Tag Archives: Wall Street Journal

You Are Failing Your Students

Stock Photo Much of the American educational system is about improving outcomes, often by focusing on results from some form of standardized test.  If students are found to be underperforming on some measure, school improvement plans, smaller class sizes, financial funding, and all manner of sundry interventions are thrown at the problem in order to correct it.  But what if you were told that there was a test that the average high school student was regularly failing?  What if this test was absolutely critical to a student’s future success?  What if I told you that the test they were failing was financial literacy?

According to a financial survey conducted by the Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy, one that was recently featured in a USA Today article, high school seniors scored an average of 52.4% questions correctly.  Is there a school in the entire country for which this is not a failing outcome?  This average would not be tolerated if it were in Algebra II, but we somehow tolerate it for financial literacy despite the fact that Jump$tart has repeatedly demonstrated the shortcoming.

Why is such a miserable outcome tolerated?  In short, it’s because us adults aren’t much better.  The FINRA Investor Education Foundation, an educational offshoot of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, Inc., the leading non-governmental regulator for all securities firms doing business in the United States, conducted a National Financial Capability Study in 2009.  One of the most startling findings from the survey were that nearly half of the respondents expressed difficulties in making their monthly expenses or in paying their bills.  Perhaps even more disturbing is that many Americans “engaged in financial behaviors that generated expenses and fees and exhibited a marked inability to do basic interest calculations and other math-oriented tasks.”  It’s no wonder our students can’t make sound decisions if we can’t even do basic math.

Who is to help with such a dire situation?  You needn’t worry: the federal government is here to help.  A financial overhaul bill passed last year created a new Office of Financial Literacy in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  (You can listen to a discussion about this new office on Marketplace Money.)  The irony of a government helping with finances that is currently arguing about raising its own debt ceiling isn’t lost.  Moreover, as staff writer Karen Blumenthal has pointed out in a recent Wall Street Journal article titled “Is There a Cure for Financial Illiteracy?”, such government efforts tend to focus on providing more information, as though the simple act of providing it will cause people to make smarter financial decisions.

Some states have also stepped into the mix as well.  Massachusetts recently signed a bill into law that creates a new trust fund to promote financial literacy to students, schools, and community groups.  Tennessee is working on legislation that will connect certain financial literacy concepts to the standardized testing for social studies, which would obviously represent a significant step in establishing financial literacy as a desired outcome of a high school education.  Ohio has taken a different track by requiring schools to teach financial literacy as part of the Ohio Core, making it a graduation requirement, though the mandate has met with apathy on the part of many Ohio schools.

While such efforts will, no doubt, place increased emphasis on financial literacy, there are two important facts you should know to develop a smarter financial literacy program for your school, both of which are highlighted in an excellent article in The Economist titled “Getting it Right on the Money.”  First, the only demonstrably efficacious financial literacy programs at the high school level are those that leverage a stock market game.  If you read our blog posting earlier this year titled “Escape to . . . Reality?” – about the use of games in education – this should come as no surprise.  A stock market game has its own built-in rewards which “automatically” serve as reinforcement of the concepts being taught.  High schools would therefore be well-advised to develop literacy programs that work in such a way as link rewards with desired behaviors.  At earlier grades, creating the right habits early enough in life causes them to persist.  Jeroo Billimoria, creator of Aflatoun, a financial literacy course, has focused her efforts on six- to fourteen-year-olds, with surprising success.

Moving our students from failure to success won’t be easy, but to fail to equip them with at least a rudimentary level of financial literacy is doing them a huge disservice.  We need educators who are willing to move beyond their own discomfort with money; who will study to learn what they lack in their own financial literacy; and who will be unafraid to discuss this most taboo of topics – money – openly with their students.  The University of Minnesota Extension has put together some great free resources to get you started.  Are you going to make the commitment now to stop failing your students?

Escape to . . . Reality?

Teenagers playing video games A former colleague and friend, Mark Burkholz, had his son’s picture land in The Boston Globe in a feature article titled “Parents seek balance as screens’ allure grows,” an article about the seemingly ever-increasing amount of time that children and teenagers are spending on gaming.  In the article, Mark is quoted as stating that these skills (those learned in gaming) are crucial ones for living in an adult society.  He and I have discussed this in depth: Mark contends that team-building, teamwork, and strategy development are all important to advancement within the current workforce.  Yet, society and the media both appear to badger us with the message that increased time spent gaming is related to decreased performance on some far more desirable criteria, such as grades.  Even the author of the article on Mark’s son Noah seems to leave us with the impression that gaming is a bad thing.  Who is right?

According to an article published by John Tierney in The New York Times, Mark is.  Tierney cites researcher Edward Castronova, professor of telecommunications at Indiana University, as stating that the problems faced in games aren’t all that different from work activities in his article “On a Hunt for What Makes Gamers Keep Gaming.”  Jane McGonigal, a researcher at Institute for the Future, took this a step further in an article appearing in The Wall Street Journal titled “Be A Gamer, Save the World.”  In the article, Dr. McGonigal suggests that the power of games could be used to solve real-world problems.  Tierney’s article resonates with this idea: it mentions the First Aid Corps, an organization who has produced an app for iPhone and Google Android cell phones that allows individuals to make a game of sorts by cataloging nearby defibrillators to provide a valuable service to those in need of them.

Could traditional education also be leveraging games to help solve instructional challenges?  As Tierney points out, leveraging games as an instructional tool dates back at least as far as Charlemagne.  Yet, game usage as a part of classroom instruction tapers off dramatically as students advance through grades.  According to both Tierney and McGonigal, gamers are happy, and recent research has suggested that happiness and academic achievement are at least interrelated.  Schools could potentially increase the happiness of students and thereby improve academic achievement merely by incorporating game-playing into the curriculum.

However, the real benefit to education lies in the gaming ecosystem.  As British Journalist and TED speaker Tom Chatfield and others have pointed out, it’s amazing how resilient humans are when playing video games.  According to McGonigal, gamers spend up to 80% of their time in games losing.  Two factors are obviously at play here.  First is the classic Gambler’s fallacy.  Just like a gambler, we believe that the previous losses will eventually regress to the mean and we will then be “rewarded” with a win.  We know intuitively that a toss of a coin will – over time – turn up an equal number of “heads” and “tails.”  Therefore, after a few losses, I am “destined” to win.  While this does not work for the gambler in a pure game of chance, it certainly plays out well for the gamer, where repetitive play yields improved skill.  Second is the low cost of failure.  With gaming as a virtual reality with little to no impact on the “real world,” losses are less averse than they ordinary would be.  The gaming system creates an artificial construction where people need not be stigmatized by losses.

Think of the huge potential benefit to education: a “lossless” world where students are empowered to fail and thereby to learn something as a result.  Moreover, the variable reinforcement schedule of most video games – the little trinkets and rewards distributed throughout the game – make the patterns much less prone to extinction.  The resulting overall environment would be one in which students were not afraid to fail and received the patterned and important feedback that would drive them to further play and, as a result, further learning.  The potential educational benefits for students is tremendous: they can test out ideas and immediately see the simulated result, with no real world consequences.  A biology student can literally make decisions about how to control infectious diseases and see a simulated result of those decisions.

The possibilities of real-world problems that are escapable are endless, but why are you sitting here wasting your time reading this?  I think we both best be getting to our video games.

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.