Tuesday, December 18, 2012

In the Debate About School Choice, Relevance and Evidence Lose

During the recent “Impact of Charter Schools in Chicago” panel discussion presented by Catalyst Chicago, proponents and opponents of charter schools came together for a brawl that ended in every side (including the moderates) only further entrenched in their viewpoints.  Though no one “won” the debate, there were two clear losers: evidence and reality. While every side presented evidence in support of their argument, no one was willing to acknowledge evidence that was not ideologically aligned with their own viewpoints. Charles Payne, University of Chicago Professor, mentioned some research though he explicitly cited CREDO’s 2009 study of charter school performance. Though, Dr. Payne’s more reserved assessment of charter schools in Chicago included the CREDO study due to the mixed results from the study. Andrew Broy, President of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, cited Caroline Hoxby, a free-market economist who has studied competition in education in great detail. Hoxby’s findings typically support free-market reforms, but are also contested. Broy also mentioned certain findings from CREDO’s study of charter school performance, though ignoring some of the larger findings to focus on those favorable to charter schools. Jackson Potter, a representative of the Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU), also blatantly ignored any studies with inconvenient findings, only to mention Diane Ravitch (not any particular study, just mentioned the historian’s opposition to charter school expansion). Though the debate was chocked full of claims, there was little evidence to support the claims being made by either Mr. Broy or Mr. Potter.

Another loser of the debate was the acknowledgment of the systemic inequities facing our nation’s schools, especially those in cities like Chicago. For the proponents of charter schools, in this case Andrew Broy (Teach For America alumni turned law student, turned lawyer, then finally self-actualizing as an education expert), market competition that pits individuals (students, teachers, schools, and districts) against each other in the spirit of neoliberalism is the best approach to solving inequality.  Fundamentally, this approach negates the obvious realities of competition – there are winners and losers.  In fact, it is this very type of competition that has created a society where we have, and largely tolerate, systemic inequality of winners and losers (haves and have not’s).  For Broy, and the likes, what is missing in our society is school “choice.”  That is, our schools are not performing well because they have no market incentives to “outperform” some other school (and their students) – and in lacking that, these schools reproduce a stratified economy.  For Broy, injecting market competition into what has traditionally been public and democratic (well, at least in theory) is the best way to fight for what he, and the other neoliberals, deem the “civil rights” issue of our time.
           Juxtaposed to Broy’s insistence that market ideology is the best route for reform, was Jackson Potter (Chicago Teacher’s Union).  While Potter did not make it a pivotal point of his argument, he did mention twice (once in the beginning and then again at the end – if you watched that long) that the greatest decrease in the so-called “achievement gap” occurred during President Johnson’s Great Society.  For those who point out that the achievement gap is nothing other than an opportunity gap, this is the quintessential argument.  That is, schools are not the source of inequality; rather, it is society that creates and perpetuates inequalities that predetermine the types of education that students have access to and ultimately realize.  For Broy, this point is understood in that poor students have access to bad schools – so, what they need are “better” schools.  For Potter, and most educational researchers, what matters most are not the brick and mortar schools that students attend; rather, the homes that they come from and go back to after school.  If they followed the research, the panelists – and even venture philanthropists at the Walton Foundation – would put less stock and money into school “choice” and more into ensuring that parents had access to a livable wage, affordable housing, access to healthcare, etc.  Dr. Payne, Mr. Broy, and Mr. Potter used little evidence in their assertion there is an achievement gap while ignoring the larger opportunity gap.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Doing Less with More: the Social Significance of For-Profit Higher Education in the US

Portraying higher education as a business is the dominant metaphor for higher education in our time. By now it is commonplace to consider students as consumers, faculty as producers, degrees and publications as products, while universities labor to protect their brand.

To some extent, US higher education has always functioned at least partially as a market, with institutions vying for faculty, students, and funding. Clark Kerr defines responsiveness to the market as a fundamental characteristic of institutions in the American system, and calls it a “gift of history”. However, in concert with the historical US marketization of education has been the longstanding philosophical tradition from Thomas Jefferson, to John Dewey and more recently to others such as Henry Giroux, of the assumption that democracy demands education as a public good. 

In response to the encroachment of corporate power into the public sphere of education, Giroux called for educators and others to mobilize a civic dialogue providing an alternative conception of the meaning and purpose of public education in resistance to the rise of corporate influence. For-profit higher education represents perhaps the clearest manifestation of this encroachment, as the for-profit higher education institution is a company or corporation. Despite the staggering growth in the for-profit higher education industry in recent years, alternative civic dialogues are not often voiced within the academy.  Instead, the criticisms of proprietary institutions are more often located in the popular press, documentaries, or Congressional reports, and tend to center on issues of student loan repayment, graduation rates, and admissions activities. These are essentially unfair business practices, with the larger, far more significant concerns of race, power, and politics, left largely unexplored.  Within many of these narratives, avoiding fraudulent behavior seems to be the sole standard that society demands of higher education.  In fact, some voices advocate for public and other institutions to emulate the “efficiencies” of the corporate model

Yet, if we look at the for-profit sector of higher education, it is clear that the exponential growth in the industry is far from evenly distributed. Rather, it has occurred primarily in groups that are traditionally underrepresented in higher education. Currently, the University of Phoenix is the largest educator of minority students. In fact, for-profit institutions enroll a disproportionate share of non-Asian minority, low-income, and female students. The for-profit industry hails this accomplishment as “access,” yet questions about what exactly their students have gained access to seem to go unasked.

Publicly traded, and yet publicly funded through federal and state student loans, this sector of higher education demonstrates what waits at the bottom of the slippery slope of marketization in higher education.  Absorbing roughly 30% of the federal student loan funds plus multiple private loans in many cases, and then spending approximately 25% of the budget on marketing, the for-profit sector demonstrates the incongruity of shareholder profits and the public good (see Harkin Report). Standard criticisms of the for-profit model highlight the higher tuitions, low graduation rates, high percentages of part-time faculty, high student loan defaults, and frequent indictments for fraud.  Yet, by allowing business practices to become the center of the debate, critics have seemingly acquiesced to the corporate instrumentalist vision of education, at least for large numbers of minorities and non-traditional students who enroll in such programs, accepting that for those students at least, getting a job upon graduation that pays enough to service student loan repayments is enough. Elements of racism and even a kind of Social Darwinism permeate some of this discourse, where prepackaged curriculum taught by part-time faculty in abandoned store fronts, or online, counts as “access to higher education” for minority students who for reasons that remain unstated, “could not be served” by traditional public institutions.  Capacity within the public system is often cited as the justification for tolerating this system, but such an excuse rings hollow in a nation that originated massification of higher education and is widely regarded as the leader in higher education worldwide.

For their part, public institutions espouse diversity and tout carefully calculated minority and traditionally underserved students. However, there is little to no consideration for the issues raised by a profit driven industry feeding off the raging need for higher education left unmet by the current public and private non-profit system. Moreover, research on for-profit institutions and the students they serve is scant. Policing only the “consumer protection” fundamentals of the programs seems to assuage the sense of responsibility of the academy, public institutions, government, and society in general to rectify the exclusions from civic engagement that the for-profit, instrumentalist manifestation of higher education perpetuates.

Giroux called for “educators [to] confront the march of corporate power by resurrecting a noble tradition, extending from Horace Mann to Martin Luther King Jr, that affirms education as a political process encouraging people to identify themselves as more than consuming subjects, and democracy as more than a spectacle of market culture” (2001).  While the fraudulent practices of some proprietary institutions are certainly egregious, the issues of “gainful employment” must not be allowed to dominate the discussion.  Instead, the debate should also consider true issues of access centered on larger social realities of power and oppression. The debate should consider alternate conceptions of higher education in America that would provide access for all. Without resistance to the continued vocationalization of higher education for minority and other non-traditional students, without demands for noncommercial goals for higher education including minority and non-traditional students of all ages, and without insistence on the integral and potentially transforming role of faculty as more than messengers delivering a pre-packaged product of mass produced curriculum, democracy and the institutions originally designed to serve it, have been reduced to mere spectacle in this market culture.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

China Bridge Delegation: Reflections On Educational Policy and Practice in China and the United States

From November 7-15, I traveled to China as part of the 2012 Chinese Bridge Delegation to China.   This was a unique opportunity to visit Chinese schools, dialogue with teachers and educational leaders, and learn firsthand about contemporary Chinese educational policy and practice. My perceptions remain fresh and unrefined, yet I would like to share a few thoughts:

First, regarding Chinese policy, it was reported to us that new curricular reforms are intended to produce more hands-on, experiential learning.  Further, they aim to develop students’ critical/analytical and communicative/collaborative skills.  Interestingly, Chinese leaders articulated the importance of developing the “whole child,” although we suspected certain differences in how we define these and other terms. Importantly, all delegates were left indelibly impressed that the Chinese view a strong education system as critical to individual and collective success.

With respect to Chinese practice, our observations suggest these goals are not yet fully reflected in practice; classroom instruction tended to be teacher-directed and linear.  For instance, in a Primary Art class, approximately 35 students sat in rows and followed along as their teacher worked step by step, engaged in Jhianzhi (paper cutting).  By contrast, some American educators (classroom observers) immediately began folding and cutting the paper as they desired, with no reference to the classroom directions.  Even the ‘play’ that we observed in morning exercise on the playground was organized and structured according to class, with a prescribed group activity set for each.  Altogether, I perceived that certain reforms are “easier said than done” as they require shifting educators’ mindsets and gradually developing certain skills.  Potentially, logistical changes (e.g., smaller class sizes) may be important as well.

Still, Chinese policies and practices are interesting when juxtaposed against what is occurring in the United States.  From an international comparative perspective, it would appear that we are advantaged in certain key areas, and disadvantaged in others.  Moreover, in my view, some areas of U.S. educational advantage may be weakening as direct or indirect effects of current policy in each nation. 

For example, I am concerned about the implications of curricular narrowing in the U.S. (a function of NCLB).  Some argue that the U.S. system has historically shown relative strength in its development of creative/innovative, critical thinking adults.  This, in turn, has contributed to American economic prosperity.  Recent policy, however, has caused many educators to “teach to the test” and administrators and officials to alter instructional programming toward items and areas that are measured by state-required tests.  Arts programs, for instance, have been cut and recess time decreased or eliminated in many places.  Beware:  such measures may create a context less conducive to creative and interpersonal development.  This, in turn, may ultimately amount to an unwise squandering of international educational strength/advantage, at the same time that Chinese educators and policymakers wisely pursue opposite aims.

Another area of Chinese advantage (or disadvantage, depending ultimately upon the efficacy of reforms) lies in its ability to quickly and sweepingly reform its systems.  In the U.S., it is much more difficult to make fundamental changes; the U.S. system is layered and complex, with multiple powerful players and stakeholders involved.  In China, structure and hierarchy are clear, and reform documents have immediate and far-reaching impacts. 

Lastly, I left with strengthened conviction that the study of Chinese language and culture should occur in American schools.  The school district in which I work includes Chinese programming, including a partial-immersion program.  It is heartening to learn that the study of Chinese in U.S. schools has markedly increased (see here); however, the Chinese students’ study of English still positively dwarfs the American study of Chinese – indeed, Jon Huntsman Jr. estimated that currently there are more English speakers in China than in the United States.

China, a nation “on the rise,” rightly views its educational system as central to its present and future.  It is crucial that American citizens and policymakers continue to view education likewise.  Moreover, it is essential that we pursue policies that not only aim to address perceived failings of our system, but that aim to nurture or grow our considerable strengths.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

MOOCs and differentiated higher education

Dan's entry yesterday focuses on what he describes as the surveillance potential of data-mining in large courses and higher education more generally. That is in fact what EDx's founders promised: to use MOOCs as a research base. It is remarkably similar to the "personalized education" promise of those advocating algorithm-driven K-12 lessons, such as the School of One in New York City. I have argued elsewhere that there is a significant difference between personalized and algorithmic education, but maybe I should use an old Garment District joke to explain:
A wealthy patron enters the small dress shop. "I need a dress for a banquet!" She yelled to the dress shop's owner, who was in the back.

"Ah, Madam," he said, scurrying forward. "What were you thinking of?"

"It has to be unique."

"Of course, Madam. You have been our customer for years, and I know just the cut that will flatter you and no one else in the entire world. I've been waiting for the chance to try it."

"In a color that no one else could have."

The dressmaker took a stub pencil from behind behind his ear and started scribbling on a stained take-out menu by the cash register. "I know a man in Estonia who owns a hillside of berries that are of a shade of purple known nowhere else. I can email him and ask him to dye several silk bolts for me."

"You will make this dress just for me?"

"But of course, Madam. You are a valued customer. You deserve a dress no one else could have."

"But how long will it take to make this one-of-a-kind dress?"

"Next Tuesday."
Call me just a little skeptical of both the dressmaker's honesty and the ability of any algorithmic system to generate a truly personalized education.

If we are going to use the notion of surveillance in looking at MOOCs, or invoke James Scott's Seeing like a State, we need to also look at the likely ways that surveillance will #fail, in the way that overdrawn plans of central micromanagement usually fail. Data-mining is valuable to marketers right now, because ANY useful information about what makes individuals spend money has a high return on the investment in the technology. What that means five years from now, or in other fields, is different entirely from the first-mover advantage that Google had, or that the Obama campaign staff had. I think there is some research potential if EDx or any other MOOC platform has an architecture built around the research of teaching and learning (as opposed to the research of profit). But that is likely to be limited.

The claims of personalized learning are a pretty thin smokescreen given the lecture-oriented mode of most MOOCs and the high attrition rates, and I think the same is true of claims that MOOCs will unbundle higher education (as Clay Shirky among others has predicted). Students have been unbundling college for decades: that what the "swirling" term refers to, all the students who attend more than one college as undergraduates. (Yes, both Sarah Palin and Barack Obama can be called swirlers.) It's easy to take courses in many places. It's much harder to put all of that together as a package called a diploma.

If anything, I think that MOOCs will speed the differentiation of college degrees on the low end rather than break down barriers to access to elite credentials. So-called degree-completion programs are the obvious easy fit with MOOCs--put together a smorgasbord of courses from different places, a few courses from the degree-granting institution, and voilá! a degree. And to protect the value of current bachelor's degrees, this will be called something different, such as the Bachelor of General Studies. Or MOOCs will be part of non-degree certificate programs. And, like the degree-completion program, these certificates might be stackable with a certain amount of coursework completed at the degree-granting institution to make a distinction between a college graduate and someone who has accumulated a smattering of courses.

Call me skeptical, but I don't think MOOCs are disruptive in higher education, or at least nowhere near as disruptive as something like the 2008 financial crisis.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

MOOCs and Disruption

I have become obsessed with MOOCs. That’s “massive online open courses.” Not because they are, in the words of Thomas Friedman, a “college education revolution.” (Though there is some truth to that as well in my perspective.) Rather, I think they make vivid many of the fault lines of how we think about and enact teaching and learning in higher education. And while the vast majority of attention has focused on the standard (and understandable) issues of postsecondary access, quality, and cost, MOOCs also reveal deeper assumptions around issues of socialization, stratification, and success in the academy.

I have written a couple of op-eds for general audiences about this in the last few months: “Disrupt This” at the Huffington Post; “I Am Not a Machine” at the New England Journal of Higher Education; and “MOOCs R Us” and “What MIT Should have Done” at eLearn Magazine. Here, I want to lay out a few of issues that don’t get mentioned as much in general audience discussions. I hope in the coming weeks and months to delve into these issues and look forward to any feedback and pushback.

For now, I want to lay out just one implication of MOOCs that draws from recent work in Security Studies, and specifically around the notion of “data doubles.”  The idea comes from Haggerty and Ericson’s (2000) “The Surveillant Assemblage.” This assemblage, they argue, “operates by abstracting human bodies from their territorial settings and separating them into a series of discrete flows. These flows are then reassembled into distinct ‘data doubles’ which can be scrutinized and targeted for intervention.” The implication of all this, they suggest, is a “leveling  of  the  hierarchy  of surveillance,  such  that  groups which were previously exempt from routine surveillance are now increasingly being monitored.”

Their work, as much of the work in the Security Studies field, draws from and extends many of the ideas of the panopticon from Foucault, with strands of Deleuze and Guattari, Giddens, and Haraway. Torin Monahan’s recent (2011) “Surveillance as Cultural Practice” really nicely extends this discussion by suggesting that surveillance be seen as “embedded within, brought about by, and generative of social practices in specific cultural contexts.” This means that there is no Big Brother out there, per se; no conspiracy theory; no police state that is all knowing and future-predicting. Which does not mean, of course, that it is benign.

The connection for me to MOOCs can be seen in this interview with the leaders of Knewton, which provides an “adaptive learning platform” that provides a “personalized online learning content” for each user. I have cut a long section, but it is fascinating:

You do a search for Google; Google gets about 10 data points. They get, by our standards, a very small amount of data compared to what we get per user per day. If they can produce that kind of personalization and that kind of business, based off the small amount of data they get, imagine what we can do in education.

Here's why education is different from search or social media. For one thing, the average student studies for more time than they spend on Google or Facebook. People spend way more time in Knewton than they spend on Google—they spend hours a day as opposed to minutes per day. So that's one big reason why we produce a few orders of magnitude more data per user than Google, just based on usage.

But then there's the more important reason even than that, which is that education is not like Web pages or social media. It's a different product. And it lends itself infinitely more to data-mining than does any other industry right now. The reason is that nobody has tagged all the world's Web pages for Google down to the sentence level, the way that we ask publishers to tag every sentence, every answer choice of every question. They say, Here's what this sentence is about, or this video clip. They're basically telling us every single thing about every single piece of their content. That's how we can slice and dice it so finely.

So what Knewton and many other computer-based learning platforms allow is the construction of a highly personalized learning profile through such data aggregation and analysis. The idea, of course, is that such a profile, such a “data double,” better supports the adaptation critical to quality real-time feedback. To be clear, such adaptive learning systems have been shown to be as effective for learning as human tutors and instruction.

Yet the implications of such data assemblages are far from clear. Above and beyond the instrumental aspects of better learning of certain content knowledge, there are troubling aspects of data privacy, of the normalization of competence and intelligence, of the asymmetries of visibility, of the embedded nature of self-surveillance. Similarly, such “big data” fosters an entwinement between our notions of education and the capacities of technology: those “data doubles” are the foundation from which we define, determine, compile, analyze and ultimately deploy the data of what counts as teaching, learning, and knowledge. These are socioculturally, strategically, and politically complex and fraught processes that become reified and stabilized in particular procedural and institutional structures. This raises a host of questions about what counts as teaching and who benefits from such structures and practices.

I truly believe that MOOCs are going to disrupt large segments of higher education in the coming decade. But they may disrupt our notions of teaching and learning even more.