The digital equity concerns of ‘good enough’

Close up

Tim Holt says:

[George] Couros had a really nice statement in his article “… Technology should be at the point of instruction and be as accessible in learning as a pencil; it shouldn’t be an event. How many pencil labs do you have in your school?”

Great point. Tech should be at the point of instruction. He left off a word however: GREAT.

GREAT Technology should be at the point of instruction and be as accessible in learning as a pencil…

Not “adequate”, not “ok,” not “mediocre,” not “the cheapest we could buy,” not “good enough,” not “hand me down,” not “hobbled.”

The technology we provide students should be the best we can provide.

Miguel Guhlin uses the “90% of all tasks can be completed” argument here as a way of implying that good enough is good enough. (He cites a study in the article.)

Again, a terrible argument.

This idea of providing something that ALMOST can do the job is laughable. It is like giving a kid a donkey to run the Kentucky Derby. Okay kid, that donkey will actually make it around the track just like the thoroughbreds can. Never you mind that the race will be over for 30 minutes by the time you finish. The donkey is good enough for your needs.

Here kid, we are giving you a 1975 Chevy Vega to run the Daytona 500. Good luck. It is LIKE a Nascar car, heck, it is 90% of everything that a Nascar car is: It has an engine, it has four wheels, it has a seat a speedometer, a stick shift … Heck, it does 90% of what a Nascar car can do. Be happy.

The kids coming from low SES are the farthest behind. To give them something that is already hobbled is insulting. Here kid, you are behind already, here is something that will make you farther behind, But be glad, because you can do 90%!


I greatly appreciate Tim’s digital equity concerns and passion. We should indeed strive to provide the same for our children that we use as adults if we want their technology usage to be as authentic as possible. I’m struck by his observation that adult educators typically aren’t using cheap computers to do their day-to-day work but we seem to think it’s okay for kids:

Here is the deal: If cheap is the way to go and it is preparing kids for college and the workforce, then everybody in a school district that is IN THE WORKFORCE, every administrator, every clerk, every secretary, and every accountant at every campus all the way up to the district superintendent should be willing to use the cheap devices.

Let’s see the district architects use them.
Let’s see researchers use them.
Let’s see the accountants use them.
Let’s see the principals use them.
Let’s see the IT staff use them to run the servers.

If it is good enough for the least among us, then it should be good enough for the most advanced of us. I wonder how many upper administration would move to cheap devices if they had to use them 100% of the time to do 90% of the work?

All that said, I’m having a hard time reconciling digital equity concerns with the realities of funding during this time of mindset and paradigm shifts. I want the best for kids too, but I’d rather have 90% for them than nothing. Tim might agree with me on that point. However, he’s not framing this as a choice between 90% and 0% but rather as a choice between 90% and 100%, with iPads closing the final gap at a price point similar to Chromebooks. I think that both devices have their limitations. If you forced me to choose personally (I have both), I’d rather have an iPad than a Chromebook, primarily because of its apps and ease of taking photos/videos. I’m not sure if I’m ready yet to pillory schools that make the opposite choice as they go for 90% instead of 0%.

Lots of food for thought in Tim’s post

Image credit: Close Up 0410, Mike Liu

Tech integration fails when it is an add-on

Miguel Guhlin says:

When technology is missing from the equation, both during preparation of an initiative (e.g. Writing Workshop, Problem-Based Learning, whatever), then later when it is shared, adding technology after the fact results in a waste of money. Efforts like mass inclusion of tablets, Bring Your Own Device, Chromebooks fail, not because the devices themselves are insufficient or inadequate to the task, but because they are add-ons to the original recipe … and they were never meant to be included.


Cramming is indisputable proof of the superficiality of most classrooms in America


Marion Brady says:

The Procedure: 1. Take notes during lectures, and hi-lite key sentences in the textbook. 2. Before a big test, load the notes and hi-lited passages into short-term memory. 3. Take the test. 4. Flush short-term memory and prepare for its re-use.

The Procedure, of course, is called “cramming.” Do it well and it leads steadily up the academic ladder.

But here’s a question: Does The Procedure have anything do with educating?

Learning – real LEARNING – starts when, for whatever reason, the learner wants it to start. It proceeds if the aim is clear and what’s being learned connects logically and solidly to existing knowledge. It’s strengthened when mistakes are made, clarifying the potential and limitations of the new knowledge. It’s reinforced when it’s put to frequent, immediate, meaningful, real-world use. It becomes permanent when it’s made part of the learner’s organized, consciously known “master” structure of knowledge.

Slow down for a moment and think about it. Cramming is indisputable proof of the superficiality and inefficiency – even the failure – of what’s going on in most classrooms across America. What’s crammed wasn’t learned or there would be no need to cram; what’s crammed isn’t learned or it wouldn’t be forgotten.

In the real world, where it counts, the gap between crammers and learners is vast, and tends to widen over time. Unfortunately, the thus-far-successful “reform” effort to cover the standard material at a standard pace, and replace teacher judgment with machine-scored standardized tests has further institutionalized cramming and hidden the failure its use proves.


We’ve been doing a lot of this over the past week as my daughter prepares for her AP U.S. History semester exam (100 multiple choice questions in 90 minutes). I hate it…

Image credit: Cram time (winter+spring), Svein Halvor Halvorsen

The magic formula for technology failure?

I’m cleaning out my home office and I found this note I hastily scrawled while traveling somewhere:

Lack of vision + inadequate infrastructure + no training + poor implementation + insufficient ongoing support + refusal to change = tech success!

Does this sound like your wishful school or district? Hope not!

Data resisters aren’t Chicken Littles

Chicken in a pot

John Kuhn says:

The vocal opposition we see to data collection efforts like inBloom, to curriculum standards (which define the data to be collected) like the Common Core, and to tests (the data source) like the MAP can all be traced back, largely, to two things: (1) dismay over how much class time is sacrificed for the all-encompassing data hunt, and (2) a foundational mistrust regarding the aims of those who gather and control the data. If your dad brings home a new baseball bat, it’s a pretty happy time in the family – unless your dad has been in the habit of beating the family with blunt objects. Data is that baseball bat. A better analogy might be a doctor who causes his patients pain unnecessarily with his medical equipment. Patients are naturally going to resist going in for procedures that the doctor says are “good for them” if they know it will come with excessive pain. There is a vigorous campaign online and in the papers and political buildings to discredit opponents of school reform as just so many Chicken Littles “defending the status quo” and sticking their heads in the sand. A salient question, though, is this: has the sector-controlling school reform movement, going back to the dawn of No Child Left Behind, wielded data honestly, ethically, and constructively? If not, then yeah, there will be resistance. These people aren’t Chicken Littles. They’re Chickens Who Won’t Get in the Pot.


Educators don’t trust the powers that be, and the powers that be don’t trust educators. And thus our dysfunctional systems and dialogues…

Image credit: 11.20.11 Every Sunday, Peas

Emulating downward: Iowa’s misplaced idolization of Florida’s retention policies

Dunce cap

The Iowa Department of Education (DE) was quoted recently as saying, “We really aren’t looking at [3rd grade retention] as being punitive.” The problem, of course, is that it doesn’t matter how we as adults perceive retention. What matters is how the retained 8-year-olds perceive retention. And four decades of research is very clear that retention is viewed as extremely punitive by those students that are retained. In fact, students rate academic retention as a life stressor on par with losing a parent and going blind.

John Hattie, author of Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement, notes that “it would be difficult to find another educational practice on which the evidence is so unequivocally negative” (p. 99) and that “the only question of interest relating to retention is why it persists in the face of this damning evidence” (p. 98). Study after study, researcher after researcher, finds the same few things about retention:

  • No long-term achievement gains. Being retained does not increase academic achievement in the long run. Let’s say that again: being retained does NOT increase academic achievement in the long run. Sometimes we see short-term score bumps but they always wash out by the upper grades. This is true even in Florida, whose educational ‘miracle’ Iowa is apparently desperate to emulate despite having better overall academic achievement, high school graduation rates, etc. A quick comparison of NAEP proficiency rates shows that Florida may have found ways to artificially inflate its 4th grade reading scores – results always look better when low-achievers have been removed from the grade cohort and/or students have had an extra year of schooling – but by 8th grade its students revert back to the lower half of the national rankings. [Quick aside: if Iowans want to reclaim our place at the top of the state education rankings, shouldn’t we be adopting practices of the states that do better, not worse, than us?] This means that – despite intuition and anecdotes to the contrary – there are no long-term achievement differences between students who are retained and those who are ‘socially promoted.’ One more time in case it’s not clear: “there are more positive effects in the long term for promoted students than for retained students – even when matched for achievement at the time of decision to retain or promote” (Hattie, p. 97).
  • Significantly higher dropout rates. Students who are retained don’t do any better academically in the long run but they do have a significantly higher risk of dropping out. For example, one study showed that 65% to 90% of overage children in grade 9 do not persist to graduation. Retention has found to be a stronger predictor of student dropout than socioeconomic status or parental education. That extra year is a killer – literally – when it comes to retained students’ secondary school completion rates. Florida’s graduation rate is 43rd in the country, while Iowa’s is 5th. Again, why are we emulating downward?
  • Lower life success. Retention has been shown to negatively impact long-term life success factors such as postsecondary education attendance, pay per hour, and employment competence ratings. Retained students also are more likely to display aggression during adolescence.
  • No increase in motivation. Retention – or the threat of retention – is not a motivating force for students. Students don’t try harder and aren’t motivated to do better after they’re retained. Instead, retention greatly diminishes student self-concept and impairs self-efficacy. Just to make clear how wrong DE’s statement is, research shows that students would rather wet themselves in class in front of their peers than be retained.
  • Discriminatory impacts. Students of color are four times as likely to be retained as their White counterparts, even when they exhibit the same academic achievement. Students in poverty also are more likely to be retained than their more affluent peers. The burdens that come with being retained are borne primarily by those students whom already are traditionally-disadvantaged by existing schooling practices.

So there we have it: incredible damage to students’ self-concept, substantial increases in students’ dropout rates, and significant reductions in students’ future life success – with bonus discriminatory impacts! – all for the mere potential of a statistically-manipulable, now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t test score bump for interstate bragging rights. And, if that weren’t enough, we also get to pay more and get a worse outcome! It would be difficult to envision an educational practice that has less going for it than retention. And yet it is now enshrined into Iowa law, to be made operational (and, apparently, rationalized) by our Department of Education. [One final aside: DE also tries to justify retention because “we really want to get parents to take their child’s literacy development very, very seriously.” Most parents care very much about their children’s literacy development, of course. Parents of struggling readers need help and support, not blame or stigmatization or penalization of their children.]

Retention is not a policy unknown. Even the laziest of reporters or legislators can do a quick Google Scholar search and see that decades of peer-reviewed studies are clear that retention hurts kids and will hurt Iowa. The real policy question here is why don’t we care?

Image credit: Children playing, 1908; Library of Congress

Integration matters. A lot.

White, Colored

Richard Rothstein says:

When African-American students from impoverished families are concentrated together in racially isolated schools, in racially isolated neighborhoods, exposed only to other students who also come from low-income, crime-ridden neighborhoods and from homes where parents have low educational levels themselves, the obstacles to these students’ success are most often overwhelming. In racially isolated schools with concentrations of children from low-income families, students have no models of higher academic achievement, teachers must pitch instruction to a lower academic average, more time is spent on discipline and less on instruction, and the curriculum is disrupted by continual movement in and out of classrooms by children whose housing is unstable.

Social science research for a half century has documented the benefits of racial integration for black student achievement, with no corresponding harm to whites. When low income black students attend integrated schools that are mostly populated by middle class white students, achievement improves and the test score gap narrows. By offering only a “diversity” rationale for racial integration, [United States Department of Education] Secretary [Arne] Duncan indicated that he is either unfamiliar with this research or chooses to ignore it.

[Duncan’s] response was especially troubling because the segregation of black students is increasing, not decreasing.


Even better, here in Iowa – at least as long as we don’t talk about or consider the resultant resegregationist effects – we’re supposedly in favor of school choice!

Image credit: img_1673, Joe Jarvis

Join us for the Thinking Out Loud Show, Episode 1

Evan Scherr is launching a new online series called The Thinking Out Loud Show. The guests for Episode 1.1 are Eric Sheninger, Joe Mazza, and myself. The topic is Leadership in Education. We’ll be talking about all types of leadership: administrators, students, teachers, and even parents!

Hope you’ll join us this Thursday at 8pm Eastern. See Evan’s Thinking Out Loud Show page for more info. Happy viewing!

UPDATE: Did you miss the show? The webinar archive is now available!

Content mastery is a means, not a goal

Grant Wiggins says:

There are really only 3 non-negotiables in UbD [Understanding by Design]:

  1. There has to be a clear, constant, and prioritized focus on ‘understanding’ as an educational goal. Content mastery is NOT a sufficient goal in an understanding-based system; content mastery is a means, in the same way that decoding fluency is a means toward the real goal of reading – meaning, based on comprehension, from texts. This logic requires teacher-designers to be clear, therefore, about which uses of content have course priority since understanding is about transfer and meaning-making via content.
  2. The assessments must align with the goals via ‘backward design’; and the goals, as mentioned, should highlight understanding. So, there can be quizzes of content mastery and questions on the exam re: content, but the bulk of assessment questions and tasks cannot possibly be mere recall of content kinds in an understanding-based system. The issue is therefore not whether or not there are final exams but what kinds of questions/tasks make up any exams given; and whether the kinds of questions are in balance with the prioritized goals.
  3. The instructional practices must align with the goals. Again, that doesn’t mean content cannot be taught via lectures or that content-learning cannot be what lessons are sometimes about. But a course composed mainly of lectures cannot logically yield content use – any more than a series of lectures on history or literacy can yield high-performing historians or teachers of reading. The instructional methods must, as a suite, support performance with understanding.


There are so many good things in this 3-item list. I love the emphasis on student performance; the reminder that content mastery is a means, not a goal; and the emphatic distinction between ‘recall’ and ‘understanding.’ Thanks, Grant.

Moving toward something better than corporate ed reform

Anthony Cody says:

We want to move away from seeing student growth in terms of test scores, and towards authentic assessments of learning. We want to move away from the disruption and destruction of neighborhood public schools, and towards their preservation and support. Away from teacher turnover and towards stability and growth. Away from mayoral control and towards democracy. Away from segregation and economic isolation, and towards the sort of community-based integration that has yielded tremendous results in the past. Away from pursuing personalization through computerized devices, and towards personalization through smaller class sizes and teacher support.


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