This is the second in a four-part series. Read part one here.
Every Minnesotan has a stake in the fight to keep the Internet an accessible, open platform. Schools and education groups, however, are particularly vulnerable to the damage of losing net neutrality.
School librarians are notably opposed to Internet service providers tearing down net neutrality access protections. Already strapped for time and resources, the country’s librarians have a unique view on how their jobs could become much harder if net neutrality were lost.
Lynne Bradley, the director of government relations of the American Library Association, quoted in the Washington Post, states, “We can't afford to pay more [to ISPs]. As public institutions, we're being threatened with limited resources and are trying to provide the best possible service we can given the access we currently have.”
As discussed in my earlier post, the ISPs’ proposal eliminating net neutrality would throttle content based on the bits per minute the content provider (such as Netflix, Twitter, CNN.com) offers as well as the amount of money the content providers give to the ISPs distributing it.
This would inherently limit the ability of public institutions and their limited budgets to ensure that all of their students and teachers have access to the educational materials needed to continue learning and teaching.
Rebecca Buerkett, a librarian and technology specialist in a New York public school district, wrote an Education Week article arguing that the loss of net neutrality could harm the equalizing potential of the Internet, aggravating the existing gaps already between students.
She points out that “for students who might otherwise be ‘low on the totem pole, on the Internet, they're the same as everyone else…Protecting good technology access for my students is very important.’”
ISPs may not even deem educational content to be a significant use of their bandwidth. With the proposed change, these corporations could decide on a whim what content deserves to be sped up or slowed down. It isn’t hard to imagine that educational materials could take a back seat to entertainment providers (such as Netflix or gaming services). Our policymakers and education leaders should know that maintaining net neutrality is important for Minnesota’s children.
For a few additional introductions to the complex issue of Net Neutrality, try PBS Idea Channel’s discussion or The VlogBrothers “Net Neutrality Argument in 3 Minutes,” and, most helpfully, Vi Hart’s comprehensive Net Neutrality Review.
“Blended learning” is one of those buzzwords that flies around the edu-sphere. Done right, the combination of in-person and online education, often spread between time in school and time at home, has real potential to aid in helping each student learn at their own pace. Done incorrectly, it turns into a frustrating waste of time and money. A pilot project at a handful of schools in Oakland, CA, recently got some attention from Education Next. The story highlights key areas that districts considering blended learning should remember.
The first of these is the central role of teachers in making a pedagogical shift of any kind happen. In the Oakland blended learning example, according to Education Next, “all the teachers within the schools that implemented blended learning were “early adopters” who wanted to try something new.” It’s tough to overstate the significance of voluntary adoption in place of top-down mandates for creating positive changes in teaching. If a change is successful, those early adopters can become local experts, helping other teachers who have become interested master the new approach (especially in schools and districts that prioritize local, teacher-led professional development).
Time is another critical consideration. The roll-out of blended learning in Oakland wasn’t a rush job. It certainly wasn’t the kind of massive, district-wide technology purchase like the $2 million iPad boondoggle in Los Angeles or the bulk iPad purchases many Minnesota districts have made or discussed. Instead, different schools in the Oakland pilot tried different tools, learning from each others' successes and failures. This is the kind of deliberate pacing that allows teachers, principals, and district administrators to learn and make informed choices as they work for change, rather than betting big on one fast, big purchase.
Finally, the Oakland experiment realized the importance of training. Teachers spent at least an extra hour a week on training and collaboration. The foundation footing the bill made specialists available, especially to schools that struggled the most. The current goal is to adapt the early lessons into training and coaching support for expanding the approach.
The importance of teachers, time, and training aren’t just important for blended learning. They’re important to all major changes in how teaching and learning happen in schools. We need a school system that trusts teachers as leaders and gives them the time and training they need to make education better.
Say the word “game” to someone and their first thought might be of a frivolous (perhaps even trivial) pursuit. However, effectively merging the best of games with education offers real potential for increasing learning and personal development in many areas.
The Atlantic has covered some of the leaders in bringing game-based learning to higher education. Notoriously slow to change its pedagogy, college and university learning is dominated by the lecture approach that too often bores students and proves less effective than desired in helping them learn. A few professors have applied the principles of game design—narratives, quests, collaborative guilds, experience points (XP), etc.—to their classrooms, and have seen increases in attendance, engagement, and performance.
The use of gamification isn’t limited to the college level. Perhaps the most widely known gaming-and-learning Minnesota educator is White Bear Lake elementary teacher Ananth Pai. He has put significant time and personal resources into using technology-supported games to help K-12 students learn better. The results have been impressive.
In higher education and the K-12 environment, the benefits of games reach far beyond test scores. The effects of well-designed gamification support collaboration, persistence, and problem solving, along with many other tough-to-measure areas. Gaming at home, whether with classics like chess or newer games like Set or Quarto (both of which have been around for years, but which are still new in comparison to chess), has also been shown to help children build executive function, strategic thinking, concentration, and impulse control, among other areas.
As with all innovations—especially where technology is involved—the use of game-based education shouldn’t be enforced by top-down mandates. Instead, it relies on teachers putting the time and effort into changing the way they teach to use gaming principles effectively. They should be supported in this effort. Teachers who have already had success would make good candidates for local, teacher-led professional development for other interested teachers.
There is a lot of good to be reaped from integrating games and education, and teachers who are interested in doing so should have the flexibility, trust, and support they need to make it happen.
Many new high school graduates are spending the summer thinking about their fall college plans. College is an enormous shift for recent grads. Between classes, being away from home, and finalizing school financing plans, new, soon-to-be first year college students shoulder considerable anxiety.
For most nervous graduates and their families, however, high school resources are suddenly unavailable to them. Many students struggling with the high school-to-college transition are reluctant to approach their new school’s staff for fear of ‘making a bad impression." Returning to their high school support system can bridge the gap.
According to an Associated Press investigation, “first-generation college students and low-income families are particularly vulnerable” to this post-grad “summer melt.” In a startling statistic by Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research, up to 40% of prospective community college students in large metropolitan areas abandon their plans.
As many as half of these students decide not to pursue post-secondary education due to financial concerns. They are, however, making this decision without professional guidance.
What is the solution to this growing problem in Minnesota? Enhance the number of counselors in our schools and extend summer counseling hours for recently graduated seniors.
Minnesota’s counselor shortage is well-documented. In February of this year, the Minnesota School Counselors Association urged Governor Dayton to continue working on Minnesota’s dismal counselor statistics. With one school counselor for every 792 students, Minnesota ranks 48th in the United States.
The press release also cites the fact that counselors offer a unique range of talents that help students. Their role in the school “helps students maximize their academic success, career readiness, and personal and social development.”
This service is crucial to all Minnesota families and reduces many issues facing students and colleges. Having a better understanding of financial aid plans can improve the financial health of students. Knowing what college courses will be like can lead to less time spent in remedial courses and improve retention. Familiarity with academic and procedural deadlines can ease students’ navigation of college bureaucracy.
Counseling is crucial in preparing students for college of any form. After leaving for college, when many students need it more than ever, this already limited resource ends. While not all graduates will take advantage of school counseling resources, many will. While “summer melt” is a real phenomenon, it doesn't have to be a reality for Minnesota’s high school graduates.
One of the drawbacks of the more technocratic approach to education reform is that, in its attention to numbers and markets, it can lose sight of the human element of education.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about Jal Mehta’s thoughts on the race problem in deeper learning. The schools and teachers that use deeper learning practices like experiential and project-based learning are more likely to serve white students, which aggravates equity gaps in education. Gia Truong of Envision Education followed up in a guest post, sharing a personal story of being shunned by a teacher over cultural misunderstandings. She offers it as an example of “institutional racism, when a system makes it possible for white privilege to negatively impact a person of color without anyone batting an eye.” She illustrates the importance of the classroom level relationship between student and teacher and how race, culture, and privilege inform it.
At the macro level, Professors Kara Finnigan, University of Rochester, and Alan Daly, University of California-San Diego, describe the importance of relationships between central office administrators and principals. If these relationships are weak or nonexistent, system-level change becomes difficult, if not outright impossible. Strengthening these ties by, for example, creating additional collaboration time and explicitly addressing the lack of strong relationships, can help the system as a whole make change faster. Ensuring that these relationships involve trust and are two-directional, as opposed to district administrators sending information to schools without receiving information in return, is also critical.
As we have shown before, Minnesota’s student body is growing more diverse and each district’s experience is different. Left unaddressed, this is a recipe for aggravated institutional racism and districts struggling with their own internal relationship networks as they adapt. While these challenges may trickle into test scores or other performance indicators, the underlying causes need to be addressed by teachers and administrators. This requires both the individual attention to race, culture, and privilege that Troung advocates and the attention to district-level relationship networks that Finnigan and Daly describe.
Education is a human endeavor. We can put numbers to parts of it but the real work of changing our system for the better must come back to human relationships. Our policymakers would do well to remember this and it’s one more argument for inviting the voices of educators, students, and families into school-specific reform more often.
Corinthian Colleges, a country-wide for-profit college company, recently collapsed while under federal review. For-profit colleges like to portray themselves as a good option for students who haven’t succeeded anywhere else but this happy story doesn’t always match reality. Corinthian’s story illustrates how the for-profit approach to college can go very wrong.
I’ll start by noting that the effect of Corinthian’s collapse in Minnesota will be minimal since only one Minnesota campus, the Everest Institute in Eagan, was part of the Corinthian system. However, other for-profit colleges like Rasmussen and Globe University (which acquired the Minnesota School of Business) have a more significant presence in the state. If they were to fall prey to the Corinthian experience, many more Minnesotans could be hurt.
Ultimately, Corinthian’s problems came down to money. The system’s finance relied on a constant stream of students using federal grant and loan money, and Corinthian was aggressive about recruiting. When the federal government, concerned about for-profits gaming the federal loan system, required that at least 10% of Corinthian’s money had to come from non-governmental sources, the company raised tuition to get more private loan money (which hits students with even higher interest rates). The end result: A company whose profits depended on convincing primarily students of color and low-income students to go into debt, much of which was financed by the government. In the end, no one really won.
The major argument for companies like Corinthian is that they provide an alternative to public and nonprofit colleges. Students who have struggled at a community college may find themselves recruited by a company like Corinthian, sold on the promise of a credential and a job. That the education Corinthian provided was markedly inferior -- to the point of leaving it off resumes for fear prospective employers would see it as a negative -- is both sad and unsurprising. It should also be a call to arms for increasing investment and attention on the public community college system, so that fewer students feel the need to consider options like Corinthian.
Stories like this should haunt arguments for trusting the market to provide an equitable education. Whether it’s for-profit colleges or new K-12 schools starting under a voucher system, providing a great education isn’t a path to fortune. Those who treat it as such should be viewed skeptically, and we should make sure that private players are well-regulated and that strong public options are the default choice.
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Minnesota State Colleges and Universities’ recently announced a $2 million contract with consulting group McKinsey & Company to assist with a system-wide initiative, Charting the Future. The contract made headlines when Chancellor Steve Rostenstone did not mention McKinsey or the contract after a student asked about the cost of the initiative. Additionally, Rosenstone did not update the Board of Trustees on the contract agreement.
For a bit of background, Charting the Future is a MnSCU initiative, announced in November of 2013, which, according to their website, strives to “work together to improve transfer [student experience], marketing to increase the number of students each campus serves and collaborating on expanding programs that prepare students for the careers of tomorrow.” This system-wide project is meant to lay out a sustainable road map for MnSCU as the public higher education provider for a strong majority of Minnesotans.
McKinsey & Co., whose contract began in January 2014, recently finished their fact-finding mission and has made smaller recommendations based on preliminary data such as, if 10% of MnSCU’s five-plus year degree seeking students graduated in four years, the students would save $14 million dollars.
While Charting the Future initiative seems worthwhile and McKinsey has already produced some interesting analysis, the process has been bungled and deserved greater public discussion.
What this story points to, in fact, is that there is a gap in the oversight of Minnesota’s largest higher education institution. Currently, any contract expenditure under $3 million does not need to be approved by the board of trustees. Public reaction to the McKinsey consulting contract suggests a change in non-board approval triggers may be coming.
Lowering that threshold to $1 million dollars, would increase transparency and reduce concerns about the selection of consultants like McKinsey. While outside consulting firms can provide a new set of eyes on a project or problem, MnSCU stakeholders also need on-the-ground perspective about how to refine and finance higher education for Minnesota’s students.
Speaking for professors, administrators, and students by speaking past them instead of working with these groups about how to improve MnSCU educational mission isn’t the only option for answering problems. Higher ed consultants sift through data and make policy recommendations. Higher ed leaders make leadership decisions that create a prosperous organizational path forward, drawing community together. The latter is much harder than the former. Let's not confuse the two.
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Two traps are easy for those who think and write about education policy to fall into. The first is the idea that what worked for “me” (whoever is doing the thinking or writing) would work for everyone else. This creates nostalgia for the “good old days,” which were really only ever good for some people. The second trap is the idea that what would work better for me would work better for everyone else. Both traps can be avoided, but it helps to know that they’re there.
In the past few days I’ve written about the benefits of arts education and learning in the wilderness. Neither one was of much interest to me as a student. I took one semester of drama to satisfy my high school’s arts requirement and called it a day; exploring the arts never spoke much to me as a student. As for wilderness learning, while I was a Boy Scout, I generally stuck to the minimum camping requirements, being more interested in community service and leadership development.
However, I know that great arts opportunities saved many people’s educations, and others have learned more outdoors than they ever would in a classroom. The education that worked well for me didn’t work as well for them, and I probably wouldn’t have done as well if school focused more heavily on the arts or on time outdoors.
Matching students to the learning opportunities that work best for them takes effort and resources. The more resources a family has, the easier it is for them to find good options. Opportunity gaps in this area are keenly felt.
It’s nigh on impossible for one school to be all things to all students. This is one argument for school choice, provided it’s focused on creating the right opportunities for students, not counterproductive competition.
However, one school can provide many opportunities to many students, if they know what students need and have the freedom and resources to offer them. Inviting families, students, and teachers into decision-making helps schools accurately identify what their students need. Expanding the definition of “a good education” beyond test scores to encompass other learning opportunities allows schools to pay attention to their students’ needs. Investing in schools enables them to provide what their students need.
There is no one right way to educate all students, but democratic, well-resourced schools can support many right ways for students to learn.
As we reach the halfway point of summer break, those worried about summer slide may be looking for options. One policy, year-round education, got some attention in a policy brief from the Congressional Research Service back in June. That report is worth a read.
Teaching students year-round can take a few different forms. One is simply to extend the school year, running it later into June or July and starting it in August. This gives students more seat time, but can also add significant expense, as many workers (including but not limited to teachers) will be working more hours.
Another option, less concerned with increasing seat time and more interested in minimizing “the summer slide,” rearranges the school year. A common version is the 45-15 calendar, where students and teachers are in class for 45 school days (roughly nine weeks), then off for a 15 school day (three week) intersession. These intersessions don’t have to be full-on breaks; they offer excellent opportunities for mid-year remediation, heading off the gap-growing effects of the long summer break.
Some schools have also used this sort of on-off calendar to address capacity issues. With careful scheduling, as the CRS report explains, a school with capacity for 750 students at one time can serve 1000 students by breaking students up into 250-person groups and rotating 15-day intersessions.
The report notes that the research on this approach isn’t conclusive, in part because the methodology in most studies hasn’t been great. As with most educational innovations, the effectiveness is in the details of design and implementation. This is why involving teachers, families, students, and community members in discussions of schedule changes is so important.
Many teachers, for example, are interested in trying an on-off, year-round schedule, and some communities would likely appreciate its benefits if well-implemented. At the same time, calendar changes of this scale can be very disruptive, and should be undertaken only after informing the public and conducting democratic deliberation. Not every community needs or wants a year-round calendar, but every community should have the option to make an informed choice on the matter.
We know that some of the most significant equity gaps in education come from the years before students are in school and the disproportionate effects of summer break. The latter in particular makes year-round scheduling potentially appealing, and many communities should give it serious consideration.
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Some of the best learning happens outside of the classroom. Some of the best learning happens in intentionally crafted, equity minded programs. Sometimes, these are the same thing.
MinnPost recently covered the work of Wilderness Inquiry, which has been putting metro area students in canoes on urban waterways and finding other ways to increase students’ access to experiential, place-based learning. It’s an interesting mission which appears to be both full of potential and totally outside the general parameters of the education debate most other advocates are having.
Naturally, Minnesota isn’t the only place where people have dedicated themselves to helping students learn and grow by spending time in the wild and well outside their comfort zones. Alaska Crossings, for example, has been taking Alaskan students with mental illnesses on extended outdoor adventures since 2001. As with Wilderness Inquiry in Minnesota, the organizers have put significant energy into building a program that broadens students’ horizons with an eye towards improving their knowledge, skills, and mindsets. It’s the kind of learning that’s very tough to make happen in a classroom.
Nor is this approach limited to groups outside of schools. Northwest Passage High School in Coon Rapids is in large part built around preparing students for “expeditions” that get longer and more intense as students progress through the school. (For more on Northwest Passage, check out my 2012 post about their presentation at the Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs conference.)
Running through all of these programs is the value of experiential learning and the clarifying effects for students of exploring the outdoors in ways that would previously have been alien to their everyday lives. While this type of learning does provide a new context for understanding ideas and skills from a variety of academic disciplines, much of the value is in the less measurable effects on students’ confidence, coping skills, and interpersonal skills.
As we continue to discuss equity and opportunity gaps, it’s important to remember the many ways that people learn and the different experiences available to students from different contexts. Minnesota’s children grow up in a huge range of circumstances and environments, and it’s beneficial for all of them to push outside of their comfort zones with the help of well-structured programs that keep them safe as they learn.