Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Role of Rigor

Earlier this month, the Huffington Post reported that "AP Exams Surge As Tools For High Schools Raising Standards." Having taught in a school where students were often placed in AP courses far beyond their demonstrated academic abilities, I am glad to see some reporting on the issue of who is, and should be, taking the AP.

Here is the familiar story of a disparity in AP achievement, in a nutshell:

Nationally, 56 percent of AP exams taken by the high school class of 2011 earned a 3 or higher, but there are wide disparities. The mean score is 3.01 for white students and 1.94 for blacks. In New Hampshire, almost three-quarters of exams earn a 3 or higher; in Mississippi, it's under a third. In the District of Columbia, more than half of exams score a 1. 
At Detroit's Mumford High School last year, none of 62 AP exams earned higher than a 1. But at the nearby Renaissance magnet high school, a quarter of the 113 AP exams earned a 3 or higher, and the school had the second most black students scoring 3 or higher in literature in the country.
The disparity in AP achievement is a reflection of the class disparities between rich and poor families, as well as rich and poor schools. Students in poor communities arrive in high school many years behind in basic academic skills. While every student should have access to rigorous courses, the rigor sought for struggling students should be growth, not a superman's leap.

I believe the AP serves as a useful tool for teachers to evaluate their local standards and align their courses to rigorous, relevant content and skills. I also believe that all students should face serious academic rigor (such as an AP class) during their high school years, even if they aren't ready for it. Having one or two extremely challenging classes, where students have to reach beyond what anyone thinks is possible, does help establish a clear benchmark for what college work looks like, and gives all students a chance to achieve an unlikely, but meaningful goal.

At the same time, disadvantaged students gain no advantage by suffering through multiple courses they are not prepared for, under high pressure conditions, only to score a failing grade on the exams. While failing can be a valuable learning experience, it should only happen when a reasonable chance at success is tied to the risk. Why isn't there more strategy playing out in high schools that bring AP tests to underprepared students? Doing this successfully requires investments in curriculum, remediation, innovative teaching methods, excellent teachers, excellent resources, student counseling and parent investment. Otherwise, we are leaving students to drown.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Next Step for Edtech

A disruptive product has such a strong impact on an industry that it renders obsolete the current market offerings.  For example, the invention of the telephone disrupted the communications market and more recently the iPad disrupted the market for personal computers.  Introducing innovations like these represents the pinnacle of success for startup businesses. For social entrepreneurs, disruptive innovation typically involves disrupting cycles of poverty, disease, ignorance or violence.

I have been knee deep in the start-up “space” now for close to a year, and I’ve increasingly wondered why venture capital and media attention seem to flow so steadily to startups offering products that are so… pointless. Clearly investors see a potential handsome return in a neat 3-5 year time frame. Nevertheless, the long-term viability (more than ten years) of a company offering a digital product with limited social impact presents neither an opportunity for social impact nor economic sustainability.  The social entrepreneur, who focuses on these long term goals, has a particularly hard time gaining attention or capital because a disruptive innovation for profit is easier to find than disruptive innovation that advance the double (or triple) bottom line. 

There are countless companies in the education space, and many of them are very exciting. Friends of mine at Kickboard and Jumprope have created management systems that really do meet an important need. Companies like BetterLesson offer a revolutionary platform for teachers to share resources. However, there are far more companies that merely work around the edges. Whether or not an edtech startup is developing a disruptive innovation or not, the education market typically presents difficult challenges to the startup entrepreneur.

Despite regulatory and cultural obstacles to systemic change, some school systems have ushered in new frameworks for experimentation. The city of New Orleans has provided a unique testing ground for many new startups due to the large number of charter schools that sprung up in the aftermath of Katrina.  Charter schools have the independent authority to choose their own curricula and teaching methodologies, allowing startups to enter the market there with new teaching products that otherwise might not have had a chance to reach the classroom. The changes taking place in New Orleans may or may not ultimately prove better for that community, but the increased level of innovation is undeniable. 

In my last post I discussed the increasing importance of technology in our society.  Social entrepreneurs have recognized this trend and are leveraging technology to improve education.  My own venture, LLESS, aims to introduce a new model of learning that draws from lessons in game design.  While technology is a critical component of our approach, we also recognize the importance of a sophisticated pedagogy involving discussion, debate, deep literacy, research and critical analysis. That’s why we have written an original curriculum guide for using our products, so that technology and gamification, two hot trends in education, serve as a facilitator or catalyst, not a replacement, for learning.

The next generation of Edtech, if good teachers are empowered to drive the market, will feature innovations that enhance curriculum and praxis, not simply classroom management or data collection.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Computer Science, Coding and the Future Economy

I have grown fond of saying "every company is a technology company." While we may tend to characterize different companies by the products they sell, the manufacturing, marketing, logistics, finance, security and corporate governance of any institution are now intimately connected to, and dependent on, technology.

What does that mean for our education system, and how we raise our kids? For starters, I think it means that a core requirement in middle and high school, along with English, history, math and science, needs to be computer science. We can't afford for the next generation to be dependent on technology, but to have no idea how it works. Not only that, but knowing how computers works can be enormously empowering--economically, politically, socially and intellectually. Given that native English speakers have a distinct advantage in learning computer science, because so much of the computer language is based on English vocabulary and syntax, it seems like a no-brainer investment to make in our core curriculum.

Secondly, the rapid technology revolution means we need to leverage new tools like cloud computing, tablets, smart phones, broadband wireless, web applications and wikipedia to make our schools more efficient, education more engaging and personalized, and the objectives of education more directly relevant to student lives. How should this look, managerially? As a staff composition? Schools should not only have designated "tech people" to maintain the network, or computer teachers teaching to type. Schools should have on site programmers building new applications, side-by-side with teachers, so that the "edtech" of the next generation is tech that is specified and customized to real needs of teacher from all subjects.

I have had the great experience of just completing the first version of my own web-based software application for world history classrooms. I worked with a designer, a UI/UX expert, a back-end engineer, and a programmer. We started with about a month of conversation about the requirements for the database schema and the front-end user interface. After building the database using PostgresQL and drawing mockups for the main user pages, our programmer got to coding the program using Django, a Python web framework.

This was my first experience managing a software development project, and I feel I grew more professionally and intellectually doing this than doing many other tasks over the past few years. Moreover, the product we created, because of careful planning and fluid communication, is a reflection of over five years of my work teaching and seeking solutions to easily assess students for the purpose of differentiation. Now anyone using this app can have an incredibly powerful set of data to inform instruction. I suspect, and our research will soon reveal, that it will transform the learning in classrooms that use it.

It's time to take the technology revolution to our schools; not to make money (though that will obviously happen), but to make a difference in students' lives.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Fate of Civilizations: Glory is Now Available for Pre-Order!

The game-based learning program I have been working on since July, Fate of Civilizations, now has a project on Kickstarter. We are looking to crowd fund the first publication of the game Glory, which we will be ready to ship in September.

Gamers, teachers, parents and students: please pledge to help make Glory a reality for kids and gamers across the globe. Glory is fun and you learn while you play. It is based on AP, NYS Regents, and Common Core standards; it has mechanisms for continuous game play, so players can unlock new powers, track their progress and shape the game itself. We have developed a curriculum guide and online web application that accompany the game, making this a complete offering for a teacher looking to drive achievement and improve efficiency and engagement in the classroom.

Here is a link to the project:


We'd love to have you as a backer!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Thinking about the Future

Where do you think the United States, and the world, will be in 5 years? 20 years? 50 years? 2,000 years?

Thinking about the future is such an interesting, and yes, important exercise.

Yet while students often take some 8 years of required history courses, why don't we mandate the study of the future? Is it because we don't have concrete "material" as the focus of examination? Is it because we don't have a "theory" of the future?

I think a history course provides an excellent platform to engage students in a conversation about the future. Unfortunately, the future is not part of the standards, and students only learn about the future through disorganized and shallow attempts at application and relevance. 

It is time that social studies in K-12 education develop a more robust discipline of futurism. At the core of such a course, the following enduring understandings might be a useful starting place:

  • Nothing about the future is certain.
  • Projections about the future can influence present action; in part for this reason, they are almost always wrong. 
  • Patterns, trends, and data can point to likely scenarios in the future. 
  • When the future arrives, it becomes the present. It is thus always out of reach. 
A discipline of futurism would help students determine what kind of careers they might assume; how long term planning can be personally beneficial; how to evaluate hysterical and cynical claims about fate; and how individuals shape their own destinies. 

A study of the future would serve as a valuable interdisciplinary experience. History provides a sense of possibility and limitation of change and continuity; literature and art expand the imagination and show how people in the past imagined their future; math and science teach how to evaluate the past and present to predict and shape the future. 

Students need to dialogue to form the narrative of their personal concerns and ambitions. Talking about and studying the future might offer a very interesting way to accomplish this. 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Why and How K-12 Students Should Buy and Sell Their Own Books (Even and Especially in Poor Schools)

Schools are strapped for cash.

Textbooks and other resources are expensive to purchase and replace. Nobody is really held accountable for mismanaged books.

Students are protective of their own property (see what happens when you try to take their phones away).

Students are destructive or careless with school property (walk into any public school classroom and check the condition of the laptop keyboards or the ask the teacher how many textbooks are lost every year).

US public schools currently employ a model for purchasing resources something like this: department chairs, principals and superintendents make purchasing decisions for books and computers. Tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent, usually at the beginning of a fiscal year (summer) or end of a fiscal year (to spend down slack in the budget or take advantage of a windfall). Resources arrive, usually weeks or months later. Teachers receive the resources, often times with little or no training. They take the resources to their classrooms, and may or may not set them up. An administrator may or may not check on their usage. Class sets of textbooks are probably given out, and students may or may not sign liability forms, cover the books with paper or laminate, write in the books, or forget the books when the bell rings.

When the student gets home he or she drops the bookbag with a *thud.* The textbook binding and corners take their first blow. Each day, if the book is carried, it is battered and maybe even soaked by spilled beverages and freak rainstorms. If it is left at home, it may remain unread, or disappear under the bed, or get used as a snack tray in front of the TV. At the end of the year the teacher runs around trying to collect textbooks, match numbers and names to spreadsheets and lists, and inspect the books' condition. Unless the book fails to appear or appears as though it barely survived a fire, the teacher probably doesn't bother to comment on significant wear and tear. Even if the book never appears, the student may still end up getting a pass. Respect for school property and authority are damaged along with the books. 100 books purchased in one year disappear 10 at a time, and after two or three years, the school probably only has 50-70 usable books.

In some schools, when students clear out in June, don't be surprised if the janitors end up sweeping books off the floor and throwing them in the trash.

What if there was a different way of doing all this? A way that encouraged students to cherish books? Gave students the option to interact with their texts, even writing in the margins? A way to save schools money? Reduce stress between teachers and students? Teach responsibility? Allow schools to innovate? Force schools to think harder about the value of the resources they choose?

Here's my program. It will probably never happen, but just imagine:

  • Public Schools have a book store, just like college. When the curriculum requires certain texts, the store will stock enough books so all the enrolled students can purchase the books.
  • Students can purchase the books at retail price at the bookstore, or go elsewhere. At the bookstore, 0% interest payment plans are offered to any student who needs it, unless they previously failed to make monthly payments. In that case they can pay up front, offer collateral (a cell phone or pair of sneakers might do it), or complete some form of community service to earn the books.
  • Students can apply for subsidies for books. They would fill out a short application and/or complete an interview. Why should you get books for free? Will you take care of the books? Academic or community service achievement can qualify a student for such support.
  • Students OWN the books. If lost, too bad for the student, (s)he need to replace it. More importantly, students are encouraged to KEEP the books. We tell students: "Write in them. Highlight them. Build a personal reference library. Use books from the previous grade in that research paper. Pass them on to younger siblings. These books are VALUABLE, even more than money."
  • Students can resell the books to the school. Books in like new condition get 100% of the purchase price back. Lightly worn books get 90% back. Books in good condition but that have notes and highlights get 70-80% back. Books that are heavily worn will not be accepted.
  • Provided books are used the following year, used copies will sell for the same price they were bought back for. If bought-back books are discontinued in the curriculum, they can go in a used book store that the school runs, and they sell for 50% or less of the cover price. Proceeds from the used book store fund library and technology resources for the school.
  • Since schools are presenting the cost of resources transparently and up front to parents, they need to think carefully about what they purchase. Is that $120 history or biology textbook the best way to teach that subject? Maybe field trips, copy machines, microscopes, primary sources or after school programs, NOT paid by the parents, would be a better bet.

Whenever we set up a system in a school, we need to think about what habits and lessons it reinforces. Our current system infantilizes and belittles students and families, and wastes public resources. I believe my proposed system would go a long way to reinforce discipline, choice, and the value of knowledge. Maybe someone will test it?

What do you think? Could this work? If it did, should this system be applied only to books, or other public school resources as well?

[Note: I support equitable funding of schools and think our school funding model overall is a disaster. I am not positing this as a solution to poor schools, just a solution to battered books and the disdain for reading.]

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Myth of Continents Commentary 1: Continents are Stupid (Just Look at Russia)

(This is the first in a series of commentaries I am doing for the Teach for America private community of history and geography teachers. The series is on the book The Myth of Continents by Lewis and Wigen. I will be reposting each commentary here so it is available for the world at large.)

The Myth of Continents opens asking a seemingly simple set of questions. What is a continent? Why do speak of continents? Are continents intellectually or empirically valid units of geographical measurement?

At the beginning of the first chapter, Lewis and Wigen share a conventional definition of the continent and follow with their damning assessment. “In contemporary usage, continents are understood to be large, continuous, discrete masses of land, ideally separated by expanses of water. Although of ancient origin, this convention is both historically unstable and surprisingly unexamined; the required size and the requisite degree of physical separation have never been defined.”

Looking back at history and the origin of the continental idea, we should closely examine the Greeks who provided us the names (Africa, Europe, Asia) that would forever after function as a core part of the world’s vocabulary. The Greeks themselves argued about the meaning of these terms. Herodotus questioned the system and called for “empirical cartography.” He noted that “Asia and Africa were actually contiguous, both with each other and with Europe.” (22)

During the Medieval and Renaissance periods, the unresolved question of continents underwent new forms of distortion due to the centrality of religion in every ideological paradigm. St. Jerome argued for the three continent system based on the story of Noah (23). Maps were even drawn in the shape of a cross. “Classical precedence joined here with theological necessity, converting an empirical distortion into an expression of profound cosmographical order” (24). With the growth of the Ottoman Empire pushing Christianity back into Greek’s “Europe,” and secular humanism seeking self-designation, a more modern definition of Europe emerged (25). Ironically, the region that gave birth to the continental lexicon, southeastern Europe, was pulled out of the “orbit” of Europe during this early modern period.

With the European discovery of the Americas, it took nearly a century for Europeans to accept the existence of America. A debate that had lasted for two millennia experienced a major rupture. The old idea of a single “world island” split into 3 continents by relatively minor geographic barriers could not define the world properly when enormous oceans separated equally enormous landmasses. While the original idea of a “continent” stems from “continuity,” isolation soon became the dominant pattern of thinking (26).

With the growth of exploration, imperialism and modern industry, new political and economic interests came to shape both the mental and physical map of the world. Empirical attempts to standardize divisions between continents continued to elude scholars because there is no division between Europe and Asia compared to the clear divisions of Africa and the Americas.
The context of an expanding and “Westernizing” Russian state helps us understand the causes of our modern geographical confusion:

“by the late seventeenth century, one strategy was to divide Europe from Asia along stretches of the Don, Volga, Kama and Ob rivers…Only in the eighteenth century did Swedish military officer, Philipp-Johann von Strahlenberg, argue that the Ural Mountains formed the most significant barrier. Von Strahlenberg’s proposal was enthusiastically seconded by Russian intellectuals associated with Peter the Great’s Westernization program, particularly Vasilii Nikitich Tatishchev, in large part because of its ideological convenience. In highlighting the Ural divide, Russian Westernizers could at once emphasize the European nature of the historical Russian core while consigning Siberia to the position of an alien Asian realm suitable for colonial rule and exploitation.” (27)

This solution to dividing Asia and Europe was gradually integrated with antiquated ideas of continental division, forming a complex, confusing, and culturally inaccurate border.  Nonetheless this jagged border is widely used in Atlases, maps and references, even today (28).

What is a continent? Do we do a service or disservice to students by teaching them about these units? If continents are about separation, why isn’t Madagascar a continent? If continents are about size, why is Europe a continent, or Asia two continents? If continents are about culture, why is Mexico in North America and not South America? If it’s about politics, how on earth do we deal with Russia, Turkey, Japan, Australia, or Egypt?

We need a more empirical geography, a more critical professional discussion among geography educators, and a more informed discourse on world geography in classrooms. 

Friday, January 6, 2012

12 Thoughts for 2012

Yesterday I sent out my first newsletter from my new homepage. 2011 brought many big changes for me, including a long hiatus from the blog (for the second time...sorry) where I adjusted to 1) being newly married and 2) launching my first business. Below is the newsletter I sent out, and I encourage you to read it, visit my personal homepage, and subscribe to my mailing list. I am planning to resume blogging during this month of January, with some increased focus given my entrepreneurial interests. However I will maintain my continued commentary on the big picture, given this is a presidential election year, and the year some people predict doom (I say doom is always possible, but so is salvation: it all depends on how we all decide to act). 

The Question: What does 2012 mean for… ?
  1. The Planet: This is probably the make or break year for carbon emissions and climate change. New policies, technologies and attitudes can steer us clear of catastrophic consequences, but time is running out.
  2. US Politics: The GOP field is depressing, though I most interested in Ron Paul’s campaign. Some of his stances are posturing and others are simply wrong, but overall he has a coherent and honest philosophy of government that is unwavering. If he could win the nomination it would mean America could finally debate at the presidential level some important issues. 
  3. US Politics: Mitt Romney might be the best candidate on the GOP side from the standpoint of managerial skill, but I don’t trust him. He panders and shows no ethical compass on issues like torture or wealth inequality. 
  4. US Politics: Obama’s recent decisions, NDAA withstanding, show signs he may be learning how to lead. He will get my full support this year if he can finally demonstrate the proper combination of pragmatic, visionary and courageous leadership.
  5.  Social Movement, Protest, & Revolution: 2011 brought us the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. These events emerged from long-standing and growing dissatisfaction with social and economic injustice. In the US, we must contribute to these movements by maintaining pressure on elites to address these injustices, lest we find ourselves with armed rebellion or a police state on our hands. Around the world, we must make sure these movements stay peaceful and constructive, so that opportunities, like the fall of Qaddafi or Mubarak, can be quickly seized for building a more fair and sustainable world.
  6. Economics will be dominated by uncertainty. “Disruptive innovation” is now the goal of every respectable start-up and even many a Fortune 500, so expect to see the unexpected. Resource management, in a world now with more than 7 billion people, will continue to produce shocks due to scarcity and waste due to inadequate accountability systems. We will see plenty of both positive and negative consequences from advancing globalization. 
  7. Social Class, Consumerism & Family Values: Americans, rich, poor, and middle class alike, are on the cusp of a social transformation. While the middle class is disappearing, people everywhere are being forced to realize the shallowness of consumerism and material accumulation. However, the rapid pace of media saturation and the resentment over lost, vulnerable or unreachable social status are the main obstacles to our culture reclaiming the lost values of family and community. If we can highlight the value of family and community, we can strengthen democracy and ease the pain of economic volatility.
  8. Entrepreneurship: I am starting my own business, and learning how much of a career switch I have made. Transitioning from a “job” with paychecks and bureaucracy to the lean, nimble and uncertain path of steering my own ship is exhilarating. This is now my life, and I invite you to join me in seizing your inner-entrepreneur (if you haven’t already). Start something. Design and build a system. Solve a problem. Own your destiny.
  9. Education: The reform movement is confused. Easy fixes continue to crash against the reality that building knowledge and growing good people is extremely hard. Government elites and private philanthropists need to spend more time on the ground, and smart, hard working people with experience in the trenches need to spend more time involved in building system wide changes. I have little hope for promising national transformation in 2012, but some of the foundation for change is laid with the common core. Some ideas are getting refined in public debate, and some disruptive innovations, such as my very own Fate of Civilizations will improve outcomes on a broad level.
  10. Communication & Social Media: Tablets, 4G, “sign in with facebook,” facetime, 4square, Yelp, and a million other new tools continue to reshape how we work, think, and most importantly, interact. The most important “technology” that everyone can adopt, however, is free. Customize your own system for leveraging and controlling your communications systems. Own your inbox, own your time. We probably won’t hear “crackberry” mentioned in 2012 (unless someone is referring to RIM’s new lowest stock price), but people are still cracked out on communication technology. In 2012, make sure you are early adopter of some technologies, but thoughtfully pass on others. Make sure to value real face to face interaction with people and unplugging on a regular basis. And make sure to enjoy exercise and nature. There will always be a new widget or app to try out, so do it, after you have dinner with a loved one, or take a hike through the woods. 
  11. My personal life is going well. I am so thrilled to be starting the year happily married to a wonderful woman, and with plans to spend another year in New York City with so many family, friends and opportunities. I am looking for new ways to teach, learn, and improve myself, my station, and my community. This year, through entrepreneurship, activism, writing, studying, sports, relationships and adventure, I am excited for the possibility for enrichment, enlightenment and success. 
  12. This newsletter is an experiment. As a committed absorber and processor of ideas and information, I feel I have something to offer the world in a newsletter. This is the first email I am sending you, and I hope you enjoy it. I currently plan on writing newsletters quarterly, since this is new to me and I don’t want to overpromise on frequency. However, at times, I may send out other emails, and I hope you will let me know what you think, and share them if you like them.