Friday, October 31, 2008

Instant Decision Making and Optimized Learning

Last weekend I had the privilege of conducting a session at the Missouri School Boards Association annual conference. The session topic was the application of proven business practices and technology tools that can help education organizations achieve success.

A key-note speaker at the conference was, Mark David Milliron. I found it interesting that both of us pointed to the "Good to Great" findings of Jim Collins and his research team in our presentations, and both of us addressed the gap between innovation in schools and innovation in other areas of our would. However, Milliron really made clear how wide is that gap with two illustrations...

One illustration was the speed at which an reacts, with every click, to continually and instantly personalize the experience for every customer. e.g. When you buy or even view a book it instantly knows what "you may also be interested in..." and responds accordingly. ...Now imagine if we could support learning in that way, continually and instantly adapting to an individual learning styles, interests, and background knowledge informed by new data at every step in the learning process. That would be a big gap between an annual snapshot of data from a high stakes test that has too-little-too-late influence on delivery of instruction, and even then for groups of students, not individuals.

The other example was how quickly your credit card company can respond if your card gets into the wrong hands. Artificial intelligence programs continuously monitor patterns of use and will generate an alert leading to a from a call center half way around the world to check with you if your card has been stolen. Why can't we use this kind of innovation to trigger interventions for at-risk students? For example, if a certain number of absentees indicated that a student is at risk to drop out, why shouldn't continuously monitor absences and trigger an immediate intervention rather than looking at the data after the student has dropped out of school?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Disrupting Class

The book Disrupting Class (Christensen, Claton; Horn, Micheal; Johnson, Curtis –McGraw-Hill, 2008) reflects aspects of the comprehensive “student-centric” solution that we address in Approaching 100% by 2014. It presents a compelling case about how and when disruptive innovation might cause our education system to reach a student-centric tipping point.
“At some point, administrators, school committees, and teachers unions will recognize that even without explicit administrative decisions ever having been made, student-centric learning will have become mainstream. The substitution curve analysis in Chapter 4 suggests that this will happen in approximately 2014 when online courses have a 25 percent market share in high schools”
(Christensen, p143)

The projections by Christensen and his colleagues may be plausible. However, there are factors not included in the Disrupting Class analysis that may accelerate or decelerate such a transition. What we can say with some degree of certainty is that the shift to a student-centric model is inevitable, and will be required to approach the goal of 100% of learners achieving a minimum level of competency on core standards.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The "Stupid" Economy in 2008

I hope to release a new book soon. The working title is The "Stupid" Economy. The first chapter (see below) draws from the current events related to the "credit crisis" and proposed economic bailout and suggests a choice "Counterfeit Affluence in the Short-Term or Sustainable Competitiveness"

No, the economy is not “stupid”. And neither are the systems of education in the United States. On the contrary, the United States is envied for both its world-leading economy and its public and private education systems and institutions. The title, The ‘Stupid’ Economy, is meant to invoke a range of perceptions and emotions about our economy and our systems of education leading into a discussion about critical interdependencies.

The recent crisis in the financial markets, skyrocketing prices, and plummeting investment values highlight a troubled economy in which ‘foolish’ mistakes made by a few have caused many to suffer. (Foolish, greedy, selfish, or even misinformed are more appropriate words than ‘stupid’ in this context, as many of the mistake-makers have been very intelligent.) While our free market model is the best that there is, better than the alternatives, it is not immune to the human natures of fear and greed. Our economy needs corrections.

At the same time, it is widely recognized that our systems of education are failing to meet the needs of many students. Recent reports such as “Tough Choices or Tough Times” have raised alarm that the U.S. workforce is not adequately educated to compete in the emerging global economy.

The ‘Stupid’ Economy, a play on words from the pop culture phrase “It’s the economy, stupid”, looks at the interrelationships between our nation’s economy and education systems. It makes some high level observations about factors in the economies of the free enterprise system and public education system, and makes the case for a new model for U.S. public education and the way educational services are delivered.

"It's the economy, stupid" was a phrase in American politics widely used during Bill Clinton's successful 1992 presidential campaign against George H.W. Bush. For a time, Bush was considered unbeatable because of foreign policy developments such as the end of the Cold War and the Persian Gulf War. The phrase, coined by Clinton campaign strategist James Carville, refers to the notion that Clinton was a better choice because Bush had not adequately addressed the economy, which had recently undergone a recession. - Wikipedia

Counterfeit Affluence™ in the Short-Term or Sustainable Competitiveness

The current economic condition has been categorized as a “credit crisis”. That is a short-term view. It is more accurate to describe it as a DEBT crisis. Far too many people and institutions have borrowed more money than they can repay. Debt spending is a national addiction.

Individuals, corporations, and governments – from the 19 year college student, to the 65 year old corporate executive, to the federal government are all suffer from the borrow and spend addiction. In August 2008 U.S. News reported that “The average American with a credit file is responsible for $16,635 in debt, excluding mortgages, according to Experian, and the personal savings rate has hovered close to zero for the past several years.”[1] At the end of the same month the national debt clocked in at $9,645,725,555,640.02. One month later the debt had grown by another two hundred billion dollars.

Lawmakers and economists have raised the alarm that the lack of easy access to credit will cripple the economy, but fail to acknowledge that easy credit is a root cause of the problem. A government ‘bailout’ is a flawed attempt at a quick fix, a short-sighted and short-term solution. It does not solve the root cause, it only transfers the problem. Individual and corporate debt is transferred to the national debt. Rather than suffer discomfort today we are willing to steal from future generations.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines sealing as “to take the property of another wrongfully and especially as a habitual or regular practice”. This seems like an accurate description of what is happening with the national debt. To satisfying our greed for a higher standard of living today, and to avoid short-term discomfort, we are building up a dept that future generations will have to pay.

There have been times in our nation’s history when the attitude was different, when Americans where willing to sacrifice in the short term in order to preserve freedom and opportunity for future generations. World War II was one such time. Between 1942 and 1945 those who were not risking their lives oversees were sacrificing comforts at home, women worked in factories and shipyards as “Rosie the riveter”, families collected and donated materials used for the war effort, and everyone accepted a lowered standard of living through rationing of energy and food. This generation that was willing to sacrifice present comfort for future opportunity was the same generation that had suffered through the great depression. This generation had a dream, the American Dream, that they might have a higher standard of living than the previous. Now, what was once an “American Dream” has become the “American Sense of Entitlement”. Many interpret the Declaration of Independence’s reference to an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness as a right to happiness.

Easy access to credit in the U.S. economy has, in fact, allowed a majority to live in a society of comfort, convenience, and instant gratification. We can have what we want when we want it whether or not we can afford it. This is “counterfeit affluence”. If a family wants the latest large screen plasma TV, they don’t need to save money until they have enough to buy it. They can buy it now, on credit, and pay later...maybe.

The same goes for businesses. Easy access to unearned money (credit or equity-based funding) gives business owners and executives the opportunity to grow their business, hiring new staff, buying equipment, buying raw materials, buying supplies, to opening new locations and introducing new products. This is a very good thing in moderation. When businesses grow it reduces unemployment, allows local, state, and federal governments to collect more in taxes to fund programs that help people. This all is good. Unfettered business growth benefits the economy as a whole, at least in the short term. However, there is a down-side to credit funded business growth.

While easy credit opens up opportunities for success, it also opens up opportunities for failure. Business executives take greater risks to keep up with competitive markets and may use easily borrowed money to fund extremely foolish ventures. Financial institutions that offer “sub prime” lending therefore are both a cause and a symptom of the easy money problem. Human nature drives business leaders to make foolish decisions. Greed and self-interest drive many to take irrational risks with other people’s money.

In the 1980’s investors foolishly lent money to risky businesses via “junk bonds”. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s 747 savings and loan associations collapsed, primarily because of imprudent and excessive lending.[2] Here we go again. The current economic circumstances should not be a surprise. Since the 1970s Americans have become less willing to endure delayed gratification, “Christmas club” accounts have been replaced with multiple credit cards and home equity lines. Economists have predicted the “credit crisis” since the early 1990’s. But we tend to have short-term view of the economic situation. In an age of 24 hour news networks and text message alerts, a “current tick” mentality that can cause overreactions. In an age of easy access to credit we expect an ever increasing standard of living, even as our economy goes through inevitable ‘hard times’.

It is uncomfortable to adjust to a lower standard of living. We want the government to provide a quick fix bailout so we can go back to spending more than we have, back to living the good life, on credit. Unfortunately, any bailout is a short-term fix that feeds a long-term problem. When the government goes deeper into debt, or risks debt funded capital to solve a short term problem, it only exacerbates the deeper long-term problem by growing the national debt.

Whether or not the U.S. Government bails out financial institutions in the short term, the American people have a responsibility to give back some of what is being taken from future generations. Politicians should be looking not only at how to reduce the pain today, but also at how to reduce what could be even greater pain tomorrow.

There are a number of looming factors that suggest that the U.S. economy, and our standard of living, is bound for an inevitable period of decline. These factors include demographics, including the realities of an aging baby-boom generation; growing national and personal debt; and risks related to U.S. competitiveness in the global economy of the future.

The National Center on Education and the Economy 2007 report, Tough Choices or Tough Times made clear the threat of a declining American standard of living due weaknesses in our education systems.

“In this environment, it makes sense to ask how American workers can possibly maintain, to say nothing of improve, their current standard of living. Today, Indian engineers make $7,500 a year against $45,000 for an American engineer with the same qualifications. If we succeed in matching the very high levels of mastery of mathematics and science of these Indian engineers — an enormous challenge for this country — why would the world’s employers pay us more than they have to pay the Indians to do their work?”[3]

U.S. global competitiveness today and in the future is to a great extent dependent on the effectiveness of our education systems, and the skills of the American workforce to adapt to a changing global economy. Our current educational systems are structured to a meet century-old economy, to educate groups of students with industrial age skills, not to prepare individuals for the economic realities of the 21st century.

United States was once a world leader in educating its citizens. Today the U.S. is ranked low compared to other countries on tests such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). And the U.S. has a declining percentage of the world’s college graduates. But even if we were more competitive based on these measures, it would not guarantee a competitive workforce. The world-leading economies have undergone fundamental shifts from manufacturing to service industries to idea-driven industries.

“There may be a limit to the number of good factory jobs in the world, but there is no limit to the number of idea-generated jobs in the world.”
- Thomas Friedman

America faces a long term problem that cannot be fixed with a quick infusion of money. American primary and secondary public education in particular is facing pressures on multiple fronts. On one hand there are increasing expectations for accountability and the preparation of students for a global workforce, so that our nation can stay competitive in the global economy. These pressures call for new models for education that tailor teaching and learning to unique talents and needs of each student, so that no child is “left behind” and everyone has the opportunity to maximized learning that will lead to his or her unique contribution to the 21st century economy. On the other hand the demographics indicate teacher shortages on the horizon.
Two groups will collide: the wave of retiring baby-boom teachers will crash into the wave of teachers who exit the profession after five years or less, leaving a lot of empty desks at the front of the class. This is a problem common to every state, explained [Tom] Carroll, president of NCTAF. But the shortage is also an opportunity to attract new teachers by revolutionizing the teaching profession.
"Good teaching is a team sport," Carroll said, arguing that teaching has to shift from the past to the future--from the Flash Gordon model of a lone hero to a "Star Trek" model where teams get the job done. Add better training, higher salaries, more professional development, and enhanced support, and the result could be an exciting career that attracts new teachers and retains those with experience.
-The Boston Globe Editorial, The Teacher Gap: Prepare Now, March 30, 2007

The speed and course of the transition to a student-centric education system should be of great concern to every American. The greatest opportunity for America to “give forward” to the generations that will be burdened with the national debt may be to fundamentally change in the way we as a nation deliver educational services to children and adults.

A long-term view is needed. It may require a willingness to sacrifice a short term “counterfeit affluence” for the longer-term economic strength needed to sustain a nation of the people, by the people, for the people.

[3] Tough Choices or Tough Times: The Report of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce; National Center on Education and the Economy
ISBN: 978-0-7879-9598-0

Note: "Counterfeit Affluence" is a trademark of Sound Image, Inc.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Andrew Calkins, senior vice president at Mass Insight Education & Research Institute Inc. made the following statement today in an Education Week online chat:
“To me, a critical strategy of the whole standards movement is confronting all of us -- but especially policymakers -- with hard data that puts the hard questions right in front of us. We now know exactly how far behind students like these are slipping. We also know more today than we ever have before about what could help those students. Now the question is: will we have the public and political will to put these supports and strategies in place?”

(Education Week Online Chat 1-22-08
Archived here:
Turnaround Challenge: How to Help Low-Performing Schools

The conclusion of our analysis in Approaching 100% is that the goal of leaving no child behind – is technically achievable. We have the needed data-driven technology and scientifically proven practices. The remaining question is whether or not we can leverage these advances in the science and technology of learning in a way that focuses on the value of each learner. Can we as a nation radically change a culture, profession, and organizational system rooted in the ‘art of teaching’ to a new system centered on the science of learning?

From the book:
Systemic change takes place when a critical mass of people within an organization, collectively or individually choose to behave differently. A change can sometimes be forced through mandate and sometimes be enticed. Whether push or pull, the motivation to change is only as effective as the consequences that result in choosing to adopt or reject a change. For example, cell phones offered variety of benefits – including improved productivity, status, and safety -- that motivated individuals and businesses to adopt the technology on such a large scale. At some point the benefits of adoption were seen as greater than the incremental cost. The consequence of not getting a cell phone -- lost productivity, lower status, or greater personal risk – was strong enough to justify the change of behavior. We can find a mandated change in the banking industry. When banks started using computers to record transactions it was not an option for a bank teller to say, “I don’t feel comfortable with computers. Paper and pencil has always worked for me and I’m going to stick with it.” No, it became a job requirement for bank tellers to use computers. A mandate that has no consequences for the individual will not motivate an individual to change.

Organizations must have both the motivation and the capacity to change. (Elmore, 2004/2006) In the bank teller example, the capacity that was needed was that every teller has the skill to use the technology and understand the related changes in operational practices. The banking industry recognized that use of the technology was an essential factor in meeting its business objectives and therefore the essential job skills for a bank teller changed.

Unlike the banking industry, education has yet to introduce technology into the core, day-to-day, business. The ‘transactions’ of learning are the daily instruction, student work (e.g. class work and homework), and classroom assessments. There are still teachers that say “I don’t feel comfortable with computers.”

The culture of education agencies and classroom practices are so entrenched that it will take both external mandate and individual-internal motivators to bring about systemic change. It may take education professionals to see the value of the changes to the professional at nearly the same time leadership and policy makers agree that new technology-enabled learner-centric processes are essential. The consequence of not adopting the new system -- lost productivity, lower quality of life for individual learners, a ceiling for teacher salaries, lower status of teachers, national economic risks – must be strong enough for a critical mass of stakeholders to overcome their resistance to change.

We are suggesting a model that takes advantage of multiple change agents. Some are already in place.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

The "Every Child" Paridigm Shift

The goals of the No Child Left Behind Act are not fulfilled by the accountability mandates that focus on subgroups. The Act has focused attention on underachieving subgroups and held schools and districts accountable to meet the needs of those subgroups. It has not (yet) cause a transformation of public education agencies into organizations that meet the learning needs of every child. The Act was just one step in that direction.

In 2001 there were major barriers rooted in institutional cultures and technological feasibility that prevented monitoring and supporting learning at the individual level. The legislation was developed under these conditions. States took on a new federally mandated accountability role that focused on subgroup performance on once-a-year high stakes tests. States did not have student unique identifiers or the data systems needed to monitor individual student growth.

Progress has been made. Many states have unique student identifiers, and some states are developing models and supporting information systems to measure individual student growth. Some major institutional culture barriers still exist. Based on the original mandate, even the new growth models are designed to measure subgroup accountability based on one-a-year snapshots. However, the technology can and is being made available to LEAs to support assessment for learning.

The institutional culture barriers may prove the most challenging as educator belief and practice need to reflect the notion that every child can learn and has the right to learn.

The following is from the book:

To approach 100% of students achieving minimum proficiency will require instructional practice consistent with what the research says are the best-practices. It will also require an unprecedented ability to address individual student needs. This is especially true as we get closer to the goal, as we attempt to bring students representing the last few percentage points to minimum proficiency. Moving from 50% to 70% could be done by changing the way teaching and learning happens in groups. The new goal, 90% and above (Fullan 2006), will require a focus on the individual learner.

There are many barriers that currently limit our education system from operationalizing the proven practices and organizational changes revealed by the research. And there are even greater barriers to the changes that would be needed to adequately adapt organizational structures to optimally meet the needs of all learners on an individual level.

We can not assume that a classroom teacher can single handedly meet the individual learning needs of every child that might be assigned to her. It is a relatively new expectation that all children will learn.

“Although the United States was the first nation to embrace the idea of free universal public education for all of its children, historically those children have been guaranteed only the right to attend school rather than the right to learn.”
(DuFour, Richard, DuFour, Rebecca; Eaker, Robert; Karhanek, Gayle; Whatever It Takes – How Professional Learning Communities Respond When Kids Don’t Learn; 2004;

It is recognized that the teaching and learning process requires adjustment to accommodate special needs students. However, to address the expectation that all children will learn will require a new paradigm that considers every learner’s ‘special’ needs, and it will require new methods to address the individual needs of every learner. Ultimate success may also require an expanded definition of “learner” to include school staff and other adult stakeholders in a child’s education. The information-driven world we live in does not stand still and the need to learn does not stop when leaving school or acquiring a teaching certificate.

A foundational concept from which all levels of our educational system should operate is that every learner is a person with God-given strengths and weaknesses, and with previously acquired knowledge, skills, and attitudes. The existing educational system operates with a focus on education agencies, schools, and groups of students. Identifying and meeting individual needs of every learner is NOT something that the current structure, capacity, technology, practice, and culture of schools can handle.

The Take Away:

Technology can help bring about a system that optimizes learning experiences for each learner. Thereby, allowing students to develop their natural talents to their fullest potential and in-turn maximizing each individual’s value as a contributor to our economy and social condition. The challenge between now and 2014 is to change professional practices to take advantage the technology and focus the mission of state and local education agencies on individual learners.