Sunday, August 9, 2020

To Teachers Contemplating Retirement

This fall marks the beginning of my third go round of starting the school year as a retiree. Thanks to the pandemic, it's in some ways the hardest year so far. I get that the pandemic is also giving many teachers pause to consider whether or not to go back. Here (expanded from a twitter thread) are my thoughts.

One of the hard parts of retirement is managing the guilt. You're leaving your friends and colleagues to continue the work. And it's important work, work you value. And they're going to keep doing it while you walk away.

This is unavoidable, because the work in schools is never done, ever. Every year some stories end, and some other stories begin, and most of the stories continue somewhere in the middle. There will never be a moment when you can brush your hands together and declare, "Okay, everything's wrapped up, so this is the perfect moment for me to peace out." Never going to happen.

So to retire, you have to shake the notion that you should really stick around and help (it took me months to shake the notion that I should run for school board). You know, intellectually, that you are not indispensable or irreplaceable. You moved into someone's spot, and someone will move into yours. In the meantime, your actual legacy is out in the world. You taught a bunch of students, and now someone else will teach another bunch of students, differently. You know all this. But you still get the guilt-flavored feels.

If you dig down deeper, you may even find a layer that doesn't want to see how easily you can be replaced. By the day your time has come around, you've seen the process. A teacher is a post sunk into the bed of a flowing river, important and influential while there, but once removed, leaving no new trace. It's a little humbling.

This year is, of course, different. I imagine that the guilt factor is now increased by a factor of 100. To retire must feel like leaving not just work, but a burning building just as your friends and colleagues (and, in my case, my wife) are being made to run into it. I know because three years out I can feel it myself (Maybe I should sign up to substitute. Maybe I should email my old colleagues and offer myself as some kind of supplemental aid.) But this set of extraordinary circumstances doesn't really change the calculus of retirement.

You retire when you think it's time. Sometimes that's the result of a thousand tiny things. That's how it was for me; at some point in my career I imagined I would teach forever, that they would eventually stuff and animatronically mount me in front of a classroom. But things happened, like children and boss changes and financial realities, and the grinding realization that instead of growing every year as a teacher, I was putting much of my energy into keeping my work from being worn away from all that outside-the-classroom crap. How much of your energy is going into fighting against the conditions that surround your teaching, as opposed to the work itself? That's a factor worth considering (and it's okay if Covid-19 is part of that factor.)

Plus--and only in retrospect am I realizing how much this weighed--realizing what teaching until I died would really look like. And that, of course, is the only alternative--you can either teach until you die, or you can retire sometime before then. If you have things you want to do someday, Teach Till I Die likely means that someday will never come.

So the question becomes, when do I go?

That has to be one of the most personal questions in the world. People will ask why, and you may want to come up with a simple answer for them, but the answer is probably not simple, and it will be yours. Most retirees I know just knew. It was time to go. They had other stuff to go and do.

But the guilt. The Covid. The students. Your colleagues. The huge mess.

There's no shame in walking away when you know it is your time. Know that the guilt, the pang of walking away from unfinished work--that's all normal in even the best of times. Know that you aren't doing anyone any favors by staying past your time--everyone has known that one teacher who stayed past when it was time for her to go, just kind of taking up space halfheartedly in her classroom.

If it's time, it's time. If you have other things to do, go ahead and tap out.

I won't pretend that it doesn't come with all the feels. Along with the twinges of guilt, you will never not miss being in a classroom with students. But when it's time, it's time.

ICYMI: Rising Anxiety Edition (8/9)

Just trying to hold it together? Join the very large and ever-growing club. Here's some reading to pass the time.

Kindergarten Reading Push: Still Problematic During the Pandemic 

Nancy Bailey with a reminder that the attempts to force littles to read before they're ready is still a bad idea.

Re: My Nomination for US Secretary of Education 

I said what I meant and I meant what I said. A while ago I nominated some folks for the post of Secretary of Education, including the JLV. Here he leans in and discusses his possible platform for the office, thereby further convincing me that he would be a good choice.

An Open Letter To American Society 

In McSweeney's, but nothing funny here. A teacher tallies off the many requests society has made of her.

An Open Letter To Teachers 

Mitchell Robinson offers some thoughts to teachers about returning in these angry times.

Parents are Flocking to Virtual Schools and Homeschooling. They'll Find a Minefield.

Sarah Jones at the New York magazine looks at the problems lurking out there for parents ready to make the leap away from public schools.

Should We Be Worried About Learning Loss In Early Childhood? 

I love this Rae Pica piece so much, I'm going to share a paragraph from it:

I’m sorry, but how devastating could it be? What learning, specifically, is being lost? The ability to meet unrealistic standards imposed on them by people who don’t understand child development, including the ridiculous expectation that they read and write by the end of kindergarten? The capacity to fill in worksheets or stare at a computer screen, or to take useless tests? The ability to handle pressure they should never have been exposed to in the first place?

Ed Reform Now spends $57,000 on Memphis election

Chalkbeat offers the tale of how this wing of DFER is still busy trying to buy school board elections.

Betsy DeVos: The Fox in the Hen House 

Retired teacher Tom Gotsill offers an op-ed in the Cape Cod Times. Includes a good capsule history of ed reform.

The Misguided Push To Reintroduce Standardized Testing During the Pandemic 

The NEPC newsletter offers a response to all those crazy policymakers calling for testing when we hit the ground.

Report: Are Charter Schools a Big Risk for Families  

This is me at Forbes. I offer it as a gateway to the Network for Public Education report on charter school closings. I've long said that one of the drawbacks of charters is their instability; here are some numbers to back that up.

"Test, trace and isolate" will be a fiasco in schools 

Op ed from, includes some of the same sort of thing I've heard often in my region--that people will absolutely refuse to cooperate with contact tracing.

The broken windows approach to teaching is breaking our schools.  

Victoria Theisen-Horner is over at Alternet talking about how no excuses schooling is bad news for everyone.

Pandemic Pods: Parents, Privilege, Power and Politics 

The latest Have You Heard podcast (there's a transcript too) looks at how the new pod fad looks a lot like the same old exercise of privilege by those who have it (and another tool for those who want to dismantle public ed).

It's time to debunk the myth of school choice   

Jen Gibson is in the Charleston (SC) City Paper pointing out that using the pandemic to defund public ed is not great, adding to problems that South Carolina has already had inflicted upon it.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Penn State Clamps Down On Covid

Pity the poor colleges and universities. If they can't entice students to return to campus in the next few weeks, they may face a financial armageddon. For many students, a gap year is looking pretty good right now. But colleges and universities have to somehow navigate the gap between "I'm not writing huge checks and taking out tons of loans just to cyber school" and "I am not ready to risk me life just to hang out on campus."

Penn State appears poised to take a fairly aggressive approach. Their plan calls for campus to open for in-person classes, though after the Thanksgiving break, students will stay out and finish the semester (including finals) virtually.

Also, students have to sign a pledge.

The pledge has attracted some attention for being a sort of waiver, a "if I get Covid it's not Penn State's fault," sort of liability shield. And that's certainly part of it-- "I assume any and all risk of exposure to COVID-19 that may result from attending Penn State" plus acknowledging that such exposure could result in injury, illness, disability or death.

What's more striking is how strictly the university demands student follow a tight set of protocols. If you are wondering what a university looks like when they are trying to take control of the pandemic in ways beyond what we've seen from, say, elected government officials, here it is.

* Students must self-quarantine for seven days before coming to campus.

* Students must agree to be tested by the university at any time.

* They must fully and "candidly" cooperate with any contact tracing (this is turning out to be a problem in some places).

* Face coverings in buildings at all time and outside when distancing isn't possible.

* Observe distancing requirements in any on-campus or off-campus settings.

* If the student tests positive, they must isolate and "explicitly follow the University's instructions."

* Follow good hand hygiene.

The actual pledging part involves lots of acknowledgement of the situation and the student's personal responsibility for helping to keep Covid-19 at bay.

If, at any time, I am unable or unwilling to sustain these commitments to my fellow students and our community, I shall remove myself from the campus and complete the semester remotely.

Consequences for refusing to live by these rules on campus include suspension and expulsion. Penn State is apparently intent on signalling that they mean business; nobody in Happy Valley is saying, "Yes, well, masks are a personal choice." Despite the forcefulness, the document (which students must virtually sign before returning) does feel a bit sad and not-entirely-hopeful. The introductory paragraph notes that "Our return is tenuous and could be brief."

The whole thing is an interesting stance for an institution that has had long-standing problems in addressing its hard-drinking culture.

Penn State is supposed to start up again at the end of the month. We'll see how well a message of responsibility, accountability and "you'd better by God follow the rules" actually plays out, and if there are any lessons for other schools.

Friday, August 7, 2020

There Are No Writing Prodigies: What That Means For Writing Instruction

Mozart was composing and performing at the age of 4. Shirley Temple made her first film appearance at age 3, and within two years was a film star. Pascal wrote a treatise on vibrating bodies at age 9. Trombone Shorty was leading his own band at age 6.

But there are no child prodigies in writing. No classic novels composed by a six year old. No world-altering essays written by some young person in second grade.

That means that every writer starts out at the same level of skill and quality—somewhere between very low and none. Every author you have ever admired, enjoyed, or been inspired by started out as a not-very-good writer.

And that means that the path of a writer is always one of continuous growth, an unending journey that takes each individual across a variety of landscapes. Each path is a little different, featuring different obstacles and rewards. Each path varies in length, not because everyone is born with a pre-determined destination, but because so many people say, “That’s it. I’m done trying to go down this path.” Some people are better equipped to make the journey than others, but you’d be hard pressed to find a great writer who says, “Yes, I stopped working on growing as a writer because I figured I simply had no room for improvement.” Nobody arrives at the top of the mountain because they somehow had the gift of magically transporting there.

The implications for teachers of writing are important. Teachers are going to meet students who are somewhere on this journey, and teachers should not mistake the students’ location on the path for their ability to make the journey. The fact that the student has not progressed very far yet does not mean she can never travel far down the path.

So the teacher has to meet the students where they are and provide what they need to continue their journey. It may be support. It may be a critical eye. It may be additions to the students’ background of knowledge; it’s almost impossible to write well about things you know nothing about (even fantasy and SF writers are taking what they know and examining it from a different lens).

It is meaningless to look at a young student and declare she is a “bad” writer. She may be a bad writer today, but she may be an awesome writer five years from now. It’s the teacher’s job to make that journey possible for her.

It’s also meaningless to try to break the craft of writing down into a battery of skills and declare that the student has “mastered” some of them. It’s no more useful than dissecting the golden goose and breaking down and evaluating each goosely muscle; that’s not how this works. The ability to write a “topic sentence” in isolation may satisfy a test, but it has little to do with crafting an effective piece of writing. A piece of writing is an organic whole. The basic building block is not a sentence, but an idea.

Writing is one of the hardest things to teach, because it is complex and messy. Any attempt to reduce it to something simple and clear will lose the essential heart of the work. And seeing students as people who either do or don’t have some kind of writer gene misses the vast reservoir of potential that is in each and every classroom.

Originally posted at

Thursday, August 6, 2020

GA: Bad Cover-Up Management In Times Of Crisis

For years, I worked for an administration whose philosophy about any problematic or controversial issue was, "If we don't talk about it, the public won't notice and this will all blow over in a while."

It was a terrible management philosophy, not just because it was dishonest and unfair, but because it failed. It failed hard. Every. Single. Time.

See? Doesn't everything look better now?
People always found out, and they always got upset about the exact things administration was afraid they'd get upset about. And on top of that, they were upset that administration had been trying to hide problems instead of solve them or share them with the affected parties, which in turn meant that they had zero trust in leadership moving forward. It just always ended poorly, and yet, administration never learned.

We're seeing some of that already with the news out of Georgia, where a couple of photos of unmasked students crowded wall to wall in the hall made Paulding County schools look pretty--well, not good. Buzzfeed (yes, you really have to start taking them seriously as a news outlet) has the whole story so far.

The school's nurse had already quit over the policy. Football players at North Paulding had already tested positive. And the first day of school was a scary mess. The superintendent responded to the photo by offering "context" i.e. saying, "Hey, it happens. Not really anything we can do." The district has characterized mask wearing as a "personal choice," though students have reportedly pointed out that the school is perfectly comfortable with enforcing the length of shorts and the visibility of bra straps. The school has also reportedly been clear that staying home from school could result in suspension or expulsion.

Of course, only one other bad management move was missing, and that shoe dropped today-- the school suspended students who posted pictures of the opening clusterfarpfegnugen, and threatened the student body if anyone dared to be critical of the school on social media. The suspensions were rationalized by a school policy against posting pictures of minors on social media, which is fairly common and sensible policy, though as one student pointed out, not enforced every single time the issue comes up. The "no criticism" rule has, at present, not been justified-- nor will it ever be, because the law is mighty clear on the issues of student personal expression, even if that expression makes schools sad. Twitter posts today say that teachers have also been warned not to be critical of the school on social media. Good luck with that.

The school's position is bullshit from just about every angle, but I expect that North Paulding will be the last school we hear defend a policy of "Just shut up and try not to make our bad choices look bad."

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Cyber Outsourcing

It's a sort of cyber school bait and switch that has implications for students and teachers in public schools. Let me offer a specific example of how it works, courtesy of my old school district.

On the district web page, you'll find a flyer for the newly christened Franklin Area Virtual Academy, a "100% online option for families." The flyer is a nice single page, including some photos of Franklin students in action, and it lists the many positive features of FAVA:

You get a Franklin diploma. You get access to Franklin facilities. It's tuition free. There's teacher support for the student. Students do their standardized testing at Franklin. Students "have the opportunity" to develop a hybrid schedule, part cyber, part bricks and mortar. They'll get guidance from a "district liaison" as well as an "opportunity" to get "district tutoring." And if there are further questions, they can contact the high school principal.

Everything about the flyer would lead one to believe that the district had hunkered down and used its own staff and resources to create an in-house cyber school. Not exactly.

Meet VLN Partners.

This Pittsburgh-based company offers virtual leaning solutions, including "turnkey virtual academies."

The company was founded in 2007 by Alex Stone, the same year he received his doctorate in education from Duquesne. Stone had taught at a cyber school and worked as multimedia developer, cited his doctorate as the basis for his company. He told the Duquesne alumni mag, "It’s inevitable: Public schools have to move into the online environment. They can’t just not do it anymore, but they don’t know how to do it. We give them the how.” It was meant in part as a "solution to help public school districts better compete with cyber charter schools that siphon off students." Within a few years, they had established themselves as major players with a variety of approaches, including helping districts build money-saving consortiums. It has been valuable work in a state where cyber-schools have enjoyed little regulation, oversight, or accountability, while soaking local districts for millions and millions of taxpayer dollars.

What exactly do they offer? Stone also laid out his ideas in his publication in 2008 of "The Holistic Model for Blended Learning: A New Model for K-12 District-Level Cyber Schools." That paper is trapped behind the paywalls od academia, but Stone was both interviewed and cited for a 2012 paper about holistic learning.

A new form of instructional delivery called Learning Object-Based Instruction (LOBI) is the force behind the Holistic Model for Blended Learning (Stone, 2007). Stone (2008) defined LOBI as “a new form of learning and teaching that harnesses the power of the Internet, allows for open architecture content authoring, and thrives in the Holistic Model for Blended Learning” (p. 65 – 66).

There is an awful lot of argle bargle associated with these ideas-- The collaborative development process differs from other processes, such as the systematic design and development processes, used in developing courseware bundles because digital media artifacts (learning objects) are viewed as tools used by curriculum directors to develop customized Web-based lessons and can be utilized transversely among several auxiliary learning environments. --but the bottom line seems to be that VLN Partners was founded by a guy with tech background, some edu-business experience, and a model that initially allowed for collaboration with client districts.

Over the decade, they've expanded their vision. VLN still seems to offer the more collaborative model, but has expanded to the "turnkey" model, which I suppose you could do if you'd been collecting teaching cyber-materials for a decade. Clients cite the financial savings, and really, it would be simple to undercut cyber schools in PA, where cyber schools are paid by a formula that has nothing at all to do with the actual costs of providing education. The company seems to have only a few employees (and only aa few of those are actual teachers), and Glassdoor reviews paint a picture of less-than-stellar management.

In their promotional video, VLN touts how closely it hews to your district's curriculum, as well as its basis in research about educational technology, which I don't find nearly as encouraging as a stroing background in education itself, especially if the district buying the product doesn't exactly have a strong curriculum to hew to.

I am no position to judge the actual quality of their edu-products; at least, for a change, this is an edu-biz led by someone who has some piece of background in education and not, say, running hedge funds. On the other hand, their only claim to a secret sauce to avoid the level of crappiness endemic to cyber-schools is the idea of using local ingredients, and it's not clear if that's really enough. They provide a really wide range of programs, starting with Cyber School In A Box, which can help a district set up their own in-house cyber school (and has been used in my district for a while). But it's really important to note that the top end of that scale is that "turnkey academy"-- essentially a complete cyber-outsourcing of your district's schools.

That's a fairly scary prospect, especially in places where the union has been stripped of power (or is just taking a long nap). It's quick, easy, cheap--really cheap if you use it to simply render some live teachers superfluous and lay-off-able. And as my old district is demonstrating, you can do it without even publicly admitting that you have outsourced some of the functions of your school district.

For those of you not in Western PA, two items to keep in mind. First, I don't imagine that Alex Stone is the only person in the country who has come up with this business model. Second, Stone has at various times expressed an interest in taking VLN national.

So keep your eyes peeled. This kind of operation may seem like a perfect solution in the times of the pandemic, but fans of public education might want to think a bit about what happens if the coronavirus goes away, and cyber outsourcing doesn't.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Viral Overconfidence

Well, this is an interesting piece of research.

A new paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology suggests that overconfidence can be transmitted socially, that being around overconfident people rubs off on other folks.

As with most psycho-social research, the experimental designs leave room for considerable debate, and there are plenty of needles to thread. I find it interesting that the transmission only appears to occur within people in your own tribe.

The research reminds me of a not-uncommon phenomenon in the world of student performance-- the group founded and led by somebody who's not very qualified, but who is absolutely confident in their awesomeness, and the group itself is filled with students who are vocal in their belief that Beloved Leader is awesome and the group itself is also awesome. These kinds of groups are aided and abetted by an entire industry of "competitions" that let them earn medals and awards.

The power of overconfidence is under-discussed in education, probably because the problems of confidence gaps loom so much larger in classrooms. But the effects are similar. A student who lacks confidence will not try, because not trying is the only tactic they believe they have for avoiding failure. The overconfident students will also not try--because they don't think they need to.

Both are also brittle and destructive. Someone lacking confidence collapses at the first sign of impending failure. Overconfidence lacks any tools to deal with failure, and has to retreat to blaming ("They must have cheated!!") or trying to overwrite reality ("No, that's actually what was supposed to happen").

A teacher who fills the classroom with viral overconfidence is just setting those students up for a crash (and setting a colleague up for a "You don't do things right like Mrs. Awesomesauce" headache). But a teacher who destroys student confidence sets those students up for a school career of misery.

Could this kind of viral overconfidence be used as a factor in group work? I don't think I've ever seen that phenomenon in action. But confidence is a huge factor in the entire student social scene, as powerful in its own way as tribal behavior. This is the kind of thing I read about and it makes we want to get back in the classroom and try tweaking some things. Could I nudge some growth by putting over and under confident students together? Probably not, because levels of confidence are used by teens to sort and recognize fellow tribe members.

Here's what I do know-- when we talk about confidence, we have to talk about confidence in what. We often jump to the idea that one is confident in their ability to get the job done, to successfully complete the task, that their confidence rests in their own competence and ability.

But there is another kind of confidence, which is confidence in one's own ability to cope with the outcome no matter what that outcome may be.

This is one of the things I learned years ago in divorce school. I fully expected to never recover, to never be able to uncurl and stand up and get back to doing stuff. But as it turned out, I was considerably more resilient than I thought, and I carried that (at least on my good days) forward. I re-acquainted myself withe the power of the question "What's the worst thing that could happen?" and learn to add "And if that happens, is there any reason to think I can't handle it?"

In the classroom, we can be reluctant to just say to a student, "No, that's wrong." But I think the key is to send a message of "No, that's wrong, but you will still be fine." It's the same message that more recently has morphed into the reminder to students and parents that students are more than a test score. Your failures may be real, but they don't have to define you as a human being. I think that's far more useful than trying to convince yourself that they aren't failures at all.

It's all a critical part of learning how to be your best self, to be fully human in the world--you have to strive to see reality as clearly as you can, including your own strengths and weaknesses, without letting them define your ability.

It is the opposite of standardization, which feeds the kind of viral overconfidence the paper talks about. In this approach, you set an artificial bar (especially one that your tribe is well-poised to clear) and then you treat that artificial bar as if it is proof that you are wise, smart, and destined to be successful in life. And then whenever anything doesn't go your way, you blame that failure on someone or something else. Or you just tell yourself that everything is fine. Just fine.