Research Engine

If your memory serves you well

A new education innovation research network is launched in Rhode Island, tasked with redesigning the future educational system in the state

Photo by Richard Asinof

A schematic drawing of the interactions envisioned under the newly launched Education Innovation Research Network.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 3/27/17
The launch of a new Education Innovation Research Network to redesign the future educational system in Rhode Island is rife with questions around priorities and investments. The fact that the first keynote given was by a learning engineer from the for-profit educational behemoth, Kaplan, did not seem to raise concerns from the sponsors.
When will the diseases of despair, connected to economic instability, become part of the conversation around education and economics in Rhode Island? How much of the breakdown in the safety net in social services is a product of too little resources invested by the R.I. General Assembly and too little oversight by the Raimondo administration? What has the greatest ROI – investments in healthy, affordable housing, or commercial real estate deals with tax incentives? Who else needs to be at the table for future discussions of the Education Innovation Research Network? How do the social, economic and health disparities become part of the conversation around education innovation?
Innovation is a long-term process built on failure, taking risks and not succeeding. In the manner that innovation has been thrust into the conversation around education and the economy, it has been redefined as the measure of re-engineering success. Maybe.
One of the biggest problems facing education in Rhode Island is the way that schools are structured around age and adulthood: the dividing line between high school and college, 12th grade and the first year of college, does not correspond to the needs of the students. The pioneering work of the R.I. Nurses Institute Middle College to break down those divisions was not part of the recent discussion.

PROVIDENCE – There are always daily choices to make in life about how one invests his or her time. For a reporter, those choices often revolve around what events to cover, and what not to attend, when time and space [and family commitments] collide.

The hardest choices involve breaking free of expectations of the daily treadmill and the herd mentality, to make time for stories outside the mainstream conversation rather than be swept away by “breaking news” or tweet storms.

It is similar, perhaps, to the quandary of having to choose between being attentive as a parent or paying attention to demands of deadlines at a job.

Last week, ConvergenceRI made the decision to attend the launch of the Education Innovation Research Network on March 23 at the Providence Public Library, a new educational research initiative involving the R.I. Office of Innovation, EducateRI, and the College and University Research Collaborative, also known as The Collaborative.

It was a choice grounded upon the school of experience – intuition developed from four decades in the news biz – and not by research quantifying how best to grow the number of online clicks by designing the most salacious click-bait.

And, as is often the case when it comes to covering research events in Rhode Island, ConvergenceRI was the only reporter in attendance. [The organizers would probably have been happy not to have any news coverage.]

ConvergenceRI was following what he had once dubbed the second law of journalism, shared with aspiring journalists and cub reporters: news is not so much what happens but what you don’t know. [The first law: news media sell advertising, and the news is filler.]

The wonky research event proved to be extremely important in connecting the dots in the disconnect in the conversations around education, performance of students, workforce training, the diseases of despair connected to de-industrialization, the plan to offer high school students two years of tuition-free college in Rhode Island, and even the breakdown of intervention services at the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families – but perhaps not in the way that the organizers envisioned.

As one participant told ConvergenceRI, after the gathering: “I was blown away by how ignorant these higher ed folks are about the state of families with children in Rhode Island.”

Setting the stage
To put the decision to attend the launch of the Education Innovation Research Network in context, last week was a big news week, and March 23 was a huge news day.

Here is a brief description of the roads not taken:

Behind door number one: R.I. Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed had resigned and the Democratic Senate members were choosing a new leadership team in a public caucus. Like moths attracted to the brightest, shining light, most of the other news media swarmed to the State House.

Behind door number two: Earlier that day, Gov. Gina Raimondo held a news conference to detail how bad Trumpcare would be for Rhode Island, replete with residents telling compelling stories about what would happen if they lost coverage. [Convergence RI had attended an embargoed news briefing the day before, and most of the news media had run with the story, including The Providence Journal, with a remarkable headline that included an exclamation point.]

We interrupt this program to give you a breaking news update: Then there was the national story with the ever-changing lede: first there was a vote scheduled, then the vote was delayed, then there was an ultimatum from President Trump to hold the vote the next day: the plan to repeal and replace Obamacare was sinking in the Republican sea of incompetence, swamped by the Democratic tide of grassroots anger. [In the old days, when FM stations had their own news departments, news directors such as Bill Vitka at WMMR in Philadelphia might have played Donovan’s “First there is a mountain” in the background of the newscast.]

Behind door number three: A scathing report by the Office of the Child Advocate examining four deaths and two near-deaths of children between Oct. 12, 2016, and March 1, 2017, in which all six families were well known to the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families and its Child Protection Services. The 56-page report put DCYF’s dirty laundry in a full-frontal display of the facts: inadequate staffing, a high rate of turnover, high caseload numbers that exceed national standard, the breakdown of hot-line services, among other findings.

To quote the report: “As of March 1, 2017, every social worker within the Monitoring and Intake Units were carrying caseloads above the national best practice standard. Eight of the nine social workers in the Intake Unit are carrying caseloads equivalent to double the national best practice standard of 12-15 cases and three of the nine workers [were] assigned triple the number of cases than what is recommended. With such demanding caseloads, it is extremely difficult to appropriately assess, monitor and support the needs of the families assigned.”

The new math
The launch event featured opening remarks by Donald J. Farish, president of Roger Williams University, and Ken Wagner, commissioner of the R. I. Department of Education.

Our education system, Farish began, was “designed for the past,” tied to the manufacturing economy that doesn’t exist anymore.

The higher education system was designed more to exclude than include, Farish continued. That changed with the G.I. Bill, which provided thousands of returning soldiers with the opportunity to attend college, with the idea that higher education was a benefit to the individual. “We stopped that opportunity beginning around 1980.”

Wagner followed, with a passionate plea for both better design and more choice.

“If we don’t put design [of our educational system] on the table, we’re [stuck] on a plateau,” Wagner said, referring to the number of adults with just a high school education. “It’s not about jamming the students through the machine; it’s about redesigning the model around the needs of the students.”

Wagner also said that it involved creating more choice in schools for students, in his opinion, voicing support for expansion of charter schools in Rhode Island, even if he didn’t use the word “charter.” Wagner had just come from a speaking engagement at Hasbro, Inc., where he had been challenged about that idea. His response: “Why don’t you design just one toy?”

Amber Caulkins, program director of The Collaborative, then framed the keynote talk by Bror Saxberg, chief learning officer at Kaplan Learning and Innovation, the first in a series of “catalysts” to help Rhode Island build connections between theory and practice, and generate new approaches to education innovation.

The overarching question of the day, asked of the participants, was this: What does a successful learning experience look like in 10 years, in 2027?

Let us now praise famous learning engineers
Saxberg gave his talk, accompanied by a PowerPoint deck of slides, drawn in large part from an article written in 2015 for The Chronicle of Higher Education, talking about the importance of redesigning education employing learning engineers, bringing together education technology and education research, based upon the findings of the Kaplan enterprise.

For those not familiar with Kaplan, its motives, and the for-profit testing organization’s zeal for its emphasis on “Engineering Learning,” here is the way it was described in a recent blog post by Jessie Brown and Martin Kurzeil for Kaplan:

Leaders at Kaplan, Inc., a company serving over a million learners in various programs, believe that a practical corollary to learning science is needed. They call this field “learning engineering.” Analogous to the relationship between mechanical engineering and physical science, or medicine and biological science, Kaplan has sought to develop learning engineering as the systematic application of general principles about how people learn in specific contexts through rigorous testing and refinement.

The blog post continued: Although the learning engineering approach is manifest in each of Kaplan’s divisions, it is most fully realized in Kaplan University, a for-profit, largely online institution that served 38,000 degree and certificate seeking students in 2014-2015. Over the past decade, Kaplan University has developed and refined a course design and assessment process based in measurable learning outcomes. In addition, it has systematized an innovative “Research Pipeline,” through which skilled researchers rigorously test interventions on student learning, study the results, and scale successful interventions. These efforts have contributed to a larger-scale culture change at Kaplan University, with stakeholders across the institution embracing evidence-based methods for designing and improving learning experiences.

Saxberg’s message was that educators needed to redesign future educational systems with the help of learning engineers. Otherwise, it would be like chemical engineers designing new drugs for pharmaceutical companies – a misplaced application of knowledge.

To back up his thesis, he showed a series of research outcomes from the findings by Kaplan, attempting to quantify the best ways that people learn, and the connections between working memory and long-term memory.

Translated, the success in teaching methods on how to improve performance on test-related educational tasks could provide the best way for educators to move forward to redesign education. On slides, it sure sounded good.

When long-term memory kicks in with recent working memory
But, alarm bells were ringing in both ConvergenceRI’s working memory and long-term memory.

What was missing from the conversation was the human equation, focused on the importance of attachment and relationships in the learning process involving children and families – and the damaging dynamics of what photographer Dorothea Lange once called “human erosion.”

How would Adele Diamond, Ph.D., professor of Developmental Cognitive Neurosocience at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, an expert on what she calls the development of executive functions in early childhood learning, respond to Saxberg’s working hypothesis?

In October of 2014, Diamond came to Rhode Island as part of symposium sponsored by Rhode Island Kids Count, The TRI-Lab at the Swearer Center at Brown University, and Ready To Learn Providence. [See link to ConvergenceRI story below.]

Diamond stressed that it was important to bring in relationships, front and center, and the importance of attachments, particularly in dealing with early trauma and stress.

“The word attachment hadn’t been coined when Erik Erikson talked about basic trust,” she said. “But whether you talk about attachment or you talk about basic trust, it’s the cornerstone for everything that comes after.”

Diamond also stressed the importance of bringing parents into the equation as equals in the conversation. “We have to bring the parents into the conversation,” she said. “And when we bring the parents in, we have to remember, the learning goes both ways. They may be poor, but it doesn’t mean that they’re dumb. They may have a lot of wisdom that we can learn from. And we have to treat people with respect, instead of thinking that we’re the experts and you’re the dummies.”

Translated, here was a gathering that focused on the best ways to engineer future learning in Rhode Island, but the parents’ perspective was not, ah, at the table.

Then, there was the pioneering work of Kevin Bath, a neuroscience researcher and an assistant professor in the Department of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences at Brown University, whose findings look at the ways that adverse stress changes neurotrophins – proteins involved in promoting the survival, development and function of neurons.

What Bath and his team of researchers are exploring is how stress accelerated the maturation of the brain on multiple levels. In particular, the work seeks to identify potential biomarkers of adverse stress effects on the brain.

Translated, in attempting to re-engineer education, it would be important to understand how toxic stress can short-circuit learning in children, a topic altogether missing from the discussion.

The diseases of despair vs. redesigning education
Also missing from the conversation was the growing body of work by sociologists looking at what is now called the “diseases of despair,” driven by economic instability, connected to the destruction of America’s middle class through de-industrialization.

How would learning engineers such as Saxberg respond to “The Ghost Bosses,” an investigative story by Brian Alexander in The Atlantic, describing the consequences of a private equity firms buying and selling a glass manufacturer in Lancaster, Ohio, and the resulting economic devastation.

In his story, Alexander cited Shannon Monnat’s work to connect economic instability with the diseases of despair.

“Stability has been replaced by chaos,” Shannon Monnat, a sociologist and demographer at Penn State University who researches the interplay between economics and health, says of such situations. The longer the stress lasts, whether it involves family, community, or work, the more disheartened people become and the more faith they lose in the system, until, finally, they disconnect to survive.

Monnat has recently been studying “diseases of despair” – the plague of opioid addiction, alcoholism, and suicide afflicting places like Lancaster. She’s found that instability at work is strongly correlated with the prevalence of these problems as well as with social and family breakdown. Drug abuse is not solely due to the cheap availability of heroin or meth, nor some imagined weakness of the working class. Monnat believes it’s also caused by people’s loss of faith that they each occupy an important place in the American system.


How does that factor into research around education innovation? How does the documented breakdown of social services delivered by the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families correspond with the diseases of despair? What does it mean to measuring and achieving educational results when some 45 percent of children are born into poverty in Rhode Island?

Pre-programmed working group discussions
The event then broke down into working group discussions coordinated by a team of facilitators.

The facilitator at ConvergenceRI’s table abruptly ended the conversation, urging those sitting at the table to join other conversations. Hmm. [Yes, it was not a full table, and some folks had to leave, but ConvergenceRI wanted to listen to what two educators from CCRI had to say. They had briefly discussed with ConvergenceRI how concern about graduation rates had been misconstrued, because of the constant churn of students.] 

There were five questions asked of the participants. The first was:

If you could change one aspect of students’ educational experience today to better prepare them for the future, what would it be and why?

The second: What knowledge, skills and connections do students need to acquire in order to succeed?

The third: What information should we collect, analyze and disseminate to better understand and/or improve the learning experience?

The fourth: What data/information do you have available to you now that could be used to help others better understand student success?

The fifth: How can innovative approaches to teaching and learning help us to achieve these goals?

Jessica Cigna, research specialist at the Office of Research, Planning & Accountability at the Providence Public School Department, and formerly research and policy director at HousingWorks RI, gave a one-word answer to the first question: “Lead.” [The noun, the metal, not the verb.]

The rest of the participants around the table were stumped by her answer; it didn't seem to fit into the format.

Cigna had to leave to attend another engagement, so ConvergenceRI attempted to explain the connection: recent research results from that lead poisoning of children correlated with under performance of African American students in Providence with third-grade reading levels. To improve third-grading reading levels, the best solution was to remove lead from the environment, in particular from housing.

The facilitator moved the conversation on to cover other questions. Even though The Collaborative recently published a study on the impact of lead poisoning on Hispanics statewide, the suggestion to address lead poisoning as a major factor in improving learning did not resonate, at least in that small group discussion, as a focus of future education innovation.

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