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Let’s End the Battle of the Edu-Tribes

There’s a revolution underway – and no, I don’t mean in Egypt or Tunisia.

I mean the growing, hopeful, tech-savvy, solution-oriented tribe of educators who attended last weekend’s EduCon 2.3 in Philadelphia, an annual event that bills itself as “both a conversation and a conference, ” and a place where people come together, “both in person and virtually, to discuss the future of schools.”

Education Inception

I just watched Christopher Nolan’s remarkable new movie Inception, a futuristic film about a group of people who, through a variety of means, plant a thought so deeply in the mind of one man that it grows naturally and becomes seen as his own. In the opening scene of the movie, protagonist Peter Cobb rhetorically asks the audience: “What’s the most resilient parasite? A bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? No. An idea. Resilient, highly contagious. Once an idea’s taken hold in the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. A person can cover it up, or ignore it – but it stays there.”

Cobb’s movie-based challenge is not unlike the reality-based one being faced by today’s advocates for public education reform – how to seed an idea so simple and powerful that it can mobilize public opinion, inspire policymakers, and improve the overall learning conditions for children. And yet after reading Michelle Rhee’s two newest efforts to launch her own form of “inception” – an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal and her organization’s inaugural policy agenda – I see further evidence of both her well-intentioned vision for massive educational reform, and her fundamental misunderstanding about the power of ideas.

Robots in Classrooms?

You know you’re a little obsessed with an issue when a news story about artificial intelligence in the prisons of today gets you thinking about robots in the classrooms of tomorrow.

But there it was — a weekend piece in the New York Times about a training exercise at a penitentiary in West Virginia, at which artificial intelligence (AI) software was being used to recognize faces, gestures and patterns of group behavior. “When two groups of inmates moved toward each other,” we learn, “the experimental computer system sent an alert — a text message — to a corrections officer that warned of a potential incident and gave the location.” Then I read the lines that concerned me: “The computers cannot do anything more than officers who constantly watch surveillance monitors under ideal conditions. But in practice, officers are often distracted. When shifts change, an observation that is worth passing along may be forgotten. But machines do not blink or forget. They are tireless assistants. . . At work or school, the technology opens the door to a computerized supervisor that is always watching. Are you paying attention, goofing off or daydreaming?”

Is the Scientific Method Becoming Less . . . Scientific?

In my ongoing search to better understand how we reconcile the creative tension between subjective and objective measures of the world — including our ongoing (and thus far) elusive search for a better way of tracking how people learn — I took note of a recent New Yorker article that cast light on some emerging problems with the ostensible foundation of all objective research — the scientific method.

Is Michelle Rhee putting Students First?

Like everyone else who does education for a living, I read that Michelle Rhee is launching a new national advocacy organization, Students First. And after checking out the site and hearing how she articulates its purpose, I see some reasons to feel hopeful — and many more reasons to feel deeply concerned. First, the good news: It’s hard to argue with Rhee’s four “we believe” statements for the organization. Who doesn’t believe all children deserve great teachers? Who would argue with the idea that students should not need luck to get a good education? Why not start allocating public dollars where they can make the biggest difference? And who would deny the need for more parental involvement and increased efforts to engage the entire community? So let’s all hop on the Rhee express, right? Well, maybe. Click here to keep reading.

Why We Measure Things

To conclude my recent bender on the “data craziness” that is plaguing our national education reform efforts, and once again in an effort to highlight a more thoughtful approach that resists either extreme — i.e., “all data all the time or no data none of the time” — I want to share, courtesy of my friend Lisa Kensler, this wonderful 1999 (read: pre-NCLB!) article by Meg Wheatley. See what you think, and please share your thoughts and reactions.

“Data Craziness” (aka The Other Education: Part Deux)

Earlier this week, I responded to a column by New York Times columnist David Brooks, who constructed an artificial divide between our “formal education” (aka school) — which he indifferently described as linear, objective and ordinary — and our “emotional curriculum” (aka life) — which he approvingly described as nonlinear, subjective and transformational.

In fairness to Brooks, he’s hardly alone in this misconception — in fact, it’s probably inaccurate to call it a misconception, since this is how it works for too many of us: formal schooling is what you endure, and informal schooling is what helps you discover what really matters to you, what your personal strengths and weaknesses are, etc. But just because that’s the way things have been doesn’t mean that’s the way they should continue to be — a particularly relevant point for folks like Brooks, who are supposed to help light a better path, and for reform-minded cities like Washington, DC, where I now live. And yesterday I read something that gives me hope our city may be slowly adjusting its course to a more fruitful strategy for school improvement.

The Other Education

I’ve always liked David Brooks as a columnist. He often takes stands I disagree with, but, generally speaking, he also approaches his role as a public intellectual with inquiry and openness, not orthodoxy and attitude.

In his education columns, however, Brooks has become a dangerous and myopic mouthpiece for a particular set of reform ideas that, without much prodding, turn to dust. And after reading a weekend column of his, I think I understand why.

Education’s Blockbuster Moment

A few New Yorkers ago, financial columnist James Surowiecki wrote a short piece about the downfall of Blockbuster video, and why it failed to anticipate the rapid rise of Netflix in its own backyard. Why, he postulated, did Blockbuster not read the tea leaves quickly enough to colonize the web the way it had colonized suburbia? Already blessed with a deep reservoir of customer expertise, a sophisticated system of inventory management, and a nearly ubiquitous and identifiable brand, Blockbuster was well placed to shift its business model from “bricks and mortar” to “clicks and mortar,” yet it did nothing. Which makes me wonder, what might Blockbuster’s downfall augur for the future of public education reform in America? Click here to keep reading.

Searching for Schools

My wife and I have begun the search for our son’s first preschool, which means a steady stream of weekday open houses, packs of adults warily sizing each other up, and crowded tours through classrooms of tiny people. It’s an anxiety-producing process, especially since, in DC at least, the most desirable preschools all attract far more applications than they can accept. It’s also a revealing process in terms of what we value most, and least, for our children based on how old they are.

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