Can Students Have Too Much Tech?

Dear Commons Community,

Susan Pinker, a developmental psychologist and columnist, is the author, most recently, of  The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter, has an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times, raising questions about the deployment of technology in our schools.  Her basic premise is that research is tending to indicate that technology infusion may lead to a widening of the achievement gap between the rich and poor.  Here is an excerpt:

“More technology in the classroom has long been a policy-making panacea. But mounting evidence shows that showering students, especially those from struggling families, with networked devices will not shrink the class divide in education. If anything, it will widen it.

In the early 2000s, the Duke University economists Jacob Vigdor and Helen Ladd tracked the academic progress of nearly one million disadvantaged middle-school students against the dates they were given networked computers. The researchers assessed the students’ math and reading skills annually for five years, and recorded how they spent their time. The news was not good.

“Students who gain access to a home computer between the 5th and 8th grades tend to witness a persistent decline in reading and math scores,” the economists wrote, adding that license to surf the Internet was also linked to lower grades in younger children.

In fact, the students’ academic scores dropped and remained depressed for as long as the researchers kept tabs on them. What’s worse, the weaker students (boys, African-Americans) were more adversely affected than the rest. When their computers arrived, their reading scores fell off a cliff.

We don’t know why this is, but we can speculate. With no adults to supervise them, many kids used their networked devices not for schoolwork, but to play games, troll social media and download entertainment. (And why not? Given their druthers, most adults would do the same.)”

Pinker concludes by commenting on the important of a teacher who is well-trained in using the technology:

“And, of course, technology can work only when it is deployed as a tool by a terrific, highly trained teacher. As extensive research shows, just one year with a gifted teacher in middle school makes it far less likely that a student will get pregnant in high school, and much more likely that she will go to college, earn a decent salary, live in a good neighborhood and save for retirement. To the extent that such a teacher can benefit from classroom technology, he or she should get it. But only when such teachers are effectively trained to apply a specific application to teaching a particular topic to a particular set of students — only then does classroom technology really work.

Even then, we still have no proof that the newly acquired, tech-centric skills that students learn in the classroom transfer to novel problems that they need to solve in other areas. While we’re waiting to find out, the public money spent on wiring up classrooms should be matched by training and mentorship programs for teachers, so that a free and open Internet, reached through constantly evolving, beautifully packaged and compelling electronic tools, helps — not hampers — the progress of children who need help the most.”

Well-stated piece!


New Report: Carnegie Credit-Hour Unit Here to Stay for the Foreseeable Future!

Dear Commons Community,

The Carnegie credit unit as a standard of college credit has been the subject of debate in recent years especially in light of developments such as competency-based education.  The issue is revisited in a new report as described in the The Chronicle of Higher Education:

“The Carnegie Unit has been around for more than a century, and unless someone can come up with a better way of tracking college credit, it won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. It presents challenges, but it has value because it sets minimum instructional standards.

That’s the conclusion of a report being released today by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The report, “The Carnegie Unit: A Century-Old Standard in a Changing Education Landscape,” examines the role of the Carnegie Unit, more commonly called the credit hour, in an ever-evolving world of education.

The authors of the report looked into the Carnegie Unit and its relationship to various elements of education reform, specifically transparency and flexibility in regard to the design and delivery of education, both in elementary and secondary schools and in postsecondary education…

Critics of the Carnegie Unit have argued that it is a poor indication of how much students have learned, given that it emphasizes how much time people spend in the classroom rather than how much knowledge they have gained.

In its report Carnegie acknowledges the difficulties that the credit hour can present to the allocation of financial aid, the development of curricula with alternative pacing, and innovations that make education more flexible and learning outcomes more transparent…

Perhaps the most compelling argument for the Carnegie Unit is that no one has come up with a better system. “The crux of the issue is measuring time is easy, measuring learning is hard,” said Amy Laitinen, deputy director for higher education at New America, formerly the New America Foundation, and author of Cracking the Credit Hour.

Colleges need to create a culture centered on student learning, but that is not happening systematically, she said.

“Until we have some agreement upon what the unit is—the learning unit is—we don’t have much of a choice other than to rest on this time-based notion,” she said.

It will be a long time before there is agreement on a suitable replacement for the credit-hour. And until there is,  innovations such as competency-based education will remain on the fringes of education more so than the mainstream.



Marian Wright Edelman – Child Poverty is a National Moral Disgrace!

Dear Commons Community,

It is a national moral disgrace that there are 14.7 million poor children and 6.5 million extremely poor children in the United States of America – the world’s largest economy. “It is also unnecessary, costly and the greatest threat to our future national, economic and military security” comments Marian Wright Edelman in a report, Ending Child Poverty Now, published by the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF). Edelman further states:

“The 14.7 million poor children in our nation exceeds the populations of 12 U.S. states combined: Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming and is greater than the combined populations of the countries of Sweden and Costa Rica. Our nearly 6.5 million extremely poor children (living below the poverty line) exceeds the combined populations of Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming and is greater than the populations of Denmark or Finland.

The younger children are the poorer they are during their years of greatest brain development. Every other American baby is non-White and 1 in 2 Black babies is poor, 150 years after slavery was legally abolished.

America’s poor children did not ask to be born; did not choose their parents, country, state, neighborhood, race, color, or faith. In fact if they had been born in 33 other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries they would be less likely to be poor. Among these 35 countries, America ranks 34th in relative child poverty — ahead only of Romania whose economy is 99 percent smaller than ours….”

The report shows how relatively modest changes in policies we know work can be combined to significantly reduce child poverty, and implemented right now if our political leaders put common good, common sense and economic sense for children first to improve the lives and futures of millions of children, and save taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars each year.

CDF’s report estimates a cost of $77.2 billion a year for the combined proposed policy improvements and suggests multiple tradeoffs our country can make to pay for this huge, long overdue and urgently needed reduction in child poverty without raising the federal deficit.



USDOE Bid to Hold Teacher Education Programs Accountable Encounters Resistance Based on Racial Issues!

Dear Commons Community,

A draft of a new rule introduced by the U.S. Education Department in late November is being questioned as to whether holding teacher education programs responsible for student learning helps, or hinders, efforts to close racial gaps in student achievement. The most controversial piece of the draft rule is a plan to tie eligibility for federal Teach Grants to “value added” measures of student learning and labor-market outcomes, with underperforming teacher education programs becoming ineligible to award the grants. As reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

“The Obama administration, which argues that tying federal funds to measures of student growth compels educators and institutions to improve; on the other side are the educators themselves, who say testing hurts the low-income and minority students it’s meant to help.

The battle over the elementary and secondary bill is just getting started in the U.S. Senate. But the fight over the administration’s plan to raise the bar on teacher preparation is coming to a close, with comments on the proposed rule due to the Education Department by next Monday.

With the deadline looming, the American Federation of Teachers held a panel discussion here on Tuesday to discuss how the proposed rule would affect minority-serving colleges and the high-need schools they often serve.

The administration argues that the shift would benefit low-income and minority students by improving the quality of their teachers. Currently, many of the least-qualified teachers work in the highest-need, most challenging rural and urban schools…

…critics, including teacher unions and colleges, say the proposed rule would create disincentives for programs to send teachers to high-need districts, where test scores tend to be lower and teacher turnover higher. They are urging the administration to scrap the rule, or at least limit it to a pilot program.

“This is a distraction from an important social-justice agenda,” Sharon P. Robinson, president of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, said at the discussion on Tuesday.

Currently, only 12 percent of the nation’s teachers are members of minority groups. Nearly three-quarters of inner-city teachers are white. Advocates worry that withholding Teach Grants from institutions that serve large numbers of minority students would result in the training of fewer teachers of color, deepening the racial mismatch between the nation’s teachers and the growing minority-student population.

“Who stands in front of you should reflect who you see at home, and who you see in your neighborhood,” said Derryn E. Moten, a professor of history and political science at Alabama State University, and another panelist.

Colleges complain that the proposed rule amounts to a vast unfunded mandate on states and institutions, which would have to pay millions of dollars to develop new measures of student learning and systems for tracking graduates into the work force.

“These institutions are already under-resourced,” said Arthur Hernandez, dean of the College of Education at Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi. The rule, he said, would only draw away dollars from teaching and learning…

…The proposed rule is the federal government’s attempt to force states to raise their standards. While states could choose their own metrics and set their own performance thresholds for rating programs, they would be required to consider how many of their graduates got and kept jobs, and how much their graduates’ future students learned. Only programs deemed effective or exceptional by their states would be eligible to award Teach Grants, which provide students with up to $4,000 in aid each year.

But existing value-added measures of student learning are unproven, and critics argue that they were never designed to evaluate teachers, much less the programs that prepare them. They cite a recent statement by the American Statistical Association that concluded that “the majority of the variation in test scores is attributable to factors outside of the teacher’s control, such as student and family background, poverty, curriculum, and unmeasured influences.”

“The achievement gap is really the tip of this much bigger iceberg of systemic problems in education,” said Kevin K. Kumashiro, dean of education at the University of San Francisco, in an interview. “We need to be talking about the larger problems and not just trying to blame teachers.”

Talking about larger, more difficult societal issues has not been the forte of Arne Duncan and U.S. Department of Education. Their approach has been the simplistic Neoliberal policies of testing and accountability that have largely failed public education throughout the country.



President Obama to Let Congress Take the Lead in Rewriting NCLB?

Dear Commons Community,

Those of us who listened to President Obama’s State of the Union address last week heard a good deal about his intentions to retool education’s bookends by making community college free, expanding child care and increasing cybersecurity for students but very little about mainstream K-12 education including rewriting No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  On the other hand, for the new Congress and for Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, the rewriting of NCLB seems especially high on their agenda. As mentioned in The Huffington Post:

“Obama mentioned few specifics about K-12 education, one of his administration’s top priorities during his first term. Notably, the president mentioned not one word directly about one of his education secretary’s priorities for 2015: rewriting the much-maligned No Child Left Behind Act, the Bush-era school accountability law. Obama also failed to mention the words teacher and testing.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave a speech calling for overhauling No Child Left Behind. The speech marked a major policy shift for the administration, which had all but given up on a legislative fix.

No Child Left Behind, signed into law in 2002 by President George W. Bush, required that states regularly use standardized tests to measure the progress of public school students in reading and math, and to use those test results to reward or punish schools. The law included the aspirational goal of 100 percent proficiency by 2014.

Even the law’s original backers have acknowledged its flaws. Its use of raw test scores unfairly punished poorer schools, and provided perverse incentives for schools seeking high marks to exclude students with disabilities and to lower academic standards. During his first presidential campaign, Obama promised to rewrite the law. Once he took office, he gave Congress a deadline of 2011 for rewriting the law. Despite fits and starts and the passage of a Republican version in the House, it didn’t happen. Much to the chagrin of Congress, Obama and Duncan offered states waivers, giving them an escape from the law’s increasing strictures in exchange for agreeing to implement Obama-preferred education reforms, such as test-based teacher evaluation. Duncan last week told a crowd gathered at a Washington public school that the administration is seriously revisiting the idea of returning to a legislative fix, instead of waivers that could very well fade away the moment Obama leaves office.

“No Child Left Behind created dozens of ways for schools to fail and very few ways to help them succeed or to reward success,” Duncan said. “We need to do exactly the opposite.”

Unfortunately,  a lot of what Duncan did initially as Secretary of Education and his Race to the Top policies reinforced NCLB’s testing and assessment requirements.  It was only after parents and educators clamored about NCLB’s flaws that he started modifying his position.

It also is interesting to note that  Lamar Alexander and the U.S. Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee appear to be making the rewriting of NCLB a major initiative for the coming year. It remains to be seen how far President Obama is willing to let Alexander and the Congress take the initiative on this.


Kudos to the CUNY School of Professional Studies!

Dear Commons Community,

Congratulations are in order for the CUNY School of Professional Studies (SPS) for its impressive ranking for online programs by the U.S. News and World Report. Of the 214 institutions listed, CUNY SPS ranked 27th overall which puts it in the top 15% nationally, and 3rd in New York State. To view the report online, click here.

This is a fine recognition for the work and dedication of John Mogulescu, Brian Peterson, George Otte, and all the faculty and staff at SPS.





Blizzard 2015 in Pictures!

Blizzard 2015 Map

Blizzard 2015 Umbrella

Blizzard 2015 Park

Blizzard 2015 Dog

Blizzard 2015 Bike

Blizzard 2015 Penn Station

American Middle Class Shrinking for All the Wrong Reasons!

Middle Class 2015

Dear Commons Community,

The American middle class,  defined as households making between $35,000 and $100,000 a year, shrank in the final decades of the 20th century because more Americans moved up into what might be considered the upper middle class or the affluent. Since 2000, however, the middle class has been shrinking for the more alarming reason: Incomes have fallen.  As reported in the New York Times:

“The middle class that President Obama identified in his State of the Union speech last week as the foundation of the American economy has been shrinking for almost half a century.

In the late 1960s, more than half of the households in the United States were squarely in the middle, earning, in today’s dollars, $35,000 to $100,000 a year. Few people noticed or cared as the size of that group began to fall, because the shift was primarily caused by more Americans climbing the economic ladder into upper-income brackets.

But since 2000, the middle-class share of households has continued to narrow, the main reason being that more people have fallen to the bottom. At the same time, fewer of those in this group fit the traditional image of a married couple with children at home, a gap increasingly filled by the elderly.

This social upheaval helps explain why the president focused on reviving the middle class, offering a raft of proposals squarely aimed at concerns like paying for a college education, taking parental leave, affording child care and buying a home.

“Middle-class economics means helping working families feel more secure in a world of constant change,” Mr. Obama told Congress and the public on Tuesday.

Still, regardless of their income, most Americans identify as middle class. The term itself is so amorphous that politicians often cite the group in introducing proposals to engender wide appeal.

The definition here starts at $35,000 — which is about 50 percent higher than the official poverty level for a family of four — and ends at the six-figure mark. Although many Americans in households making more than $100,000 consider themselves middle class, particularly those living in expensive regions like the Northeast and Pacific Coast, they have substantially more money than most people.

However the lines are drawn, it is clear that millions are struggling to hang on to accouterments that most experts consider essential to a middle-class life.”

This is an alarming trend and there is little on the horizon that will reverse it.  Even though the economy has improved and unemployment is down  since the Great Recession in 2008, there are too many people who are underemployed, housing prices are stagnant,  and there is still a good deal of debt. Not a good situation for our country unless of course one happens to be in the upper class.



U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s Arrest of NYS Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s Just the Beginning Calling Albany a “Cauldron of Corruption”!

Dear Commons Community,

Last week the New York State capitol was rocked with the arrest of long-serving Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on bribes and kickback charges.  U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara led the investigation and said on Thursday that more charges and arrests were looming for NY state political leaders.  According to the New York Daily News:

“U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s warning to “stay tuned” for more corruption arrests after he bagged Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has sent a big chill through the state Capitol.

“I think everyone is waiting for the next shoe to drop,” said one legislative official.

Added former Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, a Westchester Democrat: “When a prosecutor says stay tuned, I think he means it.”

The big fish reportedly being looked at is Gov. Cuomo.

Bharara has been probing whether the governor and his top aides improperly interfered with the Moreland anti-corruption commission Cuomo established…

He is also probing the circumstances behind Cuomo’s decision to abruptly end the commission after the Legislature agreed to some ethics reforms.”

If Bharara makes good on his comments, it will verify in many people’s minds that the New York State political leadership at best, turned its head to corruption, or at worst, were part of it.



Bills Introduced in Congress to Limit Standardized Testing!

Dear Commons Community,

In the same week that the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions held its first hearing on the issue of rewriting No Child Left Behind (NCLB), two separate groups of lawmakers introduced bills that would substantially change NCLB standardized testing requirements.   As reported in The Huffington Post:

“…as legislators continue to hammer out what a rewrite of NCLB might look like, two groups of politicians introduced bills that would change the role that law previously established for school standardized testing.

The first bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) and Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and introduced Tuesday, would empower states to reduce the amount of low-quality and redundant testing given to students. While it would not affect the number of federally mandated tests given in schools, it would allow states to use federal funds to audit their assessment systems.

“This commonsense legislation gives us the tools and resources to work with states and districts to reduce unnecessary assessments, especially by targeting redundant and low-quality tests,” Baldwin said in a statement Tuesday about the bill, known as the Support Making Assessments Reliable and Timely (SMART) Act. “As Congress begins what I hope is a truly bipartisan process to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, I’m proud to lead this effort to address one of the shortcomings of No Child Left Behind.”

The second bill, reintroduced by Rep. Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.) and Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) on Wednesday, takes a more extreme approach on the issue of standardized testing. The Student Testing Improvement and Accountability Act would allow states and schools to scale back federal testing so that a student would only be tested once every few years — once during grades three through five, once during grades six through nine, and so on. The bill was first introduced in 2014.

In a call with reporters Wednesday, Sinema explained that during her time as a school social worker, she noticed that increases in standardized testing also boosted the amount of “teaching to the test,” lessening the quality of instruction.

“My experience as social worker in Arizona schools for nearly a decade taught me the importance of empowering teachers and parents,” said Sinema in a press release. “Teachers should focus on the content they want their students to master — not simply material for an upcoming standardized test.”

The bills come amid much recent public skepticism about standardized testing from teachers and politicians alike. An NCLB rewrite draft recently circulated from Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the HELP committee, includes an option that would give districts more freedom over the tests they use.”

The introduction of these bills is symbolically important because they indicate that there are both Republican and Democratic Congressmen who want to change education policy regarding standardized testing.   It remains to be seen whether the Congress and President Obama can agree on education or any  other new legislation.