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September Issue

Vol 32|No 1|September 2021

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What went wrong?

By Jamie McKenzie
(about author)

You can order Laptop Thinking and Writing here

When microcomputers came to schools in the late 1970s, many of us greeted them with a great deal of hope and expectation, thinking they might provide the basis for a revolutionary shift in the nature of schools and learning.

With the arrival of the Internet, our expectations soared, inspiring me to write, "Grazing the Net: Raising a Generation of Free Range Students" in the September, 1998 issue of Phi Delta Kappan.

In that article I outlined the fantastic possibilities offered by the Net, but I warned that nothing much would improve unless schools and districts invested heavily and smartly in program and professional development.

Will we see dramatic increases in student achievement to justify this investment?

In many cases — those districts which fail to clarify learning goals and fund professional development — the answer will be "No!" There is no credible evidence that networks improve student reading, math or thinking skills unless they are in service of carefully crafted learning programs which show students how to interpret information and make up their own minds.

In the best cases - with the right program planning and robust professional development - schools will use these new tools and resources in ways which will improve student performance on high stakes state tests.

Success in cyberspace requires many of the following skills:

What went wrong?

Few districts or schools invested in the program and professional development required to turn students into information producers capable of making up their own minds — infotectives, if you will.

What is an infotective? . . . a student thinker capable of asking great questions about data (with analysis) in order to convert the data into information (data organized so as to reveal patterns and relationships) and eventually into insight (information which may suggest action or strategy of some kind).

An infotective solves information puzzles with a combination of inference skills and new technologies. The problem solving which often follows the detective work requires synthesis (invention) and evaluation (careful choices from lists of options). An infotective is a skilled thinker, researcher and inventor.

Infotective is a term designed for education in an Age of Information. In the smokestack school, teachers imparted meanings for students to digest, memorize and regurgitate. In Information Age schools, students make the meaning. They puzzle their way through piles of fragments - sorting, sifting, weighing and arranging them until a picture emerges.

These same skills produce high performance on the increasingly challenging state tests of reading comprehension and problem solving. As state standards require more and more inferential reasoning, state tests are asking students to "create answers" rather than "find answers."
The vast majority of funding went to the purchase of equipment and the networking of schools. Many leaders felt that the mere purchase and distribution of laptops would bring about great gains in student learning. Laptopping and networking classrooms became fashionable and expensive, despite the lack of any convincing evidence that laptops would work such miracles.

A student who writes badly with paper and pencil is likely to write badly with a laptop unless teachers are trained in "writing as process" and provide the students with such skills.

Note the recent article, "What writing revolution?"

Capacity building

It all comes down to capacity building. Unfortunately, much of the reform efforts of the past few decades have been led by politicians and business people who do not understand schools or how to create change. They seized upon simplistic strategies like laptopping schools, scaring teachers with high stakes testing and creating small schools (The Gates Idea) and imposed them on schools in ways that rarely produced improvement.

One Secretary of Education (under Bush) even stated that "pedagogy does not matter!"

The stupidity of this comment was aptly outlined in an article, "Pedagogy does matter!" but an attitude like that has undermined the effectiveness of many reform efforts. There are some who feel that more frequent testing will by itself lead to improved reading and math performance.

During the past decade the nation seemed poised for major improvements with the advent of the Common Core Standards that stress thinking skills, but that effort never fulfilled its claims or its promises and is now pretty much defunct.

Disappointing NAEP test results after 40 years

Source: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Educational Statistics, NAEP Data Explorer. http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/naepdata/
Results: The data shows that there has been a gain in math scores for fourth graders. Their average scores in 2008 were 243, which is near the proficiency cuts score of 249. Eighth grade scores have risen consistently over the forty year period, but are still well below proficiency. Their scores in 2008 were 281, against a proficiency cut score of 299. The least improvement in math scores is in the twelfth grade, where scores haven’t changed much over the forty years and are well below proficiency.

Implications: This data suggests that forty years of school reform, initiatives, spending, etc. have had limited impact on math scores. While the math scores for younger students (fourth grade) have improved, this improvement diminishes by eighth grade and disappears by age twelfth grade. The fact that this absence of success has continued for 40 years is extremely problematic. The implications are that the education system needs to significantly modify its strategies, adopt data systems to track outcomes in relation to interventions, and invest in research to determine what does and does not produce desired outcomes.

Citation: http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/naepdata/
Reading results on NAEP have also been disappointing, with scores on the 2019 test actually declining at both the 4th and 8th grade levels. The percentage of students scoring at or above proficiency remains quite low -- hovering since 1992 at about one third of the students. While the percentage has varied by a point or two, now and then, the tests shpw that about two thirds of American students are NOT proficient despite decades of "so-called" reforms.

Source: NAEP Report Card: 2019 NAEP Reading Assessment

Education in the USA: Sidetracked and led astray

Since entering the field of education in the 1960s, I have watched swings of the pendulum as various fads and trends have won favor. During this entire period, the nation has been burdened by what Jonathan Kozol has called "Savage Inequalities." The fads and trends consumed lots of time and money but did very little to close the gaps between rich and poor, black and white.

The NCLB (No Child Left Behind) effort hit American Schools like Helter/Skelter and seriously damaged progressive education, making testing and teaching to just two tests the main goal of schools -- reading and math. The results, as shown in this article, have been pathetic.

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