Billions and Billions, and I am not talking about stars!

I am talking about dollars, and how billionaires are influencing (science) education policy from the K-12 level to the U.S. Department of Education, and this is being done in an environment where the billionaires are demanding accountability from the recipients of its money, but do so without having to be held to any standards or accountability themselves.

In her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch explores how testing and choice are undermining education.  As Ravitch points out, there are many philanthropic organizations such as the Carnegie, Ford and Rockefeller, which have used a Request for Proposal (RFP) strategy in which they reviewed proposals, and then funded proposals that met various project goals.

In her book she identifies three new and very different foundations that decided what they wanted to accomplish, how they wanted to accomplish it, and who would be the recipients of their money—billions of dollars.  The three foundations she identified are The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The Walton Family Foundation, and The Broad Foundation.  If you go to their websites, you will see a vast array of “investments” that each of these foundations has and is making in education policy and practice.  So, what is the problem here?

For these foundations, their investments in education should produce measurable results.  As Ravitch points out, these organizations might have begun their education work with various goals in mind, but she suggests that they have most recently supported educational reform strategies that mirror their own experience in acquiring large fortunes.  These include competition, choice, deregulation, incentives, and other market-based approaches.

The foundations have huge sums of money available to implement reform based on these strategies, and it is very difficult of school districts to turn their backs on such generosity.  These foundations exert enormous influence on public education, and indeed, can shape public policy toward education.  Ravitch puts it this way:

They have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any district or state.  If voters don’t like the foundations’ reform agenda, they can’t vote them out of office.  The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one.  If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them.  They are the bastions of unaccountable power.

The billions and billions of dollars that these foundations have decided to invest in education have not been reviewed or assessed by academics.  Ravitch points out that not one book has been published which questions their strategies, and there appears to be few if any published papers or articles written by university faculty, perhaps because of fear alienating the foundations resulting in not having their projects funded.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Education received 100 billion dollars as part of Economic and Recovery Act to invest in K-12 education.  Four and half billion dollars have been allocated to The Race to the Top Fund in which states compete for the money.  Two states have received nearly 500 million of this money; other states will submit their proposals by June 1 for the second round of funding.  Unfortunately the Race to the Top Fund guidelines that the states must follow have been heavily influenced by the Billionaire Foundation of Gates, Walton and Broad.  Indeed, Bill Gates is an advisor to the Secretary of Education.

There is a fundamental problem here.  I will explore this more in the days ahead.  For now, I am going to watch a 60 minute segment on earthquakes.

Earthday and the Global Thinking Project

In 1987 I met Sergey Tolstikov, who at the time was the lead English teacher at Moscow Experimental Gymnasium 710.  Sergey, along with many of his colleagues at School 710, and other schools in Moscow, St. Petersburg (Leningrad at the time), Pushchino, Yasoslav, and Chelyabinsk teamed up with American teachers to create the Global Thinking Project, a hands-across the global environmental science and education program.  Over the years we supported exchanges of secondary school students and their teachers, researchers from the Russian Academy of Education, Georgia State University, & Agnes Scott College.  The project expanded to include Australia, England, Czech Republic, Argentina, Spain, Singapore, Canada, Japan, & Botswana.  Hundreds of students worked together on one of the first Internet-based environmental science projects used a project-based and inquiry program: The GTP: Environmental Science on the Net.

Using Macintosh SE 20 Computers, the GTP set up a telecommunications system in 1991 linking ten schools in the USSR and the U.S.

We involved students in conducting research on topics that focused on Earthday-like themes or projects including: The Green Classroom, Project Clean Air, Project Solid Waste, Project Water Watch, Project Soil & Project Earth Month.  Students worked with their teachers to investigate these projects locally, and then used the GTP website to collaborate and share data with each other.  We were also fortunate to obtain grant money from the U.S. Government (USIA) to support three major exchanges of secondary students and teachers from Russia and the U.S.  Students lived in each others homes, went to each others schools, and participated in research, as well as global conferences held in Moscow and Atlanta.

About a month ago I heard from Jessica one of the former U.S. GTP students who had participated in the first USIA funded exchange in 1995.  She asked if I could help her come in contact with her host Russian family—a family she had lived with 15 years ago.  I contacted Sergey in Moscow, and asked him if he could help find Jessica’s Russian host family.  We had her host’s name and school (Moscow Experimental School 91), and the lead teacher in the exchange.  Yesterday, Sergey emailed me with the email address of the Russian student, and today on Earthday, the American student was able to email her host family in Moscow.  I received this note from Jessica:

Thank you so much for your help, and I also want to thank you for all of your work with GTP.  It was the experience of a lifetime for my husband and me.  We both look forward to traveling to Russia again someday! I remember Sergey speaking at our summit meetings.  I also wanted to tell you that I work with another GTP student, that traveled to Russia the same year that my husband and I did.  She (Brooke) and I were hired at Battlefield Primary School the same year.  We recognized each other from the GTP experience immediately, even though she was from another school! I teach 2nd grade, and she is our Speech-Language Pathologist.  She and I often talk about our experiences, and that was 15 years ago! Wow time flies!  Again, I appreciate everything!

As Sergey said in one of his emails, it is always great to hear from one of your former students, and learn a bit about the impact on their lives.

Sergey Tolstikov (on the left) at an initial meeting among GTP American and Russian students in a Moscow Hotel, 1995.


Education in the Age of Technology

I tuned into a lecture yesterday presented by Allan Collins which was hosted by The Learning Sciences Group at Penn State, and organized by Penn State Professor Richard Duschl.  The title of the talk was Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology, and is title of Collins’ book, co-authored with Richard Halverson.  The lecture is long, but you can scroll through the slides which accompany the video, and listen to various parts of the talk, and still get the main idea of his ideas about the future of education.

According to Collins, in this “age of technology,” the very technology which consumes so many of us, has had little effect on mainstream education.  As he pointed out, schools spend a lot of money on technology, but this technology is on the periphery of learning, and has not really been utilized to help students learn.  Indeed, we’ve spent so much on technology, that I remember visiting a science and technology center in a North Georgia school district, that piles and piles of “old” computers were taking up space, replaced with “newer” computers.

In the county that I reside, a former superintendent (he was fired because of his forward looking views on the use of technology) nearly implemented a program that would have put lap tops in the hands all elementary and middle school students.  This was a huge project (about 100,000 students), but he was accused of ramming a technology program onto schools without much research.  In truth, he was going to run a “pilot” program at several schools, and then use this experience to determine the next move for the district.  That never happened as he was run out of town, especially by the right wing newspaper, The Marietta Journal.

Schools today exist within a technological and scientific global environment held together by means of the Internet and various tools that we use to communicate, do research, and conduct business.  The world outside of school has consumed the world of technology, but unfortunately, our schools have not utilized the remarkable tools available to us to promote learning, and growth, and to move schools in new directions.  That said, there are many teachers who have been pioneers in the use of technology in their classrooms and districts, but the overall trend in education is one trapped by conservative approaches that center around standardizing the curriculum, and testing the heck out of our students.

One of the important ideas that Dr. Collins outlined was that there is an incompatibility between schooling and technology.  In his analysis, uniform learning, standardization, the value placed on testing the knowledge in kids heads, learning by absorption coupled with the teacher as an expert is incompatible with technology, and the reform that is needed to incorporate technology into learning.  In fact, he suggests that schools will become less important, that the seeds of a new system of learning are emerging (he outlines these and they include ideas such as: home schooling, distance learning, adult education, education TV, web communities, “technical” certifications, and internet cafes), that the industrial revolution model of today’s schools will give way to a new model of school, and will lead to lifelong learning.

Another idea that Collins explores is the idea of self-directed learning, which of course has been an idea that emerged from thinkers such as John Dewey, Jerome Bruner, and Carl Rogers, and creative teachers who provided the real-world experiences for theorists to develop their ideas.  Schools currently do not foster “intrinsic motivation,” but because of the increased movement toward having students learn the same thing at the same time, regardless of previous learning experiences, sets in motion a system of learning that says little to us about intrinsic learning.   Simply importing technology into the classroom will not result in intrinsically motivated learners.  For example, simply moving textbooks to an online or computer environment will not necessarily change the way we teach, or the way students learn.  A deeper paradigm shift is needed to incorporate the ideas that Collins is suggesting.  For me this paradigm is the humanistic science paradigm that I have explored on this weblog.

Collins explores ideas that I think are compatible to creative teachers, and educators who want to put students at the center of learning, and encourage new ways to educate youth.

Iceland’s Volcanic Activity

Eyjafjallajokull, the volcano in Iceland that has been erupting and causing havoc for thousands of people around the world, is one of about 200 volcanoes that are located in Iceland.  Iceland is the world’s most active volcanic area, and the country is located at the interface of two tectonic plates that are moving away from each other at a point known as the mid-ocean ridge.  Iceland is unique that the spreading apart of the these two large tectonic plates is taking place at sea level, as opposed to many other examples of spreading that occur well below sea level.

Here are some pictures that I’ve gathered to include images of the volcano, as well as maps of the geology of the Iceland.

This map identifies two of Iceland's prominent geological features: glaciers and volcanoes. Source: http://www.exploratorium.edu/theworld/iceland/map.html
This map provides more detail about the nature of Iceland's volcanoes, and geological activity on the island. Source: usgs.gov
This is a view of the erupting volcano Eyjafjallajokull. Source: http://www.boston.com/
A closer view of the volcano Source: http://www.boston.com/

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A satellite view showing the ash from the volcano (look in the upper left of the photo) as it moves north of Great Britain. The ash has now spread over GB, and much of Europe causing the suspension of thousands of flights. Source: http://www.boston.com/

Scientific City in Russia

There was an article in today’s New York times about the building of a scientific city by the Russian government.  The plan is to develop a technologically and scientifically vibrant city on the outskirts of Moscow.  The goal of this venture is:

Once developed, the site is intended to incubate scientific ideas using generous tax holidays and government grants until the start-ups can become profitable companies. Its backers in government and the private sector describe it as an effort to blend the Soviet tradition of forming scientific towns with Western models of encouraging technology ventures around universities.

The article reminded me of some of my experiences in Russia during the 1990s as part of the Global Thinking Project. The GTP linked students and teachers from American and Russian schools in more than ten cities by means of collaboratively developed envirnmental science curriculum, exchanges of students and teachers, and the emergent telecommunications and Internet resources that were just beginning.

American and Russian student in Pushchino School #2 presenting graphical data on their environmental project.

For more than 15 years, student, teacher, and researcher exchanges were fostered through the efforts of the GTP with funding (follow this link to one of the GTP’s funded proposals) from local schools, GSU, and federal programs including the Eisenhower Program, and the United States Information Agency.  These exchanges brought us into cooperative work with teachers and students in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yaroslavl, Chelyabinsk, and Pushchino.

Pushchino is a small town about 100 miles south of Moscow.  In 1993, we were introduced to Valentina Zalim, Director of Experimental School #2, Serpuhovky district, Puschino-on-Oka, Moscow Region.  She invited our delegation to her school, and the next year, about ten of us (school and university researchers) drove to Pushchino from Moscow.  As we approached this remote town, we could see that it was built above the surrounding area on a small plateau.  Pushchino has a population of about 20,000.  It has three schools, and we were going to carry on a collaboration with School #2.  It prove to be a long term, and rich collaboration.  But what was most interesting about Puschino was the fact that it was a scientific city.

Location of Pushchino, Russia, about 100 miles south of Moscow

One of the first persons we met was a young man who was assigned to us as the “official” translator and interpreter for our delegation.  He was an English teacher at a small college in a nearby city.  He had never been to Pushchino.  He and many of his fellow citizens understood that Pushchino was a town for retirees.  He was shocked to find that the town of Pushchino housed several major scientific research institutes, and one of the world’s largest radio telescopes.  Known as Pushchino Research Center, it was comprisesed of the following:

  • The Institue of Protein Research
  • The Institute of Theoretical and Experimental Biophysics
  • The Institute of Cell Biophysics
  • The Institute of Biochemistry and Physiology of Microorganisms
  • The Institute of Soil Science and Photosynthesis
  • The branch of the Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry
  • Research Computer Center
  • Special Constraction Bureau & Experimental Plant
  • Radio Astronomy Station of the P.P Lebedev Physical Institute,RAS
  • Branch of the M.V.Lomonosov Moscow State University

Nearly all of the parents of the students in Experimental School #2 worked at one of these research institutions, and because of their deep interest in their children’s education, we became very involved with the research centers over the years.  We visited a number of these research centers, including the radio astronomy station, and were very involved with their computer researchers who had established a telecommunications business in the early years of the Internet revolution.  From Pushchino, we made one of the first video conferences using the Internet in 1996.

Wayne Robinson (right) and myself at the moment that we were able to establish the first video conference link between Russia and a school in Georgia (USA).

When we first started working with colleagues in Pushchino, the various scientific research centers received their funding from the Russian Academy of Sciences.  But soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and economic perils that followed, many of the research centers suffered because of lack of funding from the Academy.  Over the years, the research center has continued its work, and is an important center of scientific research in Russia.