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Only one of the authors of this book come from an education background. The other two study and write primarily about business. Their idea is to take the insights they have about the way businesses change and apply them to education.
To me, their most useful insight is that big breakthroughs in innovation first develop in a markets that were not previously being served or were being served poorly. In an example they use a few times in the book, the first makers of the minicomputer didn’t try to market their product to the government or businesses that were already invested in mainframe computers. Instead, they marketed to smaller businesses and individuals who could not afford and didn’t have the space for mainframes. Trying to compete with the mainframes directly would have been a losing cause, since the companies that made the mainframes were already good at it and already had large market shares. In addition, even though the first minicomputers didn’t have all the power and functionality of the mainframes of that day, the early minicomputer users were happy with the product because without it they didn’t have access to computers at all. That is, people in new markets are willing to accept some less than ideal circumstances, because they had no service before. As time goes on, and people become accustomed to the new product, they expect higher and higher levels of service — note that minicomputers got increasingly powerful to match those expectations.
The same is true for educational reform. Educational innovators are going to have a very difficult time being successful while fighting against a well-entrenched system. Unless you serve a new market, your innovation is almost certain to function mostly at the edges and to last only as long as you have “extra” money to pay for it. You aren’t going to truly “disrupt” the system.
The book’s authors believe that educational technology can serve previously unserved or underserved markets and eventually change education as we have known it and they believe that the unserved markets are in places like: small schools that cannot afford to offer “enrichment” courses; credit recovery for students who have to take regular classes, too; providing individualized instruction for students who do not learn well in traditional classes.
The authors think the last example is especially important and suggest that, as the software improves, much of school can be transformed into an individualized environment for students, with teachers guiding and assisting as needed — improving education for all students because they are being taught in the style in which they best learn, rather than in the relatively monolithic, one-size-fits-all methods that most schools employ. Based on their observation of disruptive innovation in other areas, they predicted (when they published the book in 2008) that “by 2019, about 50 percent of high school courses will be delivered online.” Whether or not this is accurate remains to be seen, but the vision they provide is of a student-centric learning environment that is enabled by technology, while remaining very much human and humane.
Disrupting Class is at it’s best when talking about the potential for change and how that change could happen. It’s much less compelling when talking about educational research and policy. I appreciate the authors’ vision, if not always their specific recommendations for moving toward it.
As Kurt Squire notes in the forward to Video Games and Learning, educators and gamers don’t often talk to each other — “game people think educators are lame, and educators think that game people are hyperviolent misogynists destroying all that is good in the world.” Squire and other educator-gamers (see, for example, Keith Devlin) are trying to change that, because they believe that gaming not only has something to teach educators, but that gaming may be a significant part of the future of education. Squire asks not, “Can you learn from games?” but “How do we make good learning games?” and “Can games help transform education?”
Squire is pretty critical of the current educational culture in our country. He argues that it is based in “passive knowledge reception,” with a structure that isolates “students by age ability, filters all information through the teacher, and features few opportunities to interact with experts, much less to become one.” He sees school as all too often full of failure that reinforces the idea that students know little or nothing – stand back and let “the experts” tell you how it is.
By contrast, gaming communities “don’t survive by selling players the fantasy of being incompetent, powerless, forced to follow arbitrary rules, and impotent in the world.” Instead games give the opportunity to “become leaders, teachers, or authors in the domains they are studying.” Games clearly communicate “what players must do to become experts” and regularly give the opportunity to interact with people who are more advanced. They are engaging and motivate learning in a wide range of fields for the purpose of doing something (albeit, usually scoring more points in the game), not just learning because your teacher told you to. Games, Squires believes, can be a meaningful part of, and can influence, a curriculum that also includes, people, books, homework, and all the other things we’ve come to associate with education.
This all might sound pie in the sky. Squire acknowledges that “such a change would require revolutionizing across the entire education system – from the professional development of teachers (who themselves are treated as recipients, not producers of knowledge) to the assessment system.” But he’s not just theorizing; he’s gone out and worked in “low-performing” schools, introducing a gaming curriculum in collaboration with teachers on the ground. Together they have learned what can work and what can’t, adjusting their approach on the fly. The stories of these experiments are some of the most compelling parts of the book.
Squire does not pretend to have all the answers. While he is a reformer, he is not concerned with scaling the interventions he’s helped pilot. He sees education reform as a process, not a product. He wants to spread “reflective teaching practices that engage kids in advanced design thinking about themselves and their communities.” In this he has succeeded.
In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander traces the history of racialized control in the US – from slavery, to Jim Crow, to mass incarceration – pointing out the similarities and differences, particularly between the Jim Crow of the early and mid-20th century and the mass incarceration of African-American and Latino men in the present day.
Jim Crow – which had replaced slavery as the method of reinforcing white supremacy in the US – was a system of laws and practices that made black people into second class citizens unable to vote, to serve on juries, to live in white neighborhoods, to go to school with white children, to use the same bathrooms as white people, or to participate in white society in a myriad of other ways. When it began to crumble in the face of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, there was a period of relative hope for racial equality for African-Americans that included more decent-paying jobs, educational opportunities, and more.
The time of promise was short-lived. Alexander argues that the War on Drugs is the mechanism that was and is used to replace Jim Crow by imprisoning of huge numbers of men of color and reinforcing what she calls the “caste system” in the United States. The War on Drugs was initiated by President Reagan in 1982 despite the fact that at the time “less than 2 percent of the American public viewed drugs as the most important issue facing the nation.” Money for drug enforcement skyrocketed. “Department of Defense antidrug allocations increased from $33 million in 1981 to $1,042 million in 1991. During that same period, DEA antidrug spending grew from $86 to $1,206 million, and FBI antidrug allocations grew from $38 to 181 million.”
Because “police can stop, interrogate, and search anyone they choose for drug investigations, provided they get ‘consent,’” racial biases have free rein. In fact, police are allowed to rely on race as a factor in selection whom they stop and search (even though people of color are no more likely to be guilty of drug crimes than whites) – effectively guaranteeing that those who are swept into the system are primarily black and brown.
“Human Rights Watch reported in 2000 that, in seven states, African-Americans constitute 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison. In at least fifteen states, blacks are admitted to prison on drug charges at a rate from twenty to fifty-seven times greater than that of white men.” In that same year, African-Americans were admitted to prison at a level “more than twenty-six times the level in 1983. The number of 2000 drug admissions for Latinos was twenty-two times the number of 1983 admissions.” (Emphasis in the original.) By comparison, “the number of white drug admissions was eight times the number admitted in 1983.”
After arrest, prosecutors can overwhelm defendants with extra charges for which they have no evidence in an often successful attempt to get them to accept a lesser, but still felonious conviction. Because of harsh sentencing laws, “drug offenders in the United States more time under the criminal justice system’s formal control – in jail or prison, on probation or parole – than drug offenders anywhere else in the world.”
Predictably, the prison population exploded: “In 1972, fewer than 350,000 people were being held in prisons and jails nationwide, compared with more than 2 million today .” They are disproportionately black and Latino. “One in every 14 black men was behind bars in 2006, compared with 1 in 106 white men. For young black men, the statistics are even worse. One in 9 black men between the ages of twenty and thirty-five was behind bars in 2006, and far more were under some form of penal control – such as probation or parole.”
This despite the fact that crime rates in the US remained flat or even fell during this time. Moreover, study after study show that crime rates are roughly equal across racial groups. It is not that black and Latino men are more likely to commit crime. It is that they are more likely to be targeted for arrest, more likely to be convicted, and tend to have longer sentences when convicted.
Once convicted, discrimination that is remarkably similar to Jim Crow segregation is legal and encouraged. A system of laws and practices denies felons the right to participate in society, even though they have “paid their debt.” “The vast majority of convicted offenders will never integrate into mainstream, white society. They will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives – denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits.” Felons cannot vote or serve on juries. Felons cannot apply for federal low-income housing. They are not eligible for most financial aid for college. It is legal in almost all states to deny jobs to the formerly-incarcerated, and they are barred from obtaining many licenses to open businesses of their own. Even in states where convicted felons are eligible for some of these right, they are shackled by legal fees and paperwork requirements that make exercising those rights all but impossible.
Alexander is clear and thorough and thoughtful. The statistics she cites are useful and compelling. Her arguments are logical and compassionate. If at times I felt overwhelmed by the book, it speaks only to its power.
Her goal is not to propose remedies, though she does begin to discuss them at the book’s end. Instead, I think her goal is to show how the system of mass incarceration is one of the biggest, if not the biggest civil rights issue of our time. In this, I think she succeeds.
When she does discuss remedies, she brings in the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who called for a shift from civil rights to human rights. Alexander, in turn, suggests that we unify across racial lines, not by ignoring our differences or pretending that we don’t see the color of each other’s skins, but by recognizing and acknowledging the humanness that we all possess. We can no longer accept the “racial bribes” we are often given, the crumbs that put most whites, even if they live in abject poverty, above most people of color. Some people of color benefit, too, but at the expense of everyone else. Alexander argues that a more just and better world could exist if we reject those bribes and form a coalition that recognizes the common human needs we share and are systematically denied. Together we could be more powerful and build a society that benefits all the people, rather than just a few.
As I read this book, I repeatedly thought that a similar analysis needs to be done of many of our institutions so that we can understand and deconstruct the ways that all our institutions disadvantage people of color, women, and others. I thought particularly of the ways that higher education pushes out people of color and poor folks, sending them the message that they don’t belong there. Perhaps someone is already working on these books. I hope they are, because I believe that knowing and understanding these issues can help us create a more just society.
Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s most famous character, is something of a mystery. He muddles his way through investigations, doing his best to make sense of an unfair and world, but what we know about Marlowe the man fits in an ash tray in a two-bit bar somewhere in the L.A. basin. Trouble Is My Business pulls together four stories that, read together, uncover some of Marlowe’s character.
In the title story, Marlowe is hired to reveal the gold-digging nature of a woman chasing a rich man’s son. Though he doesn’t trust her, he’s also sympathetic to a woman trying to survive in a complicated world — and by the end things get way more complicated than they first appeared. In the second story, Marlowe agrees to help a friend make a little money using a quasi-legitimate scheme. His friend ends up dead and Marlowe’s framed for the murder. The third story sees Marlowe working with another friend, this time a woman on the trail of some insurance money for stolen pearls. Finally, in “Red Wind,” on impulse he helps a woman escape the police and ends up shielding her from her dead lover’s perfidy.
The moral code that emerges from these vignettes is one that says you do a lot for friends — even when it sounds like a bad idea. It assumes women are innocent or at least deserving of protection, never asks for more than fair compensation, and often gets less. Sometimes Marlowe’s pronouncements clang against modern ears, but I don’t think he (or Chandler) cares. He lives his life as he sees fit and expects no sympathy.
Questioning the status quo has always been fraught, even deadly. The furor around Andrew Hacker’s, The Math Myth, is no exception (though as far as I know Hacker has not been physically attacked or threatened). The accepted truth Hacker challenges is the sequence of math courses that almost all US high school students take – commonly called Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II – and which a slightly smaller number retake, as remedial or developmental courses, when they enter college.
These courses are designed to lead students toward calculus, a worthy goal as one of the great scientific and mathematical achievements of the last 500 years, but one that, to be fair, is not crucial to function effectively as a citizen of the 21st century. Instead, this math curriculum is the result of a Sputnik-era concern over the threat of Soviet competition in space and science more broadly.
As such, Hacker’s book asks us to reconsider our lock step requirements for all students in math and offers an alternative based in the thinking of a numerically literate social science professor. Here in essence is his argument, as I see it:
- Currently, the US requires all students to take math leading to calculus.
- This curriculum teaches skills and knowledge that are not used in most people’s everyday life.
- This curriculum teaches skills and knowledge that are rarely used, even by scientists, engineers, computer scientists, actuaries, or any other work we typically think of as needing mathematics.
- This curriculum is not improving the quantitative literacy or reasoning of our society.
- The transfer of math skills and thinking to other fields, as is often claimed, is unproven at best.
- Mathematical proof is abstract and unrelated to the way we in fact establish truth in the world, for example scientific proof or legal proof.
- The cost of forcing all students into the same math curriculum is too high, in terms of preventing too many otherwise talented students from completing their studies and entering the professional workforce.
- Therefore, we should offer rigorous alternatives to the current math curriculum that promote improved quantitative literacy and reasoning.
Along the way, Hacker includes some thoughts about why the status quo is what it is. Tradition is a big piece of it, as is using math as a surrogate for precision and rigor, something I have often observed. In addition, our math curriculum represents a de facto form of tracking for students, keeping out the “unwanted” from professional careers. You should read that as African-American, Latino/a, and other non-white students who are disproportionately stuck in the math pipeline. The status quo also serves mathematicians by giving them many jobs teaching all the students forced into those classes. Finally, Hacker argues that preventing students in the US from completing their degrees keeps the flow of foreign-born workers, often willing to work for less money than their US-born counterparts, open and strong.
Whether you agree with Hacker’s premises or not, he presents an array of evidence that is not easily dismissed. In fact, critics of the book mostly do not attack the ideas I’ve outlined above. Instead they focus on Hacker’s use of terms, which admittedly is not always careful from a mathematical perspective. That said, in no serious critique of the book have I seen anyone disagreeing with the basic premise that teaching math as we currently do in the US is costing our society the loss of many talented students who excel in many areas, but are denied access to college degrees because they do not complete the math requirements.
Keith Devlin, an educator, Mathematical Association of America-sponsored columnist, and a voice I respect, explicitly agrees with Hacker that “Algebra as typically taught in the school system is presented as a meaningless game with arbitrary rules that does more harm than good.” Devlin’s critique of Hacker draws a distinction between what is taught in US schools as “algebra” and algebra as it was historically developed and currently practiced by mathematicians. This distinction is useful as a defense of algebra as a whole, but not as a critique of Hacker’s work, precisely because Hacker’s argument is about how algebra is taught and used by our educational system. I say, for those that are concerned by Hacker’s use of “algebra” as a convenient metaphor representing “the current state of math education in this country,” substitute the longer phrase.
From my perspective, The Math Myth is titled provocatively for the purpose of creating controversy and selling books. Hacker does not attack the importance of math overall, but does question the current math establishment. As a thoughtful voice from outside the discipline, we should listen, broaden our thinking, and be open to the constructive message he brings. It is the students, as Hacker points out, who pay the price for our insistence on the status quo.