Efficacy in Educational Innovation

“Innovation” and “schools” go together like “Cozy” and “house for sale” – they sound great together, and sometimes can be good news – like a well-designed, cutting edge curriculum, or an actually cozy house – but more often are used euphemistically.

I don’t know how Sandy Welch, Republican candidate for superintendent of schools, is using the word innovation, when she says “we need to start innovating“. Her plan to implement this innovation, however, seems a little bit flawed for a couple reasons.

The plan, per the IR, is that the top performing schools would be given ‘freedom to innovate’, whereas the low performing schools are would be subject to more regulation.

That doesn’t seem to make sense to me. For one thing, it’s like rather like saying that the Yankees need to be the innovators in baseball, and the Padres (no offense Pogie) need to keep playing the game the same way as ever. Shouldn’t innovation be taking place in the schools in the most trouble, where the standard methods are proving ineffective? Whereas, a school where the regulations are working out and producing acceptable results should feel less need to innovate with new methods.

But my second concern is that if such a plan was adopted, it will only feed into the poor data that already exists regarding school reform. Most notably, if such a plan was adopted, the whitest, richest schools will be the ones to adopt new programs, and then those programs will appear effective because will only be available to the schools most likely to perform well anyway. And indeed they may be, but the central problem will remain that they will not have been truly tested, and certainly not tested in the schools where they are most needed.

I don’t know enough about Ms Welch to ascribe to her any intentions with this plan, but whatever is motivating it, it should be clear that this plan represents an ineffective way to infuse reform or innovation into our schools.

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  • I honestly have no idea what she actually intends to do, based on her answers to the press and her web site.

    I suspect that her total lack of specifics is intentional, because Montanans will reject her plans for Montana schools.

    Freedom to innovate? What does that mean in practical terms?

  • When I was a candidate for Montana legislature I accepted support from teachers, which included some phone banking and some individual money. (I raised $5,000 in total.) I was conflicted (1996) because even then, when the right wing was pushing vouchers (now renamed charter schools, in either guise merely redirecting public money to private investors), the schools were “underperforming,” which in our coded language means turning out poor quality employees.

    But in my mind, underperforming meant turning out poor quality citizens, unable to resist military propaganda, advertising or the financial “services” industry, and certainly unable to ferret out the hidden agenda behind political machinations we call “campaigns.” So neither side presented a good solution the the problem of vigilant citizenship.

    Which brings us to the problem of people like Welch. Of course she has a hidden agenda, probably charter schools, and of course she will advance it with vigor once elected, and of course the ritual of campaigning will not expose her intentions or agenda. We don’t vet candidates, journalists don’t burrow or investigate or attempt to unmask people. And if she loses, we are still stuck with “underperforming” schools, the best of which will turn out citizens good at rote memorization of multiple choice answers, but not much for vigilant citizenship.

    Not much choice going on in education.

  • Mark –

    If your theories about public education are correct (eg, it’s intended to fit students better into the current, capitalist-militant pattern of our society), there would be a simple way to test it. If you are correct, than students who do poorly in our education system would be less likely to join the military or fall into debt. That is demonstrably false. Indeed, education in America is far less about employability or rote memorization than in Western Europe or East Asia; hence, students specialize less and later, spend more time in humanities, etc. There are major problems, but they are not of the nature you describe.

    • And where, pray tell, in the education system, are courses that spell out the dangers of militarism and advertising? You are spraying whitewash on the curriculum, which covers none of this stuff. Good and poor students alike beleive in our military mission and are frightened by the same hobgoblins. Poor kids join the military because it is their best option to make a living.

      My kids never bought into all the bullshit, not because the schools offered them alternative means of perception, but because I did. And I only came to awareness on my own, and came out of high school as dumb and deluded as everyone else. (I did have college professors who attempted to penetrate the my thick skull and all of the indoctrination, and thought them weird.)

      In short, do not take credit for the privilege of kids from good families or assign the fact that well-off kids don’t join the military to reasoning powers.

      I can’t speak to other cultures, and only observe from a distance. The Chinese seem a culture that rewards high achievement in hard pursuits but puts little importance on critical thinking, just like us. They have not achieved a high material standard as of yet, and so work harder at it. Europeans seem far more advanced, as typically they speak more than one language, interact with other cultures, know what destruction militarism begets, and look upon even ‘educated’ Americans with disdain. If they are heavily into standardize multiple-choicing like us, it is news to me.

            • Y-E-S. Only two are allowed. The others might exist in some meaningless sense, but can never achieve critical mass due to the massive amount of menu needed to achieve that.

                • Hey Larry,

                  There’s a group of kids in Helena now looking to introduce native language learning as an option for the foreign language requirement in Helena Public Schools. I know you’re a big advocate of that; did you have any advice or resources for the kids trying to accomplish this?

                • There was talk of running a course as a remote access program of one of the tribal colleges. We’re pretty sure that this program, if it happened, would be one of the first such programs in an urban environment this far off-reservation. One of the obvious problems it causes, though, is decided which language(s) and culture(s) to focus on, because Helena isn’t definitively in the area of one over the others. But I do hope that BFCC is able to help them out; the link there has some pretty good jumping-off points.

                  Thanks for the suggestion,

      • “And where, pray tell, in the education system, are courses that spell out the dangers of militarism and advertising?”

        We’ve been through this before – humanities classes in high school are heavily tilted against American imperialism, to the extent that it is allowed. Even mainstream history books require students to read Dulce et Decorum Est, and if you need more than that to turn you against militarism, I don’t think there’s much hope. Moreover, media literacy is specifically addressed (I remember at least one full assembly regarding the power of advertising).

        “If they are heavily into standardize multiple-choicing like us, it is news to me.”

        Europeans extensively rely on standardized tests, though I don’t know what percentage of those are multiple choice (which are, at least in Portugal, referred to as “American Tests”, which is telling). The stakes are much higher – an American student taking a standardized test probably won’t see any ill effect from failing until they are juniors or seniors and take the ACT or SAT. In either case, they need only aim for a certain score, in conjunction with their grades, extracurricular activities, etc. On the other hand, the stakes of the German Abi or French Baccalaureat are much, much higher (to say nothing about Korea, Japan or Singapore).

        No, the anti-militarism and anti-consumerism you ascribe to Europeans is not the result of greater critical thinking or a lack of indoctrination, but rather an indoctrination that fits more closely with your own beliefs (and indeed a more extensive and more highly partisan indoctrination, as political parties devote attention to their youth to an extent that Americans would find profoundly troubling).

        Extensive political conversations with European high school or colleges students, and observing them in a college classroom setting, makes that clear – they are not inherently more clever or intellectually flexible than American students; rather, they show the same willingness to insist on the dogma they have been taught, it is just a different dogma. If anything, they are less likely to challenge teachers or professors on an academic level (Germans, for some reason, excepted, in my experience.) Not all of them look upon educated Americans with disdain, and those that do, do so out of arrogance. They are better equipped in their particular field than an average American student, perhaps, but because they start to specialize early in their education, they have a less broad knowledge base.

  • Your reply, from inside the profession, is largely anecdotal, and oddly so given that you have access to all the necessary materials to draw better-founded assertions. I speak from outside the profession and in the culture, and do not see any of the pacifism, anti-imperialism or anti-Americanism you say is inculcated in our youth. Far from it, I see OWS, Democracy Now, Adbusters as highly marginalized and unable to reach mainstream due to filtering and inability to penetrate the indoctrinary mindset that dominates our culture. Walk around, talk to people, say something like “Obama did not kill Osama, that was a manufactured event”‘ and you’ll get glassy eyes. And that’s in my mind a perfect example, as no hard evidence was ever presented to support the reality if that event, but people accept without question. Where is critical thought???

    Indeed stakes are higher in other cultures, as higher education is part of the commons, as it should be, and advancement depends on continued achievement, as it should. For your own enlightenment I suggest that you look to the kind of testing they do. I assure you that rote memorization and skill at M-choicing* are not a large part of it. It’s very difficult to write a quality essay exam answer that pleases a demanding teacher.

    I remember in the lead up to the attack on Iraq Eagleberger being interviewed on mainstream news, asked about popular support for ja war. He said that by the time they invaded, jey’d have 60-70% support. He knew this, I suggest, because the American
    Iliac is exactly opposite what you asset schools are producing.

    And I’m guessing here that you are among the majority hat do not question the Osama killing, indicating long leading blind. But set me straight if I am wrong.

    *I excel at this, by the way, which made me a CPA, but not a smart person. I studied for months and began to realize that MC choices had a certain melody about them where it was easy to eliminate two answers of the four.

    • “jey’d have 60-70% support. He knew this, I suggest, because the American
      Iliac is exactly opposite what you asset schools are producing.” = they’d have 60-70% support. He knew this, I suggest, because the American public is exactly opposite what you assert schools are producing.

    • Ah geez, I peck this out on an IPad, notoriously auto-correcting, and I do not see errors until they are hard-wired. I apologize for the typos above that make reading my words hard from more than a mere political standpoint.

    • Again, Mark, you’re making statements we can easily test. First, you are right in one regard – multiple choice exams are much less common in Europe, though it is far from absent and there is still rote memorization and far more concern with cannon than in the US. But in several other assertions you are wrong.

      First, your concern with producing workers rather than citizens should be directed more at Europe than at the US. Most Western European systems start to differentiate students into different career paths as preteens, so that a student studying humanities may have only the most rudimentary education in other subjects, or vice versa. American students do not reach this level of specialization until late in high school or early in college. This is not necessarily better – asking students to make crucial decisions about their futures, and punishing them for making the wrong ones, when they are in the most turbulent period of their lives, has its downside. Moreover, European students are highly specialized in their colleges, in that what we call the core curriculum is non-existent in many countries. And again, their testing is much more subject-specific. All of this leads to – you guessed it, excellent, specialized employees.

      Second, your concern that high school makes students pro-nationalist and militant is again testable – if this is the case, those Americans who are just coming out of high school should already have opinions that reflect this militancy and nationalism. However, that’s clearly not true, as young people (18-29) are the ones who were most likely, for example, to oppose the war in Iraq. Now, much of this is undoubtedly due to he influence of colleges. But wait! having some college education actually increases a person’s likelihood of having supported the war in Iraq. Instead, it certainly seems that as people age and get further from the education system (and therefore get more of their ‘information’ from hearsay and the media and less from teachers and books), they grow more conservative and more pro-war. It’s difficult to get the opinions of high school students in poll form, because polls rarely ask them questions, but all the evidence points to them being far more critical of the government than older Americans, suggesting that their ‘indoctrination’ takes place after high school.

      Finally, your example of critical thinking:

      ““Obama did not kill Osama, that was a manufactured event”‘”

      That statement is not indicative of critical thinking. It is indicative of contrarian thinking, which is merely indoctrination by someone other than the powers that be. A critical thinker would note that there has been no proof that the event happened or did not, but that compelling evidence exists that the event was not merely manufactured. Between Raymond Davis, the arrests that occurred in Pakistan after the alleged raid, the reported existence of young children fathered by Osama (a fact that is easily testable, if they are ever released from Pakistani custody), all suggests that on that night, somebody was targeted who was being protected by at least some elements of the Pakistani ISI. Whether that was in fact bin Laden is unprovable, but it seems unlikely that the US would actually put soldiers on Pakistani soil if it were not a very high value target.

      That’s kind of your whole issue – you don’t actually think critically, you’re a non-conformist just for the sake of it, and when the vast majority of thinking or informed people disagree with you, you feel justified ignoring them because you are convinced that you, Noam, and a limited Illuminati have discovered the secrets of ‘critical thinking’ that puts you in a position to challenge people who actually have experience and expertise.

      • My favorite comment on a blog ever:

        “That statement is not indicative of critical thinking. It is indicative of contrarian thinking, which is merely indoctrination by someone other than the powers that be.”

        Well done, sir.

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