Friday, September 4, 2015


As surely as students head off to school with shiny new trapper-keepers in hand, we must have the annual handwringing over dropping SAT scores.

Some outlets went with a bare, facts-only approach, while many went with some scary use of the "lowest point in decade" headline, a proven winner that has been winning clicks for years.

Is this exciting? Should we panic? Does it prove anything about anything?

Eliza Gray correctly notes that one way for the average score to go down is to have more and more non-wealthy students (who generally do more poorly on standardized tests) take the test. The old pattern was the panic headline would be followed by broken-out-by-group analysis that, for decades, has been pointing out that while the overall average is headed down, the averages for subgroups are headed up. But more low-scoring subgroups taking the test drag the average down. This is not nothing-- it demands a look at why some sub-groups always score low. But that's a different problem from "OMGZ!! THe Kidz is getting dumberer!!"

Unfortunately, it looks like sub-group growth reversed over the past few years (though again-- overall drop, or more low-scoring students taking the test). It is worth noting that by now, the awesomeness of Common Core and other reformster programs should be reaping rewards in heightened SAT scores, but that doesn't seem to be the case. I can think of a zillion reasons for that non-result. Pick your favorite.

But keep in mind that the upcoming SAT will be super-duper Common Core attuned. This is truly one of the most awesomely audacious scams in the history of ever. David Coleman rewrites the nation's standards (and curriculum) to fit what he thinks an educated person should be, and then he goes to head up the College Board and rewrite the SAT so that his test measures how great his standards are. There is no question that Coleman has the most massive brass cojones in the world.

Here's how Gray puts it {with corrections]

In an effort to make the test more reflective of what [David Coleman said] students [should] do in high school—and therefore make preparing for standardized tests [from David Coleman's company] a more productive exercise in getting ready for college—the SAT is launching a [Coleman-directed] redesigned test in March...

But we really need to remember that the College Board is not, as Gray sadly suggests by her treatment of them, some sort of impartial arbiter of college readiness. They are a company with products to sell-- products that are grouped around the issue of college readiness. More specifically, they are a company concerned about growing their revenue stream and market share.

The Connecticut Post did one of the better jobs covering the annual story-like event, including talking to Bob Schaeffer of FairTest. Here's a fun juxtaposition:

While Schaeffer points to the growing number of colleges that have have dropped ACT/SAT requirements, Coleman points to the growing number of states giving the SAT to all high students.

In other words, "Neener, neener, we found a way to work around that problem with our product sales." The College Board has done an outstanding job of getting government to serve as a College Board marketing department. Some states (such as mine) now count AP course offerings toward school ratings. Others have been convinced to buy the SAT test product for every student. There is no real reason to believe that any of these things actually improve education, but they sure do wonders for the College Board revenue stream. It's like Ford convincing the feds to require all teachers to drive a Taurus to work.

So, there are many questions raised by this annual exercise in chicken-littling. Are SAT scores truly dropping? What is causing this drop, if it's actually happening? If this year's scores are so meaningful, why are students taking a different SAT next year?

But I would propose a different question: Why should anyone (who isn't financially invested in the College Board) care?

Sure, you care about how your own child did (though maybe you really shouldn't worry all that much). But do the big picture figures tell us anything about anything that we need to care about? That, unfortunately, will not take up much of the frantic score coverage.

Brookings: Common Core Will Prevail

Brookings has been running a series of pieces about Common Core and the pushback against it, adapted from a piece by Patrick McGuinn. The first two installments are eminently skippable, comprised of a summary of Common Core opposition that would be familiar to anybody interested enough in the topic to click on the link in the first place.

But Part III, which went up on Wednesday, wants to reach a conclusion which is boldly telegraphed in the title: The complicated politics of national standards: Why Common Core proponents have struggled but are likely to come out on top (Part 3.

In the world of education commentary, Brookings has established itself as a source for analysis that is especially clueless and disconnected, and this declaration of the Core's inevitable triumph is no exception.

Common Core advocates failed to anticipate the political backlash against the standards that emerged in recent years, or to respond to it in a rapid or coordinated manner. 

I don't know how strong a case you can make for this, but there's evidence that reformsters certainly feel that it's true. The $12 million reformster rapid-response flack site Education Post was set up because reformsters felt they were being outgunned and out-organized by the resistance. Calling pro-public ed forces "organized" is kind of hilarious, and the financial balance is definitely tilted against us (I don't know anybody on the pro-public ed side who has a $12 million website). But it is true that as a group, we believe what we say and what we say resonates with many people, while the reformsters have had a hard time, despite their many slick and well-funded advocacy groups, achieving market penetration beyond people who make money loving the Core. Hence the next sentence in McGuinn's piece:

They [CCSS advocates] also have struggled to combat the volume and speed of opponents’ messaging on social media, where information (and misinformation) is being disseminated rapidly and widely, often unbeknownst to proponents. 

To dismiss this problem, McGuinn turns to the Consortium for Policy Research in Education's research report about Common Core discussions on twitter. It was a report that looked to address exactly who was talking to whom about Common Core on twitter while trying to tease out what the networky connections were. It was a challenging piece of  research which yielded some interesting connections and some really cool graphics. But it's ultimately not at all helpful, because it started with the premise that everyone who talks about Common Core on twitter uses the hashtag #CommonCore. It's safe to assume that the project examines only the tiniest sliver of the actual twitter conversations about the standards.

Beyond that, McGuinn somehow reads the research to "reveal" that only a handful of individuals are creating all the anti-Common Core buzz on twitter. Also, there's no actual debate-- just folks in echo chambers.

McGuinn also tosses in the idea that the Core looks like it's having a hard time because of politician turnover (he's talking about pro-Core pols being replaced with less invested successors, not pro-Core pols turning over a new position on the issue). This seems oddly behind the times, particularly given the GOP field's spirited race away from Core-vania.

Why the Core will live on

McGuinn offers a few pieces of evidence for the Core's inevitable survival.

First, since the Core is a proxy for many issues, and a lot of different people hate it for a lot of different reasons, McGuinn believes that they won't come up with "a sustained political alliance or agreement on an alternate vision for American education that can compete with the Core." McGuinn's huge mistake here is assuming that the only way to get rid of the one-size-fits-all national-scale Common Core vision for education is to displace it with some other one-size-fits-all national-scale vision for education.

In fact, the Core is already largely disintegrated. Like bad copies of copies of copies executed on a thousand Xerox  machines, the various Cores are already displacing the Original. The Core that appears on various Big Standardized Tests is not the same as the Core that appears in various textbooks which is not the same as the Core that has been interpreted by various bureaucrats, administrators and professional developers, which is not the same as the Core that has been rewritten and tweaked by various states-- and none of these are the same as the Core that is implemented in actual classrooms. The Common Core as originally envisioned is already dead, and schools across the country are being haunted by a thousand ghost versions of it.

McGuinn also thinks schools and states will not walk away from the sunk costs. That would probably be a more convincing idea if I didn't remember how many sunk costs districts walked away from to install Common Core baloney in the first place.

McGuinn points out that most Americans have not heard of the Core (probably true) and that while the "brand" has been damaged, people still poll in favor of the general idea of strong national standards. Therefor, he reasons, once the Public Relations bugs have been ironed out and "the misconceptions about the Core can be cleared up," everything will be hunky dory.

This notion that people object to the Core because of bad PR and a lack of knowledge is the saddest kind of wishful thinking. It assumes that there is nothing wrong with the Core itself. But love for national standards does not mean that the Core are good national standards. I may really want a car, but that doesn't mean I'll be excited if you try to sell me a busted-down Yugo with a missing wheel and a rusted-out body. CCSS is a busted-down Yugo.

The last reality-impaired hope is pinned on "several steps" that have been taken. Folks announced that the amount of testing will be reduced (but not really), test scores in teacher evals will be postponed (the beatings will occur tomorrow instead of today), the new ESEA is likely to expressly forbid the feds from getting involved (much in the same way the law already forbids it), states should get better at implementation issues like the computerized testing (right after the crop of money trees comes in), and students and teachers will become comfortably numb more fully acclimated to the new regime. And then he wraps up the whole thing with a link to a story from December of 2014.

Brookings is whistling in the dark (which is appropriate, because it seems to arrive at most of its educational insights in the dark). The Core is already on its last legs, abandoned by almost all of its former friends, it's defense led primarily by people who have a vested interest in its survival. Many of its original goals are dead (remember "students will be able to move between states without losing a step" and "we'll be able to compare students across state lines"). McGuinn is kidding himself and convincing nobody.

Enabling the Machine

Over at Slate, Bryce Covert was critical of teachers at Chester Uplands who went to work without pay. Covert was not the only person in the world to make that criticism, and I'm not unsympathetic. Teachers are terrific team players, and that impulse sometimes leads us to enable the institutions in which we work.

At times, I find that a little infuriating. Here's an example of how it sometimes works:

The administration fails to properly schedule teachers to cover a particular group of students. So teachers, on their own, give up some of their lunch period in order to cover the gap. Three months later, the teachers are irritated at their short lunch. "Why," they complain, "doesn't the office fix this problem?"

The answer is simple. The office doesn't fix the problem because it doesn't have a problem. The teachers with the short lunch have a problem, but the office's problem is totally solved. And met needs do not motivate.

It is not an easy line to draw. Teachers are professionals, and our job is to see and address the problems around us, not mutter, "That's not my job, man," and move on. At the same time, school districts are always short on resources, and without being nefarious, they will gladly take every piece of free work that teachers want to donate. There are school systems where the local union has no need to call a strike, because if they simply worked to contract (did exactly what the contract called for and no more) the district would come to a screeching halt.

This is why teachers and unions often end up fighting their district over seemingly stupid things. "Could everybody just come in ten minutes early every day this year," doesn't seem like a huge request, but it may well be the latest peak on a camel-based mountain.

Sometimes teachers have to let the system fail. If your administration is implementing a policy that will create systemic failure, you need to let them do it, and you need to put on your big girl passive-aggressive pants and let the chips collapse where they may-- because otherwise the problem will not get fixed. You may have to let things get bad for a few students today in order to hundreds of students in the future to be saved. Because, truly, going to your administration and saying, "I'm making a personal sacrifice to fix this and the extra effort makes me sad," will not cause your administration to leap into action. They will only hear one thing-- "The problem is fixed." You might just as well wait for your principal to go demand that the board reimburse you for the $500 of your own money that you spent on supplies.

Teachers work on the event horizon of a giant black hole of need, and you have to draw the line somewhere or be sucked in. "Somewhere" will always be something seemingly small and petty, because teachers are most often worn down by the death of a thousand cuts, not a single huge issue (though, as in the case of Chester Uplands, huge issues certainly do come).

Should we never ever enable the system? Of course not. Taking ownership of the problems within our sphere is healthy and good for us professionally. So is holding our school leaders accountable. So is taking care of ourselves so that work does not drain us dry (because, remember, we will never be enough).

Do other jobs deal with this? Sure. In fact, the feds just proposed a change to rules for non-salaried employees because employers were taking so much advantage (think a "salaried" restaurant manager who makes $20K for an 80 hour week). I know nurses who tell stories just as self-sacrificey as those told by kindergarten teachers. Is it a professional thing? Try this-- the next time you're in the doctors office with one kid, ask him to treat your other child for free since you're already there. As a plumber to work a few hours more just for free just because you need it.*

Every time we make the call, context and the circumstances matter. Is it a problem administration could fix, or is it beyond their control? Will this be a short-term patch, or will there be long-term consequences to the system? Will holding the line just end up making my own job harder? Are administrators doing their best and coming up short, or are they just being jerks? Are we treated as valuable team members or just being taken advantage of? Can we live with the fix we're considering, or will it be too much of a drain on our personal resources? And most of all, what are the implications for the students?

Covert doesn't approve of the Chester Uplands teacher decision because she feels it further devalues the profession, reinforcing the idea that teaching is women's work and therefor less valuable and not even worthy of pay. She has a point. But the district is the victim of state-level politics and finance well out of its own control. Starting the school year late (which is what's really on the table) will ultimately screw up the teachers' own schedule and make their own jobs harder. And Chester Uplands finds itself on the front lines of the battle for public education, with plenty of folks hoping they'll fold so that public schools can be shut down and swept away. As one commenters said, this is an act of defiance, not capitulation.

The decision about whether or not to enable the machine is never easy and often personal, and sometimes stepping in and taking ownership of a problem that isn't technically yours can be the path to empowerment and making a real, positive change in the system. But it always comes with a price-- just make sure you have a good idea of what cost you're paying, and what you're really getting for your troubles.

*This paragraph somehow was dropped in the initial posting

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Cuomo & Emanuel: What Really Matters

When the budget gets tight or the lifeboat is crowded or the villagers are outside the gate, pitchforks in hand, you have to make some choices about what is really important, what you really want to save.

Two pieces of breaking news today underline how that works in politics, and why we have to pay close attention to actions marketed as victories.

In Chicago, Rahm Emanuel's office announced a "compromise" with Dyett High hunger strikers. Well, not with them with them, because they were in no way part of the deal that the mayor's office hammered out.

The mayor was up against the wall. Demonstrators made a shambles out of last night's meeting, and fifteen protesters were arrested for blocking doors, and all of that makes for terrible optics. And so today a mid-level agent of the Chicago Public Schools announced that Dyett High would re-open as an open-enrollment arts school, a move billed as a "compromise" because it includes elements of all three proposals for Dyett-- i.e. 1) from the actual members of the community, 2) from an arts group with no school-running expertise and 3) from a group that put their hand in after the deadline for proposals. The new school will be open enrollment, but operated by some of the private contractors preferred by CPS-- hired guns who have been neither invested nor involved in the development of the school.

This is not what the hunger strikers wanted. Not that anybody in the pretty press conference could find that out directly

Emanuel faced an ever-growing mess, and he had to decide what to save, what absolutely could not be sacrificed in salvaging some sort of end to the public hunger strike. And he decided the one thing that he absolutely could not give up was the policy of keeping community voices silent. Okay, let them have open enrollment. But don't let them speak. Don't let them have a say in making any decisions about the school. And just to make it clear, don't use their years of research and planning for the school design-- because that'll make it clear who's still in complete control of what happens in their school.

The press will announce "Dyett will stay open" and many folks will say, "Well, hey-- they won!" which turns out to be a small sacrifice in the name of keeping the Lessers silenced and in their place, which turns out to be the Most Important Goal. They'll get-- probably-- a neighborhood school-- kind of. But they'll still have no say in how it's run. Not exactly a sweeping victory (nor are the strikers fooled). But the news about an open Dyett will strip traction from any continued strike.

Meanwhile, in New York, Andy Cuomo was badmouthing the Common Core. Like Emanuel, Cuomo has been noticing too many barbarians at the gates, with MaryEllen Elia's announcement that she was going to Get Tough with opt-outers being rapidly walked back because, well, the barbarians weren't scared by her threats-- just pissed off. So Elia walked back quick-style, and today Cuomo allowed as how many experts were still saying that the Core and the Big Standardized Test (and EngageNY and a whole raft of other reformster wonderment) have Serious Problems and now he's just going to get on that right away by turning one of his handpicked Education Commissions, previously installed to help rescue his nutburger teacher eval system. The commission will kick up some folks who can defuse criticism of the Core make recommendations about standards, though certainly not by including input from members of the public. Whatever old wine in new skins standards Cuomo gets, he will get them his way, with his people.

And so we find that what matters most to Cuomo is not the Core (by name) or his educational reformster baloney. Nope-- the most important thing is to get the Lessers to Shut Up and Behave.

In Chicago and New York, today's actions are intended to convince a whole lot of folks that the fight is over, the powerful caved, nothing to see here, everybody go home and turn on some Netflix. And in the months (or years) ahead, the battle over the fate of Dyett High and NY Standards will be a long, battle-by-battle slog. Emanuel and Cuomo will have sacrificed some of their stated goals, but not the most treasured goal of all-- keeping the Lessers quiet and voiceless. Maybe they think they'll relax now and quit and go home, leaving the Leaders with what the most want-- power without interference.

That's the immediate lesson today. Nobody stood up for closing Dyett high or New York's Core as a matter of deeply held principle. Both were sacrificed easily and publicly. The immediate lesson is in what Cuomo and Emanuel were not willing to sacrifice. They were and are not willing to make the sacrifice of letting citizens come sit at the table or to have a voice when policy is set. Sacrifice anything, as long as you score a PR outflanking of the commoners without having to let them speak.

Were today's announcements no victory at all? No, the Big Guys sacrificed some peanuts. Dyett will be open, and that's not nothing. And for all their big talk about education and reforms and bringing communities what they need, Cuomo and Emanuel showed their true goals-- keep the people in those communities voiceless and in their place. That's what really matters to these guys. When the house is on fire, what people grab tells you what really matters to them, and these guys grabbed scepters of power and boots for stomping on citizens.

When Will I Learn To Love Charters...

I'm probably a liberal. Or at least liberalish. I've never worried too much about what political label I'm supposed to wear. But I feel liberal enough to respond to Jonathan Alter's piece in the Daily Beast, "Why Liberals Should Learn To Love Charter Schools."

If you want to read a fact-based takedown of Alter's piece with a clear explanation of why he's wrong about pretty much everything, I recommend Mercedes Schneider's piece.

But for my part, I'm going to address the question implied by Alter's piece-- what would it take for me to love charter schools? After all, I'm not categorically opposed to them on principle. My aunt ran a "free school" in Connecticut decades ago, and it was pretty cool. I have a friend whose son has been seriously assisted by cyber school, and I know a few other similar stories. I think it's possible that charter schools could be an okay thing. But the charter systems we have now in this country are so very, very terrible I can't even like them a little, let alone love them.

So when will I love charter schools?

I will love them when they're fully accountable.

Public schools have to account for every dollar spent, every student who falls under their jurisdiction. Charter schools are only "public" when it's time to be paid. The rest of the time they are non-transparent and non-accountable. We have charter scandals over and over and over and over again in which somebody just makes off with a pile of money, or isn't really providing services they claim to be, or doesn't really have a plan in place. This is bananas!

We're learning that in the New Orleans Wide World O'Charters, nobody is accountable for the students. A school can purge a child from its records by essentially saying, "Yeah, she went somewhere" without even having to confirm what happened to  the student. In New Orleans, there are thousands of students missing-- school authorities literally do not know where those children are.

Charter schools will be accountable when they are just as transparent and just as accountable as public schools. Financial records completely open to the public. All meetings of governing bodies completely open to the public. And run by people who must answer to the public and whose first responsibility is not to the nominal owners of the school, but to the actual owners of the school-- the people who pay the bills and fund the charter-- the taxpayers.

I will love them when they're fully funded.

The biggest, hugest lie about charter schools is that they don't add any costs to the total funding numbers for education. If you believe this, then you must also believe that if your household budget is getting tight, the best solution is to buy a second house.

I would have the greatest love for a politician or policymaker or thinky tank writer who said, "Yes, we can offer a system with choices, but the public is going to have to pay for it." Because right now every single charter school promoter keeps pushing the fiction that it's free, and that's just the biggest pile of bovine fecal matter ever.

Why do cash-strapped districts close school buildings? Because running one building is cheaper than running three. Clever policy makers invented co-location (much like the way a leech co-locates with an animal's blood supply) but we are still talking about a system that, in total, runs an inefficiently huge amount of excess capacity.

As regulated now, it's a zero-sum game. Every dollar a charter gets, a public school loses. In many places, the total cost of education does go up-- the charter strips some dollars away and the public school raises taxes to replace it. In other places, the total cost doesn't budge much, but the services provided by the public school are reduced.

I will love charters when policymakers say, "Yes, we will have six high schools instead of one, and the government will use your tax dollars to fully fund all of them" instead of just claiming that charters are an educational Free Lunch.

I will love them when they make a long term commitment 

The rise of charters has introduced a great deal of financial instability to the world of education, and while the public schools bear the brunt of that, plenty of charters suffer as well. But public schools are created and maintained with the understanding that they are supposed to be around forever. When the public hears the word "school," they think "place that will be around for generations," but charter operators think "place that will be around as long as it makes business sense to keep it open." Well, unfortunately, in places like Ohio, they may also be thinking, "I have no idea how this works, and I don't have a plan, but let's give it a whirl."

I will love charters when they enter a community with a commitment to become part of that community and stay part of that community. That does not mean just hiding in one neighborhood while recruiting students from some other neighborhood. That means not simply viewing students as cash-transfering receptacles. And that definitely means getting to know the community, getting involved in the community, and staying for generations in the community. "Wham, bam, thank you, ma'm," is rarely the beginning of a long, fulfilling relationship.

I will love them when education is their primary mission

Private industry is plagued with a disease in this country, a disease that has convinced business leaders that the purpose of their widget company is not to make widgets, but to make good ROI for investors. This has led to all manner of stupid, destructive behavior, as well as a glut of really lousy widgets.

Modern charters all too often port that bad business attitude over to the world of education, with everyone from hedge fundies to pop stars getting into charter schools because someone told them it's a great investment. If financial returns are located anywhere in your success metric for your charter school, just get the hell out. Because all that can mean is that you will view every student and staff member as a drain that is taking money away from you. You'll want to select students based primarily on how they can help you achieve your financial goals (by looking good on paper and not costing much). I can't think of a much worse attitude to bring into a school.


There are other things that might help me love charters. Take every student in your geographic area of coverage and not just the ones you like. Stop implementing stupid educational malpractice. Stop acting like you're doing missionary work for the poor, black folks who are incapable of setting their own course. Stop employing people who are not actually teachers. Stop using political connections to protect you from actual market conditions or any necessity of knowing what the heck you're doing. Stop wasting tax dollars on marketing campaigns, and stop lying to people in those campaigns. Etc etc etc.

But I think if a charter could manage the four major points above, I could give it a chance. We could talk a few times, get to know each other, maybe see where things take us. I can't promise love-- heck, nobody can. But those four criteria would certainly work better than Alter's reality-impaired exhortations.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

That Wacky Mike Petrilli Is At It Again

I fully expect some public education supporters to blow a gasket when they read Mike Petrilli's flypaper piece today, in which he draws a parallel between Kim "God Told Me Not To Let The Gays Get Married" Davis and teachers who encourage opt-outy behavior in their districts. "Sputter sputter," they will likely sputter. Me, I am not so outraged.

I've never met Petrilli, though someday when I'm a highly-paid consultant and someone hires me to go speak in DC, I'm totally going to look him up. I feel like I've taught junior Mike Petrilli's many times. You know the guy-- he really enjoys a good debate, and he really gets a jolt of excitement out constructing a new argument that really stirs up the whole hornet's nest. He may or may not believe what he's saying, but damn-- playing the game of setting up an extra cool bank shot and seeing everybody's face spark up when they see what you've done. That's a rush. After watching Petrilli from a distance for a while, that's who I imagine he more or less is. I say all of this not in order to open the floor to an ad hominem attack, but to explain why Petrilli rarely outrages me by being outrageous. He's just found a cool new stick and he's poking things with it. It's a little thought experiment.

In this piece, you can watch Petrilli play with this argument, testing it to see if it holds water. I say it doesn't. Actually, I tweeted "Short answer: no" and Petrilli said he awaited the long answer. So here we are, and you, dear reader, have stumbled into the crossfire of my long answer.

Petrilli's rhetorical bank shot here is to use a common weakness in arguments-- the idea that something is wrong when you do it for the wrong reasons but right when you do it for the right reason. Petrilli's betting his argument has some juice because the people who think Davis is wrong refusing gay marriage licenses overlap heavily with the people who think teachers are right to encourage opting out. There is a special argumentative jolt you get with the leverage of hypocrisy, like noting that Kim "Marriage Is God's Sacred Union" Davis has been divorced three times, or when you notice that some folks think parent choice is awesome when we talk about schools and terrible when we talk about opting out.

So is there a substantive difference between Davis and opt-outers?

Davis is refusing to perform her sworn duties as an employee of the state. The analogous behavior for a teacher would be (as Petrilli hints at one point) refusing to give the test at all. A teacher promoting opt-out would be akin to Davis saying, "I think y'all should not have your gay wedding" but forking over a license anyway. Rude, but not a breach of her sworn duty.

Now, how close the analogy hits depends on which state you're in. New Mexico does in fact have a statute saying that test administrators may not "disparage or diminish the significance, importance or use of the standardized tests." In that setting, a test administrating teacher who opens the test session with, "Remember, you don't have to take this terrible, stupid test," would definitely be pink slippable. But what (Petrilli also notes this option) if the teacher simply observes the fact of an opt out option  in neutral terms and tones. Would that be like Davis simply observing that the gay couple was going to hell for their honeymoon?

The more I look at the two things, the less they look like each other. Davis was hired to do a specific list of duties, which includes issuing marriage licenses. Teachers are hired to teach, and our specific duties do not necessarily include giving Big Standardized Tests (as witnessed by the fact that many teachers in a building are not asked to perform that duty) and certainly don't include convincing parents to submit to the test-administering authority of the state. Davis cannot argue that issuing marriage licenses is not really part of her job; I will gladly argue that convincing people to take the  BS Test  is not really my job.

In fact, the law has declared very clearly that Davis is required, by law, to issue marriage licenses. The law, however, has nothing to say about whether teachers must verbally support and promote the BS Test. In fact, the law is pretty clear on NOT requiring students to take the test. So when Davis is refusing to issue marriage licenses, she is depriving citizens of their legal rights. When a teacher informs a parent of their opt out option, the teacher is actually alerting parents to their legal rights-- not interfering with them. What Davis is doing is against the law. What an opt-out encouraging teacher is doing is not against the law.

Let's consider the question of who defines the duties of a job? Davis's job is clearly defined and delineated by state and local authorities. Teachers' jobs are not. In fact, as we struggle with how to evaluate teachers, that is exactly part of the problem-- nobody has a clear, specific job description for teachers, which is why contract language often resorts to "subject to assignment" for a teacher during the day. If my principal tells me that from noon till one my job is to call parents and encourage them to take the BS Test, that's my job. But no "subject to assignment" language in the world says that I cannot say bad things about the test or good things about opting out between 6:00 and 7:00 in the evening.

Which is another difference between Davis and a teacher-- she is refusing to perform a duty while an opt-out boosting teacher is committing an act that some folks wish she would not. That matters, because if Davis wants to not issue licenses in her off-duty time, that's not exactly a problem that anybody's going to try to solve. But if a teacher wants to push opting out during personal time, how is trying to squelch that any different than insisting she may not work for a political candidate.

What Petrilli finally winds around to is a what if-- what if teachers who encourage opting out face sanctions? That's a big what if because it's going to involve a court and lawyers to make the case that a teacher should have her First Amendment rights suspended because her exercise of those rights interfered with successful marketing of a corporation's product (which after all is all the BS Test is). I suppose some state could pass some serious Test Libel Laws to go with Veggie Libel Laws, the kind of laws that got Oprah in trouble with the cattlemen. But until that happens, I would expect anyone who tried to sanction a teacher for speaking out about testing outside of school would have a hard time making that stick.

For all these reasons, I think the answer is, "No, an opt out supporting teacher is not like Kim Davis." I think Petrilli's point fails.

Of course, quiet employment sanctions could be visited upon teachers in states where all employment protections have been stripped, and the teacher in the above-posited First Amendment case would have to connect the dots to defend herself in court, making it more of a challenge to avoid those sanctions.

So while Petrilli hasn't created a very effective parallel here, he has, I think, laid the groundwork for an excellent argument in favor of tenure.

Charter Diversity?

The American Enterprise Institute is firmly in the free market corner of reformsterism, arguing and advocating that any form of choice, particularly charter schools, will automatically improve education. I agree that they are correct if by "improve education" you mean "make it easier for rich folks to get richer by playing in the education biz." If by "improve education" you actually mean "do a better job of providing a free, quality education for every American citizen," I think AEI is full of it. Just want to be up front about where AEI and I start respectively.

AEI, like many thinky tanks, likes to pop out the occasional PR bulletin disguised as a "research" paper, and this summer they popped one out from Michale McShane and Jenn Hatfield entitled Measuring Diversity in Charter School Offerings. And I have read it so that you don't have to.

McShane and Hatfield leap straight into the deep end with their opening sentence:

There are two main reasons given to support charter schooling: (1) that charter schools will improve academic achievement by taking advantage of flexibility not afforded to traditional public schools; and (2) that deregulation will allow for more diverse schools than would otherwise be created. 

Now, the actual practices surrounding actual charters also suggest that the list should include 3) get your children away from the children of Those People. This item is mentioned both by charter critics, who see it as a bad thing, and by charter supporters, who see it as a feature, not a bug. But that's not where AEI is headed here, so we'll let that point lie for today.

The authors note that much attention has been paid to point 1 (they do not mention that the attention suggests point 1 is bogus), but not so much to that "variety" thing. And so they set out to make that point.

They set the stage with a quickie history of charters and a reference to a Fordham survey from 2013 that shows that parents want many different things from their schools. Not exactly a shock, that one. Then AEI indicates that their research comes from seventeen cities, 1,151 charter schools, and 471K students.  So what did they find out?

The market is split

AEI says that about 50% of the charters are specialized in some way, and about 50% are like all-purpose public schools (only better). Their classification method was perhaps not super-solid. If the school's website included a mission statement (or something like one) included specializy words like "STEM" or "no excuses," they were considered specialized. If no such language appeared, they were considered general.

AEI here has the same problem NCTQ runs into-- to actually, legitimately answer the research questions they raise would require huge mountains of human-hours, so they take a shortcut which is likely to seriously reduce the validity of their findings. It's not that I'm unsympathetic to the problem, but don't tell me you've researched the prevalence of obesity in my neighborhood when all you actually did was drive down the block and count the houses with empty Twinkie wrappers in their garbage.

The writers do come up with an interesting taxonomy of charters based both on pedagogical style (e.g. no excuses) and on content focus (e.g. vocational training). By number of schools, their accounting shows that No Excuses and Progressive are most common, followed by Credit Recovery. Vocational comes up sadly back of the pack-- unfortunate because schools with a vocational focus are hugely valuable. When you break it down by average number of students enrolled, General and Public Policy lead the pack; notably, Credit Recovery, which scored high on number of schools, comes up last in number of students. When you count just plain number of total students, No Excuses, Hybrid, STEM, and Progressive are tops.

The report does break these numbers down for each of the cities in the study, so you can page through and note local variations. Denver is a big STEM city. Boston has far more general schools that specialized. Minneapolis, Camden, and Albany have far more specialized than general. Some cities show large difference between the breakdown by school and by student; Newark has far more general charters schools, but far more specialized charter students. In fact, many of the patterns shown in the combined numbers for the seventeen cities disappear entirely on the city-by-city level.

The study breaks down some demographic correlations. Among other tidbits, this reveals that No Excuses schools are definitely more connected with poor, black families.They also looked for a correlation with market share (the paper repeatedly talks about "markets") and market maturity (if charters breed variety, won't older markets show more variety). There was no clear-cut connection there.

Interviews with operators yielded a consistent result. Asked if they were promoting variety, charter operators said they were after quality first.


The writers posit the interesting idea of Maslow's hierarchy applied to schools and communities:

They first look for a school that is safe, then a school with generally strong academics, and then a school with some of their desired specializations. If a school isn’t safe, it doesn’t matter if it matches their preferences for pedagogy or curriculum; parents don’t want to send their kids there.

It's an interesting way to put it. But then they spoil the mood with this:

In low-income and minority communities, the primary concern is having a school with a quality educational program. This explains why we see relatively strong correlations between enrollment in no-excuses schools and both median income (negative correlation) and the percentage of the population that is black (positive correlation).

The embedded assumption here-- that no-excuse schools are the very epitome of quality educational programs-- is a huge one. And it skips over a far more interesting discussion-- is this study showing us something about how charters actually are, or is it telling us something about how charters are actually marketed.

Now that would have been an interesting topic to pursue-- how has marketing affected the world of charters, and what kind of relationship does the marketing have to the reality. But that's not in the study.

It does have its moments 

For instance, in the conclusion we find this 

If we require all schools to perform well across one set of metrics before we think about allowing for diversity, we will most likely limit the amount of diversity that we will see. 

Yup. If we're looking for diversity, we can't very well find it, see it, or, for that matter, market it if our only metric is standardized test scores. And the conclusion of the report totally gets that. So that's something.

What else is missing?

In addition to talking repeatedly about markets without examining the implications of marketing schools as a product, the report also conspicuously leaves out public schools.

Public schools mostly involve a general approach to education, and I think that is vastly more desirable than a buffet of diverse charter offerings.

Diversity under one roof is best

There are two reasons that a diverse assortment of offerings under one roof is the best way to go.

First, it allows students to explore diverse interests. A student who wants to be both and athlete and an artist can easily do both. A student who wants to be a musician and a scientist can do both. A student who can't make up his mind can sample from a wide variety of offerings. That's the first benefit.

The second benefit is, perhaps, even greater. The musician and the athlete will sit next to each other in English class. The artist and the scientist will bond over how much trouble they have learning French.

Diversity of charter offerings is not a good thing

I know, I know. Charter fans imagine a charter world like a big educational strip mall. Some charter fans (McShane is one) even imagine a world where the buffet is sampled on a class by class basis. This is a lousy idea.

The end result of a diverse charter smorgasbord is sitting a fourteen year old down to decide what career path she wants to follow. Some small percentage will be ready for that. Most won't, and what's more, they shouldn't be. The whole diverse-charter-offering idea is predicated on the notion that by their teens, students are fixed entities, their needs, interests, preferences, wants, inclinations, issues, and future paths pretty much set in cement. That's simply not true. They have lots of change and growth and development and shifting around and trying out and sampling and succeeding and failing to do across a whole swath of paths.

Diversity in charter offerings ironically provides the very antithesis of diversity-- students locked into particular silos that can only serve particular aspects of their selves, dealing only with other individuals on a similarly narrow path. Also ironically, the diverse offerings allowing students to custom build a study path to suit themselves that McShane envisions is exactly what we offer our students here at my little rural high school.

Anyone else want to chime in?

If you want to read a more thorough look at this report, check out the National Education Policy Center review. Short form, they also find the classification methodology a little iffy and the sample too small and varied to mean much.

And what about diversity, anyway?

The report really didn't find diversity blooming over time in mature markets, and I wouldn't expect it to. Investors and entrepreneurs aren't going into the education biz in order to capture small boutique markets that bring modest returns. They got into this game because they were promised healthy ROI.

And that means a chase to the big fat middle of the road. If you want to see how the free market doesn't foster diversity, just check out your cable channels. 500 not-too-different channels all chasing a slightly different (or not even different) slice of the broadest part of the market. Or if you want to think about how the market affects diversity, meditate on the story of the Beverly Hillbillies, a show that was canceled even though it was hugely popular, because it wasn't popular with the right segment of the marketplace.

The free market doesn't really care for diversity. So in the end, I will bet that even though the dream of a big charter buffet is not a desirable one, it is unlikely to ever happen anyway.