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Middle Run, White Clay Creek State Park, DESTEM–the combined educational disciplines of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics–“was first ‘coined’ as an educational term by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the early 2000s.” [William E. Dugger, circa 2011]

Of course, science and math have long been part of the school curriculum. STEM, then, arose out of the desire to apply science and math in the form of technology and engineering.

More recently, a move has been afoot to introduce a more creative element to STEM in the form of Art. The result, alternately designated STE(A)M (somewhat patronizingly, I contend) or STEAM. Two sites that elaborate on this introduction are STEM to STEAM and STEAM Not STEM. As STEAM Not STEM’s home page suggests, the addition of Art is both for its value and to stave off the decline of art in our K-12 curriculum.

I’m on board with the spirit behind STEM and equally on board with the spirit by the extension to STEAM. But at some point, we run the risk of diluting the attention we’re attempting to draw.

With STEAM, do we really mean to exclude Reading/Literacy (the R in the titular STREAMS) and Social Studies (the S)? And once we include them (and foreign language, and electives, and …), aren’t we just talking education as a whole?

STEM Education is Dangerous?


Fareed Zakaria attempts in his book “In Defense of a Liberal Education” to make the case explicit in its title.

Based on his Washington Post treatment of the subject, he fails.

In a March 26, 2015 opinion piece, “Why America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous” in the Washington Post, he writes:

Every month, it seems, we hear about our children’s bad test scores in math and science — and about new initiatives from companies, universities or foundations to expand STEM courses (science, technology, engineering and math) and deemphasize the humanities.

This dismissal of broad-based learning, however, comes from a fundamental misreading of the facts — and puts America on a dangerously narrow path for the future.

Zakaria’s critical error lies in his pivot from “liberal education” to what he asserts makes for a success in the global economy.

He cites the following as example elements of a liberal education: anthropology, English, philosophy, ancient Greek, psychology, and sociology. No disagreement there.

And he cites the following as example characteristics of a strong workforce: innovation, entrepreneurship, critical thinking, creativity, flexibility, social skill, confidence, self-esteem, problem solving, critical thinking, writing, design, marketing, and social networking. “Critical thinking is, in the end, the only way to protect American jobs,” he claims. Again, no disagreement.

Zakaria goes astray, however, in his inability to show liberal education as the better path to the important workplace characteristics he touts. These characteristics emerge as likely from a “technical” education as from a “liberal” one.

So, let the job market speak. Arguably, in today’s economy, technical jobs offer more openings and command better compensation than liberal ones (absolutely no substance slight to the latter intended). Look to medicine. Look to finance. Look to the biological and information sciences.

But should preparation for the workforce drive education’s primary purpose?

No less an authority than ASCD weighs in. Formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, ASCD serves as “global leader in developing and delivering innovative programs, products, and services that empower educators to support the success of each learner.” In a July 2012 article “What is the Purpose of Education?,” they write:

In the United States, historically, the purpose of education has evolved according to the needs of society. Education’s primary purpose has ranged from instructing youth in religious doctrine, to preparing them to live in a democracy, to assimilating immigrants into mainstream society, to preparing workers for the industrialized 20th century workplace.

And now, as educators prepare young people for their futures in a world that is rapidly changing, what is the goal? To create adults who can compete in a global economy? To create lifelong learners? To create emotionally healthy adults who can engage in meaningful relationships?


Consider the skills that make one successful in the workplace. Critical thinking. Problem solving. Creativity. Teamwork. Communication. Unquestionably, these same skills form the foundation to rapidly change. To globally compete. To continually learn. To meaningfully relate.

Sadly, workplace success offers a tenuous hold in the current economy. A liberal education educates. It fascinates. But as an on-ramp to the workforce, its risk outweighs its reward.

“Job” may sound mundane. But try to imagine a more enabling power. A job puts water in our bodies. Food in our stomachs. A roof over our heads. Medicine in our cabinets. A job–at present, the province of the technical and not the liberal–provides the security and stability to contribute to family, community, and society in the most aspirational of manners.

Everyone Knows that Ed Tech is Expensive. But is it?

Education technology offers the promise of better outcomes at lower cost. Lower cost? How can that be–networks and devices and software come at real expense.

If ed tech can enable these better outcomes while allowing a higher student:teacher ratio, and if the savings in personnel more than offsets the cost of the ed tech itself, then its a win on both fronts.

So what does ed tech cost?

For the past 20 years, I’ve served a town in the Boston Metrowest region as a Finance Committee member, a School Committee member, and a technology task force member. As such, I’ve had a front row seat to the implementation of ed tech in a small district (of fewer than 3,000 students).

Over the span of the last 10 years, the district has moved from a relatively ad hoc deployment of ed tech to a much more thoughtfully developed, streamlined, and integrated system.

  • The first step in this modernization was the development of a network infrastructure. A data center at the high school connects to the Internet and via optical fiber to the other four buildings in the district.
  • The second step was the distribution of laptop computers to the educators and the provision of professional development to support their use.
  • The third step was the rollout of a student one-to-one computing initiative. First at the high school level (laptops) and this year at the middle school level (Chromebooks), each student is issued a device.
  • Step four is currently in its early stages: the deployment of instructional technology on top of the infrastructure layer.

A reader might be forgiven for thinking, “Of course the leafy and relatively affluent suburbs of Metrowest Boston can afford an effort like this, but what about school districts with fewer resources?”

Before taking that stance, it’s worth examining what the effort outlined above actually costs.

The budget shows a technology expense just into 7 figures. Yes, that puts us in “million” territory. And this is only for a small district–what about large cities like Lowell or New Bedford or Worcester or Springfield or Boston?

Let’s dive into the numbers. The budgeted ed tech operating cost for the 2015-2016 school year comes in at $1.04M. Add an allocation of ed tech capital at $130k and the total approaches $1.2M.

Expensive, right?

Not exactly. Here’s how that $1.2M breaks down on a per student basis.

  • Ed tech staff: $180
  • Software: $35
  • Equipment: $200
  • Other expenses: $30
  • TOTAL: $445

There are several caveats worth noting. Were the district to expand one-to-one to the elementary level, costs will go up. As the district expands instructional technology, software will go up. So let’s allow for $600/student/year.

What does the district spend overall in a year? A bit more than $16,000 per student. As such, the future ed tech spend represents a bit less than 4% of the total budget.

Meaningful? Yes. But bank-breaking? No, especially if an outcome of the technology deployment allows a higher student:teacher ratio.


Reaching Students One by One

Reaching Math Students One by One” by Tina Rosenberg of the New York Times (Fri Mar 13, 2015) does a great job of telling a story of instructional technology use in a K-12 setting. Such technology offers the promise of better outcomes and lower cost. In the case that Ms. Rosenberg examines, the jury’s still out on both the outcomes and cost questions, but it’s nonetheless worth taking a deeper look.

“For any subject, any room, it can’t be true that one teacher teaching 30 kids is the best way,” says Joel Rose, an education expert who in 2009 worked for the New York City Department of Education. There, he and Chris Rush, a consultant, developed School of One, a method for math teachers to personalize instruction, and brought it into three middle schools.

The school knocked down three walls to create a giant classroom, and Ailene Altman Mitchell, the principal, said she also spent $140,000 to buy a laptop for each child, along with screens and tables.

I wonder if the decision to buy rather than lease was driven by grant funding or another one-time pot of money. The article isn’t clear, but it appears that this might be for 120 students. Spending more than $1k per year per student on technology seems high to me. Laptops or Chromebooks can be leased for less than $250 a year, and infrastructure, instructional software, and professional development shouldn’t add more than $250-$500 per year beyond that.

The three [students] were discussing the errors, and endorsed the method. “It engages kids,” said Tianna. “You don’t get bored listening to the teachers. And the computers make it more fun.” Romel and Danielle said they liked working in groups.

I’d much rather have a student engaged in an average curriculum than disengaged from a great one. That said, I see no reason why we can’t have both.

The first step, now widespread, was the digital lesson, usually a computer game or video. The best-known web provider, Khan Academy, is free. But there are many other sources of digital lessons, from pricey packages created by education companies to rudimentary videos that teachers make at home.

A caution–the article seems to be leaning at least slightly against “pricey packages created by education companies” (but, perhaps that’s just me detecting a bias that isn’t there). Reading skill development software tends to cost on the order of $30-$40 per student per year. Given that schools are spending more than $10,000 per student per year (in many cases, much more than this), it’s hardly fair to call $30-$40 “pricey.”

Here’s a second consideration–in my opinion, care must be taken in using curricula created by teachers. This is in no way meant to slight teachers, only to make the point that any teacher creating curricula should have some expertise in creating it. Most teachers aren’t getting that training as part of their pre-service or in-service education. I’m not saying that a teacher untrained in curriculum development can’t create great curriculum–maybe they have a gift for it. But, we need to apply the same due diligence to evaluating that curricula as we do other curricula that we deploy. Educational publishers employ trained instructional designers who use models like that of Wiggins and McTighe (Understanding by Design) to draw on the research of best practices, apply proven design principles, and test the results for efficacy.

But the next step is the real innovation: the educational equivalent of an air traffic control system. Each student’s daily exit quiz is fed into an algorithm, which produces the next day’s schedule for each student and teacher. (Teachers get a preview, and can override the schedule.) If a student has mastered a skill, on to the next one. If not, she gets another day’s instruction, this time through a different modality. (The algorithm is aware of which modalities work best for her.) It’s an enormous departure from traditional teaching.

It’s sad that this “adaptive branching” model is deemed “an enormous departure from traditional teaching.” Is it really possible to argue that education should be anything other than basing what we teach next on how what we taught last was understood? The challenge in doing this in a one teacher/30 students model has been the problem, one that technology is well suited to address.

One concern often raised in education is that of testing too much. This is an interesting concern, as there’s research showing that shorter, more frequent assessment leads to better learning. Technology offers the best of both worlds, as the assessment disappears into the background while being constantly there. The line between instruction and assessment becomes blurred just as the student becomes more engaged.

The information we give teachers is either too coarse or too fine. It’s either ‘Johnny can’t do math’ or ‘here are 186 characteristics on seven dimensions of proficiency’ and the teacher says ‘I can’t look at all that.’ The value proposition of School of One is: by telling you what the next instructional step is, we’ll help you thread between that.“

Presumably, such an advance would be well-received by teachers.

Mitchell estimated that School of One costs some $40,000 a year more than other math tech programs, or about $100 per student.

Interesting. I wonder why this is. True cost? Amortization of early R&D? Or margin that the “publisher” is able to extract due to the program’s real or perceived quality?

[In the second year, School of One] added eight more schools, and the collective gains for the 15 schools were 47 percent higher than the national average. They were also highest among the worst-off students, which is exactly what you want to see. … Why did schools do better the second year? New Classrooms is always changing the program, and might have improved something important. Also, everything in teaching improves with practice. … But the gains may be in part due to the fact that these are schools that decided to put a lot of time and money into improving their math teaching,” he said. These same programs usually show less impressive results when tested in a randomized controlled trial that compares math gains in schools that use the program to gains in others that want it but will get it later.

The gains are the key, of course. A year two implementation is early on, and as the article points out, improvement will come with practice. It would be interesting to know the extent to which the program is deployed with the fidelity intended by the publisher.

Why should a school try an expensive, disruptive high-tech platform that’s still unproven? The answer is: in order to prove it. School of One takes comprehensive advantage of technology in ways that let teachers concentrate on teaching. That’s worth getting right. There may be ways to make it cheaper and more effective, but only through further experimentation. As for being disruptive, does anyone defend the current system? “We’re not aspiring to create the least disruptive program,” said Rose. “Our goal is a model that works.”

Well said!

A promise partially fulfilled

learnlaunch2015The occasion of LearnLaunch’s just-completed 3rd annual conference, “Across Boundaries: Delivering on Edtech’s Promise” (Jan 23-24, 2015, at Harvard Business School in Boston) reminded me of a white paper I’d written while at Lexia Learning almost a decade ago.

I revisit that white paper here.

Breaking through the school productivity ceiling:
the promise of education technology

Unlike almost every other field of human endeavor, education has not seen productivity gains, and as a result finds itself in a perpetual funding crisis that fundamentally limits its ability to improve student learning.

“Productivity” in the context of education merits a bit of elaboration. I originally wrote it in the literal numeric sense of students per teacher. To be sure, a graduating high school senior today knows considerably more than he or she would have a century ago.

Per pupil expenditure is an important measure of school productivity that—while admittedly not measuring relative education quality—has not increased over the last century or so. Take the teacher of the early 1900s, adjust that teacher’s salary for inflation, factor in class sizes that if anything have gone down, and acknowledge that productivity has at best been flat.

I don’t have a source at my fingertips, but I recall coming across statistics showing average high school class sizes in the 1900s being on the order of 40+ versus sub-25 today. And this article from the right-leaning Newsbusters uses Census Bureau data to show a 40% decrease in class size (and therefore productivity) since 1960.

Education technology that will deliver a combination of instruction, practice, and assessment has for years offered the promise of breaking the productivity ceiling.

By “combination,” I was referring to what I call “closed loop” adaptive instructional technology in which the technology itself serves up the next piece of learning based on how the prior piece of learning was received. This is in no way an argument for the removal of the teacher from the loop.

One model is to allow students to work with engaging and effective technology in a relatively unsupervised setting while freeing up a smaller number of teachers (through normal attrition) to work with smaller groups where their expertise is most valuable.

 As an aside, I see educational technology as being the combination of “platform” technology (network infrastructure, hardware, operating and learning management systems, and office and other productivity tools) and “instructional” technology (software that instructs).

Advances in the pedagogy underlying software content coupled with the evolution of hardware and infrastructure allow that promise to be realized within the next five years for any school district willing to pilot and then implement a technology-centric educational system.

Five years would have been 2010, and sadly, we didn’t quite get there. That said, in 2010, numerous examples of instructional technology existed, and the number has only increased since. Upon re-reading, “technology-centric educational system” was poorly phrased. “Technology-powered” or “technology-enabled” would have been far better.

These school districts have the potential to substantially alleviate their funding crises for at least the near and perhaps into the medium term.

In brief, here’s the model. If a teacher with a class of 25 students using conventional approaches can use technology to get better educational outcomes with a class of 30 students, there would be a cost reduction of 20% (less the added technology cost, of course). To put the numbers in perspective, consider that districts in the Metrowest area outside of Boston spend more than $16,000 per student, and that on the order of 2/3 of this cost is in the form of teacher compensation. Call that $10,000. A 20% savings would be more than enough to cover the cost of platform and instructional technology.

To realize this success, a relatively narrow education technology path is necessary.
a. The technology path cannot add operational costs in the form of IT staffing.

Actually, that’s not really the case–the cost of added IT staffing just needs to be factored into the overall cost picture.

b. The evolution of networks and network security are making school software implementations more rather than less complex, driving up the need for unacceptable IT staffing.

Given the many platform and instructional technology options facing schools, complexity is certainly part of the landscape. As the next point outlines, however, the web-based nature of these options dramatically reduces the potential IT burden.

c. Web applications (including “light” downloads with Web-stored data) get away from the expensive and not always reliable network model by putting the implementation burden on the software publisher and not the school district or its IT staff.

d. To date, the relative unavailability of reliable-enough Internet connectivity has slowed the movement from network-based applications to web-based applications.

Contradicting the next point, connectivity continues to be a problem.

e. However, the connectivity problem is diminishing reasonably quickly over time.

f. The viability of Web applications will enable an education technology-driven school model that will improve outcomes and decrease cost. Print and software publishers that fail to embrace this model will lose importance over time as measured in single digit years.

 I probably wasn’t too far off here. The big publishers, having seen their textbook “empires” put at significant risk, have been investing heavily in educational technology. Whether this investment (in the form of internal development and external acquisition) will be enough to allow them to maintain their market share remains to be seen.

Who will be the last to pay a quarter of a million dollars for a college education?

college-costReposted from Medallion Learning blog

At the nation’s most expensive college, a four-year education now costs upwards of a quarter of a million dollars (Northeastern, we’re looking at you). Debates about the value of this education continue to rage. Most recently, the 2014 PayScale College ROI Report [1] allows readers to rank nearly 900 undergraduate institutions based on metrics including 20 year net ROI and annual ROI.

Let’s set aside for a moment the necessary simplifications embedded in the report’s methodology. Harvey Mudd College tops the 20 year net ROI ranking at just shy of one million dollars. At nearly 12%, the Georgia Institute of Technology leads the way on annual ROI. At the other end of the spectrum, Shaw University trails the 20 year net ROI pack at NEGATIVE $156,000 and the annual ROI list at -11.9%. That’s if you graduate—only a quarter of its students do.

Overall, the average 20 year net ROI for the ~900 schools comes in at about $230,000 with an ROI a shade less than 5% a year. Sadly, only half of all students embarking on this expensive path even graduate. Imagine that you’re one of these fortunate students. Just what is it that you’re getting?

The Lumina Foundation, working with Gallup, tackled that question as part of its 2013 study, “What America Needs to Know About Higher Education Redesign” [2]. The message from colleges and universities to its students rings positive—96% of chief academic officers at these institutions assert extreme or somewhat confidence “in their institution’s ability to prepare students for success in the workforce.”

Great news! Or is it? What do those doing the hiring think? That storm cloud rolling in brings the opinion of business leaders—only 11% strongly agree that “today’s college graduates have the skills and competencies that their business needs.”

Clearly, a disconnect exists between what colleges and universities offer and what employers need. What’s a poor student to do? Six figures is a lot to pay for a degree that doesn’t deliver … but don’t try getting a white collar job without one.

While it’s fair to be skeptical of Lumina’s finding that only 9% of business leaders claim “where the candidate received their degree is very important in hiring decisions” (sorry, Harvard; bad news MIT; you’re out of luck, Stanford), one cannot avoid the fact that a full 84% share that “the amount of knowledge a candidate has is very important in hiring decisions.”

Where are students turning to bridge the gap? More and more, online. Online courses and certifications offer students the chance to efficiently and effectively replace some or all of their brick and mortar “hours in the seat” with competency-based learning that appeals to employers. More than half of all employers (54% per Lumina) now report the likelihood of hiring “a candidate who has a degree from an online higher education provider OVER a candidate with the same degree from a traditional higher education institution.”

No doubt, the higher education experience offers more than just access to the workplace: a protected step away from the family home, illuminating interaction with peers and mentors, acquisition of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, well-rounding as a human being. For far too many, however, the price of that education exceeds the ability to pay. The all too common failure of that education as career preparation just adds injury to injury.

For reasons of content and cost, higher education finds itself poised on the cusp of major change. Not all that many tomorrow’s from now, someone out there is about to become the last one to pay a quarter of a million dollars for yesterday’s higher education.

[1] http://www.payscale.com/college-roi/

[2] http://www.luminafoundation.org/newsroom/news_releases/2014-02-25.html

Learn Launch conference delivers fantastic conversation on digital learning

Boston-based LearnLaunch‘s second annual conference (agenda here, but perhaps not permanently–also here as a PDF) brought together educators, students, entrepreneurs, industry participants, researchers, and other thought leaders to brainstorm on the question “How can Edtech scale student success?

The event was first-rate. LearnLaunch adroitly used the late Friday afternoon and Saturday calendar slots to allow attendance by many luminaries from the Boston education scene and numerous locales beyond. I came away with new connections, new ways of thinking about the challenges facing education and the approaches that might overcome these challenges, … and new ideas for blog topics. Over the next few weeks, I hope to explore some of these ideas.

My short answer to the conference question: Edtech can scale student success by delivering effective offerings to schools equipped to receive those offerings. In my most recent post, I touched on the second half of this success–schools needing the infrastructure to implement effective offerings. I’d like to use the current post to address the offerings themselves.

What makes for a better educational offering? I’ll argue that it’s a product or service that improves outcomes, reduces cost, or both. With digital educational offerings, there’s a clear path to doing both.

IMPROVING OUTCOMES: We learn best when we’re engaged. A key element of engagement is being appropriately challenged–not bored, not overwhelmed. In a classroom of 25 students, it’s impractical for a teacher to have every student engaged. Impractical, that is, without the right tools. Well-designed software offers the promise of providing this challenge-level engagement, allowing the teacher to take a step back and apply his or her talents where they’re most needed.

Are critical developments needed to create software delivering on this promise across the spectrum of student ages and curricular needs? No doubt. But are there examples of where this software exists today? Also no doubt–to wit, see Lexia Lexia Reading Core 5 (reading), Symphony Math (math), Harvard’s EcoMUVE (science), and McGraw-Hill’s MuzzyLane-developed Government in Action (social studies), to name just a few.

REDUCING COST: Teachers spend their time in many ways: preparation, collaboration, instruction, assessment, professional development, communication, and tending to various supervisory and administrative tasks. As it has in so many other fields, technology should be able to free up teacher time in most if not all of these areas.

Consider three possible examples of technology-enabled time saving:

Example 1: An elementary school teacher’s 2nd grade class increases from 20 to 25 students. Rather than dilute his time, the teacher rotates groups of 5 students through sessions with reading or math skill development software.

The software presents each student individually with instruction in the form of video or animation. The student practices what she has learned. In the background, the software assesses her responses, diagnoses her needs, and presents her with the next piece of instruction … all at a pace and challenge level matched to her needs.

While each group of 5 students interacts with the software, the teacher continues his work with the remainder of the class. The number of students served increases by 25% with no added staff. In effect, time is saved.

Example 2: A middle school teacher prepares for professional development. Instead of the one size fits all brand of in-service PD (and sometimes the need to travel to receive it), however, she accesses the course content online at a time and place that fits her schedule. Like the student in Example 1 above, she learns at a pace that works for her. A savings of even half an hour a week adds up to valuable time over the course of a school year. But her PD isn’t just available outside of class. It’s also available in short “sound bites” she can hear or read in the classroom in the context of a specific student’s need.

Example 3: A high school English and Language Arts teacher starts his year with a new energy. Why? A new system helps him grade the 100 papers submitted by his 4 classes of 25 students for every assignment. Students check their papers into the school’s learning management system (LMS). The teacher checks his dashboard, sees that 5 students haven’t turned in their work, and triggers a reminder message, avoiding having to track down missing items.

The teacher runs a first-pass grading utility that assesses the papers for spelling and grammar. He takes a second pass himself to judge each student’s style and quality of writing, making comments inline as he goes. Another push of a button and the papers are returned to the students. Even five minutes saved for each of the hundred papers frees up hours of teacher time.

How can Edtech scale student success? The offerings and implementations above show just several of many paths to that success.