Computers considered harmful

Use a computer, go to fail.

Donald MacLeod, writing in the Guardian, reports on a new study being presented this week.

In a report to be given at the conference of the Royal Economic Society in Nottingham this week, Thomas Fuchs and Ludger Woessmann of Munich University say their research shows diminished performance in students with computers. Their findings look conclusive: they are based on the Program for International Student Assessment (Pisa) international tests in maths and literacy taken by 100,000 15-year-olds in 32 countries.

The report isn’t a blanket condemnation of computers in education; rather, it suggests that how the computer is used is critical to its effect. From the report’s abstract:

We estimate the relationship between students’ educational achievement and the availability and use of computers at home and at school in the international student-level PISA database. Bivariate analyses show a positive correlation between student achievement and the availability of computers both at home and at schools. However, once we control extensively for family background and school characteristics, the relationship gets negative for home computers and insignificant for school computers. Thus, the mere availability of computers at home seems to distract students from effective learning. But measures of computer use for education and communication at home show a positive conditional relationship with student achievement. The conditional relationship between student achievement and computer and internet use at school has an inverted U-shape, which may reflect either ability bias combined with negative effects of computerized instruction or a low optimal level of computerized instruction.

Unlike computers, books at home proved to be helpful; children from homes with more than 500 books performed better than those without, again with other variables held constant.

I design computers for a living, using them intensively at home and at work, and I don’t find these results surprising in the least.

The seven deadly absurdities of No Child Left Behind

The more one digs behind NCLB’s noble goal of universal proficiency (for some definition of proficiency), the more one is forced to question the good faith–or good sense–of its authors. Bracey’s litany of absurdities is worth a look.

Gerald W. Bracey is an associate professor at George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia and an Associate of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, Ypsilanti, Michigan. His most recent book is Setting the Record Straight: Responses to Misconceptions About Public Education in the U. S.: Second Edition (Heinemann, September 2004).

In her confirmation hearings, Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings expressed her desire to fix the No Child Left Behind law, but also stated, ‘We must stay true to the sound principles of leaving no child behind.’ This will be difficult because the ‘sound principles’ are nowhere to be found. Consider the following seven deadly absurdities of the law….

Read the article.

Jerry Brown and charter schools

In an LA Times article, Oakland mayor and ex-gov Jerry Brown preaches to the charter school choir.

There’s certainly something to be said for charter schools, especially to the extent that they’re able to provide a greater diversity of educating style, but I’m not sure what to make of this:

Brown said he successfully lobbied Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year to veto legislation that would have prohibited charter schools from dropping students who did not meet their academic standards.

“How can we hold schools accountable if we don’t allow schools to hold their students accountable?” Brown said, alluding to the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which calls for sanctioning schools whose students do not meet expected achievement levels.

If and as charter school proliferate, what happens the the students they drop? Do we abandon universal public education, or do our public schools become a dumping ground for all the students that don’t meet “expected achievement levels” at the charters?

All kinds of minds: Mel Levine

Last night, I was struggling to remember the name of an educator I had come across a couple of years ago. He was stressing the need for a pluralistic approach in teaching children, something that our one-size-fits-all approach to academic proficiency seems to entirely ignore–except in the special education arena.

In one of those small miracles of coincidence, NPR ran a story on Dr Mel Levine this morning.

Throughout the country this Institute is working to provide parents with the best assessment techniques and to train classroom teachers to help kids with learning differences. We strive to ensure that children receive the individualized education that will help them enhance their innate strengths and overcome difficulties they may have encountered in school.

Dr Levine’s work raises a serious question for those of us interested in the definition of “proficiency” for the purposes of standardized testing in our public schools. More to come….

Advice for high school students

“Rebellion is almost as stupid as obedience. Nearly all textbooks are bad.”

In What You’ll Wish You’d Known Paul Graham offers sound advice to high school students. Here’s a sample. (via /.)

It’s dangerous to design your life around getting into college, because the people you have to impress to get into college are not a very discerning audience. At most colleges, it’s not the professors who decide whether you get in, but admissions officers, and they are nowhere near as smart. They’re the NCOs of the intellectual world. They can’t tell how smart you are. The mere existence of prep schools is proof of that.

Rebellion is almost as stupid as obedience. In either case you let yourself be defined by what they tell you to do. The best plan, I think, is to step onto an orthogonal vector. Don’t just do what they tell you, and don’t just refuse to. Instead treat school as a day job. As day jobs go, it’s pretty sweet. You’re done at 3 o’clock, and you can even work on your own stuff while you’re there.

One of the most dangerous illusions you get from school is the idea that doing great things requires a lot of discipline. Most subjects are taught in such a boring way that it’s only by discipline that you can flog yourself through them. So I was surprised when, early in college, I read a quote by Wittgenstein saying that he had no self-discipline and had never been able to deny himself anything, not even a cup of coffee.

A key ingredient in many projects, almost a project on its own, is to find good books. Most books are bad. Nearly all textbooks are bad. [9] So don’t assume a subject is to be learned from whatever book on it happens to be closest. You have to search actively for the tiny number of good books.

[9] Even college textbooks are bad. When you get to college, you’ll find that (with a few stellar exceptions) the textbooks are not written by the leading scholars in the field they describe. Writing college textbooks is unpleasant work, done mostly by people who need the money. It’s unpleasant because the publishers exert so much control, and there are few things worse than close supervision by someone who doesn’t understand what you’re doing. This phenomenon is apparently even worse in the production of high school textbooks.

Budget follies: round one

From the Governor’s new budget proposal:

Total 2005-06 Proposition 98 support for K-12 education will increase 6 percent over the revised 2004 Budget Act level, as adjusted for changes in local revenues, average daily attendance growth (ADA), and forecasted economic factors.

You’d almost think we were looking at an increase in funding for next year, but as Nanette Asimov, writing in the Chron, tells us,

Because the proposed increases cover only cost-of- living adjustments and new enrollment, school districts with declining enrollment — which encompass half the state’s students — won’t see much of the new money.

CUSD, as we all know by now, is one of those districts with declining enrollment.

The January budget proposal is only the first shot in the budget wars; we’re not likely to know the final outcome for another six months or more. But it’s not a promising start.

Merit Pay: Gerstner, Kevin Drum

Kevin Drum links to an article by Lou Gerstner on the merits of merit pay for teachers.

I don’t entirely buy Drum’s contention that principals don’t know enough about teachers to adequately evaluate them. Or rather, I’m convinced that, under the right circumstances (in particular a manageable number of teachers), a good principal has a very good idea of what her teachers are doing.

Of course this assumes good principals and small schools, but there are reasons enough, merit pay aside, to insist on both of these.


Even an imperfect system would be far better than the current single-salary schedule. And while we reward the best, we need to empower principals to lead, making sure they have the proper authority to hire and fire teachers. And as far as competition goes, since when is a little healthy effort to be the best at improving reading or math scores such a bad thing?

I frankly doubt that we’ll see a useful proposal from Arnold, given California’s budget constraints and his apparent intention to hold down education spending. But it could lead to a useful discussion.

BBC: Small-class pupils ‘do no better’

New British research suggests that there “is no evidence that children in smaller primary classes do better in maths or English”.

Via Sam Smith, who points out that small schools, on the other hand, are another matter entirely.

Yet California continues to fund class-size reduction to the tune of over a billion dollars per year while ignoring the benefits of smaller schools. California’s modest goals–classes of 20 students in grades K-3–may help account for its very limited success with CSR, but greater reductions (research suggests that 12-15 is a better target) would be correspondingly more expensive, as would expanding the program to higher grades.