By John Thompson.
Why do underfunded, high-poverty urban school districts keep diverting the energies of educators to experiments pushed by consultants? For example, Tulsa is led by Broad Academy alumnus, Deborah Gist, who has stuffed the TPS administration with Broadies. Tulsa has a lot of funding advantages that we don’t have in OKC, but only two major urban school districts (Rochester, N.Y. and Baltimore, Md.) have worse records in raising student performance from 3rd to 8thgrade. So why would they continue to chase these consultants’ dreams rather than invest in evidence-based policies?
The Summit Learning Basecamp is one of those gambles, and it is also worrisome. Our kids, especially our poorest kids who have endured multiple traumas, need more loving and trusting relationships with all types of mentors, not more time on keyboards. As the University of Wisconsin’s Dipesh Navsaria told the Potts Family Foundation Oklahoma Early Childhood Coalition Business Summit , “Every child needs an adult who is crazy about him.” Our kids “need laps, not apps.”
If districts took the expensive first step of laying the socio-emotional foundation which allows for all types of teaching and learning, then programs like Summit would not be so risky. But too many school systems still prefer to hire consultants peddling untested “quick fixes” so they can claim that they are taking action.
A couple of months ago in Tulsa, the teacher’s union president, Patti Ferguson-Palmer said that even pre-k and kindergarten teachers face assaults, and they are “frozen into inaction for fear of losing their jobs.” Now, TulsaKids’ investigation of TPS’s No Nonsense Nurturer classroom management program found that it is one of the reasons why the district is losing teachers. The expensive and scripted approach to classroom disruptions requires teachers to “use a non-emotional voice, and to use “positive narration” for on-task students, and not use “please” or “thank-you” when giving directions. Dr. Robert Hudson, recently retired clinical professor of pediatrics, OU-Tulsa School of Community Medicine, and co-director for the Center for Resilience, says, “No-Nonsense Nurturing makes neither neurodevelopmental nor psychological sense and is in no way nurturing.” He describes it as another “‘ready, fire, aim’ program that is a knee-jerk reaction to a need, but an ill- advised and very costly reaction to help.”
Tulsa schools are led by corporate reformers who hire other technocratic reformers peddling the latest “silver bullets.” I’d never bet against technology, and I have no doubts that personalized learning, such as it is practiced with a handful of the best Summit Learning classrooms, will produce gains. It’s inconceivable to me that Summit’s promise can be scaled up in our high-challenge districts before orderly and respectful learning cultures are built. If the TPS or Oklahoma City schools were to seek assistance on the Priscilla Chan side of the Chan-Zuckerberg LLC for expanding the community schools that Zuckerberg’s wife, Dr. Chan supports, that would be worthy of support. I worry when poor districts contemplate an experiment with the type of virtual learning that Mark Zuckerberg supports before a foundation is laid for that potentially beneficial but certainly risky experiment.
Were it not for data-driven, competition-driven policies, the increased use of many types of online learning systems would be a no-brainer. However, during this era of reward and punishment of students and teachers, such technology tends to degenerate into shortcuts such as “credit recovery,” which my students ridiculed as “exercising the right click finger.”
In the future, we’re likely to see even more low-skilled students receiving “depersonalized” or low-quality “blended learning,” in virtual charters, with classes holding from 40 to 80 students. In 2013, the Hechinger Post described the drill-driven pedagogy of Ben Rayer’s Merit Prep in Newark. Hechinger cites a fervent advocate for online learning who acknowledged that families with choices wouldn’t likely choose it. Now, Rayer is a partner of 2Revolutions, the consulting company which Tulsa is hiring to plan for its effort to reinvent the high school. Readers might want to follow the links and see for themselves if they are doing “What you love” or imposing a second class system for poor kids. By the way, Rayer’s school was later closed because its student performance growth was among the lowest in New Jersey.
Under no circumstances should high-poverty schools bet on technological fixes before reading the comprehensive research being done by Professor Emeritus Larry Cuban. The fair-minded Cuban describes the best of the online tools, as he also explains why they have failed to transform schooling. Now he reposts another must-read, Why I Left Silicon Valley, Ed Tech, and “Personalized Learning,” by Paul Emerich. The idea of working for a personalized learning Silicon Valley start-up was exhilarating for Emerich. He “had gone into the school year with unrelenting energy, thrilled to be opening a brand new micro-school and to work on technology tools that were intended to personalize my students’ learning.”
Emerich learned that the system required “isolating with every child working on something different; it was impersonal.” As he learned about the inherent shortcoming of this new approach, he began:
Slowly navigating away from hyper-individualized, industrialized personalization and more towards a humanized classroom that focused on student-driven practices, formative feedback, and engaging, project-based learning, my company traipsed forward with ultimately the same sexy theory: that personalization meant hyper-individualization, and that big data and a playlist would provide that.
The problem was that he was not working for “a private organization that truly valued teachers as 21st century knowledge workers. … This company I had joined was just that–a company.” And, “It broke my heart, to be frank.”
What I’ve been seeing in Oklahoma City is breaking my heart. When I’ve visited former-SIG schools that have adopted “personalized” learning, I’ve become sick at my stomach. I’ve seen a hi-tech version of the old worksheet-driven malpractice. Even in the worst of the crack and gangs era and the Great Recession, I’d never seen worse.
I’ve also seen a couple of great Summit Learning classes, and heard assurances that the OKCPS will be deliberate in terms of expanding such programs. The only thing I know for sure is that we need a public decision-making process, and that is a tricky issue when dealing with impatient reformers..
What do you think? Why won’t reformers slow down and engage in an open conversation about technology and socio-emotional factors? What’s the rush?