Tuesday, July 22, 2014

How To Win Hearts and Minds for Charterdom

My esteemed colleague at Edushyster has scored an awesome little handbook straight from the world of charter school marketing-- the Charter School Messaging Notebook. Prepared by the Glover Group for the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, this handy guide tells you everything you need to know about launching your successful foray into the lucrative world of pretending to run schools. So tip, not just of the hat, but my entire head to her for turning this up.

Edushyster has already covered the areas dealing with some of the specific language choices of messaging ("Say This, Not That"), but there is so much more to learn from these eighteen pages of marketing gold. Because it's not what you do-- it's what you say.

The Notebook provides valuable information about winning hearts and minds. First, the researchers plumbed the depths of public knowledge. This pre-assessment determined

    * 39% "know" charters are public, 37% think they're private
    * 53% think achievement at charters is highers
    * 25% think students are admitted by academic qualifications, 45% don't know
    * 25% think charters can charge tuition
    (Note that use of "think" or "know" in these hints that researchers know what's true and what's not.)

The researchers note (and we should, too) that even burdened with mis- and no- information, voters favor support for charters hits 50% (higher for Hispanic and African American voters). But here comes the really good news for charterpreneurs:

After being given key messages, support for increasing the number of charter schools increases to 81%.

Let's go ahead and read what the writers meant instead of what they actually said (I'm thinking we're not giving key messages to the support). Exactly what are those key messages that increase support dramatically for charter schools, and at whom should we hurl them?

Who are "Our People"?

The report shows who leads the pack in charter support without any extra information, and who leads the pack after getting key messages. Those are interesting lists, but what's really interesting is the list of people who can be moved the most by proper messaging. These are our targets, the people that we can turn from Doubting Charter Thomases into True Charter Believers, if only we smack them with the right messages.

     * Women over 50
     * Voters with a high school education or less
     * Voters over the age of 65
     * Voters in the Midwest and rural communities
     * Voters from low-income families
     * Women
     * Registered independents

So with what messages shall we smack them?

The researchers tested twelve messages. Three turned out to be huntless dogs, but the remaining nine look like they can bring home the mail effectively. In order of swellness, they are-

1) Achievement.
This is the big winner. So keep pushing out those misleading stats like the high college enrollment or the 100% graduation rates. It goes without stating that you should avoid bringing up the lackluster student achievement or the humongous attrition rates.

2) Responsiveness
Actually surprised me with this one, but the idea that teachers in charters are free to adjust to individual student needs is attractive (if somewhat fictional), as is the idea that the school itself can be flexible. Not sure how "no excuses" schools are supposed to make use of this marketing trick.

3) Partnership
Charter schools provide partnership between students, teachers and parents where all are held accountable with freedom to innovate  and stuff.

4) Innovation
Charters are on the cutting edge of public education reform. Really? So, they are further into Common Core and high-stakes testing than the rest of us? I'm pretty sure the charters that are advertising themselves as specifically NOT having Common Core are not using this page from the handbook.

5) Waiting Lists
This comes with an asterisk and a warning. Use it where people are trained to think "waiting list" means "huge demand" and not in places where people think "waiting list" means "huge PITA leading to no choice."

6) Options
When the public school won't treat your special snowflake properly, go to a charter. They'll understand.

7) Defining charters
This thread runs throughout the paper. Keep defining charters, so that you can replace peoples' many and varied misconceptions with more market-useful misconceptions. The go-to definition here is

Charter schools are unique public schools that are allowed the freedom to be more innovative while being held accountable for advancing student achievement. Like traditional public schools, they are publicly funded, do not charge tuition, do not have special entrance requirements, are not associated with any religion, and operate in all kinds of communities across the country-- urban, suburban, and rural.

You may need to practice getting through that with a straight face.

8) Social Justice
Another asterisk. This works great with minority voters as long as you don't start comparing minority kids to white kids.

9) Resources
Tax money does not belong to the school district; it belongs to the students. This is an interesting legal notion. I assume you should not frame it by saying to childless taxpayers, "You deserve no say in how the school taxes that you pay are spent."

Other Research of Note

The researchers also asked voters what actions they thought would lead to improvements in student achievement in public schools.

Here are the winning ideas:
    * Encouraging parent involvement
    * Reducing class size
    * Firing poor performing teachers
    * Creating safer, more disciplined learning environment

Here are the losing ideas:
    * Recruiting better principals/school leaders
    * Creating smaller, more personalized schools
    * Limiting the power of teacher unions
    * Creating new PUBLIC schools so parents have more choices

It's worth noting that the very highest choices only scored 58% agreement.

Messaging messaging messaging

Throughout the notebook, the writers provide little sidebars called "Charter Schools That Work" in which they provide a sample word salad using the points they just made to create a winning message. This handbook is all about message. Message, message, message. At no point do the writers address how a charter should actually be operated-- this is strictly about how to talk about what they do. We're not concerned with the reality here-- only the marketing.

That leads us to a last page of final advice

Always focus on students. "Hands down, student focused messages perform better than anything else we can talk about."

Get your PhD in Messaging. "The more we Personalize, Humanize and Dramatize our messages, the better we do."

Research done by the Word Doctors, a world-renowned messaging firm (yes, that's a thing), shows that the most absolute golden message phrase is "effective schools that challenge students and prepare them for the future."

Also, "the right of every child to receive an excellent education" beats "the right of families to choose the public school that is best for their children" 4 to 1. Yes, that's what all of this leads to. Discussing rights not as things that people have or deserve or which conflict with each other, but as phrases that test well among voters/consumers.

Children are our most effective spokesperson. When choosing a positive image, go with a small child.

What can we learn here?

People who love public schools (I mean actual public schools or traditional public charter schools, not public-when-it-comes-to-scarfing-up-tax-dolars-but-not-so-much-when-it-comes-to-accountability charters) need to see this sort of thing.

Practically speaking, it's useful to know the sorts of things they will claim so that we can be prepared to point out. We know to ask questions such as, "100% graduation rate! That's awesome. How many of the freshmen you had four years ago were part of that graduating class?"

And we also need to take a good hard look at what the research tells us about the concerns and cares of taxpayers, voters and parents. We don't this kind of research often, or even ever, and we'd be fools not to take note of what is uppermost in the minds of the people we serve.

But we also need to know about this stuff because this is one of the fronts of this battle that we are just not prepared to fight. We invest a ton of time trying to adjust, align, argue about, fight with, overcome, and otherwise cope with reality. Meanwhile, charters just deal with their issues by making shit up. It is one of our disabilities in this fight-- we feel bound by reality, while they simply do not.

Odd, isn't it? One of the guiding principles of Schools These Days is data. Measurable, quantifiable facts, facts that can't be argued away or spun or shaded. Here's your reminder that even the reformsters know that's not how it works. It's not the facts. It's not what you actually do. It's how you talk about it.

The Hole in the Bucket of Teachers

Many news outlets reported on a study from the Alliance for Excellent Education, which as you might guess from the buzzy name, is a DC based advocacy group that thinks CCSS is swell and aspires to have all students graduate with 21st century skills. Also, rigor.

What does the study say?

The study focuses on the attrition rate for teachers, and didn't provide much new information about those figures or their causes, instead recycling work from Ingersoll, Merrill and Stuckey done for the Consortium for Policy Research in Education. That particular paper was released back in April (I actually wrote about it earlier this year) but it didn't get quite the press that A4EE did. That would appear to be because A4EE called up Robert Ingersoll and worked with him to add something a little sexier to the mix-- a price tag.

The basic numbers remain the same. About a half million teachers move every year, that half mill about evenly split between Find Another Place To Work and Find Another Career To Work In. Difficult schools are more likely to lose teachers. The attrition rate is highest among newbies. Also, though A4EE doesn't port this info over from the CPRE report, it's worth noting that minority teachers have a higher rate of attrition-- bad news for meeting the need to have a teacher population that looks more like the students population.

The price tag is a sexy headline-writer (I don't think I've seen a single piece about this report that doesn't mention dollars in the headline). We throw the number $2.2 Billion around, based primarily on the cost of recruiting, hiring, and training new people (he also breaks it down by state). That has got to be a hard imaginary number to whip up, and in practice it has to vary greatly. I think my own district probably picks up new teachers for less than a grand, easily. But the number is effective counter-prop to those who think that if we could just fire all the old teachers and replace them with new ones, it would save us tons of money.

Why are we losing them ?

The report does link the attrition to more than money, saying that more experienced teachers help close the achievement gap.

Ingersol offers some explanations for the attrition:

Teachers departing because of job dissatisfaction link their decision to leave to inadequate administrative support,isolated working conditions, poor student discipline, low salaries, and a lack of collective teacher influence over schoolwide decisions. Ingersoll writes, “In short, the data suggest that school staffing problems are rooted in the way schools are organized and the way the teaching occupation is treated and that lasting improvements in the quality and quantity of the teaching workforce will require improvements in the quality of the teaching job."

The report cites research which indicates that social capitol-- the interactions and mutual support between teachers and staff-- has a positive effect on student achievement.

What should we do?

The report has several recommendations, led by an overhaul of new teacher induction for which they lean heavily on the work of the New Teacher Center, a group funded by the Usual Suspects, including Hewlet and Gates. But the NTC's ideas about teacher induction, on paper, are not bad. Radical things like, for instance, carefully selecting a good mentor and providing time for the mentor and new teacher to meet, yet another idea that doesn't exactly sound like rocket surgery, but which many schools can't quite get organized enough to actually do.

The five recommendations are
      * regular teacher eval with multiple measures
      * develop systems to encourage high quality teaching
      * comprehensive induction programs for newbs
      * school improvement processes should include analyses of school teaching/learning conditions
      * support and foster staff collegiality

Things the study does not say

The study does not say that we have a high teacher attrition rate because tenure and FILO keep chasing away brilliant young teachers.

The study does not say that more teachers would stick around if we had more merit pay.

The study also avoids some conclusions implicit in its own sources. Ingersoll clearly states that a lack of control over their own work is one of the frustrations that often drive teachers away. Based on that and my own interaction with, you know, reality, I'd recommend that school districts systemically structure themselves for greater teacher control and autonomy.

In other words, the study also does not suggest that giving teachers a program in a box and scripted lessons will make them more excited about staying in teaching.

Alternative theories

Are there other things to be learned from the attrition numbers. I think there might be. Let me take some shots here.

Teacher preparation. What are the odds that a significant number of those unhappy newbs are saying, "What the hell! This is nothing like what I expected!" Schools of education in my neck of the woods are increasingly struggling to keep up enrollment. They're also spending a lot of time teaching teachers how to do things like incorporate standards paperwork into their lesson plan paperwork. Are real live students in real live classrooms too much of a shock?

A slightly more radical notion-- is it possible that the high attrition rate is actually a good thing? Much of the discussion of teacher attrition talks about the departed as if they were all going to be super-duper teachers and it's a great loss to the system that they bailed. But is it possible that the attrittees include some people who really weren't suited for teaching, and they figured it out and got out and both they and teaching are better for it. Does a higher attrition rate mean we are getting a better crop?

There's more to figure out

The high teacher attrition rate is surely telling us something, and it's not that we need more merit pay or less job security. The sooner we can sort it out, the stronger we can make the profession.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Time Political Reporter Flubs CCSS Story

At Time, Alex Altman has written a piece about Common Core's new role as GOP election kryptonite. He gets the kryptonite part right. The Common Core piece, not so much.

Over the past several months, the state education standards developed by a bipartisan group of governors and educators have become one of the conservative movement’s biggest bugbears. Common Core is now “radioactive,” as Iowa GOP Gov. Terry Branstad put it recently.

That's a somewhat abbreviated version of the CCSS origin story.  For the full version of how Bill Gates bankrolled the CCSS revolution, turn to this piece by Lyndsey Layton at the Washington Post. And here's the list of "educators" who developed the standards. If we're defining "educator" as "person who makes a living selling materials to schools," then we're still on solid ground. If we're thinking the more common understanding of "educator" as "teacher or professional who otherwise works right with students," then we're going to need another word to describe the CCSS creators.

Altman continues with a fair listing of conservative hopefuls who have been backpedaling away from CCSS faster than Miss Muffet retreating from a large, hairy tarantula.

Altman blames this on "the (inaccurate) perception that Common Core is a federal takeover of education foisted on the states."

Perhaps Altman has a special meaning for "foisted" in mind, but for the average English speaker's understanding, I think "foisted" is an excellent choice. Let me remind you, and Altman, how the foisting worked.

By 2010, states were looking straight at the ticking time bomb that was (and actually still is) No Child Left Behind. Under NCLB, the improvement curve required of schools was a gradual slope until 2008, at which point it took off like a bad mushroom payment, spiking upward toward the magic year, 2014, when all states must make all their students above average or else lose to support of the federal government.

Congress was unable to muster enough unity/organization/wits to "re-authorize" (aka "rewrite) the ESEA (the fancy legislative name under which NCLB is filed) and so the Obama administration hatched a great idea to do an end run around the whole mess.

Stage One was Race to the Top, which offered the states a big fat federal bribe if they would institute certain fed-approved reforms. The feds couldn't legally mandate Common Core exactly, so the states were free to install any standards, as long as they were pretty much exactly like Common Core.

Stage Two was NCLB waivers. For states that wouldn't play the RttT game, the feds offered to give states an get-out-of-NCLB free card as long as they implemented the same set of reforms that RttT favored.

It is true that states always had a choice. They could choose to forgo both programs and just lose a bunch of federal education money. They could also decide that instead of adopting the CCSS that were already just sitting there, they could invest a truckload of money developing their own standards (which they would have to do, like, yesterday).

So, yeah. States had a choice. You also have a choice when your mortgage bill comes. But it's a choice that's not very hard to sort out. Supporters of CCSS more recently have taken to blaming President Obama for putting the stamp and stench of federal intervention on the standards, but without federal intervention, the standards would have just sat there, adopted by a couple of states and ignored as a costly waste of time by the rest.

It is also worth noting that Race to the Top was not a forever grant, and that this upswell of withdrawal co-incides with the end of the federal funds going to RttT states. In other words, it's worth looking at which places we find the CCSS love and the money running out at about the same time.

Altman thinks conservatives ought to like the Core. "Hey, look!" he says, "The AFT is distancing themselves from it." Which I guess means... something. Does it matter that it took them years to distance themselves, or that the "distance" is not really enough to protect an elephant from a radioactive flea? The AFT and NEA national leadership still love Common Core pretty deeply.

But shouldn't conservatives love the high standards or the state-drawn currricula  or the teacher accountability? Maybe they should, except that the Common Core standards are not particularly high except in ways that don't make sense (unless you think eight year olds have been getting off too easy in life). And many states already had perfectly good state standards, and we're not getting state created curricula so much as state-purchased curricula, because part of the point of the Core was to make it possible to market the same materials to all schools across the country. And teacher accountability isn't happening; all we're getting is widely debunked, test-score linked baloney that doesn't hold teachers accountable for any of the things parents and communities actually care about.

So, should conservatives love Common Core for all the qualities it doesn't actually possess. I'm going to go with "probably not."

I could spend much more time addressing all three of those points (and do throughout the rest of this blog), but instead I'll note that with his third item, Altman has strayed away from Common Core into other reform territory entirely. He's just kind of confused about what's being supported and who is supporting it. That's okay, Mr. Altman. Lots of people have that problem. It gets easier if, instead of looking at conservative vs. liberal, you look at "people who see education as a great untapped chance to make money" vs "people who look at education as a great way to give young people an education," or vs "people who don't want their children's education sold out from under them."

Still, his basic premise is correct. Common Core is now election kryptonite, and if you want to look like Superman come ballot time, you should not be seen holding it.

CCSS and Esperanto

Why don't we speak Esperanto?

You know Esperanto. It's a constructed language created in the late 19th century by a young man who was very interested in languages and who thought he might come up with a neutral language that transcended all the biases and baggage of previous languages. Ludwik Lazarus Zamenhof became an opthamologist, so he wasn't technically a language expert, but that shouldn't matter, right?

If we come up with a good solution to an issue in human society, can't we just get everybody to do that?

Well, no. That's not how human stuff works.

For one thing, Esperanto isn't really neutral-- it leans almost exclusively on the linguistic underpinnings of European languages while ignoring Asian forms. It's neutral only if you assume that the default position for humans is to be a white guy from Europe.

But more importantly, that's just not how language works. It is a living breathing growing thing that resists all attempts to lock it in place and force it to follow the forms prescribed by authorities.

That's why people love Latin. It's a dead language that never changes because nobody really uses it. Latin and Esperanto are like a really nice set of paints that you lock up in a closet and never use because that would mess them up.

But language has to get out and live and change and grow, all through being used by live human beings. Languages literally have lives of their own-- Latin did not disappear because all the Romans died, but because it slowly morphed into new languages (Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese). Old English is technically English, but nearly incomprehensible to English ears centuries later.

Yes, it's seductive to people who don't really know much about language to imagine that we could design a language that was cleaner, more efficient, less messy, more orderly, and then we would just get everybody to use it in exactly the same way, and the world would be better. But that seductive idea is only seductive if you don't understand humans or language.

You see where I'm going. It's seductive to think that we could come up with a neat, efficient, one-size-fits-all education system that would be orderly and clean, and we just get everyone to use it exactly the same way. It's seductive to think that if you don't know understand education or human beings.

You come up with these systems and wait for the world to catch on to your awesome plan, or you leverage money and power to try to force the world to catch on to your awesome plan. But in the end, you're only embraced by a small community of like-minded people and rejected by people who insist on acting, well, human. Perhaps if they had written the Common Core in Esperanto...

Honesty, Sass, and Public Ed

I have had this piece from Peter DeWitt open in a tab for days, trying to formulate a response. DeWitt, as he sometimes does, is pondering the problem of trying to be a calm centrist in the ongoing debate about American public education.

He believes there are people of good intent on both sides, but worries that they are being drowned out by strident, sarcastic voices that are dominating-- loudly-- the conversation. "Do we really have a problem without a solution?" he asks in the headline.

It's not the first time he's raised the issue, and it always resonates with me because I am someone who also generally likes a reasonable centrist approach to problems. I'm generally a peacemaker, not a fighter. At the same time, I have to acknowledge that I am one of the voices of sass and sarcasm in this conversation. And given my readership, I have to believe that my sass and sarcasm resonates with a fair number of people.

So how does that happen? How do a desire for solutions and taste for bridgemaking end up hand-in-hand with sass and spleenic venting?

Background Reading

Okay-- stay with me for a second. A few days back Andy Smarick wrote this piece asking, as Jennifer Berkshire put it on twitter, for people to use their inside voices when discussing charters:

I have two concerns with the way these things are trending. The first is that our field needs someone who consistently makes earnest, objective, sturdy philosophical arguments against chartering. With rare exceptions, when I go looking, I instead find mostly snark, ad hominem attacks, and condescension. The source I had hoped would evolve into the dispassionate voice of studied dissent has instead reliably produced invective.

I responded by suggesting that things looked a little more messy at the local level than up at the stratospheric philosophical level. And that charters could improve the conversation by behaving better:

If charters are tired of press about how they get sweetheart deals with politicians to strip resources from public schools in order to enrich themselves, if they're tired of stories about how some charter operator got caught in crooked deals, if they're tired of being raked over the coals for using politics to grease some moneyed wheels-- well, their best move would be to stop doing those things.

Yesterday, Jersey Jazzman advanced the conversation a step by bringing up the item that addresses both Smarick and DeWitt's concerns.


A civil conversation requires honesty. And the conversation these days about charter schools-- and, indeed, about  tenure and test-based teacher evaluation and seniority and vouchers and standards and just about every other education policy on the table today-- is anything but honest. 

How important is honesty?

Critical conversations, in fact any kind of relationship, require one fundamental item-- both parties have to show up. Showing up requires honesty-- telling the truth as you see it. Not salesmanship, not spin, not trolling, not even "being nice" to avoid hurting somebody's feelings. Anything other than honesty is corrosive to a conversation, a relationship. (And you can trust me on this-- I have the divorce papers from my first marriage to prove it.)

We play a lot of games with defining what qualifies as a lie (it depends one what the meaning of "is" is). I say, any time you shade or misrepresent the truth in order to influence, shape or control the behavior of other people, that's a lie. For me, that also explains what's wrong with lying-- it's an attempt to take away another person's ability to make their own informed decision. Lying is destructive because it breaks relationships. It's wrong because it's about stealing another person's freedom to choose.

How do we react to being lied to? 

Well, when someone lies to you, they are sending some of the following messages:

* I don't care about you enough to actually show up for this conversation
* I think you're stupid
* We both know I'm lying, but you're powerless to do anything about it, so neener neener
* You don't matter; I'm in charge here
* This is not a real conversation

Lies, depending on how much power you have in the situation, are somewhere between angering and funny. Depending on how much power you have and your temperament and the history of the relationship involved, you will choose something somewhere between playing along and fighting back. Playing along can either be about resignation or the hope that playing along will eventually lead to real dialogue. Fighting back can be about open aggression, or about snark and sass and sarcasm.

But here's the most important thing I know about lying.

Lying closes the door to real dialogue. Closes it absolutely and completely.

So maybe snark and sass are a way of breaking that down. Maybe, for me, it's a way of saying, "Look. I want you to know that I don't believe that bullshit at all and you can stop shoveling it so we can move on to something else."

In the education debates, sorting out the players is hard as hell. There are reformsters who I believe are being honest-- they just don't know what they're talking about. I believe there are others who are looking for good faith ways to improve education. And I believe that there are some who haven't had an honest word to say about education in years.

They are not always easy to sort out. New NEA president Lily Eskelson Garcia seems to believe that Arne Duncan is sincere but just wrong. I'm not so sure, but she's met him face to face, and I have not. like the majority of teachers, I've got to make these judgments from home, from words on a screen. And not everyone is so obviously full of it as She Who Will Not Be Named or the various lying hucksters pushing charters to make a buck.

How DeWitt can feel better

Anyway. If I were talking to Peter DeWitt that the sarcasm and snark are actually part of trying to get to a real conversation, not an obstacle to it. "Don't piss on me and tell me it's raining," is snarky, but it's also an attempt to bring the conversation back around to the truth.

Sometimes a lie is so outlandish that the truth sounds like mockery, and I think many parts of the conversation have sailed way past that point. There's no way to respond to something like "We will get better teachers in classrooms by removing job security for the profession" that doesn't sound like snark. There's no way to inject honesty and truth into a discussion of using testing to measure teacher effectiveness without making proponents of VAM sound foolish. If the emperor has no clothes on, there's no way to have an honest conversation of his wardrobe that doesn't leave him feeling naked.

To move forward, we need honesty more than we need niceness. The people who have injected large lies into the conversation have raised the bar for how tough honesty is going to be (which is often the point of making the big lie), but we can't be afraid to go there. We can't make the mistake of matching lies with lies; reformsters are not brain-damaged fiends who drink the blood of children under a full moon. But if pointing out the truth is going to feel ugly and snarky and sassy, we can't be afraid to do it. Honesty is an essential navigating tool for finding our way out of this sea of strife and confusion.
A civil conversation requires honesty. And the conversation these days about charter schools -- and, indeed, about tenure and test-based teacher evaluation and seniority and vouchers and standards and just about every other education policy on the table today -- is anything but honest. - See more at: http://jerseyjazzman.blogspot.com/2014/07/civil-conversations-are-honest.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+JerseyJazzman+%28Jersey+Jazzman%29#sthash.JNiyFB0s.dpuf
A civil conversation requires honesty. And the conversation these days about charter schools -- and, indeed, about tenure and test-based teacher evaluation and seniority and vouchers and standards and just about every other education policy on the table today -- is anything but honest. - See more at: http://jerseyjazzman.blogspot.com/2014/07/civil-conversations-are-honest.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+JerseyJazzman+%28Jersey+Jazzman%29#sthash.JNiyFB0s.dpuf
have two concerns with the way these things are trending. The first is that our field needs someone who consistently makes earnest, objective, sturdy philosophical arguments against chartering. With rare exceptions, when I go looking, I instead find mostly snark, ad hominem attacks, and condescension. The source I had hoped would evolve into the dispassionate voice of studied dissent has instead reliably produced invective. - See more at: http://jerseyjazzman.blogspot.com/2014/07/civil-conversations-are-honest.html#sthash.rNferAvN.dpuf
have two concerns with the way these things are trending. The first is that our field needs someone who consistently makes earnest, objective, sturdy philosophical arguments against chartering. With rare exceptions, when I go looking, I instead find mostly snark, ad hominem attacks, and condescension. The source I had hoped would evolve into the dispassionate voice of studied dissent has instead reliably produced invective. - See more at: http://jerseyjazzman.blogspot.com/2014/07/civil-conversations-are-honest.html#sthash.rNferAvN.dpuf

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Joe Klein's Non-comprehension

There are lots of things Joe Klein doesn't get, and many of them are related to education. In the process of railing last week about a de Blasio "giveback" of 150 minutes of special student tutoring time in New York schools, Klein managed to trot out a whole raft of misconceptions and complaints. Here he gets himself all lathered up.

He said that the program had been “inflexible” and “one size fits all.” That it was not “workable to the purpose.” Translation: it didn’t work. But how do we know that? No studies or evaluations were done. At his press conference announcing the new union deal, the mayor and his schools chancellor, Carmen FariƱa, gave several foggy reasons for the change: the time would be used for additional parent conferences and for “professional development” so the teachers could learn how to teach the new core curriculum. A lot of unspecific wiggle room was negotiated on both counts–part of the mayor’s drive toward “flexibility.”

I particularly like the sass-quotes around professional development. You know, teachers and their so-called professional development where they sit around pretending to learn stuff about their jobs when they're really getting foot massages and eating bon-bons. What possible benefit to students could there be in training teachers to better do their jobs?

And "flexibility"? Pshaw, says Klein. The AFT sucks at flexibility. And then he's off to the races.

The American Federation of Teachers, which Weingarten now heads, calls itself “a union of professionals,” but it negotiates as if it were a union of assembly-line workers. 

In fairness to Klein, teachers have been known to level this complaint about unionism. But something invariably happens to remind them that it's not just about how they act, but how they are treated.

I'm not going to take Klein to task for slamming assembly-line workers as if they are a bad thing. I know what he means-- teachers should act like salaried workers instead of workers paid by the hour. Of course, if he tried to get his doctor or his lawyer to put in extra unbilled hours and be "paid in professional satisfaction," I think he'd have another complaint to make. So I'm not sure exactly which profession he wants us to act like. Hell, even the oldest profession (I mean, of course, plumbing) charges by the hour.

It bothers Klein that the union negotiates things down to the half-minute, but he seems to forget that for every teacher union not saying, "We'll work long extra hours just out of professional pride," there's a school board not saying, "You know what? We'll just pay you what the work is worth and trust you to give us the hours needed." Teachers could easily put in every single hour of the week doing the work, and many districts would let them do it, for free. "Wow, you're working so hard and long we're going to pay you more. really, we insist," said no school district ever. Nor do they say, "We'll trust you to do what's right and never clock you in and out so we're sure we get every hour you owe us." A line has to be drawn somewhere; professionals also do not regularly give away their work for free. I agree that the half-minute is a little silly, but the line still has to be drawn.

Klein also throws into the pot his assertion that real professionals don't resist evaluation. This is partly almost true. Real professionals do not resist evaluation by qualified, knowledgeable fellow professionals who are using a fair and accurate measuring instrument. But if Klein's editor announced "the guys in the mailroom have decided that you will be evaluated on how thick your hair grows in and how much garbage is in your wastebasket," I don't think Klein's reply would be, "I'm a professional. That's fine."

Teachers and our unions are not opposed to evaluation. We are opposed to bad evaluations conducted unfairly using invalid methods developed by amateurs who don't know what the hell they're talking about.

Klein also asserts a bedrock principle for systems that are not working in schools-- you don't scrap them, but you fix them. I was going to hunt down a column in which Klein uses this same argument to vehemently oppose things like, say, letting Eva Moskowitz shove aside public schools to make room for charters. Because, if a public school is struggling, Joe Klein will apparently be there to argue fiercely that you don't close public schools-- you fix them. But my googler seems to be broken. Can somebody help me with that? Kthanks.

But Klein saves the worst for last. You see, there's a struggle going on in this country and it's time to pick sides-- either the unions or the students.

That's an interesting choice, particularly since these days many teachers are wishing that teacher unions would choose the side of teachers. But really-- is that it? The biggest obstacle standing in the path of educating students is teachers' unions? Teachers unions are out there saying, "We've got to smack down those damn students and get them out of our way"?

I think not. I think in many districts, particularly big messy urban districts, the only adults around to stand up for the interests of the students are the teachers (whose working conditions are the very same as the students' learning conditions), and the only hope the teachers have of being heard at all is to band together into a group, a union. Consequently, much of what good has happened for students is there not because of some school board largesse but because a teachers' union (or a group of parents, or both) stood up and demanded it.

It's ironic I'm writing this, because I have plenty of beefs with the union. But to assert that making the unions shut up and go away would usher in an era of student greatness and success is just silly.

Of course, I could be wrong. I would do a search for states that hamstrung or abolished teacher unions and which now lead the nation in school and student excellence. Perhaps there are such places. Unfortunately, my googler is busted.

Zephyr Teachout Is for Real

When the Washington Post ran an essay by Zephyr Teachout, they prefaced it by observing that she is "to say the least, not the kind of person you'd expect to run for office."

That seems fair. Teachout is a Vermont-born law professor. In profiles of her by those who know her, she comes across as humble. In her own writing and speaking, she comes across as supremely capable. And she is shaking up the race for New York's governor's seat.

While the GOP has been wrestling visibly and noisily with battles between True Believers and RINOs, the Democratic Party has quietly divided into a party of traditional Democrats and corporate operatives. Arguably, Corporatism has become a third party in American politics that has embedded itself in both Republican and Democratic camps.

Nobody typifies the Corporate Democrat brand better than Governor Andy Cuomo. The playbook is remarkably similar to the Corporate Republican playbook-- if you make the right moves on some splashy social issues, your constituents won't pay much attention to what you're doing on the wonkier issues of money and power. The down side is that every once in a while, somebody emerges who makes a clearer case to your party base, and you have to put a little more effort into looking like an actual member of your alleged political party. And so now Cuomo, who has made occasional Democrat noises while governing as a corporate conservative, finds himself running against an actual Democrat.

This wasn't how it was supposed to work. Cuomo was supposed to win in a landslide so convincing that he would emerge as a national player, maybe even a 2016 prospect. That means that Teachout doesn't have to beat him to hurt him. Even in defeat, Teachout can make Cuomo look a not-so-special governor with political liabilities both to the right and to the left.

Teachout is not some crazy old guy with a beard and a stunt candidacy. Both New York and national media are paying attention, from the Daily Kos to The Nation to David Weigel at Slate. Cuomo took her seriously enough to stage an eleventh hour bid for the support of the Working Families Party. It was an ugly deal that drew a promise-ish statement to act more or less like a Democrat (and it held up for just a few hours), but it was also a signal that Cuomo knows he has a problem.

So Teachout is a threatening candidate for Cuomo. But is she a credible candidate for the voters of New York in general and teachers in particular? What does she have going for her?

She's smart. She has an understanding of issues that is both nuanced and clear. For instance, she gets what the Supreme Court apparently does not get about corruption and the ways in which money has eroded the integrity of our political system. She gives every appearance of a person who figures out what is right to do based on core principles, rather than a politician who figures out how to make what she wants to do anyway appear to fit her alleged principles. She has, for me, some of the same appeal as Ron Paul-- regardless of how you feel about her principles, you admire that she has some and lives by them.

She's an experienced activist. She helped the Howard Dean campaign pioneer some tech methods for their groundbreaking run. She has worked with the Occupy folks. And unlike some activists (yes, even some education activists) she appears to do her work without much concern for her own ego or garnering attention. I mean, surely if you had heard her name before, you'd remember it. Her low profile and high activity suggest a person who is more concerned about results than attention.

Her running mate. Less attention has been paid to Teachout's running mate, Tim Wu. But Wu, the father of net neutrality, has a history of real activism of his own in addition to a career of tech and media scholarship. He's no lightweight.

She lacks one of the Democratic Party's less attractive qualities. At their worst, the Democratic Party embraces an attitude of "Just sit down and shut up while the best and the brightest tell you what's best for you." Reading about Teachout, one frequently encounters a thread of people empowerment-- the idea that people have been shut out. In her "Five Questions" interview on USA Today, one finds this quote:

People are out of power now, not just in their politics where they feel that their voices don't matter, but in their workplace and in the marketplace. I want to revive the old American belief -- exemplified by Jefferson (who wanted an anti-monopoly clause in the Constitution), Teddy Roosevelt and FDR -- that concentrated private power threatens democratic institutions.

She understands the big picture. Teachout certainly has something to say directly to teachers under fire from Common Core and other reformster initiatives. But in discussing these issues, she ends up here:

Bill Gates' coup is part of a larger coup we're living through today – where a few moneyed interests increasingly use their wealth to steer public policy, believing that technocratic expertise and resources alone should answer vexing political questions. Sometimes their views have merit, but the way these private interests impose their visions on the public – by overriding democratic decision-making – is a deep threat to our democracy. What's more, this private subversion of public process has come at the precise time when our common institutions, starved of funds, are most vulnerable. But by allowing private money to supplant democracy, we surrender the fate of our public institutions to the personal whims of a precious few.

Yes, Teachout is a credible candidate and a real choice for the people of New York State.

Can she win? Weeellllllllll.......... She is going to be up against a mountain of money, and she's going to be swimming in the shark-infested swimming pool that is New York politics. So it's admittedly a long shot. And yet it's a valuable long shot. Here's why.

Democrats need to learn a lesson. Lordy, lordy, lordy am I tired of a Democratic Party whose slogan is, "We may screw you over and stink to high heaven, but you know you're going to vote for us rather than a GOP candidate." The Democratic Party has taken its constituent groups for granted so long it has completely forgotten that it earned those constituencies by actually listening to them and considering their concerns. The Democratic Party-- particularly the Democratic Party of New York State-- needs a serious wake-up call.

New York State voters need to learn a lesson. You know what one of the raps on teachout is going to be, sooner or later? "How can an honest person hope to get anything done in our corrupt system?" It will be phrased as questions about her ability to "play ball" or "get things done," but with any luck, NYS will get around to asking itself the big question-- "Are we so resigned to having a corrupted system that we will only consider electing corrupt officials to work with it?" That would be a good question to think long and hard about.

Cuomo needs some help writing policy. The governor has forgotten an awful lot about being a Democrat. Even if he has to move and co-opt Teachout's platform to defang her, that's a win for the state. Granted, Cuomo has proven highly adept at making promises he won't deliver on. But he can't be held accountable for promises he doesn't make.

I think Zephyr Teachout is the real deal, a candidate who can mount a credible shot at the governor's mansion that, at a bare minimum, forces state government to address some of the issues that Cuomo has left sitting in a rolled up carpet on the back porch.

You can follow the campaign here.

More importantly, you can donate to the campaign here. You know money is going to be pouring into Cuomo's coffers from all around the country. But even for those of us not in the Empire State, Teachout's campaign is going to send a message that will resonate across the nation. So chip in. Heck, you'd spend twenty bucks just to take a date to a lousy Transformer's movie, and this campaign is going to be way more entertaining that that.