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Ravitch on the "Perils" of Ed Tech: Is This Journalism or Propaganda?


For those of you who remember the 1960s television sci-fi series: Lost in Space, this was the famous catch phrase that the robot, acting as a surrogate guardian, would voice to Will Robinson whenever there was an impending threat.

Fast forward to July 2013.   A supposedly reputable magazine:  Scientific American, posted an article by self proclaimed education historian Diane Ravitch titled, "3 Dubious Uses of Technology in Schools."  Interestingly enough, the article was originally published under the title, "Promise & Peril."  Ms. Ravitch is a very controversial figure in the field of public education, and she has been consistent in her disdain for education reform, especially the influence of private foundations and other stakeholders who Ravitch feels will destroy her "utopian" aspirations for public education.  Per the magazine's website, it serves as "The leading source and authority for science, technology information and policy for a general audience."   I believe that the article in question does not uphold the tenets of the brand, and in fact, damages the brand.  Lets discuss my concerns in more detail.

  • The author does not give sufficient weight to discussing the benefits of technology.  The subtitle of the story is "Technology can inspire creativity or dehumanize learning."   Ms. Ravitch is generous enough to give a total of TWO SENTENCES discussing the benefits of technology in public education.
  • Are her so called "dubious uses" of technology really "dubious?" 
    • Ravitch attempts to stoke fear into readers by claiming that "for-profit" charter schools are evil, while not providing sufficient empirical evidence to support such generalizations.   In any new school design, there will be outliers, but for Ravitch to single out the few in a pool of many successful charter schools is foolhardy.   How many public schools are squandering taxpayer dollars and not governing their schools with integrity?   Quite a few if you did the research.
    • Ravitch does not provide sufficient detail in her discussion about online assessments and the online grading of essays.   I am not up to speed on this development and while I need to look at this area more closely, I share the author's concern about online grading of essays.  It depends how it will be done, because there is a subjective factor to it.   However, I would not state that online assessments are not in the best interests of the system just because of this one concern which will certainly be worked out.   Certain types of assessments must be conducted online, as this will greatly enhance the efficiency of our public education system, improve productivity, and support adaptive learning systems.   We need to use big data more effectively in public schools so that teachers can spend far less time on remedial work at the beginning of each school year.   It will also help us evolve our system into a competency-based one versus one that depends on seat-time.
    • Finally, Ms. Ravitch continues her assault on the Gates Foundation-funded nonprofit, inBloom.   Ravitch is terrified of the use of "big data" in public education, and the risks of storing personal, confidential data on students in the cloud.   Ravitch, to the best of my knowledge, has not represented that she has even seen a demo of the technology in action, yet she amplifies the propaganda being distributed by self interest groups.   Many other industries such as health care are seeing the material benefits of leveraging the cloud for data storage and data intelligence.  InBloom has been very consistent in their communications that they will not be providing personal data to third parties without consent, yet Ravitch and the teachers unions have used their influence to misrepresent the intent of the inBloom solution and spread fears about applications that are not part of the core use case.  The FAQ page on inBloom's website states:  "inBloom is not creating a national database. It is providing a secure data service to help school districts manage the information needed for learning, and to support local educational goals. Only school districts decide who has access to that information and for what purpose."  

It is perfectly acceptable to be concerned about the online storage of data.  However, public education would be best served by working collaboratively with an organization whose intent is noble:  to create a technological standard that connects the entire public education ecosystem.  The main objective of InBloom is to make the disparate systems compatible, and as such, make the job of educators and administrators much easier.   It is unfortunate that Ravitch has taken such a pessimistic view of what this initiative can offer to our education reform efforts, and instead anoint herself the "Ralph Nader" of public education.

Finally, I take personal issue with Ravitch's comment  that "teachers see technology as a tool to inspire student learning; entrepreneurs see it as a way to standardize teaching, to replace teachers, to make money and to market new products."   That is categorically false and insulting to the many entrepreneurs who are trying to bring innovation to K-12 education, but are stonewalled by an anachronistic system dominated by textbook publishers extracting billions of dollars in monopoly profits from K-12 - something that Ravitch fails to acknowledge in her assault on entrepreneurship.

If Diane Ravitch or any writer for that matter wishes to communicate their skepticism with new technologies, that is perfectly fine.  However, if you are going to write a policy piece for a supposedly reputable publication, then the story needs to provide sufficient empirical data to support the assertions.   It is clear that this story could have easily been posted on Ravitch's blog, where she is free to publish her "rants" that are opinions devoid of supportable fact.    Instead, we are forced to accept the grim reality that major publications will abdicate their journalistic integrity to forward a political agenda, which in this case is the supposition that technological innovation will seek to destroy public education, rather than improve it.

I think Will Robinson would have ignored the robot because he would have assumed the robot had a technical malfunction......


Politics Will Continue To Undermine Public Education Reform

I haven't posted in a few weeks because I have been in a period of frustration.     Reading the lies that continue to published to unravel the Common Core has caused me to reflect on the state of public education in the United States and how difficult it is to effect meaningful change.   The politics around public education reform is as toxic as it's ever been.

What is happening right now is a symptom of the broader political battle between Democrats and Republicans, between Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians, between state and local control versus the role of the federal government in our society.  This blogger will continue to insist that local control will exacerbate the inefficiencies and ineffectiveness of public education.  

The Common Core was an effort led by the states - by a group of Governors  and Chief State School Officers.  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan staunchly defended the Common Core in a speech last week.  His remarks should be read.  He discusses the difference between a "curriculum" and "standards."   These standards are far superior to what preceded them.  We should not have 50 states with 50 different standards.  No content provider would be able to scale such a fragmented business, but more importantly, the standards we hold our students to should be substantially similar regardless of where they are educated.   There was tremendous state support for these common standards - 45 states plus DC adopted them.   While it is important that the standards do NOT result in an excessive amount of standardized assessment, what is important is that the quality of such assessments improves significantly.   And we don't need more multiple choice tests, which do hardly anything towards assessing learning, only the ability to memorize facts without context.

Tea Party activists are distorting the facts and causing fear and paranoia in the education space.   Even folks like AFT President Randi Weingarten are lobbying for a moratorium on tests related to the Common Core.    We know that anytime a new reform is put in place, there may be an initial drop in academic achievement.  That happened in parts of Tennessee which was one of the winners of the Race to the Top competition.   But then scores go up. 

Even in Georgia, whose own standards are practically identical to the Common Core, local school boards are caving into the misinformation and paranoia spread by local Tea Party members.  Cobb County's board decided NOT to approve new math textbooks aligned to the Common Core.  As education journalist Maureen Downey stated in the story:  "In declaring that Cobb cannot buy textbooks aligned with Common Core math standards, the school board is essentially saying students cannot have textbooks aligned to the Georgia standards, either. Because they are the same."   

We cannot let these self interest groups unravel years of collaboration that resulted in a set of standards that are materially better than what preceded them.   Our education system will be set back many, many years if the Common Core is derailed.   In the words of Secretary Duncan:

Whatever your views about public education, it is indefensible to lower learning standards. There is simply too much at stake — for the country — for our future — and for your industry.

If your state lowers standards, you lose a high bar for reading, for critical thinking, for writing, and for taking ideas seriously. You lose one of the cornerstones of democracy. Because the power of democracy depends upon an informed electorate — and a free press.

Politics certainly undermines education reform - I hope we have the courage to overcome such obstacles.  Our children's future depends on it.


The Rigidity of Public Education and its Unintended Societal Effects

What is happening to our society?   It is clear we have become hypersensitive and have lost our light-hearted nature.    While the proliferation of social media has made the world feel "smaller," it has also had some unintended consequences, such as impulsive responses without the full context, only 140 characters of context.    But it all starts in public schools, where our zero tolerance policies run completely counter to the elements needed to foster creativity, entrepreneurship and innovation - elements which our nation was founded upon.

What triggered this reaction today?   Yesterday, three radio disc jockeys were terminated after a stunt mocking ALS patient (and former New Orleans Saints player) Steve Gleason went awry.   After first making a public statement that the three radio hosts would be "suspended indefinitely," they were summarily fired less than a few hours later.   Now don't get me wrong.   I do not condone what they did - it was an ill advised stunt that was meant as a parody, and no one should degrade anyone who suffers from such a terrible, debilitating disease such as ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease).   Listeners took to the blogosphere and immediately went looking for blood, including some of his former teammates.   I'm sure some sponsors also threatened to pull their advertising if something wasn't done to reprimand these radio hosts.  Gleason said nothing until AFTER they were terminated (we'll get to what he said later).    Why the rapid-fire trigger finger on the part of the radio station's parent company, Lincoln Financial Media?   Social media allows anyone to have an opinion and make it known, but it astounds me how quickly people react without knowing the facts.  Let me provide some background, since I have met two of these radio hosts and have some interesting background information to share:

  • One of them, Steak Shapiro, was one of the founders of the radio station and has been on the air in Atlanta for nearly two decades.   His performance has been impeccable and I know him to be of impeccable character.
  • The men immediately issued heartfelt apologies and promised to make it up to the Gleason family.  One of them actually spoke to Steve's wife and apologized.  Shapiro is a graduate of Tulane University and while the Saints are clear arch rivals of the Falcons, he has always held the city of New Orleans in high regard.  No doubt it will take him a long time to mend fences there.
  • A former colleague of mine, Rodney Ho, a journalist with an Atlanta newspaper, wrote a very interesting background story.  Shapiro sold the station to Lincoln Financial Media a few years ago, and there is evidence suggesting that the station was looking to let their contracts expire in a few months, with no intention to renew.  With additional competition for sports talk in the Atlanta marketplace, it has adversely impacted the station's finances and market position and they were clearly looking to reduce their cost base.   This incident, while ill-advised and inappropriate, was a convenient way for the station to get out what would have been an already complex negotiation.

My feeling is this.   Why the rush for blood?  Why not look to use this as a "teachable moment" and positively reinforce a behavior change?   Gleason didn't comment until AFTER the decision to terminate was made.  While not reacting to the station's decision, he posted on his Facebook page that "he accepted their apologies."  Some options the station could have considered include:

  • Have the hosts go on the air the following day and use a segment to make an on-air apology and put some focus on awareness of ALS
  • Consider having the hosts contribute meaningfully to ALS or Gleason's charity, as well as participate in some fundraising or other events related to ALS
  • Consider a suspension as a reprimand for their actions but recognizing they are ALL first offenders who have a long track record of professionalism in the radio industry.

But that didn't happen here.   Just like our public education system, we are quick to punish those who break the rules and refuse to identify ways to turn an unfortunate incident into a positive, teachable moment.  All we did in this case was throw these gentleman under the bus and likely prevent them from continuing to work in the radio business, at least for the foreseeable future.  As Shapiro said in two tweets:

17 Jun

What is so ironic is that I went to Tulane, love New Orleans and love the story, what a moronic 2 mins, I am truly sorry....

17 Jun

ALS not a joke, bit or game. 20 yrs on the air, 2 bad mins on a show, look at the whole picture I hope. Zone was a great ride!!

i expressed my views in an even-toned letter to the GM of the station, and surprisingly, received the following response:

Thank you for your e-mail. I appreciate the time you took to write it and I respect your point of view. I thought it was important, however, to share some additional perspective. Deciding to terminate Nick, Chris and Steak as a result of what transpired on Monday morning was neither an impulsive decision nor an easy one. As you outlined in your e-mail, they each have long careers in radio and are fixtures in our community. Notwithstanding this fact, I have a responsibility to our listeners, to our advertisers and to our overall community to protect the standards and core values of our organization. The content of Monday mornings programming cannot be reconciled with those standards and core values. While this was a difficult decision, I am confident that it was the right one.

No one is defending their actions, but this blogger feels that the station found a convenient way to get out of a difficult business decision, and these guys deserve a second chance.    There were other options "to protect the standards and core values of the organization."   Just like in public education, we need to learn from failures and allow people a chance to redeem themselves.  If we punish those who break the rules, then you can throw America's innovative spirit out the window.


Disruptive Innovation is NOT a Myth - Understand How and When to Apply it

I have studied, leveraged and lectured about disruptive innovation theory for more than a decade.   When we launched GameTap at Turner Broadcasting, our internal strategic pitches illustrated how the invention was potentially a disruptive technology in the video games industry.   It was disruptive because it possessed the following characteristics which are common characteristics of a disruptive innovation:

  • The product was serving an area of nonconsumption in the marketplace - game publishers and console manufacturers were not focused on backward compatibility of video games and were focused on first-run, retail sales of new titles due to lack of viable distribution channels for back catalog content.    As such, the market was perceived to be smaller and more niche than the hardcore game market.   Further, incumbents were concerned of the potential cannibalization of new releases which ironically, was the same undue concern the movie studios had when cable television came to being.
  • The initial product was perceived as cheaper and less attractive than existing products.
  • It was a lower margin opportunity which was largely ignored by established companies.

I remember when Nintendo launched the Wii, I had several spirited debates with industry executives who believed that the Wii was a disruptive innovation.   I firmly believed it was NOT a disruptive innovation.  Conversely, I felt that Nintendo wisely introduced a sustaining innovation to the marketplace.   Instead of competing head to head with Sony and Microsoft, it focused solely on games in its new console.  However, it broadened the market for video games because it made the experience family-friendly.  The introduction of the nunchuk controller was a revolutionary feature in the console gaming experience.   It was a stellar strategic move by Nintendo at the time, but it was NOT disruptive.   It targeted the same market and it was still, first and foremost, a game console.   However, by focusing solely on games and broadening the market, it introduced a less expensive game console that was priced far below its competitors.     It served Nintendo well for a while, but as the market evolved towards online gaming and mobile gaming, Nintendo was ill-prepared for this transition and found itself in a significantly disadvantaged position. In its most recent fiscal year, the company suffered its first annual financial loss and its stock was hammered in the markets.

Disruptive innovation theory must be used properly.    A recent article  wisely alluded to the fact that everyone is trying to apply the theory to their latest technological innovation.    Entrepreneurs have turned the theory into a "fad," which it is not.   Because of the misuse, it has caused some in the blogosphere to call it a "myth" and that the theory is believed to be "unassailably true" and a "sacred text."  This would be a gross misunderstanding of the theory and its principles.  And sadly,  this misapplication could not be more evident than in the area of public education.

When Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn wrote Disrupting Class, they discussed how public education was primed for disruptive innovation:  how a shift to student-centric learning would and could fundamentally transform the manner in which we educate our children.  Yes, they introduced certain projections on the growth of online learning, but the strategic premise was correct.   I have had many conversations with the book's co-author, Michael Horn, over the past five years, and as we've seen digital learning take various forms, the latest being blended learning, we NEVER said it was disruptive.  Even if an invention appears disruptive, the question is whether you are distributing it disruptively.   When I was working on an ed tech startup five years ago, Michael always made me consider that question.  This is one reason why technology has been "crammed" into schools.   Back in 2011, Horn penned an op-ed piece, one of many on the subject, where he talked about how the United States has wasted over $60 billion cramming technology into public schools over the past few decades, with little to no effect on productivity, economic efficiency, or most importantly, academic achievement.

When the Clayton Christensen Institute introduced their latest whitepaper last week:  Is K-12 Blended Learning Disruptive, blogger Audrey Watters took the opportunity to fundamentally challenge the theory and make it look like the institute was "backpedaling" on their original premise by introducing a new term, "hybrid innovation."  Per the whitepaper:  a hybrid is a combination of the new, disruptive technology with the old technology and represents a sustaining innovation relative to the old technology.  While I do not question Ms. Watters' skepticism, I challenge her assertion that the Institute is perpetuating a myth and that there is a political influence to their actions.   Think about what blended learning is and is not:

  • It is NOT typically targeting an "area of nonconsumption."   It is attempting to transform the physical classroom and manner in which knowledge is delivered to a student.
  • As Horn points out, "Disruptive innovations, in contrast, do not try to bring better products to existing customers in established markets. Instead, they offer a new definition of what’s good—typically they are simpler, more convenient, and less expensive products that appeal to new or less demanding customers. Over time, they improve enough to intersect with the needs of more demanding customers, thereby transforming a sector."  Blended learning is targeting an established market, unlike virtual schooling and other forms of online learning outside the classroom.
  • We do not yet know whether it will be less costly than the status quo.  In fact, as long as funding mechanisms continue to be inefficient and improperly aligned with student outcomes, it may require additional investment in its initial phase in order to integrate into the public school infrastructure.  When you target an existing market, it becomes a tradeoff analysis.   To fund this, what must you cut?
  • Hybrids try to do the job of the existing product or service.  Isn't that what blended learning is attempting to do?
  • Blended learning appears to be less “foolproof” than a disruptive innovation. It does not significantly reduce the level of wealth and/or expertise needed to purchase and operate it.  Teachers need to be trained to fundamentally alter the way they teach, particularly in a station-rotation type blended model.

I take the position that the Christensen Institute is NOT backpedaling on their original book.   Rather, they wrote this paper to create a baseline understanding of what blended learning is and is not.   It NEVER was a disruptive innovation, but many educators, policy experts, and writers are questioning the credibility of the Institute because of the people who not only do not fully understand the theory, but also, as a result, misapply it in the marketplace.   When has a projection been correct?  I'm sure that some of the projections in Disrupting Class, even the ones Ms. Watters points out ( 1.  in 15 years, half of our universities may be bankrupt; 2. by the year 2019, 50% of all K-12 classes will be taught online), may be overstated to a certain agree.  However, it is broadly believed that the underlying premise of these estimates is accurate.  The higher ed system has an unsustainable business model which has led to the introduction of MOOCs (e.g., Coursera).  We also know that the use of digital learning in the classroom is growing at a rapid pace - it might be more "blended" than solely online, as we expect it to be.  The physical classroom is not going to be eliminated anytime soon, nor should it. 

Ms. Watters does not have an MBA as she points out.  This does not make her any less informed or less intelligent than those of us who have MBAs.   In fact, she is a very experienced, knowledgeable education technology blogger.   However, time and time again, disruptive innovation has proven to be an accurate framework to illustrate how breakthrough innovations emerge and transform industries.   What the Christensen Institute has done is create a framework to accurately capture the ongoing transformation of public education.   Blended learning is NOT disruptive.   It's a sustaining innovation relative to the status quo, and it's time everyone started applying the nomenclature correctly.

Disruptive innovation is most definitely a sacred text.   But when mis-applied, it can become a catch-all phrase for all inventions, and that would be grossly unfair to Professor Christensen and his valuable contributions to our society.




Concerns About "Tiger Mom" Parenting Approach Supported By Data

Let me start out by saying I am very sensitive to Asian cultures.  I have spent a considerable amount of time in Japan, Korea and China and I speak conversational Japanese.   I know that these cultures put a VERY high price on education and typically take an "ends justifies the means" parenting style.    We all see the academic achievement coming out of these countries' schools and they realize that education can create economic competitiveness. 

With that out of the way, I have not been comfortable with the "tiger mom" philosophy.  I read Amy Chua's book and I must admit, I was mortified by it.   I just couldn't see myself treat my children this way, and I have seen some American-born parents do this with their children in various ways, such as pushing them too early to specialize in a sport, and making them join travel teams at very early ages and have no socialization and risk being burned out before they finish high school.   I have also interviewed high school seniors for my alma mater and seen "tiger mom" parenting philosophies.  However, I would not criticize another country's cultural practices, but rather state that it is not a philosophy I would ever inflict on my own children.   When the book came out, there was highly spirited debate, but now there just might be the first research studies published to support those who vehemently oppose the "tiger mom" practice.

Su Yeong Kim, an Associate Professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas, had been following more than 300 Asian-American families for a decade when the book came out.  She recently published her results.  Children of parents whom Kim classified as “tiger” had lower academic achievement and attainment—and greater psychological maladjustment—and family alienation, than the kids of parents characterized as “supportive” or "easygoing."  I encourage you to review the study, its methodology and its findings.

I have no doubt that we have not heard the end of this debate.