Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Best-Laid Plans of Grown-Ups

This after noon we took the grandsons to a playground. It's a lovely playground, one of many, many lovely playgrounds available in Seattle. Here's a look at just some of the cool playground stuff available there.

And here is how my oldest grandson spent a good chunk of his time.

It's a well-flogged truism that children will throw away the toy and play with the box, that they will reject the finest plastic construction that the toy industry can muster in order to play with ordinary household objects. I suppose that somebody could have forced my grandson to drop the stick and play "properly" but why, unless they were intent on imposing adult will and plans on a child. "I planned on you playing on that jungle gym over there. Now put down that stick and go have fun, dammit, or else."

The bottom line is that children have instincts and interests and involvement of their own. Adults can go nuts trying to direct that, and they can twist children's brains up by hammering them withy messages about what they are "supposed" to do. 

It is certainly true that there is room for adult direction and guidance. My grandson played with some of the equipment and played with his father, who did not try to tell my grandson what to do, but joined wholeheartedly in helping my grandson tap into his transcendent joy over swinging.

But if you go to the playground armed with an adult agenda that allows no room for the voice of the children, you are on the wrong path. The damage is evident by the time students land in my eleventh grade classroom and have trouble writing well because they are more concerned about what they are supposed to write-- what they are supposed to do to meet the requirements of the grown-ups' agenda-- instead of tying to get in touch withy what they actually think.

It is easy as parents or teachers to get caught up in the desire to see the tiny humans make the safest, wisest, best decisions. But that process has to include their own voice, their own aims, their own intentions and inclinations. That's not just how you honor their existent as thinking, feeling, sentient, individual human beings-- it's how you create future entrepreneurs, leaders, creators, makers, employees, employers, and people who are not inclined to elect raging tyrants out of desire to have "strong" leaders who will tell them just what they are supposed to do.

Yes, the world needs a certain amount of order and sense, and I am not advocating unleashing wild anarchic chaos on the universe (not today, anyway). But attempting to impose adult best-laid plans on every minute of children's lives is both evil and foolish. Evil, because every human's voice is a precious thing no matter how young. Foolish because-- well, I will give my grandson the last word with his ideas about how to use carrot slices.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Nobel-Winning Evaluation Advice

Sometimes it takes a Nobel Prize-winning economist to confirm what many of us in education have been saying for years-- reformsters are doing teacher and school evaluation all wrong.

The writer pointing this out if Derek Neal (University of Chicago), over at Education Next of all places, The prize-winner he's talking about is Bengt Holmstrom, a Finnish economist at MIT.

This guy has more Nobel Prizes than you

Holmstrom has done pretty much no work on education. What he has done is work with contract theory, particularly with contracted with incentives in areas "where worker actions are hard to observe and worker output is difficult to quantify." So, totally education.

Neal focuses on two major elements of Holmstrom's work, providing two insights into how an incentive pay system can go wrong.

1) Good incentive systems use all the data that provides more clarity and detail about employee performance. So, not just some sliver of data, and not data that doesn't really improve the picture of job performance.

2) There must be alignment between the performance task and the actual desired task.

Both which tell us that the test-based evaluation that has been favored since NCLB was a pup is seriously off the mark.

So, if out of the full range of teacher behaviors, you collect only data about how students do on a narrow reading-and-math test (which is also measures a mess of data unrelated to teacher performance), you cannot build a good incentive system on that data.

And if, for instance, you are not measuring how well students read, but rather how well they answer multiple-choice questions, your data is not suitable for creating performance incentives.

Basically, Holmstrom provides a fancy explanation of why Campbell's Law is a thing and how it works. When you measure the wrong thing and/or measure the right thing incompletely, you incentivize the wrong behavior, and you get lousy results.

Holmstrom also notes that in some settings, collecting enough of the right data can be really prohibitively expensive. So what to do instead?

In these settings, the best approach may be to adopt hiring procedures that identify workers who will perform well in order to satisfy their own personal norms and the norms espoused by the organization, and then pay these workers a fixed salary.

What?? Hire competent, self-directed people with solid training and then just pay them well?! That's crazy talk, you Nobel-winning loon.

Neal also notes that reformsters are more focused on doing evaluation than on doing it correctly, but that the data from the past decade or three shows the systems put in place are not working so well.

Many voices in current education policy debates are advocating an end to all forms of assessment-based incentives. These reactions are understandable given the evidence gathered over the last two decades or more, but we do not yet know how educators would respond to well-designed incentive schemes that incorporate the theoretical insights of Holmstrom and others, as well as the empirical insights produced by decades of research on the use of incentive systems in schools, government agencies, and businesses. We do know that, if policymakers continue to ignore these insights, those who oppose all forms of assessment-based incentives will continue to gather evidence that lends support to their cause.

It's not rocket surgery. If policymakers continue to design incentive systems based on measuring the wrong things badly, on measuring based on tasks that are not aligned withy the results we actually want, then these systems will continue to stink.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Breaking News: PA Professsors Announce Strike's End

Per the union  website. No comments from me yet, just news.

Oct. 21, 2016
For more information, contact:
Kathryn Morton, or 717-236-7486
The strike is over.
Faculty negotiators have reached a tentative agreement with Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education. The three-year deal, ending in June 30, 2018, concludes a strike that began 5 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 19. Faculty members will leave the picket lines immediately.
To preserve quality education, the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties accepted concessions to salary and benefits in exchange for eliminating most of the 249 changes the State System proposed in June. Also for the sake of students, APSCUF agreed to a salary package that was significantly lower than that of the other unions. APSCUF will release details about concessions and rescinded items in a future statement.
Our primary goals were to preserve quality education for our students, protect our adjuncts from exploitation, and make sure the varieties of faculty work are respected," APSCUF President Dr. Kenneth M. Mash said. “We achieved every single one of those goals, and the faculty were willing to take less than every other bargaining unit in order to preserve those goals. We are relieved to have an agreement that preserves quality public higher education in Pennsylvania and allows our members to get back into the classroom where they belong.

“We are thankful to Gov. Tom Wolf for his commitment to reaching an agreement. We may never have received a deal if it were not for his committment to public higher education, our universities, and our students."

APSCUF Vice President Jamie Martin thanked others who were pivotal in the process.

“We are especially grateful to Majority Leader Dave Reed, Rep. Mike Hanna, Sen. Judy Schwank, Sen. Jay Costa, Sen. Vince Hughes, the leadership of all four caucuses, and other members of the legislature,” Martin said.

Mash continued: "We also were overwhelmed and grateful for the support of our brothers and sisters at other unions. Most of all, we thank our students. If any high school student is looking for a place to go to school, they should look at how much all our students supported their faculty. We have phenomenal students, and we are proud to be able to return to the classroom to supply the quality of public higher education they deserve.”

This was the first strike in APSCUF's history. The faculty contract expired June 30, 2015, and negotiations have been ongoing since late 2014.
APSCUF represents about 5,500 faculty and coaches at the State System universities: Bloomsburg, California, Cheyney, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Indiana, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Millersville, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock, and West Chester Universities of Pennsylvania.

PA: Bad Charter Bill Still Not Dead

Like that bad enchilada that you just can't keep down, Pennsylvania's HB 530 just keeps coming back. In fact, it appears it will be back this Monday.

I wrote about this damn thing last summer, and it has ben kicking around since early 2015. The bill was floated by Mike Reese, who was actually trained to be a history teacher before landing in admissions offices on the college level. Nevertheless, his bill is a terrible bill for public education in Pennsylvania. He states that his bill has two goals:

1) Save taxpayers money by changing the cyber funding system

2) Improve school choice.

Those are unimpressive goals, both disconnected from an desire to maintain strong public schools, and certainly not addressing issues with "the worst charter law in the country."

It's worth noting that the bill is not fully beloved by players in the charter business. Back in 2015 the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public [sic] Charter Schools complained about three aspects of the bill. In PA, cyber schools receive 100% of the per capita costs for students in the sending school regardless of the cyber's actual costs, making the profitability of PA cyber schools somewhere up there with "selling crack" and "printing your own money." HB 530 says that sending schools can exempt the per capita costs of running a cafeteria (after all, cyber schools do not provide lunch), but the charter folks still find the deduction unfair. The bill also allows deductions for previous years cyber costs, and while this will only be a thing for two years, the charter folks are afraid it will cost them too much money. Also, charters want to throw in a request to be paid for their buildings and facilities and financing. That is of course in keeping with the general charter business philosophy of privatizing the profits while sticking the public with all the costs and risks.

But those are the things charteristas don't like about the bill. There's a much longer list of things they like very much, thank you.

* Representation. The bill gives charter r4eps two more seats on the charter appeals board. It also creates a funding commission to look at charters, and gives charter reps a quarter of the seats on that board-- the same number as reps of public schools. That seems totally proportional, right?

* Real estate. Charters get first dibs on any school property that is vacated. Even if the local taxpayers who actually own the buildings have other ideas. And just how good a negotiation for price do you have when one side gets to open with "You have to sell this to me."

* Direct payment system, so that public systems don't get their hands on the money that will be sent to cyber charters-- and public schools get a narrower window in which to question the numbers behind the charter payments. This means that elected representatives of local taxpayers will never even see the money, and it makes roughly as much sense as paying your contractor in full before he even starts working on your house.

This direct payment idea may have something to do with the last budget fiasco, during which charters didn't get paid because public schools were barely getting a fraction of their state aid. If 530 were law, it would presumably rescue charters at the (further) expense of public schools the next time our legislators can't do their jobs.

* Faux accountability. The state will develop a one-size-fits-all evaluation rubric for charters. And charter reps will help develop it. And authorizers will not be able to deny charter renewal on the basis of anything except those rubrics. Does this sound like actual accountability?

* Nepotism and felonies. The law explicitly rules these out; you can't have a conflict of interest and run a charter, nor can you continue to run a charter if convicted of a felony. Because that's how bad things are in PA-- bad enough that we have to write these things into new laws.

* Mergers and expansions. The law makes it easy for existing charters to do both. As always, the taxpayers funding the business get zero say.

The point, once again, is to give charters a little more help in pushing aside the public system, the voters, the taxpayers, and other folks who aren't actually busy making money in the charter business. There's more -- much more -- verbage to plough through, but if you're in Pennsylvania, this is not a bill you want to see happen. It continues the draining of public resources for private businesses and disempowers the voters of the state, while continuing to free charter schools from the kind of accountability that public schools face. Word is that this bill is about to be considered again; it would be a good time to contact your rep and say no.

If you want a quick and easy way to do it, use this link from the Network for Public Education.

PA: Professor strike update

As is typical in the early stages of these things, the main news being reported from the third day of the Pennsylvania strike by college and university faculty is that this is the third day of the strike by college and university faculty. I have heard numerous reports of students joining faculty on the picket line and attempts by schools to keep students going to classes-- even if nobody is teaching them. Opponents of the faculty are trying to paint the strike as greedy teachers and evil unions, but the actual issue are far more fundamental than who gets paid what.

There is also the intriguing question of what, if anything, Governor Tom Wolf is up to. Prior to the strike he had some even-handed words of encouragement for both sides (Go fix this), but there's been nothing much form him since the strike broke.

However, regular reader Seth Kahn is a co-chair of the strike committee at West Chester University, and he had this to say in the comments section of my previous post about the strike:

As far as we're concerned, the most problematic proposals left on the table are these--

1. While they've withdrawn (under pressure from us, by the way) the crassest proposals about how to exploit adjunct faculty even worse, there's still one that would lower the pay scale for part-timers. The idea is to split even the ranks of the non-tenure-track faculty into full-time and part-time. No.

2. Their claims about the health care proposal (that we won't accept what everybody else has) is literal BS (not Big Standardized--the other kind). The state system *imposed the package* on their managers (who obviously don't collectively bargain because they're managers) and now are blaming us for not voluntarily accepting a package NOBODY HAS VOLUNTARILY ACCEPTED.

3. The salary proposal has been obvious since AFSCME settled a year or more ago (the system engages in pattern bargaining, so once AFSCME settles we always know what's coming). But now, the system is trying to pretend like what was always obvious is somehow super-ultra-generous, and that we're jerks for not giving them everything else they want in return.

There's no question whether Frank Brogan is trying to build a system or break a union. He doesn't give a flip about this system or the people in it. He wants a union-busting line on his resume.

There are numerous rumors out there that backchannel attempts to reach an agreement are going on, but on the record, few facts to report. Let's hope this gets settled soon.

My Visit To Preschool

I'm in Seattle for almost a week, visiting my daughter, her husband, their newborn son, and their almost two-year-old son. This provides all manner of entertainment (you'll notice blogging has run a little slow), but today it provided an opportunity for me to be a visiting grampa (actually, my grandparental name is "Gump") at my grandson's pre-school class.

Like many education observers, I have an increased interest in pre-K because policy-makers and the Big Money Crowd are interested in pre-K these days. And while there are many good things to be said about pre-school programs, they remind me of what my high school band director said about playing clarinet-- it's easy to do, but really hard to do well.

This guy

I have read a little bit about Seattle's co-operative pre-schools before (check out Teacher Tom's blog over in the bloglist to the right). There's a big, semi-painful network of co-ops, coordinated by levels of boards, run out of colleges and other civic groups. Co-ops are big in Seattle. It's a complex system that is still evolving (still reportedly working on consistency in teacher pay). But I'm still curious-- how exactly do you run a pre-school for children under two? And what would Department of Education officials require to prove that the program was high quality?

My grandson's pre-school is on the campus of North Seattle Community College, in a large rambling building that looks like it would have made a good set for a bad seventies sf movie, but is still clean and pretty and, on this particular morning, glistening with steadily falling Seattle dew. It's a co-op , and this particular class includes children between one and two years old.

The two-hour session starts with a half hour of open play in the outside playground area (this is Seattle so the play area is under an overhang so that it's still usable even if the dew is falling heavily).  Then there is circle time, in which the children and their parents (every child comes equipped with a parental unit) sit on the carpet in a circle-like format and Teacher Kari (who plays a mean autoharp) leads some songs. There's snack time, then play station time (not PlayStation time), then cleaning up time, then circle again, and then goodbyes.

You could call it loosely structured. The parents sang the songs and modeled the actions and at any given moment, some of the children were following along and some... not so much. But the whole atmosphere was relaxed and nobody pushed the children to stay "on task." The play stations were completely self-chosen, and parents monitored, but did not direct the activity. During the stations, parents also rotate in and out of parent education sessions.

Teacher Kari delivered pretty much everything in song. There was a greeting song and a picking up song and a goodbye song. The circle songs used lots of props, like blackbirds on a stick and scarves and a parachute.

Was there academic content? Well, some of the songs used some numbers and body parts (make the blackbirds dance on your shoulders). But any attempt to measure the "outcomes" would be a fool's errand; today one boy is having trouble separating from his mom and another just wants someone to read him a book. How do you propose to measure that?

Was there non-cognitive skill content? Did I mention the age? They show some social behaviors, but mostly managing to play in the same space as another tiny human is a win. They interact well with the other parents (my son-in-law is the most popular kid in class).

So was this more than just a loosely organized play date? Absolutely. Could any reasonable human actually assess any of this? And the very idea that you would try to would be a clear signal that your pre-school does not have its heart in the right place. And before you tell me that nobody in their right mind would try to do assessment of two-year-olds, I'll remind you that only a few years ago nobody would have seriously suggested testing five-year-olds.

So it's nice to know that somewhere in the world-- especially in the part of the world where my grandson lives-- people still know how to do pre-K right. I can only hope that as the US Department of Education inserts itself into the world of pre-K, they manage to visit that world.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

John King's Civics Lesson

The e-mail from the charter-shilling group Center for Education Reform announced breathlessly that John King "joined the chorus of education leaders, elected officials and respected members of the African-American community in criticizing by the NAACP‘s decision to demand moratoriums on charter schools."

He didn't. He spoke in front of the National Press Club at a luncheon this week, said many things about civic education, and answered some questions, one of which may be my absolute favorite question asked of a federal official ever-- but we'll get to that along with some other things he did. But King did not go after the NAACP.

The full text is twenty pages long, and I've read it, but nobody really needs to. But I am going to compress severely.

Jeff Ballou gives King an introduction that mentions his " emphasis on making sure all students are receiving the same level of education, regardless of race or zip code," and notes that he is today returning to "his roots as a social studies teacher" and I am reminded that as abused as the mantle of "Teacher" has become, lots of people sure do want to claim it based on the thinnest of experience (like say, teaching for just a year or two in a selective private charter school.

As always, King opens by invoking tales of Mr. Osterweiler, the gifted teacher who changed King's life and who would never be allowed to do half of what King credits him with doing in  today's climate. It remains the central irony of King's career that it rests on such a powerful story of powerful teaching, and yet King cannot or will not see how the policies he pursues guarantee that the Osterweilers of the world will be stifled, straightjacketed, and pushed out of teaching.

But on to his point.

Civic education is a big deal. King leads with some history of civic issues like voting and an appeal to the importance of knowing that history, but says there are more important things like "being willing to think beyond our own needs and wants and to embrace our obligations to the greater good." Yeah, don't wait for me to say something snarky about that, because he's correct.

Next some scare stats about Kids These Days and how they don't know their Constitution or Joe Biden and Schoolhouse Rock explanations of how a bill becomes a law (and that's before we even get to stuff like "How a federal agency uses its enforcement powers to rewrite or circumvent laws it disagrees with."

So King wants teachers to cover civic duty-- and he wants teachers to do it in a non-partisan manner. And it tells us something about King that he says the civic engagement is not a GOP or Democratic Party issue, as if the two parties do not cover (and also fail to cover) a wide range of philosophies and ideologies that create a fairly wide and complex tapestry on which American citizenship plays out. It's the view of someone who is looking at the political gamesmanship of DC and not the actual ideas and understanding that drives the worldviews behind policy positions.

But Kin knows these conversations could be "uncomfortable," so he calls for "support and training" for teachers because heaven forbid we teachers try to talk about Hard Things.

Then we're on to specific examples, including some student service groups and the James Madison Memorial Fellowship Foundation, because there's nothing political about that. And he talks about the new Museum of African American History and Culture. And he works his way around to an absolutely strong and even moving argument in favor of civic knowledge and civic skill, that wraps up here:

 Whether it’s K-12 education or higher education, we have to see it as preparing students, yes for college and careers, and yes for civic participation, for citizenship, for caring about the common good and contributing to the common good. 

It's a nice speech, almost nice enough to sail past the fact that it is Duncan and King's Department of Education that has pushed college and career readiness (defined as "good score on a math and reading test) to the point of pushing out exactly the kind of civics education that he I arguing for. One of the amazing features of the USED is that they seem to be completely oblivious to the effect ts of their own policy decisions.

But now, for the Q & A session.

The event took questions from twitter. It's in the Q & A session that King generated some of the press that has come out of this event. Let's take a quick look. I'll paraphrase:

Ballou: You just said a lot of really pretty words. How do you actually do any of that stuff?

King: Short answer-- no idea. Long answer-- Some grant money that could be used for civics. Schools should decide to just do it, despite the fact that all of my department's policies are dedicated to pushing them in other directions. Third, "lift up" teachers by "empowering" them to lead. Somehow.

Ballou: Do you think Trump has made bullying worse among kids?

King: "I can't comment specifically on the 2016 election" because reasons? Because I want to be the only person in the country who hasn't? Because I want to keep employment options open? Seriously, I can't think of a single reason he couldn't. But he goes on to say that bullying is bad, and bullying of immigrant children is really bad. And as this point is developed he ties in the issue of police brutality and relations between citizens and law enforcement.

Ballou: Are we getting higher graduation rates by producing less capable graduates?

King: "Yeah, we worry a lot about that." Yup. When you use some simple data point as a measure of complex stuff, you get baloney data. People keep trying to tell me that, but I don't listen. Let me toss in the old argument about college remedial classes, because that's another simple measure of complicated stuff that could be affected by all sorts of other factors. Don't care. I'm going keep acting as if this is a simple issue and that everything bad is the local district's fault.

Ballou: You need money for a lot of this stuff, but at the same time, you keep pissing Congress off. Could that be a problem?

King: Let me rattle off the history of education law, pointing out that it has always been about civil rights. Therefor, I feel comfortable interpreting ESSA in terms of what history intended, and not what the Congress that passed it actually wrote.

Ballou: Should somebody do something about poverty?

King: School. Education. Pre-K. I will continue to ignore research that says family SES trumps education most days.

Ballou: Speaking of which, can you get Pre-K support from that Congress that you annoy.

King: I will crush them with the wait of my academic, theoretical economics argument. I learned in New York that you don't have to actually work with people to achieve policy goals. At least, I think that was the lesson.

Ballou: Prion education?

King: We're putting back education funding for incarcerated learners.

Ballou: What about Common Core, called a "punishment-driven shotgun approach" by some critics?

King: The usual baloney about standards adopted by states, gosh, feds got nuthin' to do with it; state developed, state chosen. Does anyone anywhere actually still believe this?

Ballou: The charter question. It's pretty meaty. How do you fix authorization so that you don't have suckfests like Michigan. How do you reconcile your own public school salvation story with the charter tendency to drain resources from public schools. Do you agree with the NAACP's criticism of charters, and if so, will you stop throwing federal money at new charters?

King: Charters are magical education factories and we should let them grow without limit. Bad authorizers are a problem, but they are the states' problems, not ours. We shouldn't have arbitrary caps because "we shouldn't limit kids' access to great opportunities." Which is pretty talk, but if a charter only gives access to 1% of the students in a city, while reducing the opportunities available to the 0ther 99% by reducing the resources available to them, charters aren't really helping, are they?

So King in spirit disagrees with the NAACP-- but he didn't come right out and say so, and never actually referred to their resolution in his answer.

Next up:Okay, this is an absolutely awesome question that came in via internet, as many teachers were apparently chiming in. Here's the actual transcript:

 One teacher says, “I worked 12 hours yesterday, I didn't have time for lunch. Did you have time for lunch? I make $47,000 a year. How much do you make,” which of course is public record. “I can't go to the bathroom when I need to. Can you go to the bathroom when you need to? And please don't talk about how great teachers are. We don't need empty rhetoric. We need resources, we need policies that actually help us teach, not help profiteers.”

King: Let me offer some empty rhetoric.

Ballou: Your IT got in big trouble. Have you sorted all that out?

King: Totally. Our IT is now awesome. It is the best IT in the world. Our IT is nothing but winners. We IT so well that everyone else is just losers.

Then King answers some questions about himself, gets a ceremonial mug and heads on his way.