Thursday, August 25, 2016

Alan Watts: Life Is Not a Journey

I've encountered this quoted material from Alan Watts, specifically his lecture Out of Your MInd, multiple times in the last few days in a video featuring the audio from the lecture and cobbled-together clips from Tree of Life. I don't really want to repeat the "borrowing" of the film clips, though Watts's delivery is pretty special. 

You can quibble with his use of "journey," since a journey can conceivably have no point or destination, but this still a beautiful passage, and though it may make me a lazy blogger, it's a passage I want to be able to come back to, so I'm putting it here where I can always find it. I hope you enjoy it as well.

 






































The existence, the physical universe is basically playful. There is no necessity for it whatsoever. It isn’t going anywhere. That is to say, it doesn’t have some destination that it ought to arrive at.

But that it is best understood by the analogy with music. Because music, as an art form is essentially playful. We say, “You play the piano” You don’t work the piano.

Why? Music differs from say, travel. When you travel you are trying to get somewhere. In music, though, one doesn’t make the end of the composition. The point of the composition. If that were so, the best conductors would be those who played fastest. And there would be composers who only wrote finales. People would go to a concert just to hear one crackling chord… Because that’s the end!

Same way with dancing. You don’t aim at a particular spot in the room because that’s where you will arrive. The whole point of the dancing is the dance.

But we don’t see that as something brought by our education into our conduct. We have a system of schooling which gives a completely different impression. It’s all graded and what we do is put the child into the corridor of this grade system with a kind of, “Come on kitty, kitty.” And you go onto kindergarten and that’s a great thing because when you finish that you get into first grade. Then, “Come on” first grade leads to second grade and so on. And then you get out of grade school and you got high school. It’s revving up, the thing is coming, then you’re going to go to college… Then you’ve got graduate school, and when you’re through with graduate school you go out to join the world.

Then you get into some racket where you’re selling insurance. And they’ve got that quota to make, and you’re gonna make that. And all the time that thing is coming – It’s coming, it’s coming, that great thing. The success you’re working for.

Then you wake up one day about 40 years old and you say, “My God, I’ve arrived. I’m there.” And you don’t feel very different from what you’ve always felt.

Look at the people who live to retire; to put those savings away. And then when they’re 65 they don’t have any energy left. They’re more or less impotent. And they go and rot in some, old peoples, senior citizens community. Because we simply cheated ourselves the whole way down the line.

If we thought of life by analogy with a journey, with a pilgrimage, which had a serious purpose at that end, and the thing was to get to that thing at that end. Success, or whatever it is, or maybe heaven after you’re dead.

But we missed the point the whole way along.

It was a musical thing, and you were supposed to sing or to dance while the music was being played.

PA: Open Letter To My Legislators

To Senator Scott Hutchinson and Rep. R. Lee James

Dear Scott and R. Lee:

It is long past time to regulate the cyber charter school industry in Pennsylvania.

Perhaps you saw the news yesterday that Nicholas Trombetta finally pled guilty to federal tax conspiracy charges. Trombetta was the founder of the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School in Beaver County, a business that he used to steal at least $8 million dollars of Pennsylvania taxpayer money and spend it on things like a condo and an airplane as well as finance various real estate deals.

This was done with money that came from taxpayers, but money that was intended for schools. As you both know from your own home districts, many school districts have been hard hit by cyber charter tuition payments, prompting lost programs and closed buildings to help deal with financial struggles. It is adding insult to injury to see that some of those dollars did not go to educate students in another school, but to finance some charter operator's condo.

You may well ask, "Well, isn't it worth some risk if the cyber charters do a good job?" But at this point, we know they don't. A study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University (CREDO), a research group that is generally in favor of education reform, found that cyber charters have an "overwhelmingly negative impact" on student achievement, finding that a year in a cyber charter left math students 180 days-- a full year-- behind their peers.

You may hear from charter advocates and lobbyists (of which there are apparently many in Harrisburg) that any oversight of cyber charters will stifle creativity or business flexibility. But even the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has released a report calling for tighter controls and more accountability for cyber charters. 

The time has long passed for cyber charter accountability. Governor Wolf's recent call for charter accountability is nothing more than a requirement that taxpayer dollars that flow to charters be given the same oversight than the taxpayer dollars that flow to public schools. As a taxpayer, I can walk into my local school district office and demand a look at the budget. What a public school district does with taxpayer dollars is public information. Why should cyber charters not have to similarly account for the use of tax dollars? Tax dollars used by a public school enter a transparent fishbowl, while tax dollars used by cyber charters enter a black box. Why?

The cyber industry has actively fought any kind of accountability. In Ohio, cyber charter operator ECOT is suing the state to keep from having its attendance audited. In Pennsylvania, cyber charters complained when their revenue stream was threatened, but have made no offers for greater transparency or accountability.

The cyber charter industry of Pennsylvania is a financial drag on public schools, and provides no value or accountability for the tax dollars it collects. Oversight is so lax that the industry is ripe for exactly the sort of corruption that we saw acknowledged yesterday-- and that was in a federal, not a state, court.

It is time for Pennsylvania to hold cyber charters at least as accountable as they hold traditional public schools-- and not as part of some bill that gives cyber charters more freedom to grow in exchange for the appearance of accountability. It is time for taxpayers to be able to see what cyber charters do with the money that is taken from local school districts. It is time.

Sincerely,

Peter Greene

Note to any of my PA readers-- you can contact your legislator through this website. If you can't think of what to say, feel free to cut and paste from here.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

13 Deadly Sins of PD

In my neck of the woods, this is the magical week in which teachers go back to balance their time between finishing room preparation and sitting through year-launching professional development sessions. Some sessions can address useful topics, and some are unfortunate choices (my wife's district decided to welcome their teachers back for the year by starting their first day with a session about suicide).



If you have to sit through PD, then you know the drill. But if you are PD presenter, here are the Thirteen  Deadly Sins to avoid:

1) Don't Read Us The Power Point

Frankly, if there's power point at all, I'm not that excited. But if you are just going to read us the power point slides, do us all a favor-- put those slides in an email attachment, send it out, and let us all sit in front of our own computer and read the presentation to ourselves. Seriously-- what is reading it out loud supposed to do for us? You're going to unlock new levels of meaning by the use of your vocal inflections? You want to give us a chance to close our eyes without missing anything? You're one of those edumalpracticioners who not only believes in scripting, but thinks scripting is more effective when your students can see the script you're reading? Or this isn't actually your presentation and you have no idea what the hell you're talking about, so you'll just read what's there and hope that gets you through the hour?

There is no good reason to read power point slides to an audience over the age of five. Stop it. Stop it right now.

2) Don't Wave Around Sort-of-Teacher Credentials

Introducing yourself is a legit good idea, but just be honest. Especially don't try to fake us out by trying to connect with us professionally. Here are honest introductions that we never hear at PD sessions.

I was a classroom teacher up until about five years ago when I decided that I'd rather get into something easier and cushy like textbook repping. I have some vague memory of what teaching was like, but frankly, I scrubbed that out of my brain as soon as I took my first ride in my sweet company car.

I taught for about two years and realized I couldn't hack it, but there I was with an education degree, and what the hell else was I going to do. Thank God there were consulting jobs opening up.

Oh, yeah! I was absolutely a teacher, by which I mean I did two years with Teach for America, trying to make up for all the terrible work you so-called professionals were doing. But that let me put "teacher" on my resume, which gives me the credibility I need to come tell you yahoos how you should be doing things. You're just lucky I'm willing to lower myself to enlighten you slobs.

Look, you're correct in assuming that many of us walked into the room with a chip on our shoulder on which is printed, "Yeah, and why should I listen to you, anyway?" But trying to relate to us based on minimal teaching background, or trying to pretend that you're teacher breathren or sistern when you never really identified with the profession-- well, nobody is fooled.


Particularly nowadays, when everyone who ever looked at a school claiming the mantle of Education Expert, you need a real answer to the question of your qualifications. Nobody walks into a hospital and lectures doctors on how to perform surgery "because I used to play Operation a lot."And when you open up by faking your teacher cred, we have to immediately wonder how much of what you're going to tell us is also baloney.

3) Don't Throw a Party

Are you presenting in a group with some colleagues? Pro tip: a good way to draw us in is not to toss inside jokes back and forth and generally yuk it up as if you are at some party that the rest of us wandered into by mistake. If you have something to say to us, talk to us. If you have something to say to each other, y'all jus6t keep talking while I head back to my classroom.

4) Don't Be Bad Time Managers

Start on time. Every minute we sit there waiting for you to get your act together is a minute we're thinking about all the work we could be getting done if we weren't waiting for you. Oh, and don't wait for us to sit down and promptly look up you expectantly. First of all, we're teachers, and that means that on PD days, we are terrible students (sorry, but there it is). We will give you our attention when you give a clear indication that you intend to do something with it. Don't run overtime unless we're demanding it. And quitting super-early doesn't make you seem cool-- it makes you seem like someone who came unprepared to do the job.

And while I don't need a canned and scripted presentation, do know what the heck you're doing and how long-ish it will take. It is amateur-hour annoying to sit through a presenter whose first 45 minutes are rambly and unfocused and then followed by 15 minutes in which she tries to cover another 45 minutes worth of material. Watch the clock. Know how long your stuff takes. There's no excuse for blowing this-- remember, this is what we do every day, bell to bell. Failing to manage your time in front of a bunch of teachers is like repeatedly dropping your pencil in front of a bunch of jugglers.

5) Don't Present To People Who Aren't There

I get that this is not always your fault, that whoever books you may give you a lousy advance explanation of who, exactly, you're presenting to, so it may not be entirely your fault that you're explaining primary reading techniques to a bunch of high school teachers. (Pro tip-- at in service, elementary teachers, who must usually dress for scrambling around and up and down their room, will dress up, while high school teachers, who must usually dress like Real Grown Ups, will dress down).

6) Don't Treat Us Like Dopes

Oh, boy, do I hate this one. Some presenters are just so proud of their own great stores of smartitude that they assume they are the smartest, most well-informed person in the room. Why, yes, I believe I have heard of Bloom's Taxonomy. Or--oh, my favorite-- "ice breakers" so we can meet the people we've worked with 180 days a year for years.

7) Don't Use The Sucker Question

You're neither my mom nor my boss. Maybe some presenter school told you that a good way to draw your audience in is to ask questions, but when you ask a question just to try to get us to either provide the one right answer you have in mind or to provide an expected wrong answer so that you can have a yeah-but-eureka moment-- well, I don't want to play. If you want to have an honest-to-God discussion, that's just fine. But if you know exactly what you want to say, how about you just go ahead and say it?

8) Don't Throw a Child's Birthday Party

We're educated grown-ups. If the "activities" you've planned for us are appropriate for a child's birthday party or skit night at a summer camp, then they are probably not appropriate here. No wacky fun games. No role playing. No toys.

9) Don't Take a Power Trip

This is really implied by several of the above, but it bears explicit repetition. Many of the worst activities in PD are built around reinforcing a power differential, the notion that the presenter is the Boss and while we're in the session, we are working for her. A PD session can be a great place to track all the hundreds of little ways that a person in that situation can send the message, "I'm in charge here, and you are not."

If you're wondering if you do this or not as a presenter, ask yourself this question-- if you were in a group of peers, equals, in a situation in which you were not the designated "leader," could you sell whatever activity you're attempting simply on its merits.

Oh, and if you are a teacher watching this happen in a PD session, use it as an opportunity to think about how often you do the same thing in your own classroom.

10) Don't Assume We're On Your Team

"Women and their crazy emotional instability, amiright?"

I cannot tell you how many times I've sat in a PD session and heard somebody say something jaw-dropping. Racist, sexist, politically tone deaf-- this is a room filled with a cross section of people, and you would have to be the densest kind of dope to assume that everyone agrees with you that Donald Trump is going to make America great again or that we all think that women are the only people who can (or should) cook a meal or that everyone in the room is a married heterosexual.

11) Don't Play To Your Weaknesses

I know that everyone is taught that you should work some humor into a presentation, but if you are not a funny person, maybe you just, you know, shouldn't. You will do best as your authentic, honest self (and if your authentic self is someone who breaks every rule on this list, then find another line of work). Don't just yell at odd places because someone once told you that you have to get riled up to work an audience.

12) Don't Pass Up a PA

All right, this one may just be me, because I'm the stage crew adviser at my school. Most of the time someone comes to present in out thousand-seat auditorium, they will tell me, "No, never mind the microphone. I don't need one." 99% of the time they are wrong. You are probably not as loud and clear as you think you are, and your audience appreciates not having to lean in and hold their breath to catch what you're pitching. If it's a biggish room and a PA system is available, use it.

13) Don't Refuse Dialogue

If people want to ask questions, answer them. If they're a jerk, answer them anyway-- the rest of us will appreciate your grace. Do not try to shut them down or up. We work with them, not with you. We know them. If they're a jerk, we already know that. If they aren't a jerk, you aren't going to make them look like one on the strength of our 60 minutes of acquaintance with you. When you refuse to give an answer, we have to conclude that you either don't have one or you know we'll hate the answer you have. Better to just answer. Also, see #9. If the point is really dragging on, invite the person to talk afterwards. Definitely do not, as one presenter once did to me, suggest that anyone who asks THAT question probably shouldn't be a teacher.


If you can avoid these deadly sins and also have something useful to say, this might not be too painful for either of us. Otherwise I guess we'll all just grit our teeth and wait for the students to arrive in a few days.



Voting with Their Feet

One feature of "unleashing the power of the free market" in education is supposed to be a sort of regulation by the market's infamous invisible hand. Customers will "vote with their feet," driving the bad actors out of business.



In this country, there will always be an argument to be had about how well this really works. It's one of the dances of freedom and commerce that we have regularly. Is it okay to let Americans vote with their feet for grossly fat and unhealthy processed fast food? And are consumers moving the invisible hand based on their own honest desires, or are these hand-moving consumers themselves being moved by the not-so-invisible hand of marketing? And just how involved should the big fat heavy hand of government be in any of this? These are difficult and complicated questions, and I bring them up only to note that the idea that we just open a free market and the invisible hand sorts out the choices and-- voila!!-- quality!!-- well, that vision is a gross oversimplification and not very much like what actually happens at all.

We can already see the many ways in which the bipedal plebiscite is not working for education.

Exhibit A is the cyber charter industry. Let me first insert the disclaimer that for a small, select group of students, cyber school is an excellent solution. Having said that, the cyber charter industry at large is a huge failure, so huge that even the rest of the charter industry is calling for them to shape up. Cyber charters are a disaster, a waste of student time and taxpayer money. And yet, even though virtually every even-sort-of-responsible-voice in the education field has condemned cybers, the army of foot-voters have not yet put them out of business.

Why not? I can only offer theories based on anecdotal evidence. One is that people are voting with their feet, with cyber students either dropping out or returning to public school, often behind their peers. "I'm always excited to have a former cyber student in my class because I know they will be really on top of the material," said no teacher ever. However, so far, cyber marketing and aggressive recruiting keep new bodies signing up. Schools are made to be a churn and burn market-- you are always losing "customers," so your focus has to be on recruiting.

I think it's also safe to say that a certain amount of the education market is filled with customers who are not so much looking for "a good quality education" as they are looking for "something that allows me to look like I'm meeting the legal requirements for school attendance without having to actually do too much work." For that part of the market, cyber charters are exactly what they are looking for.

As charter fans implicitly agreed in their criticism of cybers, foot-voting alone will not create quality. Some sort of government oversight is required as well.

Exhibit B is in Livermore, California.

Livermore is providing a real, live example of the kind of chaos that ensues with students and their families employ the foot-based voting strategy.

In a move that one news outlet characterizes as pulling out and another characterizes as fleeing, roughly 400 students are exiting Livermore Valley Charter Prep School and Livermore Valley Charter School. The concerns raised include financial mismanagement, which has resulted in issues like unpaid rent and late-if-ever paid staff. But there have been other concerns-- like finding out that the newly-hired principal sympathized with mass shooters (he is now the ex-newly-hired principal). And there may be a criminal investigation into the handling of exchange students who were transferred to a different school against their will.

So this charter operating company has some issues which it may or may not get a handle on. In the meantime, 400 students and their families are flooding back into the system, making demands on public school capacity that it is not prepared to meet. Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District (a district in desperate need of a new name) reportedly received twice as many new students as it was prepared for.

We talk often about how charters duplicate many of the services that are provided by the public schools, creating a double or triple or more system that cannot help but be more expensive.

But what we discuss less often is the need for excess (duplicate) capacity. The only way that the bipedal charter deselection option can be NOT disruptive is for every public system to maintain a seat for every student who might conceivably attend there. In other words, if Chris decides to attend a charter, Chris's public school needs to keep a seat available for Chris, just in case Chris's feet decide to vote against the charter. Otherwise, when and if Chris returns, there's no place for Chris to go.

And sure, if it's just Chris, it's not a big deal. But if it's Chris and 100 close friends, there's a big problem. LVJUSD needs to hire staff, find rooms, get supplies and books.

The public school can't keep Chris's seat warm, because the money to maintain Chris's seat left the district when Chris did. Multiply by a few hundred, and in some districts a fiasco like the Livermore one would require finding an entire other building.

Yes, if you maintain a charter-public hybrid system, you can build in all sorts of robust flexibility, but the thing about robust flexibility is that it costs money. And that brings us back to the Big Lie of charter systems-- that they don't cost a bunch of extra money. To maintain a system in which you operate several separate schools, including a public school that always has enough room for everyone who could conceivably want to attend (because you never know when people may vote with their feet, or a charter might just close) is far more expensive than a single public school system.

Voting with your feet is an expensive luxury, and if we're going to have an honest discussion about that luxury, we should have an honest discussion about the costs as well. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Can We Filter Out Bad Teachers?

Last February, Chad Aldeman and Ashley LiBetti Mitchel, working at Bellwether Partners (a right-tilted reformy-favoring thinky tank) released a report that asked the question "Is it possible to ensure teachers are ready on day one?" and answered that question in the title: "No Guarantees."



Now Aldeman is back with a look at some specific tools for filtering out the chaff, raising the bar, and pre-selecting the best and the brightest. The results fit snugly into the folder of Things Teachers Already Knew and Have Been Trying To Get Someone To Hear For Years, but that's okay-- let's take a look, and the next time you need to discuss this kind of baloney, you'll have some legit-ish research right at your fingertips.

Aldeman lays out the problem in a sassy tone that I have to respect:

First, there’s a lot of interest in “raising the bar” for the teaching profession. It’s not clear what this means exactly, but at root it implies that if we could somehow just recruit better people to become teachers, then “poof!” we’d have better teachers.

So Aldeman first looks at the beloved Praxis exams (and their various descendants). Full disclosure-- I can mock the Praxis exams because I am so old. How old am I? I'm so old that I never had to take the Praxis. But I've watched plenty of student teachers sweat it.

You will be shocked to discover that research shows no super-strong correlation between Praxis results and teacher effectiveness (and as always, I'll note that we aren't really talking about teacher effectiveness at all, but the test results of students assigned to that teacher-- but at the moment I'm playing in the reformster sandbox, so we're stuck with their rules). Looking at a couple of state comparisons (because states can set different "passing" scores for the Praxis), researchers found that on average, teachers who did well on the Praxis generally had higher effectiveness than those who scored poorly on Praxis, but the differences are tiny and the "on average" hides wide ranges of results.

Nor does it make a difference whether we're talking Praxis I or Praxis II.

There are plenty of possible explanations of why the lack of predictive Praxis power, but I think we can go with the obvious. The Praxis measures a math teacher's ability to take a standardized multiple-choice math test, not their ability to teach math. If you want to get your carburetor fixed, you don't give mechanics a multiple-choice test to take-- you find someone who does a good job working on carburetors. If you need a doctor to fix your spleen, you find someone who is known to be good at operating on spleens, not somebody who's good at taking multiple choice tests about spleens.

It's true that at the very bottom, a test may be helpful. Someone who can't get any questions right on the math Praxis probably doesn't know enough math to teach math. But once we get out of the basement, we are trying to find the best apples by seeing which ones make the best orange juice.

Aldeman asks the question-- if a bubble test isn't the right model, then how about something more open-ended. How about, for example, edTPA?

Well, here's a research paper looking at edTPA and math teachers and-- whoopsies-- other than a general overall average trend as we saw with Praxis, edTPA doesn't really tell you anything about the value-added prospects for that proto-teacher (and VAM doesn't tell you anything about anything, but that's the tool the researcher chose). The scatterplot looks like someone sneezed on graph paper.

Aldeman is looking for a policy tool, something that policymakers can impose on the system to filter out more bad teachers. I'd submit that Huge Problem #1 is that we have exactly zero zip zada tools that can assess the effectiveness of teachers in the field. If I can't tell a good apple from a bad apple when they're in front of me, how will I ever tell them apart when they're just buds on the tree?

But even when we use the tools for detecting effectiveness currently preferred by reformsters, Aldeman concludes that there is still no useful policy tool available. States that use Praxis or edTPA to keep some people out of the teaching profession are barring people who would be effective teachers, and admitting other people who aren't so hot. Which makes these tests bad policy tools.

Should we give up? Aldeman says no, but we have to shift "the locus of control should shift from states to districts." Because as Aldeman also notes, "what’s useful for a district may not be actionable in policy, because picking the best option between two possible teachers is a different question than whether those teachers deserve to enter the profession at all." He's absolutely correct. I would add that the best option between two teachers is also a question that has a different answer for each different district.

I also agree with his conclusion--

...states should stop trying to do the impossible in finding the “right” bar to keep people out of the teaching profession.

You cannot standardize teaching, and you cannot standardize the requirements for becoming a teacher. Each local district has to make the best choices its local leaders can make, based on interviews, demonstrations, portfolios, recommendations, all filtered through the professional judgment of the local decision-makers. It is not perfect, but as the saying goes, the only thing worse is every other method. 

Why Are Teachers Burning Out?

It has been half a year since Campbell Brown took over the LA School Report, but the site still occasionally publishes something that's not bunk. Reader Bill Spangler brought this next piece to my attention, and it's worth a look.

"Why Teachers Are Burning Out" is the second in a five-part series about teacher turnover. The first piece in the series looked at how high the LA turnover is and what the costs are, and managed to do so without suggesting that this is actually a good thing or it would be helped by removing tenure. The series is being written by Jane Mayer, a former teacher with both public and charter schools in LA, and Jesse Soza, a former teacher who did a dissertation on origins of teacher dissatisfaction and turnover.

The second entry is actually pretty short and clear and I'm not inclined to argue with it. After surveying some data and experts (including teacher workforce guru Richard Ingersoll), the writers move to a pretty simple statement of the issue:

Could it really be so simple that all teachers need to stay in the classroom is to feel heard, respected and empowered?

Yes.

When there is a workforce that is intelligent, well-educated, compassionate and committed to service, the best way we can honor them is to trust them to do their jobs. Trust them to teach what needs to be taught, trust their experiences in the classroom are valuable sources of information, trust that they are experts at teaching.

While I'm a little puzzled about how Brown ever let this run in her publication, that doesn't change that I would like to offer the authors a small round of applause. Because there in about 80 words is the whole secret of teacher turnover, retention and burnout. Everything else-- decent pay, empowerment, seats at the fabled table, job protections, the end of high stakes testing and government interference-- everything else is just working out the details.

Mayer and Soza note that the current state of education is not based on that respect for and trust in educators, and that top-down reform has made a mess. "As I have heard again and again from teachers around our city and state, our current education system actually keeps them from the being best versions of themselves as educators."

But they also offer an important insight-- top-down reform cannot be cured by more top-down reform. "As much as we want to, we cannot change the system through new legislation, new standards or new protocols." I think they're half-right here-- the system cannot be fixed by top-down reforms, but the top-down crap that is currently choking education can be best removed by the people who created it. We can't remove, for instance, high stakes testing at the grass roots-- we can only create the pressure for the people who installed that system to dismantle it.

But Mayer and Soza argue that individuals, working form the bottom up, can address three major factors in teacher burnout, the "three conditions that undergird the reasons that teachers are leaving our classrooms at a staggering rate." See if any of these sound familiar.

1. Feeling powerless—and that your work is meaningless.

This is particularly brutal for teachers, most of whom entered the field specifically to make a meaningful difference. Feeling powerless, stripped of the ability to make a meaningful difference in student lives because you're too busy implementing programs and reading scripts and giving tests and doing nothing except what you're told to do-- that is miles away from what most teachers signed up for. The message for school leaders is simple-- if you want to keep teachers, give them power.

That's a tricky one, because some administrators aren't feeling very powerful themselves. And administrators often have trouble actually handing over power, preferring to just lend it, or demanding that the power be used only in the ways they choose (which is, of course, not giving up power at all). In his Cage Busting Teacher book, Rick Hess argues, sort of, that teachers can take power, kind of, as long as they're polite and proper about it. Personally, I've long argued that teaching has become a kind of guerrilla warfare, but that kind of rebelliousness is hard to come by for teachers, who are often inclined to be proper rules followers.

The attacks on education (from people like, ironically, Campbell Brown) are not just corrosive because they attack the profession as human beings and professionals, but because they attack it specifically by justifying the disempowerment of educators. The refrain throughout modern reform has been "teachers are terrible" but the unspoken second half of that sentence is "and that's why they should have no say in what happens next." 

2. Feeling like the norms on the campus are overwhelming and ineffective.

Many teachers feel suffocated by the teaching profession because of the intrusiveness of curriculum, district and federal mandates, behavior management systems, state testing and a constant re-vamping of all of the above. Very few of these “norms” are ever generated by the adults on school campuses, and that disconnect creates a sense of disempowerment. 

In other words, this is really just another flavor of the powerlessness issue. The rules, both official and unofficial, are not very helpful for the business of educating children. In some cases, they actually work against educating children (looking at you, Big Standardized Test). But teachers don't get to sit at the table where these decisions are made. They just have to live with them.

3. Feeling isolated.

When you have no power in the system, no say in what happens, you disengage. And when you disengage, you become isolated. Personally, I'm an introvert with a capital INT, so isolation is not hard to lean into-- but if you lose the connection and community in a school building, it gets even harder to get things done and to have any sort of power at all. Your local union may or may not be the answer, but teachers need some kind of authentic community, and they have to make the effort to create and maintain it.

The series promises to investigate each of these three factors in its upcoming segments. I'm looking forward to seeing exactly what they have to say, because fighting teacher burnout and dropout is becoming one of the big issues of education, and we're not always inclined to talk about it because it feels selfish. But if the hemorrhaging of teachers from the profession is going to end, we have to talk about this stuff.

Let The Vergara Whining Begin

Vergara is dead (probably, mostly).

The California lawsuit brought by gabillionaire anti-union, pro-charter reformsters has finally had a well-deserved stake driven through its non-existent heart.

When the appeals court shot it down, the determined that while one might imagine that in some imaginary alternative universe without tenure laws, students might get better teachers,  

the statutes do not address the assignment of teachers; instead, administrators—not the statutes—ultimately determine where teachers within a district are assigned to teach. Critically, plaintiffs failed to show that the statutes themselves make any certain group of students more likely to be taught by ineffective teachers than any other group of students.

The petition to have the appeal heard at a higher level court has been denied.

There are interesting points to be found in the decision and the dissents. For instance, one dissenting judge argues that while some classes of students are getting a churning mess of less-than-awesome teachers, that doesn't appear to have anything to do with tenure, but is instead "because they were enrolled in a distressed school district."

A conservative observed way back when Vergara was first decided that this case could turn out to be a tactical error (I don't remember which one-- sorry, writer for whom I'm not giving full credit for prescience) because Vergara underlines the state's obligation to provide decent schools under "equal protection." And reading this decision, I am struck that the case-- even in the dissents-- could end up saying, "No, you can't sue the state for having a tenure law, but you could probably sue it for underfunding poorer school districts." In which case the whole business could boomerang back in the faces of the folks who were hoping to use Vergara to weaken public education.

But mostly the folks who were banking on an eventual upholding of Vergara are sad.

Take, for instance, Jeanne Allen. Allen is the founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform, an organization that has been yipping regularly for the crushing of teacher unions and the sweeping aside of public education in favor of charter schools. I'm on CER's emailing list, and their response to Vergara's death was swift and senseless. Here's the whole thing, minus the press releasy opening graph:
"At a time when innovation and opportunity are so desperately needed in education, it’s astounding to think that hiring and firing decisions are based on artificial parameters such as how many years an educator has been in the classroom. It’s a huge disservice to kids. Our schools need the freedom to staff their institutions appropriately to meet students’ ever-changing needs.
"The California Supreme Court has inserted legal rights that otherwise do not exist. In doing so, they relegate too many children badly in need of a great education to ineffective schools and ignore the science that a great teacher can make a difference in the life of a child.
"Tenure discourages great teachers by protecting those who might not be able to keep their job if they had to prove their success. This decision is bad for aspiring teachers and bad for kids."
Yes, being able to hire and fire teachers at will would totally drive innovation because... reasons? It's the Dread Pirate Roberts School of Management ("I'll probably kill you today.") But then, Allen also assumes that hiring and firing are only based on years of experience-- wait-- hiring is based on years in the classroom??!! In fact, firing is pretty much always on turning out to be bad at teaching. Now, maybe she means layoffs based on years of experience, but as we see in places like Chicago, that's not even true everywhere. At any rate, we know that the traditional system promotes stability and protects the district's investment in teaching staff. 

Second paragraph? Well, that of course is what Vergara failed to do-- that tenure (I know, I know-- we should be saying "due process protections" but "tenure" is what most civilians think this is about) has anything to do with maintaining quality education. And while nobody would argue that good teaching is good for children, the "science" presented at the trial was bunk.

Allen would also like to reassert the notion that aspiring teachers would be more interested in teaching if they knew that they would never have job security and could be fired at any time for any reason. Because that's what really gets people interested in devoting their lives to a line of work.

Oh, and I almost forgot-- the heading for this whole thing "Sad Day for Teachers' Rights in California." Because, you know, at the end of the day, Vergara was about protecting a teacher's right to be fired at any time for any reason.

I could point Allen to research like Eunice Han's paper showing that a strong collective bargaining actually increases the likelihood that "bad teachers" will be fired, but Allen doesn't really care about public schools, teachers, or the students who attend public schools-- she's just to rip down public ed and push profitable charters. If she did care about anything except charter growth, she would be questioning things like the chronic underfunding of some schools, or asking how better to hold onto great teachers and get their best work out of them (spoiler alert: you don't do it by threatening to fire anyone at any time for any reason).

I don't want to spend a lot of time doing a happy dance about Vergara's ultimate fate, but the whole business is a reminder that in the public ed debates, there are reformsters who are thoughtful critics who reach some terribly wrong conclusions with reasonably good intentions. Then there are people like the bankrollers of Vergara and Allen, who are just vandals who want to tear down teaching and public education  so they can gain some power, make a buck, and never have to listen to anyone disagree with them ever again. Vergara was a bullshit lawsuit with no real purpose except to shut up and shut down teachers, further weakening public schools in California. Its defenders were increasingly driven to rhetorical ploys that defied all logic and sense and actual facts.

There's no doubt that they'll find new outlets for their nonsense (Allen has been peddling her baloney-laden wares on Twitter to support Massachusetts' Let's Make More Charter Operators Rich bill), but at least, once the last few tantrums are over, we won't have to listen to any more Vergara-based foolishness. All the parties who were oh so interested in Vergara could stick around to have a real discussion about how to actually strengthen public education in California. Go ahead and place your bets now on how many will actually do so-- or whether we're just going to be treated to more shenanigans to try to get to the federal level.