Fixing Our Education System-Who Knows?

The following is an analysis of a Chicago Tribune article about a certain [financially failing?] Chicago Catholic school receiving financial assistance from the Archdiocese in order to implement a third-party program purportedly designed to save the school. Reference to the school and its circumstances at the time are not relevant. (Should you be wondering after reading, St. Gregory’s will close at the end of this school year.) What is relevant is that while this was written about four years ago I believe that many of the thoughts remain pertinent, although some of the terminology may have evolved.

Thoughts on:
Chicago Tribune article “High school puts eggs in a high-tech basket,” March 24, 2010, by: Pete Reinwald.
At the outset I feel obligated to say that there is little agreement among educators or industry leaders regarding how to fix our assumed failing education system. Worse, there is no scientific evidence that any of the proposed “fixes” have or will improve results. Technology, national curricula and standards, revised pedagogies, revised classroom management techniques, more or better teachers, charter schools, longer student days, fire the entire faculty and staff, year-round schooling, close failing schools, monetary incentives (teacher and/or student), funding infusions, you name it, we simply don’t know what can or will yield the outcomes we expect.
The article points to St. Gregory’s lack of funds as the major issue. We don’t know if there is also a problem with student achievement resulting from the lack of funds. If such is the case, given the low student/teacher ratio, some would agree that there is justification for adopting the rather drastic and very questionable Arne Duncan reconstitution reform tactic of firing all and rehiring all. I often wonder how this would play out if we also required school board members, and district/diocese and state administrators to reapply for their positions. Anyway, it does seem clear that St. Gregory is a failing school, at least from a financial perspective. Their (or at least Tony DeSapio’s) strategy appears to be to increase enrollment, grants and individual donations through implementation of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills framework. Of course, this strategy will work only if the revised curriculum is marketed successfully and the added new students’ families are able to pay a significantly higher tuition. Increasing enrollment will involve catering to a different demographic and require redefining the mission of the institution, at least implicitly. Regarding marketing of the new curriculum, the Partnership provides all the current buzz words and a plan. None-the-less such a turn-around could take years and a considerable investment in advertising, marketing, infrastructure improvements, curriculum development, professional development and technology.
I do not understand how the Archdiocese decides which high schools will receive what amount of financial support from the Archdiocese. If the article is even somewhat accurate, it seems that even Sister McCaughey does not know the formula and has little control over the Archdiocese’s contributions. At least she admits that St. Gregory’s receipts are “out of whack.” I also question the tuition. If the tuition is (will be) $7,700 and 85% of the students are receiving (will receive) financial assistance of $3,200, the out-of-pocket tuition for those families is only $4,500 (assuming one student/family). There is not enough information in the article to determine the sources of other revenue. Having had considerable experience with budgets and finance at rather high levels, I can say with some confidence that while St. Gregory might be able to implement “a new technology-based teaching and learning initiative,” unless it finds other sources of revenue, it will do so without a sufficient and significant increase in hardware, software and technology professional development.
I would support any educational program or effort designed to replace rote memorization and curricula replete with standards and objectives not readily transferable to life after college with “a curriculum based on a national model that emphasizes analytical thinking, problem solving and communication. . . .” It just makes sense to me that that should be the direction we should be heading, in part and admittedly, arguably so. The pedagogical model espoused by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills is not new. It is simply “constructionism” or “constructivism” organized, operationalized and digitalized. The Partnership calls it a “framework” and as is usual with academic models, is represented by a graphic:

The rainbow in the upper portion of the graphic represents student outcomes and the light blue rings on the lower portion represent support systems or “inputs” in systems theory. Notable is the emphasis on outcome skills rather than knowledge. Skills have historically been associated more with training than with formal education. This is a bit of a clue to how the program operationalizes learning. Additionally, I am concerned that Information, Media, and Technology Skills occupy a separate outcome area implying that they should continue to be skills learned separate from the core subjects and life and career skills. I question whether learning technology for technology’s sake is an efficient use of educational time, or that using technology only as an advanced digitalized pencil, whiteboard or calculator is an efficient use of very limited funds. One can summarize 21st Century skills as the ability to use a range of electronic technologies to access, synthesize and apply information; the ability to think critically and creatively and evaluate the products of one’s thinking; and the ability to communicate effectively and collaborate with others, particularly in diverse and multicultural settings. While I have only given their 28 page guide a cursory look, I think the Partnership does intend that technology be fully integrated into the other outcome categories. And the guide does not recommend or even encourage a 1:1 learning initiative (a laptop for every student). So, what’s new except the cant–“21st Century skills?” Except for the introduction of electronic technology (certainly not restricted to the 21st Century), these skills have been recognized as desirable educational goals as far back as Aristotle. Lastly, while I find reference in the 21st Century skills mantra to creativity as it relates to utility and workplace productivity, there is no mention of  aesthetics, intellectual play, imagination, the pleasure of a subject, and just plain wonder. How un-engaging is that?
1:1 programs are rightfully controversial among educators and technologists alike. There are obvious disadvantages almost all of which tend to be practical and financial. The advantages, purported to be educational, are not so obvious and certainly not scientifically validated. In upper income environments, 1:1 programs tend to benefit students. However, in lower income environments, the challenges presented by the disadvantages tend to nullify the potential advantages. Because it is so difficult to establish controls in the educational environment, each side of the issue has the right to have issues with the results of any 1:1 experiment. I come down on both sides. If a school can afford it and the students are coming from a culture that values and supports early and life-long learning, a 1:1 program’s advantages will outweigh the disadvantages. On the other hand. . . . In other words, I do not think that St. Gregory will benefit from a 1:1 learning initiative (other than as a marketing ploy).
Dr. Alford and her curriculum consulting company appear to be spearheading the program using Holy Family Catholic Academy as a template. As a model for St. Gregory, Holy Family does not fit well. It is a Pre-K-8 institution in a relatively homogeneous upper class suburb. St. Gregory is a high school serving a diverse under class population. Twenty-one percent of Holy Family’s students receive financial aid; 85% of St. Gregory’s students receive financial aid. Holy Family’s student body is more than double that of St. Gregory. Holly Family has 44 teachers and a staff of seven; St. Gregory has 16 teachers and staff of 11 (top heavy?). Holy Family has a relationship with a local college that affords Holy Family students frequent access to state-of-the-art science labs, computer labs and a performing arts theatre (surely at some cost to Holy Family) and their faculty includes six adjunct Harper College faculty members; it is unlikely that St. Gregory has such a relationship. Holy Family’s middle school students possess netbook computers, either family-leased or provided by the school. (As an aside, the article mentions that Holy Family students use Harper College’s computer and technological facilities three mornings a week, yet the middle school has implemented a 1:1 program and their website boasts, “All classrooms have wireless internet connections and are equipped with multiple computers.”)

In conclusion, I fail to see any causal relationship between the initiatives outlined in the article and resolving St. Gregory’s financial difficulties.