Friday, February 17, 2017

Making Education Great Again

I remember eight years ago, just after Obama was elected president, he very quickly had his education policy positions up on the White House website.  I can find little or no information on the White House website today about Trump's education plans. So, we are left to infer and speculate.  However, there is plenty of evidence to work with to get a good idea of what they might be planning to do.

Shortly after Betsy DeVos was confirmed as Secretary of Education, House RepublicanThomas Massie, from Kentucky introduced a very simple bill that would eliminate the Department of Education by the end of 2018.  This bill stands very little chance of getting passed but in the current political climate anything is possible.

My question about this is how would schools receive the revenue they currently receive from the department for federally funded and legally mandated provisions such as special education, limited English proficiency, and compensatory revenue (free and reduced lunch)? There are tons of signs that point to ending these programs as being part of the Republican agenda.  First, there was this bill introduced last May that would reduce the number of schools and students who qualify for free or reduced lunches. Then there was the statement House Speaker Paul Ryan made in December about how free lunches give students full stomachs but "empty souls." And of course there has been a downpour of overt distain for immigrants as we have seen in Trump's executive orders to limit immigration. Not to mention his treatment of people with disabilities.

I think it is pretty clear that Republicans don't want to pay to feed poor kids, educate immigrant children, or pay for special education services any more.  Our new Education Secretary's standpoint and the causes she champions points in this direction too. More than anything else Betsy DeVos has been a proponent of charter schools and vouchers.  In Minnesota these schools are not allowed to levy local tax dollars which has led to a huge revenue imbalance between students attending district schools and those attending charters.  Cutting federal revenue would further bankrupt our charter schools and pull the quality of services our district schools can offer down.  It will shoulder the burden of funding these programs on local tax payers (for district schools) and private sources (for charters) or force states to raise taxes and increase the amount schools receive for each student.

The other thing that the Trump Administration has done which might play into this is the one-in, two-out rule. Consider if Rep. Massie's bill is passed. What two regulations would be eliminated? Could it be those that provide federal funding for assistance programs?

What would cutting federal funding for assistance programs and Title revenue do to our schools in Minnesota?  I took data from the Minnesota Department of Education website and made this graph showing what would happen to school revenue if federal sources were eliminated:

I chose a variety of schools across Minnesota to get a sample from different demographics.  Three of these schools are charter schools, three of these schools are Twin Cities schools, two are small rural schools, one is an online school, and two are larger districts outside the metro area. All schools would suffer greatly from a loss of these funds but they would not all suffer equally.  The four school districts in this sate that would suffer the most would be Minneapolis Public Schools, Saint Paul Public Schools, Community School of Excellence, and Northland Community Schools.  Three of these schools are metro area schools and one is a rural school in northern Minnesota.  What is common among these schools is their diversity and level of students living in poverty.  The school that would be the least impacted is Goodhue Public Schools, a school serving very few ELL students, very few students with special needs, and almost no students on free and reduced lunch.  Goodhue is also an extremely conservative community full of the core Trump constituency.

On a positive note, the elimination of the Department of Education would also carry with it an elimination of Common Core and hopefully the requirement that schools subject students to standardized testing, a move Betsy DeVos has pledged to make happen quickly.

Buckle your seat belts.  This is going to be one wild ride.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Technology Language Learners

Should we approach technology in schools the way we address language?

We use terms like digital literacy and digital fluency to describe one's level of comfort and ease with which they navigate digital space.  We use the same terms to describe English language learners in our educational spaces.  Do the same issues apply to digital language learners as do English language learners? I think so and I think it also shines a light on an issue with tech integration and possibly why it has not statistically proven to produce grand results.

The problem is, if I am working with a group of students who have limited English skills there is only so much I can teach them.  Limited vocabulary gets in the way of me elevating students to the level they would be with my content were I able to teach them in their native language.  Therefore, all classes I teach with ELL students become English classes despite what the content is supposed to be. If I am teaching a lesson on how search engines work, much of that lesson ends up becoming a vocabulary lesson and many of the more abstract concepts barely get realized.  These students are learning a new medium, English and that learning comes before the content.

Now, suppose I take a class of non-ELL students and introduce a new tech tool to them.  I integrate this new tool, this new medium, into my lesson. The students are expected to use this new medium to learn about and process some other content.  They face the same dilemma my ELL students faced with learning English.  If the tech tool is new, the new learning becomes the tech, not the subject content.  I cannot successfully ask students to master both a new medium and a new curricular concept at the same time.  One takes precedence over the other. If I am constantly introducing my students to new and different tools it will slow their acquisition of content knowledge just as a language learner is splitting focus between content and language.

I have been watching school districts push new digital tools pretty hard for about a decade now.  Often I played a pretty active role as an instrument of this trend.  I have seen the push for interactive whiteboards, student response systems, learning management systems, iPads with educational apps, etc.  The one thing these tools all have in common is they were designed for the classroom and are not tools our students use at home.  Therefore, regardless of how tech-savvy our students are, when we force them to integrate these tools into their learning they all become technology language learners.  The same issue applies. Am I teaching tools or am I teaching content today?

Why do we invent new mediums that only schools use?  Why not integrate technology students already use?  Why not allow students to choose their own tools?  I often ask my ELL students to do heavy content work in their native language first and later translate it into English for me.  We can integrate technology while keeping the focus on our content.  It just needs to be technology students are already fluent with.

Every time I address this topic, and it has come up many times over the past decade, I get the same kind of push-back.  I will never understand why tools designed for schools are more acceptable than tools designed for people.