Friday, March 23, 2012

The Future of American Education?

I recently had the opportunity to read Yong Zhao’s Catching Up or Leading the Way.  The book was an interesting look at our past, current, and future educational system in relation to that of our countries, in particular, China’s.  The premise of the book is that though the American system has its share of challenges, it isn’t in quite the hot water that we believe it to be.  The premise of the book is interesting, and parts of the book itself are intriguing.  In this simple short review, I want to focus on a few items, and then, if you like, you can read it yourself and let me know what you think.

Zhao does an excellent job of condensing American education into a few short pages and he focuses on the many policies and initiatives that have brought us to where we are.  This isn’t a history lesson by any means, but he approaches our educational growth from a “policy of fear” in a very intriguing way.  The first few chapters were quite informative.  I did question a few items Zhao mentioned early on.  First, he states that the American system is a true example of contest mobility because students are not sorted early on into different tracks.  As a classroom teacher from 2001 – 2011, I couldn’t disagree more.  Tracking in some sense started in our school as early as the sixth grade, and in many districts in my region, math and science are tracked as early as seventh and eighth grade.  That’s early in my book.  In addition, while this book was written in 2009, I wonder whether the claim about there still being a lot of support put behind the ideal of an “American Dream” exists.  How has the national economic crisis and media impacted this?  I would be curious to find out if most students (and most Americans) still believe the “American Dream” is attainable for everyone.  I would hope so, but I’m seriously left wondering.

Zhao’s chapter on China is wonderful.  It gives a great sense of why China is attempting to “Americanize” its educational system, and what led the Chinese down that path.  He uses this as a great juxtaposition to ask, “Why then is America going the other way?”  It was very well done.

I was less enthused by the following chapters and felt the book took a terrible turn.  I found it challenging to read and very repetitive.  In fact, it began to sound a lot like every other globalization book on the market.  I’m curious why Zhao took this route as I was very pumped up by the first few chapters only to be disappointed by the next few.  Zhao talks too much about the virtual versus real worlds, and the impact (or not so much) of job loss and overseas employment.  His claims are worth mentioning, but the three or four chapters devoted to it weigh the book, and its message, down tremendously.  In fact, by the time Zhao attempts to tie everything together, I was so tired of reading about globalization, that I couldn’t bring myself back to the true point of the book, where America is and whether we’re heading in the right direction.  It was a shame.  There are some intriguing aspects to these chapters, though.  For instance, his segment on core assumptions of globalization and keys to “globalization education” are great discussion points for contemplating how schools can truly engage the next generation and beyond.  In addition, I really found his proposed indicators of “input-oriented accountability” (a more “big picture” approach to measuring school quality) exciting.  I also gave a thumbs-up to his emphasis on personalized learning and the simple fact that today it pays for education to be “global.”  No one can argue with that.

Sadly, despite all these intriguing ideas, the book seemed to become an advertisement for the services of Michigan State University (Zhao’s place of employment) towards the end.  While I would hope that Zhao did not mean it to be this way and was just citing information he was professionally close to, as a skeptic and good “bias-finder,” it really seemed to be a conflict of interest.  I was also shocked with the research he cited showing no difference in effectiveness between online and face-to-face instruction.  Anyone research or study these areas that can confirm?

All-in-all, while I’m glad I finally got the chance to read this book, I’m disappointed that I didn’t enjoy more of it.  With a premise that solid, the book should have been much better.

As always, let me know what you think.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Update on the Next Generation Science Standards

On Friday I had the opportunity to attend the Celebration of Teaching and Learning (CTL)  in New York City.  It was a wonderful conference.  I attended a workshop put together by Brookhaven Laboratory first thing in the morning and then listened to the plenary right after (Sal Khan ended up being a much more dynamic and humorous speaker than I thought he would be).  In the afternoon, I heard the sobering data from the MetLife survey that teacher satisfaction has dropped fifteen percent to forty-four percent in the last two years.  With all that is going on in education today, that is frightening, but not entirely surprising.

The most intriguing session for me, however, was getting an update on the development of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).  I've been following the process as closely as possible since the release of the NRC's Framework in July, and this was a great opportunity to hear what was cooking behind the scenes at Achieve.  The session was run by Stephen Pruitt (of Achieve fame), Heidi Schweingruber (force behind the Framework), and Peter McLaren (of the CSSS).

Dr. Schweingruber began the presentation with a description of the Framework.  She did a nice job of bringing all those who have yet to read the Framework, or to read NSTA's "Reader's Guide," up to speed.  


I apologize in advance for the terrible images.  The Hilton was stingy with the wifi ($25 bucks, come on now), so all my tweeting and pics came from my Droid.  The image above shows a simple correlation between the Common Core standards and NGSS.  This was very cool to see, but wait, it gets better.

Before turning over the presentation to Dr. Pruitt, Dr. Schweingruber shared the determinants for disciplinary Core Idea selection.  What separates out the included from those not making the cut?
According to this list, an idea would only be listed as a core idea if:
  •  It had broad importance across disciplines or was a key idea in one discipline 
  • It provides a key tool for investigation or problem solving
  • It directly relates to the life experiences of students or important happenings in society
  • It is teachable and "learnable" over multiple grades
She noted that while this "rubric" was tough to use at times, it did help in making the Framework more about depth than breadth.
Dr. Pruitt then shared how Achieve has used the Framework to begin drafting standards.  While "shifts" is becoming a tremendous educational buzzword (add that to your education bingo card), Dr. Pruitt shared the shifts in the NGSS (as of now).  While the pic above is horrible, the shifts include looking at standards as performance expectations, correlating the NGSS with the Common Core State Standards, and integrating science and engineering.

What was really exciting to see was a sample standard!  Dr. Pruitt made clear that this was only a sample, and may not look anything like the draft or final versions.  Still, it presented some interesting food for thought.  Here's the lowdown:
  • Performance Expectations will be written in such a way that each of the three Framework pillars are incorporated (Practices, Cross-cutting Concepts, and Core Ideas).  An example could be: Students will analyze data (Practice) to determine that kinetic energy is proportional (Cross-cutting Concept) to the mass of a moving object and that it grows with the squaring of velocity (Core Idea).  
  • Colors will be used in the standard document to help readers see how the three pillars are incorporated.
  • Correlations to Common Core State Standards will be included below performance expectations to provide for a seamless method for tying relevant standards together (interdisciplinary party, anyone?)
Other intriguing items of note?  The first public draft should be out by April 30th (a month later than originally anticipated), and in this first public draft, performance expectations will be broken down by individual grades for K-5, and then in bands for 6-8, and 9-12.  Achieve is looking to design pathways that states could use to allow for standards to be met in either a grade-by-grade or band format.  In this way, regardless of the states needs, they would be able to integrate the standards into their programs.  Personally, I'm more a fan of having four distinct bands (K-2, 3-5, 6-8. and 9-12) as I think it affords teachers and curriculum designers with more flexibility.  But, I won't knock either option until I've tried it.  I'm anxiously awaiting the chance to provide some feedback!

Mr. McLaren wrapped up the presentation by sharing ways that states are getting involved in the standards process, and just as importantly, how the average Joe and Jane can get involved.  One item he mentioned is that even though the talk has been about the twenty-six "lead states" (of which New York is one), all fifty states and D.C. are putting forth plans for standard release.  He shared his card with all attendees and even sought me out after the presentation to make sure I had all my questions answered.  All three were excellent presenters and great to briefly chat with after the presentation was over.  

This is the first time I've had the opportunity to attend the CTL, and have to say that the four sessions I was able to attend were quite intriguing.  I even had the chance to pose with good ol' Snoopy (note that I in no way endorse MetLife :) ).  


Thursday, March 8, 2012

Geeking Out

I think it is healthy for everyone to "geek out" every once in a while.  You know what I mean.  To simply take some time to explore or experience something that you find very interesting, even if others might disagree.  For me, that is reading/watching/experiencing science fiction and comics.  I've been a collector of Amazing Spider-Man comics for many years, and I've attended my share of Comic Cons (never in costume, however, that's not my style).  I also really enjoy science fiction films and books, and just last year I started collecting Star Wars Galaxy cards (nerd alert).  I haven't collected cards of any kind since I was much, much, younger, but being a Star Wars fan, I was intrigued by the excellent art depicted on the cards.  I consider myself a pretty "skilled" person, but art has never been one of those skills.  So, I'm amazed at what these amazing artists can do with pen, pencil, marker, and paint.  Their love for what they do is evident in their artistry, and I hope that my love for education and science is just as visible in what I do on a daily basis.

A few nights ago I had the opportunity to geek out with a few packs of Star Wars Galaxy cards.  It was an incredibly relaxing and enjoyable experience.  While we all might geek out in different ways, we all need to spend time doing the things we truly love (as nerdy or geeky as they might be) to recharge our batteries, exercise our minds, and feed our souls.  Whether we want to admit it or not, we all need to embrace our inner geek.

If you're interested in seeing the results of my latest geek session, check out the Star Wars Galaxy video review and pack break I put together: