The DeHavilland Blog

Friday, September 29, 2006

Is money the answer?

I was reading PEN's newsblast last week, a summary of reports and articles regarding education (an excellent resource, by the way - well worth subscribing to), and something struck me odd about the first few entries. And then I caught on:

And it believes the quest for educational excellence means that more money has to be spent on public schools -- to reduce class size, attract better teachers, modernize school infrastructure, provide more preschool and afterschool programs, and help lagging schools meet NCLB requirements.

The piecemeal, underfunded initiatives that exist at present are inadequate to the need. We need a national, systemic, adequately funded program to develop the capacities of our teaching corps.

Strengthening opportunity requires greater, and more effective, investments in education, especially for America’s youngest children.

Sensing a theme here?

I can certainly appreciate a desire for more resources. But it does seem as if every solution proposed for fixing or improving public education requires massive amounts of new funding. I don't see that as happening, for two reasons:

First, more money has historically not made an impact on student achievement. According to the US Department of Education, education spending has increased from $4,479 per student in 1971 to $8,745 per student in 2001 (and yes, that's in inflation-adjusted dollars). In that same time frame, NAEP scores among 12th graders - the end result of our education system - have essentially stood still: from 1971 to 1999, reading scores have gone from 285 to 288; math scores have gone from 304 to 308; and science scores have gone from 290 to 295. So we have almost doubled our spending per student and seen virtually no return on that investment. This makes it extremely difficult to make a case for new funding.

Second, as Andrew Rotherham of Education Sector (also known as The EduWonk) has observed, we're not likely to see large increases in education funding in the future. The public is getting older, with fewer ties to public education (and therefore less incentive to approve new funding); the fiscal situation at the federal and state level (deficits and an appetite for tax cuts) makes significant new spending unlikely; and shifts away from once-powerful coalitions has weakened the opportunity for political action.

Given that there is no historical correlation between per-student spending and student achievement, coupled with the shifting demographic/political landscape, it's unrealistic to think that waves of new funding are going to wash over us.

We can therefore choose one of two paths:

  • Continue proposing reforms that require major new spending, secure in the knowledge that they will never happen.
  • Find ways to change education that have little to no capital requirements, or that redirect ineffective current spending to more productive ends.

One makes you a martyr; the other makes you a reformer. Which will you choose?

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The magic of eduspeak

If you've ever had the good fortune to talk turkey with an education researcher - or anyone else in education who doesn't really want you to understand what he's saying - you might get a kick out of the Rockwell Doublespeak Guy on YouTube.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The education limbo dance

The 2006 OECD report came out recently, and I’ll write about that soon. (Sneak preview: the US didn’t rocket to the top of the rankings since last year’s analysis.) But it did make me think about how we measure our own academic outcomes, since our national system doesn't seem to be preparing us well for international comparisons.

One of the biggest misperceptions among the public is that NCLB sets high academic standards for students and schools, and punishes those who do not meet them. In reality, NCLB does not set any standards, nor does it specify which tests are used to measure student outcomes against those standards. Rather, it only tells the states that they must set their own academic standards, and that they must select the tests used to measure student achievement. (See here for a good overview of the law.)

Because states are free to set the bar anywhere they want, many are setting it low to look as if they’re performing better than they are. As noted at D-Ed Reckoning, Maryland recently reported that 82% of its fourth graders are proficient readers, whereas the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), our country’s only national academic assessment, indicates that only 32% of Maryland fourth graders are proficient or above according to its standards.

Virginia is in the same boat, reporting 86% of its fourth graders are proficient in reading, with NAEP classifying only 37% of Virginia fourth graders as proficient.

Depressed yet? Hold on to your hats – it gets worse.

We assume that NAEP is the gold standard – that students judged to be proficient or better by NAEP can complete rigorous coursework, and that they can stand toe to toe with students from around the world. So at least the standard that states are afraid of is a challenging one.

Turns out that’s not really the case either. Again, according to D-Ed Reckoning, the Brookings Institute took the NAEP math test and coded each question against the scope and sequence of Singapore’s math curriculum in order to judge the rigor of our instruction and assessment against theirs. (Singapore is the top-ranking country in math.)

So how do the NAEP questions stack up? Not well. 76.8% of our 8th grade NAEP questions address material covered in grades 1-4 – and we still see a low level of proficiency, with only 30% of 8th graders scoring at proficient or above. Our 4th grade NAEP also covers younger materials, with 43.6% of questions reflecting material covered in grades 1 and 2. And again, we see a low level proficiency, with 36% of 4th graders scoring at proficient or above.

So it’s a double whammy – we have evidence of states gaming the system, setting standards lower than those of NAEP in order to look as if they’re performing better than they are. Then we find out that our gold standard – the standard that states are attempting not to be judged by – is not gold at all, but is in fact testing content knowledge and skills well below grade level.

We just keep setting the bar lower and lower, trying to post good scores in order to maintain political viability.. But continuing to lower our standards in order to appear proficient is actually reducing true student proficiency at a time when we need better-qualified STEM education than ever before.

This limbo dance has got to stop – it’s time to cut through the politicization of education, set real standards and teach kids so that they can meet them.

Update: Jay Mathews of the Washington Post writes about a related issue here - schools offering advanced classes (AP, honors) that fall well below rigorous standards.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Minds hate to change

This article, from legendary marketer Jack Trout, reminds us of a basic principle of marketing: once someone owns a position in the mind of consumers, it’s all but futile to try to change it. And there are real lessons here for education reform advocates.

There are countless examples of owning a position in the mind of the customer. Xerox means copiers; Western Union means telegrams. And when you try to change a position, either changing your own position or someone else’s, you’ll find that people don’t change their minds so easily.

Once people have decided that Volvo means safe cars, for example, it’s nearly impossible to get them to consider Volvos as sports cars (even if Volvo did a complete rebranding with a new product line). It’s also nearly impossible for another car company to supplant that safe car position, even if they do in fact create a car twice as safe as Volvo. Once someone owns a position in the mind, in other words, it’s there for good.

Trout writes:

When the market makes up its mind about a product, there's no changing that mind. As the late economist John Kenneth Galbraith once said: "Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof."

And he goes on to say:

So my advice to you marketing experts out there? If your assignment is to change people's minds, don't accept the assignment.

What are the implications for education reform advocates? For starters, consider the history of education over the past 25 years, from the alarm bells of A Nation At Risk to the intended impact of the release of school performance data courtesy of NCLB. Then consider this from the Phi Delta Kappa poll on public education:

  • In 1974, 48% of the public gave schools in the community a grade of A or B. In 2006, the percentage awarding local schools an A or a B is 49%.
  • In 1994, 66% of parents gave the school their oldest child attends a grade of A or B. This year’s figure is 64%.

When faced with information that conflicts with their view of local schools, they disregard the information in favor of maintaining their currently held beliefs. Rather than use data from NCLB to realize that their local school isn’t performing satisfactorily, they see the law as flawed – and those invested in the status quo are only too happy to help perpetuate this view.

So what to do? The answer is in another one of Trout’s rules of positioning: if someone occupies a position, provide an alternative with a different position. In other words, create differentiation.

Three possible approaches for education reform advocates:

  • Work outside the system: open alternative schools – private, charter, etc. – and position them in a way that public schools can’t compete with. Just as Sears cannot compete with boutique stores in targeted product areas, public schools, which have to be all things to all people, cannot compete against targeted programs like private schools (which position themselves for an elite audience) or KIPP schools (which position themselves for low-SES markets).
  • Work within the system: if you want reform, don’t attack poor performers; the attack will be dismissed by those who have already bought in to the position of the local schools. Instead, highlight stories of successes in the system in the areas you care about, holding those up as examples of what the system can accomplish.
  • Change the audience: People tend to put products into positions in the absence of greater information – in other words, it’s not always the best product in a position, but the first one who claimed that position, or the one most able to speak the loudest/most frequently about it (Beta, for example, is a better product than VHS, but VHS owns the "videotape" category). If you educate the audience – give them the facts instead of just assertions/impressions – they can make better judgments and decisions. One of the reasons that many parents dismiss the results of NCLB in favor of their continued support of schools is that they don’t know enough about NCLB: according to the Phi Delta Kappa survey, 50% of parents with children in school know “very little” or “nothing at all” about NCLB.

There are people working in each of these areas; it will be fascinating to watch and report on their successes.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

High Tech High, and coming full circle

The big news in business/education partnerships last week was the opening of Philadelphia's High Tech High, which was built in partnership with Microsoft. Details on Microsoft's role, from a story on

The school is being touted as unlike any in the world, with not only a high-tech building -- students have digital lockers and teachers use interactive "smart boards" -- but also a learning process modeled on Microsoft's management techniques.

"Philadelphia came to us ... and asked us to design a school," said Craig Mundie, chief research and strategy officer of Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft. "We're going to take our best shot."

The company didn't pay the $63 million cost -- that was borne by the Philadelphia School District -- but shared its personnel and management skills. About 170 teens, nearly all black and mainly low-income, were chosen by lottery to make up the freshman class. The school eventually plans to enroll up to 750 students.

Mundie said companies have long been concerned that schools aren't churning out graduates with the skills and know-how that businesses require in employees to compete globally -- and mental acuity is especially critical to Microsoft.

"Our raw material is smart people," he said.

School district CEO Paul Vallas said he was impressed by more than just the company's technology.

"I was also taken by their culture," Vallas said. "They created a culture within which ideas can be generated and acted upon."

Additional insight on the partnership from The Philadelphia Inquirer:

The school is Microsoft's biggest venture in a school to date. The company donated $100,000 to name an area in the building, but did not provide equipment or software or otherwise fund it. It instead gave personnel time, best practices, and access to its network of "international thought leaders."

The company has a local office and will continue to assist, Grover said.

Microsoft mogul Bill Gates greeted students in a video clip and said he, too, would visit.

The school district already is spreading what it has learned from Microsoft. It has borrowed design features for other new schools being planned, said Paul Vallas, district chief executive. And it has modernized more than 1,000 classrooms with others in planning, he said.

"I want people to say, 'I may not be in the building of the future, but I'm in the classroom of the future,' " Vallas said.

The district's hope that a donor would step forward with $5 million for naming rights has not come to fruition, but officials say they haven't given up.

Microsoft will not make the bid, said Microsoft's Mary J. Cullinane.

"This is really about let's devote human capital and provide the district with access to our organization," she said.

This looks to be a well-designed partnership, to be sure. Microsoft has been careful to remove themselves from preferential commercial treatment, so there are no commercial motives evident - it's really about taking an active role in preparing the workforce, with undoubtedly significant benefits in terms of public goodwill, image as a thought leader, and employee morale.

I highlight this project because it seems to be an indicator that we're coming full-circle regarding the way we think about business/education partnerships. Back in the first half of the 20th century, there was significant and substantive involvement in education by the business community. Business leaders sat on school boards and helped to design and manage vocational programs, all with an eye on the quality of the labor pool and specific workforce needs.

Something happened in the 60s and 70s, and business involvement in education was scaled back significantly - at least until the 80s, when A Nation At Risk, combined with Reagan's calls for action from business, brought it roaring back, and business' engagement continued to grow through the end of the century. The National Association of Partners in Education (now defunct) reported that between their 1990 and 2000 partnership surveys, involvement on the part of small businesses grew 35%; business association involvement grew 36%; and involvement by large corporations gew 29%.

But from what I've seen, the vast majority of these initiatives don't qualify as partnership efforts - businesses and schools working collaboratively to benefit instruction. I would classify many as either support operations, efforts to provide schools with additional resources (such as money or volunteers) that are then allocated based on the unilateral decisions of the schools. Many others could be considered as independent, tandem operations - groups that develop curricula that are then either offered to schools as completed products, those that offer scholarships directly to students, or those that manage contests rewarding academic achievements but that are done independently of schools.

I'm not implying in any way that these efforts do not have value; I'm simply saying that they're not partnerships. One side or the other has unilateral authority and decision-making power in how programs are designed and managed, how resources are allocated, and on which outcomes these initiatives are focused.

However, I do think we're coming full circle, back towards the true business/school partnerships of so long ago, when I see collaborative, peer-based ventures like Philadelphia's new High Tech High, certification programs run by companies like Microsoft and Cisco, and administrative-level collaborations run by groups like the Montgomery County Business Roundtable for Education.

It will be interesting to see whether we continue to move in this direction, or whether such true partnerships will remain exceptions to the rule.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A tale of two textbooks

I noticed an interesting, and perhaps a bit frightening contrast in two recent articles on textbooks. One focused on political correctness in the US textbook industry; the other looked at changes in textbooks used in China.

From "
Aiming for diversity, textbooks overshoot" in the 8/19/06 edition of The Wall Street Journal ($ paid subscription required):

To facilitate state approval and school-district purchasing of their texts, publishers set numerical targets for showing minorities and the disabled. In recent years, the quest to meet these targets has ratcheted to a higher level as technological improvements enable publishers to customize books for individual states, and as photos and illustrations take up more textbook space.

Although publishers describe these numbers as guidelines, many people familiar with educational publishing say they are strict quotas that must be adhered to. Moreover, in filling these quotas, publishers screen out a wide range of images they deem stereotypical, from Asian math students to barefoot African children.

Some educators complain that, at best, the efforts reflect political correctness gone awry -- and, at worst, that publishers are putting politics, and sales, ahead of student learning.

"There's more textbook space devoted to photos, illustrations and graphics than there's ever been, but frequently they have nothing to do with the lesson," says Diane Ravitch, a New York University professor and author of "The Language Police," a 2003 study of textbook censorship. "They're just there for political reasons, to show diversity and meet a quota of the right number of women, minorities and the disabled."

Also from the article:

For a spread on world cultures, one major publisher vetoed a photo of a barefoot child in an African village, on the grounds that the lack of footwear reinforced the stereotype of poverty on that continent, according to an employee familiar with the situation. It was replaced with a photo of a West African girl wearing shoes and a gingham dress.

Some textbooks shortchange depictions of important historical figures. As submitted to Texas for adoption in 2002, McGraw-Hill's "The American Republic Since 1877" included a profile and photo of Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman pilot. But there was no mention or image of aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright. After a Texas activist who advocates for more patriotic textbooks complained, McGraw-Hill added a passage and photo about the Wrights. A company spokeswoman said the brothers had been left out inadvertently.

Although publishers don't have numerical targets for religious affiliation, they're wary of slighting any faith. Rubin Pfeffer, a former executive with Pearson Education, says its marketing department vetoed a cover illustration for a 2005 first-grade reader of a pig walking down the street, on the basis that it might offend Jews or Muslims who don't eat pork. Pearson spokeswoman Wendy Spiegel says a beaver was substituted on the cover, but the inside pages featured a "beautifully illustrated" pig.

While we're stuffing our textbooks with political correctness and ideology, the Chinese are doing the opposite. From "Where's Mao? Chinese revise history books" in the 09/01/06 edition of the New York Times:

When high school students in Shanghai crack their history textbooks this fall they may be in for a surprise. The new standard world history text drops wars, dynasties and Communist revolutions in favor of colorful tutorials on economics, technology, social customs and globalization.

Socialism has been reduced to a single, short chapter in the senior high school history course. Chinese Communism before the economic reform that began in 1979 is covered in a sentence. The text mentions Mao only once — in a chapter on etiquette.

Nearly overnight the country’s most prosperous schools have shelved the Marxist template that had dominated standard history texts since the 1950’s. The changes passed high-level scrutiny, the authors say, and are part of a broader effort to promote a more stable, less violent view of Chinese history that serves today’s economic and political goals.


The new text focuses on ideas and buzzwords that dominate the state-run media and official discourse: economic growth, innovation, foreign trade, political stability, respect for diverse cultures and social harmony.

J. P. Morgan, Bill Gates, the New York Stock Exchange, the space shuttle and Japan’s bullet train are all highlighted. There is a lesson on how neckties became fashionable.

The French and Bolshevik Revolutions, once seen as turning points in world history, now get far less attention. Mao, the Long March, colonial oppression of China and the Rape of Nanjing are taught only in a compressed history curriculum in junior high.

“Our traditional version of history was focused on ideology and national identity,” said Zhu Xueqin, a historian at Shanghai University. “The new history is less ideological, and that suits the political goals of today.”

Now, I'm no expert on textbooks - haven't seen the books in question, nor have I seen previous editions to be able to track trends in coverage. But if these two articles are correct, it's pretty easy to see which country is more focused on national success and progress.

The Chinese continue to make incredible economic progress, they're making great scientific advances, and their focus on education is impressive as well (see here and here). Meanwhile, we're focusing on political correctness in our textbooks while we play games to mask our 30% dropout rate and low levels of academic proficiency, and treat science like an ugly stepchild.

Can we not see how this movie ends?

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Can education reform itself?

Just had an article published on Edspresso - "Can education reform itself?" - that seeks to answer that question by looking at the historical patterns of innovation seen in other industries.

You can read the article here - please share thoughts and comments here or at the Edspresso site.