhere from Alaska to Texas. America could come to more closely resemble other successful school systems around the world which make do with just one big high school exit/college entrance exam, or two exams, one for high school entrance and one for high school exit.

The final possibility is that schools come to adopt better forms of assessment which align more closely with 21st century skills. For Schaeffer, the preferred alternative is performance-based assessment, where students do projects, build portfolios, and make public presentations of their work. New York State could lead the way here, because it has an established Performance Standards Consortium with 28 successful middle and high schools that use this form of assessment in place of state tests.

Guest Post: Blended Learning in Kigali

Note: Through March 27 I’ll be sharing this Digital/Edu space with some excellent professionals in the area of learning and innovation on Thursdays. In addition to bringing new voices and ideas to our readers, this will help me as I finish the first draft of my forthcoming book, The Test, on the past, present and future of testing in public schools, to be published by Public Affairs in 2015.

 This guest post is from Chrystina Russell, the Chief Academic Officer of Kepler, a startup hybrid university program for students in Rwanda that incorporates MOOCs, face-to-face instruction, and a competency based degree program.

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One of the most exciting yet challenging aspects of launching and leading Kepler Kigali on the ground is navigating the many lines we straddle on a daily basis. For example, innovation versus traditional best practices, understanding core concepts versus pushing critical thinking, building a program for scale versus meeting student needs, local relevance versus globalization, partnership needs versus our own mission/vision, learning for the sake of learning/growth versus learning for the sake of employability. The list is endless.
In some ways, we are not unique because all industries have to navigate the fine lines that can greatly impact the outcomes of an organization. The joy of working in an educational setting is that the choices made can be life-changing, but the terrifying part is that if we make the wrong decision, the stakes are immeasurably high. Our students won’t have a second chance at a university degree, and the difference in the quality of the education we provide could determine if our students live a life of poverty or move into the middle class.
As we’ve launched into the oh-so-fabulous and equally oh-so-challenging project called Kepler, one of the most interesting lines we’re straddling isn’t relevant just to Rwanda—it’s a world-wide issue and challenge.
  • We’re committed to planning the best program for our students, and to do so we concentrate deeply on their futures.  In examining their futures, we’re working to figure out how—as the world of work rapidly changes—do we develop a university program for students that are coming out of a K-12 educational system that hasn’t necessarily prepared them for readiness in a rigorous curriculum like the one we’re designing? It’s a program that at a minimum requires the following:
  • Blended learning (in person teaching and on-line teaching) that demands high levels of independence
  • Technological fluency
  • Skills to collaborate and effectively work in a group for desired outcomes
  • The ability to access, analyze, and synthesize complex and large quantities of information
  • A flexible attitude that embraces engagement in ambiguous situations and rapid change
  • Leadership through influence
  • The ability to think critically by asking questions about problems rather than rushing to solutions
  • The willingness to take feedback and continually improve projects until they demonstrate competency
In grappling with how to best build these skills for our students’ futures, we’ve quickly been brought to their educational pasts.
Every corner of the world has its own local version of how these readiness challenges manifest themselves, but university educators have some universal similarities in preparing students for the world of work. Essentially, higher education institutions have two choices: 1) continue the traditional models that many students have engaged in for their first 13-15 years of education, with the likely result that students will not be prepared for tomorrow’s workplaces; or 2) disrupt the traditional system and develop models of teaching and learning that prepare students for a rapidly changing knowledge-based economy. At Kepler, we’re choosing the latter, which is clearly an easy choice (maybe the only one?). But choosing and implementing are two completely different phenomena, and it’s our daily efforts at executing the decision that bring the challenges, imagination, failures, resolutions, and aspirations of building Kepler to life.
I’ll be posting more about our curriculum, implementation, challenges, and our efforts at disrupting higher education as we build Kepler in the weeks ahead, so keep an eye out.


From Yale to Coursera

Coursera, the largest MOOC platform, announced today that Richard Levin will be coming on board as CEO. Levin was president of Yale University for 20 years before stepping down in 2013.

Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller

Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller

“Technology,” Levin said in the press release, “now gives us the means to extend the reach of high quality education around the world and to provide millions of people with access to learning and opportunities for advancement. Coursera is at the front of this effort, with a stellar team, a remarkable growth trajectory, and a purpose that is an unmitigated public good.”

Levin first made contact with the company a few months ago as an advisor to Coursera co-founders Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng. The company currently partners with 108 educational institutions in 19 countries. They offer 600 free courses to 7 million users from every country in the world.

Despite this success, Coursera, along with all other MOOC platforms, faces major existential issues. Levin is well suited to tackle them. ”Levin’s a major fundraiser, so this could see Coursera win far larger amounts of VC and other support,” Bryan Alexander, the senior fellow for the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education and a futurist specializing in learning and technology, commented on the announcement. “He’s also a consulting economist, so he’s probably going to try and solve the xMOOC economic sustainability problem.”  (Alexander uses “xMOOC” to refer to the courses created by the big MOOC platforms, as opposed to cMOOCs organized independently around the web).

The money problem is a big one. Coursera’s growth so far has been funded by investment. They have been experimenting with different ways to attract revenue. Advertising, the most obvious choice, would likely be off-putting to students and university partners. At the end of 2012, Coursera announced a recruitment service, where employers would pay for access to users. But this didn’t get much traction.

Infographic shows Coursera's growth as of October 2013.

Infographic shows Coursera’s growth as of October 2013.

A little over a year ago, they introduced a  ”Signature Track,” which provides learners verification of their identity and course completion for a fee. Nine months later they announced $1 million in revenue from Signature Track.

But that compares to $85 million in investment that the company has already taken on, from venture capitalists who expect large returns. It also translates into a 4/10 of one percent adoption rate, with just 25,000 of 7 million users opting to pay. Successful “freemium” companies, which offer some services for free and others for pay, typically have 2 to 4 percent paying users–five to ten times more than Coursera is reporting.  In order to be sustainable, Coursera needs a lot more paying customers.

Rick Levin

Rick Levin

The second, and related, big looming question has to do with Coursera’s relationship to the educational establishment. Its university partners, which include some of the most prestigious institutions in the world, have shouldered most of the cost and effort of content creation, which can be as much as $50,000 per course. Supervising a MOOC with tens of thousands of students can be a lot of work for professors and TAs.

Their return on this investment is still unclear. Is it primarily a way of attracting new students (an example of the “freemium” model applied to universities)? Or piloting new ways to teach? There are questions about intellectual property–does a professor who leaves one university get to take her MOOCs with her? Some universities have repurposed Coursera content in for-credit offerings. Does the Coursera signature track compete with their own continuing education courses?

Attracting new partners was easy when MOOCs were the flavor of the month, but going forward Coursera will need to provide a solid value proposition to its universities and convince them that their missions are aligned. It is here that Levin can really shine. He’s not the first university president to join an edtech startup–Bob Kerrey, who went from the New School to Minerva, is another example. But, as Alexander says, “It’s a serious commitment from this guy, who has a global reputation.”

Knowledge pills, robo-graders, brain implants and other dystopian edtech

It’s been a good week for the weird fringes of ed-tech. On Tuesday,  Nicholas Negroponte took the stage at the 30th anniversary of TED, the starry technology-entertainment-design conference. He’s the mastermind of One Laptop Per Child. It pioneered the idea of low-cost personal devices for students around the world.

Negroponte has been criticized as an extreme apologist for the “teachers don’t matter, kids + tech = MAGIC” view of ed tech. Chris Anderson, TED’s curator, asked him this week for “one final prediction.” He said, according to the blog Ars Technica,

Brain scans make things more scientific.

Brain scans make things more scientific.

“ In 30 years…we’re going to be able to literally ingest information. Once information is in your bloodstream, some kind of mechanism could deposit the information in the brain. You could take a pill and learn English or the works of Shakespeare.”

Sound improbable? Surf over to the Wall Street Journal. Neuroprosthetics–literally, brain implants–are coming to market. These include the cochlear implant, for hearing, and a retinal implant for seeing which received FDA approval last year. Soon, we may see devices that enhance memory, focus, and the speed at which we acquire new information. One group of researchers at UC Berkeley is working on a wireless brain interface made up of thousands of microsensors. Each the thickness of a human hair, they call them “neural dust”. It’s the stuff that sci-fi horror movies are made of.

Exsiting brain-computer interfaces, such as the headsets made by NeuroSky and Muse, pick up large-scale patterns of brain activity. They can give instant feedback about how calm, focused or excited you are. Jan Plass at NYU, who I met recently at South by Southwest EDU, is testing the Muse on students using Cerego learning software. They want to see if the feedback can make you smarter, and the software more customized.

Let’s not forget the brain prosthetics we’re already carrying around, known as smartphones. Soon voice-activated wearable devices will further blur the line between knowing a fact and being able to retrieve it. When I start singing my daughter a Simon and Garfunkel song, the next generation of Google Glass or a similar device will automatically bring up the lyrics.

These breakthroughs are fascinating. They’re also troubling, because we don’t really know very much about how the brain works normally. In fact, we don’t even know what we don’t know. The Achilles heel of any technology designed to make us smarter is that people are still smarter than any technology. If you use any kind of designer brain enhancement, you’re voluntarily limiting your own mind to the uses that some designer imagined for it.

Take one futuristic technology that’s already in place in classrooms today: automatic grading of essays using natural language processing. You can find it on the GED and the GMAT, and in products by Pearson and CTB/McGraw-Hill. These programs are still in early stages. They don’t parse meaning; they use crude metrics like word count, frequency of words, spelling, punctuation, plagiarism (based on text available around the web) and some sense of sentence structure. The ratings they give are comparable to the scores given by humans, but that’s not saying much. Essay questions on standardized tests are graded by contract workers who are paid per test and who must spend no more than a minute on each essay in order to earn a living wage.

This week the Contra Costa Times talked to a seventh grade teacher who is using robograding in her classroom. She said it was great! Saved her so much time! Except, “The robo-reader only can score submissions that are on topics the manufacturer has prescribed and the majority of those don’t have any bearing on the books her students are reading.” Do we want to live in a world where our brains are limited to “topics prescribed by the manufacturer”?




$1 Million global education “Nobel in teaching” announced

Today at the Global Education and Skills Forum, in Dubai, education entrepreneur and philanthropist Sunny Varkey announced a $1 million prize, to be awarded to one outstanding teacher somewhere in the world. Nominations and applications are now open at  The winner will be announced in November.

(disclosure: GEMS  Foundation supported my coverage of this event, but had no editorial input). 


President Bill Clinton, Honorary Chairman of the Varkey GEMS Foundation, with H.H. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, at the Global Education and Skills Forum.

For classroom teachers, this is the largest prize of its kind ever to be announced. In fact, it’s larger than most prizes in most professional fields. It rivals the the Nobel Prize itself, currently around $1.2 million. The MacArthur Fellowship (the “Genius Grant”), which is currently $625,000, went to a high school physics teacher, Amir Abo-Shaeer, in 2010.

Varkey is a newly minted billionaire, originally from India, who founded GEMS, the largest network of private for-profit schools in the world. It has 132 schools and 142,000 students across the Middle East, Africa, Europe, China, and India. He told the crowd that the mission of the global teacher prize, supported by Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, was inspiration.  “We want to inspire children from far-flung villages, towns and cities around the world to say ‘I want that prize!’ How many kids say they want to be a reality TV star? Let’s get them aiming to be the greatest teacher in the world.”

The Global Education and Skills Forum was organized in partnership between GEMS’ nonprofit foundation, UNESCO, The Commonwealth Business Council (a sort of global Chamber of Commerce), and UAE’s monarchy.  The underlying aim is to raise the profile of global education on the agenda of big-time philanthropy, international aid, and the business community directly. At the Forum, UNESCO also announced the Business Backs Education campaign, which asks corporations to nearly double their giving to education-related causes, to $1 billion by this time next year and to 20 percent of all corporate social contributions by 2020. Corporate charities donate sixteen times as much money to health-related causes as to education, even though cultivating human capital contributes directly to the bottom line. As keynote speaker President Bill Clinton told the GESF audience, every dollar invested in education returns $53 to employers through a better qualified, more productive workforce.

Here in the US we debate the benefit of big donors and private wealth in schools. But in the developing world the story is very different. Globally, 57 million children are not in primary school. Many countries don’t have the resources to expand access. “Universal Primary Education” is #2 on the list of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals; this would require an estimated 6 million new teachers by next year, 2015. The private sector has stepped into the breach. GEMS is one of a new breed of private, for-profit chain school operators that have sprung up in China (where some are owned by Disney), the Middle East, and Africa. These global education organizations have a mix of pro-social and business motives.

Viewing access to schooling through the lens of global development lends a proper urgency to the issue. But it also encourages a narrow instrumentalist view of education as a means to economic growth and only economic growth. When a gathering is hosted by an absolute monarch, sponsored by multinational corporations including Samsung, Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Credit Suisse, one can’t expect much room for the role of education as a radicalizing, democratizing force.


Why it’s so hard to get schools online in the digital age

In recent months there’s been a lot of news about public, private and philanthropic commitments to getting our public schools access to broadband Internet. In February, coming off a State of the Union address by President Obama that highlighted the issue, the FCC announced that it would move money around to double the sum available for so-called E-Rate broadband grants, from $1 to $2 billion. According to the advocacy group Education Superhighway, an astonishing 72% of K-12 schools nationwide lack sufficient speeds for the kinds of applications that you and I probably take for granted in our homes.


How can this be? The problems with school Internet access are basic and often come in the last mile, or even the last few inches. I recently spoke to Matt Tullman of digedu, a small Chicago-based startup, who offered me a closeup view of the problems.

Digedu actually started as a learning software company, offering lesson creation tools. They expanded into providing hardware, helping a school choose the right device and offering the service maintenance and training. It became clear that many schools didn’t have the bandwidth to use the products they were offering.

So they created a classroom “bandwidth augmentation” solution called Classroom Cloud. It’s a box that sits on a desk, makes local backups of content, and augments bandwidth, enabling 60 or 70 students to stream video simultaneously.

I asked how much his solution can improve performance for his client schools. ”It’s not so much a difference in performance as operable vs. not,” he says. “Most schools share amongst the entire school what a household would have.”

Think about that: a connection that’s supposed to be used by 4 or 5 people, instead being shared by possibly hundreds of students.

Upgrading access, he says, is a heavy infrastructure undertaking, often bound up with other costs.

“In the Southside of Chicago, where our schools are located, it’s copper wires.  They have no other choice. It’s not about paying for a bigger plan. I sat down with a principal who told me, even if you use E-rate it’s still $200,000 to lay a pipe of fiber optics. That’s prohibitive, especially when access is not the end in itself–the outcome is technology.” In other words, laying the pipe is a necessary, not a sufficient condition to having a 21st century school.

Figuring out what exactly is slowing down a school’s connection takes some detective work–Tullman says he’s often “sweating in his suit” at un-air conditioned Chicago schools. 

“There are so many points at which bandwidth can be throttled at most schools,” Tullman says. “The access point could be outside these buildings with four-foot concrete walls. It could be several years old. The wiring could be old. You have to have a holistic view of what’s going on.” 

 The E-Rate program has been criticized for mismanagement of resources. A very large proportion, about five billion dollars’ worth, of E-Rate funds has gone unused, piling up year after year. Outdated procurement processes also stand in the way of school districts using these funds effectively. According to Education Superhighway, average schools are paying around $25 per mbps (megabit per second), while some districts have been able to negotiate prices as low as $2 per mbps. (According to the FCC, minimum bandwidth for one user to download email or browse static web pages is about 0.5 mbps.  ”Advanced” service is classified as more than 15 mbps, which is needed to have more than three users or devices using applications such as streaming video.) 

Education Superhighway recommends school districts banding together into regional consortia to increase their bargaining power. 
Maybe the structure of the federal grant program needs to change to enable the kind of last-few-inches construction and network management that actually needs to be done to get schools wired.

Update: this post has been updated to reflect the correct term “megabit per second.”

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