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John Taylor Gatto Medical Fund Appeal


John Taylor Gatto, the author of Dumbing Us Down, The Underground History of American Education, and Weapons of Mass Instruction among other titles, and an inspiration to many people who seek alternative education, suffered a debilitating stroke last year and, after many months of institutional care, he is now living at home with his wife, Janet. John is doing well mentally and verbally (his vocal chords were harmed but he is making good progress getting them back), but not so well physically. He is paralyzed on the left side of his body and needs much physical therapy to gain some of his strength and mobility back. Janet, unfortunately, needs a walker to get around so even simple activities to help John are difficult for her to accomplish without help. John’s long hospital and nursing home care have left him without any more insurance or personal funds to pay for his ongoing therapy and  other medical needs.

Jerry Mintz, of AERO, alerted people to John’s financial situation a few weeks ago and Jerry raised $11,000 for John’s care. However, there were some tax and legal issues that complicated the AERO donation from being cashed and used by John, but now they are all cleared up.

If you can help with John Gatto’s medical expenses please make a donation by check to the Odysseus Group and put “John’s medical expense fund” in the note line:

The Odysseus Group

Suite 3W

295 East 8th Street

New York, NY 10009


If you prefer to make a donation to John’s care by credit card, you can go to the AERO website to do so, and  be sure to enter “For John Gatto’s Medical Care” in the “Order Notes” box on the payment information page.


Online Learning's Growing Pains

 In my last blog post I asked, "I wish there were more research about homeschoolers and their use of distance learning compared to how school uses it now and proposes to use it in the future. Does anyone know of such studies?" No one replied to me with a direct answer, but I learned from a friend about this recent story concerning the failures of K12, the largest distance learning company in the United States, and it led me to the other stories I link to below.

Educators are tied to the notion that if a properly trained teacher doesn't expose a child to an idea, thing, or event the child will never learn about it. In the school model of learning, I see why this is believed so deeply, but here is more evidence that this is a flawed view about the scope and sequence of learning in real life.

Here is a for-profit company, using the latest technology as well as federal and state curriculum standards, exposing children to the school curriculum on a daily basis in their own homes, and yet, according to this study, the online students do even more poorly than the brick-and-mortar students. As John Holt noted in 1964 in How Children Fail, "I teach but the students don't learn; why?" Holt's answers to this question are deep and took years to develop, yet they are ignored by schools. The school response has always been that it is better to focus on the institution of school and technology, since they are more easily controlled by education officials than children and society. Someday we may decide to work with the children and society side of this equation, but here are the current results of working with the teaching and technology side from the study "Understanding and Improving Virtual Schools":

  • ´╗┐Only 27.7% of K12 schools reported meeting Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in 2010-11. This is nearly identical to the overall performance of all private Education Management Organizations that operate full-time virtual schools (27.4%). In the nation as a whole, an estimated 52% of public schools met AYP in 2010-11.
  • Thirty-six of the 48 full-time virtual schools operated by K12 were assigned school performance ratings by state education authorities in 2010-11, and just seven schools (19.4% of those rated) had ratings that indicated satisfactory progress status.
  • The mean performance on state math and reading assessments of K12-operated virtual schools consistently lags behind performance levels of the states from which the schools draw their students.
  • The on-time graduation rate for the K12 schools is 49.1%, compared with a rate of 79.4% for the states in which K12 operates schools.
  • Many families appear to approach the virtual schools as a temporary service: Data in K12’s own school performance report indicate that 31% of parents intend to keep their students enrolled for a year or less and more than half intend to keep their students enrolled for two years or less. K12 also noted in this report that 23% of its current students were enrolled for less than a year and 67% had been enrolled for fewer than two years.

The above study led to this article that should be read by anyone considering replacing human contact and relationships for learning at home with technology: 

Study Renews Call to Slow Growth of K12 Inc. Virtual Schools

Finally, the day before I read these articles (thanks to my friends who keep sending me these suggestions to read, BTW), I read this one about how Arizona State University is taking educational technology to its next logical step if you believe that only what you teach and expose people to is what they learn and care about:

With 72,000 students, Arizona State is both the country's largest public university and a hotbed of data-driven experiments. One core effort is a degree-monitoring system that keeps tabs on how students are doing in their majors. Stray off-course and you may have to switch fields.

And while not exactly matchmaking, Arizona State takes an interest in students' social lives, too. Its Facebook app mines profiles to suggest friends. One classmate has eight things in common with Ms. Allisone, who "likes" education, photography, and tattoos. Researchers are even trying to figure out social ties based on anonymized data culled from swipes of ID cards around the Tempe campus.

Data mining hinges on one reality about life on the Web: What you do there leaves behind a trail of digital bread crumbs. Companies scoop them up to tailor services, like the matchmaking of eHarmony or the book recommendations of Amazon. Now colleges, eager to get students out the door more efficiently, are awakening to the opportunities of so-called Big Data.

The new breed of software can predict how well students will do before they even set foot in the classroom. It recommends courses, Netflix-style, based on students' academic records.

Data diggers hope to improve an education system in which professors often fly blind. That's a particular problem in introductory-level courses, says Carol A. Twigg, president of the National Center for Academic Transformation. "The typical class, the professor rattles on in front of the class," she says. "They give a midterm exam. Half the kids fail. Half the kids drop out. And they have no idea what's going on with their students."

So the latest research says online learning is worse than learning in conventional schools, and the president of the National Center for Academic Transformation says that half the kids fail and half drop out of conventional college introductory classes. What's a parent of a schoolage child to learn from this research?

There are other paths for learning besides using canned lessons in school and at home, as homeschoolers have shown for decades now. Homeschoolers have been using the Internet and other technologies for decades but I think there are substantial differences in the motivations and uses for technology when the learner works with technology rather than the technology being used to work on the learner.



Learning Without Us

A new article in Educational Leadership was brought to my attention: Preparing Students to Learn Without Us by Will Richardson. As I read it I thought, once again, here is an educator willing to entertain this thought as long as the teacher remains in charge of how the learning occurs, in this case by linking a student’s personal interest in something to the core curriculum in whatever convoluted way necessary to achieve the goal.  The main point that John Holt, Ivan Illich, and others make so often—learning is the result of the activity of learners, not necessarily a result of teaching—always seems to get quickly lost in all school reform discussions. Instead, how teachers and schools are altered by technology that can personalize learning becomes the issue, and we ignore the human disruptive innovation—people learning from situations and other people outside of conventional schooling—and focus on the machinery: how technology will make existing schools continue as they are, only better. The important insight provided by Jacques Ellul and later Illich, that schooling itself is a technology used to control a population, is glossed over or not even considered in the rush to claim the latest technology that will change schooling.

However, unschoolers and some alternative schools have, for decades, supported independent learning for children, without using any of the latest educational technology as their justification for doing so. They use people in their families and communities, classes, projects, volunteering, and other opportunities to live and learn; they aren’t being tracked and assessed dynamically through cookies and cameras, but rather engage and discuss their situation with those working with them in order to know how they are doing. Many homeschoolers do use online courses, but I think not nearly as much as they use offline courses and learning opportunities (I wish there were more research about homeschoolers and their use of distance learning compared to how school uses it now and proposes to use it in the future. Does anyone know of such studies?). It is interesting to me that trusting people to decide what, when, how, and from whom they will learn is palatable to most educators only when they can use technology to control and predict what learners are doing. Technology is truly, in this instance, a double-edge sword.

The few dissenters cited at the end of the article give me hope that some in the teaching profession feel they should not be in the people-shaping business—trying to mold individual students to fit into job slots determined by their performance in school—and have not lost sight of a student’s humanity, dignity, and unique powers to learn.

The article starts off, as many do today, by paying lip service to the idea that we are learning all the time and that school interrupts that process. Unschoolers, in particular, can use or take heart from the arguments being made in support of letting learners control more of their learning and, who knows? Perhaps among teachers who think as the dissenters in this article do, we have allies who want to help create a learning society built around democracy and free will rather than a regime of mandatory continuing education, built around the plans of others and controlled through technology. Here are some excerpts to give you the gist of what I’m trying to convey about this article, which can be read in its entirety: Preparing students to learn without us.

The ability to learn what we want, when we want, with whomever we want as long as we have access creates a huge push against a system of education steeped in time-and-place learning. Notes McLeod,


Between adaptive software that can present and assess mastery of content, video games and simulations that can engage kids on a different level, and mobile technologies and online environments that allow learning to happen on demand, we need to fundamentally rethink what we do in the classroom with kids. (personal communication, October 1, 2011)


That rethinking revolves around a fundamental question: When we have an easy connection to the people and resources we need to learn whatever and whenever we want, what fundamental changes need to happen in schools to provide students with the skills and experiences they need to do this type of learning well? Or, to put it more succinctly, are we preparing students to learn without us? How can we shift curriculum and pedagogy to more effectively help students form and answer their own questions, develop patience with uncertainty and ambiguity, appreciate and learn from failure, and develop the ability to go deeply into the subjects about which they have a passion to learn?

. . . ."It requires a totally different skill set on the teacher's part," Stutzman says. "We have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, because we don't know the exact direction that a class will go when we walk in. Depending on student questions, reflections, or activities, our plans could quickly morph into something we never dreamed would happen at the outset."

In other words, it's risk and reward. "It's scary not to know exactly where your students will go if their curriculums are potentially different, and it requires a lot of adjusting," Stutzman explains. "But the benefit is that students get to see our genuine reactions to new discoveries as well as to challenges, and they see us model the learning process together." Students understand that there is no one "right" answer that the teacher expects, that there are many answers, and that the teacher and students will likely discover many of these together.

. . . Assessment changes as well. Donhauser says that the emphasis moves to assessing in the moment rather than at the end of a book or unit. "Rather than having a defined product that I receive from 25 students," she says, "I receive 25 individual assignments with their own unique content, insights, and styles." Using Google Docs, students continually update their progress, and she provides regular feedback. Students also give one another feedback on their plans as they go. Everyone follows a rubric that covers such areas as standards, learning outcomes, artifact explanation, blog posts, learning activities, work ethic, and research.

. . . Despite the promise of personalizing learning and some teachers' best efforts to give their students more agency in the education process, many educators wonder whether the concept goes far enough in preparing students for the wide array of learning opportunities outside the classroom.

Many educators cite an important difference between "personalized" learning and "personal" learning—the latter connotes a deeper degree of autonomy for the learner. Some, like Stephen Downes, a senior researcher at the National Research Council of Canada and a longtime education blogger, see that as an important distinction. "Autonomy is what distinguishes between personal learning, which we do for ourselves, and personalized learning, which is done for us," Downes (2011) tweeted last fall.

. . . It's a potential summed up nicely in the white paper The Right to Learn (Anytime Anywhere Learning Foundation, 2011). The authors write,

We need to shift our thinking from a goal that focuses on the delivery of something—a primary education—to a goal that is about empowering our young people to leverage their innate and natural curiosity to learn whatever and whenever they need to. The goal is about eliminating obstacles to the exercise of this right—whether the obstacle is the structure and scheduling of the school day, the narrow divisions of subject, the arbitrary separation of learners by age, or others—rather than supplying or rearranging resources. (p. 6)




The Corruption of the Best is the Worst

If you conversed with Ivan Illich long enough about education, politics, and religion you would eventually hear him utter this Latin phrase: corruptio optimi pessima (“the corruption of the best is the worst”). Illich often used it to describe Christianity, where he saw that, in the words of this blogger, “'a community of spirit’ has been betrayed by church systems and methods designed to control, institutionalize, and manage Christian vocation.” Upon reading this New York Times article today, I’m certain Ivan would be nodding in agreement and praying even harder that we see clearly and understand the predicament we are in instead of just blindly reacting, or simply ignoring, the deeper issues these things reveal about us.

Only about one in five has much trust in banks, according to Gallup polls, about half the level in 2007. And it’s not just banks that are frowned upon. Trust in big business overall is declining. Sixty-two percent of Americans believe corruption is widespread across corporate America. According to Transparency International, an anticorruption watchdog, nearly three in four Americans believe that corruption has increased over the last three years.

. . . After years of dismal employment prospects, Americans are losing trust in a broad range of institutions, including Congress, the Supreme Court, the presidency, public schools, labor unions and the church.

. . . In 2001, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index ranked the United States as the 16th least-corrupt country. By last year, the nation had fallen to 24th place. The World Bank also reports a weakening of corruption controls in the United States since the late 1990s, so that it is falling behind most other developed nations.

The most pointed evidence that breaking the rules has become standard behavior in the corporate world is how routine the wrongdoing seems to its participants. “Dude. I owe you big time! . . . I’m opening a bottle of Bollinger,” e-mailed one Barclays trader to a colleague for fiddling with the [LIBOR-PF] rate and improving the apparent profit of his derivatives book.

 Have we have gotten so used to the bland lies we are told by our “betters” and officials that our internal alarms do not go off about them anymore? For instance, I have long been struck by how no one has lost a job or their standing as a credible authority for repeating throughout the nineties and the turn of the century that statewide assessments and the federal No Child Left Behind act would not result in “teaching to the test.” (I have a file of such statements from MA and federal officials over the years). This is one small example, but once our words cease to be sincere, isn’t it just another small step to where our actions cease to be sincere?




If College is About Making More Money, You Might Want to Reconsider, Part 2

I've decided to keep this headline and follow the number of stories and research about the value of college degrees. Interesting how the college discussion has moved from one of justifying college as a time for developing intellect, social awareness, and personal cultivation into a job training program that can be measured based on your return on investment.

Here's a great graphic that illustrates one of the large issues that politicians and educators who continue to push everyone into a 4-year college program refuse to acknowledge: earnings from a college degree have decreased over time while costs from a college degree have escalated.

Cost of a 4-Year College Degree versus Earnings