Monday, February 19, 2018

Is PA Chasing Teachers Away

The Economic Policy Institute has just released a new report, and announced it with this subheading: "Undercompensation is likely a factor in Pennsylvania’s growing teacher shortage."


Pennsylvania has been working on a teacher shortage for a while, but for years we cleverly masked it by shedding teacher jobs by the thousands. From a distance, that made it appear that our teacher supply was reasonably stable, because districts were complaining far less about a teacher "shortage" than other states were. But it was also exacerbated the problems with the teacher pipeline long term because high school and college students could look around their home districts and see that nobody new had been hired for years. "Why pay college tuition to pursue a field in which there are no jobs," was the comment I heard more times than I could count from my own students. That in turn led many universities to trim their own education programs.

EPI describes the decline this way:

Pennsylvania is in the midst of a growing teacher shortage. The rate of Pennsylvania teacher certifications has declined by two-thirds between 2010 and 2015 (Benshoff 2016). College students are shunning education majors, with reports indicating that enrollment fell by 36 percent in traditional teacher education programs at the 14 Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education colleges (Palochko 2016). In 2013, 16,631 students graduated from teacher-training programs; by 2015, that number had dropped to 6,125, a 63 percent decline, according to data from the state’s Department of Education (PDE) reported on WHYY public radio in Philadelphia (Benshoff 2016).

EPI also notes that this is found in the substitute teacher sector, and from big districts like Philadelphia all the way down to my own tiny corner of the world, the substitute shortage is pretty dire.

EPI set out to see if compensation was an issue, and they did the old "compare teacher pay to pay in fields requiring similar education and skills" research. Their findings are not particularly surprising:

We find that Pennsylvania public school teachers are undercompensated relative to other full-time workers with similar education and skills. Their weekly wages are 12.1 percent lower than the wages of comparable full-time employees in Pennsylvania, and their weekly compensation (including both wages and benefits) is 6.8 percent lower.

In addition, EPI also looked at pensions-- and here's where PA is in real trouble.

We are outstandingly underfunded, our system suffering from some epic bad choices made by the legislation over a decade ago (among other things, we bet heavily on the housing boom of 2007). The legislation has been looking for a variety of fixes:

Pension legislation passed in 2010 (Act 120) decreased PSERS benefits for teachers hired in 2011 and later, while a 2017 law (Act 5) will further cut pension benefits for teachers hired in 2019 (and beyond). Act 5 will require new teachers to participate in a pension plan that significantly shifts funding from the state and school districts onto employees. The new plan includes 401(k)-style offerings, which also shift retirement income risk onto teachers.

Which is why the pension for me with 39 years in the classroom is looking far rosier than the pension that my wife faces with her 5 years. And as EPI notes, the state still isn't done fiddling, which means that lifetime compensation for PA teachers continues to be cut, and cut, and cut. "Well, the pay may not be super, but at least you'll can rest secure in the knowledge that when you finally retire, you may or may not be financially screwed in your old age," is not a very snappy or effective recruitment slogan.

And so we're back to the same old point. There is no teacher shortage. What there is is a shortage of states and districts willing to make teaching attractive enough to draw the candidates they want. If I can't buy a Porsche for $1.95, it does not follow that there is an automobile shortage. Pennsylvania has not yet put real muscle into trying to "solve" the problem by, say, letting anyone with a pulse hold a teaching job, or by trying to bolster growth of charters that can hire without regard to actual qualifications. But the state also hasn't shown any inclination to try to make teaching more attractive as a career, either. We could do better. It remains to be seen if we'll actually try to.

Another Choice Diversion

Over at School Leader, "an education administration blog by Dr. Gary Houchens (Western Kentucky University), Houchens talks about his podcast discussion of proposed school vouchers under the name "Scholarship Tax Credits" for Kentucky.

STC are the Kentucky version of Education Savings Accounts, a particularly destructive version of voucherism. Pro-voucher folks are pushing hard, and there's been some attempt (including by Houchens) to paint these as relief for poor families, yet proposals like House Bill 162 aren't aimed at low- and middle-income families at all.

Houchens is a big choicer, and he has some pretty standard lines about school choice, none of which strike me as very solid. But he's been at this for a while, railing against "status quo" folks in a dismissive manner. But these issues matter in Kentucky, where there are some major financial challenges. 

We could at many Houchens posts, but let's focus on "Does giving parents education options "divert" money from schools? My TeachThought Podcast discussion on scholarship tax credits" because it's a nice clear question with a nice clear answer.

The answer is "Yes. Yes it does."

Now let's look at the fallacies Houchens uses to avoid arriving at that answer.

I believe in school choice because, while education is a public good, it's not a generic, one-size-fits-all public good like the fire department provides.


Since when does a fire department provide a one-size-fits-all public good? Fire departments are the very definition of the opposite-- every fire they respond to presents a unique set of circumstances, from the distance to the fire to the access to the availability of resources like water to specific configuration of the building to the placement and nature of the fire itself. If the fire department in your own is providing "generic" service, they are doing it wrong.

Every child is unique and no school, no matter how good, can meet the needs of every single student.

But that is, in fact, the gig. I will not pretend that every public school achieves that goal every single time, but here's the critical difference between a public school and a private or charter school-- a public school is legally compelled to try. If I feel that the public school is failing to meet my child's needs, I can take that school to court. If a private or charter school is failing, they can just shrug, say "Well, I guess your child isn't a good fit" and show me the door. Houchens claims that choice increases the "likelihood" that every family can find a school that fits, but that's not true. Choice increases the likelihood that hard-to-fit students, students who cannot profitably be served by choice schools, will find themselves stranded, an educational hot potato.

Houchens' podcast partner expresses a concern that tax credit encouragement of school choice "drains money from public coffers at a time when the state budget is in shortfall and schools are facing potentially large funding cuts." Houchens sympathizes and longs for a day when pension and tax reform create a different picture. "But our gloomy budget forecast is not a reason to continue denying low-income families choices in how their children are educated" (Again with the marketing talking point of "but it's for the poor kids!")

But having said all that, Houchens is going to throw it out the window, and pitch a "new paradigm"

For starters, if you accept that families should have some choices in who educates their children, then you've got to start thinking about education spending in a different way. Education dollars are a benefit for students, not for institutions.

Again, a time-honored talking point. But it's incorrect.

Education is not a service provided for families, and it is not exclusively for the benefit of the students. Public education is for the benefit of the public, the community-- not just the students, but their future neighbors, employers, fellow taxpayers, and people to whom they will provide some good or service. That is why members of the public pay taxes for schools, even if they don't have children to attend, and that is why school boards are properly elected by all taxpayers and not just parents.

But education should be treated like other highly personal public goods. Medicare and Medicaid are personal benefits for the health care of the elderly and poor. Pell grants and the GI Bill are a benefit for the education of low-income college students or veterans. Foods stamps are a food security benefit for low-income families. But in all these cases we give the beneficiary some choice in where they obtain these public goods, because the needs and preferences of individuals are so diverse and the good in these cases is so highly personal.

I will give Houchens credit at least for not comparing schools to Ubers. But there are some critical differences here in these diversionary analogies. First, none of these "benefits" provide the sole support for the providers on which they are spent. Hospitals, colleges, and supermarkets do not depend on these benefits for their existence, because none of these institutions are created for the sole use of the people who use these benefits. Second, uses of these benefits are highly regulated-- you can't spend food stamps on beer and cigarettes, your Pell grant has to go to an approved school, and Medicare won't pay for your toad-sacrificed-under-a-full-moon treatment for broken bones. Kentucky is not proposing any such accountability or oversight for the recipients of the voucher money.

And here's something I find mysterious about voucher programs and their supporters. Medicare/aid, Pell Grants, and food stamps are all program that conservatives have worked (and are still working) to roll back or kill, because "entitlements" are bad. I have always wondered-- why don't these same conservatives see vouchers as an entitlement for sending the children of Those People to a private school? I suspect the answer is, in part, because the vouchers proposed are never enough to make top schools affordable to the poor. More importantly, hospitals, colleges and supermarkets cannot refuse to serve certain customers because of race, religion and sexual orientation (well, mostly, so far) whereas nothing in a voucher program says that private and charter schools have to accept anybody they don't feel like accepting.

Health care is also a lousy comparison for Houchens' purposes because we've put the health care market in the hands of the insurance companies, and now we have one of the most expensively mediocre systems in the world. What works really well? A single payer system that more closely resembles our public education system.

But most notably, none of the programs that Houchens brings up is designed to serve all citizens of the country. In effect, these are programs designed to plug the holes in a private free market approach to goods like health care and food. Public education, on the other hand, is in place of a free market, precisely so that we can insure that all citizens are served and represented. Vouchers do not offer to plug holes in a free market system, but propose to create a free market system by dumping the public tax dollars into the free market. Vouchers don't plug holes-- they create them, by defunding the public system that will be the last resort of the educational hot potatoes who can't find a private or charter school to accept them.

Houchens wants to argue that there is no draining or diverting with a voucher system any more "than we 'drain money' from Hospital A when a Medicare patient has a procedure at Hospital B." But that is a false analogy, implying that a public school and a private school are equal entities on equal footing, like to equal competing hospitals (the analogy also fails because there are few markets left that actually have competing hospitals, but that's another discussion). They are not. The public school is a public entity fully and only funded by public tax dollars, while the private school is a private entity funded by a variety of sources (ditto the charter). Voucher fans counter that by saying that public schools are not "entitled" to those funds, but that's beside the point-- those funds were collected from the taxpayers for the purpose of funding an institution that would educate all students. What voucher fans propose is the equivalent of collecting money from everyone on the block in order to throw a barbecue for all the neighbors, then announcing that you gave half of it to the Smith's so they could cook a steak dinner for themselves. Of course the money has been diverted from its original purpose.

Later in the piece Houchens will argue that there is no financial damage to the public system because a measley 1-1.5% of the students will use the vouchers. But if that's true, why bother. If the vouchers really aren't going to help much of anyone, then why have them. Are these STCs going to rescue scads of poor students, or are they going to have a piddly effect and "rescue" hardly anyone at all. It can't be both.

Then Houchans tries to argue that ESA systems actually save money, which is simply unvarnished baloney. The theory is that you fill the accounts with money from private and corporate donors which pays for the education of certain students, and therefor the public system doesn't have to bear that cost. This is true only if Kentucky proposes to give contributors exactly zero deductions or credits for their contributions, which does not appear to be the case. So HugeCorp gives a thousand dollars to the STCs, and it doesn't pay that thousand dollars in school taxes. This is not a savings to the school, particularly in the face of fixed costs and costs of scale that do not change with the loss of a few students (the buildings stay the same size, the buses run the same, and you probably can't even get by with a smaller staff).

This doesn't save the school a cent, but it cuts the school's revenue considerably.

Houchans' conclusion sums up his many-holed argument:

I believe we need to make bigger investments in education, but whether our policy makers do that or not is not a reason to deny low-income families the dignity of a choice in who educates their children. We either believe that we should have policy mechanisms that give parents education options, or we believe that local government schools should have an exclusive franchise on education delivery for low- and middle income families.

Houchans line about "dignity" would carry a lot more weight if a choice system promised to preserve that dignity by, say, requiring all private and charter schools to accept any students who apply, and meeting their educational needs, no matter how expensive or inconvenient those needs might be. And his line about bigger investments might carry more weight if he addressed the central falsehood of choice policy, the lie that we can run multiple school systems with the same money we previously used to run just one.

Education is the only industry anywhere with folks suggesting, "Since we're having trouble financing the facilities we have, the next logical step is to open more facilities and create excess capacity."

I'll make my usual offer. If some policy maven or politician wants to stand up and say, "I believe that charter and choice systems are so important that I will call for a tax increase to properly fund them," I will applaud that person and drop some of my objections to school choice. And if they want to further add, "And I will require those choice schools to accept any and all applicants, and to have a governance model that allows all taxpayers a say, and to be required to meet accountability and oversight measures put in place by the state," I will drop most of my objections.

But as it stands, that's not what folks like Houchans are calling for. ESA/STC systems propose a world where a private school that, for example, wants to teach that black folks are genetically inferior can collect tax dollars from black taxpayers, even as they refuse to teach black children, who must then be sent back to a public system that can now offer them far less because that system is now missing the resources that were diverted to the voucher school.

A public school system is not about an "exclusive franchise on educational delivery." It's about giving the taxpayers what they paid for-- a public system that accepts and teaches every single student, is governed by elected community representatives, and serves the community as a whole, both the present and the future. Calling it anything else is simply a diversion.




Sunday, February 18, 2018

ICYMI: Bad News Week Edition (2/18)

Your reading for this week. Remember to share and amplify.

A Democracy for Those Who've Never Known It

Jose Luis Vilson takes on the tough topic of democracy in schools-- or rather, the lack thereof.

As the COT Slow-Moving Train Wreck Continues, the Republican Blame Game Begins

ECOT was given years of access to Ohio taxpayer dollars, and didn't do much with it except make one guy rich. Now the gravy train has been stopped. Plunderbund takes a look at who's being set up to take the blame.

Inside the Virtual Schools Lobby

How the talking point of parent empowerment is leveraged to keep cyber-schools going, even when there isn't a shred of evidence that they work.

Why Amerca's Teacher Shortage Is Going To Get Worse

Yeah, we already know the answer, but here's the NY Post saying something about the issue. And they don't even like teachers.

The Regret Industry

Audrey Watters takes a look at the new cottage industry in reformer revelations- "Hey, I think I might have been wrong about something!"

The Skills Trap

Have You Heard talks to Mike Rose about the problems of narrowing education to a vocational focus.

Every Day We Fail To Take Action, We Choose This Fate

There are so many good pieces being written in the aftermath of the latest school shooting, but this one from Nancy Flanagan is particularly on point.



Saturday, February 17, 2018

Is Gates America's Dumbest Smart Guy?

If you glanced at EdWeek's Teacher Beat blog last week, you could be forgiven for thinking that Bill Gates had joined the growing list of tech "regrets" writers. It's a cool new writing genre in which some longtime techy reformster announces that he's had an epiphany and realized all by himself that there's something fundamentally ineffective, misguided and just plain wrong with the baloney he's been frying up lo these many years. We've gotten them from big names and small fish and they are marked by Columbus-style discover, a shitless Sherlockian highlighting of some Truth that unheeded educators have been pointing out for years.

Anyway, a cursory glance at the EdWeek piece "Teacher-Evaluation Efforts Haven't Shown Results, Say Bill and Melinda Gates" would suggest that Gates has had a similar epiphany.

He hasn't.

The EdWeek piece is referring to the Gatesian annual letter, their own little State of the Union address. This year it takes the form of answering ten "tough" questions, and among the pack we find a question about education, in which Gates reveals that he has another in the long series of Gates-style non-epiphanies.

The comments in the latter are an extension of a speech he delivered last fall, and that is an extension of his work in education so far. And when we look at Gates's history in education policy meddling, there are two things that jump out:

1) He is almost always wrong.

2) He never learns anything.

If we look at last fall's speech (both the pre-speech PR and the actual edited-down version he delivered), we can see that Gates knows he's supposed to be learning things, that a shift in direction and emphasis needs to look like a pivot based on a learning curve, and not just flailing off blindly in another direction because the previous flails didn't turn out like you hoped (against all evidence and advice) they would.

What looks on the surface like an admission of failure turns out to be an assignment of blame. Small schools, teacher evaluation, merit pay, and the ever-unloved Common Core have all been a bust, and yet somehow, their failure is never the result of a flawed design, a bad concept, or being flat-out wrong about the whole picture. What Gates invariably announces he's "learned" is that he was basically correct, but he underestimated just how unready people were to welcome his rightness, and he needs to tweak a few features.

So Tough Question #2 was "What do you have to show for the billions you’ve spent on U.S. education?" And his short answer is "A lot, but not as much as either of us would like."

This is classic Gates. "The Zune was a huge success, but we needed to tweak the matter of customers not wanting to buy them." "Mrs. Lincoln thought the play was a triumph, but we might need to tweak that last part a bit."

We made education the focus of our work in the United States because it is the key to a prosperous future, for individuals and the country. Unfortunately, although there’s been some progress over the past decade, America’s public schools are still falling short on important metrics, especially college completion.

It's a curious observation to come from America's richest college dropout. And it's a curious choice to make college completion a metric for measuring K-12 success, as if no other factors were involved in successful completion of college.

We’ve learned a lot about what works in education, but the challenge has been to replicate the successes widely

No. What you have failed to learn is that in education, what works is not using "solutions" that are intended to replicate widely. The very moment you try to a scalable solution, a one size that will fit all, you take a bold step away from what actually works. Next he addresses graduation rate (did you know that it's the Gates people who figured out how to compute the rate correctly).

To help raise those graduation rates, we supported hundreds of new secondary schools. Many of them have better achievement and graduation rates than the ones they replaced or complemented.

SMH. First, "many" is a vague and unimpressive measurement. I believe Microsoft sold "many" Zunes, and yet there they sit, on the ash heap of musical history. Second, comparisons mean nothing if you aren't certain you're comparing similar student populations. If you're getting your results by swapping out your old students for "better" ones, you've accomplished nothing. Of course, that could be why Gates writes

One thing we learned is that it’s extremely hard to transform low-performing schools; overall they didn’t perform as well as newly created schools.

The letter also includes groaners like this one:

We also helped the education sector learn more about what makes a school highly effective. Strong leadership, proven instructional practices, a healthy school culture, and high expectations are all key.

Yes, you sure helped us out there. We look forward to future studies in which Gates helps us understand that water is wet and the fire burns. Seriously-- how can he possibly think we didn't already know this?

Next, he updates us on the Gates attempt to make teachers better.

We have also worked with districts across the country to help them improve the quality of teaching. This effort helped educators understand how to observe teachers, rate their performance fairly, and give them feedback they can act on. But we haven’t seen the large impact we had hoped for.

Now, if I order miracle hair grower on line and I use it, and my hair doesn't grow back, I might be inclined to question whether or not the hair grower was as miraculous as it claimed. If I had a great system for improving teachers, and I used it, and it didn't look like it worked, I might question whether my brilliant ideas were really brilliant or not. In short, I might wonder if I weren't, you know, wrong. But not Gates. He gives us the three measures for success-- good pilot, self-sustaining system, and spreading to other locations. Then he provides the excuses for why his teacher system failed all three.

The pilot feedback systems were handled differently in each place. Some places, like Memphis, maintained the system, but others didn't (do you suppose they stopped using it because it didn't work). And districts didn't produce enough investment or systemic change. And, Gates says, you have to build consensus among a wide range of people. And at this point, Bill Gates(or some intern) hands the keyboard over to Melinda Gates. And she leaps right in with both feet.

Everything we do in education begins as an idea that educators bring to us.

Nope. Not unless you were suffering from the delusion that David Coleman was an educator when he brought you the Common Core and convinced you to foist it on the rest of us. This statement is simply untrue.

We will work with networks of middle and high schools across the country to help them develop and implement their own strategies for overcoming the obstacles that keep students from succeeding. We will help these networks with the process: using key indicators of student success like grades and attendance to drive continuous learning and improvement. But the substance of the changes they make will depend on what local leaders and the available evidence say are most likely to be effective.

So, those of us who work in education will keep doing what we've always done and you will... help us, somehow? How, exactly? Exactly what educational expertise do you bring to the table, other than several years as self-appointed redesigners of America's education system. Which you've repeatedly failed at. And learned nothing about in the process.

What the letter notably does not address is the new Gatesian plan to double down on Common Core by adding what we've always said was an implied requirement of the standards-- a curriculum, aligned to that monstrous amateur-hour beast. On the one hand, the missing curriculum piece has always been one of the Core's major flaws- the focus on skills while ignoring content is just dumb. Reading is not a skill that exists in some vacuum. On the other hand, designing curriculum is hard, and involves debates that have been raging since the creation of dirt, and anything that Gates offers to the debate will be colored by the fact that, well, he doesn't know what he's talking about. If he hires someone like Pearson to do it for him, then we're into the issue of having a fox design the henhouse. And creating curriculum is generally a local thing-- why exactly do we need someone coming in to tell us how to do our jobs? The icing on top is that none of these issues will be aided by the sales line "Brought to you by the same people who brought you the Common Core."

It doesn't matter. Gates just plugs on, sure that he's right, and even when he's wrong, he's right and somebody else just messed things up.

Bill Gates is not part of the tech regrets wave. He's not a guy who is looking back at the reform techy ideas that he's pushed and suddenly realized that they are a house built on a foundation of sand with a frame carved out of baloney. He is not a guy thinking that maybe it's time for a major course correction rather than just tweaking some cosmetics while pursuing the same old line of bogus unicorns and empty fairy dust.

But he should be.


Tactics of Reduction (Act V)

One more thing about the Gun Problem, and then I'll get back to other things. Probably.



When guys like Marco Rubio say, "There's no point in doing any sort of regulation because these guys will still do their evil things," they are being what we could generously call "disingenuous." If we are feeling less generous we can call it "lying."

They know how this works.

Obstacles, even small ones, placed in the path of certain behavior can make that behavior far less likely. Locking the front door stop a moderately determined burglar, but it still makes burglary far less likely.

But as I sad, they know how this works. We know they know, because they have used the tactics of reduction themselves.

Look at voting. The GOP knows that it cannot entirely eliminate voting by blacks or college students (groups that traditionally skew Democrat), but they also know that if they can just put a few obstacles in the path of that vote, it will make a difference. Close some polls so that lines are long at others, or so that college students must take a buss cross town, or add ID requirements that are harder for some folks to meet. It won't end voting by your opponents, but it will reduce it.

Likewise, look at the work of anti-abortion activists. When they lost on the issue of flat-out outlawing abortion, they switched to the tactics of reduction. Just keep putting small obstacles in the path of pregnant women, and at least some of them would not have an abortion. Make it a little harder to open a clinic so that it would be a little bit harder to get to a clinic. Add a waiting period. Make the woman look at pictures and videos and ultrasounds.

Nobody added these obstacles to getting an abortion sayin, "Oh, yeah-- this will totally end all abortions forever." What they said was, "This will keep some abortions from happening, and if we stop even a few, that'll be worth it."

So when someone like Rubio makes the claim that lefties just ant to ban all guns because those lefties think a gun ban will end all school shootings forever, he knows he's full of baloney. That's not what folks are proposing, and that's not what they expect will happen.


We made assault rifles illegal for a decade; it helped. We won't make school shootings impossible, but we can use the tactics of reduction to make them harder, and if that saves even a few children, well, that seems like a good thing. And GOP politicians know it's true.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Thoughts and Prayers and Dollars and Sense

A response in four acts.













ACT I : Conversations of which I am tired, and a request.

I am tired of reading (and allowing myself to be drawn into) versions of this conversation.

Gun Person: YOU WANT TO TAKE MY GUNS! YOU CAN'T TAKE MY GUNS!

Everyone else: Do you suppose we could talk about some reasonable regulations that might help lessen the number of deaths by gunfire.

Gun Person: YOU WANT TO TAKE MY GUNS! YOU CAN'T TAKE MY GUNS!

Everyone else: Can you agree in principle that crazy people and children probably shouldn't have access to weapons whose only purpose is to kill other people?

Gun Person: YOU WANT TO TAKE MY GUNS! YOU CAN'T TAKE MY GUNS!

Everyone else: Surely there's a way to change things so that our gun death rate isn't so dramatically huger than the rest of the world's. I don't want to take away your guns, and I'd love to hear your ideas about reasonable limits and regulations that might make our country a bit safer.

Gun Person: YOU WANT TO TAKE MY GUNS! YOU CAN'T TAKE MY GUNS!

Everybody else: Well, can we at least agree that it's sad when children are killed?

Gun Person: NO, IT'S A TRICK! YOU WANT TO TAKE MY GUNS! YOU CAN"T TAKE MY GUNS!

I blame this inability to have an actual conversation absolutely on the NRA, which has pushed the position that nothing at all about regulating guns in any way shape or form can ever be discussed, because any restriction, no matter how sensible, is just a slippery slope only one step away from having jackbooted thugs  take everyone's guns away. I also blame the NRA not just for throwing money at legislators, but handing them a script and a strategy guide and using them as anti-gun-legislation puppets. Please, my friends-- please stop giving the NRA money. I know they don't need it (they get all they need from the gun industry), but at least it would send a message.

I am also tired of hearing from the armed guys who think that if they'd been there, they would have whipped out their piece and saved the day. I believe it's possible guys who can do that exist-- but they understand the complexity of such a situation too well to make such boastful claims. The only people claiming they would have saved the day with their own gun are people whose armed experience mostly involves a playstation. Having a good run on Call of Duty does not make you an action hero-- just sit down and shut up.

ACT II : Solving problems

After 9/11, we created an entire new security industry and protocol, banning a wide variety of objects from air travel We also re-engineered the cockpits of planes to make them harder to get into.

When one guy got caught with a shoe bomb, we started making everyone take off their shoes in airport security.

When a guy blew up a building with a fertilizer bomb, we made it harder to buy that fertilizer.

Because some people have latched onto the unfounded idea that immigrants are more dangerous than folks who were born here, we are watching immigration rolled back. We've dispatched an entire federal police force devoted just to rounding up immigrants who have cleverly hidden their lack of paperwork by becoming pillars of their communities.

We require people to pass tests and, in some states, buy insurance before they can operate a car. If they screw up, we take their right to operate the vehicle away.

Because some folks have some racist paranoia about Mexicans, we continue to seriously consider building a giant wall along the border, regardless of what we are told about the cost and the effectiveness of such a move.

We tamperproof medicine containers because someone poisoned some pills, once and killed seven people.

We make customers jump through hoops for certain medications because those same medications can be used to make meth.

We have made a whole class of people mandatory reporters, which means that if I see or hear anything to indicate the abuse of one of my students, I must tell the authorities.

Point being, we're Americans and we like to solve problems. Sometimes we like to solve problems that don't really exist, and sometimes we like to employ solutions that don't really solve anything. But it's really, really unlike us to look at something and say, "Yeah, well, there's just nothing you can do. Price of freedom and all that." Why does this particular issue require us to pretend to be helpless in a way we don't feign helplessness for any other issue? I will not pretend that this is even remotely a simple problem to resolve-- it's complicated and requires us to balance many of our constitutional rights. But "it's hard and complicated" is not an acceptable excuse for refusing to do anything at all.

ACT III : That fake equivalency argument

The pro-gun side of this covers a wide range of arguments, from things I can understand to plain old bullshit. We are, after all, a country where some folks say everyone should be carrying a gun-- but if you see a black man carrying a gun, you should probably shoot him right away. Really, is it not odd that the NRA is not there to stand up for the right of black men and boys to carry a gun (or even just seem to be carrying a gun) without facing hostility from some police?

But then there's the non-sensical fake equivalency argument.

It goes like this: "It doesn't matter if we even outlaw guns because it's people who are the problem. People kill people. If that kid had access to a bucket of gasoline  or a rock or a pointy stick, he'd be just as deadly."

This argument is usually offered by someone who owns a gun.

Someone who bought a gun.

Someone who went to buy a weapon and did NOT buy a bucket of gasoline or rock or pointy stick.

Someone who does not say, "It doesn't matter what I buy for my defense, because guns don't defend people from attackers-- people defend people."

In other words, they know damned well that guns possess uniquely dangerous qualities, qualities that make them more dangerous than rocks or sticks. Gun fans buy guns precisely for those qualities. So to turn around and pretend that a gun has no special qualities is, simply, a lie. It has them, and you know it does. That's exactly why you own one.

ACT IV : The Depressing Finale

We've already had this conversation, many times. At the point our leaders and their financers decided that twenty small children were a level of violent death they could live with, the conversation was pretty much over. Watch our politicians today-- the basic playbook is to just offer thoughts and prayers and stall with blowsy hot air issuing from the mouth-hole of a sad-face mask, and keep that up until the next shiny thing happens, because history at this point tells them that public outrage doesn't have legs, won't last, doesn't represent a real political threat to any of them.

Pieces like this aren't about changing anything. They're about venting and dealing with the anger and fear that comes from seeing one more workplace like mine, students like mine, teachers like me, torn into bloodied victims by the intersection of many, many problems. It matters what all those problems are, and it's important to track each one back and follow the path it made and ask, could we have stopped this somewhere.  But the fact remains that at this end of that spider web of paths, we find all those problems converging at the end of a gun.

They say the devil has many tools, but a lie is the handle that fits them all. Well, in America, we have many unresolved issues, but a gun is the tool that makes them all worse. Racism, mental health, poverty, crime, isolation, bullying-- every issue is real in and of itself, and every issue gets worse when easy access to a gun is thrown into the mix.

I always imagined that if I became a single-issue voter, the issue would be education. I now doubt that. A politician's position of guns has become a measure of his or her character, a display of just how craven he or she is, an indicator of how far he or she is willing to put personal and party concerns ahead of the actual lives of constituents. If these scenes of carnage, the real-time tweeted terror of youths and children, the senseless loss of life-- if none of that prompts you to tears and a determination to do something, then you are not someone I want representing me at the state or federal level.

This is not okay. None of this is okay.

Also, one more thought (Act V)


Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Failed Engineering Model of Personalized [sic] Learning

This is a remarkable thing-- someone has expressed clearly in a few paragraphs what I have tried to say over the course of multiple posts. The subject-- personalized [sic] learning-- is not remarkable, but the source -- Larry Berger, CEO of Amplify-- is. The following is excerpted from a note that Berger sent to Rick Hess (AEI) which Hess just posted in his EdWeek blog.

Until a few years ago, I was a great believer in what might be called the "engineering" model of personalized learning, which is still what most people mean by personalized learning. The model works as follows:

You start with a map of all the things that kids need to learn.

Then you measure the kids so that you can place each kid on the map in just the spot where they know everything behind them, and in front of them is what they should learn next.

Then you assemble a vast library of learning objects and ask an algorithm to sort through it to find the optimal learning object for each kid at that particular moment.

Then you make each kid use the learning object.

Then you measure the kids again. If they have learned what you wanted them to learn, you move them to the next place on the map. If they didn't learn it, you try something simpler.

...
Here's the problem: The map doesn't exist, the measurement is impossible, and we have, collectively, built only 5% of the library.

Yes.

Berger gets into the specifics of the problems with the map, the measurement and the library, and he further notes that even if all those parts worked, you'd still have to deal with what the live human child actually wanted to learn next.

This failed model for personalized learning grows out of a failed model of learning, the idea that there is a train that runs from Ignoranceville straight to downtown Smartland, and everyone needs to ride a train along those same tracks. In this model, "personalized" just means that we'll let people get on the train at different stations.

True personalized learning is a whole bunch of territory, and everyone sets their own destination and everyone starts from a different place and everyone has their own particular means of transportation. That's why you need a human teacher-- someone who functions as native guide who knows the whole territory, can find people where they are, and can help them navigate whatever sorts of challenges they face on their particular journey.

So why does the engineering model persist? Partly because of the flawed notion of what education is, but also because the engineering model can produce a good ROI at scale. You describe the ideal set-up of map, measure and library, and then, like a designer hawking a ready-to-wear knockoff of a Fashion Week hit, you sell folks the scaled down version. The engineering model may not be achievable, ever, but it is definitely marketable and, until folks catch on, profitable.