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.