Researcher warns against overspending on broadband and educational technology

Some independent academic research has tended to find zero or negative results studying the correlation between more and faster broadband internet in schools and student achievement. Thomas Hazlett characterizes President Barack Obama’s plan to connect schools to the Internet as “misguided.” In 2013 the president proposed expanding the $2.25 billion E-Rate budget to $4 billion a year. “The Federal Communications Commission quickly enacted the plan under authority granted to the agency in 1996.”

In The Agenda in Politico, Hazlett reports:

Even during times of political gridlock, connecting schools to the Internet has always received bipartisan support. Politicians ranging from Bill Clinton to Newt Gingrich have endorsed the concept, and the federal government has funneled billions of dollars annually to boost Internet access for students under a twenty-year-old policy called “E-Rate.”

E-Rate is almost the perfect Washington D.C. program. It hits the hot buttons of education, technology, and good jobs at good wages in one shot and spreads federal monies to vendors and consultants in every corner of the country. And no politician has ever been defeated for public office by touting improved Internet connections at local schools.

But in a large study of students in North Carolina, two colleagues and I recently found that the actual benefits for students—the kids the program is supposed to help—are about zero. In fact, our research found that the E-Rate program marginally hurt student performance rather than helped it.

Hazlett recommends suspending the E-Rate program until the theory behind it passes an objective performance test. “Using online data sources, we can see if subsidies for broadband improve student understanding,” Hazlett says. “If results mirror our research, and outcomes remain negative, the program should be terminated.”

If further evidence quantifies positive impacts, those gains should be compared to different ideas for using $4 billion annually, such as teacher incentives, superior principals, more vouchers, tax credits or charter schools. Only if E-Rate is the best use of money should Congress reinstate the program. If we want our children to learn something important using computers, we should start by showing them that we can, as well.

Hazlett warns that educational technology is often oversold. He notes that in 2013, the Los Angeles United School District planned to spend $1.3 billion to give an Apple iPad to each of its 640,00 students.  The program was a disaster and was suspended after $100 million was spent. “Kids almost instantly hacked their way out of the firewalls that limited access to inappropriate sites, while customized software proved inoperable,” Hazlett reports.

Thomas Hazlett is H.H. Macaulay Endowed Professor of Economics at Clemson University, where he also directs the Information Economy Project. He formerly served as Chief Economist of the Federal Communications Commission.

Some D.C. schools start today

For thousands of D.C. students, school starts early with new, year-round schedule. The Washington Post reports that 10 D.C. public schools will start a new, year-round academic calendar today. Their academic year will have 20 more days than other schools in the system, with shorter and more frequent breaks during a school year that runs 200 days through all 12 months. One additional elementary school began the extended schedule during the 2015-2016 school year.”

Montgomery County elementary school teachers have comparatively more planning time

Statistics on planning time for elementary school teachers show that the teachers in Montgomery County, MD., have more planning time than the others studied by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ). Montgomery county elementary school teachers have 7 hours per week, or an average of 84 minutes per day for planning time. NCTQ’s Teacher Contract Database contains teacher policies from over 140 school districts and two charter management organizations.

The Washington Post reports that Tom Israel, director of the Montgomery County Education Association, said that the seven-hour weekly figure includes mandated meetings and trainings. The amount of individually managed planning time is just three hours and 45 minutes a week, an average of 45 minutes a day.

The Post also notes the analysis showed that “teachers in Virginia’s Prince William County had 45 minutes of planning time daily and Fairfax County teachers had 39 minutes a day. The most common amount of planning time for elementary school teachers nationwide is 45 minutes a day.”

The NCTQ also reports that the average teacher teacher workday is 7 ½ hours. “Henrico County (VA) and Sioux Falls (SD) are the two districts where teachers’ scheduled workday is longer than eight hours, while teachers in New York City, Sacramento, Jefferson Parish (LA), and Toledo (OH) have the shortest scheduled workdays at six hours and fifteen minutes.”

Zapping zeros in grades for students

Fairfax County is reforming its grading policies for high schools and middle schools  next year. I support the effort to limit zeros on grades. The Washington Post reports that other school districts are also discouraging or prohibiting teachers from giving out zeros.

In the past, some teachers have used zeros to punish minor failures to follow directions. This is not a productive learning environment. It is particularly unfair to students with attention deficit disorder. I agree with Gregory Hood, the principal of James Madison High School in Fairfax County, who says that a zero on a 100-point scale distorts a student’s overall grade. “A zero provides no information about what a student has learned, and it negatively impacts a student’s grade when averaged with other grades.”

The Post reports that critics of this shift argue that “teachers are losing important tools to enforce diligence and prepare students for college and the workplace.”

Drastic sanctions are just as inappropriate in the workplace as they are in school.

Fairfax County will implement four major changes in the grading policies for middle school and high schools next year:

Limiting or Eliminating Zeros in a 100 Point Scale

  • If a student has been given multiple opportunities to complete work and has not done so, a 0 may be entered in the gradebook at the end of the quarter.
  • If a student has made a reasonable attempt to complete work, teams are encouraged to assign a grade no lower than 50.
  • Schools that have established “no zero” polices in previous years may continue those policies.

Separation of Work Habits and Achievement

  • All grades entered into the gradebook will relate directly to the standards listed in the Program of Studies or other designated curriculum and should reflect a student’s mastery of content or skills.
  • Student’s attendance, effort, attitude or other behaviors will be communicated to parents through report comments or other means that do not include grades.
  • Late work will be accepted to document learning/mastery. Teacher teams must set reasonable guidelines for turning in late work to encourage work completion by their students. If a student misses an assignment, a placeholder (such as M for missed, I for incomplete, etc.) should be entered into the gradebook.
  • Patterns of late work should be reported to parents through email or other means.
  • Homework for practice or preparation for instruction may account for no more than 10% of a quarter grade.
  • Class participation may be included in a student’s grade if it is based on the quality of a student response and not the quantity of responses. If a team will include class participation in a student’s grade, guidelines for assessing must be included in the course syllabus.
  • Students will not be given extra credit or grades for activities such as bringing in classroom materials, providing parent signatures, participating in fundraising/charitable events or participating in non-curricular activities.

Maximum/Minimum Weights Grades Can Carry

  • Collaborative teams are encouraged to set grading design so that no one assignment/assessment counts more than 30% of the quarter grade.

Retakes with Associated Guidelines

  • For major assessments, at least one new opportunity to demonstrate proficiency shall be provided to any student who scores below an 80% and completes corrective action determined by collaborative team.

  • An opportunity to demonstrate increased proficiency may be provided to students who score at or above 80% at the discretion of the collaborative team.

  • If not all students are afforded the second opportunity then the highest grade that can be earned is an 80%.

  • If all students are afforded the second opportunity then the highest grade shall be recorded in the grade book.


Hooray for Karen Garza and Full-Day Mondays

I’m glad to see that the Fairfax County School Board voted to extend Superintendent Karen Garza’s contract for another four-year term. However, I was disappointed that the Washington Post report on Garza neglected to mention the most important change implemented during her tenure: elimination of Monday early dismissals.

I commented:

The list of “significant changes” in the school system left out the most impressive change of all: eliminating the old policy of dismissing elementary school students 2 ½ hours early every Monday. For many years I had been the leading advocate of full-day Mondays. I was very impressed with Superintendent Garza’s willingness to question the previously entrenched status quo and implement reform in a timely manner. The school board voted for this change two years ago and it was implemented in September 2014.

Rhode Island mandates at least 20 minutes of recess

Today Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimonda said she will sign a bill mandating at least 20 minutes of recess at elementary schools. Eyewitness News reports:

She said she’s pleased by a “big and positive” amendment to the bill that gives teachers more leeway. Instead of prohibiting schools from taking away recess as a form of punishment, the amended bill asks teachers to make a good-faith effort not to withhold recess.

Handwriting and cursive writing are helpful in learning to write

Why handwriting is still essential in the keyboard age. According to Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, research suggests that children need introductory training in printing, then two years of learning and practicing cursive, starting in grade three, and then some systematic attention to touch-typing.

She was the lead author of a study published in The Journal of Learning Disabilities that “looked at how oral and written language related to attention and what are called “executive function” skills (like planning) in children in grades four through nine, both with and without learning disabilities.”

She told Perri Klass that “handwriting—forming letters—engages the mind, and that can help children pay attention to written language.”

“As a pediatrician,” Klass writes in the New York Times, “I think this may be another case where we should be careful that the lure of the digital world doesn’t take away significant experiences that can have real impacts on children’s rapidly developing brains. Mastering handwriting, messy letters and all, is a way of making written language your own, in some profound ways.”

Klass says, “There is a tendency to dismiss handwriting as a nonessential skill, even though researchers have warned that learning to write may be the key to, well, learning to write.”

See also: More time might allow more teaching of cursive writing,
Students should have enough time to learn cursive writing, and
The Declaration of Independence as a model of good writing.

Elections can be improved

Many people are not wildly enthusiastic with the way we elect our presidents or our local officials.  Clearly there is room for improvement, from the national level to the local level.

Kathleen Parker says, after Trump, the GOP may need a better voting system. People pay more attention to the presidential voting system than to how votes work for other offices. But the idea of an “approval” ballot is something that might be useful for local elections such as school board elections.

In Virginia, school board elections are supposedly nonpartisan. Practically speaking though, in a large school district such as Fairfax County, it would be difficult to be elected without an endorsement from either the Republicans or the Democrats.

Parker reports that one ranking method, “advanced recently in the New York Times by economists Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen, was developed by 18th-century mathematician and political theorist Marquis de Condorcet. This process called for ranking candidates in order of approval — or not ranking them at all, as an indication of disapproval. The candidate with the highest approval ranking would win.”

There are several other ways of winnowing candidates and selecting the ultimate winners. It’s a good idea to think of ways of improving our elections.

Fairfax will start school one week prior to Labor Day in 2017

Tonight the Fairfax County School Board voted 11-1 to begin school one week prior to Labor Day for the 2017-18 school year. Superintendent Karen Garza will present a detailed calendar incorporating this change for the school board to consider in late fall.

Ryan McElveen (D-At Large), made the motion, saying “We wanted to give the community as much advance notice as possible.” He said there were 56,000 responses to a survey on the proposed change in the start date: 56 percent of the parents and 64 percent of the staff members supported starting school prior to Labor Day. Steve Greenburg, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, testified that his group supported the change.

Tamara Derenak Kaufax (D-Lee District) voted against the proposal, saying she would be the lone voice speaking for those who prefer to start school after Labor Day. She said that the earlier start would have minimal impact on the “summer slide” or on SOL prep.

Several  board members cited having extra time to prepare AP tests as a welcome benefit of the pre-Labor Day start. Elizabeth Schultz (R-Springfield) said she wished that students had been included in the survey. Ben Press, the student representative to the School Board, agreed. He said students and teachers were stressed out trying to prepare for the AP exams, which start next Monday. He had earlier advocated a reconsideration of the current policy of requiring all students in AP classes to take the exam. He suggested that this should be a matter for the student to decide.

The discussion showed some ambivalence about the role of tests, but clearly the issue of test prep (particularly at the high school level) was a major concern of the board.

I will be interested in learning more about the rationale for the current schedules of the AP and IB exams. I liked the old tradition of starting school after Labor Day.

Top high school has a late start time

Can the best high school in the country thank its 9:15 a.m. start time for its success? For the fifth year in a row, the School for the Talented and Gifted in Dallas has been ranked the top high school in the nation by U.S. News and World Report.

The rankings are based on a wealth of data, including graduation rates and student performance on state proficiency tests and advanced exams, as well as other relevant factors—like the percentage of economically disadvantaged students the schools serve,” Lisa L. Lewis reports. “But there’s one key metric that isn’t tracked despite having a proven impact on academic performance: school start times.”