the EPOCH JOURNAL
VOLUME VII ISSUE 2
The New School: The FUTURE of EDUCATION by Ian Tuttle Khan Do: SCHOOL GOES VIRAL by Evgenia Olimpieva plus STANDARDS AND STATISTS by Allison Tretina
The Epoch: On Education
the EPOCH JOURNAL spring 2014
volume vii, issue 2
editor-in-chief Ian Tuttle managing editor Evgenia Olimpieva deputy editors Robert George Allison Tretina contributors Yitian Cai © 2014, The Epoch Journal disclaimer The Epoch Journal is produced and distributed in annapolis, maryland. opinions expressed in articles or illustrations are not necessarily those of the editorial board or st. john’s college. advertising please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for information about advertisements mailing address st. john’s college 60 college ave. annapolis, md 21404 website www.epochjournal.org
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t is hard not to get sentimental about education. The aspirations of parents for their children are wrapped up in the classroom— as are, often, the hopes of leaders for their people (“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be”—so quoth Thomas Jefferson). Whether in a frontier schoolhouse, an inner city charter school, or an ivy-draped university campus, the prospect of “getting an education” emanates a warm, radiant glow. Then again, education has a dangerous edge. We letter from have met our fair share of the editor pedants, of course, who remind us that education is best worn lightly, lest it wear everyone else out; but we also know that a little knowledge can be, as they say, a dangerous thing, and that abusers of knowledge are often the most despicable of tyrants, whether dictators manipulating the masses or scientists manipulating the data. The harm done to the world by so-called intellectuals is inestimable—and unknown to many, its consequences being less obvious than gulags. Still, the authors of this issue of The Epoch will stipulate that, on the whole, education is a good thing. But in America over the past several decades, we have seen the quality of education, at every level, decline, and its price tag increase. Many colleges have been nonchalant about offering diplomas at staggering costs, then tossing graduates into a lousy job market. (There’s a reason recent alumni say “B.A.” stands for “Barista Assistant.”) And many students are lucky to muddle their way to a degree, their K-12 education having been one long, dreamlike mélange of multicultural approaches to basic arithmetic and phonetic reading—when it was not otherwise occupied by D.A.R.E. assemblies, sex education classes, and bomb threats. It’s little surprise that even Harvard University has instituted a mandatory remedial writing course for every incoming freshman. Additionally, the problem is self-perpetuating. Is it any wonder that the board president of
Detroit Public Schools—where 1 in 5 students eventually drops out—admitted that he was functionally illiterate? When education works, the generations spiral upward. When it does not, we ought to prepare for long-term trouble. The articles you will find here address various problems in our education systems (higher and lower). Evgenia Olimpieva explores Khan Academy, an online educational platform that is revolutionizing learning both inside and outside the classroom. Allison Tretina reports on the Common Core—and finds evidence that the federal overhaul of K-12 education portends problems for America’s students. And your humble editor reviews a new volume on education reform, and lays out what it offers— and, just as important, what it is missing. Education in these United States has always been a crucial instrument of social mobility, economic prosperity, and democratic dignity. But as the quality of schools diminishes, and we graduate classes of young men and women equally ill-equipped to participate in the workforce or ponder the higher mysteries into which learning, once upon a time, inducted, education loses its power to prosper, liberate, and uplift. Woe betide the nation that accepts such a status quo. !
n a personal note: It has been my privilege to head up the resurrection of The Epoch this academic year. I believe this journal, by inviting us to attend in thought and deed to the turbulent affairs of the outside world, plays a valuable role at the College, and I am optimistic that, under the leadership of our current deputy editors, it will continue to do so next year and for years to come. A special word of thanks is in order for a fellow senior, Evgenia Olimpieva. That this publication once again found writers and readers—and that it has the potential to continue to inform, provoke, and challenge new classes of Johnnies—is thanks to her efforts this year. —Ian Tuttle, Editor-in-Chief SPRING 2014
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education, high and low
The New School
When the education bubbles burst, what comes next? by ian tuttle
umankind being, on the whole, his website, Reynolds disclaims exhaustivea rather oblivious species, much ness for a few concentrated punches. The of our sage wisdom is, were we a New School is not comprehensive or particbit more attentive, not quite so sage. Such ularly scholarly—that legwork is available is “Herbert Stein’s Law.” The crowning elsewhere—but Reynolds’ virtue is in cutinsight of University of Chicago-trained ting away the excess. If the book is more of economist Herbert Stein (you are more an extended pamphlet than a comprehenlikely familiar with his celebrity son, gamesive analysis, well, that’s because most calls show host and Ferris Bueller’s monotone to arms are. Think Common Sense. teacher, Ben Stein), declares: The tome is divided ap“If something cannot go on in review proximately in half, the forever, it will stop.” A hofirst part devoted to higher hum observation—until your The New School: education, the latter to K-12 1991 Toyota breaks down on schooling. Reynolds is more How the Information Age the interstate and staunchly at home discussing the forWill Save American Edurejects resuscitation. mer—it is, after all, his daily cation from Itself Stein’s Law applies, too, milieu—but he has insights by Glenn Harlan Reynolds says Glenn Harlan Reynolds, aplenty to offer about the latto education—and the conter, too. sequences of that inevitable halt are the For those versed in the many garmentsubject of Reynolds’ book, The New School: rending volumes published about AmeriHow the Information Age Will Save American schools in the past decade, Reynolds’ can Education from Itself, published in Jandiagnosis will be familiar: It’s the Germans’ uary by Encounter. fault (mostly). Education from the age of Reynolds is a law professor at the Unithe cavemen to the Enlightenment was a versity of Tennessee, as well as the curalocal affair, and most of that was subsistor of the Instapundit blog, a right-wing tence-specific skill learned by apprenticenews-and-opinion collator whose traffic is ship. Universities, what few of them were so high that it prompts “Instalanches,” or around, were generally devoted to training “Instapundit avalanches”—spikes in traffic clergymen and the occasional scholarship at other websites because of a link on Instastudent. pundit. The Industrial Revolution changed all It’s fitting that the author of a website that. With specialization and economies of whose posts are Tweet-length has penned scale—think of Adam Smith’s pin-makers— a book that weighs in at only 112 pages. Like came standardization, and a need for skills SPRING 2014
(including punctuality, orderliness, and attention to directions) beyond what household education typically provided. Enter the Krauts. American observers abroad praised Prussia’s state-run military schools and the “punctual, obedient factory workers; orderly citizens; and loyal soldiers” they churned out. The Americanized Prussian model proposed by Horace Mann, then-secretary of Massachusetts’ Board of Education, became the model for the United States’ new public school system, and Mann its father. His own children were, of course, homeschooled. The influence of the industrial model for labor on the average American school is hard to miss. Writes Reynolds:
unfair description. It’s worth saying that Reynolds is not a wholesale critic of industrial-style education. He acknowledges that among its consequences has been enormous prosperity; that the average poor person in the developed world is better off, by nearly any measure, than the average noble in the preindustrial world, is largely a consequence of the factory and factory-style education. What Reynolds objects to is that America insists, in the 21st century, on maintaining an educational model developed in the 19th; the world has changed radically, yet our educational methods have remained static. Reynolds’ prescriptions are not especially different for K-12 and What Reynolds objects higher education; in fact, he Like a factory, [the tradiwonders aloud whether the to is that America tional public school] runs insists, in the 21st cen- distinction between the two is by the bell. Like machines on the verge of collapse. tury, on maintaining in a factory, desks and stuAs it happens, the Germans an educational model are much responsible for the dents are lined up in orderly developed in the 19th; transformation of American rows. When shifts (classes) change, the bell rings again, the world has changed higher education, too. “Unand students go on to the radically, yet our edu- til the second half of the 19th next class. And within each cational methods have century,” Reynolds notes, class, the subjects are the “American universities folremained static. same, the assignments are lowed a traditional English the same, and the examimodel, being largely places for nations are the same, regardless of the the education of preachers and the polishcharacteristics of individual students. . . ing of wealthy scions, with room for a few . In fact, the industrial-era public school scholarly types as well. The model was not (which persists to the present) is basicala notable success, and college enrollment ly an assembly line: kindergartners come actually shrank from 1850 to 1870.” Two in at one end; graduates with diplomas factors changed this: first, the Morrill Act, emerge at the other. Each year they adwhich provided land grants for colleges fovance to the next stage (grade), where the cused on engineering, agriculture, and milinext group of assembly workers (teachtary science (Texas A&M, Virginia Tech, ers) performs the standardized tasks Cornell, and MIT were all land-grant col(curricula) to advance the product (stuleges); second, the introduction of the Gerdents) to the next assembly stage (grade). man research university, which “focused on Eventually, they roll off the assembly line graduate education, original research, and and into the marketplace at graduation. scholarly education rather than on lecturing to undergraduates.” Johns Hopkins was Having done time in the American public founded in 1876 as an explicitly Germanschool system in recent memory, it’s not an style university; Stanford and the University 6
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of Chicago quickly followed. The emphasis * * * on graduate studies and original research reduced the prestige of undergraduate eynolds book is valuable for two reaeducation while introducing competition sons: First, because he views the whole among universities for professors with star situation with a sharp economic eye; and, power; money devoted to undergraduate second, because he is attentive (if not quite education was diverted into research fundequally) to the non-economic factors that ing to lure desirable professors from commake the situation so problematic. peting institutions. Bubbles, he emphasizes, are not evil; they This is the beginning of what is widely are natural economic processes. People are considered the “higher education bubble,” willing to invest when they believe a trend and its imminent burst is clearly Reynolds’ will repay their investment. It is long-acmost pressing concern. Following on the cepted wisdom that college is an investsuccess of the Morrill Act, which increased ment that pays tangible dividends: those college enrollment nationwide, who go to college end up more policymakers sought to funnel economically prosperous than It is long-accepted GIs returning from World War those who do not, so, if poswisdom that college II into the nation’s colleges, sible, go to college. But that is fearing that the glut of returnno longer necessarily the case. is an investment that ing soldiers on the job market With the average undergradupays tangible diviwould prompt Depression-era ate $27,000 in debt after four dends: those who go unemployment; hence the GI years—and graduate students, to college end up more whether in law or veterinary Bill and a further increase in economically prosper- studies, well beyond that—and college enrollment. Student draft deferments during the ous than those who do job prospects mediocre, the inVietnam War had the same efvestment is beginning to fail to not, so, if possible, go fect. When this source dried pay dividends. And, of course, to college. But that is up, the federal government, igit has a variety of less obvious no longer necessarily noring Stein’s Law, expanded consequences: increased anxithe case. federal aid to keep up the trend. ety, a refusal to marry (or, be“The result,” says Reynolds, ing so in debt, one’s becoming “was predictable. As with any subsidized unmarriageable), an inability to purchase product, prices rose to absorb the subsidy.” other assets (eg. a car, house, etc.), and an Prices have continued to rise since—faster increased inability to take certain jobs for than the Consumer Price Index, faster than financial reasons (it’s hard to go to work home prices (the bubble for which burst in for that environmental nonprofit if you are 2008), and faster than healthcare costs. The responsible for servicing $100,000 in law result is well-documented: thousands upon school debts). And student loan debts canthousands of students carrying crippling not be discharged by bankruptcy, so bordebt into a lousy economy. “The problem,” rowers are on the hook for life. declares Reynolds, “is straightforward: tuBut college remains—and here is where ition costs have grown to a point at which Reynolds touches most substantially on future income often isn’t enough to pay the non-economic factors—a matter that off the debt—when there’s a job available transcends simply economic evaluations. at all.” When students and parents begin, He quotes Andrew Ferguson, senior edien masse, to refuse to buy the product, the tor at The Weekly Standard, whose Crazy U bubble will burst. chronicles the daunting college admissions
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process: The subject [of education] entangles our deepest yearnings, our vanities, our social ambitions and class insecurities, and most profoundly our love and hopes for our children, with the largest questions of democracy, of equality, fairness, opportunity, the social good, even the nature of happiness.
deed, some of the most important technologies described here are really social technologies, like homeschooling and “flipped” classrooms. Our education problems will not be solved by gadgets alone but by changed methods that are, in some cases, made possible by gadgets.
That is a crucial distinction, and it fits with Reynolds’ larger argument. Throwing money at the problem—and Americans, Which is why making substantive changes both through government and privately, to educational systems is met with such inhave heaved several nations’ treasuriestransigence. worth of cash at both our failing higher and For Reynolds, though, the economic reallower education systems—has made not an ities portend certain change. iota’s difference. The iPadsThe question is whether for-everyone movement, “In a world with thouwe plan for it, and so make which treats students like sands of varieties of the change less painful, or an “Oprah” audience, is simwhether we go off the cliff shampoo, why should we ply the latest instantiation of and try to remedy the situathat same errant impulse. be satisfied with so little tion on the way down. The key, for Reynolds, is real variation in educaSo what is the solution? to put the money in differtion? If the 19th century There is no single fix, says ent hands—probably hands was about standardizaReynolds; we will not reoutside of the current eduplace our current “monolithcational complex, particution, the 21st is about ic” educational systems with larly at the K-12 level, where customization.” something “equally monoteachers’ unions and ballithic.” “In a world with looning numbers of administhousands of varieties of shampoo, why trative personnel, most of whom make out should we be satisfied with so little real fairly comfortably under the current setup, variation in education? If the 19th century are likely to resist root-and-branch change. was about standardization, the 21st is about Money will be more wisely spent by those customization.” with something to lose: entrepreneurs and That will, in large part, be the result of parents. The former can supply alternatives technology—as the subtitle of Reynolds’ to traditional educational methods (they book indicates. The author is nuanced already are—cf. Evgenia Olimpieva’s article about what he means, though: on the Khan Academy, p. 13) that can cater to students’ individual needs, and the latter When the subtitle of this book talks about will (in most cases) do what is best for their technology saving American education children. The charter school boom is an obfrom itself, I don’t mean simply online vious example of the desire among parents schooling or the dumb but popular “Let’s for something different, as is the surge in give every kid an iPad” approach to eduhomeschooling (as Reynolds, drawing on cational technology. Technology matters Buffy the Vampire Slayer, quips, “It’s not because it provides more options, not just for scary religious people anymore”). simply because of bells and whistles. InThe whole paradigm is, for Reynolds, SPRING 2014
photo by ingeniosus.net
simple: education, at any level, is a prodforces. Expect the vigorous pushbacks we uct, and students are consumers. As with are currently seeing against charter schools any purchases, we ought to be rational conto pale in comparison to the vehement resumers. If the product’s price is not consistance to other forms of education—especomitant with its real value, we ought not cially those that aim to remove the student to buy it, and producers ought to be penalfrom the public system entirely. ized by the market for failing As for Reynolds’ particular to provide a desirable product. predictions, if they sometimes When it comes to a When it comes to a college difeel a touch broadstroke, it’s college diploma, the ploma, the price far outstrips forgivable; such is the task of price far outstrips the actual value, and when it prophecy. Occasionally his prethe actual value, and comes to K-12 education, the dictions—the possible “gamiwhen it comes to K-12 fication,” as in video-gamipublic school system has an efeducation, the public fective monopoly. We submit fication—of education seem to a uniformity in education fanciful, or wishful, but the school system has an that we accept nowhere else. effective monopoly. We predictions are many, diverse, The timeframe for Reynsubmit to a uniformity and all foreseeable responses olds’ predictions is, to this to the problems he identifies, in education that we reader, at least, surprising: he given available technology, accept nowhere else. predicts radical change in five prevailing economic trends, to ten years. Given the rate of and predictable economic betechnological change, that may be right— havior. As for some of the specifics—the but governmental policy at every level introduction of alternative certification and interest groups (such as the teachers’ programs to circumvent expensive college unions) dug in deep are powerful inertial credentialing, for instance—it is surprising 10
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that they have not yet gained greater traction.
college diploma is only as good as its return, students (and the parents footing the bill) will be much less eager to pursue amor* * * phous promises of “liberated minds” and conversance in “the Western canon.” ll that said, Reynolds’ book is wanting Being one of those students who spent in one particular. By viewing education four years reading Virgil—in fact, doing through an economic lens, he generally foresomething even less lucrative: not reading closes on notions of education that would Virgil for four years, which might at least find defenders among liberal artists: educahave afforded some expertise, but readtion as something that liberates minds and ing Virgil and Shakespeare and dozens of upbuilds persons. Education as consumerother authors quickly and badly—I cannot driven has the possibility—and help but feel that Reynolds’ Reynolds acknowledges this, predictions bode poorly for my Reynolds’ book is though barely—of fragmenting own alma mater, or at least the wanting in one parfurther a society that is already brick-and-mortar version of somewhat balkanized. There it. When the higher education ticular. By viewing may be a slice of consumers education through an bubble bursts, there will still that desires to learn about “the economic lens, he gen- be aspiring liberal arts majors classics,” but there are likely to out there, and the variety of erally forecloses on nobe many more with no such inlearning opportunities availterest, and it is not clear, where tions of education that able may make it possible (even would find defenders education is “customizable,” affordable) for them to pursue if these would ever have to among liberal artists: those interests, but such interread the Declaration of Indeests are likely to become ornaeducation as somependence—let alone Hamlet. mentations on “more importhing that liberates There is already an enormous tant” studies—read: profitable minds and upbuilds range among Americans when ones. Time spent on the claspersons. it comes to “core” knowledge sics may bestow a dash of so(for a taste of despair, watch cial or intellectual prestige, but most of Jay Leno’s old “Jaythe trivium and quadrivium walking” segments), but at least a generwill rarely be seen as crucial elements of a ous helping of Americans has been forced humane education. to turn the pages of The Great Gatsby and Then again, that may not be wholly bad. recite the preamble to the Constitution. The touchstone books of our history— One wonders what place there is for those Western, Eastern, human—require leisure. things in an education predicated on ensurPerhaps it is the case that we are in a moing economic returns. ment of history in which that leisure is, on At the collegiate level, where the cost/ the whole, unavailable, because of prevailbenefit evaluation must be even more eaing economic realities. If education shifts gle-eyed, liberal arts schools that cannot, to provide more people the opportunity to like other schools, guarantee an economic achieve economic stability, that could rereturn on students’ sizeable investment are introduce an element of leisure into more likely to lose out. Under the paradigm that people’s daily lives. The great books will a college diploma is, as such, an asset, stustill be there, as will those fiercely devoted dents could wile away their years reading to them, and the result might be a more dyVirgil; when that paradigm changes, and a namic reawakening to the way they both
ornament and undergird our lives. Alternatively, the fragmenting tendencies of Reynolds’ tailored learning may so disperse any inclination toward canonical, or foundational, works that the notion of common wellsprings of learning ends up seeming even more retrogressive than it does presently. Reynolds, though, is uninterested in these overarching questions, and from a practical standpoint, that is understandable. For most, education is a tool for achieving material comfort, and insofar as that brings with it a number of social benefits (eg. lower crime, less divorce, greater professional contentment, etc.), there is every reason to hope that Reynolds’ prescriptions find an audience. Still, for those inclined to see education as something more, to see learning as transcending its utility, Reynolds’ vision leaves an itch unscratched. His America will be richer, smarter, and happier—but one wonders if they will share anything other than geography. !
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education and the internet
Welcome to the future of education.
by evgenia olimpieva
n the verge of being completely lost much more than a series of college-level in the world of multivariable calmathematics videos posted on YouTube. It culus just days before the exam, in is an innovative educational platform that, desperate need of help, and searching for it many believe, is one step away from revoluall across the World Wide Web, I stumbled tionizing modern education as we know it. upon the series of educational mathematAs a nonprofit educational website, Khan ics videos posted on YouTube by the user, Academy offers thousands of lectures and “Khan Academy.” Everything I ended up practice problems on topics ranging from watching on Khan Academy’s channel was elementary mathematics, physics, and extremely helpful. I was struck by the vidchemistry, to higher math, astronomy, and eos’ clarity and accessibility; the lessons felt cosmology. The website is also known for personal and casual, like quick one-on-one its computer programming lessons: it protutorials that a friend or a relavides the basic knowledge and tive of yours could sketch on tools necessary for creating The videos posted by a piece of paper. The videos— one’s own programs, which, Khan Academy saved once done, can then be shared which lasted anywhere from me in more ways than with the rest of the Khan Acadthree to 20 minutes—each concentrated on a narrow topemy community. one. ic explained in a simple manNor are the lectures on ner that appealed to intuitive khanacademy.org confined to comprehension and thoughtful problemthe technical branches of knowledge. The solving. The videos were short enough not content is constantly expanding, and vidto overwhelm you, accessible enough not to eos now cover topics in economics, entreintimidate you, and simply enjoyable on acpreneurship, and finance, as well as world count of the charming personality and conhistory, art history, and government. With tagious enthusiasm of the person behind more than 1.7 million subscribers on their the screen, Sal, whose voice accompanied YouTube channel, over 1 million website each lesson. The videos posted by Khan users from across the globe daily, and such Academy saved me in more ways than one. influential and generous supporters as Bill Apart from introducing clarity and order Gates and the Google Corporation, Khan into the seemingly confusing and inaccesAcademy is more than likely to succeed in sible world of multivariable calculus, they its mission to provide “a free, world-class reminded me once again how much fun education for anyone, anywhere.” learning mathematics can be. Salman, or “Sal,” Khan—the founder of But Khan Academy turned out to be Khan Academy and the primary creator of SPRING 2014
its vast video content—did not intend to will be available online to everyone in the change the world when he posted his first world, regardless of financial status or namath videos to YouTube. As Khan reported tionality. In this way, the Internet inadverin a 2011 TED Talk, he initially meant simtently promotes equality of opportunity ply to help his teenage cousin with algebra, and promotes upward mobility, both in the and in the process discovered that videos United States and abroad. were the most convenient format for doing However, Khan Academy is not simply so. Gradually, however, his YouTube vida helpful educational resource accessible eos gained popularity; he started to receive to everyone for their private needs. Today, positive comments and letters from stuKhan Academy’s platform is rapidly enterdents, parents, and teachers. Salman’s viding American classrooms worldwide. So eos made mathematics accessible and fun far, it has been implemented in about 30 for thousands of people, and proved helpful thousand classrooms across the world, and even to the most challenged learners. This teachers report success with this experisuccess eventually persuaded ment. Some schools fully inteSal to quit his job as a hedge grate Khan Academy into their The implementation fund financial analyst and declassroom routine, some keep vote himself entirely to creatof Khan Academy has the traditional lecture format ing the Khan Academy. produced three major and only use Khan Academy as a homework replacement. So improvements in the n the Fall 2013 issue of The far, implementing Khan AcadAmerican secondary Epoch, several contribuemy in classrooms has been educational system: tors emphasized the Interinspiringly successful: Among ‘humanization’ of net’s many negatives. The public high schools, Oakland topic of this article is a great classroom experience, Unity High School went from opportunity to counteract that personalization of the the bottom 20 percent to 11th imbalance. The educational in California standard algebra learning process, and opportunities afforded by Intesting after implementing promotion of subject ternet technology are definiteKhan Academy for only three mastery. ly a bright side of the Internet’s years. So what is Khan Acadimpact on the modern world. emy’s secret? Today, online resources like It seems that the implethe Khan Academy, Wikipedia, MIT Openmentation of Khan Academy has produced CourseWare, Coursea, and so forth, make three major improvements in the American education a significantly more democratic secondary educational system: “humanizaphenomenon. The desire to learn (as well tion” of classroom experience, personalizaas access to the Internet, of course) is raption of the learning process, and promotion idly becoming the only necessary prereqof subject mastery. uisite for acquiring knowledge. Moreover, The “humanization” of classrooms is a the free educational opportunities available result of the “inversion” of the traditional online open doors for those who desire to educational format that naturally follows pursue higher education but do not have the implementation of Khan Academy in sufficient resources to avail themselves of schools. Many teachers who use Khan often-crucial college preparatory measures. Academy assign their students to watch With the ongoing collaboration between Sal’s lectures at home, then use class time Khan Academy and The College Board, the for problem solving, inverting those tradinewly developed SAT preparation resource tional monikers, “homework” and “class-
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photo by jamie chung
work.” Such a reversal makes the process sults in what Sal calls a “humanized” classof acquiring new information more perroom; it takes the passivity out of the class sonalized—and, according to these teachand leads to the creation of a more lively ers, more effective. Students can now go and interactive educational environment— through the material at their own pace, and without sacrificing quality. without being slowed down To aid teachers in making or rushed by their classmates. their class time more effecThe implementation The video format also allows tive, Khan Academy’s website of Khan Academy students to replay any lecture features a “dashboard” that results in what Sal multiple times, making it posallows teachers to ensure that calls a “humanized” sible for students to conceneverybody in the class is learntrate on their specific problem ing well. The dashboard gives classroom; it takes areas, often an impossibility in teachers detailed statistics on the passivity out of a traditional classroom where every student, showing them the class and leads to the progress of the lecture is how much time each spends the creation of a more on which types of problems, governed by the progress of lively and interactive the majority of listeners. The where they succeed, and— educational environinversion improves the quality most importantly—where they and effectiveness of class time, are stuck and require help. The ment—and without as well, because now, instead of dashboard enables teachers to sacrificing quality. standing at the board, teachers monitor both the progress of can assist the students personthe whole class and the progally—or, even better, can ask other students ress of individual students, and to provide in the class to help their mates. In this way, targeted and personalized assistance where the implementation of Khan Academy reit is needed. SPRING 2014
But perhaps most importantly, the adaptive learning system introduced by resources such as Khan Academy subverts the principles upon which America’s system of secondary education is presently constructed. The way the website is organized demands students achieve mastery of a subject rather than a vague general competence. Students are asked to solve correctly ten problems in a row before they can proceed to the next concept. And according to Sal, this is dramatically different from what is happening in most American classrooms today, where students are forced to move on to more complicated topics before they have mastered simpler ones. In his TED address, Sal offers an analogy: Say I give you a bicycle for two weeks— I give you a lecture ahead of time—and then I come back after two weeks, and I say: “Well, I see you are having problems making left turns, and you can’t quite stop. You are an 80 percent bicyclist.” So, I put a big “C” stamp on your forehead. And then I give you a unicycle! As ridiculous as it sounds, this is exactly what is happening in our classrooms right now. The idea is that by using Khan Academy and similar resources, students will be solving problems as many times as are necessary to get the concept or process down perfectly, rather than simply moving on after acquiring a passing score. As one teacher from a school implementing Khan Academy put it, “Now the students know how to do the math processes correctly, as opposed to just learning how to get by.” Apart from its practical importance, mastering certain skills has a profound impact upon learners. Having an opportunity to master every subject one takes on ensures that students travel though the world of knowledge without fear, but, rather, with a sense of confidence and accomplishment— a psychological factor crucial for anyone to 16
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genuinely enjoy learning (especially when it comes to math!), which is itself one of the prerequisites for success. And this sense of self-accomplishment, reinforced by the mind-map tracking your progress and the badges awarded for achievements, is the reason why Khan Academy seems to make learning fun for both children and adults.
han Academy is an exciting example of how technology can be successfully integrated into education, and how it might fix certain flaws and improve the current state of American education, at least in mathematics and the sciences. Perhaps these new educational modes are not simply better adapted to the modern, technology-infused world, but are genuinely more conducive to learning than traditional ones. As Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, has said, “If that platform [Khan Academy] works, that platform could completely change education in America.” Well, maybe it should. !
education and the state
Standards and Statists Common Core is the latest federal monopoly.
by allison tretina
or decades American students have jects, with federal funding as a reward for participated in nationwide evaluahigh marks; a new competitive program tions: the SAT, Advanced Placement called “Reading First”; and new teacher tests, the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, and othqualifications. The law allowed the states to ers. These assessments help educators— set their own standards insofar as they met including parents, teachers, and school the federal government’s “proficiency” bar. boards—make better choices for their stuBut in an attempt to confront the educadents. But when policymakers at the federtional decline, the NCLBA incited further al level wrest from local hands the respondecline. If the states failed to meet federal sibility for those “better choices,” education standards, they lost millions of compensagoes awry. Unfortunately, exactly this is tory-education funding and federal Title 1 happening in the form of the dollars. Enticed by the fundCommon Core State Standard ing and not the reform, many When policymakers Initiative (CCSSI). states lowered their standards at the federal level The quality of education in or requested waivers from the America has declined signifi- wrest from local hands rules. Federal policymakers the responsibility for cantly over the past several had created a problem that years. From the most recent they, and only they, could fix. educational choices, scores of the international test, It would be only a matter of education goes awry. PISA, for example, 19 countime before the federal govtries scored above the United ernment would need to step States in reading—nine more countries in and raise the standards the states had than in 2009. In mathematics, 29 countries lowered—which brings us to the Common scored higher, and in science, 22 countries. Core. The highest general scores came from SwitThe Common Core is “a set of high-qualzerland, Finland, China, Taiwan, South Koity standards” designed to ensure “that all rea, and Japan. students graduate from high school with The Bush administration confronted the the skills and knowledge necessary to sucdecline by developing the No Child Left Beceed in college, career, and life.” But instead hind Act (NCLBA), a number of measures of each state’s receiving license to create its to make the states accountable to the federown standards, as in the NCLBA, this new al government for their academic achieveinitiative imposes the same standard for ments. The measures included implementstudents across the nation. The students in ing annual tests, starting in the third grade, Mississippi, at the bottom of the rankings in to assess student “proficiency” in key subnational-level evaluations, will be required SPRING 2014
to learn the same thing as the students in Achieve Inc., an education reform nonprofMassachusetts, some of the highest scoring it that helped write the Common Core meatest-takers in the nation. sures, released a report calling for national The motives of the initiative are pure. standards. Who doesn’t want the quality of education These three organizations happened to to improve for all of our students, no matter be heavily funded by Bill Gates. Prior to where they live? It’s not the initiative that’s June 2009, the NGA received $23.6 milthe problem per se (although a one-sizelion, the CCSSO received $47.1 million, and fits-all education is debatable); it’s who’s Achieve received $23.5 million. After June running the initiative. 2009 Bill Gates gave the NGA $2.1 million, Former Alabama governor Bob Riley, as the CCSSO $31.9 million, Achieve $13.2 milwell as many other supporters of the Comlion, and the Student Achievement Partmon Core, swears that the self-proclaimed ners (a nonprofit founded by the Common “voluntarily state-led” initiative is, yes, acCore’s lead writers) $6.5 million. Accordtually state-led. In a recent Naing to Jack Hassard, Professor tional Review article he writes, Emeritus of Science Education It’s not the initiative “The standards now known as at Georgia State University, Common Core were initiated Gates has spent nearly $2.3 bilthat’s the problem and developed by governors lion promoting the Common per se (although a and other state leaders eager to Core. one-size-fits-all eduraise educational standards in In their December report cation is debatable); a way that was state-led, rather Gates and his cohorts made it’s who’s running the clear the need for “a strong than being a Washington soluinitiative. tion.” But this is far from the state-federal partnership” to truth. accomplish the adoption of In June of 2008, the Hunt Inthe Common Core. The “fedstitute, which received a $2.2 million grant eral” part of the partnership was eager to from the Gates Foundation to promote the do its part: A year later the NGA hosted anadoption of the national standards, co-hostother forum, which featured 21 governors ed an educational forum with the National and staff, as well as U.S. education secreGovernors Association (NGA). By Decemtary Arne Duncan. At the forum Duncan ber of that year, the NGA, the Council of acknowledged that the Gates FoundationChief State School Officers (CCSSO), and funded commission had recommended the
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national standards. He also demonstrated an eagerness to assist their efforts, telling the gathering, “My job is to help you succeed” in adopting “common national standards.” While NGA, CCSSO, and Achieve were busy outlining the standards and assuring that state textbooks, curricula, and assessments were aligned, the federal government was working hard to authorize a new program, called Race to the Top (RTTT). In March 2009 RTTT was announced, and within four months the Common Core Initiative was launched. The federal government has tied Race to the Top dollars to Common Core adoption by the states. States that apply the Common Core compete with other states to receive grants from the RTTT’s $4.35 billion fund, which is controlled by the Department of Education. In President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address, he took credit for using RTTT grants to persuade “almost every state to develop smarter curricula and higher standards.” The Common Core is less state-led than state-bribed. The Obama administration has used No Child Left Behind legislation to grant waivers to states that adopt the Common Core—that is, in addition to Race to the Top dollars. States, such as Indiana, that have rejected the Common Core have lost nearly $10 billion dollars of funding. It is no surprise, then, that only six states (including Indiana) have not accepted the standards. Topping it all off, the Department of Education has also selected and funded two consortia to create national tests to go with the Core, namely the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), which funds the multi-billion-dollar educational publishing and testing company Pearson, and the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC). The funds allocated to these projects add up to approximately $170 and $160 million, respectively.
The Common Core is a Gates-led, federally bribed initiative. Advocates of the Common Core can deny the federal government’s role in the creation of the Common Core, and they can promise that the states are behind the initiative, but follow the money (beginning with the Gates Foundation), and one sees that the states and, more importantly, the people that make up the schools are largely absent from the creation of the Common Core. Once the Common Core had been established, the states finally became involved. But “involved” only meant having the ability to “voluntarily adopt” the standards—ie. to accept the government’s bribes. The true “core” of the Common Core is not the states; it can be found in the initiatives of the federal government and its supporters. The result: The federal government, making use of government-run schools, is seizing control of what American students are being taught. The Common Core, like the Federal Reserve, the U.S. Postal Service, the Transportation Security Administration, and so forth, is yet another government monopoly. !
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