Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Dissecting the NETP: Part Six- R&D: Innovate and Scale

This is part six of a new blog series where I want to take a closer look at the newly released National Education Technology Plan. I outline my plan for this series in this post.

Part Six- R&D: Innovate and Scale

Section Goal: None Stated

This final section deals with developing and implementing an R&D program for the department of Ed. It's goals would be similar to the defense department's DARPA program- trying out new techniques and practices and then scaling up successes and moving away from failed efforts. I must honestly say that anytime I see the phrase "scale up" in education reform, the hairs on my neck tingle. I just don't like it because I don't think it really works in education. It would be nice if it did and our lives would be a whole lot easier, but I don't think there is a solution that you can spread out and fit every school, every teacher, every student into. The main reason I think this is because the reason educational programs succeed are not because of the programs- it's because of the people leading it and keeping it going every day. And you can't scale those people... With that said, here's some thoughts on what I liked or didn't like about this section:

What I liked
  • Not much. I think the idea of an R&D department within the Department of Ed is interesting and has potential if done right....but...
What I didn't like
  • ...I have little faith that the Department of Education could get it right. This is the department that gives us No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. This is the department that cheers on the mass firing of teachers, tying teacher pay to high stakes tests, and is led by yet another person who has never stepped foot in a classroom (the only Secretary of Education that has ever been an actual K-12 teacher was Terrel Bell, who served 25 years ago...). Here are pieces from the NETP that help to add to my distrust:
  • One of the main goals is listed as "Transferring existing and emerging technology innovations from such sectors as consumer, business, and entertainment into education" (p. 75). This isn't that simple. You can't take business, consumer, and entertainment innovations and just plop them into a school system and expect it to work. Plus this is incredibly vague- what innovations? Are we talking about business practices here? What are the downsides involved with introducing capitalist and market forces into a public institution that is supposed to serve all equally (insert joke here about what we can learn in education from Snooki)?
  • The idea of an R&D department is interesting, but the comparison to DARPA unnerves me a bit. I mean- if the defense department tests out a new missile or jet and it fails miserably, crashing and burning...well it was just a missile. But our schools are filled with kids who need an education. What if the idea fails miserably? Well, now you have a bunch of kids who lack an education at the most crucial point in their lives. And something tells me that the guinea pigs for these types of research projects would be inner city/high poverty kids, just the ones that can't afford to lose a year or two.
  • Look at the wording here on page 76: this department should "bring together the best minds and organizations to collaborate on high-risk/high-gain education R&D projects. It should aim for radical, orders-of-magnitude improvements by envisioning the impact of innovations and then working backward to identify the fundamental breakthroughs required to make them possible." Does this scare anyone else? High-risk education R&D projects? What are we trying to boil kids down to, here?
  • The plan calls on the identification of "grand challenge problems"- which are problems that establish a community of experts to work together towards finding a solution. I agree with this, but think the focus is off. As soon as I read this, my mind went to poverty. Why can't we focus these efforts on what I believe is the single largest issue in education as well as society in general? Instead of attacking the effects (poorly educated students), why not attack the true cause? Now, that's not to say that our education system cannot be vastly improved, but I firmly believe that as long as poverty is such a problem in our country, the education reform fight is always going to be a steep, uphill battle that may never be "won".
  • The plan calls this the "ultimate grand challenge problem in education" - "Establishing an integrated, end-to-end real-time system for managing learning outcomes and costs across our entire education system at all levels." (p. 77). That's it? THAT is the ultimate problem in education? My head is spinning at the disconnect here. I can't fathom how this document, with some really solid ideas throughout, can come up with this as the ultimate problem in education.
  • When talking about this integrated system, here is how they describe this grand/wonderful innovation: "Design and validate an integrated system that provides real-time access to learning experiences tuned to the levels of difficulty and assistance that optimize learning for all learners and that incorporates self-improving features that enable it to become increasingly effective through interaction with learners." (p. 78). You mean like....a teacher? Is this plan really proposing that we spend millions upon millions of dollars to provide experiences for students that teachers already provide, every day?
This final section really did surprise me. Maybe I was naive as I read all of the earlier sections, but I didn't see this coming. I think this section is filled with poor assumptions, misguided goals, and, frankly- scary rhetoric for teachers. I believe in the opposite of this section- I don't think we should be doing high-risk research on our students, I don't think we can effectively scale up education reforms, and I don't believe we need to create a data/learning system that would end up doing what a good teacher already does. And I don't trust the federal government to touch any of this, given their recent track record of reform.

The next post on this will be my final thoughts on the plan. I'm glad to finally have finished reading it and, frankly, I'm looking forward to getting back to some less heavy topics in this space!

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