Saturday, December 3, 2016

Smarick: How It Could All Go Wrong

Regular readers know that Andy Smarick is on my short list of folks from The Other Side whose writing I generally respect. Smarick is often a thoughtful voice for what I think of as "old school conservatives" or "traditional conservatives" or even "real conservatives." And he's comfortable with nuance. None of which is to say that I don't totally disagree with him on many subjects. But he makes an interesting read.

Case in point. In a recent piece for American Enterprise Institute (Smarick, while nominally associated most with Bellwether Partners, floats freely in the Bellwether-Fordham-AEI nexus), Smarick lays out exactly how the Trump administration could go into weeds on education policy.

He starts by asking "the most important question"--

Are you hoping to advance particular programs or a steady, coherent conservative philosophy?

He considers it an important question in general, and specifically important since the Trumpsters have never articulated a coherent philosophy about anything, conservative or otherwise.

Smarick observes that just going item-by-item can be appealing. It makes news and generates a list of see-how-much-I-love-kids accomplishments. But Smarick sees two problems here:

The first, smaller issue is that education is always highly susceptible to the fad of the week (exactly why the initial response of many seasoned teachers to Common Core was "this too shall pass") or even a whole bunch of fads that don't even fit together (like, say, Common Core Standards and Big Standardized Tests that aren't even aligned to them).

The second issue is the biggie.

An explicit, comprehensive philosophy of governing is extraordinarily important any time we invite Uncle Sam into our schools. That is, absent a clearly articulated view about the federal government’s strengths and weakness, what it should and shouldn’t do, and how it ought to interact with families, schools, districts, and states, an administration is asking for trouble.

The trouble Smarick is talking about is Creeping Federal Overreach. You may think you're going to be a good old small-government, local-control conservative, but once you're in that beautiful DC office and the reins of power are in your hand, the temptation becomes just too great to start making some rules to force Those People to Behave The Way They're Supposed To (e.g. Bush II and No Child Left Behind).

When people are given authority, if they lack a conservative disposition or ideology and aren’t given conservative direction from above, they have a tendency to want to bend the world to their will. This is their big chance to direct others’ behavior, and so they can easily succumb to the temptation to use their fleeting power to its fullest. 

In other words, let's say that the Department of Education is in the hands of a person with a long career of trying to force a new system of education, even (in defiance of the Constitution) working toward the goal of replacing a secular public school system with a Christian system of education. We've had folks who believed that the federal government should throw its weight behind telling schools what to teach, how to measure success, and how schools should be punished for failing. What if we had someone who not only believed all that, but also believed the federal government should throw its weight behind deciding who should or should not get to even run schools, and was even more willing than previous administrations to make the federal government a main player in picking (and rewarding and punishing) winners and losers in the education sphere. Let's say we had that person as Secretary of Education, working for a President with no coherent political philosophy at all.

That would be bad.

Unmoored from conservative principles, they can decide to use the federal government’s substantial power — its bully pulpit, budget, regulatory power, guidance documents — to force policies they like. They can end up as bossy about their preferences as progressives would be about their own. It is instructive that while the Obama administration sought to nationalize its policies on teacher evaluation, standards, and assessments, the Bush administration attempted to do the same on accountability. When an ascendant team doesn’t govern deductively from conservative principles the upshot is predictable: local-led gives way to federal; organic gives way to centrally planned; small gives way to large; longstanding practice and incremental improvements give way to novel ideas and grand schemes.

Smarick goes on to soft-peddle his point. He says the path of the Trump administration is "not yet clear" and I believe that is true if you have vaseline smeared over your eyeballs and your head in a bucket. We have moved now from a conservative-ish neo-liberal President to a liberal-ish neo-liberal President to a corporate narcissist six-year-old's id graceless and clumsy neo-liberal President. Put another way, the weapons of federal over-reach are not going to be put away any time soon; they'll just be pointed at different stuff. We're all still trapped in a dark alley with a self-important mugger; all that is changing is who gets mugged first.

Smarick imagines a world in which Trumps $20 billion choice plan actually works out well, even for progressives. But of course the devil is in the details, and the number of details to date is exactly zero, and given the story so far, I'm expecting that those details are going to carry the devil in on a big comfy chair. Than there's this--

By choosing the talented Betsy DeVos as his nominee to be Secretary of Education, President-elect Trump might have intimated a policy-by-conservative-principles approach. 

Sure. Also, the DeVos choice might intimate that pigs are about to fly out of my butt.

DeVos has devoted most of her adult life and huge chunks of her personal fortune to getting government to support and implement the policies that she wants to see implemented, not just in her own neighborhood and her own state, but in other neighborhoods and states around the country. When she is the department chief and actually has the power that, for decades, she has been trying to buy and cajole, do you think she's going to just let it sit unused?

Here's a conversation that is never going to happen in the DeVos USED.

Assistant Undersecretary of the Department of Silly Titles: Secretary DeVos, a state has declared that they are going to ban vouchers, cut school choice, and appoint a committee to make certain that not one dollar of tax money goes to any sort of religious school.

Secretary DeVos: Well, that's unfortunate, but the state should pursue whatever policy it likes without any interference from us. Do nothing about this. Nothing at all. We're just here to help them implement whatever policies they choose.

Smarick ends by noting that being in power comes with many temptations, and how things go will depend a lot on who is appointed to various positions. This is probably true, given the minimal amount of policy guidance that is likely to trickle down from The Top. Okay, not entirely true-- there do seem to be some philosophical underpinnings like, say, "Some people matter and some people don't." That's probably not going to inform education policy in many useful ways.

This sort of wishful thinking (Conservatives: Trump could turn out to be great) is not confined to any part of the political spectrum (Liberals: Obama is leaving an economy in awesome shape). And I think Smarick's picture of how this all goes south is sound. It's framed as a warning, but I'm afraid it's more of a prediction.

Book Banning and Gaslighting America

Here we go again. A family in Virginia has apparently scared a school district into banning Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird.

If you have been an English teacher for longer than a week, this is well-trod ground. American literature is a field full of land mines because American culture is a field full of land mines; as I tell my students every year, it is impossible to talk about American literature without talking about issues of race, gender and religion, and that means dealing with issues to which people are sensitive.
Huck Finn is a particular book banning touchstone, often held up these days for being too racist even as it was originally banned for not being racist enough. In the Virginia case, the concerned parents are reportedly speaking on behalf of their biracial high school son and concerns about the N word being presented over and over (219 times in Huck Finn, 28 in Mockingbird). The mother's complaint is also an indirect slam on how effectively the works are being taught.

I keep hearing, 'This is a classic, This is a classic,' ... I understand this is a literature classic. But at some point, I feel that children will not -- or do not -- truly get the classic part -- the literature part... 

For any teacher who handles sensitive material, it's hugely important to hear the concerns of parents and students and not simply dismiss them for being ignorant, uninformed or wrongheaded. People feel what they feel, and even if they are wrongheaded, nobody ever changed their feelings because someone said, "Your feelings are stupid and you should have different ones."

But this parent is wrong. There are miles of arguments out there about the banning of literary classics and why we should not do it. American culture, shared heritage, author's intent to condemn the bad words, blah blah blah. But in 2016, as we enter the Age of Trump, there's another reason we have to keep teaching these works. Call it the gaslighting defense.

Because among the many things that Trump has elevated further into the mainstream, we have the six-year-old's defense. "I never did that!" We are now taking denial to new heights with a President who is willing to declare that he never said that which we have him on tape saying.

Among the many things I'm braced for is the gaslighting of America, the attempt to talk our way out of past offenses with a determined, "I don't know what you're so upset about. That never happened." And I will not be surprised if we don't see attempts to gaslight our way past our racist past. We've heard this stuff before-- Slavery never really happened, and it wasn't that bad, and black folks actually loved it, and those terms aren't derogatory at all, and there were no long term effects because after all all those slaves are dead now so it's over anyway, and really, there's nothing for anyone to be upset about-- but we've never heard it out loud from our nation's leaders. I figure it's better than even odds that in the next four years, we're going to. A lot.

And so to all the other defenses of classic literature, let's make sure we've included the idea of gaslight protection, the necessity of reminding ourselves that, yes, this stuff did happen, and yes, it was bad, really bad, and , no, people aren't just making it up for political leverage. The best antidote to gaslighting is reality, even if that reality is ugly and hurtful. It's our job as educators to make sure that we aren't just dropping the ugly reality on our students like a pile of railroad ties; we're supposed to be right there to supply context and support and reassurance that, yes, this was just as wrong as you think it is even as we revisit our past through the eyes of authors who also knew that this treatment was wrong.

Yes, Huck Finn is a problematic text for many reasons. But it's also the first real attempt to create a truly American novel, and consequently its problems are a reflection of America's problems, from the ugly racism of slavery to the subtler racism of folks who believed they were anti-racism. But for me, that's why in this day and age teaching it is more important than ever-- to say, "Yes, this happened, and this is how we were, and don't let anyone tell you different."

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Measuring Charter Success

The charter business is going to boom soon. Let's imagine how we could become really successful in that industry.

Let's imagine a world where schools are judged on how healthy their students are. And since overall health is a complicated metric, let's choose an easily-measured metric as a proxy. We'll say that the students' height will be the measure of student achievement.

We'll start advertising our charter school. We'll advertise spacious rooms with nice high doorways. We'll highlight our larger-than-average student desks and our room arrangements that allow for extra leg room. If that advertising doesn't really appeal to smaller children of smaller parents, oh well. That's the free market for you-- you can't sell to everyone.

Parents are free to stop by the office and pick up an application-- right off that top shelf over there in the corner. Too short to reach it? That's okay-- we have a step-stool for your kind. No reason to feel awkward or out-of-place at all. Yes, when you've finished filling out your forms, just put them in that basket on that other top shelf.

Once we've selected students here at Top Shelf Academy, they can begin to start their program of scholastic growth. Our specially designed classrooms feature shelves mounted six feet off the floor. If your child has trouble getting the assignments, well, we encourage him to reach higher, and if he can't, well, maybe he's just not a good fit for Top Shelf Academy. See ya later.

At the end of the year-- yay! Our students have an average height several inches above other students in our city. Clearly we have surpassed the health ratings of other schools. We have shown we know how to make students healthier.

Well, yes. I suppose you could check to see if we contributed to the overall height of students in the entire city. If we checked the average height of all students, we'd know whether Top Shelf actually increased overall height in the city, or we just moved the tall students around, into our school.

But never mind that. Look! We made our students taller than everyone else's! We must know the secret of how to entallify students. No, don't ask what it is! Just honor us for showing up everyone else.

Unionizing Charters (PT. 3)

So I've been working my way through the newly-launched conversation about how teacher unions and charter school fans could become BFFs. (Here are Part 1, Part 2, and a sort of Prelude). After plowing through all that, I'm going to try to articulate what I think we're looking at and how I feel about it.

The Need

This is all in reaction to the Ascent of Herr Trump and his Secretary of Education-in-Waiting Betsy DeVos. As many have noted, their arrival creates a bit of a problem for folks who have worked the progressive side of the street for the reformsters. On the one hand, much of the proposed policy, including especially the emphasis on charters, is right in line with the policies of the last sixteen years and fully in keeping with what we would have had under a Clinton Presidency.

On the other hand, having Clinton and her old CAP hands out in front of this would have made lots and lots of Democrats and progressives feel pretty okee-dokee about dismantling public education and selling off the pieces. Teacher unions would have had a comfy seat at the table, and faith in the Dems would have reassured many folks that what was happening with charters and public schools couldn't possibly be bad for children or education.

Democrats and progressives, however, are not nearly so comfortable when these policies are being championed by an unbalanced cheeto-skinned narcissist and a public-school hating billionaire heiress.So folks like Peter Cunningham have a doubly-difficult double task. Task 1 is to watch and see just how many people will suddenly pull a Gingrich or a Romney or Cruz or-- man, it's a long list-- and suddenly decide that Herr Trump isn't so loathsome after all. Task 2 is to make sure that Democrats and progressives don't suddenly stampede away from the cause of Ed Reform.

The Strategic Choice

But what of ed reform could be salvaged?

Common Core is already on the ropes, an amorphous blob of who-knows-what-they-are-exactly standards. Trumps denunciation of them means that Common Core are now, after years of battering and beat-downs, finally and absolutely underground.

Standardized Testing has also taken too many hits to be a viable Cause any more. It's too profitable to fully abandon, but too hated to be a marquee cause.

Teacher accountability is likewise wobbly, particularly since after all these years, nobody knows how to do it in a reliable or valid manner. But mostly it's a loser here because if one of our goals is to keep the national union leadership working with reformsters, this is definitely not the issue that will do it.

But charter schools? That issue might have a shot. If we can shade some issues, glide past some sharp edges, and make our pitch maybe-- just maybe-- we can get teachers invested in charters and keep them in the Big Reformy Tent.

And reformsters have been laying the groundwork for a bit. For example, this big glossy booklet from Education Reform Now--one of the other arms of DFER-- explaining how charters have always been a totally Democrat progressive civil rights thing. This is NOT some money-grubbing business-oriented conservative GOP thing, nosiree-- charters are 100% progressive Democrat bleeding heart lefty all the way.

How do we explain the fact that somehow Herr Trump and the Divine Ms. DeVos both love 'em? Well, um, see, DeVos really wants vouchers (which is totally GOP) and she wants charters without any accountability while we want to make sure that we only have charters with good solid accountability in place and no frauds or scams or money-grubbing business-only outfits. Why, we think it might even be a good idea to have unionized charters. Does that sound like Trump or the GOP? Not a bit. We are totally different.

The Scam

The real beauty of this is it gets everyone off the real question of charter schools-- should we have any at all. Making the New Debate about what kind of charters we should have is like when the car salesman starts getting you to decide which color you want and what kind of upholstery and which sound system because no matter what you pick, you've already accepted the idea that you are going to buy that car.

Charter will be happy to argue all day about what kind of charters we'll have because that assumes the sale, assumes that we have all agreed that we want to have charter schools.

The Pitch

So unions and charters, together like coffee and lemon juice. How would that work exactly? The pitch seems to include several parts.

False Equivalency

I swear we get this one every time there's a call for a New Conversation. Reformsters talk as if the state of conflict is one of equal culpability, as if both sides own the conflict. This is not true, and it has never been true. There's no question that some folks on the side of public education have at times lashed out angrily and even meanly-- but that did not come out of nowhere.

Public education supporters did not seek reformsters out to start a random argument about whether teachers suck or not or whether public education is failing or not or whether unions are destroying education or not. All of those arguments were launched by reform fans, and while some have occasionally acknowledged that and even called for their own side to back off, all too often it plays out like a guy who mugs you in a dark alley, and then when you start fighting back, yells out, "Hey, why can't we just admit we're both wrong and try to get along."

Albert Shanker

Apparently folks are just going to repeat "Albert Shanker created charter schools" over and over and over again as a sort of anchor to the listing ship that carries the assertion that charters are totally a progressive Democrat thing.

This technique of repeating something until everyone believes it has had mixed results. It worked for "public schools are failing," but not so much for "teachers wrote the Common Core." Only time will tell if "charter schools are totally a progressive Democrat thing" is going to catch on.

Who Really Needs To Be Sold

As far as benefits for teachers if charters unionized, I don't think there's a problem since it basically boils down to "You could have the same working conditions at a charter that you can have at a decent unionized public school."

Would it be great if charter schools embraced teacher job protections and decent pay and solid support and useful professional development and a mechanism for letting teacher voices be heard? It absolutely would. It would not negate other charter issues like, say, the tendency to suck resources away from all the students in public schools, but it would all be good stuff.

But there's an irony here-- on the whole list of Cool Things That Unions Could Bring To Charters, there isn't a single thing that charters couldn't do on their own without any union involvement at all. There's no mystery about how to implement things like a decent pay scale or job security-- but charter operators don't want to do it.

And there's the challenge. It's not unions that need to be convinced to go to charter schools; it's charter school promoters, operators, advocates and boosters who have consistently, loudly, insistently and repeatedly told us that they don't want unions, don't want the things unions insist on, don't even necessarily want trained professional teachers. The charter industry has made it clear that what they value most is their ability to manage the school however they want without having to answer to much of anyone, and most especially not to have to answer to their employees.

If Cunningham et al really want to sell this, they have to sell it to the charter folks, and they will need to be way more persuasive than anything I've seen so far. If they're serious about selling unionized teachers to the charter industry, they'll have to build a far more forceful case (particularly more forceful than the article that argues, "You can have unions, only they won't actually be like, you know, unions"). And it's not that I don't think such a case can be built...

I'm Just Not Sure They're Serious

There are several possible goals here.

One is to convince charters and unions to live in perfect harmony. If that's the goal, then what I said above applies-- it's charters that need the most convincing. Talk to them.

Another possible goal is simply to convince teachers that the charter operators mean them no harm and are really the friends of teacher unions, so let's all us nice charter people and charter-loving unionists join together to pursue Good Charters in defiance of awful President Cheeto. To achieve this goal, nobody has to get charters to change-- they just have to get teachers and unions to look at charters differently.

The third possibility is that the audience for this is neither charteristas nor teachers unions, but all the progressive Democrats in the peanut gallery. "Look," someone will say, "See how the unions and charters are living together happily? It's totally okay to support charter schools even if President Cheeto does, because he's simply stolen/co-opted/stepped into a cause that belongs to us progressives. So stay here in the Big Reformy Tent."

And of course underlying all of these is the goal of getting everyone to say, "Let's all have charter schools" without even realizing they've said it.

Bottom Line?

If nothing happens beyond some charter advocates stop badmouthing teachers and our unions, then that's not a bad thing. If charters unionize more widely, turning them into less awful places for teachers to work and students to learn, that's not a terrible thing either.

I have always believed that under the right conditions, there could be a place for charters in the education world. And I have never lost my affection for Shanker's original vision-- teachers starting schools of their own, run the best way they know how, free of the various idiot laws imposed on schools by state and federal authorities. We are living through an age just chock full of idiot laws; that makes the idea of being free of them that much more appealing. Buried in all of this political bobbing and weaving, there are little nuggets that could be Good Things. 

But if this is just a new political dance with no real outcome except to keep the charter money train still running comfortably to fat city while public school students continue to get the shaft, then this is not okay. Not even a little. Most troubling of all? No matter how I turn this thing over and look at it, I don't see any angle from which it becomes and obstacle to the destructive policies that Trumpmeister and the DeVostator have planned for public education. And anything that doesn't actively and effectively interfere with federal plans to dismantle public education to replace it with private charter business-- well, anything that doesn't help is hurting, and anything that is hurting is just bad news for all of us.

Unionizing Charters (PT. 2)

As I noted in Part I, Peter Cunningham and others from the Why Of Course We're Liberal Democrats Who Support Charter Schools crowd have been trying to rustle up a new conversation about unions and charters and why they should be BFFs. This newly minted conversation has cropped up and there, but Ed Post has whipped a whole little flurry of discussion on its own millionaire-charter-lover-backed website.

 Anchoring the conversation was a post by charterista Dirk Tillotson, who provided some creative re-interpretation of history, but also some thoughts going forward. Cunningham rounded up at least four responses to that piece, and I'm going to look at each of them here.

Eric Lerum-- Looking at Charter Contracts

Lerum is a reformy consultant, currently in Newark with America Succeeds, (a "business-led" reformy group), has also been with StudentsFirst, and the team that reformed the crap out of DC schools in the oughts.

He notes that nobody knows much about the charter union contracts that exist, so he went to look at them. He found that these contracts looked a lot like regular contracts in public schools, with occasional splashes of innovation and a side order of No Striking Allowed. He argues that negotiating such contracts can strengthen the school and provide more authentic teacher voice.

Lerum thinks we should look more at these contracts and also regular public school contracts. I think his piece might have been more informative if he had compared union charter contracts to the kinds of contracts used in non-union charters, with at-will clauses and really wacky stuff like non-compete requirements.

Scott Pearson-- Unionizing Would Be Innovative

Pearson executively directs the DC charter school board, but his pedigree is typical reformster. Obama administration, charter school founder, businessy job at AOL, management consultant at Bain Capital, no actual education training or classroom experience. Yeah, that sounds about right.

But Pearson is at least honest:

Most charter leaders look at the prospect of a unionized workforce with horror. Work rules, seniority-based placement, and onerous due process all are at odds with the charter model of flexibility, nimbleness, and a single-minded focus on kids’ learning.

Well, honest in the first sentence. In the second he confuses charter-boosting baloney PR with reality. But he's here to list some ways in which charters can benefit from unions, based on what he saw at Green Dot charters (not an encouraging choice). At any rate, here's how charters can benefit:

1) Giving teachers an organized channel to express themselves to management. A friend of mine who works in the private sector says the same thing-- having an open channel to a functioning union means that he's always got a working line of communication to and from his employees. Pearson says that it can help with teacher retention, tossing in the dubious claim that "charter leaders constantly search for ways to keep teachers longer"-- there's not a ton of evidence to support that claim, but if it were true, it's true that a union would be one way to facilitate the kind of communication that could keep people happy enough to stay.

2) Unionizing makes it easier to hire teachers, mostly because it creates a more stable work situation. Allow me to change sides for a moment and observe that charters don't need unions to do this-- they could just stop hiring teachers with one year at-will-employee contracts. It's true a union would signal that job stability was a thing, but any charter operator could create job stability any time they wanted to. Mostly they haven't wanted to.

3) Union connections might help the charter grease the political wheels (depending on where the charter is located). In other words, if unions were the team-mates of charter operators instead of opponents, unions might help get charters okayed instead of fighting them. Could well be.

Pearson ends by noting that DC has never received a charter proposal that included the idea of a unionized charter. That in itself should tell him that charter operators have a resistance to unionized teachers far beyond the power of these three little points to dispel (as further witnessed that charters were always able to accomplish these objectives without needing a union to do it-- they just don't want to).

Maddie Fennell-- How This Team-up Would Help Unions

Fennell is a 27-year classroom vet, current NEA teacher fellow, and 2007 Nebraska Teacher of the Year-- which makes her an odd candidate for this piece since Nebraska does not have a charter school law. 

Charter schools should be incubators of innovation for public schools, held accountable to the taxpayers. Why can’t this innovation include unionizing charters to bring innovation to the labor-management relationship?

She gives an example of why a young teacher didn't want to join the union, which mostly demonstrated that the young teacher doesn't understand what tenure is. But Fennell does, and her first argument is that charters could provide the sort of teacher protection that can blunt the bad impact of bad administration in a school. Truth!

She also suggests that charters could show how to more creatively manage training and development and advancement. This kind of assumes that charters know something about these things that nobody else knows, and there's no evidence of that, but sure-- couldn't hurt.

She also argues for micro-credentials (which-- ugh-- are barely micro-useful) and notes that she couldn't afford to get an advanced degree for many years because it was so expensive-- which is totally a local contract issue. In my neck of the woods, the state requires advanced coursework and most districts pay for it. So the solution to this issue is already in place in some states, and charter-union team-ups aren't needed to implement it.

Also, I'm beginning to think that everyone who is hired to write one of these charter + union pieces is required to include the Albert Shanker reference.

Anyway, not clear to me what a union would really get out of teaming up with charters other than the obvious-- more dues-paying members.

Max Marchitello and Kaitlin Pennington-- This Charter Union Thing Could really Work

Marchitello and Pennington are from the right-tilted, reliably reformy Bellwether Partners. They have some interesting twists to offer.

Over the years, charter proponents decided that not having unions was vital to their success perhaps because a non-unionized charter school has far greater control over the hiring and firing of teachers. With that in mind, it is hard to imagine a unionized charter school that retains control over its staffing.

Actually, I would rather that charter operators imagined a school governance system that didn't include "control" as a requirement. But Marchitello and Pennington go on to offer their own list of benefits to charters in allowing unions in the front door.

First, optics. Charters suffer from the "perception" that they demand longer hours, offer lower pay, have high turnover rates, and employ less experienced teachers. Well, yes. Also, my head suffers from the perception that I'm balding, and my waist suffers from the perception that I'm overweight. But the authors suggest that a union presence might somehow mitigate that perception (about the school-- not about my own personal issues). I can think of another way to change the perception that charters treat teachers poorly (spoiler alert-- treat teachers better), but okay.

Next, the writers acknowledge the right of all labor to organize. Then they proceed to management-splain how the teacher unions are doing it all wrong.

First, teachers unions should never speak up about anything not directly related to student learning. Instead unions speak up on "every education issue whether it affects teachers or not, which can create tension and impede reform." Yes, those damned teacher, speaking up like they're education experts or something. Why can't the help just learn to stay in their rooms and leave everything else to the grown-ups?

Next, be like the Green Dot teachers who traded job protections for a little more money (really?? anyone have real figures on this?) and a "more professional day."

Because above all else, make sure that your charter union is not affiliated with AFT or NEA, because those guys are just trouble. Sigh. On the one hand, anyone who wants to say mean things about national or state union leadership can get in line behind me. There's plenty to complain about. On the other hand, what the writers are describing is a local teacher club with no power or clout over and above what management is willing to gift them.

In other words, Marchitello and Pennington have delivered what they promised-- a "union" that doesn't interfere with charter management's full control of their school.

Those are the four "replies" that Ed Post has run so far and my mini-reviews. I'm looking at the length of this post and apparently I'm going to write a third installment to wrap up some overall reactions and thoughts.

Unionizing Charters (PT. I)

A curious conversation is unfolding over at Education Post, kicked off by this piece by Dirk Tillotson, founder and executive direct of Great Schools Choices, a charter advocacy group. It's a "provocative" piece simply because it is a charter fan writing in favor of unionizing charter work forces.

Tillotson kicks off his conversation by using classic passive voice weaseling to get around a fundamental fact of charter life:

 Charters and unions are often seen as diametrically opposed.

Are seen by whom, one wonders. Then one remembers that charters and unions are seen as diametrically opposed by the vast majority of charteristas, who have for years touted the non-union work force as one of the big selling points of charters. The CEO model of charters has always called for a visionary who doesn't have to answer to restrictive and confining union rules, with many charter player preferring Teach for America style workforces that don't unionize, don't object to enforced 80-hour work weeks, and don't stick around long enough to start telling the CEO what to do. Charters have been dragged into court for union-busting. Ed Secretary-in-waiting Betsy DeVos of course supported charters big-time in Michigan as well as a union-busting right-to-work rule.

One would be hard-pressed over the past decade to find a charter supporter who wanted to make sure that their charter school had a teachers union. In the vast majority of cases, charter support and anti-union stances go hand in hand.

Tillotson tries to gloss over this by observing that the diametrical opposition isn't "accurate" history becaus Great-godfather of charters Albert Shanker was a union guy (I have a sense we're about to hear that factoid brought up a lot), but that's baloney. The modern charter movement has been actively and vocally anti-union, and if Tillotson and Peter Cunningham and other lefty-ish charter supporters want to have a new post-Trump alliance-building conversation, a good start would be some honesty about how we got here.

This is the problem with Tillotson's argument-- though it contains some valid and worthwhile points, it keeps tripping over some uncomfortable truths about the real current situation.

Maybe charters could help teach unions develop a more professional, less industrial model? Sure, that might even be true. Tillotson offers an example and mentions the key-- trusting teachers to do their jobs and not acting as if they must punch the clock. I don't disagree, but the "punch the clock" model has two real sources: 1) districts that don't trust their teachers and demand time-card style "accountability," and 2) districts that can't be trusted to stop demanding "one more hour" of teacher time until teachers are working 100-hour work weeks. In both cases, it's not the union that is the source of the model. Tillotson's right-- a charter run on a more professional model could stop both of those issues. My question-- is there really any reason to believe that charters are more likely to embrace such a model than a public school?

Tillotson also suggests that since failure = death for a charter school (if only-- but let's skip that argument for now) the union is more invested in success for the whole school and not just protecting teacher rights. Protecting the school = protecting teacher jobs. That's an interesting and valid-ish point-- unless we're talking about a charter where survival = making enough profit or ROI for owner/investors of the business. Then it all becomes a little more complicated.

Tillotson suggests that the biggest benefit is an end to expensive time-wasting ugly charter-union wars, and he paints these as wars between equally-culpable combatants who battle on while parents and staff don't really care about this. He invokes the "putting adult concerns ahead of students" trope, which is an unfortunate choice since it's most commonly used to mean "teachers should strop arguing about their rights and let charter advocates do what they know is best" and gets us right back to "teachers working conditions are student learning conditions."

Too much blood is spilt and too much effort is wasted in the charter-union wars and it’s stupid. We’re basically arguing over the same kids, the same staff, and the same goals. We’re all just advocates coming from a different camp.

While I agree with the "wasted effort" portion of this statement, I'm not on board with the old "we're all in it for the kids" part. One of my problems with the modern charter movement is that many operators are clearly not in it for the kids at all; some are there for the money, and some because they believe it is their right and privilege to remake education as they see fit. And many who sincerely believe they are in it for the kids also believe that they, and they alone, know what's best for the kids-- and many of these folks are simply wrong. In other words, I doubt the good intentions of some charteristas, and for those who have good intentions--well, good intentions are not enough, particularly if you depend on expertise you don't actually have while excluding the expertise of people who actually know what they're talking about. So I think it's a bit more complicated than "we all just want the same thing, but disagree on methods."

There is much in Tillotson's piece that is on point--

Families want good schools where kids are treated fairly, and staff want schools where they are supported, can be effective, and are treated fairly.

Neither unionized schools nor non-unionized charters have a monopoly on serving families or treating staff well.

And I welcome reformster's new-found interest in making friends with teachers and their unions. But it's going to be hard to move forward if we can't be honest about where we are and how we got there.

Ed Post chief Peter Cunningham has been hard at work on this conversation, and has (so far) four responses to Tillotson's piece. Ed Post was established as a sort of war room PR operation, so if Cunnigham is doing all this (plus his piece with Shavar Jeffries of DFER), somebody has made some strategic decisions about this business, and that's worth some attention.

In the interests of space, I'm going to cover those four responses in another post to follow shortly.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Revising Reform for Trumplandia

If reformsters are good at anything, it's revising the narrative to match current conditions. They are masters of the retcon (a comics term referring to retroactively altering character continuity, like when Frank Miller introduced Elektra into Daredevil continuity and we suddenly learned that a character we had never heard about before had actually been-- oh, shut up. You're a nerd!).

Anyway, reformsters periodically go back and retroactively rewrite the story. What's that you say? No way-- Common Core was always intended to be flexible and adaptable for each school system. What's that you say? No, we never said that every school district must adopt the Common Core Standards! Teachers? We totally love them and never ever blamed all of education's ills on them. No, we never promised that charters would do more with fewer dollars. And of course we have always contended that charter schools are public private public private public private public private look, we'll get back to you on this one. Sometimes reformsters have been rewriting harder than a Soviet Russia historian and actual history has disappeared faster than Chuck Cunningham.

No Happy Days forthis guy-- gone and completely forgotten

The Rise of Trump has brought the erasers out in force.

Reformsters have a problem, exemplified by this set of tweets regarding Jeanne Allen, head and mouth of the very reformy Center for Education Reform:

Trump is ready to give reformsters most of what they want, yet to get it, they have to figure out how to embrace-not-embrace Trump himself.

Today brought a new attempt at this dance that both reveals the tack that reformsters are going to try as well as showing why they want to try it.

At Real Clear Education, Shavar Jeffries (Democrats [sic] for Education Reform) and Peter Cunningham (Education Post), both super charter school fans,  attempt to solidify the left-tilted reformster argument, based partly on a real distinction and partly on fake history of what has happened so far.

The distinction they'd like to make is between charter fans who want accountability and those who don't. Many charter supporters, they point out, have called repeatedly for strong accountability. This is a True Thing-- it wasn't that long ago that several charter organizations were themselves calling out the bogus money-sucking scam that is cyber-charter schooling. I have talked to several charter promoters who believe that charters must be held accountable because 1) nobody benefits from fly-by-night charter scams and 2) they risk making the rest of the charter industry look scary and bad and in need of tight government control.

Unfortunately, Secretary of Ed-in-Waiting Betsy DeVos doesn't believe in any of that accountability, and has spent decades spending great gouts of money to block any such accountability. The results are on display in states like Michigan and Florida, where all manner of charter shysters are allowed to run rampant with no regard for damage, waste and fraud. DeVos believes the market will sort these folks out, despite the glaring evidence that the market will do no such thing.

So Jeffries and Cunningham contend there is some dissension in the charter-loving ranks, and on this issue, I believe they are correct. However, they also have a story to tell about how we got here, and that part reads like a fantasy tale from an alternate universe.

School choice has a proud progressive history. 

Um, no. It really doesn't. Jeffries and Cunningham rattle off some names like Rahm Emmanuel and Andrew Cuomo, who barely qualify as Democrats at all, and Presidents like Clinton and Obama, who developed and perfected the technique of consolidating Democratic power by abandoning Democratic principles. The writers also try to invoke Albert Shanker, the Great-Godfather of charters, but they skip over the part where a few years into the experiment, Shanker turned his back on charters after seeing them become money-making businesses instead of engines of educational innovation.

Public school choice has an even more robust conservative history, based on conservative principles of free markets and competition.

That sounds a little more like it. But the writers bring this up in order to invoke the "bipartisan alliance" that has been behind the choice movement. Maybe. I would describe the alliance as one between people who say they want charters because they believe in the free market and people who say they want charters because it will bring social justice. What I've never been entirely certain is just how many people in the latter group are just running a con. It's fitting that the head of DFER is co-writing this piece, since DFER's origin was about finding a way to move the Democratic Party into line with reform.

Some of us have been pointing out the very non-progressive elements of the school choice movement for years, but today Shavars and Cunningham discovered some of them, too. The charter overwhelming preference for non-union teachers and the general assault on unions. The members of the choice community who are mostly interested in defunding education entirely. The duo retcon their way to this assertion:

The grand bargain at the heart of the school choice movement is accountability for autonomy. In exchange for performance goals linking a charter school’s survival to academic results and other student outcomes, they are freed up from bureaucracy and red tape that limits innovation and flexibility.

Nope. That has been the sales pitch, but in many areas, it has most definitely not been the grand bargain, the mediocre bargain, or even the blue light special. Where free market fans have led the charge (e.g. Ohio, Jeb Bush's Florida, DeVos's Michigan), charters have pressed for autonomy only. Charters have gone to court to fight hard to avoid being accountable to anyone.

Nor can these guys pretend to be surprised by any of this. For instance, when it comes to slamming the unions, nobody has done it more relentlessly than DFER. Shavars and Cunningham warn that "when the choice movement devolves into an anti-union movement, it loses support on the left," but DFER has been right on the front lines of that devolution.

So why are they suddenly so fretful about all this, anyway? The clue is in this article's warning that these behaviors will "lose support on the left," or as Cunningham tweeted it

It's not the concern about principle, or allying with an odious and destructive administration, or even being revealed as hypocrites. A whole parade of reformsters have lined up, like Jeanne Allen, to announce that while they used to be horrified by Trump, maybe his administration will actually be swell. Hey, if Mitt Romney can be turned with a cheap meal, why wouldn't choice advocates be willing to change sides at the prospect of getting everything they ever wanted?

No, that's not the issue.

The issue is that the reformster movement managed to convince a whole bunch of progressives and Democrats to join in, play along, come get in the tent, and generally support the movement. They could sell it by talking about civil rights and making life better for poor brown and black children and most of all by pointing at a popular Democratic President who was the most elevated face of the reform movement. And now those actual progressives are experiencing a moment just like that one in the tower where Dorothy sees Aunty Em in the crystal ball, but then suddenly it's the Wicked Witch, and reformy folks are worried that Trump's scary face with chase away a bunch of erstwhile progressive reform supporters.

Look, for a couple of decades now, the choice charter movement has not been supported by a bipartisan alliance of Democrats and Republicans. It has been a neo-liberal privatization program, pushed by an "alliance" of neo-liberals who called themselves Republicans and neo-liberals who called themselves Democrats. It has been easy for neo-lib-GOP folks to sell the wonders of free market competitive privatizing to at least the business wing of the GOP. It has taken a bit more saleswork for the neo-lib-dems to sell privatization to their crowd, and now they have lost the allure and leverage and power of leading the ruling party. The neo-lib point people have never had trouble shifting gears and changing tunes, but the people who fell in line because they sincerely bought what neo-lib-dems were selling-- those people will be harder to keep in the big tent.

Neo-lib-dem leaders are going to have to come up with a new sales pitch, a way that progressives can oppose Herr Trumps DC dumpster fire and Billionaire Betsy's call to let public education burn while still pushing hard for charters and choice. It's going to take something more clever than an issue of "accountability," but be patient. This is just the first draft; I'm sure they'll come up with the next revision, a new argument, at which point, it will become the argument that they swear they've always been making.