Review 2: Cuban and Christensen, Johnson and Horn

The education reform rhetoric has reached a fever pitch. A perusal of the opinion pages and television news shows, even Oprah, reflects the growing angst about the nation’s increasing powerlessness to solve the fundamental question of how best to educate our nation’s youth. We disagree on the content, the methods, the assessments. We lay blame on the teachers, the administrators, the unions, the states, the feds, the parents, and the students themselves. We agonize over our slipping test scores as our global economic rivals surpass us on almost every measure. It is hard to imagine a more difficult time to part of such a seemingly disastrous system.

Indeed, the majority of the education reform rhetoric is dominated by the language of Big Business. From value-added evaluations of teachers to talk of market-driven reform, our nation’s business interests are shining their light on education and not liking what they see. But with such a narrow beam, it is no wonder that things look bleak. Students are not specialized workers, they are developing, curious, creative beings waiting to be shaped and molded as well as to do some shaping and molding themselves. Teachers are expected to be masters of multiple disciplines, coaches, therapists, social workers. Learning is a messy, inefficient process: the antithesis of Big Business. In fact, it is not even clear that the promises of Big Business are even working for Big Business. Big Business should be taking a long hard look at their own need for reform, as is evidenced by the collapse of General Motors, the banking crisis and horrific housing market, the Great Recession in general. When I hear the language of commerce applied to education, I personally object to the commodification of our children in the first place. In the end, these reforms borrowed from the business world generally don’t work any better or worse than the current system we have. The devil, it turns out, is in the details. That being said, it is a worthwhile enterprise to identify what it means to be educated and the best ways to go about doing that.

In Oversold and Underused, Larry Cuban considers this language of reform in light of the whole-sale adoption of computers and other new technologies by our nation’s schools. Larry Cuban’s analysis of the complete infusion of computers into our nation’s schools (recent estimates put the ratio at 1 computer for every 4 students, and, obviously, the number of 1:1 laptop schools is only increasing. Michigan recently opened six New Tech High Schools and has plans for many more, each of which rely on 1:1 laptops and problem-based learning), brings to light both the benefits and drawbacks of the spending on computers in schools. A chronic plea echoed throughout the nation’s schools, especially now in the age of the Great Recession’s brutal budget cuts, is for more resources, more money per pupil, more help. While this look at the implementation of new technologies is a tad dated (my favorite being the discussion of laser discs! How quaint!) the questions Cuban raised remain unanswered today.

Cuban takes aim at the Big Business rhetoric that so often works its way into discussions of education reform. Big Business tell us that computers make workers more efficient, thus we order more computers for our students. As Cuban states, “… the more serious problems afflicting urban and rural poor schools–inequitable funding, extraordinary health and social needs growing out of poverty, crumbling facilities, unqualified teachers–have little to do with a lack of technology.” This speaks the heart of the issue: that we do not adequately meet the needs of individual students and communities. Equipping a school with computers will not be the panacea that some technology advocates believe it to be. Recognizing all the factors that influence the use and implementation of the technology is essential to proper implementation. And when the choice comes down between paying for essential needs (school lunches, toilet paper, heat) and the wiring of classrooms, it becomes an even harder sell. I remember when the school I taught at repeatedly ran out of toilet paper. The grumbling very quickly came to complaining about the cost of a SmartBoard and how much toilet paper that would buy.

Cuban’s point as I see it is this: that computers and other new technology tools won’t solve all our problems, meeting the needs of the learners and the teachers will solve our problems. Blaming a teacher or a school for poor utilization of the resources they’ve been given in terms of new technologies is blame misplaced. Failing to recognize the very real obstacles to technology implementation has led to a mismanagement of resources. That is not to say that we shouldn’t equip these classrooms: merely that, if we are going to equip classrooms, we do it in a way that honors the needs of those who will ultimately utilize those resources. Cuban’s clear-eyed criticism of the corporate and market-driven reforms that have led to a type of unbridled consumerism in our schools is exactly the same conversation we are continuing to have as various federal and state reforms (ESEA reauthorization, Race to the Top, Common Core Standards movement, etc) emphasize even more completely that standardized test scores and other “business-style assessments” that remain intertwined with the pursuit of wiring our schools.

One of the most cogent points Cuban makes is around the continued agreement that students should gain computer literacy, and the continued disagreement of what computer literacy means. This is a strong indictment of the computer advocates reform argument: if we can’t identify what computer literacy is, how can we prove that we’ve been successful in producing students who are computer literate?

So what to do with the issues Cuban raises? In Disrupting Class, Christensen, Johnson, and Horn take an interesting look at the ways that education might utilize the idea of disruptive education and the ways in which technology has facilitated the disruption in order to create powerful learning opportunities for students, a way to better meed their needs as learners. The authors advocate for a student-centered approach, which, according to the authors, is available largely in the context of market-driven reform’s most common answer to questions of education reform: charter schools. While charter schools as a concept are not a bad intervention, research has largely shown that charter schools are like public schools: there are exceptionally good charter schools and there are exceptionally bad charter schools. In the end, the concepts behind Disrupting Class, that student-centered learning can be facilitated by the thoughtful use of newer technologies, are sound. In this way, the authors are answering the very real criticism raised by Cuban with a strong model for technology implementation.

In an ideal world, the very complicated issues of education reform would be discussed in thoughtful and reflective ways, respectful of the teachers and students for whom these reforms are the most important. Instead, we are often subjected to sound bites and 140 character micro-messages that tend to overlook the complexity that is human learning. And while it is true that education in this country should be improved for every student, it seems that we are mistaking the failures of the system as representative of the system itself. For every crumbling school, there are beautiful examples of learning environments. For every child not learning to read, there are many more who do. It has always been my desire to help those who are struggling, who are failed by our current system, but I also worry that our current national discussions of education reform fail to recognize the amazing job that many are doing in education millions of our children. That is a huge, messy job, as these authors have rightly discussed and identified. My only wish is that the larger conversation might be so forthcoming.

Cuban, Larry (2001). Oversold and Underused: Computers in Classrooms, 1980-2000. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Christensen, Clayton, Curtis W. Johnson, and Michael B. Horn (2008). Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. New York: McGraw Hill.

951 Review 1: Diamond and Ehrlich

There exists a complex interplay among our human natures, the societies that we construct, and the tools we utilize to maintain and further those societies.  Paul Ehrlich’s Human Natures and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel both examine this interplay and seek to elucidate the factors that, whether we are conscious of it or not, have lead to the world as we know it today.  Indeed, the world’s most intractable problems: war, famine, climate change, overpopulation, disease, all are rooted in the complexity of the human condition.

This year I was invited to deliver an Ignite-style presentation at the 2010 Educon conference held at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, PA.  Educon is an unconference, a gathering of ed tech types both in and out of the public education world, spanning grade levels (including higher education), and content areas. The focus Educon is on conversation and facilitating the types of conversation that lead to thoughtful pedagogy and technology use.  At the time, I was thinking about the increasing popularity of social networking sites and how the nature of literacy was changing.  The resulting presentation, “The Writing Revolution: R U Literate?,” was, for me, an epiphany about the nature of literacy in a world of ever-changing power structures.  Here is an excerpt:

Why literacy?  Because literacy has the power to transform.

Frederick Douglass wrote in his memoir The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave about the moment his life was forever transformed.  He had been sold to the Auld family in Baltimore and Mrs. Auld took it upon herself to teach Frederick Douglass to read.  Her husband found out and told her “If you teach a slave to read, there would be no keeping him.”  Douglass describes thinking “From that moment, I understood the pathway to freedom.

Literacy has power.

In Jared Diamond’s brilliant unpacking of the reasons for human society, culture, and the rise of certain of these societies and cultures over others, he reveals the essential ingredients for power: guns, germs, and steel.  That technological innovation and gains in knowledge that have led to the current world order are rooted in the almost accidental acquisition of these three things is a powerful idea.  As a person interested in the power of literacy, I was struck by how central the development of the written word was to the gaining of power and dominance.  Diamond discusses at length the advantages of literacy: the value in communication over long distances in war, the ability to retain more and pass along knowledge rather than relying on collective human memory.  Literacy, in Diamond’s analysis, was key to the gaining of power and the technological advantages that allowed for the maintenance of that power.  It is no accident that literacy was long reserved for those in power. Frederick Douglass recognized it, his slave master recognized it.  And it continues to be recognized as the struggle for education continues in countries around the world.

I became a teacher because of a strong commitment to social justice.  As a person of privilege, a white, American, middle-class female, I fully exploited my own literacy and power in order to educate myself and thus retain my status in the middle-class.  It seemed to me that issues of inequity were rooted in the inequitable education received by students in this country, and I devoted myself to working to reverse these inequities.  I finally became certified to teach the year that No Child Left Behind passed, a change that fundamentally altered the educational landscape in a way that rendered large amounts of my teacher preparation program moot.  I was hired to a full-time teaching position not because of my progressive views on education, but because of my background in the area of standardized testing.  While I am middle-class, the University of Michigan is nonetheless expensive, and the Princeton Review paid their test-prep tutors handsomely.  I was certified as part of my Masters program, and my research there continued to center on standardized testing.  It was not lost on me at the time that the expensive tutoring paid for by those privileged enough to afford it was in part responsible for the results that indicated parental income as an accurate predictor of a student’s score.  This testing literacy was power, and people paid for access to it.  For all of the NCLB’s focus on test scores improving, it was clear to me that what these tests measured was, in a small way English and Math, and in a large way measuring with exactitude the economic and educational inequities present in our society.  Once again, the literacies and the power were inextricable.

Paul Ehrlich, noted author of the hugely influential and controversial Population Bomb, in Human Natures presents his argument against biological determinism.  This text, written in 1999 or whatever, was pushing back on the ideas saturating the popular thinking about the strong, fixed nature of human beings, determined solely by the accident of genetics.   Women are worse at math than men: it’s in their genes.  War is a human evil: it’s due to our warlike ape ancestors.  Ehrlich, ever the astute biologist, takes the long view of human history and highlights the places where the argument for biological determinism falls apart.  Today, scientists touting biological determinism would be laughed off the stage.  The scientific gains in biology, genetics, biochemistry, and cognitive science have revealed as many questions as answers.  What is sure is that the age-old debate of nature vs. nurture can be answered with: it depends.

What Ehrlich does best is to remind us of the danger of taking large truths and placing them onto the individual.  It is the same in education: no one way of teaching and learning will suit all teachers and learners all of the time.  Genetics are not the cause of the achievement gap, but part of the blame can be laid at that complex interplay of culture, history, and power.  Recognizing the differences in general trends versus individual students is important for substantive reform to take place in the educational environment.

The world is changing, it has always been changing, and it will continue to change.  Technology, and the advantages new technologies bring to a society, is often the driving factor behind the ever-changing landscape.  As educators, thinking through the large cultural forces at work in our classrooms can be a useful lens for considering our pedagogy and our implementation of new technologies in light of our content.  Thinking back to the ideas literacy and power, part of the narrative around social networking tools is the way that they have amplified the voices of the powerless: the protests in Iran as a prime example.  While this narrative doesn’t completely capture what is going on in social networking spaces (for example, white flight from MySpace, the tendency for people to engage only with those who already agree with them, the lack of true interaction beyond traditional societal boundaries, all of these have been documented by ethnographers and other scholars), it does raise the troubling question of how we might be preparing our students to access the power associated with these changing literacies.   After all, educating all of our citizens was rooted in the belief in democracy, and in a democracy we value all of the voices equally.  Education, in light of our human natures and human conditions, is still a pathway to power.

Ehrlich, Paul.  (2002). Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect. New York: Penguin Group.

Diamond, Jared. (1999). Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: Norton.


I like to think of myself as a writer.  Or, at the very least, a person who, when called upon to write, can produce something coherent and interesting.

Additionally, I like to think of myself as an efficient machine: I do not let procrastination win.  No–I work all hours of the day and night, squeezing in email sessions while my kids play in the sandbox in order to permanently hover around inbox 0. I scribble on napkins; I compose in the shower.

Yet here I find myself, emails piling up, words unwritten,  blank screens and an evil cursor blinking, blinking, blinking….

Sometimes, writing is painful.

In my last post, I welcomed everyone to my learning, and today I seem to be inviting everyone to my hideous writer’s block.

In other news, the semester started and I am currently enrolled in “Technology, Society and Culture,” taught by the brilliant Yong Zhao.  He is the author of one of my favorite books on education reform, Catching Up or Leading the Way, and I feel very privileged to be taught by him in his last semester here at Michigan State.  For our first assignment, we’ve been asked to read the following and write about them:

  • Paul R. Ehrlich (2002). Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect. New York: Penguin Group.
  • Jared Diamond (1999). Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: Norton.
  • Larry Cuban (2001). Oversold and Underused: Computers in Classrooms, 1980-2000. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Clayton Christensen, Curtis W. Johnson, Michael B. Horn (2008). Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. New York: McGraw Hill.

I am not quite through all of the texts, but as I complete them, I plan to blog about them here.  The final essay/s will also appear in this space as part of my open education journey.