Saturday, February 22, 2020

Social and Emotional Learning Is Drawing Fire

I told you so.

If you are of a Certain Age, you remember Outcome Based Education, the Next Big Education Thing of the 1990s. Its basic idea was to reduce education to observable behaviors-- all those lesson plans with "The Student Will Be Able To...," are artifacts of OBE. The architects were intent on reducing all learning to something cold, hard and observable instead of fuzzy objectives like "After we've covered this unit, the students will kn ow stuff."

This was not necessarily a terrible thing. But the architects made one crucial mistake. They decided that they would include non-cognitive objectives-- having self-esteem, making sound decisions, tolerance, all that good soft skill squishy stuff.

Social conservatives freaked out. Phyllis Schafly, Rush Limbaugh, Pat Robertson, and a host of others sounded the alarm about government indoctrination, and ultimately, OBE was stomped into the dirt.

This stuff-- what we now call social and emotional learning-- is a really hard needle to thread in education policy. Almost like someone took a third rail and bent it into an eye-of-a-needle shape.

On the one hand, it's absolutely necessary stuff. Young humans have to learn how to interact with other humans, and many of them, for reasons ranging from family of origin to simple biology, aren't very good at it. This becomes a problem in life that overwhelms other issues (I once had a student who couldn't hold a job, regularly quitting with the complaint "that guy thinks he can just boss me around," and "that guy" was always his actual boss).

It seems like learning things like "be responsible" and "work with others" and "don't be an asshat" would be unobjectionable, and as I've pointed out before, 95% of the "This Teacher Changed My Life" stories focus not on content, but on SEL stuff.

But as soon as you start trying to turn it into curriculum, you get into trouble, and I have for years now been expressing my disbelief and how blithely folks like the personalized [sic] learning crowd have been pushing SEL programs.

And here comes the backlash. Meet Jennifer McWilliams.

So let's tug on this thread and see what we find. Jennifer stood up against the indoctrination of a SEL program and was fired "on the spot" (and yes, that means that either there are some pieces missing from this story, or Jennifer's union is terrible even by Indiana standards).

Jennifer is wearing her Purple for Parents t-shirt. That's a group that started in Arizona in response to Red for Ed. While they say they're pro-teacher, they are not such fans of the NEA, and they have some thoughts about what Red for Ed is "really" about:

This sinister agenda is really about turning America into a socialist-dependent nation, by turning our children into social justice warriors who will vote to change the Constitution and our founding American principles.

So many of the old issues are here-- the evil union with its leftist agenda, creeping communism, and of course the Common Core. And the usual opposition to federal involvement in education; one such group may have provided the text that got McWilliams in trouble.

McWilliams has been giving some interviews to like-minded groups, like "Freedom Project Media," which explain further what the issue is:

Also deeply troubling to the Indiana teacher was the use of an “SEL” program known as Leader in Me, which she said has “taken over the school.” “It is on all of the bulletin boards, in the language of EVERYTHING, determines praise and awards, literally everything,” she continued, adding that the school does not have the right to teach children controversial values.

One of her big concerns was that the SEL programs trains children to “compromise” on “everything.”

And Rebecca Friedrichs, the anti-union teacher turned lawsuit face turned activist, has picked up the story and passed it along on the interwebz. And McWilliams has a Go Fund Me, because nothing fights creeping socialism like collective action, I guess.

The objections to "government schools," the claims of Christian persecution, the charges of indoctrination-- none of this is new, but Social and Emotional Learning has become the "and now" in many of these stories, the final proof that public school is Very Naughty. And the SEL blowback is showing up in more soberly way right wing publications like the Federalist. Tennessee and Georgia have both backed away from the CASEL initiative.

It's a somewhat discouraging issue because there's nobody to cheer for here. The far-right fear that everything is a conspiracy between evil unions and evil communists to destroy this great nation from the inside so that the Illuminati can install godless papists to drain our precious bodily fluids is tiresome and unhelpful because we need to talk about conditions on this planet. Meanwhile, SEL is hugely important in education and probably almost impossible to implement in any kind of formal manner that tries to extract the human element from teaching young people how to be better humans. Does it belong in schools? Of course-- you can't have humans together and not have some sort of SEL occurring. Should it be formalized with a curriculum and tests and data collection? Are you nuts? You can't and you shouldn't try to set up a program based on your idea of a standardized decent human being.

And education policy folks keep making the same damn mistake, from OBE to Common Core to, now, SEL, and it keeps getting worse, because every time the far-out-in-right-field crowd sees it as one more piece of proof of a wider and more complex conspiracy against them and gets triggered all over again.

In the meantime, we can follow this story and enjoy the irony of someone who feels she lost her job unjustly, but who opposes the existence of a union that could have offered her protection from unjust firing if she weren't living in a right to work state.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Common Core Is Dead. Long LIve Common Core.

The Common Core State Standards are dead. Done. Finished. Authorities have told us so.

Betsy DeVos delivered a brief eulogy at the American Enterprise Institute back in January. “And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead,” she declared.

In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis just announced that the work of “rooting out all vestiges of Common Core” done, and new standards would now replace the old, unloved ones.

So is that it? Can we get out our forks and prepare to stick them in the Common Core? Or have the reports of their death been greatly exaggerated? Sad to say, it’s probably that second one. The Common Core may very well be shambling along, zombie-like, at a school district near you. Here are the factors that may be keeping it up and shambling.

Yeti Repellant

When Betsy DeVos says the federal government isn’t supporting the Core any more, she’s being disingenuous. The Department of Education never officially endorsed or required the standards. It used winks and nudges and the extortion-style leverage that came from No Child Left Behind requirement that all states get all students to achieve above-average scores by 2014. But to “root out” Common Core at the federal level, all the current administration had to do was... nothing.

Likewise, many opponents of the Core developed a picture of it that was not closely related to reality (”Common Core will turn your children into anti-Christian commies”). This has provided politicians with a ready-made straw man that they can “vanquish” without actually touching the Common Core at all. A good example would be former Florida Governor Rick Scott, who “replaced” the Common Core Standards with Florida standards that were almost identical.

So we end up with people selling yeti repellant. You can tell it “works” because when you look out in the front yard, you don’t see any yeti. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t big bears hiding in your back yard.

The Ghost In The Machine

If your state or district adopted some nifty teaching software in the last decade, then Common Core is embedded in your schools.

Retired teacher and blogger Nancy Bailey points out that a huge number of Florida schools use the iReady program for math and reading, and as the program’s own website boasts, “iReady was built for the Common Core.” A long-time education observer, she’s unconvinced that Florida has killed anything.

For the past decade, “aligned with the Common Core” has been a regular marketing point for most ed tech products. Those products are organized around assessing, testing, and teaching the Common Core standards. The state can change the standards, but until the software manufacturers change the standards, students will still be sitting down for screen time with the Common Core.

Test Test Test

High stakes testing has been with us longer than the Common Core, but part of the concept of Common Core was to get all fifty states testing the same thing. The PARCC and SBA tests were built to test how well schools were teaching Common Core Standards, and while many states dumped them, they replaced them with tests that were similarly aligned. Those test results were in turn used to evaluate districts, schools and teachers, and because the stakes were high, it’s those tests, more than any other single factor, that gave the Common Core power over what happens in the classroom. Even the SAT and ACT have become more Common Core friendly (the head of the College Board, producers of the SAT, is David Coleman, an architect of the Common Core).

As long as a state uses high-stakes testing as the foundation of its education evaluation program, whatever the test is aligned to will drive the school bus— and right now, all of those tests are aligned to the Common Core Standards.

Your Principal’s Principles

One of the great irony of the Common Core Standards is that there is no standardized way to align to them. When they rolled out, teaching staffs across the nation were piled into professional development sessions to learn how to “unpack” the standards and translate them into classroom pedagogy. Meanwhile, the folks who wrote the standards dispersed almost immediately releasing the Core into the wild; if you want to call an authority who can answer your questions about the standards, there is no such number, no central office working to insure that the standards are properly understood and applied.

This meant that local districts were on their own pretty much from Day One, which has meant that implementation has ranged from directives like “We will follow these standards to the letter” all the way to “Just get the standards blanks on lesson plans filled in.” Some administrators have held a strong line in defending their staff’s right to use their own best professional judgment, while others have aggressively championed the standards. It’s also worth noting that for a bad administrator, who lacks the knowledge or comfort level to deal with the messy and complex business of teaching, the standards were an easy out, a handy list to carry around.

High stakes testing has driven much of the standards adoption. For example, the ELA standards include some talking and listening standards, but those are never on the test, so many schools simply ignore them. How embedded the Core is in your school also depends on how concerned your administrators are about the test. In the early days, teachers heard a lot of, “Just teach the standards well, and the test scores will take care of themselves.” That turned out to be exceptionally untrue. So your administration may have implemented all sorts of programs to boost passing rates. All of these programs are tied to the Core.

In short, your district administration may have tried to limit the intrusion of Common Core, or they may have ground it into the district’s DNA. Both what they’re enforcing and how hard they’re enforcing it vary with location.

The Actual Classroom

There’s no way to collect hard data, but I’d wager that roughly 99% of the teachers in U.S. public schools have personally modified the standards, and that includes the ones who say they really like Common Core and enjoy using it.

A decade ago, the number would have been lower, because most teachers are good team players who will try what they’re commanded to try. But teachers are also likely to change what observably fails in the classroom. If whatever Common Core authority they’re following (and there are many) tells them to do X, they may try it a few times, but if it fails and fails and fails, they’ll change their practice. They may do it with administrative support or not. If administration enforces the Core with an iron hand, it may be hard to fight against being required to commit educational malpractice (and for the effects of that, I refer you to our teacher “shortage”), but all alignment to the Core really requires is some paperwork. And as a classroom teacher, you can claim just about anything is aligned to the Core.

The above factors will define the size of the cage that a teacher has been confined to, but for the final word on how much Common Core your child is really getting, a frank conversation with the classroom teacher is necessary.

Despite reports to the contrary, the Common Core is only mostly dead, more dead in some schools than in others.
Originally posted at

OH: Whose Gold Makes That Parachute?

It turns out there's one more problem with the kind of autocratic corporate-style takeover that Ohio implemented under HB 70.

You may recall that Lorain, Ohio, is one of three districts to be placed under the control of an all-powerful CEO. It was not pretty. An Ohio-style school CEO has all the powers of a school board and a superintendent, less the ability to levy taxes but plus the power to arbitrarily rewrite contracts. The job requires such a super-human level of expertise that it's unlikely that anyone could really do it well-- but Lorain was saddled with David Hardy, Jr., a guy who was especially not-superhuman. Hardy was relieved of his duties last November, effective the beginning of January.

David Hardy was yet another example of someone who built a career as an education expert based on his two year stint as a Teach for America guy. And he used his position of power in Lorain to bring along a bunch of his old TFA friends, including Arliss Prass, who he apparently knew from way back when they TFAed together, and Jacqueline Younker, a TFA alum who was brought in to handle HR as "Chief People Officer."

Some eyebrows went up when Younker got a hefty raise, but apparently there were other surprises in the administrators' contracts.

Both women had clauses in their contracts that automatically terminated their employment if the CEO was replaced. The new CEO didn't discover this until late in January. And the contracts also included some shiny gold parachute language, a promise of severance pay of basically $493 a day for 120 days. Almost $60K, plus health insurance.

The current CEO and his legal team think that handing over taxpayer money for people to not work is not okay. Prass disagrees, and she has filed a complaint with the state supreme court-- it's lawsuit time. It will be interesting to see how this shakes out. Can an all-powerful CEO commit taxpayers to pay for golden parachutes for his staff, or can an all-powerful CEO erase contractual obligations entered into by the previous all-powerful CEO?

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Avoiding Teacher Compensation

Erik Hanushek has been at this for a while, and his shtick is pretty well polished. With Raj Chetty, he's been making the assertion that having a good teacher will make a student wealthier. While he can occasionally seem like a champion of teachers and teaching, he also lapses often into the old reform whinge that teachers don't really want to be held accountable for their performance, and that such strict, measurable accountability is possible because teaching's not really any different than any other job. What he mostly means is good old value-added test scores. Hanushek, it turns out, also helped cook up the idea of "days of learning" aka "change in test score" which was popularized by CREDO (Hanushek is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute, a right-tilted thinky tank housed at Stanford, while CREDO is an ed reform-tilted research group at Stanford; it is also run by Hanushek's wife).

Did I mention that Hanushek is an economist? I'm not sure what strange attraction the world of education holds for economists, but Hanushek most often seems to be trying to solve a problem popular with economists-- how can we get more education and pay less for it.

Hanushek often turns up on op-ed pages, but this time he's issuing a full-on policy analysis from the Hoover Education Success Initiative-- "The Unavoidable: Tomorrow's Teacher Compensation." The Initiative is a gathering of the usual suspects-- the executive committee is Hanushek, Chester Finn (Fordham Institute boss-emeritus), Paul Peterson, and Margaret Raymond (CREDO chief and Hanushek's wife). It's a good solid summary of Hanushek's policy ideas, and so I am unsurprised to find that I disagree with almost all of it. But let's take a look.

He opens with some classic Chicken Littling (the NAEP scores!! Oh nooss!) and uses that to set up the scary idea that being behind on test scores means our economy will be overtaken any day now, a threat that Reformsters have been trumpeting since A Nation at Risk. Thirty-seven years later and we're still being told we're in danger of being economically dominated any day now.

Hanushek, as is his wont, can lead teachers to think he's a supporter. He notes that teachers pay an economic penalty, that they could have made more by entering different fields. He notes that teacher pay has been stagnant for too long. And he touts teachers as super-important to what happens in schools. He goes out of his way not to blame teachers for school issues-- "Teachers are not to be blamed for the current shortcomings of US schools."

The "unavoidable" seems to refer to a need to pay teachers more, but Hanushek is, as usual, looking for a way to pay teachers more without paying teachers more. He suggests that existing research provides some "clear guidelines," but much of the research he cites is actually his own, while other sources include articles from Education Next. At any rate, the clear guidelines include the following ideas for dealing with the unavoidable.

* Scrap pay policies that are unrelated to "educator effectiveness."  Longevity and advanced degrees aren't proven to raise test scores, so nerts to those things.

* So, obviously, we'll want to pay based on "educator effectiveness." He's concerned that some policies under consideration will give teachers raises before they can prove they've got the stuff to raise test scores. That seems a bad way to attract new teachers to the fold.

* Shift compensation from retirement to current salary. This is idea is floating around in reform circles, particularly over at Bellwether with Chad Aldeman. This seems part of a larger movement to privatize pensions and just generally save businesses the expense. And maybe you can con some twenty-two year old recent grad into thinking that he can do his own investing and cleverly beat the results that a pension fund would have provided. But mostly the dodge seems to be about cutting costs for something that is so far down the road that privatizers are betting that most young teachers won't think about it. This is also a reform that is cynical as hell because by the time the nation is awash in old people with no retirement safety net, the people who sold the safety net will be dead and gone.

Hanushek does get one thing right here. Defined-benefits programs, the best of the best (old PA teachers have them, but young PA teachers don't), encourages older teachers to retire. For my last few years of teaching, it was literally costing me money to stay in the classroom. He suggests big bonuses--but only for the teachers who are keeping those test scores up.

* Teacher shortages need to be addressed "explicitly, not generally." I think he might mean "specifically." His point is that just because you're short a bunch of math teachers is no reason to run off and start offering lots of money to everybody. He makes the bold assertion that "there are not shortages in terms of total numbers of teachers," and an assertion is all it is because he doesn't have any research data to back it up. He also tosses out the "fix" that the best teachers (check them test scores again) could be paid extra to take on larger classes. Because a teacher who's effective with twenty students will be equally effective with 75? This is a really dumb idea.

* Local districts need flexibility. In other words, when you hand out money that is all tied up in rules and regulations, you tie the hands of the local people who probably know best how the money should be used. This is not a bad point, but sadly he uses the super-sizing of classes as an example, reminding me that local flexibility could be used for really dumb reasons.

* Disadvantaged schools need directed teacher quality programs. This has been a reform dream for years; in fact, Race to the Toppers had to promise to find a way to make it happen. Ste One: use VAM sauce to find your bestest teachers. Step Two: convince them to go teach at your most disadvantaged schools. There are a variety of problems with this concept (beyond the fact that rendering teachers is largely frowned on. The bigger problem is that we already know that test scores mostly represent the socio-economic level of the students, meaning that whoever teaches those students will be rated ineffective. So you have on school with a roof, and one school with no roof, and it's raining, and your solution is, "Let's find the driest teachers and send them to the school with no roof-- maybe they will be bring dryness to the wet school." Nope.

* Evaluation systems can be flexible, but they must be used to be effective. This section contains the rightest sentence that Hanushek has ever written. He even italicizes it:

Without a workable evaluation system, none of the policy proposals built on teacher effectiveness are possible.

Which is, of course, pretty much where we are as a nation. He cites IMPACT from DC, but IMPACT has been changed big time, repeatedly, and is currently being viewed as a problem, not a success.  He cites Dallas-- also not exactly a huge hit. He even brings up NMTEACH, the New Mexico model that is notoriously lousy. And he makes an oblique reference to other options, "some more sophisticated than others," but that footnote leads to a 2017 report from the National Council on Teacher Quality, a group whose record on evaluating teacher evaluation is just flat-out bad.

In the end, Hanushek is simply arguing for test-driven compensation policies. He does offer one other intriguing observation in his wrap-up:

No decisions about school policy are more important than personnel decisions.

That's one to really chew on. Are curriculum and content more important? Is school climate and culture more important? Is having an administration that supports and develops teachers so they can continue to improve and do their best work--is that important, or is it a personnel decision?

But it's just a way-station on the path to summing up. Hanushek says that "improved compensation policies" are a win for everyone, but by "improved" he means more money "accompanied by a tilt in compensation toward the more effective teachers."

There are so many problems here-- more than I'm going to address in detail. But first, this assumes that "effective teacher" is a constant, solid state, that a good teacher is good for all students on all days in all settings every year. That is not how human beings work, especially human beings whose entire work rests on a foundation of relationships. Finding all the "good" teachers is not like finding all the blue-eyed teachers or all the teachers taller than six feet or all the teachers who speak French.

That fuzzy human quality continues to thwart reform efforts to come up with a evaluation tool that actually works, and in the vast majority of school districts, teachers are currently evaluated by a tool based heavily on a measurement that we already know does not work-- a single two-subject standardized test run through some VAM sauce. And as Hanushek himself says, if you can't start with an evaluation that is actually valid, none of the rest of these ideas even make sense.

But the dream remains alive. If we could just sort out the good teachers from the bad teachers, then we could pay good teachers really well and the rest really mediocre (and  somehow the lesser-paid teachers would stick around for it and the teacher pool would be happy never knowing from year to year what their pay would be) and the test scores would go up and we would finally kick  Estonia's butt on the PISA scores and rising NAEP scores would usher in an era of awesome prosperity (because if NAEPs went up, employers would pay their workers more, for reasons) and China and Russia would yield to us because, you know, test scores and the best part would be that none of this would require us to raise taxes or spend more on public education, because avoiding spending more on teachers and schools would be awesome.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Shoving Babies Into The Pipeline

I knew I was going to be cranky after the very first sentence:

The workforce pipeline begins with quality early education.

This is Gil Minor, a retired CEO of a Fortune 200 company; he's also the chair of the Virginia Higher Education Council and vice-chairman of the group he's plugging in this op-ed, E3: Elevate Early Education. And not everything he has to say is odious claptrap, but that first sentence really sets the wrong tone.

This attitude pops up from business guys with depressing regularity. In 2013, it was Allan Golston of the Gates Foundation writing, "Businesses are the primary consumers of the output of our schools..." Back in 2014, Rex Tillerson, then Enron chief, said, "I'm not sure public schools understand that we're their customer--that we, the business community, are your customer. What they don't understand is they are producing a product at the end of that high school graduation."

Yes, that looks like a great place for a child
This too-pervasive belief that the main purpose of public education is to run human capital through a pipeline so that meat widgets pop out the other end, ready for the consumption of business is bunk. Public education does not exist to serve the needs of business; it exists to serve the students, their families, the community, and society as a whole. Absolutely, part of serving students is to help them become self-supporting and employable-- but the idea is to serve the needs of the students, not the needs of the businesses.

But Minor is going to take this belief about education's purpose and marry it to another line of bunk that grabs me by the nerve endings:

Sadly, this fall, according to the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program (VKRP), 44% of Virginia’s children entered kindergarten not ready in one or more critical areas of literacy, math, self-regulation and social skills.

Once again, Minor has things backwards. If a vast number of littles are not "ready" for your kindergarten program, that is an indictment of your kindergarten program, period, full stop.

It is not a five-year-old's job to be ready for school; it is the school's job to be ready for the five-year-old.

This is doubly true now that we have entered an era in which too many people have decided that human development can somehow be hurried along, that we can turn kindergarten into first opr second grade by just pushing the littles to sit dowen and study. Again, there is a germ of truth attached to this movement-- children who grow up in homes that provide a richer learning environment get an extra boost in learning. I can't help noticing, however, that these council of busi8ness types never sit down to say, "What we need to do is provide young families the kind of income and freedom that helps foster a richer environment for children."

In short, these groups could treat young parents like humans trying to raise little humans instead of meat widgets tasked with producing little meat widgets.

If they must approach low-income families with deficit thinking (and, really, they don't have to), they could at a bare minimum get out some mirrors and ask themselves how they, as business and community leaders, contribute to that "deficit." The only thing these guys ever get right is increasing access to pre-school, and in too many cases, that is botched because their idea of a quality pre-school is one that gets three-year-olds to sit down and do worksheets to work on academics.

E3's "three-prong strategy" focused on coming up with a tool to define the readiness gap, pushing for a study with which to drive "investments in quality" and setting up a proof-of-concept model in Norfolk. Now they're helping advocate for a budget package that, they believe, will close access gaps for pre-schoolers from low-income families. juice the Virginia Preschool Initiative, adopt uniform measurement and improvement systems so parents can shop better, support early childhood educators, and get the pre-K system put under the VA department of education.

Look, these aren't the most terrible ideas in the world, but neither are they awesome. In particular, the quest for a unified standard measure invariably results in an emphasis on certain aspects because they can be measured, and not because they are necessarily important. And I'm not excited about touting education as an "investment opportunity," as if each child has an obligation to provide some ROI. Nor is there much value in identifying a three or four year old by her deficits rather than her strengths, desires, and general joys in life (well, no benefit unless you think the purpose of the education system is to run a pipeline that helps you sort out the useful meat widgets from the ones you would rather toss aside).

In other words, meet the littles where they are instead of identifying them based on how far away they are from where you want them to be.

And if business types want to help out in getting a good start for all children, particularly those from low-income families, let me make some suggestions:

* Lobby for paid parental leave policy that allows families with new babies a chance to get off to a good start. We have the worst parental leave policies in the industrialized world, in large part because those policies can't be discussed without business complaining that it would cost them too much.

* Pay your low-wage workers more money. Make it possible for the low-income families who depend on your business to create a richer learning environment for their children. Put them in the position of being able to buy lot of books, instead of having to make decisions between things like medicine and food.

* Give your low-wage workers reliable and predictable work schedules so that child care is not such a constant challenge of fire fighting.

* Provide your low-wage workers with decent health insurance.

* Build million-dollar playgrounds in neighborhoods and at preschools. Make it possible for the littles to run and play.

* Take a good hard look at the kinds of programs you're advocating to get littles shoved into the feeder end of a worker-bee pipeline and ask yourself if you would place your own child or grandchild in such a program. If not, advocate for a better program. And if your thought is, "Well, I wouldn't put my kids in there, but for children from that class in that neighborhood, this program would be a great benefit, then go away and never get involved in any sort of education advocacy ever again.

In short, if you see that the children of low-income families start out behind, then offer something more than a pre-K program with some worksheets.

If your view of education is that it is just taxpayer-funded vocational training and its only purpose is to get worker-bees ready to meat widget their way through life, then you make me sad. Well, first you make me angry-- but then I'm sad. It's a meager, tiny cramped view of what education--hell, of being human. It's like thinking marriage is just about having someone around who is reasonably attractive and who can help you make babies. And take a larger view of the universe, because, business leader, educating the country's children is not about you-- it's about them.

Pipeline is such an apt image. When you're in a pipeline, you are closed in with no view of the world and no choices about where to go. Let's not shove littles into a pipeline, please. Pick any other image-- a garden, a forest, an ocean of the possible with the vessel that we help them build. A pipeline is like a long metal straightjacket; it's not meant for humans and certainly not meant for small children.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

How To Improve The Quality Of Teaching With Tools Districts Already Have At Hand (And How To Mess It Up)

There is never a shortage of ideas about how to improve the quality of teaching in U.S. classrooms. From the intrusive and convoluted (“Let’s give every student a test and then run the test through a complex mathematical formula and use it to identify the strongest and weakest teachers and then fire the weak ones and replace them with strong ones, somehow”) to the traditional and banal (“Time for a day of professional development sessions that most of you will find boring and useless”), tied to either threats (“We’ll fire you!”) or rewards (“Merit pay!”), school systems and policy makers have come up with a wide variety of approaches that don’t do a bit of good. 
And yet, there is a very effective method that not only improves the quality of teaching in classrooms, but increases the chances of retaining good teachers in a district. Best of all, every district in the country already has every resource it needs to implement the technique. Some are even required to do it, though many mess it up badly. What’s the magic technique?
The only resource needed is a good, experienced teacher to mentor a new teacher for a year, or even two or three.
In the old days, new teachers found their mentors through happenstance. Like many beginning teachers, I found my first mentors in the staff room during lunch. If I had eaten a different shift, I might not have met them at all. I also had the good fortune to be in an unconventional education program; the same professor who supervised me during my student teaching also visited my classroom during my first year, and I met monthly with other first year teachers in the program. But in my second job, I was in a department whose member motto was, “Live and let live, and leave me alone.” In that job, I made needless mistakes because I was fumbling in the dark.
There is so much for a new teacher to learn. There are the official policies and procedures of the school, and then there are all the unofficial policies and procedures that aren’t written down anywhere (but heaven help you if you violate them). Then comes the real fun—figuring out how to use everything you’ve learned about pedagogy and content in an actual classroom with live human students.
Making mentorship an official paid position has many advantages, not the least of which is that the new teacher doesn’t have to feel as if she’s bothering someone, and the mentor doesn’t have to feel as if she’s intruding. Face to face feedback from a live human who is intimately—and successfully—familiar with the job you’re trying to do is priceless. It not only builds confidence and capability, but it keeps the new teacher from feeling isolated in her classroom, supported rather than abandoned. And it helps the school build culture and quality with something more deliberate than a hope that new teachers just happen to run into the right staff members. 
According to a 2016 report from the New Teacher Center, 29 states have some sort of mentoring requirement for new teachers. Of those, only 15 required mentoring beyond one year. 
If your state has no mentoring requirement, your district can—and should—implement mentoring anyway. And unfortunately even if your state does require mentoring, there are several ways that a school district can make the program ineffective:
Assign mentors by convenience. In some districts, administration just checks to see whose non-teaching period lines up with the new teacher’s non-teaching period, even if the mentor teaches a different subject or is otherwise a poor match for the new teacher. The best mentoring gets down to nuts and bolts (“Let me walk you through what I did when I taught this exact unit”). The very best mentoring matches a new teacher with an experienced teacher who can appreciate and nurture the newby’s personal approach to the work. 
Don’t provide release time for mentoring. Mentor and mentee should have a period in their schedule set aside for the mentoring process. To expect them to just somehow squeeze in a few minutes every day on top of their regular duties is unproductive (particularly for the new teacher who is likely already battling the clock). This is important work; make time in their day for it. Bonus points if you actually give the mentor the opportunity to observe the mentee at work in classes.
Try to do it on the cheap. This goes hand in hand with the other two. It’s not just a matter of paying the mentor a more-than-token sum. Release time is necessary to do the job well, and in a school, time is money. You can implement mentoring with tools you already have, but you should be prepared to invest some money in it, too. In the long run, it will pay off.
Studies and a wealth of teacher anecdotes show that mentoring works. If you want a study to show that it helps raise test scores, those exist. There’s plenty of evidence that mentoring helps retain teachers. And it is the rare education policy idea that doesn’t start arguments between parties in the education reform debates. 
While mentoring can be mandated by the state, it has to be implemented locally, and it has to be implemented well. It’s not flashy. It’s not even game changing. But done well, it will improve the quality of teaching in your school.

Previously posted at

Choice, Parents, Power, Caveat Emptor, and Stupid

Here's an opening sentence from a recent piece of charter advocacy from the74:

But charter schools and the new, more consumer-oriented public education landscape they represent are here to stay.

Well, no. I'm going to skip past the "here to stay" part, because what caught my attention was the "consumer-oriented pub lic education landscape" bit.

Because that's not what choicers have been pushing. What they have pushed, and established to a greater or lesser degree in many cities, is a business-oriented landscape for folks who want to sell an education-flavored product.

The rhetoric is relentlessly focused on the buyer. Let the money follow the child. Let the parents decide. They know the student's needs better than anyone. They should be empowered to make the educational decisions.

What this means is, "Give them the money and let them fend for themselves." Got a complaint, parents? Too bad-- we gave you your education voucher freedom savings scholarship account money. Everything after that was all on you. Caveat emptor.

Suggest that a choice system needs oversight and accountability, and you'll get the next round of rhetoric-- you think parents are stupid, you think poor people can't make smart decisions, you think people of color need to be kept powerless or they'll screw things up, that the government is going to make decisions for them.

It's a bizarre argument. If you want to treat education as a consumer good, why make it the only consumer good that is unregulated, the only consumer good for which there is no oversight. Should we let auto manufacturers make and sell vehicles that are defective death traps, or shut down the USDA and let meat packers sell us whatever they deem a good choice, and just assume that smart consumers will vote with their feet and wallets to put these folks out of business before too many people are killed? Is the Flint, Michigan water supply actually suffering from too much government oversight? That damn government-- taking away peoples' right to consume poisonous food and drink.

As I said, it's a bizarre argument. But then, that's because it's dishonest one.

Stupid is not the problem, and nobody thinks it is. The lack of accountability and protections for everyone except the businesses trying to make a buck-- that's the problem.

Here's one of a gazillion examples. Some folks who seem to have been nice people with pure intent set out to create a charter school in Detroit. But it was one damned thing after another. Too many authorizers authorized too many charters-- more than the market could support. They shopped for a company to operate the school. They borrowed aspirational goals from Success Academy. They got swamped with too many new students when other charters folded mid-year. They were struggling with staggering disciplinary and attendance issues. And three weeks into a new year, they shut down, leaving parents shocked, surprised and high and dry. (And maybe-- just maybe-- the market is not enhanced if customers have to check to see if accredited schools even actually exist!)

Nobody in this story was stupid. Parents were making the best decisions they could. But they ended up screwed over in a Michigan's privatized unregulated unaccountable choice system.

Parents don't need protection, regulation and oversight of a school system because they're stupid. They need those things because they are on the short end of a power imbalance stick. School choice, whether charter or voucher, has been engineered to be an asymmetrical market, a marketplace where families have access to only the information that the vendors want them to have. In fact, in seriously unregulated systems like Michigan or Ohio or Florida, the necessary information may be buried levels deep, with even the charters themselves not having necessary information that authorizers or charter management organizations have.

Asymmetric information is a free market feature; if I'm selling, it's to my advantage to have information that you don't. The actual problems of my product, the relative virtues of other products, details of pricing. Think of how airlines obscure the real cost of their service. Think of how the internet completely leveled pricing in markets like used cars by crushing information gap that had previously fueled the business. Marketing is not about providing potential customers with clear, complete, full information; it's about getting them to focus only on the information you want them to see, spun the way you want them to see it. (And, occasionally, it's about just plain lying, because maketing is about many things, but radical honesty is not one of them.)

Too many school choice fans want to pit a well-financed marketing machine against parents who are already strapped for time and attention and are now required to find the time a resources to ferret out all the pertinent information about a dozen different charter schools, all hidden behind an opaque unregulated curtain marketing woven out of promises that may or may not be related to reality.

If this were really a consumer-oriented system, we would be awash in regulations and rules designed to protect the interests of the consumers, instead of a system in which choice advocates demand like Betsy DeVos demand that businesses be free to operate without rules or restrictions. "We set out some choices, but we offer no guarantees about any of them. You sort it out yourselves," is not the motto of a consumer-oriented system.

This rhetoric relies on another falsehood-- that parents are the "consumers" of education. But the consumers include the students, their future employers, their future neighbors, their future society as a whole. Their interests are not served by a school that teaches that the earth is flat or that certain races are inferior.

Someone has to look out for the interests of the students. Yes, the vast majority of parents are committed to their child's best interests. But a small non-zero number of those parents are not well equipped to do that , and an even smaller non-zero number are not committed to their children's interests at all. Every teacher has stories. The father who decided that now that he had a new family and a new child, he could abandon the old one. The parent who sent hi daughter to school exhausted because she couldn't sleep in a home that was unheated because the utility money went to buy beer. The parent who tried to kill her child by hitting her with a car. These stories are not common, but they are not n on -existent either. Any system that does not provide a means of watching out for those children is a dangerous system.

Yes, the public schools at times can fail miserably in some of these respects. But it is not clear to me how it's an improvement to implement a system that doesn't even try to deal with it, that just shrugs and says, "The parents will sort it all out."

Nor are parents empowered in a choice system. "Vote with your feet" is a crock; hundreds of people vote against Success Academy with their feet every year, and Eva Moskowitz is not wringing her hands and trying to find out how to lure them back.

And yes-- it's worth acknowledging that yes, rules and regulations and "protections" can go way, too far. You don't really have to clarify that for people who work in the red-tape-draped halls of public education. That tension between regulation and freedom, between protection and liberty, has always been present in our society. Such issues are like piano strings; the instrument of society only functions if the tension is there.

The dream for too many choice advocates is a system built around unfettered businesses, unrestrained by voters or the government or unions or rules and regulations. But to sell this they must keep retreating behind parents as a shield, deflecting all criticism of their system as an attack on those parents. And all the slogans in the world about parent power don't change that in a choice system, parents have far less power than the private businesses hoping to profit from them. Vouchers, the preferred DeVosian choice, are the worst. The news about LGBTQ discrimination among Florida voucher schools is alarming for many reasons, but it most especially underlines one big truth about voucher systems-- parents are n ot "empowered" to choose. The choice remains with the operators of the private schools.

The biggest irony is that it doesn't have to be this way. Charters do not have to represent or embody a business-oriented approach to education. They do not need aa foundation in free-market business-style approach to exist, and would be far more beneficial if they did not (vouchers are another level of problem, and likely could never be implemented in a way that wasn't destructive to public education).  There is no need to replace the promise that every child in America should get a good free education with the promise that every entrepreneur should get the chance to make a buck from education. Parents should not be abandoned by the education system, nor is it an improvement to suggest that they be given a voucher in exchange for ever laying a claim to the quality education that their children are owed.