Friday, January 20, 2017

Confessions of a Trumpistan Teacher

Look, give me just a few minutes. I need to tell someone.

Well, I screwed up.

Understand, I was on edge. Maria didn't get our cups of espresso out on the veranda until a full minute after she had served the toast, and the toast was already cold. Do you know how hard it is to spread the butter when the toast isn't quite warm enough to melt it? Do you? I mean, seriously, do you, because I don't. I have people for that. But it certainly looked like Maria was having a hard time buttering my toast, and she cut some little divots out when she tried. The toast was edible, but it was bothersome and firing Maria made us a full five minutes behind schedule.

Then, to top it off, Lawrence pulled the Lexus around when I had told him clearly that I wanted the BMW for this morning. I think it's a little more somber, more appropriate for the mood of the day.

Of course, they swore Trump in today as President, and that means the gravy train is over for all of us at East Egg Elementary School and all the other public schools around the country. It's frustrating, and upsetting. Even Wallace gave me a look when he was holding open the door to the teachers' lounge. He almost looked me straight in the eye. Can you imagine? But I guess even a public school teachers' doorman can tell that the winds of change are shifting against us.

You would think Trump would respect us, one wealthy individual to another, but for some reason my vast wealth doesn't get me the respect of the truly elite in this country. I suppose it's that we didn't inherit our vast wealth the way they did. No, we have depend on a vast national conspiracy.

Sure, the NEA and AFT have done a good job of creating this fictional chain of schools, where we pretend to teach children as a cover for receiving stacks of money that our bought-and-paid-for public officials extort from the taxpayers. You would think we'd win respect for the creativity of this scheme, which has involved conning generation after generation of Americans into thinking that education is a real thing and that our country has some sort of obligation to educate all of our children. I tell you, the whole scheme is genius story-telling. And now it looks doomed.

We'd talked about that very subject just last week when all the Democratic elected officials came to their weekly meeting with us. As usual, we were dictating their positions and actions for the coming week, making it clear that they weren't to make a move without consulting us and our union bosses-- but they looked worried. What if Trump came up with some sort of jamming device so that they couldn't get the union signal in their earpieces? How would they know to vote? We tried to reassure them, but it was a scary moment for all of us.

Even Principal Benson looked upset today. At lunchtime, the caviar was not even neatly arranged on the silver lunch platters, and my filet mignon was distinctly a shade too pink. But I didn't have the heart to send it back; I'm sure out in the kitchen they sense that we'll have to let some of the sous chefs go.

I just want you to understand that all of this was weighing on me when I walked into my afternoon fifth grade science class. Some of the students, perhaps sensing weakness on this day of all days, started to ask questions. Migratory patterns of barn swallows. Wingspans of bats. And one little girl-- I think her name is Susie somethingorother-- asked what happens to caterpillars after they spend time in their cocoons, and before I could stop myself, I was explaining to her that the caterpillars emerge from the cocoons as brand new butterflies. And then I saw the look of excitement on her face, and I realized my terrible mistake.

I had allowed a student to acquire some knowledge. And not just any student, but one of the beautiful ones.

It's the most fundamental oath we take when we join the vast union-run government school conspiracy-- whatever you do, make sure that you deprive students of all knowledge (especially the young and beautiful ones-- it's generally allowed to slip a few bits of knowledge to the older and ugly ones).

But I had done it. I had failed to deprive Susie of all knowledge, and now my union bosses will probably call me in for severe criticism, maybe even docking some of my conspirator's pay. Of course it's distressing-- we just put a down payment on another home in the Hamptons (this one has a nicer view). I suppose we can sell off some of the jewelry.

Am I upset? Of course-- I violated my most sacred teacher oath and accidentally taught someone, and we teachers take our oaths to interfere with education just as seriously as doctors take their oath to deny health care.

But now that we live in Trumpistan, under a leader who fully understands what we're up to--well, we fought off the people who tried to prove we are denying students all knowledge by catching us with their tricky and insightful tests. But how will we deal with someone who has such keen insight into how the whole government school scam works as just a front for funneling tax dollars to make union teachers a special rich wing of the Democratic party? Now that Trump and DeVos have found us out and want a piece of the action, can even extra sacrifices to the Dark Lord help?

Collapse? No, no, I'm okay. I look shaky? Maybe I should sit down, but I'm not sick-- I'm just flush with cash.

How Not To Improve Schools

The report is in from the US Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences-- "School Improvement Grants: Implementation and Effectiveness." It is our last lesson in school reform from the Obama-Duncan-King education department, and although that version of the department is being bulldozed under even as I type, there are still important lessons to be learned here.

The full report is over 400 pages long, and if you want to read the whole thing, be my guest. But I don't think there are any devils lurking in these details. Because the fourth-of-five findings pretty much tells the story:

Overall, across all grades, we found that implementing any SIG -funded model had no significant impacts on math or reading test scores, high school graduation, or college enrollment. 

The Obama administration spent $3 billion dollars on school improvement grants (actually $7 billion by the time you factor it all in), and it did not produce any measurable improvements, at all.

Some folks are going to jump straight from there to their favorite conclusion-- throwing more money at schools doesn't do any good. But that's the wrong conclusion, for two reasons.

First, this results of the study are inconclusive because they checked only for Big Standardized Test scores, graduation rate, and college enrollment. For the sixty gazzilionth time, let me point out that these are narrow, twisted, not-very-good measures of education. I would argue, for instance, that if the three billion had been used to add music and art teachers to every single school in America, education would have been vastly improved-- but that improvement would not show up in a study like this. Likewise more guidance counselors, more welding instructors or field trips would improve education, but not in ways that would show up in these metrics.

Second-- and this is probably the more important lesson-- is the question of how SIG money was spent. Because the feds did not at any point say, "You know, you are the experts there on the ground who best know what your school needs to be better, so we are going to trust your judgment." No, as the report aptly sums up, the money was not just tied to strings, but wrapped up in strings, bound in strings, woven into a menacing macrame of strings:

SIG allowed grantees to implement one of four school intervention models (transformation, turnaround, restart, or closure). These models promoted the use of many improvement practices in four main areas: (1) adopting comprehensive instructional reform strategies, (2) developing and increasing teacher and principal effectiveness, (3) increasing learning time and creating community-oriented schools, and (4) having operational flexibility and receiving support.

SIG was like food stamps that could only be spent on baby formula, ostrich eggs, and venison, and it didn't matter if the families receiving the stamps lived on a farm with fresh milk and chicken eggs, or if they were vegetarians, or if they lived where no store sells ostrich eggs, or if there are no babies in the family.  USED used SIG to dictate strategy and buy compliance with their micro-managing notions about how schools had to be fixed.

The moral of the story is not that money doesn't make a difference. The moral of the story is that when bureaucrats in DC dictate exactly how money must be spent-- and they are wrong about their theory of action and wrong about the strategies that should be used by each school and wrong about how to measure the effectiveness of those strategies-- then the money is probably wasted. We'll see soon enough if anyone left at the Department of Education can identify that lesson.

What Do You Want?

In teacher school, we're taught that effective classroom management involves focusing on what you want the students to do, not what you don't want them to do.

In other words, "stop twiddling your thumbs" is less effective than "please read the story." I always think of Larry Shreckengost, my high school driver's ed teacher who told us to look at where we wanted to go, not at what we wanted to avoid hitting. It's true-- stare at that telephone pole you don't want to hit, and you will find yourself driving straight toward it.

It is easy to get sucked up in no. It is easy to give over head space and voice to all the things that you don't want to see happen. But that inevitably is too much of the wrong thing and not enough of the right thing. A classroom that is dominated by don't becomes a negative space, a room where everyone's attention is given to the Wrong Stuff and they walk out ignorant of the right stuff.

Writing instruction is a perfect example. If writing instruction is all about a huge list of things that your students are not supposed to do, your students will create consistently mediocre-to-bad writing. Good writing is not about avoiding doing what's wrong-- it's about embracing what works, what is right.

The GOP has painted themselves into this exact corner, most notably with the issue of Obamacare. They have been against many things; now they have to figure out what they are for, and it's turning out to be a bit of a stumper. Liberals and progressives would be wise not to spend the next four years stuck in that same swampy trap.

None of this is meant to suggest that if we just jump on our unicorns and dance off positively and hopefully into the rainbow sky, everything will be fluffy bunnies and ice cream cones. Sometimes moving toward a destination, a goal-- sometimes that means getting past a large dark mass of powerful obstacles. But it doesn't work to sit down and just whinge away about how those obstacles shouldn't be there. Worse, sit there too long and when the obstacles are swept away, you can't even remember where you were going.

In short, the obstacles aren't the thing. The goal is the thing.

What do you want?

Do you want a world with equity and justice, a wold where people are treated with respect and decency no matter who they are? Then work toward that.

Do you want a world where the arts, the vital expressions of what it means to be human, to be in the world-- do you want a world where those things are supported and valued? Then work toward that.

Do you want world where education is important, and institutions work to provide excellent and appropriate educations for every single student? Then work toward that.

Do you want a world where government, both elected and appointed, deals with citizens honestly, openly and responsibly? Then work toward that.

Do you want a world where we stand up for each other, have each other's backs, defends each other's rights relentlessly? Then work toward that.

Do you want a world where everyone gets to lead a decent life and find their best selves, regardles off background or circumstances? Then work toward that.

Do you want a world where we all strive to be our best selves and are guided by our highest values? Do you want a world where love and honor and decency and kindness are the values by which we live? Do you want a world where we elevate leaders who elevate us all?

Then work toward that. Lift up what-- and who-- you care about. Honor what you think is honorable.Talk and listen and read and write to strengthen and tune and grow your vision of the world you want to see, and then work toward that.

At times it may be hard to see, hard to even imagine. Keep working. Know what you want to say yes to, and say yes to that. Work toward that. 

Thursday, January 19, 2017

School Accountability Diet

One of the best things the feds ever created was the nutritional information panel for food.

When I go shopping, I can quickly and easily access information about the food I buy. There's how much fat in these power bars??!! Look-- twinkies have far fewer calories than I imagined!

The panels are a model of transparency, because the information is there for me to do with as I will. Years ago I didn't care at all about dietary fiber; nowadays, it's something I can stand to pay attention to. Protein was never a big deal, but since my wife is currently constructing a pair of twins, we pay attention to how much protein there is in the food we bring home. And we can shift our attention as new information becomes available-- different types of fat or cholesterol used to be non-issues, but now informed consumers know there are distinctions that matter.

Think of how much better this system works than one in which food was rated or ranked. If the feds slapped on labels that said "These bagels get a B+" or "These frozen waffles are the 215th-ranked food in this grocery store." I would have virtually no information on which to base my judgment, with the whole complex issue of the many characteristics of food and how it balances against what I need and want in my diet-- that would all be reduced to a piece of data so narrow and limited and opaque as to be meaningless, useless for me in making a decision.

This is how I know that many reformsters who advocate for school grades and rankings "so that parents can make an informed choice" are lying-- they are neither supporting parents nor choice.

To support a grade or ranking, rather than a simple transparent data system like the nutritional information labels, you would have to believe one of the following

1) Parents aren't capable of understanding and processing the information, so we'll have to process it and evaluate it for them.

2) Parents will make the "wrong" choice, so we must stack and sum up the data in a way that pushes parents toward the choices that we want them to choose. We must decide what decision they should make.

3) It has nothing to do with the parents. We want a basis on which to attack and close certain schools, and that's what the ranks and grades are for.

If the food system worked like this, government bureaucrats could rate Pop Tarts an A because they have bright colors and lots of sugar, or C because they don't have very much actual fruit or F because  the bureaucratic system is operated by people who have stock in the Toaster Strudle corporation.

Choice advocates love to talk about letting parents vote with their feet, but in fact rating and ranking are all about making sure that the Powers That Be get to pick the winners and losers. It's about creating the illusion of choice without the real, complete, transparent information to make a real choice. It's no coincidence that A-F systems are particularly popular in states where policy leaders are intent on dismantling public ed and replacing it with a profitable charter system.

One of the biggest problems with school choice in this country is that choice fans are, for the most part, not really trying to create a choice system. If they were, we would be collecting all sorts of data about schools and putting it out there for parents to decide, based on whatever criteria they think is important, like a giant nutritional content label. But that's not what we're doing-- choice advocates are keeping the definition of "good" and "bad" schools gripped tightly and secretly in their own hands, making sure that they retain the right to pick winners and losers (and there is no free-floating information that might contradict charter/choice school marketing).

There are many reasons that a public school advocate would oppose charter and choice systems, but one of the reasons I oppose the particular system that we are seeing implemented from Michigan to Florida is that it's dishonest, it's a lie. It's not really a parental choice system at all, and we can tell that from the label, which is designed in a rating or ranking system, to keep all choice out of the hands of parents and in the hands of the people who run the system.

Trevor Noah Covers DeVos

I'm not always a Trevor Noah fan, and he repeats the egregious characterization of Betsy DeVos as a "businesswoman"-- really? What business, exactly, has she ever run? She's an heiress and the wife of an heir. But otherwise, this is a pretty good mainstream take on DeVos's terrible hearing performance.

MTV's set-up is problematic for embedding, but follow this link for the clip. And now we've got a good youtube link (h/t Jack Covey)

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The $1 Salary

So apparently billionaire heiress and presumptive Head of the Department of Things She Knows Nothing About, Betsy DeVos intends to take a salary of a mere $1 when she ascends her education throne. I think that's a lousy idea.

I know it's meant to make her seem magnanimous and willing to take on the office just out of the sweet public servicey goodness of her heart. I suppose there may also be some rich person tax dodge here-- the DeVos family can now claim all school children in the US as their dependents now, or some such accounting trick. Maybe, having never really pulled down a paycheck, DeVos is unsure what to do with it. But mostly I think we're supposed to be impressed that she's not taking our tax dollars to do the job.

Well, I'm not.

First of all, I don't care for the model that says federal leadership jobs are best handed over to the wealthy. It's a kind of backwards method of barring non-wealthy people from powerful leadership positions. It's a model for a benevolent plutocracy. You folks don't need democratically elected representatives-- we rich folks will take care of you and provide what we think is best for you. Now shut up and go back to your homes to await further instructions.

Second, I think it's a fundamental principle that you pay people to do work. It is part of a system of accountability. If you accept a salary, you are accountable to the people who pay you that salary.

The corollary is clear-- if you accept no salary, you are accountable to nobody.

It's true that there are some exceptions. Lawrence Pelletier, the president of my college when I attended, supposedly led the college for $1. And there is a world of volunteers who keep so many organizations (my own retired parents run an antique music museum that you should visit if you're ever in town). Heck, for over forty years I have played in an all-volunteer town band, and as it turns out, nobody is paying me to write or maintain this blog.

Of course, being a volunteer means that we can pursue what we're passionate about, set our own priorities, and do it at the time of our own choosing. We answer to ourselves, follow our own conceptions of how the job should be done, set our own standards, pick our own priorities.

These are not qualities I'm looking for in officials holding major federal offices. I do not someone running the Department of Education (or any other high-level department) answering only to themselves. I do not want them deciding that as long as they are achieving their own personal goals, there's no need to consider anyone else.

I want DeVos to take her damn salary. I know it's a drop in her big billionairess bucket, but I want her to take it anyway.  I want her to be regularly reminded that she works for the American people-- all of the American people and all of their children and all of their schools. I want her reminded that her employment comes with a variety of rules and regulations that she is not free to heed or ignore as the feeling strikes her. I want her reminded that in that office, the American taxpayers and not the DeVos family pay her salary.

"Follow the money" is a thing because when you follow the money, you find out who is really in charge, who is really calling the shots. And if DeVos is only being paid a buck, the money trail may lead to many dark and interesting places, but it will never lead to the American people.

DeVos Song and Dance

I am grateful that work kept me from experiencing the DeVos hearing in one long take, like a thousand fingernails being dragged down a twenty-mile chalkboard. So just as I experienced a disjointed hearing, I will share my disjointed thoughts.

The Reviews Are In

Wait! I'm now famous because why..? And who wants to shoot me...?

One of the reasons I'm not doing an in-depth review of the hearing is that I don't need to-- every major news outlet covered it, in some cases tweeting it in real time. Many major news outlets had one or more stories up by 11:00 last night. This may seem obvious, but what was the last education story that got this kind of blanket coverage? Maybe the Scopes Trial?

And the coverage was pretty honest, ignoring for the most part the shmoozing snoozefest that was the GOP massage of the candidate. NBC went with the headline "Education Pick Betsy DeVos Will Not Rule Out Defunding Public Schools" which is both shocking and true. USA Today says "More Questions Than Answers." This morning, millions of Americans can easily find accounts of the hearings or watch the clips. After all these years, an education story is getting broad play.

Missing the Wait Time

The bizarre choice by Lamar Alexander to protect DeVos by limiting question time didn't just save her from having to answer more questions. It took away all wait time.

Imagine, for instance, if that moment in which DeVos is ignorant of the fundamental argument about proficiency vs. growth-- imagine if Franken had had the time to let her just sit there in stammer-punctuated silence, searching for some string of words. Imagine if her vain hunt for the meaning of IDEA had been allowed to stretch into a long painful twist in the wind.

The GOP senators lived up to every cent the DeVos family spent on them, but none so much as Alexander, who protected DeVos from protracted displays of her ignorance.

Oh, That Smile

Somewhere a bunch of dictionary editors are pasting screen captures from last night in to the entry for "smug." That was the look of a woman who knew that this was just a silly little display of theater that would in no way change the outcome, who was vaguely amused by all these little people who acted so earnest, like what they said or did would actually matter. This was the smile of a woman who didn't lose her cool with the Senate grilling for the same reason you don't get angry when your five-year-old wants to show you a picture of a butterfly that she's drawn.

This was the smile of a woman who knew that absolutely nothing was riding on that hearing.

A River in Egypt

You may have been wondering how DeVos would manage to go mainstream with a portfolio of far-right causes at her back like, say, support for conversion therapy for gays and lesbians. The answer, it turns out, comes straight from the Donald Trump playbook-- when called on something you said and did in the past that is now inconvenient to acknowledge, just lie about it.

DeVos tried to pretend that somehow she'd been funneling giant stacks of money to groups whose mission she doesn't really support, or that she doesn't really give money to, or just argle bargle it wasn't me. It's a bold choice because none of this advocacy work is exactly secretive, nor are the groups shy about lauding her for her support. And Guidestar (if you have an account) tells us that the "clerical error" that made DeVos an officer of her mother's group went on for years and years.

Likewise, we are clearly going to be treated to the History of Detroit Schools from an alternate dimension.


Best answer ever. It's the kind of inconsequential fumble that launches a million memes and will most certainly be blown out of proportion (and I will probably help). But it's funny. I need to be armed to protect myself from bears in my classroom. How about very large wild dogs? Rabid rabbits? What about if I want to hunt in my classroom for food? Bears.

What Has She Learned?

It hasn't gotten the kind of play that the exchanges with Sanders, Warren or Kaine got, but I think Betsy's response to Michael Bennet was the most telling, the most important, the most scary response of the hearing. Bennet asked what she had learned about schools and charters from the experiences of Detroit. She could not answer.

The closest thing the woman has to educational experience is being the political muscle behind the Detroit Experiment. The DeVos's are perhaps the only people who are in touch with every major player in that charter revolution, and they've been on top of it for decades. She has served as a self-appointed official of the state of Michigan with education at the top of her portfolio. It is the one card she had to play against the "inexperienced" charge-- and she totally blew it. She has learned nothing. From the destruction of a city's school system, the gutting of educational opportunities for Detroit's poor, she has learned nothing. She felt expert enough to call for the dissolution of Detroit Public School system, but she has learned nothing.

This is one of the big problems with zealots and True Believers-- they do not learn and grow because they already Know The Truth, so no new learning is necessary.

DeVos is ignorant-- and she will stay that way.

Won't Rule Out Defunding Public Schools?

Yeah, we already knew that.

She's Not a Banker

Honestly, there's a very tiny pool of candidates who could answer yes to Warren's "Have you ever overseen a trillion-dollar loan program?" But the fact that DeVos has never dealt with the college loan industry is just one more reminder that this is a woman who has been picked to oversee a part of the country that she has not one piece of experience in. This is not selecting a non-lawyer as a Supreme Court justice-- this is selecting someone who has never seen the inside of a courtroom or ever talked to a lawyer as a Supreme.

I Think She Knows What IDEA Is Just Fine

Folks are talking about how DeVos seemed not to understand what IDEA is, especially the significance that it's a federal law that you can't just "leave up to the states."

I don't think that's what DeVos told us.

I think DeVos told us that she subscribes to this administration's concept of law, which is that it's a set of rules that you may or may not have to actually follow. I think the principle of "It's a federal law but the states can decide whether they're going to follow it or not" is exactly what she meant and exactly what she believes. She knows it's a federal law-- she just doesn't care, or intend to enforce it.

Bad News, Accountability Hawks

The reform coalition that has tried to keep left and right working together for charters and all the rest-- that coalition has been trying to make space around the issue of accountability. To plug that gap, DeVos supporters have insisted that the stories about Betsy's anto-accountability stance for charters is baloney, and she totally wants charter accountability. Well, now there's this:

Kaine: “If confirmed will you insist upon equal accountability in any K-12 school or educational program that receives taxpayer funding whether public, public charter or private?”
DeVos: “I support accountability.”
Kaine: “Equal accountability?”
DeVos: “I support accountability.”
Kaine: “Is that a yes or a no?”
DeVos: “I support accountability.”
Kaine: “Do you not want to answer my question?”
DeVos: “I support accountability.”
Kaine: “Let me ask you this. I think all schools that receive taxpayer funding should be equally accountable. Do you agree?”
DeVos: “Well they don’t, they are not today.”
Kaine: “Well, I think they should. Do you agree with me?
DeVos: “Well no . . . ”
Kaine, interrupting her, said: “You don’t agree with me.”

So that's a hard pass on accountability for charters.

P.S. Screw You, Joe Lieberman

"Best qualification to run education is to know nothing about education" my Aunt Fanny. Yes, and when you are sick or injured, you go looking for someone with no medical experience. And if you need to be defended in court, you look for some guy who's completely ignorant of the law. Remind me to never, ever take this guy seriously again.

Does Your Phone Still Work?

God only knows when the actual vote will be taken, and the handwriting is pretty much on the wall. But that doesn't mean that the DeVos appointment should be a free walk in the park for anyone involved. Call senators. Tell them what a spectacularly lousy choice she is.

And while you're at it, tell your friends and neighbors. Alexander did do us one favor-- by limiting senators to five-minute question periods, he stage-managed a hearing that is available in easy-to-watch short clips. People who would never sit through a four hour video of congressional yammering can totally catch the point from DeVos's five minutes of stammering in front of Sanders or stunned ignorance in front of Franken or bad stonewalling of Kaine. Share.