Tag Archives: New York Times

Professional Underdevelopment

bored_learners For many schools and school districts, the concept of professional development very much follows the “sage on the stage” model.  An outside professional arrives at the school and dispenses invaluable wisdom, and teachers sit and absorb these immense thoughts.  Teachers are then expected to return to their classroom and transform these grand ideas into classroom reality.  The remarkable thing about this model of professional development is that it follows precisely the same model for instruction that student-centered learned was focused on correcting.  Is this the wrong model for professional development?  Are there better ways to develop teachers?

Unfortunately, answers on professional development models aren’t particularly clear simply because there is limited research in this area.  One of the more recent studies in the area, though, was conducted by Mathematica Policy Research for the U. S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences.  The study, of which you can read a brief synopsis here, focused on studying the benefits of comprehensive teacher induction programs, teacher mentoring programs designed to assist new or underdeveloped teachers by pairing them with a more seasoned mentor.  The surprising finding is that such programs had no effect on factors such as teacher attitude or retention, and only had a small but statistically-significant impact on student achievement in the third year.  For such expensive programs, both in terms of money and time, such marginal results beg the question of whether more effective mechanisms exist.

Some districts, in order to save money, have begun professional development programs that feature teachers teaching teachers.  An excellent summary of such programs is given in an article titled “Teachers Teaching Teachers: Professional Development that Works” published on EducationWorld.  The method for such programs is obvious: teachers become the professional development “expert” and school other teachers on a topic that they know.  Likewise, the economic benefit is also apparent: if one does not have to hire an outside expert to perform training, there are therefore no professional fees for such an expert.  What about missing out on the “expert” knowledge?  The innovation in this approach is using a single teacher as a form of scribe: one or a few teachers are sent away to a conference, and then return to the school to share their knowledge with the others.  This is economically adventitious, as the cost of sending such individuals to a conference are often less expensive than inviting experts to campus.

An even more interesting emerging approach to professional development flips the roles of teacher and student.  A recent New York Times article titled “Teacher Training, Taught by Students” focuses on an innovative program being run by the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education.  Under this program, students run the professional development program.  Teachers observe students teaching mock lessons, and in so doing learn the techniques and methods that students feel work for them.  While such an approach is innovative enough, the model could certainly be taken even further: students, as digital natives, are often more familiar and more comfortable with technology than their teachers, who are often digital immigrants at best.  As such, students could be used to teach teachers technical concepts that the teachers could then leverage as part of classroom instruction.

In all of these approaches, however, the focus must be on making our professional development programs as rigorous and well-thought-out as our curriculum and our classroom instruction.  Myriad software exists to determine curricular goals, map those goals onto state objectives, assess students against such goals and objectives, determine interventions when necessary, and much, much more.  Do we use this same rigor when it comes to the development of our teachers?  We need to improve the quality, focus, and direction of our professional development programs such that they form a cohesive strategy to both developing our teachers and improving our students’ achievement.

The Inerrant Word of . . . Wikipedia?

Library full of aged books and ladder An interesting blog post by Wayne Bivens-Tatum, a Philosophy and Religion Librarian at Princeton University, compared the authorship of the Bible to Wikipedia, a collaboratively-authored encyclopedia.  Both works are the result of a myriad of authors, though, depending on your specific religious disposition, you might believe God to be the ultimate author of the former, and therefore inerrant.  The same regard is not held for Wikipedia: teachers often rant about its inaccuracies, and frequently forbid students from using it as a source for research.  But, is Wikipedia really inaccurate?  Is Wikipedia rotting the minds of our nation’s youth?

A number of studies have actually been undertaken on this topic, so much so that Wikipedia itself has an article dedicated to the topic.  One of the first to attempt to study this was The Guardian, a British daily.  In their study, experts were asked to review articles related to their fields, with most articles receiving favorable marks.  In a now famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) study on the topic, the British weekly journal Nature pitted Wikipedia against popular Encyclopedia Britannica.  Its findings (payment or subscription required) were that serious errors occurred about equally between the two encyclopedias, and that Wikipedia was only marginally less reliable with respect to minor errors.  (A free review of the research can be found in “Wikipedia survives research test” by BBC News.)  Other studies have found similar results, some with Wikipedia actually slightly outpacing its commercial competitors.  Wikipedia is anywhere from slightly more authoritative to slightly less authoritative than a traditional commercial encyclopedia, depending on the particular study and methodology.

Of course, study methodologies are closely scrutinized, and the Nature study was, not surprisingly, openly criticized by Encyclopedia Britannica.  Nature responded to the open criticism with a point-by-point rebuttal.  One of the more interesting outcomes of all this scuttlebutt is a Wikipedia article that lists errors present in Encyclopedia Britannica that are corrected in Wikipedia.  According to the article, it was started to serve as a reminder that no encyclopedia is perfect, and “as an illustration of the advantages of an editorial process where anybody can correct an error at any time.”

However, it is Wikipedia’s editorial process that is at the heart of the debate.  Heretofore, we have relied on academic “experts” writing on the subjects of their expertise.  In the Wikipedia editorial process, originally even anonymous authors were allowed to contribute.  Is a collaboratively authored encyclopedia, written by the “general public,” as “authoritative” as an encyclopedia authored by experts?  (See the aforementioned blog post by Mr. Bivens-Tatum for a great discussion on authority in sources.)  At initial blush, it would seem that the answer is yes.  On the other hand, Wikipedia may no longer fit this definition.  Precisely because of vandalism of pages on prominent people such as Edward Kennedy and Robert C. Byrd, Wikipedia has decided to limit changes to articles on people, a change detailed in a The New York Times article.  Such changes serve as barriers to entry, which may have stagnated Wikipedia’s growth.  According to the article, Ed Chi of Palo Alto Research Center has found that the site’s growth hit a plateau in 2007-2008.

The Economist has elucidated such limitations and its impact on the future of Wikipedia in an amusing article titled “Wiki birthday to you,” written in Wikipedia-style.  The Economist points out that the editorial review process has gotten increasingly more complicated over the years as Wikipedia has “grown up,” and that regular contributors have dropped by as much as a third.  In the aforementioned The New York Times article, Michael Snow, chairman of the Wikimedia board, the nonprofit that oversees Wikipedia, openly discusses the fact that Wikipedia has moved beyond its initial frontier heyday, and that more discipline is now required.

The real irony in Wikipedia is that, as it institutes increased rigor and discipline, it becomes more like the commercial entities that it has dethroned in page viewership.  As it becomes more like them, its ability to draw interest from the public at large.  And, as contributions decrease, there could be a real spike in errant entries.  In so doing, could the inerrant (or at least less errant) Word of Wikipedia become what teachers have always feared it was?

Laptops: Yesterday’s Treasure; Today’s Trash

Laptop_in_Wastebasket Much of the recent emphasis in secondary and primary education, particularly beginning in the early 2000’s, has been on 1:1 laptop initiatives.  Such initiatives seek to provide a single laptop to every student enrolled in some subdivision of a school: a grade, an entire school, or even a school district.  The working premise of such programs is that the initiatives will deliver some form of improved outcome for students such as higher test scores, lower absenteeism, or reduced dropout rates.

Such initiatives began to take on a grander scale.  One of the first major laptop initiatives to be deployed was through the State of Maine’s Maine Learning Technology Initiative.  This initiative selected Apple Computer, Inc. for the hardware and soon began rolling out laptops to middle schools and high schools across the state.  According to the initiative, 100% of middle schools and 55% of high schools in the state now have a 1:1 ratio.  Other states quickly followed suit, such as neighboring New Hampshire and Connecticut and 1:1 laptop initiatives quickly became the “in” thing to do.

However, the promise soured almost as soon as the laptops were removed from the box.  In a poignant article in the Wall Street Journal, laptop programs were coming under fire for the expense of the program as well as the inappropriate use of laptops by students.  According to the article, the then-current four-year contract between the Maine Department of Education and Apple was a staggering $41 million.  Many other programs were being cut entirely or even scaled back because of the cost.  There was also parental backlash as well: parents felt that the easy access to laptop computers merely enabled participation on social networking sites such as Facebook, leading to decreased time spent on actual study.

But were the concerns of parents justified?  In a New York Times article titled “Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops,” staff writer Winnie Hu profiled the Liverpool Central School District, who had made the intriguing decision to scrap their 1:1 computing initiative altogether.  Citing the use of the computers as means to exchange test answers, download pornography, and hack into local businesses, the article highlights the district’s decision to completely abandon their initiative.  With no data that the program was improving student outcomes, the school could not remain committed to the program in the face of the expensive price tag.

Is this really true?  Have laptops – which were yesterday’s educational treasure – become today’s trash in such short order?  With budgets being slashed, schools are beginning to reexamine their commitments to such initiatives.  Unfortunately, the data for improving student performance isn’t particularly compelling.  In a special edition titled “Educational Outcomes and Research from 1:1 Computing Settings,” The Journal of Technology, Learning, and Assessment concluded in a meta-analysis of recent articles that while such programs provided significant advancement on technology use and literacy, only modest gains were to be found in terms of student achievement.  Project RED, an advocacy group, is more bullish, releasing the results of a survey at ISTE 2010 that claims that students at 1:1 schools outperform those at non-1:1 schools on several measures.  Unfortunately, lead contributors to Project RED include Intel and Apple, both of which obviously benefit from increased 1:1 computing.

So what is the real truth?  The difficulty with parsing this lies in the fact that many varied factors impact individual student performance.  It’s often difficult to ascertain, particularly when there is likely a Hawthorne Effect at play.  However, the real issue is that technology is simply a tool: it is a means to an end, and not an end in and of itself.  In the aforementioned The Journal of Technology, Learning, and Assessment, one big theme emerged: the success of 1:1 computing initiatives hinged largely on the individual classroom teacher.  Proper training and professional development of those teachers was crucial to any program’s success.  We can’t simply place laptops into the hands of students and expect that singular action to improve anything but potentially technology literacy.  Rather, teachers must be taught how to leverage these tools in the classroom.

Much of the talk surrounding technology in education has been on transferrable versus transformative use.  In a transferrable use, teachers simply continue to do what they have always done, except with new digital means.  A teacher who is typing his overhead slides into a PowerPoint is engaging is this transferrable use.  The question is how to get the use to be transformative: to use the technology to teach students in new and interesting ways.  If a 1:1 program is to be successful in improving student achievement, it must be used in that transformative way.  As long as the purchase of laptops for students predates or occurs simultaneously with the purchase for teachers, we are likely to continue to see transference instead of transformation.  And, for as long as that continues, today’s laptop treasures will continue to be tomorrow’s trash.