Do your graduates have a what-they-have-done file?

Shawn Cornally says:

I asked the lead tech developers of several Cedar Rapids companies what they look for when hiring, and they all responded with, “The applicant’s Github [open source] portfolio.”

Not their GPA.

Not their test scores or transcripts.

Their what-have-you-done files.

The only way a student can have a Github portfolio is if they have a project worth working on, and the only way they can have that is if they’ve had generative interactions with the greater community; a community who has a plethora of problems worth working on.

Providing real experience has become the task of the school, and it’s one that has barely been embraced.


Iowa’s anemic Internet access

3 Megabits per second (Mbps). That’s the peak download speed of Sprint’s 3G mobile phone service. That’s also how Iowa and the United States define ‘broadband’ Internet access: a minimum of 3 Mbps download speed and 0.75 Mbps upload speed. Only 66% of Iowans have access to even this minimal level of ‘broadband’ in their homes. Moreover, one out of every four Iowa businesses is not accessing so-called ‘broadband’ services.

Take a look the map below. See all of the areas that are light green, yellow, or tan? Those are areas for which the maximum – yes, maximum – advertised download speed (as collected by ConnectIowa) is 3 to 6 Mbps or less. That’s the same as Sprint’s 4G mobile phone service. And that’s maximum advertised speed, not even regularly available speed. Those of us with ‘broadband’ access know that these are very different.

Iowa Broadband Access 2013 05 21

According to Akamai, the average connection speed in the U.S. is 7.6 Mbps but the average speed for Iowa is only 6.0 Mbps. Out of 12 states in the Midwest, Iowa’s average Internet connection speed is 11th, better than only Kansas. Even worse, Iowa’s broadband adoption rate dropped 11% from 3rd quarter to 4th quarter in 2012, the only state with a quarterly loss greater than 10%. Most states had adoption rate gains, not losses.

When most of Iowa has anemic Internet access, that doesn’t bode well for economic viability. When most regions in Iowa have Internet access that at best is what we get on a smartphone, that’s not a platform for economic, workforce, and entrepreneurial success.

Today the Internet is essential infrastructure, supporting the ability of individuals and organizations to innovate, build, sell, and serve. Everything is moving to the Web but right now Iowa is far, far behind what it needs for a hyperconnected, hypercompetitive digital, global economy.

Want to stop Iowa’s ‘brain drain?’ Want to provide a ‘world class education’ for Iowa students? Want to make Iowa more entrepreneurial, innovative, and globally relevant? Fix this.

Holding back our children


Digital technologies are magnifiers and amplifiers of our humanity. They extend the reach of our human voice. They increase a millionfold our capacities and inclinations to find, connect, and share with others. They boost exponentially our abilities to collaborate with others, do meaningful work, and contribute to the overall good.

Can you exercise human voice without digital technologies?
Can you find, connect, and share with others without digital technologies?
Can you collaborate with others, do meaningful work, and contribute to the overall good without digital technologies?

Sure. We did so for millennia. But in the digital, global world that we now inhabit, decisions to marginalize technology are intentional relinquishments of potential and power. In the digital, global world that we now inhabit, decisions to ignore technology are willful disconnects from community, society, and the way the world works.

In schools, we are supposed to be empowering children. We are supposed to be preparing our students to be not just competent – but hopefully adept – in today’s and tomorrow’s information environments, work climates, and learning landscapes. But instead of recognizing and seizing the affordances that these new tools provide us for learning, teaching, and schooling, we pretend that our students can be masterful WITHOUT learning how to use digital technologies authentically. Or meaningfully. Or powerfully. And by doing so, we do our students a horrible, sometimes shameful, disservice.

By now it’s clear that digital technologies are here to stay. By now it’s clear that they’re having transformative impacts on everything around us. And yet we hesitate. We dig in. We resist and we rationalize and we make excuses for ourselves and our institutions. And every day that we do so, the gap widens between our practice and our reality. Every day that we do so, our youth lose another opportunity to be better prepared for our present and their future.

Educators, policymakers, professors, and parents: Our lack of vision and our limited understanding of our technology-suffused landscapes are holding back our children. Why don’t we care more?

Bigstock image credit: Tired girl with many books


Who is going to hire young people skilled at regurgitation?

Most classrooms and schools are outmoded ‘answer factories,’ and regurgitation is not a skill that is marketable. Kids today are growing up in a sea of information, 24/7, and schools must be helping them formulate questions, encouraging them to dig deep, to prepare them for a world which values the ability to formulate questions and then find answers to those questions. Who is going to hire young people skilled at regurgitation?

Of course, blended learning can turn out better workers for those answer factories, but what a waste that would be. But if its advocates limit their vision to merely producing kids who do well on standardized tests, blended learning will end up being yet another disappointment, and we will all lose.

John Merrow via

We need to foster a diversity of talents

First, much research has shown that what makes a nation or a community prosperous is a diversity of talents (Florida 2002; Chua 2007). Even honeybee colonies with more genetic diversity are more productive (Mattila and Seeley 2007). A society cannot rely only on one type of talent to meet the challenges of the sophisticated, complex, and ever-changing economy, which constantly needs innovations and new industries (Kane 2010). If America had produced just one kind of talent wherein all individuals possess the same skills and knowledge, we would not have Apple® or Google™ or Facebook, or the Internet for that matter.

Second, because of globalization and advancement in technology, today’s society has such diverse needs for different talents that any individual, no matter how unique he or she is, can make a contribution and be successful. While a Lady Gaga may have been of little use in the agricultural society when most people were worried about feeding themselves, today talents like hers are in great demand. Just look at the size of the entertainment industry. Hence, an individual does not have to be one of many and compete by becoming better than millions of others in a narrow spectrum of abilities.

Finally, by necessity, globalization compels us to be unique and different because of the entry of billions of individuals who may have the same abilities and demand less. In other words, if one American wants to compete with a Chinese or Indian person, he has to offer something qualitatively different to global employers (Pink 2005; National Center on Education and the Economy 2007).

Therefore a decentralized system with strong local control and professional autonomy is an effective way to cultivate the diversity of talents that will help keep a nation, a community, and an individual competitive. In contrast, a national common curriculum, enforced through high-stakes common assessment, is just the poison that kills creativity, homogenizes talents, and reduces individuality through an exclusive focus on the prescribed content and teaching-to-the-test by schools and teachers, as we have already seen with NCLB. There is no question that education should help develop some common basics for the purpose of citizenship, but that is the extent to which government can mandate. And for hundreds of years, despite the lack of a national curriculum, the decentralized education system has performed that function well.

Yong Zhao via

The percentage of low-skilled manufacturing jobs continues to decline

As McKinsey & Co. pointed out last month in its study on the global demand for high-skilled labor, the percentage of labor-intensive, or low-skilled assembly and factory line jobs declined by half since the 1970s;  low-skilled jobs as a percentage of all manufacturing positions declined by 29 percent, while the percentage of manufacturing jobs in capital- and knowledge-intensive areas – those requiring strong math, science, and computer language skills – have and will continue to increase.

RiShawn Biddle via

Does the fate of America rest on how well our children bubble in answer sheets?

does the fate of the nation rest on how well 9- and 13-year-olds bubble in answer sheets? I don’t think so. Neither does British economist, S. J. Prais. We look at the test scores and worry about the nation’s economic performance. Prais looks at the economic performance and worries about the validity of the test scores: “That the United States, the world’s top economic performing country, was found to have school attainments that are only middling casts fundamental doubts about the value and approach of these [international assessments].”

Gerald Bracey via

Teach students higher order or critical thinking skills? Not if the Texas Republicans have their way.

Republican Party of Texas Logo

The Republican Party of Texas states in its official 2012 political platform:

We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based  Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

This is astounding since most everyone else in America seems to understand that our educational graduates and our employees need greater, not less, development of critical and higher-order thinking skills in order to be effective citizens, learners, and workers in our hyperconnected, hypercompetitive global information society. This political platform item is an absolutely stunning example of educational and economic cluelessness and is a surefire recipe for complete irrelevance in the 21st century.

In recent years, I don’t believe I’ve heard of any other groups officially opposed to teaching students critical thinking or higher-order thinking. Have you? Other thoughts?

Hat tip: Slate

Taking the ACT a quarter century after high school


[Warning: Long post ahead]

Yesterday I took the ACT college entrance exam for the first time. At age 44.

It all started with Ira Socol’s blog post, which argued that if politicians think that the standardized tests they are espousing are so important, they had better be able to pass those tests themselves. I then sent these tweets:

Neither Iowa Governor Terry Branstad nor any state legislators responded (surprise!) but Dr. Jason Glass, Director of the Iowa Department of Education, said that he would take the ACT if I would too. The good folks at ACT said that they would be happy to administer a retired test. And that’s how I ended up in a small room at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines with Jason and 8 students who took the exam for practice.

How was the experience?

I took the SAT when I was a kid so the ACT was new territory for me. I’ll break out my thoughts by test area…

English. The English test was primarily a test of grammar, sentence formation, and paragraph flow and structure. I was asked many questions about punctuation and phrasing and word choice (e.g., who or whom or whose or who’s). Occasionally I was asked about spelling (e.g., its v. it’s) or whether a particular sentence or paragraph should be inserted, deleted, and/or moved elsewhere in a reading passage. The focus was primarily on writing composition. At times I felt like I do when I’m helping edit one of my students’ doctoral dissertations! With the caveat that I’m not a writing expert, I felt that this test did a fairly decent job of assessing whether students could identify grammar errors, poor wording, stilted sentence flow, and other technical mistakes in written passages.


Math. I know how to do a number of advanced statistical procedures, including linear regression and hierarchical linear modeling. However, I still thought that this would be the hardest test for me since I haven’t done any geometry or trigonometry since I took those high school courses almost 30 years ago. Most of the test focused on algebraic and geometric concepts. There were a handful of trigonometry questions, plus I was surprised to see a question on logarithms. I correctly completed more problems than I thought I would but – probably due to lack of day-to-day immersion and practice – was correct about the pacing. I had to pencil in last-minute random guesses for several questions because I simply ran out of time. My biggest concerns about the math test relate to the fact that much of what is assessed is math that – and I think I’m safe saying this – most of us will never use again (how many of you have needed to calculate the cosine of an angle recently? how many of you have needed to determine the formula of a circle on a standard coordinate plane?). This is a curricular issue more than an assessment issue since the ACT draws off of the math courses that most high school students take. Smarter people than I have weighed in on what math courses high schoolers should take and I’ll defer to them before I reveal too much of my ignorance. I know some of the arguments about ‘inculcating habits of mind’ and ‘more students might be turned onto higher-level math and science’ and so on. It just bothers me a great deal that we’re herding many, many students through math classes that are largely irrelevant to their future life success (most high school students don’t get much probability and statistics, for example, even though that’s what I think they’ll need most often beyond foundational numeracy). My other big concern about the math test was that the problems generally were either decontextualized pure math problems (students: who cares?) or pseudocontextual word problems (students: who cares?) of the type that Dan Meyer rails against regularly. There wasn’t much on the math test that I think would be of interest to typical high school students outside of the artificial environments of classes and testing. [Note: I’m happy to be proven wrong on any of these concerns, so have at it in the comment area.]

Reading. 4 multi-paragraph reading passages pulled from 1 fictional novel and 3 non-fiction essays or books; 10 questions per passage. Could I pull out essential details from what I read? Could I infer authors’ intent? Could I decipher meaning and voice? Could I make reasonable conclusions based on the text? A classic test of reading comprehension. Yes, I could do these things. This was the test on which I scored best.

Science. This test had 7 passages, each of which contained one or more often-interconnected tables, charts, graphs, maps, or diagrams. Most of the passages described various scientific experiments and most included additional narrative text. This was the hardest test for me, despite having taken numerous advanced science courses in both high school and college. I am comfortable with electrical, genetic, geological, kinetic, chemical, and other scientific terms and concepts and, as a professor, regularly spend time deciphering research studies and policy reports that present information in complex ways. The challenge for me was not understanding the material but rather navigating the sheer amount of information presented and answering the questions within the time given. I easily could have used another 10 to 15 minutes. Like for the math test, I had to hastily pencil in some random guesses and did worst on this test. I am very impressed by any high school students that score well on this test. I’ll also note that ACT admits that the science test doesn’t directly assess scientific knowledge or skills (although some familiarity with scientific concepts and terminology helps for comprehension purposes). Instead, what the test assesses is the ability to decipher various ways of presenting scientific information and to then make appropriate inferences and conclusions. That’s a worthy goal but I wonder if renaming the test to something like ‘Information and Data Analysis’ might be more accurate.

Writing. We didn’t get to take the writing assessment, primarily because of ACT’s desire to do same-day scoring of our results.


How do I now think about the ACT?

Jason and Governor Branstad have proposed legislation requiring every Iowa high school student to take the ACT. Here are some of my thoughts about the exam and its desirability as a statewide mandate…

The issue of time. Time is an issue for any assessment. Students shouldn’t have unlimited time to finish but neither should they have inadequate time. The ACT is intentionally designed to be an assessment that sorts, sifts, selects, and ranks participants. Having now taken it, I wonder how much of that sorting and ranking function is accomplished by benchmarking time of completion to those students who are quicker at computation or faster readers. This is different than benchmarking to difficulty of task. I have a feeling that many students might be more successful if they simply had more time to navigate the assessment and show their understanding.

Cognitive complexity. I confess that the exam often was more difficult than I thought it would be. Despite being exposed beforehand to some practice questions, the overall experience was more demanding and draining than I expected. I didn’t take any practice exams (which might have helped with my pacing) but did spend a few hours reviewing some math formulas and familiarizing myself with the other tests.

Content of the tests. With the exception of the math concerns that I expressed above, it’s hard for me to contend that the skills tested on the ACT aren’t worth knowing. Students and citizens need to be technically-competent writers. Students and citizens need to have knowledge of at least some more-than-basic mathematical concepts. Students and citizens need to be able to comprehend complex texts and information displays. And so on.

I think we can do better. Despite being more impressed with the ACT than I anticipated, I still left the exam wanting more. Although my overall experience was positive and I learned a lot about the exam, I still have the same disposition toward it that I had before. Unlike many school and university assessments, the ACT doesn’t assess too much factual recall. I think that’s good. The exam does, however, focus heavily on procedural knowledge (and provides a variety of contexts in which students can show that knowledge). Occasionally it assesses – in a fairly-limited bubble test way – some application, synthesis, analytical, or inferential skills. But for the most part, the exam does not get at higher-order thinking skills in any substantive, applied, hands-on, performance-based way. Even the writing assessment (from what I can tell from ACT’s materials and what I’ve read about it) can be successfully completed in fairly rote, formulaic ways. If we’re going to ask every student in the state to take a college- and career-readiness exam, it should be an exam worth taking. Despite its long history and deep roots, I’m not convinced that the ACT is it.

What might be some alternatives? Although I’m fairly statistics-savvy, I’m not a psychometrician. And although I know a lot about incorporating data-informed practices into schools, I’m not an expert in large-scale and/or high-stakes assessments, particularly those used for college admissions. I have a generalized interest in these topics but do not live in this space on a day-to-day basis. All that said, I look at learning environments like those provided by the New Tech Network or the Big Picture Schools or the Expeditionary Learning schools or the Science Leadership Academy and I want to see more of that for our students. Those schools – and states like New Hampshire – are working hard to assess students with performance-based assessments rather than (or at least along with) bubble tests. Students have the chance to be innovative and creative. They have the chance to do inquiry-based, interest-based, hands-on work. They are able to show that they are critical thinkers and problem solvers. And then I hear about tests like PISA, the College and Work Readiness Assessment (CWRA), and those given by other countries - tests that purportedly focus on higher-level cognitive skills and give students opportunities to show not just what they know but what they can do with what they know. And I want that for our students too. As it’s currently designed, does the ACT get us there? Nope. Might the ACT be part of a more holistic, multiple-assessment strategy for getting at college- and career-readiness? Perhaps. But it’s not enough by itself. Many hopes are riding on the PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments that are being created right now. We’ll see if they can fulfill their promise.

Concluding thoughts

I’ll close with a few additional thoughts about the experience of taking the ACT as an adult several decades removed from initial college entry and the proposed participation mandate for all students…


Try it (again). I think it behooves us as adults – particularly those of us involved in education delivery, educator preparation, or educational policy- and decision-making – to be fairly familiar with what we’re asking our youth to do. Many of us still think that schooling and testing and learning and being a child or adolescent are like they were when we were young. They’re not. Despite our general inclinations to believe that our own time in school was the educational golden age worth returning to, we must recognize that the scale, scope, complexity, and demands of course content, curricula, assessments, and culture all have increased dramatically over the years/decades. If you’ve never shadowed a high school student throughout her entire school day, try it. I think you’ll be surprised. Similarly, I encourage you to retake a college entrance exam like Jason and I did. I believe you’ll find it worthwhile and illuminating. And then see if what we’re asking of our youth is what we really want as parents, communities, and citizens.

You’re so brave! I was struck by the sheer number of comments that Jason and I received that expressed disbelief that we would do something like this. Typical statements included variations of ‘You’re so brave! I could never do that!’ and ‘You’re willing to report your score publicly? Really?’ and ‘There’s no way in hell I’d ever take that exam again!’ and so on. I’m still mulling over what it says about us, our schools, and our society when we’re willing and even eager to have our children submit to experiences that we’re not willing to engage in ourselves as adults.

Mandated participation. Like some states, the Des Moines Public Schools has all of its students take the ACT. I asked Roosevelt High School’s principal what that experience was like for lower-achieving students. She said that a great many of them left the exam utterly humiliated. Jason was less concerned about that statement than I was, saying to the press something along the lines of ‘Far worse things will happen in life to those students than sitting through a 4-hour exam for which they’re unprepared.’ I, however, am greatly empathetic toward those adolescents. Do academically-disengaged students really need yet another formal reminder – this one with state and/or national, not just local, weight behind it – that they’re not up to snuff? How is kicking them while they’re down an incentive toward college or career readiness?

Still searching. Jason and I received a very kind offer from the Council for Aid to Education to also take the CWRA. I’m going to take them up on it and am excited about the opportunity. I wonder if I also can take PISA? I’m on an assessment quest. What else should I investigate or take?

The media. Lesson learned: No matter how much you emphasize that you’re focused on learning about and better understanding the substance and process of the college entrance exam that you’re publicly taking, the media and others will inevitably focus on your results. Jason and I both scored better than we anticipated. If you really must know, Google it.

If you’ve read all the way down to here, I appreciate your engagement and will await your comments and feedback. Thanks!

Image credits: Iowa Department of Education

[cross-posted at Education Recoded]

Some Iowa students weigh in on what classes they need for 21st century jobs

Leslie Pralle Keehn, a Social Studies teacher here in Iowa, had her students read The World Is Flat and then asked what ‘classes’ would help prepare them for 21st century jobs. Here are their responses:


I love how none of these are disciplinary silos (which, I’m guessing, is how her students experience most of their school days). What do you think about her students’ responses?