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Open Education Open Education

Category — Equal Opportunity

Though Net Generation Concerns Over-hyped, Integrating Technology the Right Step

In our prior two posts, Digital Immigrants Teaching the Net Generation – Much Ado About Nothing? and Net Generation Nonsense – Mark Bullen Discusses Teaching and Learning, we spent some time examining some of the current assumptions regarding the net generation. In particular, we honed in on the notion that the digital native generation, having grown up with access to technology at a very early age, is so unique that fundamental changes to our educational systems are warranted.

We pointed to several research studies that contradicted many of the current assumptions in place regarding the net generation and we cited the work of Mark Bullen, the Associate Dean of the Learning & Teaching Centre at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, who has publicly called for additional hard research before deciding that fundamental changes in education are warranted. We also shared with readers the results of a major study from across the pond that totally contradicted the notion that the net generation was any more tech savvy than any other generation.

World Bank PhotoAt the same time, we at OpenEducation.net have been a strong proponent of bringing technology to the classroom. We maintain our position even within the midst of the concerns expressed in the last two posts.

While we may have given today’s youngsters too much credit for their technology aptitude, we still believe that technology has the potential to reinvent public education as we know it. More importantly, in an age where streams of information are endless and knowledge travels at the speed of light, it is imperative that educators recognize the importance of bringing technology into the day-to-day elements of the classroom.

Cool the Net Generation, Digital Native Nonsense
However, even though we will continue our push to integrate technology at every grade and age level, we think it is time to put a temporary hold on the reverence that attends the “net generation” moniker. It seems that we need to rethink the notion that this generation of learners is so unique that fundamental changes to our educational systems are necessary.

Here we align ourselves with the comments of Dean Bullen who notes: “Some of the claims (about this generation) are the same or very similar to claims that have been made about every generation of young people: impatient, social, prefer to learn by doing, and goal oriented.”

However, Bullen does not contend that the current generation of learners matches that of prior students. “I don’t dispute that this generation is different than previous generations,” states Bullen. “Every generation differs from the previous in some way. The social, political and technological context changes so this is bound to have an impact on the people growing up at that time.”

But as for the impact on teacher pedagogy, that is where Bullen draws a firm line. The anecdotal evidence being tossed around simply doesn’t cut it for him, particularly since this group of learners may not actually have a stranglehold on uniqueness.

“Before we start making radical changes to the way to do things in education we need some evidence,” states Bullen. “There is an assumption that because this generation is much more immersed in digital technologies for primarily social and recreational purposes that they a) want to use them for educational purposes and b) will be skilled at using these technologies for educational purposes. I have yet to see any evidence to support these assumptions.”

Two Definitive Fallacies
In addition to questioning the notion that this generation has a monopoly on uniqueness, there are two assertions that certainly seem to lack merit based on our current assessment.

First, not all children are technology experts. While some have indeed developed extensive tech skills, a like number seem oblivious to the current technology rush. Clearly, the information from Bullen and his colleagues, combined with the insights from the three studies mentioned in our prior post, provide readers an exceptionally different viewpoint. As we noted once before, today’s students are anything but masters of technology.

Even within the fundamental areas of social networking and gaming, there appear to be enormous skill set differences among children. In sum total, there is simply no evidence to support the assumption that “digital natives” as a collective group are tech experts, and any teacher assuming his or her students are technology wizards is in for a rude awakening.

However, that also means that we can stop wasting our time debating the digital classroom divide issue. Our teachers, the so-called generation of “digital immigrants,” are not quite as far from the skills of the “digital natives” generation as many experts make them out to be.

Extra KetchupA second assumption that must be categorically reconsidered relates to the use of technology for learning. Children do like technology for recreational purposes, but just because they like using technology, teachers cannot assume they will in turn want to use technology to enhance their learning. According to Bullen and Doherty, students do not always seem willing to mix business with pleasure. Therefore, any teachers making the assumption that such a transition will be a snap with students appear likely to find rough sledding.

Technology Applications Have Much to Offer
But when it comes to the public school classroom, it is extremely important that every educator acknowledge that engaging students is the first step towards a vibrant and learning-packed environment. Technology, with its fundamental ability to be interactive, represents one of the best methods for creating an engaged student body.

While no teacher should look the other way and allow students unsupervised access to social networking sites or video games, teachers can and should look for ways to use these preferred student applications to enhance the learning environment in the classroom. We stand behind our prior posts and tend to slide away from Dean Bullen at this point. At OpenEducation.net, we advocate that teachers use Web 2.0 tools whenever possible.

In the words of CoolCatTeacher, an educator who honored us a while back by linking to our comic book posts:

“To me, the important point to remember is that just about anything can be used to teach; however, when you use something that kids like, you have an edge and it is magnetic (cool tools, technology, excited teachers).

“We should not be opposed to the use of just about any tool… we should be opposed to bad teaching. Teachers who don’t want to be there, don’t have their heart in it, and don’t take the time to plan and make their classrooms a center for learning excellence.”

We agree with CoolCatTeacher. Good teachers see the potential learning in every experience. They also recognize the need for in-depth planning so that the learning potential embedded in each experience is maximized.

Most importantly, they also understand the need for engagement and therefore are more than willing to meet students halfway. Using Web 2.0 technology tools is one method for meeting students on their turf.

Confident of Our Suggestions
AndrewGiven this sentiment, we feel confident about our various posts related to teaching digital natives, even if these students are not as unique as most make them out to be. Technology may be melded into the learning environment at every grade level and within each subject, providing opportunities to greater individualize learning even as it enhances student engagement in the classroom.

Anyone confused about how to do so should turn to our post, Award-Winning Teacher Utilizes a Wealth of Classroom Technology. Mr. Thompson provides many concrete examples of how to make a classroom come alive with technology applications.

For us that is the key, the classroom must come alive. The members of the current generation that have been exposed to technology are used to higher levels of sensory input and greater control of those inputs. Students heading to a classroom devoid of similar controls and without high levels of such input will render that environment less inviting for them.

Students learn best when they are excited and engaged. Even those who have not been exposed to technology and high levels of sensory input will respond extremely well to classrooms that are stimulating for learners. Ultimately, we believe that teachers should look for every opportunity to produce a classroom that inspires children and technology is one of the best ways to create such a classroom.

It is time to drop the digital natives’ hype and recognize that the debate should not be about digital natives versus digital immigrants. The debate should be about how to use technology to effectively enhance the learning experience for students.

Flickr photos courtesy of World Bank Photo, Extra Ketchup and Andrew.

September 26, 2008   1 Comment

Digital Immigrants Teaching the Net Generation – Much Ado About Nothing?

Over the past few months we have done several posts regarding the net generation, the so-called group of school children dubbed “digital natives.”

Many experts within, as well as from outside the field of education believe that the current crop of students entering our schools present a unique set of challenges for teachers. The belief is that many are used to the multi-sensory world that technology provides that 21st century classrooms must be adjusted to accommodate that development. In addition, because this generation of students has grown up with computers, video games and social networking opportunities, many of those same experts are of the ilk that today’s students are more computer savvy than their teachers and their parents.

At OpenEducation.net, we too have jumped on the digital natives, net generation, bandwagon.

caghsIn particular, we focused on teaching and learning as it relates to this generation in each of the following posts:

We also provided our readers a link to Michael Wesch’s provocative YouTube video in our post, If a Picture is Worth a Thousand Words – More on the Digital Divide?

Conflicting Data
At the same time, we reviewed a very interesting report out of Europe that contradicted the viewpoint that this generation of learners is extremely adept at using technology. Our summary, Student Shortcomings – Anything but Masters of Technology, highlighted several very interesting misconceptions.

For example, the report indicated that this new generation of tech users were anything but “expert searchers.” In fact, the researchers found that most “digital natives” had real difficulty choosing good search terms.

The report did reveal another weakness created by having access to interactive devices. Because students really like activity, they love to cut-and-paste. The report goes on to note, “There is a lot of anecdotal evidence and plagiarism is a serious issue.”

At the same time, there were two major surprises. One related to the growing belief that technology was ultimately making students more impatient and adding to their need for instant gratification. To the complete shock of many, the report indicated that young people demonstrated no higher levels of impatience than did adults.

bgbloggingThe second surprise was in regards to the critical assumption that digital natives were more tech savvy than adults. No evidence could be found that teens, in total as a group, were more adept at using technology, than were older adults.

Then, less than a week ago, at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Siva Vaidhyanathan authored a similar piece entitled, Generational Myth, Not All Young People Are Tech-savvy. We give deference to paraphrasing and provide two noteworthy segments from the article directly:

College students in America are not as “digital” as we might wish to pretend. All this mystical talk about a generational shift and all the claims that kids won’t read books are just not true. Our students read books when books work for them (and when I tell them to). And they all (I mean all) tell me that they prefer the technology of the bound book to the PDF or Web page.

Yes, he insists that students prefer the technology of the bound book to that of a web page!

And later:

Talk of a “digital generation” or people who are “born digital” willfully ignores the vast range of skills, knowledge, and experience of many segments of society. It ignores the needs and perspectives of those young people who are not socially or financially privileged. It presumes a level playing field and equal access to time, knowledge, skills, and technologies. The ethnic, national, gender, and class biases of any sort of generation talk are troubling. And they could not be more obvious than when discussing assumptions about digital media.

While Vaidhyanathan dwells a bit too hard on the privilege piece, citing it as a delineation, his point about mass assumptions is consistent with the findings from the European study. The bottom line,it seems, is that not all “digital natives” are tech savvy.

Empirical Evidence Appears to Be Lacking
In our constant search for news on technology and its impact on teaching and learning, we came across a blog with an extremely provocative title, Net Gen NonSense. The site, featuring four contributors, Mark Bullen, Crogoza, Iain Doherty and Tannis, is “dedicated to debunking the myth of the net generation, particularly as it relates to learning, teaching and the use of technology.”

On the Net Gen NonSense site is yet another link to an article questioning the current assumptions, a piece authored by three Australian researchers, Sue Bennett, Karl Maton and Lisa Kervin. Their review of current data questions the ongoing claims that fundamental changes to our educational institutions are necessary because of the unique needs of the current generation of learners.

The researchers insist that such claims have not been subjected to enough scrutiny. In very strong terms, they call the current debate an academic form of ‘moral panic.’

In total, these three scholarly articles indicate we are in fact making some major assumptions about the current generation of learners. Are they truly that unique or have we exaggerated the belief? We began wondering, is all of the hullabaloo regarding teaching the net generation simply much ado about nothing?

Next, in an attempt to answer our questions, we talk with Mark Bullen, one of the founders of the blog, NetGenNonsense, to determine the specific net generation myths he is seeking to debunk.

Flickr photos courtesy of Caghs the Cat Lady and BGBlogging.

September 22, 2008   22 Comments

2008 Republican Party Platform Formally Addresses Education

Over the past week, the media focus regarding the Republican ticket has been entirely on the naming of John McCain’s vice presidential candidate. However, on Monday the Republican National Committee finally released the finished copy of its 2008 platform.

Defending Our Nation (PDF) lays out an agenda that does not necessarily match the viewpoint of its candidate, John McCain.
However, from, “Supporting Our Heroes, Securing the Peace” to “Reforming Government to Serve the People” to “Health Care Reform: Putting Patients First,” the platform reinforces the thoughts of recent Republican agendas. And for those who thought that the party would distance itself from the past eight years, one need only turn to the opening section to see that nothing could be further from the truth.

JohnMcCain.com
The platform notes:

“With gratitude for eight years of honorable service from President George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, the Republican Party now stands united behind new leadership, an American patriot, John McCain.”

A Look at the Education Planks

Subtitled Education Means a More Competitive America, the education section continues the Republican push for accountability and school choice yet the planks conspicuously make no mention of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act. In addition, while higher education continues to be addressed from a cost standpoint, there is little in the way for a call for educational improvements at either the undergraduate or graduate levels.

As with the Democratic platform, the Republican’s note a need for substantial improvement in public education:

“Maintaining America’s preeminence requires a world-class system of education, with high standards, in which all students can reach their potential. That requires considerable improvement over our current 70 percent high school graduation rate and six-year graduation rate of only 57 percent for colleges.”

One noteworthy aspect is the call for greater attention to civics education and for passing our culture to our young:

It is through education that we ensure the transmission of a culture, a set of values we hold in common. It has prepared generations for responsible citizenship in a free society, and it must continue to do so. Our party is committed to restoring the civic mission of schools envisioned by the founders of the American public school system. Civic education, both in the classroom and through service learning, should be a cornerstone of American public education and should be central to future school reform efforts.”

The proponents of NCLB will note that the accountability set forth by the Bush legislation continues to be a focus of the current platform:

“All children should have access to an excellent education that empowers them to secure their own freedom and contribute to the betterment of our society. We reaffirm the principles that have been the foundation of the nation’s educational progress toward that goal: accountability for student academic achievement; periodic testing on the fundamentals of learning, especially math and reading, history and geography; transparency, so parents and the general public know which schools best serve their students; and flexibility and freedom to innovate so schools and districts can best meet the needs of their students.”

But in stark contrast to the actual law the current platform later notes:

“We reject a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Contradictions Emerge
It is interesting to note that the platform offers the following statements:

“We advocate policies and methods that are proven and effective: building on the basics, especially phonics; ending social promotion; merit pay for good teachers; classroom discipline; parental involvement; and strong leadership by principals.”

Yet later, the platform asserts:

Image Editor“”We renew our call for replacing “family planning” programs for teens with increased funding for abstinence education, which teaches abstinence until marriage as the responsible and expected standard of behavior. Abstinence from sexual activity is the only protection that is 100 percent effective against out-of-wedlock pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS when transmitted sexually.”

While those words echo the views of the religious right, data on abstinence only education classes reveals that such instruction has no impact on teen sexual activity.

Better Teachers
A call to give students the best teachers also matches a plank in the Democratic document. However, the Republican platform is clear that the process for increasing teacher talent is a local responsibility, not one for the federal government.

For students to meet world class standards, they must have access to world class teachers, whether in person or through virtual public schools that can bring high-quality instruction into the classroom. School districts must have the authority to recruit, reward, and retain the best and brightest teachers, and principals must have the authority to select and assign teachers without regard to collective bargaining agreements. Because qualified teachers are often not available through traditional routes, we support local efforts to create an adjunct teacher corps of experts from higher education, business, and the military to fill in when needed.”

Strong on Partnerships and Authentic Education

One real strength of the platform is the focus on reaching beyond the classroom for support and authentic learning experiences for kids:

“We encourage the private-public partnerships and mentoring that can make classroom time more meaningful to students by integrating it with learning beyond school walls. These efforts are crucial to lowering the drop-out rate and helping at-risk students realize their potential.

“Partnerships between schools and businesses can be especially important in STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and math. The need to improve secondary education in those fields can be measured by the number of remedial courses now offered at the college level.

“We applaud those who are changing that situation by giving young people real-world experience in the private sector and by providing students with rigorous technical and academic courses that give students the skills and knowledge necessary to be productive members in a competitive American workforce.”

It is in this arena that the platform reaches its full push for “policies and methods that are proven and effective.”

Higher Education
Reading the higher education section creates the feeling that our colleges and universities are delivering a world class education, albeit one that is too expensive and all too often home to subversive elements.

“Our country’s system of higher education — public and private, secular and religious, large and small institutions — is unique for its excellence, its diversity, and its accessibility. Learning is a safeguard of liberty. Post-secondary education not only increases the earnings of individuals but advances economic development. Our colleges and universities drive much of the research that keeps America competitive. We must ensure that our higher education system meet the needs of the 21st century student and economy and remain innovative and accessible.”

As for costs:

“Students and their parents face formidable challenges in planning for college as costs continue to outpace inflation. Higher education seems immune from market controls and the law of supply and demand. We commend those institutions which are directing a greater proportion of their endowment revenues toward tuition relief.”

Instead of governmental assistance or a service component as advocated by the Democrats, the Republicans focus on 529s for funding options:

“The Republican vision for expanding access to higher education has led to two major advances, Education Savings Accounts and Section 529 accounts, by which millions of families now save for college.”

And as for the subversive aspects:

“We affirm the right of students and faculty to express their views in the face of the leftist dogmatism that dominates many institutions. To preserve the integrity and independence of the nation’s colleges, we will continue to ensure alternatives to ideological accrediting systems.”

Another strong component of the platform is a call for greater higher education portability and the corresponding need for enhanced distance learning options:

JohnMcCain.com
“As mobility increases in all aspects of American life, student mobility, from school to school and from campus to campus, will require new approaches to admissions, evaluations, and credentialing. Distance learning propelled by an expanding telecommunications sector and especially broadband, is certain to grow in importance — whether through public or private institutions — and federal law should not discriminate against the latter.”

Other Noteworthy Elements
There are many other educational planks within the document that reiterate long-standing Republican views. For people seeking greater insight into the planks related to higher education, InsideHigherEducation.com has a thorough review of those items.

For OpenEducation.net, the platform was a pleasant surprise and a stark contrast to a McCain campaign that has been devoid of extensive educational discussion and a Republican agenda that seldom strays beyond the concept of school choice. However, we still have major concerns with their improved and fleshed out agenda – we are particularly concerned with its lack of additional support for early childhood education despite its proven success in other countries and for its failure to realize that a federal investment component is necessary if we are to improve teacher quality in our country.

We also must reiterate our concern with the inconsistency of first touting accountability followed by seeking additional support for a specific program (abstinence education) that has been deemed ineffective. Such language appears to be nothing more than an attempt to pander to a single voting group.

Photos and logos from John McCain.com and ImageEditor.

September 2, 2008   5 Comments

Charles Murray – For Most People, College Is a Waste of Time

Last week we noted the thoughts of Professor David Wiley of Brigham Young who had the audacity to suggest that higher education could be on the verge of irrelevance. The day after we posted his summary, social scientist Charles Murray authored an op ed piece for the Wall Street Journal that also criticized higher education as it is currently designed.

For Most, College Is a Waste of Time” proved to be a strong rebuke of the current college structure. The piece was not new ground for Murray. The W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute has been a consistent critic of the current higher education format.

Last fall, we noted Murray’s prior work in three separate posts, “Eliminate the SAT,” “Half of All Children Are Below Average,” and “Too Many Americans Are Going to College.” While some are quick to dismiss Murray as simply being “anti-college,” the fact is Murray has taken a strong stance against the current one-size-fits-all path that America promotes, a path that states a four-year college degree is the only worthy avenue for furthering one’s education.

Defining Educational Success for Students
Of today’s university structure, Murray writes:

“First, we … set up a single goal to represent educational success, which will take four years to achieve no matter what is being taught. We … attach an economic reward to it that seldom has anything to do with what has been learned. We … urge large numbers of people who do not possess adequate ability to try to achieve the goal, wait until they have spent a lot of time and money, and then deny it to them. We … stigmatize everyone who doesn’t meet the goal. We … call the goal a ‘BA’.”

Murray goes on to call the current structure “cruel” and “insane” though he acknowledges that there may be merit in the current system for those who seek credentials in certain fields. However, in his eyes it is a limited set of study options:

“Outside a handful of majors — engineering and some of the sciences — a bachelor’s degree tells an employer nothing except that the applicant has a certain amount of intellectual ability and perseverance. Even a degree in a vocational major like business administration can mean anything from a solid base of knowledge to four years of barely remembered gut courses.”

Murray’s solution is simple in concept yet would require a complete revamping of the current college structure.

Certifications Should Replace Degrees
“The solution is not better degrees, but no degrees. Young people entering the job market should have a known, trusted measure of their qualifications they can carry into job interviews. That measure should express what they know, not where they learned it or how long it took them. They need a certification, not a degree.”

Murray seeks a model similar to that of the licensure exam accountants take to become a CPA. The key is to create a method for documenting mastery of a certain body of knowledge or a defined set of skills. Murray insists that by creating a set of true credentials, the college playing field would be leveled out for students.

“You may have learned accounting at an anonymous online university, but your CPA score gives you a way to show employers you’re a stronger applicant than someone from an Ivy League school.”

With Murray’s proposal the traditional four-year BA degree would no longer be the sole tool for measuring achievement.

“Under a certification system, four years is not required, residence is not required, expensive tuitions are not required, and a degree is not required. Equal educational opportunity means, among other things, creating a society in which it’s what you know that makes the difference. Substituting certifications for degrees would be a big step in that direction.

“Our obsession with the BA has created a two-tiered entry to adulthood, anointing some for admission to the club and labeling the rest as second-best. An educational world based on certification tests would be a better place in many ways, but the overarching benefit is that the line between college and non-college competencies would be blurred. Hardly any jobs would still have the BA as a requirement for a shot at being hired. Opportunities would be wider and fairer, and the stigma of not having a BA would diminish.”

Growing Criticism of Higher Education
Our recent review of the work of David Wiley and Michael Wesch reveals a viewpoint that colleges are part of a growing digital divide. Their work focuses more on current classroom instructional practices that fail to mirror “The World Is Flat” culture that defines the world today.

“For Most People, College Is a Waste of Time” is yet another call for higher education to take a hard look at its current structure though Murray’s focus is on the very basis that most colleges exist, the ability to award a degree. But of the three, Murray is the only one who seems to be questioning the idea that “too many people are going to college.”

At the same time as these experts call higher education, as it currently exists, into question, it is interesting to note that in their criticisms these men did not address the major concern of the general public, the exorbitant costs associated with earning a college degree. Add that public concern to the growing list of criticisms voiced by these experts and the last bastion of American education could be in for a rude awakening in the not too-distant future.

We are not suggesting that the university system as we know it would necessarily become obsolete. Certainly not with the billions of dollars in endowments currently in place and the current stratification that exists within American society.

But as criticisms mount, more and more people will no doubt begin questioning higher education as it currently exists. The debate will ultimately be a simple one:

Will there be real value in earning a college diploma or will a university degree be nothing more than a costly status symbol?

August 20, 2008   5 Comments

Preliminary Draft of 2008 Democratic Platform – Strong Education Planks

On Thursday, Democratic platform committee members were provided a draft of the Democratic National Committee’s 2008 platform. Titled “Renewing America’s Promise” and broken out into four distinct sections, “Renewing the American Dream,” “Renewing American Leadership,” “Renewing the American Community,” and “Renewing American Democracy,” the platform is a strong counter to the current Bush administration policies and is drafted in the ‘hopeful of a better future’ format that has marked Senator Barack Obama’s stump speeches.

Declaring, “it is time for a change,” the party is committing itself to comprehensive immigration reforms as well as a strong and unequivocal support for Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to choose a safe and legal abortion. In addition, the party insists it will not continue the intrusive Bush policing actions based on a post-9/11 world.

democrats.org“We will restore our constitutional traditions, and recover our nation’s founding commitment to liberty under the law,” the draft platform states.

While the platform has a little something for everyone, it is the strong, broad approach to education, one that mixes support with accountability, that has us continuing to back Barack Obama’s candidacy for president of the United States.


Education Component

The section devoted to education can be found within the subsection, “Investing in American Competitiveness.” Focusing on a slogan of “A World Class Education for Every Child,” the platform planks include a focus on Pre-school, K-12 Public Schools, Higher Education and an overlap of education with Science, Technology and Innovation.

As a preamble, the Democrats focus on feedback received during platform hearings. Stating that “Americans know we can and should do better,” the platform states:

“In the 21st century, where the most valuable skill is knowledge, countries that out educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow. In the platform hearings, Americans made it clear that it is morally and economically unacceptable that our high-schoolers continue to score lower on math and science tests than most other students in the world and continue to drop-out at higher rates than their peers in other industrialized nations. We cannot accept the persistent achievement gap between minority and white students or the harmful disparities that exist between different schools within a state or even a district.”

BarackObama.com
Focusing on an inclusive philosophy, the platform goes on to state:

“The Democratic Party clearly believes that graduation from a quality public school and the opportunity to succeed in college must be the birthright of every child – not the privilege of the few. We must prepare all our students with the 21st century skills they need to succeed by progressing to a new era of mutual responsibility in education. We must set high standards for our children, but we must also hold ourselves accountable our schools, our teachers, our parents, business leaders, our community and our elected leaders. And we must come together, form partnerships, and commit to providing the resources and reforms necessary to help every child reach their full potential.”

Educational Promises
The Democrats note they need to “make quality, affordable early childhood care and education available to every American child from the day he or she is born.” Among the steps to ensure that pledge, the Democrats indicate the need for increases in funding both Head Start and Early Head Start as well as greater investment in high-quality Pre-K programming for children.

For the current K-12 program structure, the focus is on ensuring “that every student has a high-quality teacher and an effective principal.” Here the pledge involves the recruiting a new generation of teachers and principals and with a return commitment to that generation of educators that “if you commit your life to teaching, America will commit to paying for your college education.” The platform also contains broad statements regarding improving teacher quality through help and support against a backdrop of greater accountability. If a teacher is still underperforming after supports have been put in place, then “we should find a quick and fair way—consistent with due process—to put another teacher in that classroom.”

Another critical component for teacher improvement involves teacher pay and the concept of merit-based increases. “We will make an unprecedented national investment to teachers with better pay and better support to improve their skills, and their students’ learning. We’ll reward effective teachers who teach in underserved areas, take on added responsibilities like mentoring new teachers, or consistently excel in the classroom.”

In addition, the platform devotes time to the need to “fix the failures and broken promises of No Child Left Behind. We will end the practice of labeling a school and its students as failures and then throwing our hands up and walking away from them without having provided the resources and supports these students need.”

democrats.orgThe platform also notes that improving education is not a function of public school personnel alone.

“We know that there is no program and no policy that can substitute for parents who are involved in their children’s education from day one – who make sure their children are in school on time, helps them with their homework, and attends those parent-teacher conferences; who are willing to turn off the TV once in awhile, put away the video games, and read to their children. Responsibility for our children’s education has to start at home. We have to set high standards for them, and spend time with them, and love them. We have to hold ourselves accountable.”

In the push at the highest levels of education, the post-secondary level, the Democrats add:

“We believe that our universities, community colleges, and other institutions of higher learning must foster among their graduates the skills needed to enhance economic competitiveness. We will work with institutions of higher learning to produce highly skilled graduates in science, technology, engineering, and math disciplines who will become innovative workers prepared for the 21st century economy.”

Party planks here include the community college network and training programs that will help “the unemployed and under-employed to speed their transition into careers in high-demand occupations and emerging industries” and a continued commitment to grow workforce skills possible for non-traditional students. To facilitate a level playing field, there is a push to make college more affordable for the average American “by creating a new American Opportunity Tax Credit to ensure that the first $4,000 of a college education is completely free. In exchange for the credit, students will be expected to perform community service.”

Noting the brain power and capital at our institutions of higher education, the platform notes that higher education is a critical component of the “economic engines of today and tomorrow” and specifies the need to partner with these schools “to translate new ideas into innovative products, processes and services.”

A Shot Across the Bow
In addition, adding to the science and technology component, the Democrats cast a specific dispersion towards the most recent administration. Noting that “America has long led the world in innovation” the party clearly differentiates its push from that of the Bush years.

BarackObama.com“This Administration’s hostility to science has taken a toll. At a time when technology helps shape our future, we devote a smaller and smaller share of our national resources to research and development. It is time again to lead.

“We will end the Bush Administration’s war on science, restore scientific integrity, and return to evidence-based decision-making. In sum, we will strengthen our system, treat science and technology as crucial investments, and use these forces to ensure a future of economic leadership, health well- being and national security.”

Something for Everyone
The platform offers some hope for everyone who feels that our country has been on an extremely negative path the past eight years. For us, it is the broad-based educational planks that have us supporting Obama.

The strong mix of accountability (the only successful aspect of the Bush administration’s education policy) matched with equal amounts of support (early childhood, investment in teacher quality, and a K-16 discussion) have us believing that the latest Democratic platform could actually serve to improve public education in our country.

August 8, 2008   No Comments

Urban Schools Deserving of Far More Credit than They Receive

We have often quoted Mark Twain when it comes to the use of statistics.

Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”

While most have heard that expression, Twain is also said to be the author of an even more telling summary of the world of statistics.

Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable.”

The Poor Educational Performance of Urban Schools
The statistics indicate that urban schools perform very poorly on national tests. If one takes a composite look at test results, one will note that DC, New York, and Boston all perform collectively far worse than the national average on various standardized tests.

theatlantic.com

As Matthew Yglesias notes at TheAtlantic.com, the data reveals a classic “big city, bad schools” association.

But Mr. Yglesias goes on to do a little more in-depth analysis of the performances of urban schools and in doing so, reveals that some big cities actually exceed the national average when poverty figures are taken into account. Not all big cities mind you. But two that perennially take media hits, Boston and New York, are definitely given an unjust rap about the performance of their students.

Controlling for Poverty Factors
Yglesias provides helpful charts, the first noting the initial basic data that demonstrates that Boston, New York, and Washington D.C. all saw a higher percentage of students perform below basic on the 2005 NAEP math test than the national average. New York and Boston appeared to have at least 30% more low performing students while DC had more than double that of the national average.

But Yglesias continues onward to examine those substandard scores in greater depth. Prior to his charts, the writer notes the longstanding impact that demographic factors have on school achievement. Yglesias asserts, “Big city school systems tend to contain a higher-than-average number of poor kids, and poor kids tend to do worse than middle class kids, so cities wind up with bad test results.”

He then backs his premise by restricting results so as to really compare apples and oranges. He breaks the data down so as to contrast school performances for all kids from economically struggling families. His criteria for poverty is to compare the students eligible for federally subsidized school lunches.

Steve and SaraThe resulting impact totally contradicts the urban myth that inner city schools offer a substandard education. In fact, when eighth grade math scores are compared, Boston and New York schools actually do a better than average job educating our nation’s
economically disadvantaged children.

Yglesias notes the difference between facts and statistics. The ‘big city, bad schools’ label is simply a result of the fact that the overall numbers of these inner urban school districts “are pulled down by their larger-than-average number of poor kids.”

In other words, big city schools have more children in poverty and these children score poorly on the exams. More kids scoring at lower rates brings the averages for inner city schools below that of the nation as a whole.

At the same time, it must be noted that taking the data apart does not help the DC school district results. DC has a large number of economically disadvantaged children but their data does not change when adjusted for poverty.

Yglesias pulls no punches.

“DC, by contrast, does have a challenging population, but also is doing a crappy job relative to the challenge.”

Reversing the Focus
Adding support to the assertions of Yglesias is the fact that he also takes time to reverse his performance focus. He moves on from his comparison of those who scored below basic to examine the percentage of students who scored proficient.

Once again, New York and Boston matched or exceeded the national average when their non-federally lunch eligible students were compared to those nationally. And once again, sadly, DC’s results remained typical to the public viewpoint of urban school districts.

The writer concludes:

“All across the United States we have a problem with kids from disadvantaged backgrounds doing poorly in school. We also see kids from disadvantaged backgrounds overrepresented in urban school systems. Consequently, average results from city school systems tend to be below average.

JonkSome cities — i.e., Washington DC — really do have sub-standard school systems and would do well to implement reforms that made DCPS get results more like what you see in Boston or New York. But even if all cities did get the level of performance that you see from the best cities, there would still be a problem insofar as poor kids tend to do badly even in ‘good’ schools in the United States.”

Statistics Versus Facts
We have to believe that such analysis is the basis for Twain’s “facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable.” Statistics can be used to create the impression that our urban schools are doing a poor job of educating their students.

At the same time, it is a fact that both New York and Boston, two of our largest urban school districts, score lower overall on national tests. But when one peels back that initial set of data, one quickly sees that these two cities do a better job with the student population they have been given than does the rest of the country as a whole.

And that leads to one last critical fact: our urban schools are deserving of far more credit that they receive.

Editor: New York public school photo courtesy of Steve and Sara, Boston public school courtesy of Jonk.

July 10, 2008   3 Comments

Top American High Schools – Several Charter Schools Among the Mix

It has been roughly two weeks since Newsweek Magazine offered its annual list of the top public high schools in America. As soon as the list was published, charter school proponents began using the compilation as justification for furthering the charter school movement.

Newsweek.comIt seems that 10 charter schools made the top 100 Newsweek list. With charter schools currently comprising only about 3% of all public schools nationwide, the fact that 10% of the top performers were of that type is indeed statistically significant.

Advocates for the movement were quick to pounce on the Newsweek list. The Alliance for Public Charter Schools President Nelson Smith offered this glowing assessment:

“The charter school principles of accountability and innovation are producing remarkable results.”

But before going too far, it should be noted that the Newsweek list of high schools is constructed utilizing a single calculation. The ratings are based on the ratio constructed by Jay Mathews: the ratio takes the number of college-level exams, be it Cambridge, International Baccalaureate or Advanced Placement taken by students, and then divides that number by the number of graduating seniors. All of the schools on the top 100 list had an index of at least 1.000.

While other bloggers have taken to analyzing the merits of the calculation itself (meritorious or not, it is in fact only one piece of data about a school), we decided to take a peek at the three top performing charter schools on the list. Such a review revealed a very different story from the high praise being offered by President Smith.

The Top Charter Schools
The public charter schools making the Newsweek top 100 list are in order: BASIS Charter Tucson, Arizona, number one overall in America, Preuss Charter in San Diego, California, 4th overall, MATCH Charter Boston, Massachusetts, 25th overall, Raleigh Charter in Raleigh, North Carolina, 27th, Benjamin Franklin Charter in New Orleans, Louisiana, 35th, Peak to Peak Charter Lafayette, Colorado, 40th, Sturgis Charter Hyannis, Massachusetts, 43rd, Moreno Valley Charter of Angel Fire, New Mexico, 51st, the Charter School of Wilmington in Delaware, 98th, and Signature Charter in Evansville, Indiana, number 99.

A glance at the top three reveals some very interesting information, data that demonstrates why the charter school movement must be thoroughly vetted before experts begin throwing accolades around. In fact, one, Preuss, offers data reminiscent of the so-called Texas miracle that came back to haunt former Secretary of Education Rod Paige, while the other two call into question the meaning of the term public.

BASIS Charter School
In November of 2006, Pat Kossan, writing for ‘The Arizona Republic’ took an in depth look at BASIS Charter School. The title of her article perhaps best sums up her analysis, “BASIS CHARTER SCHOOLS MAY OFFER THE BEST FREE EDUCATION IN THE U.S. BUT APPLYING THE FORMULA TO PUBLIC SCHOOLS MAY NOT WORK, FOUNDERS SAY.”

What Kossan found was not a public high school as intended under American law.

Kossan writes, “Most of its students are ambitious children of engineers, attorneys and doctors, kids willing to hammer through math, science, history and literature courses years beyond their academic peers.

“Only 10 percent of its students are minorities. None is an English-language learner. Few are low-income or have special-education needs.”

Olga BlockSchool founders Michael and Olga Block told Kossan that the school does not adjust its expectations based on student needs. Instead, parents, students and teachers must adjust to the expectations of the school.

Legally, though the school takes anyone, that is simply not an accurate descriptor of what takes place. Few students are Latino, African-American or Native American, and the school does not recruit students to broaden the schools’ population.

In essence, what Kossan found was a private school mentality and philosophy backed by public money. Instead of offering an education to all students, Kossan wrote that BASIS “weeds out the academically weak in the first few years of middle school. The school loses 10 percent of its students by seventh grade. After eighth grade, the school loses an additional 40 percent of its Tucson students who decide against attending the Basis high school.”

While such a philosophy appears to get BASIS a top rating from Newsweek, there is simply no comparison of this form of high school to that of a comprehensive inner city high school with English Language Learners and a special education population. In fact, the comprehensive inner city high school would be charged with the violation of the law if it did not modify a program according to a special education student’s Individual Education Plan.

Preuss Charter School
While selected as the number four school on the list, Preuss has recently been going through a very stormy period that calls into question its high rating. An investigation was launched last May at the request of the chairman of the school’s board of directors.

Once the audit had been launched, the nationally recognized school soon found itself in the papers for all the wrong reasons. The independent audit found widespread grade tampering and instances where students received credit for courses they never took.

Sandi.netRoughly 420 grades at the Preuss School were inaccurately recorded over a six year period. The audit revealed a corrupt system “with insufficient internal controls and pressure on teachers to pass students, according to the audit, to be released today.”

The findings brought to mind the so called Texas miracle and the performances of students in Houston that formed the basis of the No Child Left Behind Act.

MATCH Charter School
The Boston Globe did a follow up story on MATCH, the nation’s top 25 public high schools. The Globe wrote, “student defection is high” and “the school’s four-year graduation rate last year was 60 percent, only 2.1 percentage points higher than the Boston public schools (state education department statistics).”

The Globe also noted how MATCH fared under the recent study last fall by Johns Hopkins University. In that study, researchers referred to many schools as drop out factories.

MatchSchool.orgThe Globe noted, the study “designated MATCH as among roughly 10 percent of public schools nationwide that are ‘dropout factories,’ where 60 percent or fewer freshmen graduate in four years. One Boston public high school made that list.”

MATCH, like many such charter schools, has set a very high bar for graduation. Students must pass two classes at Boston University as well as two additional Advanced Placement classes. Any senior who fails a course must go to summer school. Those who fail more than one must repeat their senior year the following fall.

Vetting Charter Schools
We must be careful to assert here that we only took a look at the top three charter schools on the list. Clearly, further review would likely reveal some schools that did in fact operate as a true public school providing an educational program for all students.

But at the same time, after taking a peek at these top three performers we must note that the words of President Smith ring rather hollow. Though charter schools offer a potential model for school improvement, the assessment of these three entities calls to mind the need for multiple measures of progress to rate our schools.

Otherwise a top performer on one list just might be categorized as a drop out factory on another while some charter schools end up being categorized as public schools even though they essentially act as private schools.

June 1, 2008   2 Comments

President Bush on the New G.I. Bill – Never Invest for Tomorrow What Can Be Spent Today

While the debate as to the formal legacy of President George W. Bush may go on for a while, there is no doubt our current leader will go down in history as one of the most consistent men ever to head the oval office. Wrongheaded, rob Peter to pay Paul consistent, but consistent nonetheless.

And for those wondering about John McCain and whether or not the Republican nominee for president would in fact give America a third straight Bush term, he has once again aligned himself with the President on the new G.I. Bill proposed by Senator Webb of Virginia.

Both are in opposition to the proposal of the Democratic Senator that seeks an increase in the college benefit portion of the current G.I. Bill. The Webb revision would return the educational buying power of veterans to an amount similar to those who returned after World War II.

Never Invest for Tomorrow What Can Be Spent Today

President Bush has willingly sent young men and women into a battle of questionable purpose, sending those same soldiers into battle over and over again. By all accounts, the President has stretched our current military to the breaking point. What is most troubling is that each of his recent decisions regarding the Iraq War and our armed forces demonstrates a consistent disinterest in the future of our military.

GunthertThis general disinterest in the future of our country permeates the man’s decision making. Whenever the chance comes to reinvest in his homeland, Bush cites some rationale to avoid doing so.

In regards to the bill, there is a key issue according to the President. The new G.I. Bill will encourage soldiers to leave uniform at the end of their basic service period.

In the eyes of the President, giving service personnel an opportunity for a potentially more prosperous future after having risked their lives in battle will put an enormous strain on our military. It will lead to a drop in retention, states Bush, and our current military cannot survive a drop in retention.

Current G.I. Bill College Benefit
The current maximum amount a veteran can earn under the GI Bill is a shade under $39,000. With college costs running at about $13,000 per year at public institutions and $30,000 at private colleges, the current amount does not cover four years of college. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that funds are available only for four years of school. Any veteran taking more than four years to graduate has to ante up the full costs for every year after the fourth. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the original GI Bill in 1944 the benefit did in fact cover the costs of tuition, room and board, and books at most schools.

KalexnovaThe bill from Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., would cover the costs of college tuition, room and board, and provide a $1,000 monthly stipend for veterans who have been on active duty for at least two years. Webb believes that providing the equivalent funding of the original G.I. Bill for World War II-era veterans would raise the quality of life for those returning soldiers who have risked their lives. In addition, Webb sees the increased benefits as being a real boost to recruiting.

Wrong Decision for the Worst Reasons
In reaching his decision to veto the bill, Bush correctly notes one factor. According to a recently released report from the C.B.O., there would in fact be a drop in retention. Roughly a 16 percent drop.

At the same time the report offers another statistic that our president failed to mention. The C.B.O. notes that the new G.I. Bill would totally offset that re-enlistment decline, increasing new recruits by the same percentage.

In addition, the estimated cost of $52 billion over 10 years represents pennies on the dollar when compared to the ongoing costs of the Iraq War, pegged at about $12 billion a month.
As the New York Times offered in a recent editorial, President Bush and Senator John McCain have argued against a better G.I. Bill “for the worst reasons.” Wigwam JonesThe Times states, “They would prefer that college benefits for service members remain just mediocre enough that people in uniform are more likely to stay put.”

Though historians are likely to debate the overall Bush legacy for years, there is no doubt that the man sees little benefit to investing in America’s future. Standing in opposition to improving the future of the very men and women who have put their lives on the line for our country is just one more example of the man’s unwillingness to invest in his own people.

Bush photo courtesy of Gunthert, Webb photo courtesy of Kalexnova, and McCain photo courtesy of Wigwam Jones.

May 28, 2008   No Comments

Glenn Beck Misses the Mark on Educational Endowments

To the surprise of many, Glenn Beck continues to appear nightly on CNN where he delivers an exceedingly biased and convoluted form of commentary. Somehow, this conservative commentator remains on the air despite having once offered this singular gem, “I think Jesus Christ and Hitler had a lot in common.”

Such statements have led some to call him a menace and a moron. Keith Olbermann of MSNBC went one step further and referred to the commentator as “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” and a “very dangerously bigoted guy.”

Steve RhodesTo see why Beck is referred to in such terms we need only turn to a recent example of a convoluted, error-filled argument the commentator penned for CNN regarding taxing higher education endowments. A single read of his op ed piece will leave most educated folks shuddering. With a second read you soon understand why it is that many folks wonder aloud, “How is this man given an opportunity to be on the air?”

A Recent Beck Diatribe
His commentary, “Tax-free hypocrisy from higher education,” represents a painful mix of conservative rhetoric and hateful narrow-mindedness. His sheer disdain for higher education is astonishing but the depths to which he tries to portray those who work in higher education as hypocrites is perhaps even more astonishing.

In discussing whether or not Harvard University, owners of the largest endowment in the country at $34.6 billion, should be taxed on that endowment, he shares his view of the mission of the university and that of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, owners of an endowment valued at $37.3 billion.

Beck states, “While their financial statements may look similar, their missions aren’t. The Gates Foundation is working to cure malaria, develop new tuberculosis vaccines, and stop the spread of AIDS. Most of our colleges and universities are only working to spread the radical political views of some of their professors.”

Beck spends most of his time supporting an idea that the State of Massachusetts is floating around, a flat tax on college endowments. The conservative Beck ridicules Harvard for taking a conservative position on such taxes. Beck quotes Kevin Casey, Harvard’s associate vice president for government, community and public affairs.

Harvard.edu“You’d be taxing success here. Over time, this would put us at a real competitive disadvantage, which would drastically hurt the Commonwealth.”

The commentator then offers this jewel as a follow up.

“Does anyone else find it ironic that universities overflowing with liberal professors (a 2005 study revealed that 72 percent of professors view themselves that way) embrace conservative values only when it suits them?

As a conservative, I don’t believe in taxing anyone just because they have a lot of money or are an easy target. That applies to individuals, businesses and universities. I believe that taxing success discourages success, and that’s not what America stands for.”

In between, Beck appears to take just the opposite position with the notion of an endowment tax, essentially deciding that Harvard and the likes should be fair game. He also rails against a gluttonous institution and insists that the school could actually make access to its liberal professors and their radical political agendas free if it only wanted to.

Wrong Bag to Punch
Beck’s failure to recognize the recent trends at Harvard is unfair to the school. In addition, his insinuation that Harvard could simply roll all of its college endowments entirely in tuition relief is disingenuous.

Harvard.edu
In selecting Harvard as his punching bag, Beck obviously failed to do his homework. In comparing the school to the Gates Foundation, he first fails to recognize that Harvard in fact has an Aids Initiative as well. But that is only one of his many errors regarding one of America’s top educational institutions.

Though it is always possible to do more for students in the way of financial aid, over the last year Harvard has actually taken some very important steps regarding tuition costs for students. Each of those steps appears to utilize funds from the endowments.

At Harvard Law, the school has undertaken the task of increasing the number of law students who choose a public service career. As one component of the plan, the third year law school tuition costs would be waived for students who pledge to spend at least five years working at a nonprofit organization or for the government. This would save students more than $40,000 in tuition costs.

In March, Jeffrey Flier, the Dean of Harvard Medical School, announced that the school would increase its scholarships by $7-million annually. In addition, the school simultaneously decreased the family contribution amount for those earning less than $120,000 a year. The overall savings is expected to reduce the four-year medical degree costs by an average of $50,000 per student.

The most positive step however involves the recent announcement that families with incomes under $60,000 are not expected to contribute to their child’s education. In addition, Harvard reduced the expected family contribution for those with incomes between $60,000 and $80,000.

With two-thirds of Harvard students receiving financial aid the median Harvard graduate student debt after four years of college is $6,400. In fact, the average grant award for the next school year is expected to exceed $33,000, an amount that represents 70 percent of the total cost of attendance.

Ultimately, Beck is convinced that Harvard could do far more for its students. Given the sheer size of the school’s endowment fund, the commentator seems to think the school could make college free for its students if it wished to do so. And because the school does not make school free, then it deserves to have its endowment taxed.

Of course, when it comes to most endowments, schools generally have little control over the funds themselves. Most, in fact, are set up so that only a small percentage of the available fund may be spent by the institution while another group allow only a portion of the interest earned by the fund to be spent. In addition, the money that may be spent by the school is generally earmarked with specific use requirements. Therefore, Beck’s insistence that the school could do more is really nothing more than a simplistic assumption.

Steve RhodesNational Figure
One would think that someone offering commentary at a national level would have their material reviewed at some point by superiors and therefore be accountable for what he or she has said. Clearly that does not appear to be the case for this commentator.

Ironically, in the same article, Beck had the audacity to offer:

“I also believe in something else: consistency and accountability. And that’s where most of our colleges and universities fail miserably.”

Sadly we must note that Beck has failed miserably to create a meaningful argument. In fact, in his discussion of possibly taxing higher education endowments, Beck is neither consistent nor accountable.

But somehow the man is still on the air.

Glenn Beck photos by Steve Rhodes.

May 23, 2008   5 Comments

The Netherlands – A Proper Emphasis on Vocational Education

Today we wrap up our four-part series on education in the Netherlands with a final look at the vocational training track available to students. Whereas in America we continue to try and force feed students of all abilities and interests through a high school program that is almost entirely academic-based, the Dutch school system has created an extremely viable option for students who prefer hands on learning and a career in the skilled trades.

Though we have used the term track to refer to this option, particularly since students are assigned to one of the secondary school options based on test results and performance at the primary level, it should be noted that the model does not mirror American school tracking. Instead of students essentially taking the same classes as they progress through school but being placed in those classes based on ability (the American tracking system), the Dutch offer both different programming and outcome expectations for the various tracks.

There is an understanding that students may not be able to (or for that matter, want to) pursue academics at a university. More importantly, there is an understanding that students who do not attend such a post-secondary option must develop specific labor skills to have some form of work option available to them. Yet, even within that component of studies there is additional delineation between those who will become laborers and those who will become designers, administrators and even company owners.

As we complete our look at the vocational strand, we will refer to our visit to an MBO school in Amsterdam, Hout-en Meuberlingscollege. We will use this vocational college to provide concrete examples of the delineation in programming available to students. Hout-en Meuberlingscollege working.JPGis a school that focuses on woodworking of all types and interior decoration. Other craft school options do exist at other MBO schools with programs such as the graphic arts and print media, photography, transportation and logistics, jewelry making, agriculture, technology, automotives, health care, fashion design, etc.

VMBO Feeds to Post-Secondary Vocational School
In our earlier articles, we noted the pre-vocational secondary school option called the VMBO. Students from a VMBO secondary school generally go on to further study at a post-secondary school called an MBO (Middelbaar Beroeps Onderwijs -middle-level vocational education). We previously noted the four options available at each VMBO school – if students at VMBO take the theoretical option, they can do either BOL 2, 3 or 4 at MBO. If they take one of the other tracks, those students must take the BOL 2 program.

The basic hours of schooling feature a near fifty-fifty split in hours in the vocational craft setting and in the classroom doing theoretical work. The finewoodworking department of the Hout-en Meuberlingscollege features programs in furniture making, furniture restoration, furniture design and construction, boat building, house building restoration and interior decoration. Besides construction projects and woodworking and drafting tasks, students also take classes in art history, technology, maintaining power equipment, machine safety, and all aspects of wood working (types of woods, laminates, joinery, etc.). Beside practical building skills the HM college teaches about basic aero & hydro dynamics, stability, building history, computerized drafting methods and manual as well as computerized (CNC) machining.

In the two year BOL 2 program, students see little in the way of autonomy. They are closely supervised by staff and given little in the way of independence. In simplest terms, students are given plans and told what to do. In the BOL 2 program, students generally do not have very good reading and writing skills. Because of those limitations, the program is designed towards training individuals to do specific tasks. Graduates of BOL 2 in essence become skilled laborers having learned the basic aspects of woodworking and how to use the various machines.

table.JPGIn the four year BOL 3 program, students are given greater autonomy and work independence. At Hout-en Meuberlingscollege, students train to handle all aspects of woodworking. Decision making is incorporated as students plan a construction project. Instead of being given a plan to execute, students themselves create a simple project design, choose the appropriate joinery for the project and even select the materials to use to construct that design.

In addition, students take Dutch and work on their writing and communication skills. Students focus on all aspects of correspondence, writing letters and constructing reports. The key is that all of the reading and writing are relevant to their trade work.

In the four year BOL 4, students are given a rigorous program that transcends the vocational training. In addition to all of the aspects of BOL 3, there are real design skills and complex work planning skills required as students are trained to administer their own company. For that reason, more theory is incorporated and economics is taught. Students are also required to take three languages (English, German and Dutch) so that they can communicate effectively with people from other nearby countries. Students also study production, the cost basis of materials, and the fundamental aspect of any business venture including how to make a profit. Ultimately students are given even greater levels of autonomy and independence to pursue more significant projects.

As but one example, again at Hout-en Meuberlingscollege, many students choose the boat building segment, a program where students construct their own wooden boat. boats-4.JPGStudents are free to select the design as well as the building method: carvel; lapstrake; coldmolding; or batten building. There are only two basic criteria, the boat must be completed by the time the school year ends and it must fit through the window at the end of the building area so that students may take it home. With such a project, there is a clear indication that students must be able to work independently and to sort through issues that develop rather than rely on an instructor to lead them every step of the way. As the final part of the entire process, students are free to sell the boat for a profit and keep an account ledger as they construct.

Study Center
One very interesting change in focus at an MBO school is the study center/library. At Hout-en Meuberlingscollege, the room was filled with woodworking books and magazines, as well as computers. But in the center of the room are a number of chairs, each featuring a different design. Some of them have been designed and constructed by students while many other chairs are based upon world famous designs. Upon entering the room, students wanting to use one of the computers must go to the center of the room to select a chair and place it at the computer. When done working, the student then returns the chair to the center of the room.

chairs-3.JPGThe idea is to have students explore the many options available, to experiment and determine which chairs provide the greatest comfort. It is but one way that the school tries to instill in students the possible contrast that consists of functionality and artistic flare against those that combine both aspects.

At each computer, a book stand prominently displays a woodworking/design book. In addition, to help students understand the craft information available to them within the study center, the librarian brings two books to each classroom and changes them weekly. The Study Center acts as both a resource and a source of inspiration, clearly offering information through written materials as well as within the practical arena.

Opportunities for America
As we close our series on the Dutch school system, we remind our readers of two things. First, given their results on the International PISA exam, the Dutch have put together a solid educational system. Second, the socio-economic diversity in the Netherlands is more in line with what we see in America than that of the Scandinavian countries such as Finland.

We applaud the Dutch for the development of a very complex educational system that meets the needs of students and society. The recognition that a one size fits all approach to education at the secondary and post-secondary levels is simply not appropriate seems incredibly obvious. However, educational officials in America are actually narrowing the school focus as we speak.

At the same time, each year we hear more and more about the outdated American high school as well as the horrific drop out rates occurring across the country. While many educational officials are insisting that increased academic standards and a revamped school structure at the high school level is needed, very few of these individuals ever raise the topic of vocational education when discussing such changes.

As we send contingents of experts overseas to examine possible school concepts, it is important that we look not only at the Finns and their system. It is imperative that we examine a multitude of options. Most importantly, we must examine the educational systems of those countries that mirror our socio-economic diversity.

guitar.JPGIt is time America to take a hard look at the vocational education strand utilized by the Dutch. It is time to begin exploring pre-vocational program options for students beginning in middle school, programs that create meaningful studies around hands-on trade work, with options to continue on to post-secondary school.

We believe such options would do more to increase student outcomes than further raising academic standards. Our current approach, a one size fits all push to force-feed all students towards a college education track, is simply wrong.

May 14, 2008   5 Comments