Magical thinking watch: “Education innovations”

The Obama Administration has created a $650 million Investing in Innovation Fund (i3)— its snappy nickname undoubtedly intended to invoke the excitement of a Silicon Valley start-up.   “We’re making an unprecedented investment in cutting-edge ideas that will produce the next generation of school reforms,” Secretary Duncan said on announcing the i3 effort. 

The idea that some sort of radically new education innovation will close the minority achievement gap and raise the entire country’s science and math capacities is the most enduring delusion in modern education circles.  The field is dedicated to thinking up an endless series of diversions,  ideally involving information technology,  that distract attention from reinstating the only practices that have ever worked: a teacher teaching actual content, classroom discipline, self-discipline, memorization, drilling, study.   Such traditional (and cheap!) ideas are attacked from the left by the proponents of progressive pedagogy and ignored by clueless corporate types who are oblivious to the essential behavioral underpinnings of learning. 

Thus, former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan’s education foundation pushes the gimmick of “smart boards” as an achievement gap panacea; New York City school chancellor Joel Klein rails about the lack of sexy technological change in the classroom:

In any field but ours, if you fell asleep 50 years ago and woke up today, you wouldn’t recognize what’s going on. In education, if you fell asleep 50 years ago, you still have the same discussions. The use of technology to transform the work, to bring in distance learning, to enable kids to do things online, all of this is stuff we’re doing here in the city.

To little effect, one might add. 

Along the lines of “smart boards,” every state’s education bureaucracy is obsessed with “graphic organizers”—charts and diagrams in which students are supposed to visually represent the content of their reading and their own thinking.  Textbooks exhort students to “make connections,” “visualize,” and “predict.”  It is unlikely that the least-gifted students, to whom such meta-cognitive instructions are directed, will be inclined towards self-referential thought, however.  The only way for lagging students to overcome the vocabulary deficits and poor writing skills that plague them is to read, read, and then read some more—and then be held accountable for what they have read.

The conservative obsession with school choice, treating education as a consumer market, suffers from similar blind spots.  For the last fifteen years, conservatives have put all their energies into advocating for vouchers, while ignoring the far more important imperative of restoring teacher-centered learning and a content-rich curriculum. 

The country could make as much progress in closing the achievement gap as it ever will simply by restoring traditional classroom methods.  The KIPP schools are the best example of that insight.  I doubt, though, that the federal government is about to spend $650 million  only to reach the conclusion that actually doing your homework, not putting your head on your desk during class, and reading books that contain knowledge are the most successful education “innovations” that we can come up with.  The education-industrial complex would collapse should that simple truth take hold. 

Meanwhile, outside of i3 precincts, good ol’ fashion’ pork-barrel spending gets a stimulus.

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9 Responses to Magical thinking watch: “Education innovations”

  1. Zimriel says:

    No Child Left Behind was curriculum-based. It imposed standardised testing. That assumes that the testees have wrestled with a set of Stuff To Learn by a given time. I call that set a curriculum.

    The Right has also issued several challenges to the content of school curricula since 1994. Mostly these have concerned Darwinism.

    This is not to say that Conservatives have done WELL in their attempts…

  2. “First learn the basics, then get creative.”-Muhammad Ali

    We have a whole lot of people (teachers and students) who think they can skip the basics to get what they want.

    You can’t build a house without a foundation, even if you spend $650 million on a beautiful exterior.

  3. CathyLAnderosn says:

    Yes of course it works! Having small classes where students get individualized attention is bound to be most effective. However is that possible for all students in the world ..I don’t think so. Looking back is fine…looking forward is essential. I went to a one room school house, I had some good teachers..and some who were not, regardless of how content and instruction is delivered it depends on the teacher, how is a student motivated, inspired, are all important. It really doesn’t matter how content is delivered..whether that is electronically, through a book, and the sage on the stage delivering it…how engaged that student is with their learning is essential.
    As Tony Hollowell stated…learn the basics (Ali?) but then allow students to explore the world and see how those basics can be applied. But we also need to figure out why and when students lose interest in learning, why they get “demotivated” and why they lose their creativity.

  4. rasputin says:

    Very well written… god those “meta-cognitive instructions” annoy the hell out of me. Has anyone’s learning experience ever been enhanced by them? It’s funny, I taught SAT classes for Kaplan, and that bs pervaded even private instruction, where results actually matter. To no effect, of course. The only students who raised their scores were those motivated enough to memorize all kinds of stuff, vocab words, 30-60-90 triangles, etc., until they were second nature. They also did a ton of problems – the only way to build confidence, e.g. to attack problems using ‘pattern-matching’ skills etc. Meta-cognitive instructions are ass-backwards. Even textbooks that start with long explanations of “what will be learned by the end of the chapter” do nothing for me: one should go from concrete to abstract, not vice-versa. That stuff should be left for the summary at the end of the chapter.

  5. mike says:

    I worked for an educational “non-profit” where it was understood that the organization was a “grant whore”, whose only purpose was to give the government what they wanted (photo-ops with minorities sitting at computers) in exchange for lavish corporate and government sponsorship. Nobody there even pretended to care if anyone actually learned anything. I joined up as a wide-eyed naif, and now whenever I see one of these programs I get physically sick thinking about how some amoral shill will get rich basically by providing propaganda in whatever vein the government wants to see. $650 million is a drop in the bucket for taxpayers, but it’s a gold mine for anyone who’s willing to sell their soul.

  6. Le Mur says:

    “The KIPP schools are the best example of that insight.”

    Check and see if you can identify KIPP schools by their performance. KIPP test scores, etc, do not appear to be significantly different than other nearby schools or other schools in the same state; some KIPP schools are slightly better and some are worse in comparisons.

    Measuring educational performance should be done at the adult level because it literally doesn’t matter what 10 year-olds happen to have learned in some particular year. I submit that “they” don’t study the effects of education on adults because it would reveal the fact that school environment and/or curriculum have no measurable effect once people are out of K-12 schools for a year or two.

  7. The formula for student success goes beyond the core areas of Math, Science, Language Arts and History. The philosophical aspect of how to live should be a major component in the dynamics of education. Children should be taught the basic elements of life and how our knowledge base is derived from natures Laws of the Opposites.It is pure mathematics in its basic form of positive and negative. The symbols of all known religious belief systems and the scale of justice are designed from this principle. If the time is taken to critically examine this natural concept, one can see how the confusion in which we have been living can be corrected.
    There is no mystery to a solution, just a will and desire to turn a negative into a positive and living it out.

  8. gene berman says:

    The very finest, most positive thing that could be done for education (and the future of education) in this country would be an amendment to the constitution barring the federal government from any role whatsoever in the instruction of the young, whether in terms of the content of
    subject-oriented curricula or in studies intended to socialize their beliefs and behavior.

    About 50 years ago, a very wise man explained that, in polyglot nations,the various ethnic groups would contend fiercely to dominate education, which would permit those successful to propagandize children of their rivals. Modern experience indicates the reverse is also true: dominance of education can serve, for some, the purpose of rendering a relatively homogeneous population with broad similarity of interests into a “virtual” polyglot of squabbling, feuding parties each intent on the despoliation and humiliation of others, especially those seen as having been, in comparison, “advantaged” in times past.

  9. John says:

    I think that the benefits of school choice/vouchers is underestimated. (And I mean vouchers for everybody, not just a few selected poor kids.) The inevitable result would be that smarter and better behaved students would end up at the better schools, and duller and worse behaved students would end up at the worse schools. Of course, this is exactly why the left is against vouchers, but I think it would be a net plus.

    I define a fair system as one in which each child can best reach his/her own potential. Unfortunately, not every child has the same potential. In order for some kids to reach their potential, some children will be left behind. There is no way around it.

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