Education Evolutions #116

Close up of smartphone in hand flickr photo by shared under
a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

After a week in New England that saw snow days and disruptions on the heels of a long holiday weekend, I hope this issue finds you well and comfortably warm. Sifting through last week’s reading was difficult and it carried over into this one, making my selection process a bit more challenging.

This week’s group of articles is a mix of high-quality, interesting material that ended up being included because they were all loosely connected by a theme about the quest for the quantifiable in education. Whether it is student data being collected by black-box commercial enterprises, misguided attempts to measure the unmeasurable in a classroom, or the obsession with ranking and sorting using data collected (regardless of quality, accuracy, or means of collection), these articles have it covered.

This week’s “If you read only one article…” is the last one, as usual. As remote as the PISA scores might seem to classroom educators, the results of tests like PISA and NAEP have profoundly outsized impacts on education policy in our country. Yet, they are deeply flawed efforts with a whole host of baked-in biases that oversimplify and parade fiction as fact, leaving educators in the field to deal with the consequences. Wow, that reads even more jaded and cynical than it did in my mind as I wrote it, but there it is.

In an effort to promote some more positive thoughtful reflection and because I am trying to add some videos to this newsletter with more regularity, here is a great video I came by courtesy of literacy professor Ian O’Byrne. It is How to Simplify Your Life (6:34) from The Book of Life made by the people at The School of Life. It is definitely a lesson we all need some reminding about from time to time, and end of year is one of the best times.

Here is hoping you can carry the afterglow of Thanksgiving into the rest of the holiday season.

Here are three+ curated articles about education, technology, and evolutions in teaching.

The Data Aren’t Worth Anything But We’ll Keep Them Forever Anyways. You’re Welcome. – FunnyMonkey – Bill Fitzgerald (4-minute read)

The writer of this post, Bill Fitzgerald is a former teacher, tech director, and now software developer with a commitment to openness. He is impressively knowledgeable and had made some impressive things too. This post is a strong summary of an important discussion that emerged out of the sale of Instructure, the company that created the learning management system Canvas. The sale sparked a significant sense of alarm by a number of professors in higher education, many I follow and read regularly. Fitzgerald encapsulates one of the core issues – data.

In full disclosure, I gave up on using Canvas for a whole host of reasons, despite it being available. I am not a fan of learning management systems, generally, also for more reasons than I want to go into here. Moreover, I now feel like there is not a whole lot of difference between products like Canvas to Turnitin. Both charge serious money to educational institutions for a service that primarily benefits from harvesting all kinds of data from users, most of which are students essentially coerced into using the products by their educational institutions, with few, if any, alternative tools for classwork from the institution, as well as no opt-out opportunities within the products. Yet, we are supposed to trust that any of these edtech companies will be good stewards of the data they collect and use, despite their complete lack of transparency and unwillingness to delete it.

I Am an English Teacher. Rubrics Are No Way to Teach Writing – EdWeek – Peter Machera (5-minute read)

Being an English teacher explains a lot about why I selected this piece. I am also a teacher that has a long, bristly, and complicated history with rubrics. I firmly believe that rubrics are this educational era’s grading curve, a practice that makes sense in a particular context misappropriated into another one with profoundly problematic results. Thus, I found myself nodding my head a whole lot as I read this piece.

Machera captures a number of issues I have had with rubrics for some time and presents a few that made me think as well. When I use rubrics I often spend time trying to explain to my students that the best work breaks any rubric. That is pretty well in the spirit of much of what is suggested in the question, “Could you grade Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony according to a rubric?” He then mentions the illusion of assessing something artistic in a way that appears to be scientific. In that way, rubrics contribute to the fetishization of the quantifiable, a pseudo-science mirage. Yet, I had not really considered the rubric “anti-intellectual bias against the aesthetic experience of reading and writing” but I am definitely on board with that take. If you use any kind of writing as an assessment tool, even non-English teachers, this is worth a read.

The PISA Illusion – Yong Zhao blog – Yong Zhao (14-minute read)

Since the PISA, as well as NAEP, scores were recently released there has been a run of stories in mainstream media about the results, as well as policymakers lamentations over how poorly American students compared to others around the world. It is pretty distressing how easily journalists take the bait on this test scores trope, signaling the alarm about education in this country. Still, there are plenty of truthtellers within education that not only comment sensibly but also back their commentary with sound evidence and warrants not more marketing and soundbites. Yong Zhao is one of those academics with some keen insights about the PISA myth. I would throw NAEP in with PISA as the Romulus and Remus of the main standardized testing mythology.

I have read a lot of criticisms about PISA over the years but Zhao’s is one of the best. He frames the main issues that undermine the test with enough depth of explanation to make his case but not so much as to get lost in the weeds and lose a casual reader. The piece was also published in The Washington Post, which is noteworthy and provides a clue as to the approach he took as a writer. He even breaks down his argument in three parts, false claims, a Western-centric point-of-view, and distorting the point of education. It all offers a compelling reason to be suspicious, if not downright entirely dismissive of this international effort at a league table for national education systems. Many of the points in this piece are directly applicable to NAEP, especially how it tends to lead to a “homogenization of education and celebration of authoritarian education systems,” which is not just a terrible idea on a global scale but equally foolish in a nation as large and diverse as the United States.

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