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US Department of Education Funds Jazzed-Up Worksheets as Innovation

by Susan Ohanian

There are two possible morals to this tale:

1) No one who has not taught in a public school should be put in charge of the US Department of Education


2) We need to get rid of the US Department of Education

Take your pick.

But that's not the focus of this piece. The fact that the US Department of Education and the Hechinger Institute both jump on the blended learning bandwagon is just an indication of not knowing much about how kids learn coupled with blind adoration of technology. Can we really expect education reporters to know more about teaching and learning than does the US Department of Education?

The following note appeared at the end of this item traveling as education news:

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about blended learning.

Follow the above link on blended learning, and you'll see that Nichole Dobo seems to be quite a fan. In fact, her brief bio at The Hechinger Report says she "writes about blended learning.

Sounds like a career path.

The piece below reads like a PR statement from the company selling the product. It also appeared in Slate.

Read clear to the end and you'll find out that, to their credit, Hechinger did ask an independent research to review the report results.

The "product" that is the subject of this article is described thusly in a paper commissioned by Teach to One and released Dec. 2014: "STUDENT MATHEMATICS PERFORMANCE IN THE FIRST TWO YEARS OF TEACH TO ONE: MATH, Douglas D. Ready, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Education and Public Policy

Teach to One students are assessed daily to determine current skill levels, and an algorithm employs these test results to target content delivery for the following day. In addition to creating daily learning plans for each student, this adaptive, self-improving algorithm also generates a unique daily instruction schedule for each teacher.

The US Department of Education awarded New Classrooms Innovation Partners a $3 million Investing in Innovation (i3) grant "to expand its successful personalized learning model in partnership with Elizabeth Public Schools." In trumpeting this grant, New Classrooms claimed "According to an independent study released last month, the 6,000 students in 15 schools using Teach to One nationally made, on average, 1.5 years of progress in math or 47% more than the national average. At iPrep, students, on average, made 1.7 years of progress or 70% more than the national average."

The report, "Student Mathematics Performance in the First Two Years of Teach to One" was commissioned by Teach to One. Nobody is saying if this study was peer-reviewed.

On Twitter, I complained that waiting until paragraph number 21 to offer Larry Cuban's criticism makes the piece that follows from The Hechinger Report read more like a promo piece for New Classrooms than a news item.

The Hechinger Report responded:

You're saying objections he raises not enough to make the piece balanced? Do following 3 grafs on mixed results of research help?

I admit my bias of thinking middle schoolers should have much more face-to-face contact with their teachers than screen time. I'm becoming more and more worried about student-machine relationships, and certainly I worry about the quality of the machine delivered lessons. Larry Cuban has it right in calling them "jazzed-up worksheets" traveling in the name of innovation.

And I still question making the reader wade through 20 paragraphs of puffery before arriving at Cuban's criticism.

How many readers would plow through 20 paragraphs of obvious puffery?

Note the use of that buzzword transparency: Transparency is a classroom with 150 students.

Of interest to those who worry where things come from--and what backgrounds give people the right to declare themselves learning experts:

  • Joel Rose cofounded New Classrooms in 2011. Before that, he was CEO of School of One, an initiative within the New York City Department of Education. Prior to School of One, Rose served as chief executive for human capital and as chief of staff to the deputy chancellor at NYCDOE. His job titles at Edison included: senior executive, Associate General Counsel, Chief of Staff, General Manager, and Vice President for School Operations.

  • Chris Rush co founded New Classrooms. Previously, he led design and development of Wireless Generation's mCLASS reporting systems and initiated the creation of their consulting services group and served as its Executive Director. Mr. Rush also worked with the NYCDOE, co-leading the design of the initial versions of their citywide parent, teacher and administrator longitudinal data system. Prior to that, Mr. Rush specialized in financial management and IT development services at IBM.

  • Joe Ventura, spokesman for New Classrooms, is former Senior Communications Manager at NewSchools Venture Fund.

  • There's money in these algorithms: Schools pay $225 per student each year in licensing fees to use the content in Teach to One's curriculum -- the materials that replace the typical textbook. They also pay between $50,000 and $125,000 a year for professional development and support services.

  • Most importantly, with the teacher pinpointing students who do badly on daily assessments, it's conceivable that a student who is good in math could be lost in the automated algorithms--the jazzed-up worksheets--and never talk to a teacher.

    What happens when computers, not teachers, pick what students learn? Should we automate some parts of a teacher's day?

    by Nichole Dobo,education reporter, The Hechinger Report

    February 19, 2015

    NEW YORK -- Teacher John Garuccio wrote a multiplication problem on a digital whiteboard in a corner of an unusually large classroom at David A. Boody Intermediate School in Brooklyn.

    About 150 sixth graders are in this math class -- yes, 150 -- but Garuccio's task was to help just 20 of them, with a lesson tailored to their needs. He asked, "Where does the decimal point go in the product?" After several minutes of false starts, a boy offered the correct answer. Garuccio praised him, but did not stop there.

    "Come on, you know the answer, tell me why," Garuccio said. "It's good to have the right answer, but you need to know why."

    A computer system picked this lesson for this group of students based on a quiz theyâd taken a day earlier. Similar targeted lessons were being used by other teachers and students working together, in small groups, in an open classroom the size of a cafeteria. The computer system orchestrates how each math class unfolds every day, not just here, but for about 6,000 students in 15 schools located in four states and the District of Columbia.

    As more schools adopt blended learning -- methods that combine classroom teachers and computer-assisted lessons -- some are taking the idea a step further and creating personalized programs of instruction. Technology can help teachers design a custom lesson plan for each student, supporters say, ensuring children arenât bored or confused by materials that arenât a good fit for their skill level or learning style.

    At David A. Boody (I.S. 228) -- a public school in a Brooklyn neighborhood where more than five out of six students qualify for free or reduced lunch -- teachers use a program called Teach to One: Math. It combines small group lessons, one-on-one learning with a teacher, learning directly from software and online tutoring. A nonprofit in New York City, New Classrooms Innovation Partners, provides the software and supports the schools that use it. New Classrooms evolved from a program created several years earlier at the New York City Department of Education.

    One key feature of the program is apparent even before instruction begins. The entrance to the math class at the David A. Boody looks a bit like a scene at an airport terminal. Three giant TV screens carry daily schedule updates for all students and teachers. The area is huge, yawning across a wide-open space created by demolishing the walls between classrooms.

    "There is a great deal of transparency here," said Cathy Hayes, the school's math director, explaining the idea behind the enormous classroom. "Children and teachers can see each other, and that transparency works to share great work. This isn't a room where you can shut the door and contain what you are doing."
    The classrooms for the Teach to One program include many teachers and students in a wall without rooms. Furniture is used to create nooks for small groups.

    The open design is meant to encourage collaboration; teachers can learn from each other by working in close proximity. Shelves, desks and whiteboards divide the large room to create nooks for small-group instruction. Each area has a name, such as Brooklyn Bridge or Manhattan Bridge, which helps students know where they are supposed to go. Sometimes students are instructed by teachers; at other times they work in sections monitored by teaching assistants. Some stations use pencil-on-paper worksheets with prompts to help guide students through group projects. Stations in another part of the classroom are for independent computer-guided lessons and tutoring.

    Dmitry Vlasov, an assistant math teacher, scanned his section of the room where more than a dozen children worked on small laptops independently. If needed, he will help a student who is stuck, but he said most students don't require much more than a nudge.

    "They treat it as if it were a game," Vlasov said.

    "Children and teachers can see each other and that transparency works to share great work. This isn't a room where you can shut the door and contain what you are doing."

    All this activity in the large, high-ceilinged room creates a constant buzz, which seemed to distract some students. Teachers had to remind them not to peer around the big room. Students seated in the back appeared to have trouble hearing the teacher.

    Math class spans two 35-minute sessions, with students and teachers rotating to new stations after the first session. The school has about 300 students in the math program. Half of them report to class at one time. On a recent day in December, the classroom was staffed with one math director, five teachers, two teaching assistants and a technology aide.

    The program's computer system coordinates where everyone will go based on how the children perform on a daily test at the end of class. The next day's schedule is delivered electronically. Teachers, students and parents can log on to a website to see it.

    "It's easy to keep track of everyone," said Amelia Tonyes, a teacher. "It helps to target students with what they need."

    The software used by the Teach to One system pulls lessons from a database created and curated by the program's academic team. When Teach to One staffers discover a lesson that fits their program, they negotiate with the publisher to buy the lesson a la carte -- sort of like buying one song from iTunes instead of buying the entire album. Staffers say they examined about 80,000 lessons to create a library of 12,000 from 20 different vendors. A room in the office of the nonprofit is filled with stacks of math textbooks.

    According to Joe Ventura, a spokesman Teach to One's parent company, New Classrooms, schools pay $225 per student each year in licensing fees to use the content in Teach to Oneâs curriculum -- the materials that replace the typical textbook. They also pay between $50,000 and $125,000 a year for professional development and support services, but those fees typically decrease as schools gain more experience running the program, Ventura said.

    Schools in New York City don't pay the software licensing fees (although they pay some of the other costs), because the program originated within the city's department of education; the nonprofit that now runs Teach to One was created by former department of education employees. Ventura said that they are in negotiations for a new contract; he could not elaborate on details. Requests for information from the Department of Education brought no reply.

    Supporters say the program gives every student a custom-designed math class, allowing students to get different lesson, and move faster or slower than peers in the same class.

    Skeptics of this type of program say more evidence is needed to justify the time and expense.

    Larry Cuban, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, recently devoted a three-part series on his blog to what he calls automation in schools. Quality teachers deliver not just information, but a human element that can't be replicated by a machine, he concluded. In an interview, he was not enthusiastic about Teach to One, saying that, from what he's seen, it looks like "a jazzed-up version of worksheets."

    Teach to One's founders, hoping to demonstrate that the program works, commissioned a study by an education professor. The first year's results were mixed. A second-year study, released late last year, documented progress in 11 of 15 schools in the program. Although students still scored lower on math tests than national averages -- many are from disadvantaged populations -- the growth in the Teach to One students' scores outpaced the national average.

    Changes made after the first year's report, and increased teacher and student familiarity with the program, might explain the improved results, Ventura said. The updates included improvements to an online portal on which students and parents can track progress and continue to work on lessons outside of school; the addition of 130 multi-day collaborative student projects; refinements to the algorithm that is used to select lessons, and expansion of the library of lessons.

    The early research on Teach to One: Math shows schools that use the program have improved test scores, but could not conclude that Teach to One is the reason.

    The author of the research on Teach to One: Math, Douglas Ready, an associate professor of education and public policy at Teachers College of Columbia University, was cautiously optimistic. (The Hechinger Report is an independently funded unit of Teachers College.) He noted, though, that the early research could not determine whether the improved math scores could be attributed to Teach to One or had been affected by some other factor in the schools.

    The next step in evaluating the program will be supported by a $3-million U.S. Department of Education grant, announced this month. That grant will pay for deeper research into Teach to One, as well as an expansion of the program to more schools in one of its other cities, Elizabeth, N.J.

    Gary Miron, a professor of evaluation, measurement and research at Western Michigan University, is generally positive about the possibilities of blended learning. Asked by The Hechinger Report to review the research on Teach to One, he said the gains were "quite remarkable." He noted, however, that there is a lot of pressure on schools to show gains on tests, which can lead to inflated scores.

    That said, Miron is enthusiastic about the possibilities for blended learning programs that invest in both quality teaching and technology. Most online programs -- in which students don't ever report to a bricks-and-mortar school -- have less promising results, he said.

    "That is the future, blended learning," he said.

    Bring back the chalkboard.

    — Susan Ohanian




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