Thursday, July 20, 2017

Back the Hell Up

And there it was, the question cutting through the various nuanced and complicated discussions of the various threads of ed policy, privatization, and the Newest Big Thing for making a buck in education changing the face of education.

What do you want?

If you don't like X or Y or Z, what is it you want?

Here it is. My short, simple answer for what I want to see in a perfect world.

I want bureaucrats and politicians and business people and profiteers and other interested amateurs to just back the hell up and let the professionals work.

When the call goes out for an expert in education, I want the call to go a real live experienced classroom teacher. This morning Jose Luis Vilson has a great piece about the need for teachers to view-- and treat-- ourselves as experts. I want that.

There's more I'd like. I'd like the US to really commit to great education for every student, instead of quietly being okay if Those Kids don't get it because that would be expensive. We're unwilling to admit that we're okay with lousy schools for Some People's Children as long as it's not too expensive, and so instead of making a spare-no-expense commitment to education for every child, we get politicians and bureaucrats and profiteers trying to figure out a way to support public education on the cheap and at a profit, while wrapping it in a bunch of rhetorical bullshit so that it can pretend to be more than it is (personalized-ish learning, common core, even charters, et al). We are having way too many conversations in education where one's side position is, "I don't really have any expertise in this field, but I believe X would be a great way to look like we're doing better without too much money or effort or allowing teachers too much autonomy, plus somebody could make money selling this." This is all bullshit. I'd like a real conversation about how to really get great education, really, to every single child. Because the conversations we're having are too often (not always, thank God) fundamentally dishonest, and dishonesty is just tiring.

Just give us the tools we need. Hell, treat us like the military and give us tools we only sort of think we might maybe need. Let us get the training we need (and let us decide what that is).

And then back the hell up and let us work.

Accountability? Hell, yeah. Come sit in my classroom. Come ask me what I'm doing and why. Ask my students about the class. If you don't like what you see or hear, come talk to me about it. But don't try to micromanage me and give me a million items to tick off on a list and write my lessons and curriculum for me because you're sure that if you could just remote control me, I'd do a better job.

Back the hell up and let me do my job.

Let me study up and become an expert in my subject area, and let me practice up to become an expert in the actual work of teaching. Let me figure out how best to meet each student where she is and help her move further on the road to her own best self. And yes-- trust me to exercise my professional judgment.

Yes, I know I'm fantasizing here, that there are a plethora of obstacles to implementing my vision and stakeholders to read in and just general reality. But you asked what I want, and bottom line, this is what I want--

Back the hell up and let me work.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The "Real" Reformsters

The Center for Education Reform is a pro-privatization group that has, at least, the virtue of not pretending that it has any interest in building bridges or honoring any single part of public education. Where other reformsters may be thoughtful or interested in dialogue or evolving over time or staking out a rhetorical middle ground, CER is the Yosemite Sam of the reformster universe, leaping in with guns blazing and mouth flapping. Give them this much-- you don't have to wonder what they're really

Take this classic piece from 2014-- "How To Spot a Real Education Reformer"-- in which some unnamed CER functionary combines a codification of privatizer creed with a straw man assault on the rest of us. It's an instructive piece because it does list the hard-core reformster talking points.

These days, everyone is “for” education reform. But when everyone claims to favor “reform,” how can you tell the real reformers (“the doers” who are focused on real results for students) from the rest (“the talkers” who are more concerned about maintaining the status quo)? 

Got that? Nobody actually opposes any reformster ideas-- those folks with reasoned arguments against this stuff just don't exist. But Nameless Functionary will now walk us through the tenets of reformsterdon, topic by topic.

Education in General

Real reformsters don't admit poverty as any sort of excuse. RR believe that the only accountability is accountability based on test scores. Parents should have control of who gets the money attached to their child. And innovation should happen because the US education sky is falling.

 Big fakes talk accountability without explaining it, "banter on" about how poverty actually affects students, and try to claim pre-school as a growth for old, faily public ed instead of letting privatizers stake out that market unchallenged.

You'll note that the tune for the accountability polka has changed a bit since 2014-- choice fans are less attached to the idea of test-based accountability now that it hasn't worked out so well for choicey programs. In fact, CER just cranked out a whole book on the theme of "Maybe we shouldn't get so picky about accountability and test scores." Weaponizing test results was only attractive when the weapons didn't bite reformsters in the butt.

Teachers Unions

Real reformsters know that unions suck and stand in the path of every good and true reformy idea. Contracts and job security somehow make people not want to be teachers. RR understand that the public school system is just a scam for the unions to suck up tax dollars for their political purposes

Faux reformers-- well, I'm just going to cut and paste this, because if I paraphrase the hatred here you'll think I'm just exaggerating for effect:
  • Issues gobs of praise for the teaching profession, for teachers in general, and begins to make excuses that the job is really much harder than most realize and never fully addresses what stands in their way.
  • Discusses, proposes, or advocates having an honest conversation with the union leadership, who (s)he sincerely believes wants what’s best for children.
These fake reformsters might even brag about having developed a policy by collaborating with teachers. Such people are traitors to the reformy agenda and must be purged. Teachers suck and have no interest in educating children, nor do they care about children or communities or anything.

School Choice

Real reformsters support parent choice, and the focus on creating an "environment" where lots of education flavored businesses can thrive. Because really, it's all about using education tax dollars to provide private businesses with entrepreneurial opportunities.

Fake reformsters bring up "misleading claims" that vouchers don't actually work. Oh, Jeanne Allen of 2014-- if only you could have known then how great 2017 would be for people who want to deny research and science and facts.

FR also make comments about how choiice schools cream and don't have to take all students as public schools do. Nameless Functionary doesn't even try to offer a theory of how those folks are wrong, though NF does allude to the old market-competition-improvemenyt baloney.

Charter Schools

Real reformsters want to see charters authorized by independent groups (aka unelected folks who don't have to answer to the taxpayers whose money they spend on charters). RR also-- and this is kind of astonishing-- believe there is no magic formula for judging what a “good” charter school looks like during the application phase. So those independent authorizers should exercise no oversight at all. Anyone who wants to start a charter should get the tax dollars to do it.

FR make excuses about why their market might not be good for charters. They speak against for-profit charters which, Functionary tells us, do not actually exist! Oh, and watch out for those who "support" charters by advocating to lift caps. There should be no caps. Charters should get all of everything they want, always.

Performance Pay

Real reformsters understand that we "honor" teachers by making them compete for piddling pay, because nobody really wants consistent, reliable pay.

The fakers only want some of teacher pay to be based on performance, or to let local district define excellence in various different ways. This is bad, apparently-- just pay teachers based on students scores.

Federal Education Policy

Oh, 2014. What fun times those were. Real reformsters wanted to tweak NCLB, but believed that the feds should only gather data and conduct nonpartisan research to support policymaking. Fake reformsters thought RTTT actually accomplished something, and thought the waivers were swell.

Of course, now that we have Trump-DeVos in DC, let's just forget about that part where the USED only does research and collects data. Let's go ahead and grab the reins and just slam vouchers into place from coast to coast, with federal money. Turns out that powerful activist federal departments are just fine when they favor your policies.

Digital Learning

Which always makes me think of counting on my fingers, but never mind that. Real reformsters love online learning because-- and again, I'll cut and paste-- reformsters recognize

the role businesses, which have transformed the nation’s infrastructure, can play in the creation and delivery of online learning.

The fakers think online learning should be developed and managed by school districts (who are they to hog all that money). Also, beware of people who think you've innovated if you just stick a computer in each kids' hands. Okay, they're right on that one.

Curriculum and Standards

Another ghost from 2014. Real reformsters know that standards aren't enough by themselves, and that the Common Core must be backed up with other stuff. Beware people who hate the Core or who think it's anti-American. And especially beware people who say "doozies" like this one that could be "uttered by phony" reformsters.

“We believe learning should be child-centered.”

Where have we heard that? Oh yeah-- it's a central pillar of DeVosian education philosophy. She says it a lot, even more often than she has nodded to her many supporters who believe that Common Core is un-American and must be scrapped. So I'm betting that CER has shifted its policy position on this particular point.

Jeanne Allen (CER's head honcho, face and voice) has lobbied hard for DeVos, and why not. DeVos shares her hatred of union, her disrespect for teachers, and her desire to get those sweet, sweet tax public tax dollars into private corporate pockets. If she has to sacrifice one or two of her previously-held sort-of beliefs to get a seat at that banquet table, well, never let it be said that CER is above realpolitik.

In the meantime, bookmark this so that the next time you're wishing that a reformster would just come right out and say what she's after, you can read a piece from one who did, untroubled by nuance, reflection, or scruples. This is not the whole reformster movement, and CER is not the arbiter of what "real" reformers believe, but it is the reformster movement's most bald, bare, avaricious, backwood-looking corner, and while other reformers have moved on to more nuanced, reflective stances, it's important to remember-- and keep an eye on-- the folks who haven't.

Did SAT Unmask Grade Inflation?

The story was carried by USA Today and rapidly picked up by much of the Kids These Days press-- the good people at the College Board have discovered rampant grade inflation as illuminated by the SAT, as witnessed by variations on this lede:

Recent findings show that the proportion of high school seniors graduating with an A average — that includes an A-minus or A-plus — has grown sharply over the past generation, even as average SAT scores have fallen.

Like many education stories, this puts some thins together that have nothing to do with each other. Let's pull apart the pieces, shall we?

SAT Score Dip

The span discussed is 1998 to 2016. During that span, the average SAT score (on the 1600 scale and without the worthless writing portion) dropped from 1,026 down to 1,002. So, just a few questions we need to answer to know how exciting this is.

First, is a 24 point dip significant? That's hard to track down. This source from the College Board suggest it would mean about 3 percentile points. But folks at Fairtest (who don't work for the College Board) peg the margin of error at 60-- so the "drop" would fall well within the margin of error.

Second, are the populations who took the test comparable? That's a no. Since 1998 the folks pushed to take the test have grown, especially in states like Illinois where every student must now take the test. So over the span we've added way more students who would not have taken the test in 1998, which would tend to lower the average.

Third, did both populations take the same test? Again, no. The College Board under new boss, Common Core creator David Coleman, has worked hard to revamp its signature product over the past decade, so we are comparing scores on two entirely different tests.

Conclusion? This reported "fall" of SAT scores is a big fat nothing burger with a side of self-serving PR sauce.

Reminder about The College Board

Despite its high-sounding name, the College Board is a business, and one of the products it sells is the SAT test. Sales of that test depend on students buying the chance to take it and college buying into the notion they need it to help make a decision.

With that in mind, note this quote from Michael Hurwitz of the College Board, the lead researcher on this little project:

He said one of the goals of the research is to "make sure that college admissions professionals are equipped to make the best decisions possible.”

Hurwitz also calls the grade inflation piece of the findings "really stunning." We'll get there in a moment, but here's what you need to remember. The number one rival of the SAT is not the ACT-- it's student GPAs. Studies show that high school GPAs are a far better predictor of college success than SAT scores, so who even needs SAT scores at all?

It is absolutely in the College Board's financial interest to try to erode trust in high school GPAs, just a surely as it makes sense for Ford to suggest that Chevy's aren't reliable. Hurwitz is not an impartial observer without a stake in the outcome of this research. This is the tobacco institute doing research on healthy lifetsyles (You know, jogging can be very harmful for you).

Grade Inflation

Recent findings show that the proportion of high school seniors graduating with an A average — that includes an A-minus or A-plus — has grown sharply over the past generation, even as average SAT scores have fallen.

In 1998, it was 38.9%. By last year, it had grown to 47%.

That's USA Today again, and boy would I like to see the specific research behind both of those numbers, because I sure don't personally know any school where half the graduating class has an A average. So I have some huge questions about where those numbers come from.

Am I going to swear up and down that grade inflation doesn't happen? No, I'm not. But it's hard to believe there could be that much (I am sure someone will correct me in the comments). But do parents push for better grades? Do students put themselves in lower-than-challenging levels (particularly in senior year)? Do some special ed supervisors declare that students with special needs must get a passing grade? Yes (but not usually an A!)

It also occurs to me that in the age of differentiation, we make much more effort to match the course requirements to the student's ability, which might lead to better grades all around. 

But I'm not going to defend grade inflation-- it's not a good thing where it happens. I'm just highly doubtful that it happens this much. And when it's being reported by someone who has a stake in discrediting grades (see above), I'm extra doubtful. I guess I'll have to wait for the book.

And as the story rips around the conservative media world, that's just how it's playing. Participation trophies for all the little snowflakes-- that's why we need leadership that will kick ass and take names and give really low grades (just not to my kid). It's the damn teachers union.

So I wish USA Today had reported this story a little more thoughtfully. Reporter Greg Toppo does report that Hurwitz is with the College Board, but doesn't really examine what that means in this research. That's a disappointment. Just remember to fill in those blanks for all the people who are about to confront you with this story and say, "So, what are all you lazy cheaters up to, anyway?"

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

FL: Third Grade Readers Lose

And another sad chapter in the Floridian assault on education comes to a sad close.

We've been following this story for a while. Florida has a third grade reading test requirement-- Florida's third graders must show they can score high enough on the state Big Standardized Test, no matter what else they've done. Florida's "Just Read, Florida" (because the way to get students to read is to just insist they do it) is like many versions of this bad idea, and last May, a handful of families put it to the test (with the stubborn assistance of their county school systems-- not all Florida counties chose to be part of this exercise in idiocy).

Some children opted out of the Big Standardized Test, so their school district declared that despite the fact that some of those children had exemplary report cards, they would be denied advancement to fourth grade. By the end of the summer, the whole sorry mess as in court. That case was gobsmacking in its wrongheadedness, including the moment in which the state argued that teacher-issued grades were meaningless.

But by the end of the summer, sense and decency had prevailed and the state's rule was not only set aside, but subject to some scolding. The parent goals were commendable:

The goal is to have the statute, which allows third grade retention, found unconstitutional and unenforceable. The implications of a positive outcome from this case are significant and far-reaching.

It didn't matter. In September some of the school districts chose to ignore the court ruling, and took it all to the court of appeals.

The court of appeals ruled in favor of stupid, in fact opening the door to some novel legal; actions by declaring

The purpose of the state test is to “assess whether the student has a reading deficiency and needs additional reading instruction before [and after] being promoted to fourth grade".

The test can only achieve that laudable purpose if the student meaningfully takes part in the test by attempting to answer all of its questions to the best of the student’s ability. Anything less is a disservice to the student — and the public.

So, I guess, eight year olds in Florida can be arrested for not trying hard enough on the BS Test. Also, good to know that the court of appeals has such expertise in reading education that they know the difference between a laudable policy and a stupid one.

The group of parents fighting this case decided to take their last shot by appealing to the state supreme court. That attempt is now done, and the results are not good. The state supreme court has chosen not to hear the case. The ruling seems to be based on the notion that the suit was filed in the wrong court. So that sucks.

What sucks more is that the final outcome maintains Florida's power to flunk any third grader who refuses to take the test, regardless of any other academic indicators. In fact, the whole mess of a ruling would seem to suggest that Florida intends to ignore the part of ESSA that explicitly recognizes parental rights to opt out.

The parents stuck their necks out for this-- the process of appealing has cost about $80K in legal fees and their gofundme is short of halfway there. If you'd like to thank them for making the effort, you can still go chip in to cover some of these costs. There's not a lot to take comfort from here-- the state of Florida grows bad education policy like it grows oranges, and this one has survived the legal challenge. The best thing we can say about the whole business is that the state had to explicitly declare that it doesn't believe in the grades on report cards and that it values test-taking compliance above all else AND that it fully intends to ignore the opt-out portion of ESSA. So the face of education policy continues to be ugly, but at least they were required to show it without any mask or make-up.

Monday, July 17, 2017

What Is Test Prep?

Yesterday I fell into a discussion of test prep on Twitter where a participant tossed forward the notion that test prep actually decreases test results. Others asserted that test prep doesn't really help. I'm pretty sure that both of those assertions are dead wrong, but I also suspect part of the problem is that "test prep" is an Extremely Fuzzy Term that means a variety of things.

The research itself is not exactly stunning. A study that turns up from time to time is a study from Chicago from 2008 that looks at test prep and ACT results (in Illinois, everyone takes the ACT, so congrats to whatever salesperson/lobbyist from ACT's parent company that landed that contract-- ka-ching! We'll skip over all the reasons that's a bad idea for now). A quick look at the summary shows that this study didn't exactly prove that test prep is a bust:

CPS students are highly motivated to do well on the ACT, and they are spending extraordinary amounts of time preparing for it. However, the predominant ways in which students are preparing for the ACT are unlikely to help them do well on the test or to be ready for college-level work. Students are training for the ACT in a last-minute sprint focused on test practice, when the ACT requires years of hard work developing college-level skills.

That's a nice piece of sleight of hand there. Test prep wasn't failing-- just one particular type was. There are, of course, many other test prep alternatives, but the study ignores those, shrugs, and says, "I guess our only alternative is to believe the ACT PR about how the test measures 'years of hard work' on college level skills."

Meanwhile, the College Board has been touting how their special brand of test prep totally works on the SAT. I'm going to summarize the test prep research by saying that there isn't much, what exists is kind of sketchy, and clear patterns fail to emerge. So let me get back to my main question.

First of all-- which test? For our purposes, when we talk about test prep, we're talking about the Big Standardized Test that the Common Core reform wave inflicted on every state. On the subject of test prep, those are the tests that matter most because that brand of test-centered high-stakes data-generation is the thing that has twisted our schools into test prep factories.

Lots of folks have tried to define test prep very narrowly as simply drilling or rote-working the specific information that is going to be on the test. That definition serves members of the testing cult because by that definition, not much test prep goes on. But I suspect virtually no actual classroom teachers would define test prep that way.

How would I define it?

Test prep is anything that is given time in my classroom for the sole purpose of having a positive impact on test scores.

Right up front, I'll note there is some grey area. There are some test prep things that I can turn into useful learning experiences, and there are some actual education things that may have a positive impact on test scores.

But if I'm only doing it because it will help with test scores, I say it's test prep, and I say to hell with it.

This covers a broad range of activities. It is necessary, particularly in the younger grades, to teach them how to deal with a multiple choice test, doubly necessary if the test is going to be taken on computer.

But once we've introduced that, we never let it go. Fifteen years ago, the amount of time I would have spent in my English class on activities in which students read a short passage and then answered a few multiple choice questions-- that time would have been pretty close to zero. Short excerpts and context-free passages are a crappy way to build reading skills or interest in reading, and multiple choice questions are just about the worst way to assess anything, ever. But now, like English departments across the country,  we have bought stacks of workbooks chock full of short passages coupled with sets of multiple choice questions. We don't buy them because we think they represent a great pedagogical approach; we buy them because they are good practice for the sort of thing the students will deal with on the BS Test. They are test prep, pure and simple, and if I were deciding strictly on educational merit, I wouldn't include them in my class at all. Not only are they a lousy way to teach reading, but they reinforce the mistaken notion that for every piece of reading, there's only one correct way to read it and that the whole purpose of reading is to be able to answer questions that somebody else asks you with the answers that somebody else wants.

Writing is even easier to do test prep for, and my department is the proof. We teach students some quick and simple writing strategies:
   1) Rewrite the prompt as your first sentence.
   2) Write neatly.
   3) Fill up as much paper as you can. Do not worry about redundancy or wandering.
   4) Use big words. It doesn't matter if you use them correctly (I always teach my students "plethora")
   5) Indent paragraphs clearly. If that's a challenge, skip a line between paragraphs.

With those simple techniques, we were able to ride consistent mid-ninety-percent of our students writing proficiently.

In addition, because the state wants the BS Test to drive curriculum, they make sure to let us know about the anchor standards (the standards that will actually be on the test) so we can be sure to include them, which to be effective, has to be done by using the state's understanding of the standards. Our professional judgment is not only irrelevant, but potentially gets in the way. This can cover everything from broader standards to specific terms likely to appear.

And, of course, we need to familiarize the students with the state's style of questioning. For instance, PA likes to test context clue use by giving students a familiarish word used an uncommon meaning for the word to make sure that the students decipher the word using only the sentence context and not actually knowledge already in their brains.

None of this is rote memorization of details for the test. All of it is test prep, and all of it is effective up to a point. Particularly students who are neither good nor enthusiastic test-takers, this can make the difference between terrible and mediocre results. And every year it leaves an ugly bad taste in my mouth, and every year all of us struggle with maintaining a balance between that educational malpractice and doing the teaching jobs that we signed up for when we started our careers.

Test prep does, in a sense, carry beyond the classroom. The article that kicked off yesterday's conversation was a piece by Matt Barnum about the shuffling of weaker teachers to younger grades. That is absolutely a thing-- I suspect every single teacher in the country can tell a story about administration moving teachers to where they won't "hurt us on the test results." Teachers who can do good test prep are moved to the testing windows; those who can't are moved out of the BS Test Blast Zone. There are far better ways to assign staff, but many administrations, eyes on their test scores, are afraid not to make test scores Job One.

In fact, there are districts where the structure of the schools is changed in response to testing. Eighth graders do notoriously badly on BS Tests, so it's smart to put sixth graders in your middle school with the eighth graders to mitigate the testing hit.

And there is the test prep that goes beyond instruction, because teachers understand the biggest obstacle to student performance on the BS Test-- the students have to care enough to bother to try. In a state like PA, where my students take a test that will effect my rating and my school's rating, but which has absolutely no stakes for them, that's an issue. The BS Tests are long and boring and, in some cases, hard. Youtube is filled with peppy videos and songs and cheers from the pep rallies and other endless attempts to make students actually care enough to try. This kind of test prep is not so much toxic to actual instruction as it attacks the foundation of trust in the school itself. Elementary teachers may feel it's helping, but by high school the students have figured out that it was all, as one student told me, "a big line of bullshit. You just want us to make you look good."

The most authentic assessment is the assessment that asks students to do what they've practiced doing. The reverse is also true-- the most effective preparation for an assessment task is to repeatedly do versions of that exact task. And so all across the country, students slog through various versions of practice tests. If you want students to get good at writing essays, you have them write essays. If you want them to get good at reading short stories, you read short stories. And if you want them to get good at taking bad multiple choice standardized tests, you take a steady diet of bad multiple choice standardized tests.

That's test prep, and it's effective. It won't make every student score above average for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that the tests are meant to create a bell curve and not everybody can be above average.

But if you think the solution to getting ready for the BS Tests is to just teach students really, really well and the scores will just appear, like magic, then I would like to sell you a bridge in Florida that crosss the candy cane swamp to end in a land of unicorns that poop rainbows.

Building a Better Charter Authorizer

There has been a bit of a kerfluffle going on in reformsterland over charter accountability. Kicked off by the Center for Education Reform's book about how there should be less accountability, followed by Chester Finn  (Fordham Emeritus) calling their ideas names. That conversation eventually led to this piece by Rick Hess, considering the different levels of regulation by charter authorizers, which itself leads to this question:

I think the more relevant question for charter authorizing is how authorizers can deliver meaningful oversight without descending into kludgeocracy.

Okay-- so what would a better charter authorizer look like. Acknowledging that I am, in fact, a modern charter skeptic at best, let me go ahead and see if I can describe what we'd need in order to build a better charter authorizer.

The Beer Goggles Problem

Pat's had too much to drink and it's last call, so Pat takes home a person who, in  the cold morning light, turns out to be ugly and unpleasant. The problem is not the alcohol or the late hour. The problem is not even that the pickup was ugly and unpleasant. The real problem is that Pat felt it necessary to take someone whom, no matter what.

The charter industry has a beer goggles problem. Particularly in states like Florida and Ohio, folks are so committed to getting lots and lots of charters up and running, they aren't very careful about what gets authorized. "We're going to get something authorized," they declare, with the determination of someone who's damned if they'll go home alone tonight.

So step one in charter authorization? Place the burden of proof on the charter proposer. Assume that the charter is unnecessary until proven otherwise. This may not seem helpful to charter fans, but it actually helps focus the authorization process on the real reasons the charter should exist instead of a bunch of bogus paper games to justify a choice you've already made.

Geographic proximity

The authorizer should be in the same community as the charter being authorized. I would have thought this obvious, but consider Bay Mills Community College, located in the uppermost wilderness of Michigan, and yet authorizing charters all the way down in Detroit, hundreds of miles away. There's no conceivable way that an authorizer far, far away can possibly exercise meaningful oversight of the charters they authorize.

Also, authorizers far, far away lack the stakes of taxpayers in the community who will bear the burden of paying for the charter. That's a basic accountability fail.

Democratically responsive

Charter authorizers are responsible for deciding which organizations will get a cut of public tax dollars, therefor they need to be set up to be responsive to the taxpayers. I'm partial to the idea of an elected board, but I'm open to other forms. I know that many charter fans don't care for this, but I'd argue that having actual elected individuals to exercise judgment would end the need for hundreds of pages of paperwork and regulations.

No financial stakes

Authorizers must have absolutely no stake in the charters under consideration. Anything else is an obvious and (even in Trumpian times) an unacceptable invitation to self-serving conflict of interest, fraud and misuse of public funds. Charter entrepreneurs may not be charter authorizers. Charter authorizers may collect no fees or regular payments from the charters they approve.

Require educational and financial competence

New York authorized a charter for a 22-year-old education amateur with no background in any of the skills required to run a school. Florida gave a charter to a former male model with no educational o financial qualifications.  Whatever screening process authorizers use, they have got to take off their charter beer goggles and consider whether there's the slightest chance that the charter entrepreneur has a clue about what they're doing.

The only industry that comes close to such slackness restaurantery, where people routinely decide they can run a restaurant because they ate at one once. Massage therapists have to b certified. People who want to be doctors cannot just call the state and say, "Hey, could you clear me to go ahead and perform surgery? I'm really really interested in and concerned about surgery, so maybe I should be cleared to open a hospital."

Any proposal to run a charter school must clear a requirement to posses the business and educational expertise required.

Eyeballs beat paperwork

Here's a point on which reformsters and I agree-- the belief that paperwork magically represents and controls reality is more naïve than believing in Santa. The ability to create a really good stack of paperwork doesn't show anything except the ability to fill out paperwork. Authorizers must visit and inspect the charters they authorize on a regular basis. Personally.

Accountability via paperwork is the weakest kind of accountability of all, subject to inaccuracy, mistakes, confusion, and just plain lies. And it almost always measures the wrong thing.

Academic sufficiency

I'm not expecting authorizers to hold charters to some super-duper level of academic awesomeness. But authorizers should be making sure that students are taking core courses and not majoring in basket weaving.

Require representative school population

It's not that hard to figure out or track-- charter population must mirror the demographic breakdown of the community being served. No segregation academies. No charters that somehow avoid any students with special needs. If y9ou want to set up a special focus charter that's fine-- but if your Super Science Academy is 80% white males in a community with 50% black students, there's a problem. It's up the authorizer to enforce this requirement.


Perhaps implied by the rest, but I want to be clear-- authorizers should be making sure that the charter's operation and finances are an open book, easily visible to the taxpayers who foot the bill.

Hands on the Plug

Authorizers must have the power to pull the plug, and to do it right now. Many states have stacked the deck so that it's harder to close a charter than to fire a big city teacher. If authorizers can't shut down a badly failing charter school, what's the point?

Cyber charters

Nobody should be authorizing any more of these. While cybers have some value for a narrow slice of the student population, they have largely failed and we should not be talking about opening more-- we should be closing down the ones we have.

Odds and Ends

There are other issues that are probably better addressed as matters of state regulation. For instance, every classroom should be staffed with an actual trained professional teacher. But that kind of "any warm body will do" foolishness needs to be stopped in state legislatures, not at the authorizer level.

Real Accountability Is the Solution

The overall solution to charter's mountain of paperwork is more direct and regular oversight by authorizers. Despite lots of talk about the charter deal being a trade of autonomy for accountability, in practice charter operators have worked hard to have as little accountability as they can get away with, which has led to settling for the illusion of accountability, and nothing creates the illusion of accountability like miles and miles of forms and paperwork and reports and official bureaucratic baloney.

Here's what I've told my students many times: What I would like to do is assign this reading and then have some great discussions about it in class, and that will not only fun and interesting, but it will give me a good idea of how well you read. But if I toss out questions and you just stare at me, it will be a whole bunch of pop quizzes and in-class essays and other assignments I have to come up with to tell what you did or didn't do. We can do this the easy way (which is also the better way), or we can do it the hard way.

This is the same issue. The best way for charters to cut out the mountains of faux accountability paperwork is to open themselves up to authentic accountability measures (no, carefully crafted PR initiatives don't count). And yes-- I recognize there are implications in what I'm saying for public schools as well. Charters can be liberated from paperwork mountain if they are willing to come live out in the open. If they really want to escape the grip of odious authorizers, they can do it by embracing actual accountability.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

ICYMI: Half a Summer Gone

So what have we found to read this week?

David Brooks and the Language of Privilege

Robert Pondiscio on how language reinforces privilege. Lots to think about here.

Massachusetts Parents United-- New Wine in Old Bottles

One thing about astro-turf, it never actually dies. And no fields grow astro-turf as lush and green as the lawns of Massachusetts. Here's the newest batch.

Betsy DeVos, Queen of Obfuscation, Talks Nonsense

Jennifer Berkshire is over at AlterNet, with a good clear look at Betsy DeVos's latest non-interview.

Field Guide To Jobs That Don't Exist Yet

That annoying stat about how 65% of the jobs our students will have do not exist yet-- it turns out to be pretty much made up. Here is a beautifully researched explanation of where that little slice of baloney came from.

Four Things Betsy DeVos Doesn't Want You To Know About EDucation Tax Credits

Dora Taylor with some important information about how those ETC really, truly work.

An Educational Scam from the 1980s Returns

We've connected the dots between personalized learning and its many antecedents, but Steven Singer reminds of it connection to that old classic, the correspondence course.

The Real Reason Your Child Is Being Psychologically Profiled at School

Emily Talmage points out one more type of data mining that may be going on at your school.

You Don't Know What You've Got

Jan Ressenger takes a look at the march of austerity and privatization.

School Reform's Hot Air Balloon

Journalist John Merrow takes a look at the unending PR push to keep DC schools looking like a success.

Digital Classrooms as Data Factories

Wrench in the Gears offers part of a series looking at the connection between social impact investing, future ready classrooms, and good old data mining.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Why Is Kiddie PISA a Thing

Every so often the OECD throws a big fat standardized test (the PISA) at fifteen-year-olds from a bunch of nations that have different cultures and speak different languages and then use the results to stack rank those nations, leading to a paroxysm of pearl clutching and teeth gnashing over the results. And it's always good for some trauma because as long as the test has existed, the United States has ranked, to be generous, in the mediocre middle.

What could possibly make the whole PISA business even better?

How about giving a computer-based PISA to five year olds!

That'll be quite enough of that, you little slacker.

Over in the UK they're about to attempt a 300-student pilot of this extraordinarily hare-brained idea. And the US is supposedly also in on this, though Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Belgium (among others) have said they will not be participating. Other reports are that the OECD is looking for three to six countries to play along.

The pilot will involve around 300 children, and uses games and stories on tablet computers to map pupils’ early capabilities – which will then be linked to educational performance at 15 through the international PISA tests given to teenagers across the globe every four years.

Is there some good reason to do this? Officials have tried to make a case for it.

Researchers say the study will give countries an in-depth insight into children’s learning at a critical age enabling them to share best practice.

The Early Learning and Child Well-being Study will be run on 3,000 students internationally in something like 200 settings per country. And when it's all done, OECD will have collected some data on how well some five year olds can perform some activities on tablets (or at least how well they did on that particular day given how they were feeling at that particular moment, though presumably OECD isn't going to be exact about the five year old thing, because you know it's a long way from five years to, say, five years nine months).

And if this doesn't seem creepy and ill-advised yet, the tablet-based standardized test will also attempt to measure "social behavior, empathy, memory and self-regulation." I am dying to know how a computer tablet-based activity can measure social behavior. The child shows interest in social behavior by refusing to finish the test and going to play with her friends instead?

It all seems like a terrible idea-- do we really need to subject kindergartners to more rigorous stressy standardized test baloney? Or even any? Do we need one more way to drive home from Day One that school is all about testing? And when officials start making a case for it, things only sound worse:

Minister for Children and Families, Robert Goodwill said: “We already know that a child who attends any pre-school can increase their GCSE attainment by as much as seven grades, so now we want to sharpen our understanding of how it can have the most impact. This study will build on the evidence available, driving our work tackling low social mobility and helping to spread opportunities for all children.”

Wow. All that from having five year olds take some computerized assessments.

The tests are supposed to be more like games and only take a few hours, though of course teachers would want to devote a chunk of the year to familiarizing their littles with the nature of the game, interacting with a tablet, and practicing the kinds of behavior that the test will allegedly measure. Because wherever standardized tests go, test prep must follow. 

So, a questionable idea with a questionable effect on education in order to garner questionable benefits. I truly lousy idea all around. One Brit encapsuled the whole thing pretty well-- Jan Dubiel, the national director of Early Excellence, the main provider of the baseline assessments for young children

Dubiel warned that while the introduction of tablet-based testing of five-year olds “may appear attractive and innovative”, the IELC study would “fail to identify the rich variety of characteristics that indicate a child’s knowledge, skills and point of development”.

“Computers can’t replace the human interaction and understanding that an early years’ teacher develops of their pupils, with an average teacher having thousands of interactions with their children every day.

“Rather than using five-year-olds as guinea pigs, the government should continue to listen to the thousands of schools, headteachers and teachers that support a non-test based approach . . . that takes into account all the critical learning behaviours that a child requires to have the best start in life.”

If there's anything the littles of the world don't need, it's one more formal standardized computer-based assessment. With the limited coverage of this pilot (set for fall of 2017) it's unclear whether the US is absolutely committed to this foolish experiment. Let's hope not.

Rural Schools and Phauxlanthropy

Over at Philanthropy Roundtable, Andy Smarick has contributed a piece entitled "Don't Forget Rural Schools." which immediately attracted my attention because forgetting rural schools is something that pretty much everybody does, except for those of us who live and work in those areas. While I disagree with some of what Smarick has to say, he also raises some important points that folks on all sides of the education debates often overlook.

Given the source of this article, there is an emphasis on philanthropic giving , but let's set that aside for the moment.

The old high school in Venango, Nebraska
Smarick opens by pointing out that rural areas are feeling the pinch of poverty, in some cases more than urban areas, and yet they don't attract much special giving (I have an explanation for that last part, but it can wait). But he lays out some of the issues that we face in rural settings.

Rural poverty can be particularly crippling. Even poor kids in cities have access to great libraries, beautiful parks, lots of nearby examples of success. Rural poverty can be much more isolating.

This may be an overstatement on the urban side. Some cities do a pretty good job of keeping their poor citizens cut off from some of those great things. Chicago has managed to keep its poor people cut off from some of its richest resources. New York has those special bridges that Robert Moses designed to keep poor people away. In Los Angeles, nobody is particularly close to anything. But it is true that rural poverty is especially isolating. A relief worker explained to me years ago that in rural areas like mine, carelessness is a bigger deal than homelessness. We have lots of space, but it's mostly far away from things like jobs and doctors and groceries, and rural public transit ranges from Very Limited to Non-existent.  You might find a place to live, but you will depend on the kindness of others to get anywhere you need to get-- or even to set eyes on other humans.

Smarick offers some unsourced factoids-- rural kids are more prone to alcohol, meth and babies, to which I think maybe, probably, and I'd have to see the numbers-- but the conclusion he reaches is solid:

These factors can cause rural kids to internalize a sense of limited expectations, if not hopelessness.

Oh, yeah. Even though my school has sent graduates to big fancy Ivy League schools,  my students are quick to assume that great things do not come from here. Smarick also reports that rural schools have lower college attendance numbers, and while, again, I'd like to see the numbers to be sure, I can believe this. Students aspire to what they see in the adult world, and as the economy scales back and already thin economies hollow out, rural students don't see much in the way of professional options.

And then Smarick really rings the bell:

In many ways, rural schools are fundamentally a mystery to a large segment of K-12 experts. With their jobs downtown and their homes in the city or its suburbs, much of our managerial class has little interaction with rural America.

Lordy, yes.  From people who sit in big cities and promote policies that could only work in big cities to the folks who drop in to lecture us on how to our jobs even though they have no concept of what our jobs look like in this setting, it just never ends. Just because a mover an shaker knows how to operate in LA, we wouldn't assume he could transfer seamlessly to Chicago or St. Louis. We accept that every urban setting is unique, but seem to assume that all small town and rural settings are the same-- and the urban techniques can be easily transferred there ("Just do it, you know-- smaller"). This goes extra double for choice programs like charters and vouchers.

As Smarick's research discovered, there's a huge disconnect between what the "experts" think we need and what we think we need.

The “experts” believed rural schools struggled most with recruiting and retaining teachers and acquiring technology. But the practitioners identified too little funding for special-education mandates, too much compliance-related paperwork, and too many strings attached to school dollars. And so much for the idea that teachers are unattainable: rural teachers express higher rates of job satisfaction than teachers in other areas.

Yup. Recruiting is challenging but not impossible because for some folks, this way of life is appealing, and while nobody is getting rich in education here, cost of living is also not insane. But one of the banes of our existence is unfunded mandates-- based on policies designed for urban districts. So instead of having the flexibility to use funding as we see best, we have to do as we're told by guys who have never set foot in our community but who still feel free to dictate how we should do our work. And we have to hire extra personnel just to handle all the government paperwork.

Smarick also points out that experts assume we are limited and inefficient in our programming, when there's plenty of reason to assume the opposite. Yes, I could have told you that, and on some other occasion, I'll explain why it's true (we are accountability giants). And small population can equal small hiring pool. We have problems in the same areas as everyone else (math, ELL, special ed).

But Smarick identifies one of the critical questions we always wrestle with:

So school systems can be faced with a dispiriting choice: produce students with minimal skills to fill the local jobs available, or produce more highly skilled students who will be forced to leave their communities for good in order to find suitable careers.

We have limited resources in every sense, and we have to make the best use of them, which means we have to be clear on our goals, and that question--  how to help some students escape and help build the community by helping others stay-- that's a toughy.

While I absolutely value someone dragging these issues out where some "experts" can see them, I cannot stress this enough-- the "experts" would already have known all of this had they ever bothered to actually talk to those of us who work in small town and rural communities. They have consistently failed to do so-- and by "they" I don't just mean bureaucrats and policy wonks and political operatives and reformsters, but union leaders  and state-level elected officials.

Why are we so ignored? Certainly part of it is the urban-centric thinking of urban people, who often imagine that if everyone doesn't actually live in the city, at the very least, they all want to.

But it  also has to do with markets. Poor people + thin population = not very much money to be made. I don't mean to suggest that charter operators are rapacious bloodsuckers that must find enough victims to slake their prodigious bloodlust (though some do fit that description). But business people gotta business, and there are lots of businesses that don't operate in rural areas because there isn't enough market to support them (more every day). Charters have largely avoided rural areas for the same reason Tiffany and Lexus dealers do-- the market just isn't there. And it's a harder market to crack because our local public schools are part of our community and personal identity.

Rural areas have been hit by cyber-charters, and I do mean hit, because everywhere they land they do serious damage to the local public system (particularly here in PA). Vouchers require choices, but those are actually eroding as populations decrease and cyber-charters suck the blood from local budgets.

All of this matters when considering Smarick's call for philanthropic interest in rural areas.

First, the lack of major reform inroads in rural areas means that there's not a lot for a reform-minded deep-pocketed money-tosser to toss money toward. I mean, they could do crazy stuff like assume that local public schools know what they're doing and just, I don't know, offer to help fund that. But that would be crazy talk. Particularly for today's philanthropists.

I was surprised to see Betsy DeVos referenced in a recent Chalkbeat story as a "billionaire philanthropist" which is a curious title since DeVos herself has been famously clear that she expects a return on her money. But philanthropy is different these days, whether we're talking about venture philanthropy or the plain old phauxlanthropy of Gates and Walton, or the cool new version of Zuckerberg and Chan which really isn't a philanthropy at all-- in all cases we're talking about ways to use money to exercise power and influence without having to bother with things like elections. It's commerce, not philanthropy.

Smarick's examples of groups working the rural ed scene is not terribly encouraging. For instance, Teach for America now has a "Rural School Leadership Academy"? Lord help us all. This is one more attempt to create a parallel education system based on nothing but money and intentions to rewrite the system. No, thank you. Smarick also cites the Kahn Academy library of videos as an example of personalized learning, but I think the term "algorithmically-mediated lessons" better. And he also cites some high-concept charters, which would move students and money out of rural public schools. None of these "opportunities" exactly excites me as a small-town/rural education guy. There is a nice program for helping connect rural students to colleges, and that one seems pretty helpful.

Smarick's focus on philanthropy is, of course, appropriate for the article source. He and I disagree on some of the solutions offered here, but we do agree on some of the problems diagnosed. The easiest issue to solve is the communication one-- for people who want to know more about what's happening in small town and rural schools, just come visit, ask, talk to us. There's a hotel and a couple of nice bed and breakfasts in town, and I have a phone and internet connection. I and people like me are even capable of traveling off to the big city. Feel free to get ahold of any of us.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Librarians Take Reading Level Stand

One of the weird little sideshows of modern ed reform has been an unhealthy preoccupation with reading levels. What lots of folks heard Common Core say was that we had to lock students in to their lexile reading score level (whether the Core said exactly that or not is another debate, That in turn has triggered a resurgence in programs like Renaissance Learning's dreadful Accelerated Reader incentive program. Read more books! Answer more quizzes! Learn more points! And always-- always-- pick books based on the reading level and not based on, say, whether or not you find it interesting.

Yes, please

There's a lot to argue about when it comes to reading levels. These generally based on mechanics, in keeping with the whole philosophy of reading and writing as a set of context-free "skills"-- it assumes that how well you read something has nothing at all to do with the content of what you're reading. Lexile scores, the type of analysis favored by the Core fans, works basically from vocabulary and sentence length. That has the advantage of being analysis that a machine can do. It has the disadvantage of providing ridiculous results. Ernest Hemmingway's novel The Sun Also Rises is at about the same lexile score as the classic Curious George Gets a Medal-- third gtrade-ish. Meanwhile, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse V may have PG-13 language and situations, but it also has a fourth grade-ish lexile score. And none of those works rank as high as Mr. Popper's Penguins.

So there's a great deal to dislike about the whole business of assessing reading levels, but the American Association of School Librarians (a subgroup of the American Library Association) has noted other undesirable trends related to leveling, and they have issued a statement about them.

Here's some bad news they note:

One of the realities some school librarians face in their jobs is pressure by administrators and classroom teachers to label and arrange library collections according to reading levels.

Yikes. As the AASL notes, this feeds into the practice of students scanning for slim books at the "correct" reading level so they can snatch up more of those reading program points. If you don't recognize how troubling that is, AASL would like to remind everyone what the point of the library is supposed to be:

School library collections are not merely extensions of classroom book collections or classroom teaching methods, but rather places where children can explore interests safely and without restrictions. A minor’s right to access resources freely and without restriction has long been and continues to be the position of the American Library Association and the American Association of School Librarians.

AASL also notes that spine-marking reading levels means that every child's reading level is on display to everyone else the moment she picks up a book. Arranging books this way also means that students are not learning how to locate materials in a "real" library out in the world, adding one more obstacle to their progress as college students and adults.

And AASL quietly (as librarians will) calls these sorts of leveled reading programs out for what they are-- not an attempt to build reading skills or open up the world for students, but actually to restrict their reading options. And that's not what America's librarians signed up for:

It is the responsibility of school librarians to promote free access for students and not to aid in restricting their library materials. School librarians should resist labeling and advocate for development of district policies regarding leveled reading programs that rely on library staff compliance with library book labeling and non-standard shelving requirements. These policies should address the concerns of privacy, student First Amendment Rights, behavior modification in both browsing and motivational reading attitudes, and related issues.

Nobody, least of all a librarian, should be saying, "Yes, Pat, I know you love dinosaurs, and this looks like a great book about dinosaurs, but it has a blue sticker and you're only allowed to get out red sticker books, so here, read this nice book about doilies."

Kudos to the librarians for remembering what their mission is supposed to be and not allowing themselves to be sidetracked by a bad idea.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

NY: Warm Bodies for Charters

Travel with me to a board meeting at Giant Imaginary Hospital.

Board Member #1: We are still unable to fill several openings in the surgical department. What shall we do?

Board Member #2: We'll just have to offer a more competitive package, with better pay and better perks. I mean, that's how the free market works, right?  

Board Member #3: I have a better idea. Let's just promote Sven.

Board Member #2: Sven Svenberger? From the kitchen at the GIH cafeteria?

Board Member #3: Sure. He uses knives. Surgeon use knives.

Board Member #2: But we're talking about surgery on actual humans. He's a cook, Jim. Not a doctor.

Board Member #3: Fine. We'll give him a week of training.

Many starts have been having versions of this conversation as they pass their own version of warm body legislation, legislation that puts pretty much any warm body in the classroom.

But New York is considering a particularly special warm body rule that's especially for charter schools. The State University of New York (SUNY) is one of the main authorizers of charters in New York, and they've proposed that their charter schools be allowed to hire unqualified warm bodies for their schools. These warm bodies might have just thirty hours of classroom experience and training. That's almost a week.

Why do this? Because charters are too damn cheap to pay teachers a decent wage or offer them attractive working conditions. Or as Times-Union coverage of the story puts it:

Charter school advocates say the proposal would help schools that are struggling to find quality teachers who are certified in New York.

Okay, I could go up to $10.95

Sigh. Why do we have to keep explaining to free market fans how the free market works. If I can't buy a Lexus for $1.95, that doesn't suggest either an automobile shortage or that I "struggling to find quality automobiles." It suggests that I am offering an inadequate "bid" for the goods and services that I want.

Is that impossible to accomplish? Well, Success Academy (one of SUNY's chains) reportedly employed 1,000 staffers in 2014, and their boss, Eva Moscowitz makes almost $5 million  a year, which means taking a cut of $1 million would yield a $1K without having to cut anything but Moscowitz's personal fortune. SA has about 2700 seats, yet Moscowitz makes about twice the salary of NYC school chancellor Carmen Farina, who is responsible for many, many more students. In other words, charters could up the ante if they really wanted to.

But as writers and former charter teachers like Rann Miller suggest, charter staff turnover is significantly higher for a reason. Charter operators actually prefer to burn and churn their teachers, keeping their personnel costs low and their actual personnel more compliant and agreeable.

In other words, this warm body rule is being pursued as a solution to problems that charters created for themselves. On purpose.

Beyond the fact that there's no good reason for this charter warm body rule, it's a bad idea.

As Daniel Katz points out, these warm bodies will arrive in classrooms with significantly less training than real New York teachers. This is doubly problematic because 1) it's hugely insulting to professional teachers who actually get actual professional training and 2) it sets these warm bodies up for failure.

But Jersey Jazzman points out even more troubling implications. This sort of training is not so much about helping people switch careers as it is giving charters carte blanch to do their own training in house. In fact, the proposal seems to suggest that these warm body certificates will only be good in SUNY charters, making these warm body jobs the very definition of dead-end employment. There will be no getting a warm body charter teacher certificate and then moving on to other schools. And since these warm bodies will not have widely marketable skills, they will have even less bargaining power with their bosses. And if everything we've heard so far doesn't make us worry about the quality of these warm bodies, let's ask the other question-- what kind of dope would sign up for this in the first place?

As is often the case, we are looking at the kind of 'reform" that rich families will never tolerate. Proponents may say, "Look, some of the most prestigious private schools use teachers who aren't properly certified." I'm going to reply, "Yes, and those people at the top of their field are recruited by schools that offer great packages to make the job attractive, so that they always have their pick of top people. That is different from paying bottom dollar for a lousy job in order to recruit disposable warm bodies."

But then, these places aren't looking for top talent, because many of these charters don't believe in great teaching so much as they believe in content delivery units who follow the script and work through the approved materials in the charter-approved manner. That's one more reason this will look like a good idea to these charter operators-- instead of trained professional teachers whose heads are filled with ideas about good pedagogy and a variety of instructional techniques, you get to work with people who don't know anything about teaching except what they've been taught. Tired of hiring teachers who have been filled with nonsense about the importance of student voices in the classroom? Just hire people who have never heard about that, and don't tell them about it. You can talk about folded hands and speak when spoken to and eye contact and subservient obedience and instead of having staff make doubting faces or actually questioning you, in this happy magic world of warm body meat widgets, they'll just smile and nod and accept that what you say must be the truth about education.

You can see why many people have pushed back on this, and if you want to push, too, the Network for Public Education has a letter you can send, saying that the least that all students in New York deserve is an actual trained professional teacher in their classroom. Warm body rules do not serve students, and New York would do well not to had down this road.

A Very Special Busted Pencils

I find it extraordinary difficult to find time to take in podcasts. I'm a text guy; I want to consume information through words that I see (I say very Awful Things when a news site tries to make me watch a video).

But there are two education podcasts that I try to listen to regularly. Have You Heard I've plugged before, but I am also a fan of BustED Pencils, a podcast that has been around for a few years and which brings a decidedly rock and roll sensibility to its work. Host Tim Slekar started out as a classroom teacher and now holds down a college gig (and he has the added virtue of being familiar with my little corner of the world.

The podcast features some fun and quirky features, including a regular What Would Matt Damon's Mom Say feature, and they land some great interviews, including semi-regular appearances by Alfie Kohn. Working your way through the episodes gives you the chance to hear some of your favorite public ed advocates in their own voices (and yes, I was on the show once). The podcast is timely, peppy, and always on the current edge of what's going on.

But I want to draw extra attention to the most recent episode, which retains the usual sharp, energetic quality of BustED Pencils, but it looks at a deeper topic than usual-- mental health in schools. Dr. Slekar kicks the episode off with an honest an open discussion of his own struggles as a student, and then the episode goes on to deal with issues of suicide and fostering caring students.

The episode-- What Aren't We Talking About and Why-- is worth your time and attention. These are issues that are hugely important, albeit not always discussed. Slekar puts the issues in perspective right off the bat by questioning how we can possibly take a kid who's struggling with mental health issues and hit her with exercises to make her "de-stress" for the Big Standardized Test.

So if you're a podcast kind of person, this is my recommendation to you-- click on over and listen to this episode of BustED Pencils. It is worth your while.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Collective Freedom

The tension between individual freedom and collective action, between what the individual wants and what the community wants, between the needs of the many and the needs of the few-- that tension has been with us since Day One. Puritans came here to declare,"This will be a place where people are free to worship as they please-- as long as it's a form of worship we agree with." Southern colonists arrived declaring, "This will be a land in which every man's efforts can enrich him-- unless you're an indentured servant or a slave, in which case, your efforts are going to enrich me."

We have a Bill of Rights enumerating the rights possessed by every individual-- and a long and robust history of debate and case law determining where those rights actual stop in the name of the greater good (First Amendment does not cover yelling "fire" or even "elephant stampede" in a crowded theater, et al).

This, it should be noted, is not a tension limited to governance. To get married and become a part of a tiny family collective, you give up some of your personal freedom. That's how it works-- if you insist on acting as if you live in the land of Do As You Please, your little collective will fall apart (trust me on this). Membership in a group requires sacrifice of personal freedom.

As a nation we tend to lean toward individual freedom and away from collectivism. Even when we occasionally do Socialist things, we don't dare call it Socialism. Too much collective action and people start talking about the government "taking away my hard-earned money" or inflicting its will on our choices.

Some charter/voucher school fans like to frame the argument along these lines. The decry forcing students to go to "government" schools. Why shouldn't parents have the freedom to choose whatever school they like? Why be forced into some sort of collective (that, they claim, wastes a bunch of tax money anyway).

This framing is not accurate, and not just because no state has yet invested the kind of money or demanded the kind of accountability that would truly make all choices available to all parents. No, there's another reason this is a false characterization, a reason that charters and vouchers vs. public education is about the tension between freedom and society in a slightly different way.

There are areas of community life where we have decided to sacrifice individual freedom for the collective good (and thereby actually increase individual freedom).

Roadways. We could make every individual responsible for the roads that he personally uses-- building them, maintaining them-- but given the different resources the folks have and the interconnectedness required for roadways, we would end up with a higgledy-piggledy system that didn't really serve anyone particularly well. Back in the 19th century, folks in my community would get together and spend Saturday building a new road, a project nobody could have completed single-handedly. And it takes a national collective effort to create that marvel of the modern world-- the Interstate Highway System

Likewise, we could make every citizen form and hire her own personal army, but the resulting hodge-podge would not protect the country.

Education (surprise) is the other big example. Rather than just let each family locate their own personal tutor, communities decided that they had a stake in making sure that all children were educated (eg Puritans require a Godly community of Bible readers, therefor we need to teach everyone to read). Communities pooled resources and elected a board to manage those resources in response to community desires. The structure got stickier when we decided that since some communities didn't have sufficient resources, we would also pool resources on the state level.

As with roads and armies, the collective pooling of resources involved people who would rarely if ever use the items being produced. But their interested were still represented by their participation in the collective decision making. Even if you don't have a child in school, you can still run for school board, call board members, attend meetings and make a participatory nuisance of yourself. Everyone who helps pool the collective also has the option of participating in the collective decision-making.

Collectives require people to chip in, and they require some authority to decide how the various interests at play can be moderated so that everyone sort of gets something they kind of want. In some countries, that authority is some sort of emperor/beloved leader/tyrant. In our society, the idea is to elect folks for that job. Bottom line-- you put in some money, voice your opinion, and may or may not get exactly what you want.

Sometimes it takes the collective to get the job done. These decisions do not happen without debate. We're in the middle of an argument about whether or not health care should be such a collective effort or not. And there are always wealthy folks whose argument is something along the lines of, "We have no problem providing the roads and security that we need, and we provide it just the way we like it, so why should the government force us to be part of a collective effort by stealing our resources. And really, everybody should have the freedom to choose their own stuff the same way we do. What? They can't afford to? Well, wave this magic wand of free marketry at the problem; I'm sure those folks will be able to get what they deserve in no time at all."

Or to put it more succinctly, "I've got mine, Jack. Go pound sand."

There are several possible explanations for this. Rich folks are way hella rich. Super-rich. Buy your own city and run it the way you want rich. That and cooperation and compromise are taking a hit as shared values. Take music for a moment. Decades ago, we had to share air space. We listened to the radio station (one of only a few) we listened to music that the station believed the collective wanted. Decades ago when I chaperoned bus trips, negotiating the music we would all listen to was part of the challenge. Nowadays, we all curate our personal collection that we hear through our personal equipment. We get exactly what we personally want.

So is that all the charter/voucher revolution is? A bunch of parents just saying, "I want the school I want." And then just exercising their choice.

No, it's not. And here's why.

When it comes to bus ride music, we have done away with the collective. We don't pool resources or share decisions-- everyone just brings their own resources and makes do with that. No collective resources, no collective decisions.

But the charter/voucher revolution keeps the pooled resources part of public education. Everyone is still part of the collective resource pool. The collective decision-making is, however, gone.

Earlier this week I jumped off a post about Flat Earthers to ask charter/voucher fans how a charter/voucher system would deal with a school that was just wrong. I didn't get much of an answer. The public would never stand for it, one said-- but how exactly would the public's non-standing affect the charter school's existence? In a charter or voucher system, who steps in to say, "No, that can't be a school." I used the Flat Earth example because while we can all agree that the earth is not flat, we must also agree that there might be enough flat earthers out there to support a Flat Earth Charter school. Parents voting with their feet will not keep it from happening.

What charter/vouchers get us is collective resources managed in individual freedom mode (again, ignoring for the moment that the resources committed to such systems don't give parents anything remotely resembling the choices they are promised). By focusing on the individual parent decision, charteristas and voucherphiles try to make the argument that choice is super-democratic. It's not.

What is going on here is a bunch of parents saying, "I'm going to choose this private school for my kid, and you taxpayers have to pay for it whether you like it or not." Christian fundamentalists can spend tax dollars to send kids to a sharia law private school. Muslim taxpayers can pay to send students to a militantly anti-Islam private school. Black and brown taxpayers can pay to send white kids to a segregated private school.

Choice advocates have long made the point that education tax dollars don't belong to the public school-- they belong to the students. Neither of those is correct. The money belongs to the taxpayers. To distribute it without giving them any voice is literally taxation without representation. What charter/voucher systems continue to lack (well, one of the things they continue to lack) is accountability measures that insure taxpayers that their money is not being wasted. Is that conversation about what constitutes "waste" going to be difficult and contentious? Sure. And I wonder if part of the push behind charter/voucher systems is a desire to avoid that discussion ("I want to send my kid to a flat earth academy and I don't want to have to go through a bunch of crap to do it") But if you're going to be part of a community, city, state and nation, you can't just Do As You Please and maintain your membership.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Meet the New Boss

If there was one thing that was going to be a hallmark of the Betsy DeVos Depatrment of Education, it was going to be their studious hands-off approach. Previous departments may have used all manner of extra-legislative legerdemain to impose their will on the states (Common Core arm-twisting, Race to the Top bribery, waiver-based extortion). ESSA was born out of bipartisan grumpiness over USED's long, grabby arms, and yet, one of John King's final actions as secretary was to get himself spanked by Lamar Alexander for STILL trying to write laws from the USED offices.

"I will never do that kind of baloney," Betsy DeVos said.

"Easy to say until you have the wheel of power gripped tight in your own hand," said I. Here's a woman who has spent her whole adult life trying to impose her will on the education system. Now that she actually has the power, can she forgo actually using it?

Well, meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

And I don't mean actually meet her, because DeVos rarely does press, and when she does, it's a big nothing sandwich. 

As reported by Erica Green in the New York Times, DeVos's department has decided they will be the arbiter of adjectives, the setters of standards, the commandants of state capitals. Folks have submitted their ESSA plans, and USED is feeling its oats:

...the Education Department’s feedback to states about their plans to put the new law into effect, it applied strict interpretations of statutes, required extensive detail and even deemed some state education goals lackluster.

The department has actually decided to dictate what "ambitious" means in state education plans, a move which Mike Petrilli (Fordham Institution and the first number in every ed reporters rolodex) called "mind-boggling."

Granted, "ambitious" is a fairly useless legislative weasel-word that in this context means almost nothing. But folks were reading DeVos's early signals to mean that states would get the benefit of the doubt in any fuzzy areas. The head of the Delaware branch of the state-spanning reformster advocacy group CAN gave DeVos a pass (and he's allowed, because, somehow, he was one of the co-authors of Delaware's plan) because he admits they had shied away from being "bold and aggressive," thereby tripling the number of meaningless words in the conversation.

The Leadership Conference, a group of education reformsters dressed up as a civil rights type group (it includes Stand for Children, Democrats for Education Reform and Teach Plus, groups that have been tireless in pushing the corporate reform of public education), sent a letter arguing for retention of a mass of Obama-era criteria for evaluating state plans,demanding that the department serves as "not simply a rubber stamp of state submissions." Their preferred adjectives are "aggressive, meaningful and achievable."

This is the kind of imprecise blather you get when education policy is hammered out by amateurs. It often gives me flashbacks to working with student teachers in my classroom and some variation of this conversation:

Me: So your plan for tomorrow is to have an "ambitious" discussion about Huck Finn. What does that actually mean?

ST: What do you mean? It'll be ambitious.

Me: But what is that going to look like? What questions are you going to ask that will be ambitious? How will you draw ambitious answers out of the students, and what themes and ideas will you be looking for and how will you draw them out and what will let you know that the students have been ambitious enough to meet your goals?

ST: I don't know. Ambitious, you know? Like hard and stuff.

There are two big problems with the policy discussion this has touched off. ESSA was written by education amateurs, and now state-level amateurs will design the plans which will in turn be evaluated by the amateurs at the department. I'm betting not one of the people involved in this process would be able to walk into a class and effectively teach and ambitious lesson. So problem number one is that none of the people involved in working with this policy knows what he is talking about.

Not that specifying would help, because that would require a specific one-size-fits-all answer, which would be an answer that was wrong in the majority of the cases. That, in fact, was what we got with Common Core-- an attempt to lay out specifically what an "ambitious" education would look like, and it was junk.

The further away from the classroom education policy is set, the worse that policy will be. It will either be too specific, and tie the hands of teachers who are far better positioned to decide what will work with a specific set of students than folks who have never met those students. Or it will be too vague, which will be useless-- and then someone will try to firm it up by making it specific anyway.

Brace yourself, because I am about to agree with Neal McCluskey of the hyper-libertarian CATO Institute:

And so we remain pretty much where we were under the Obama administration in education, and where we are with every law that leaves it to regulatory agencies to fill in the meaning of crucial terms: with states, localities, and the people at the mercy of bureaucrats and secretaries.

So USED will be defining "ambitious" and "challenging" and all sorts of other words that they don't really know the meaning of in the context of a classroom, states will dance around trying to make the department happy (and, I predict, in some cases pleading for a template to follow, which takes us right back to Common Core), and by the time it all filters down to a classroom, we teachers will be trying to just get our job done without tripping over it too much. My apologies to my many progressive friends, but every day I move closer to the opinion that the best thing to do with the Department of Education is pack it in mothballs and stick in the attic, next to Grandma's old trunk.

So meet the new boss, same as the old boss, still insistent on defining adjectives and policy and rules, regulations and laws. She doesn't show Arne Duncan's predilection for talking nonsense to the public, but she's still going to tell us how to do our jobs.