domingo, 15 de septiembre de 2013

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"Amplify has developed the most innovative and comprehensive tablet-based solution available for K–12 education. We have designed a digital experience specially for teaching and learning and bundled high-quality services and support. Our solution makes it easy and affordable for districts to start or scale a 1:1 initiative."

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No Child Left Untableted

Brian Finke for The New York Times

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Sally Hurd Smith, a veteran teacher, held up her brand-new tablet computer and shook it as she said, “I don’t want this thing to take over my classroom.” It was late June, a month before the first day of school. In a sixth-grade classroom in Greensboro, N.C., a dozen middle-school social-studies teachers were getting their second of three days of training on tablets that had been presented to them as a transformative educational tool. Every student and teacher in 18 of Guilford County’s 24 middle schools would receive one, 15,450 in all, to be used for class work, homework, educational games — just about everything, eventually.

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There was, as educators say, a diverse range of learners in the room. Some were well on the way to mastering the tablet. Ben Porter, for instance, a third-year teacher who previously worked as an operations manager for a Cold Stone Creamery franchiser, was already adept at loading and sharing lesson materials and using the tablet’s classroom-management tools: quick polls, discussions, short-answer exercises, the function for randomly calling on a student and more. Other teachers, including a gray-bearded man who described himself as “technologically retarded,” had not progressed much further than turning it on.
Smith, the most outspoken skeptic among the trainees, was not a Luddite — she uses her Web site to dispense assignments and readings to her students — but she worried about what might be lost in trying to funnel her teaching know-how through the tablet. “I just don’t like the idea of looking at a screen and not at the students,” she said.
Brian Finke for The New York Times
A couple of seats over from her, I was thinking the same thing. I teach college students, not middle schoolers, but I count on being able to read their faces and look them in the eye, and I would resist — O.K., freak out — if obliged to engage them through a screen in the classroom. And as a parent of middle schoolers, I would strenuously oppose any plan by their school to add so much screen time to my children’s days. The tablets, paid for in part by a $30 million grant from the federal Department of Education’s Race to the Top program, were created and sold by a company called Amplify, a New York-based division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, and they struck me as exemplifying several dubious American habits now ascendant: the overvaluing of technology and the undervaluing of people; the displacement of face-to-face interaction by virtual connection; the recasting of citizenship and inner life as a commodified data profile; the tendency to turn to the market to address social problems.
Still, I came to Guilford County, I hoped, motivated by curiosity and discovery rather than kneejerk repudiation. I try to be on guard against misrecognizing complex change as simple decline, and I acknowledge that my tendency to dismiss the tech industry’s marketing might blind me to the Amplify tablet’s genuine potential as a teaching tool — and to major new developments reshaping not just the nature of schooling but also the world in which my kids are growing up.
The first time I met with Joel Klein, the chief executive of Amplify and an executive vice president of News Corporation, he checked his e-mail on his phone a lot, even as we talked about the concern that technology isolates rather than connects people. I pointed this out, and he, in turn, expressed wonder that I don’t even allow the use of laptops in my classroom.
We were discussing his frequently stated view that education is “ripe for disruption.” Entrepreneurs sound boldly unconventional when they talk about disrupting an industry, but they also sound as if they’re willing to break something in order to fix it — or just to profit from it. Klein, who was chancellor of New York City’s public schools from 2002 to 2011, begins from the premise that our schools are already broken.
Joel Klein at the Amplify offices in Brooklyn.
Brian Finke for The New York Times
Joel Klein at the Amplify offices in Brooklyn.
“K-12 isn’t working,” he said, “and we have to change the way we do it.” Citing global assessments that rank the United States well behind the leading countries in reading and math, he said: “Between 1970 and 2010 we doubled the amount of money we spent on education and the number of adults in the schools, but the results are just not there. Any system that poured in as much money as we did and made as little progress has a real problem. We keep trying to fix it by doing the same thing, only a little different and better. This is about a lot different and better.”
He was talking about the curriculum and games being developed by Amplify, as well as its custom-built, open-platform Android tablet. Klein thinks the moment favors his enterprise. The new common-core standards, adopted so far by 45 states, define educational goals for schools — and present commercial opportunities for companies like Amplify. The initial price of a tablet has dropped to $199, including support and training, making it feasible for school systems to buy large numbers of them. And generational turnover in the teaching profession will help, too, as what Klein calls “digitally sophisticated millennials” replace retiring boomers.
When I asked Klein, who routinely characterizes current debates about education as “ideological, not evidence-based,” what evidence supports spending tax dollars on educational technology, he boiled it down to three things. First and most important was the power of “customizing.” Plenty of research does indeed show that an individual student will learn more if you can tailor the curriculum to match her learning style, pace and interests; the tablet, he said, will help teachers do that. Second, educators have not taken full advantage of students’ enthusiasm for the gadgetry that constitutes “an important part of their experience.” Lastly, teachers feel overwhelmed; they “need tools,” Klein said, to meet ever-increasing demands to show that their students are making progress.
Brian Finke for The New York Times
Amplify has tested preliminary versions of its tablets and curriculum in a dozen small pilot programs, but Guilford County is its first paying customer. By next fall the company intends to have its products in middle schools across the country, with high schools and perhaps elementary schools to follow. Competition for this market is growing more intense. Major competitors — like Apple’s iPad — are scrambling to get in on the sales bonanza created by what educators call “1:1 technology programs,” those that provide a device to every student and teacher. And so potential customers — 99,000 K-12 schools spend $17 billion annually on instructional materials and technology — will be looking closely at Guilford County, a district with a modest budget and a mix of urban, suburban and rural sections that makes it a plausible proxy for school systems nationwide. They will want to see teachers’ enthusiasm for the tablets, as well as increased “time on task” and other signs of students’ greater engagement. Most important, of course, they’ll be looking for higher test scores in two or three years.
When Klein says things like, “If you just stick a kid in front of a screen for eight hours and hope it works, it’s not going to work,” he means that the success of his tablet depends above all on how teachers exploit it. They might begin by transferring to it what they already do now — existing lessons, homework, tests — but it can only make the hoped-for difference in how and what students learn if teachers come up with new ways to use it. “If it’s not transformative,” Klein told me, “it’s not worth it.”
Robin Britt, the Personalized Learning Environment Facilitator (PLEF) leading the all-day training session I sat in on, acknowledged the anxiety in the room but encouraged the trainees to focus on the possibilities. Britt made an ideal recruit for the corps of PLEFs, tech-savvy educators hired by the school district to help teachers adjust to the tablet. A native of Greensboro who previously taught at local middle and Montessori schools, he holds an M.B.A. and a J.D. from the University of North Carolina and also started a company that designs software for teachers. Youthful, dynamic, earnest, Britt radiated sympathy and confidence as he explained how technology could help transform not only their classrooms but also their profession.
Robin Britt, a trainer.
Brian Finke for The New York Times
Robin Britt, a trainer.
His “before” picture was the typical 19th-century classroom, the original template for our schools. He likened it to industrial shop floors designed for mass production: “People sitting in rows, all doing the same thing at the same time, not really connected to each other.” He contrasted that with a postindustrial workplace where temporary groupings of co-workers collaborate on tasks requiring intellectual, not physical capabilities. “We need a schoolhouse that prepares students to do that kind of work,” he said.
The key, he said, is personalized learning — breaking free of the mass-production model, tailoring the curriculum to the student and redesigning it around proven competence rather than accrued face time, so that each student can go at his own pace. “Now your job is not to dispense knowledge,” Britt told the trainees. “It’s to facilitate learning. No longer is the teacher the bottleneck between students and knowledge. Rather, the teacher architects the environment — in the classroom, on the tablet, online, everywhere.”
In the “after” classroom Britt envisioned, some students might be working together on an assignment appropriate to their shared level of competence. Others would be ranging ahead on their own, catching up, exploring a special interest. A small group might be gathered around the teacher, who, having instantly scanned the responses to a short-answer exercise just given to the whole class on the tablet, decides to spend some extra time with those students still hazy about the lesson. Britt repeatedly made a fluid gathering-and-pushing gesture with both hands, as if demonstrating a basketball chest pass, as he said: “Then you move that group out, they’re off practicing to reinforce what you just taught them, and you pull together another group, or you go to an individual, then you flow them out to the next task. Gather and flow.”
The Amplify tablet helps make personalization possible. It provides immediate feedback to the student and to the teacher, who can then make timely decisions about working with individuals and groups. Entire units of curriculum can be loaded on the tablet in advance or sent out as an instant update, accommodating students working at drastically different paces. An expanded set of tools for research, discussion, practice and demonstration of mastery allow students to come at their studies from various angles and let the teacher move into the role of a mentor who “meets each student where she is.” The teacher’s tablet also has an app blocker and monitoring functions that can see and control what’s happening on student tablets, and a one-touch classroom-control feature to lock their screens, replacing whatever was on them with an eye symbol and the phrase “Eyes on Teacher.”
New tablets at a middle school in Greensboro, N.C.
Brian Finke for The New York Times
New tablets at a middle school in Greensboro, N.C.
Sally Hurd Smith appeared to be coming around. “It’s like I design the flow chart,” she said, “and the kids follow their own path through it.” She worried, though, that their greater technological sophistication would allow them to game the system.
“Then have them teach you,” Ben Porter, the former operations manager, told her. “On the flow chart, put an assignment like ‘Create a lesson for me.’ ” Smith said, “I can do that.”
It wasn’t just that Britt had made a persuasive case. Smith accepted that there was no avoiding the tablet or what it represents. During a lunch break, she told me: “As an older teacher, when all this stuff started coming out, I fought it. You know: ‘This is the new fad, and in two years there’s another.’ ” Good teachers, she felt, already get the “data” that matter just by paying attention to their students, and they reach children with all kinds of learning styles. But the more Smith learned about the tablet and the kind of teaching it made possible, the more she thought that this time was different. “And I realized that if I don’t get with this, it’s going to leave me behind,” she said.
When I asked Arne Duncan, the U. S. secretary of education, about the increasing amounts of money being spent by school systems on educational technology, he said: “We spend precious taxpayer money now on textbooks, buses, milk, all kinds of things. The real question is, ‘How do you spend more effectively?’ ” Electronic readers could make textbooks better and cheaper, he said. “As a country we spend $7 billion to $8 billion a year on textbooks. My simple question is, ‘Why?’ ” Referring to the six-year textbook-adoption cycle some states still use, Duncan said, “That’s a Neanderthal system.”
He continued: “To keep doing the same thing we’ve been doing for the past hundred years — everybody working on the same thing at the same time, not based on competency. . . .” He sighed and let the thought trail off, then added his standard reminder that we must equip our students to compete with counterparts in India and China. He did acknowledge, though, that the fear of falling behind puts added pressure on school systems to do something, anything, which then makes them more vulnerable to rushed decisions and to peddlers of magic bullets. “There are a lot of hucksters out there,” he said.
Duncan, whose longtime allies include Joel Klein, Bill Gates and other apostles of disruption, has a record of supporting reforms that increase the role of market forces — choice, competition, the profit motive — in education. He wants private enterprises vying to make money by providing innovative educational products and services, and sees his role as “taking to scale the best practices” that emerge from this contest.
There are reasons to be skeptical about the invisible hand’s mystic touch. Educational technology opens new avenues for marketers to reach students in a school setting, and links between screen time and childhood obesity raise public health concerns. Despite all the research showing that the educational benefits of new technology depend on good teaching, it can be easier to find money for cool new gadgets than for teachers. The Los Angeles school district, for instance, cut costs in recent years by laying off thousands of teachers yet is now using bonds to finance the spending of $500 million on iPads. And privacy issues can arise because school systems lack the experience to negotiate data agreements that anticipate all the ways technology companies could put student information to use.
“When you’re talking about Rupert Murdoch and his empire,” says Josh Golin, the associate director at the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, “there are a number of ways that data could be valuable to his companies beyond instruction.” Klein, who has grown used to addressing privacy concerns, says flatly, “The data belongs to the district.” The agreement with Guilford County, he notes, requires Amplify to secure the district’s permission if it wants to use any of that data — in anonymized form — to improve its products. “The more you rely on big data to improve the human experience, the more risk there is,” Klein says. “But we shouldn’t be able to freelance with the data. I’m not Amazon. The only reason I need to know about you is the school district needs me to know these kids are struggling with X and these others with Y.”
Brian Finke for The New York Times
Apart from privacy issues, Golin says, it’s still not clear that cutting-edge educational technology justifies its cost with results. Companies with vested interests are pitching themselves as the solution to the country’s educational problems, he says, “but we don’t have research proving it’s true.”
I ran that criticism by Greg Anrig, vice president of policy and programs at the Century Foundation and the author of “Beyond the Education Wars: Evidence That Collaboration Builds Effective Schools.” The research on successful schools and good teaching, he said, highlights the importance of relationships among the people in a school: administrators and teachers and students. “None of these studies identify technology as decisive.” Where technology makes a difference, it tends to do so in places with a strong organization dedicated to improving teaching and where students closely engage with teachers and one another. “A device that enhances such interactions is good,” Anrig said. “But kids focused on the device, isolated, cuts into that.”
With that caveat, Anrig was enthusiastic about the personalization made possible by technology like Amplify’s tablet. That qualified enthusiasm is shared by Jonathan Supovitz, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Consortium for Policy Research in Education, who stresses that “individualizing instruction does lead to better outcomes — if teachers can manage the environment to make that happen.” Among other things, teachers will need better tools for processing and interpreting all the additional information they have to handle. “They used to have too little data from students,” Supovitz says, “and now they’re going to get too much, and they need to be ready.”
Justin Leites, Amplify’s vice president in charge of games, works in the company’s Brooklyn offices, in a converted paper-goods factory with open-plan spaces and high ceilings — a model of the postindustrial workplace. Its 652 employees tend toward youth, body art and fixed-gear bikes, which are stored during the day in hanging racks. When I visited Leites in July, the whiteboards lining the walls of his office were covered with lists and diagrams in black, brown, green and purple marker. Directly behind his desk chair, framed by converging arrows in all four colors, was written “DATA,” and below, “That’s what I want!”
Amplify’s variety of reading, math and science games, like its curriculum, are calibrated to the national standards, but the games are meant to feel like free play, not more schooling. The objective is to recapture for educationally worthwhile purposes some of the seven-plus hours per day the average middle schooler spends gazing at a screen outside of school. The logic of games lines up well with personalized learning. Sophisticated commercial games already set the standard in responsiveness to what a player does, and the convention of arranging a game world as a series of increasingly difficult challenges fits the sequencing of curriculum. When you conquer the fractions level, you move up to the algebra level.
Brian Finke for The New York Times
Amplify’s games are still at the pilot stage, but a year from now the company will be offering them for sale to schools, and they will contribute to the feedback students and teachers get from their devices. In the near future, Leites said, the flow of data will expand enormously as the costs of better tablet cameras, faster connections and other features come down. Soon, games that know what a student has read (the tablet’s library will contain 1,000 books) will be able to strategically sprinkle a particular word in his path based on how many times the research says you need to see a new word in order to learn it. In a few years, according to Leites, advances like “gaze tracking” and measurement of pupil dilation “will revolutionize” the gauging of cognitive response by making it possible to determine exactly what students are reacting to on the screen.
This growing stream of information, which can be analyzed down to individual keystrokes, yields a picture that will eventually progress in complexity from, say, a list of words a student looks up to a profile of metacognitive skills — like the ability to concentrate — and in time to a full-blown portrait of a developing mind. In theory, each student will generate the intellectual equivalent of a fantastically detailed medical chart.
My antipathy to this kind of faith in big data tended to abate whenever I visited Amplify’s Brooklyn building, which is full of smart, well-intentioned people doing interesting things. That was especially the case when I spoke with Leites, a former doctoral student in philosophy at Yale, staff member in Clinton’s White House and speechwriter for Madeleine Albright and Strobe Talbott.
One afternoon, we watched a half-dozen students from nearby schools eat chips and test games on Amplify tablets. The raptly tender way they touched, pinched and stroked the screens awoke in me an urge to yank the gadgets and junk food out of their hands and lead them to a library or a good climbing tree. Leites and I had been talking about the achievement gap, much of which can be traced to what happens out of school — the difference between haves and have-nots in access to private lessons, academically enriching summer experiences and the like. Glancing over at the white, black and brown girls and boys fused to their screens, Leites said: “Think of school as a not very good game. You pretty much know at the beginning which kids are going to come out on top at the end, and they do. But this” — the educational games, the 24/7 access to the tablet’s many resources, the whole premise of technology-enabled personalization — “is among other things a way to make that game more meaningful and rewarding for more people.”
For data to work its magic, a student has to generate the necessary information by doing everything on the tablet. That seems like an awful lot of screen time to me, but suspecting that the surge of horror I feel at that prospect may be both irrational and out of step with the times, I checked with some experts.
It turns out that there isn’t yet much solid research on the effects of screen time on schoolchildren, but that will soon change. Larry Rosen, a research psychologist at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and an expert on education and technology, told me: “It’s starting to gear up because it’s being clamored for by the educators. They’re saying, ‘Now that we’re doing this, what does this do to our kids?’ ”
Rosen’s own studies of attention and multitasking show that pre-teenagers and young adults focus for no more than five minutes before becoming distracted. “There’s also a concern,” he said, “that technology tends to overstimulate your brain,” disturbing sleep cycles and preventing the mind from going into what psychologists call the Default Mode Network — the highly creative state you enter when daydreaming or between waking and sleep. And overstimulation can just plain hurt. Erika Gutscher, who teaches science at a year-round school in East Cary, N.C., that has been piloting the Amplify tablet since March, reports that she and her students love the tablets but get headaches if they use them too much.
Then there are concerns about the effect of screen time on how children learn to be members of a human community. Jay Giedd, a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Mental Health who specializes in the study of adolescents, describes the tablet’s ability to provide instant feedback as “particularly brain-friendly” — but, he says, “a lot of our brain activity is devoted to social interaction with other people, and an enormous amount of the change in the adolescent brain is about socialization. What if we’re inadvertently interfering with development in ways that will show up in 20 years in ways we didn’t expect?”
Sherry Turkle, an M.I.T. professor and a prominent Cassandra who writes about the unanticipated consequences of our immersion in electronic technology, described some aspects of tablets in the classroom to me as “the dystopian presented as the utopian.” She said, “We become smitten with the idea that there will be technological solutions to these knotty problems with education, but it happens over and over again that we stop talking to kids.” That’s the root of what she calls “the crisis in the ability to talk.” High-school teachers are already complaining, she said, that their students “are fixed on programs that give the right answer, and they’re losing the notion of talking and listening to each other, skills that middle school is supposed to teach.”
I told her stories from Amplify’s pilot programs about previously marginal, quiet students blossoming: the boy in Georgia whose tablet-troubleshooting skills made him popular; the tall girl in Connecticut who blew away her classmates with an essay about what it’s like to be 5-foot-11 in middle school. The tablet also includes features like discussion groups that let students engage one another directly. “There’s a reason they call them ‘discussion groups’ and not ‘conversations,’ ” Turkle said. “You learn how to broadcast, which is not the same thing as what you and I are doing now. Posting strong opinions isn’t a conversation.”
Responding to her criticisms, Joel Klein said, “This is an important issue, and she’s obviously an important mind at work.” When I confessed to my own reaction to students staring at screens, he said, “I understand that; I have some of that same emotional response.” His near-affectless delivery made it hard to tell whether he was dismissing, simply acknowledging or genuinely sympathizing with these points of view. He did go on to say that he wouldn’t put fourth graders in a MOOC — a massive open online course — and that he would exercise great restraint in introducing technology into a kindergarten classroom.
But he wasn’t conceding much ground. “The world is living in this tech-driven experience,” he said. “Maybe we all should be concerned about it, but think about how empowering it’s been, and the notion that a device is going to make us less good at producing citizens runs counter to how democratizing this technology is.”
In a room down the hall from Robin Britt’s social-studies teachers, a group of English teachers appeared to have fallen into a post-lunch professional-development coma, brought on by too many videos and too much jargon. Across the hall, math teachers were methodically proceeding with minimal discussion through the checklist of tablet skills. Only Britt’s group, led by a virtuoso, was wrestling with the big questions that resonated in the details of the tablet training. As he told them more than once, “It’s the teacher, not the technology.”
Asked how to handle students goofing off on the tablet in class, Britt reviewed the mechanics of the app blocker. “But,” he added, “that’s a case where maybe you want to use proximity instead.” Proximity? A couple of the trainees started scanning their tablets’ apps in the hope of finding that feature. Maybe it controlled a miniature drone. But Britt moved up the row of desks to stand right next to the questioner and said to everyone: “You already know how to do this. You keep going with the lesson but you move closer, you show him you can see what he’s doing.” While talking, he gave the questioner a look I remember well from middle school, the one that says, Both you and I will be much happier if you stop doing that before I have to interrupt the lesson to make the choice for you. “You don’t need a technological solution for everything,” Britt said. “All that stuff you already know about teaching still works, and you need it more than ever.”
To get the most out of educational technology, teachers must combine those traditional classroom skills with new ones. And their repertoires will have to expand as the tablet’s powers grow. This fall, mastery might mean giving a quick quiz, then breaking up the students on the fly into groups based on their answers and sending each group a different exercise from the teacher’s tablet. In not too many years, it might mean using sophisticated pattern-recognizing algorithms to analyze data from homework, games, leisure reading, social media and biometric indicators to determine that one student should be guided to an interactive simulation of coral-reef ecology, another to an essay exercise built around a customized set of coral-reef-related vocabulary words and concepts, and others to something else.
Throughout the training day, Britt addressed the deep worry, voiced by Sally Hurd Smith and others, that technology can undercut the connection to the student that makes teaching feel rewarding and worthwhile. “Once you develop familiarity with this kind of teaching and your students catch on to the routines, you find you can actually give each student a lot more of yourself,” Britt said. “Instead of talking at a group where one-third are bored and one-third are lost, I can have everybody working at their level, and I have time to give the love to you and then you and you.” He pointed around the room at individuals, dispensing the force of his conviction in concentrated bursts.
Someone asked Britt, who had used laptops and Kindles in his classroom for years, how long it took him to develop those teaching routines. “Three years to really get it,” he said. In a month, the trainees would begin the real work of adjusting to the new ways, day by day in the classroom. Another PLEF, Wenalyn Bell, told her group, “It’s like building a plane while it’s flying.”
At my second interview with Joel Klein, during which he barely looked at his smartphone at all, I asked if he felt technology was essential to improving American education or if we might be better off committing our resources otherwise. “We’ve spent so much on things that haven’t worked,” he said, making a list that included underused computers as well as obsolete textbooks, useless layers of bureaucracy and smaller class sizes. “We should have spent that money on preparing higher-quality teachers.” So there was at least one other way to do it a lot different and better.
“Take Finland,” Klein continued, citing everyone’s favorite example of a country that puts its money on excellent teachers, not technology, and routinely finishes at the top in international assessments. “There’s a high barrier for entry into the teaching profession,” the kind that lets in the Robin Britts and keeps out weaker aspirants. Teachers there are also well paid, held in high esteem and trusted to get results without being forced to teach to the test. But America’s educational system is a lot bigger, messier, less centralized and more focused on market-based solutions than Finland’s. Also, our greater income inequality and thinner social safety net make for much wider variation in student performance, and a toxic political climate has encouraged our traditional low regard for teachers to flower into outright contempt.
Still, if everyone agrees that good teachers make all the difference, wouldn’t it make more sense to devote our resources to strengthening the teaching profession with better recruitment, training, support and pay? It seems misguided to try to improve the process of learning by putting an expensive tool in the hands of teachers we otherwise treat like the poor relations of the high-tech whiz kids who design the tool.
Are our overwhelmed, besieged, haphazardly recruited, variably trained, underpaid, not-so-elite teachers, in fact, the potential weak link in Amplify’s bid to disrupt American schooling? Klein said that we have 3.5 million elementary- and middle-school teachers. “We have to put the work of the most brilliant people in their hands,” he said. “If we don’t empower them, it won’t work.” Behind the talking points and buzz words, what I heard him saying was Yes.
Carlo Rotella is the director of American studies at Boston College and the author, most recently, of “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles and Other True Stories.”
Editor: Dean Robinson


lunes, 2 de septiembre de 2013

Expecting the Best Yields Results in Massachusetts

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BRAINTREE, Mass. — Conventional wisdom and popular perception hold that American students are falling further and further behind in science and math achievement. The statistics from this state tell a different story.
Evan McGlinn for The New York Times
William Kendall, the director of mathematics and technology for the Braintree schools, said it used to be possible to graduate high school without taking algebra.


From curriculum to technological advances to experimentation -- a view of the state of science and math education across the country.
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If Massachusetts were a country, its eighth graders would rank second in the world in science, behind only Singapore, according to Timss — the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, which surveys knowledge and skills of fourth and eighth graders around the world. (The most recent version, in 2011, tested more than 600,000 students in 63 nations.)
Massachusetts eighth graders also did well in mathematics, coming in sixth, behind Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan. The United States as a whole came in 10th in science and 9th in math, with scores that were above the international average.
Of course, Timss is only one test, and achievement tests are incomplete indicators of educational prowess. But behind Massachusetts’ raw numbers are two decades of sustained efforts to lift science and mathematics education. Educators and officials chose a course and held to it, even when the early results were deeply disappointing.
While Massachusetts has a richer and better-educated population than most states, it is not uniformly wealthy. The gains reflected improvement across the state, including poorer districts.
“I think we are a proof point of what’s possible,” said Mitchell D. Chester, the state education commissioner.
On a sunny day in May, fifth graders at Donald E. Ross Elementary School here were gathered at an outdoor gazebo, learning about fulcrums by using a ruler set up like a seesaw and balancing weights at both ends.
At South Middle School, seventh graders in a science class worked in small groups to brainstorm how a box of items — a plastic jar, beaker, water, and a mix of sand, soil, clay and pebbles — could help answer a question posed by the teacher: How do sediments carried in water get deposited? They devised small experiments and wrote down their observations, and at the end of class each group presented its findings.
None of the topics were novel, but they were consistent in their hands-on approach, inviting students to explore and explain. “Much more hands-on than what we ever used to do,” said Dianne D. Rees, the district’s science director. “Hands-on as much as possible.”
Braintree, a town of about 35,000 south of Boston, is neither an inner-city area nor a wealthy suburb. “We’re sort of, we used to say, a blue-collar area,” said William Kendall, the director of mathematics and technology for the Braintree schools.
When Dr. Kendall arrived in 1973 as a math teacher, the standard approach was talking at the front of the classroom and writing on the blackboard.
Some children learned well from lectures. Others did not. “And it was O.K. those people don’t get it, because only we, the math elite, get it,” Dr. Kendall said.
Back then, one could graduate from high school without ever taking algebra. “Then came ed reform,” Dr. Kendall said, “and now everybody had to learn math.”
Ambitious Goals
“Ed reform” was the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993, passed by a Democratic Legislature and signed by a Republican governor, William F. Weld.
The three core components were more money (mostly to the urban schools), ambitious academic standards and a high-stakes test that students had to pass before collecting their high school diplomas. All students were expected to learn algebra before high school.
“It was a combination of carrots and sticks,” said David P. Driscoll, deputy education commissioner at the time.
Also noteworthy was what the reforms did not include. Parents were not offered vouchers for private schools. The state did not close poorly performing schools, eliminate tenure for teachers or add merit pay. The reforms did allow for some charter schools, but not many.
Then the state, by and large, stayed the course.
The new achievement test, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS for short), was given to 10th graders for the first time in 1998. (The graduation requirement of obtaining an acceptable score on the 10th-grade MCAS did not take effect until 2003.)
The troubled urban schools performed terribly.
In the small city of Chelsea, which borders Boston, almost 90 percent of the students come from low-income families and most did not speak English as their first language. On the first MCAS, two-thirds of Chelsea 10th graders failed math. The science scores were nearly as dismal.
Two years later, scores in the urban districts showed only glacial improvement. A report from the University of Massachusetts at Boston concluded that the reforms were not delivering on the promises.
Critics worried that when the use of MCAS as a graduation requirement kicked in, thousands of students would be deprived of their diplomas and would drop out in despair. Dr. Driscoll, who was elevated to education commissioner in 1998, kept the MCAS.
“People were expecting it to go away,” Robert D. Gaudet, the lead UMass researcher, recalled in a recent interview. “He held to his guns.”
Officials did make adjustments. Students who fail the MCAS can take retake it several times until they pass, and can still graduate if they otherwise demonstrate they have learned the material.
Test scores have risen markedly. Last year, 54 percent of Chelsea 10th graders were proficient or advanced on the math MCAS.
On tests administered by the federal Education Department, Massachusetts, which had been above average, rose to No. 1 among the 50 states in math.
Building Blocks
Two decades after Massachusetts passed its education reform, there is still much disagreement over what were the crucial components to its success.
Some think it was the added money; others note that successful countries operate schools at much lower costs.
Some think high-stakes testing imposed accountability on administrators, teachers and students; others say that it merely added stress and that the proliferation of tests takes away too much time from learning.
Some think the standards gave clarity on what was expected of teachers and students; others say there is little correlation between well-written standards and student performance.
Officials like Dr. Driscoll say all three components were essential.
Dr. Rees, the Braintree schools’ science director, said the standards helped make sure that teachers across the state covered the same subjects, laying the groundwork for subsequent grades.
“There’s a logic to that, a progression,” she said. “You start learning about solids in kindergarten. In first grade, you learn about solids and liquids, and then in second grade, you start to learn about solids and liquids and gases.”
The MCAS has helped Braintree figure out what works and what doesn’t. Middle school students were struggling with chemistry questions on the eighth-grade MCAS. The district changed the order of instruction, covering concrete science concepts in sixth grade and moving some chemistry topics to seventh. “And it worked,” Dr. Rees said. “They’re doing better on their chemistry.”
Still, Massachusetts officials admit they have more to do.
While scores have improved across the board, the gap between the highest achievers and the lowest — notably blacks, Hispanics and special education students — has persisted.
Seeing Results
At East Middle School, the elixir is Kristen Walsh, who teaches math to sixth, seventh and eighth graders with so-called special needs, a potpourri of learning disabilities that includedyslexia and autism. On this day she was introducing a lesson on variables and linear equations with a problem involving gym memberships.
She explained the usual math concepts of beginning algebra — the slope of a line indicating the rate of change, the y intercept where the line intersects the y axis. Where she lingered was less the math concepts but the words used in the word problem, repeatedly checking that the students understood that the “start-up fee” of one health club was the same thing as the membership fee at another.
In essence, she was teaching how to interpret a math problem as much as how to solve it.
Dr. Kendall says teachers now laugh when he tells them that it was once possible to graduate from Braintree High School without ever taking algebra. “You can’t get out of eighth grade without knowing Algebra I now,” he said. “We’re teaching it to everybody, and everybody is having success.”
The first new math standards in Massachusetts, in the 1990s, echoed the “constructivist” pedagogy then in vogue. Students would construct their knowledge through trial and error, resulting in a deeper understanding.
But many parents rebelled, complaining that their children never mastered basic skills. The state officials in charge of the next revision wanted a back-to-basics curriculum. But Dr. Kendall and others argued that that old approach had already failed.
The “math wars” erupted at the turn of the millennium, culminating in a sort of détente — constructivism was purged, but the new Massachusetts standards did not prescribe a new approach. They stated what students were to learn, but not how teachers were to teach. “What came out of it ended up being a good document, because it contained no pedagogy,” Dr. Kendall said.
That allowed teachers like Ms. Walsh to devise and improve.
Take the multiplication table. The traditional approach was to memorize it in order. A strict constructivist would have children figure it out by playing with sticks and other so-called manipulatives.
Braintree combines those approaches, with the teachers guiding the learning in a particular order.
“Now research shows when you’re teaching multiplication facts, you should start with the 2s, go to the 10s, go to the 5s, do the 4, the 8, don’t hit 0, because the idea of multiplying 0 by 0 is complicated, until they’ve got a foundation in multiplication,” Dr. Kendall said. “Do 0 and 1 in about the middle, and save 7 and 3 until the end, because those are the really hard ones.”
He added, “We’re helping them construct their own knowledge in a way that is successful.”
Abby Federico, one of Ms. Walsh’s special-needs students, said her mother told her the middle school math curriculum was much more advanced than when she was in school. “She was like, ‘I learned this stuff in high school,’ ” Abby said.
Dr. Kendall said that special needs students in Braintree used to routinely fail the math MCAS. Now those in Ms. Walsh’s class often get “proficient.”
“It’s pretty easy in my opinion, because Ms. Walsh usually teaches us a lot of methods to use in math to make it seem easier,” Abby said, adding that she might even choose a career that requires math skills.
“Math is pretty nice,” she said.


Who Will Prosper in the New World -

Who Will Prosper in the New World -

 "Self-driving vehicles threaten to send truck drivers to the unemployment office. Computer programs can now write journalistic accounts of sporting events and stock price movements. There are even computers that can grade essay exams with reasonable accuracy, which could revolutionize my own job, teaching. Increasingly, machines are providing not only the brawn but the brains, too, and that raises the question of where humans fit into this picture — who will prosper and who won’t in this new kind of machine economy?

Who will do well?"

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