Monday, June 18, 2018

The Inexcusable

Yes, everybody is talking about the detention of immigrant children by US authorities. I'm going to talk about it, too, because this is federally-mandated child abuse, and it's not okay. If you're a little fuzzy on exactly what happened to create these new abuses (child detention) in a long-standing situation (immigration with varying degrees of legality) this short excerpt from Slate's explainer handles it pretty well:

First is the new policy that any migrant family entering the U.S. without a border inspection will be prosecuted for this minor misdemeanor. The parents get incarcerated and that leaves children to be warehoused. The parents then typically plead guilty to the misdemeanor and are given a sentence of the few days they served waiting for trial. But then when the parents try to reunite with their children, they are given the runaround—and possibly even deported, alone. The children are left in HHS custody, often without family.

Second is a new and apparently unwritten policy that even when the family presents themselves at a border-entry location, seeking asylum—that is, even when the family is complying in all respects with immigration law—the government is snatching the children away from their parents. Here, the government’s excuse seems to be that they want to keep the parents in jaillike immigration detention for a long time, while their asylum cases are adjudicated. The long-standing civil rights case known as Flores dictates that they aren’t allowed to keep kids in that kind of detention, so the Trump administration says they have to break up the families. They do not have to break up families—it is the government’s new choice to jail people with credible asylum claims who haven’t violated any laws that is leading to the heartbreaking separations you’ve been reading about. 

Here are some other articles about the how and why of immigration policy involved:

From an ACLU attorney. From the Bipartisan Policy Center. From Vox (so, plain English).

If you want to share with friends and neighbors and strangers on line some specific pictures of just how bad it is, here are a couple of articles for that:

From the Associated Press, a tour of one detention center.

Coverage from Texas that shows just how crazy the whole thing is (the "legal" path to crossing is actually locked).

From The Hill. And here's a piece about how some get to enjoy a mural of Beloved Leader.

Here are things I don't want to argue about:

How this is typically American and we have done terrible unjust things to people before. This is true. It is all the more reason not to let it go on now. This is happening now. We can do something now.

The parents caused this by bringing their children here. No. Just no. This is the same bullshit as an abuser who punches their victim and then says, "Look what you made me do." This is on us, our government, the party in power.

Their parents broke the law. So what. First of all, as noted above, mostly we're talking misdemeanors which means this is not the same as what happens to someone who was convicted of murder-- it's like taking the kids away from someone who was caught jay-walking.

The bullshit claims that the feds had to do this because evildoers were pouring across the border, because every brownskinned person is a member of an evil gang and a rapist and murder and we must get rid of them all. This is just racist bullshit with no foundation in reality (just like all racist bullshit).

The Bible. A complete non-starter, and the fact that it has even come up is a sign of how far removed from any serious religious or spiritual thought this administration is. Do we really have to point out that the Bible justified the Inquisition, slavery and a lot of other bad stuff. But if you want a religious take on it, here's what the United Methodist Church (the one that Jeff Sessions nominally belongs to) has to say in condemnation. And here's a Twitter thread listing the many religious condemnations of this.

This shameful policy is part of a larger initiative-- to cut back the number of brown people coming to this country by making this country so unwelcoming, so cruel, so much worse than what they're trying to escape that coming to America will be unattractive. That's now our policy, our new unofficial motto-- "If you aren't white, it sucks to be here and you might as well not come." That's as stark a betrayal of our national ideals as we've ever seen in our long history of not living up to those ideals. And every gutless member of Congress who can't find the spine to say so needs to face trouble at the polls come the fall. And really, when this is done, all of us who are worked up about it need to ask if there aren't perhaps other equally huge but less visceral injustices being perpetrated that we should be throwing our energies against.

But that's the big picture.

Right now, the US is sticking children in detention. I don't care for the emphasis on "in cages," which suggests this would somehow be better if cages weren't involved. It wouldn't be. This is not okay and it needs to stop now. Call your representative in DC.

The Slate article has a great list of groups who are doing the work and who can use support. Help them.

This is not okay. This. Is. Not. Okay.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Teacher Brain

"Well, your retirement doesn't really start until September- you're just on summer vacation now."

I've heard this one often since my retirement officially began fourteen days ago, and to some extent I agree that retirement does not hit now with the same force that it will when the school buses are running and I'm not walking the school doors at 7 AM.

But still.

Every summer in my career, I had a big fat To Do List. Usually it involved re-reading works of literature from my course curriculum. The list also included designing and developing unit ideas, or tweaking and re-configuring materials I already had. I've never taught exactly the same stuff the same way in any two years, and a big part of keeping fresh and refreshed and on top of my game was that summer prep. To be certain, these past several years a lot of the planning has centered on how to do more with less, which corners to cut to accommodate the most recent cuts in the year and the day. But there was always a stack of things I had to do for the fall; like most teachers, I had summer vacations that were not entirely vacations at all.

So yes, my retirement has started as witnessed by the fact that a week or so ago, I was finishing up Lego Batman II story mode and not rereading Light in August. A god working teacher's summer vacation is not entirely vacation.

But even I have been surprised to notice that it's even more than that. I hadn't really appreciated how much of my summer has always been taken up with teacher brain.

Teacher brain is the part of a teacher's brain that never turns off, and it is relentless. It's the part of your brain that is always alert to learning aspects of your students' world. Maybe I'll sample this podcast that my students were talking about all year. I think I'll try to use my snapchat account for a week so that I get my students' references to that app. I have watched The Hill and read Twilight because at the time, my students talked about these things incessantly, and I couldn't put them in context without knowing what they were.

It is also the part of your brain that looks at every single experience from a classroom point of view. In summers when I work a part time job, I didn't just work the job-- I made mental notes of what the job was like and what the work involved and consider that as part of the bigger questions of what I should be teaching these days, or even being able to convincingly and accurately complete the sentence, "You know, when some of you guys get a job, you may well find...." Watching a movie? I'd be thinking about how it might be connected to some of the themes and works I usually teach. Read a book? Every book is not just read, but considered as a possible a recommendation to students. I scanned constantly for real-live examples of various writing and usage issues that come up in the year.

Every fall I would go back with my box full of tools, and all year, but especially in the summer while I had the time, I considered every bit of the world I encountered as a possible tool. My Uncle Frank, a history teacher for 50 years in Connecticut, traveled all over creating in his "vacation" time-- and he brought back photographs he took of all the places he went to use in his classroom (and for several years to line the halls of his school). Even when teachers vacation, they don't really vacation. The teacher brain is hard to get to rest. (Are there teachers who don't experience teacher brain? Sure-- the lack of teacher brain is a distinguishing characteristic of most bad and many mediocre teachers.)

I knew I did this, but I didn't appreciate just how much I did it. I bring it up not to convince civilians that honest teachers really do work hard in the summer, because honestly, people either believe teachers spend the summer eating bon-bons while they play the slots in Vegas, or they understand that teachers still work, and I'm not sure minds can be changed.

No, I send this observation out to teachers themselves. Note to you-- you work way harder in the summer than you even realize. More than that, you don't stop viewing the world like a teacher rather than a civilian. Your teacher brain is always running, and your so used to it permeating your entire life that you don't even realize it's happening. Yes, teacher summer vacation is far cushier than what many other folks get, but at the same time, there are so many jobs that do not permeate someone's life 24/7/365. Give yourself credit for that, and maybe figure out how to turn it off now and then before you retire.

ICYMI: Fruit Salad Edition (6/17)

It's the time of year when there's just nothing as good as a good fruit salad. So fill a bowl while you read and share these goodies from the week.

What Predicts College Completion

Here's one more piece of research showing that high school GPA is a better predictor of future success than the SAT. Let's just keep saying this.

Rebirth of the Teaching Machine

Another great look at the history of teaching machines leading up to personalized (sic) learning.

Slaves, Dinosaurs and White Jesus

A look at the scientifically illiteracy being taught through some religion-based texts, Your tax dollars at work.

Why iReady Is Dangerous

For those of us who are more about words than numbers, a clear explanation of why algorithm-driven computer-based math instruction is a Really Bad Idea.

Marco Polo History

How history's stories are told. With orgies.  

Friday, June 15, 2018

MI: When Legislators Don't Understand Testing

Michigan, having gutted its public school system and repeatedly mistreated its teachers, is reaping the consequences in the form of a teacher shortage, which is of course not an actual teacher shortage, but rather a failure of the system to make the job attractive enough to draw people to it.

One legislator had a bright idea about how to fix this-- get rid of one particular requirement:

The bill, approved unanimously by the House Education Reform Committee, eliminates the requirement that new teachers pass a basic skills examination - currently the SAT - before earning a teaching certificate.

There a couple of things to unpack here. One is the notion that the SAT can somehow be used as a "basic skills examination." How does the SAT in any way shape or form resemble such a thing? It's moments like this when I wish the College Board was run by people who were so ethical that they said things like, "No, you can't use the SAT for an exit exam or a basic skills examination because it was never designed for such things. Therefor, we won't give you permission to do it." Instead, we've got the College Board of this world which says things more along the lines of, "Super! Just make the check out to 'College Board' and you can use the SAT to test first grade reading comprehension if you want to!"

But what also jumps out of the coverage of the bill is one particular piece of language:

Sen. Marty Knollenberg, who sponsored the legislation, said requiring prospective teachers to pass the SAT is a burdensome requirement. 

Pass the SAT? What does that even mean? The SAT gives you a score, which as I told my students every year, is neither "good" nor "bad" until the college you're applying to says so. I talk to someone on line with ties to the testing and data biz and she absolutely hates it when people talk about passing or failing test. And yet, here we are, demonstrating once again that civilians (even elected ones) don't understand that tests are produced for very specific purposes and can't just be swapped to whatever purpose you like as if all tests are fundamentally the same. And instead of seeing some rich source of nuanced data that can be carefully decoded for a wealth of information, these citizens just see a thing that you either pass or fail. No more nuance or richness than a light switch.

And these are the people who legislate how tests must be used and what rewards and punishments will be doled out because of them. Yes, one of the biggest problems with modern ed reform is that it's amateur hour in education. Knowing what the heck you're talking about-- that's the test that people in power keep failing.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

NY: Tireless Charter Servant

In 1986, John Flanagan was a 25-year-old second year law student when his father died of a heart attack and NY GOP leaders recruited him to take over the family business. Then in 2015, Senate Leader Dean Skelos was nabbed for Naughty Behavior, and Flanagan was moving up in the world again.

Not great news for education in New York.

Flanagan is a legislator who has bobbed and weaved on the Common Core.  

This damn guy
To make parents more comfortable with what is happening in their children’s classrooms and by extension their kids as well, Senate Republicans will pass legislation to improve the provisions that were enacted in the state budget to ensure that tests are age-appropriate for children and the curriculum is consistent with higher learning standards, among other things,

In other words, he promised to try to do things with the stuff and spray lots of smoke and mirrors at the Core. But nothing that means anything. I'm sure they didn't use that kind of vague non-promise in rehab.        

He was a vocal supporter of Betsy DeVos as candidate for secretary of education.

Her support for an all-of-the-above approach to K-12 education – from charter schools, to public, private and online education – defines the school choice movement that has helped countless children across many of our states. By advancing these innovative solutions from the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos will put children first and empower not only states to lead the way in making critical education decisions, but also empower parents to choose what type of education is best for their children.

It will comes as no surprise that Flanagan has been a great charter booster. He's been vocal in criticism of NYC mayor Bill DeBlasio for not being nice enough to charters. He's been involved in Albany rallies for charter schools.

But now he's created some new leverage.

He has proposed a bill to address New York's broken (and kind of stupid) teacher evaluation system. And he'll finally back some relief for teachers-- if he can have a higher cap for charters. Fixing the teacher evaluation system is really important-- if he can have more charters.

In some ways, Flanagan's proposal is oddly honest. It tacitly admits that Flanagan is a dealmaker, that he has no interest in any of the ideas or principles-- just what he can trade for. No need to talk to Flanagan about the merits of any of this-- just tell him what points he can make on any given deal. Flanagan's play also tacitly admits that charter and teacher interests are innately opposed to each other, that charter schools are bad for teachers and it's reasonable to expect teachers to oppose them..

Is there any reason to tie better teacher evaluations to charter caps? No more than tying teacher evals to dog registration costs or global warming studies or the cost of seats for a Yankees game? No, none at all. If Flanagan wanted to propose a fix for teacher evaluations, he could just propose it. But Flanagan doesn't want to fix teacher evaluations-- he just wants to make a deal so that more charters can bloom  in New York. This is no way to run a state.

Monday, June 11, 2018

In Praise of Vagueness

This video (passed along by an administrator to staff) has some valid points, but on the whole, it represents a point of view that I think is hugely over-valued by some folks in education these day-- the view of education as a hyper-engineered all-on-the-same-page objective-dominated process. The speaker is Mike Mattos (who I sometimes find inspirational and sometimes-- well, sometimes he invokes Marzano's name like he's someone we should pay attention to) and the topic is getting "insanely specific about learning outcomes and learning objectives." I'm not a fan.

You probably know some of the hallmarks of this general approach--
  * every teacher in the department or grade level must agree on exactly the same outcomes and objectives and maybe even use the same assessments
  * post the objectives on the wall and drill the students in them
  * translate the objectives into clear, precise language so everyone is working toward exactly the same goal
  * decide what essential parts of the course every single student must master
  * set an agreed-upon measure of what proficient looks like

Before I launch into my counter-point, let me acknowledge two things:

I am opposed to national or state standards. I recognize that in this I am a bit out there, and I recognize that reasonable people can believe that state and federal standards would be a good idea. I just don't agree.

However, I am not an advocate of completely unstructured wandering classrooms. You should know why you're teaching what you're teaching; you should have goals and objectives in teaching that material. So, no-- I'm not lobbying for the Classroom of Do As You Please.

Also, feel free to insert "in my opinion" in front of all the following.

That said...

The kind of laser-sharp focus advocated by some educational folks gives me the creeps.

Sitting a department down to say, "We're going to figure out how we can all teach exactly the same things for exactly the same purposes aimed at exactly the same outcomes," diminishes the professionalism of the people in the room and does not serve the education of their students.

Laser-sharp focus on a single objective is a bad idea, a stultifying limiting idea. I say this not just as an education viewpoint, but a life viewpoint. People who focus on one single objective are the people who throw away gold because they were focused, laser-like, on digging up diamonds. Yes, some of them find diamond mines, but mostly they barrel through a lot of other human beings and riches of another kind because of their laser-like focus.

Laser-like focus also encourages you to view every deviation from the path as a crisis, a sign of impending disaster, instead of an opportunity. Laser-like focus fosters high-strung panic instead of sparkling improvisation.

To take that kind of focus into a classroom means to define a set single acceptable path to a single acceptable success, which means that some students in your classroom will inevitably be seen as disruptive non-compliant path-jumpers. If you are going to post the approved outcomes on your wall, you might as well also put up a poster of all the things that won't be valued or pursued in your classroom, and let your problem students know where they stand from day one.

It's no exaggeration to say that my life has not turned out anything like what I imagined at various points in my past, but it is also no exaggeration to say that, on the whole, if I had been free to design my life with laser-like precision, I would not have done as well as I have. The same is true for my life in the classroom. Students have surprised me; students will always surprise you. What you have to decide is whether you will treat those surprises as beautiful fire that illuminates and delights, or whether you will treat those surprises as disastrous fire that must be stomped out and extinguished.

I'm not an advocate for anarchy. To play a good jazz solo, it helps to have set known chords underneath. To teach a good unit, you need to know the territory well enough to know where the best views are for most people.

But for me, the prospect of a journey in which every step, every stop, every move is predetermined with laser-like precision is a boring, dull, soul-sucking prospect. Yes, I will set out with a direction and a purpose, but those are always subject to revision and they are always kind of, well, vague. More pudding-shaped than laser-like. And if during my career, you had dragged me into a meeting in which we were directed to develop a unified, all-on-the-same page laser-like focused set of outcomes and objectives, I would have been a pain in the ass every step of the way, and when it was done, I would have put up the poster on the inside of the cupboard door and the very first time something interesting came up in class that was not on the outcomes list, I would never have said, "Sorry, but it's Tuesday and we have to focus on reviewing the objectives for tomorrows common formative assessment."

Yes, different teachers may teach different things. So what? Different students will learn different things, care about different things, grow up to become different types of people in different types of jobs. I'm not saying dump reading lessons for macramé projects. I'm just saying that vagueness is not so bad. In fact, if you study the shapes of chaos and chaos theory, you find that vagueness is kind of beautiful.

A laser works taking all the different paths of light and forcing them into one, single, one-colored directed beam. But of course that's not how light usually works. Usually it bends and bounces and spreads and warps and filters in a million different ways and directions, giving us colors, shading, and everything pleasing to the eye. Sure, the laser has some useful functions in the world. But it is not how the world works. You keep your laser-like focus. I will continue to stay vague.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Success Academy: Much Ado About Almost Nothing

Richard Whitmire, a reliable booster for all things charter, is over at The 74, reliable reformy news-ish outlet, to celebrate news from Success Academy:

America’s most controversial — and possibly most successful — charter network leader, Eva Moskowitz, notched a major win Thursday, overseeing her first high school graduation ceremony at Success Academy, the class of 2022.

Class of 2022 is a coy way of referring to the year that these sixteen students will presumably graduate from college.

Yes, I said sixteen.

Anyway, Whitmire addresses the question suggested by that 2022. Will they actually make it to the finish line?

Impossible to say with certainty, of course, but based on my research of low-income, minority students going off to college, the odds of these 16 graduating seniors earning degrees are very high.

Sure. His argument is they've gotten into very selective schools with high graduation rates. He could be right.

But he also wants us to know that this is a huge deal, a big giant triumph for this poor little rich girl struggling against her critics:

Moskowitz is rarely one to resist settling scores with her many critics, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who once famously vowed to staunch her access to unused school buildings, or the union leaders who have thrown every weapon imaginable at her over the past dozen years. She appears to be achieving what they hold is impossible: successfully educating low-income minority children without first solving the ills of poverty. And she’s doing it at scale, not just with these 16 graduates. Her 46 schools enroll 15,500 students.

And that is as close as Whitmire comes to the facts that make this not quite so triumphant. Because Moskowitz isn't doing this at anything remotely resembling scale.

It's swell that her schools enroll 15,500 students. Twelve years ago, she was enrolling just 157 students in two grades. By 2016, those 157 students had become 52 tenth and eleventh graders. And now they have become 16 graduates (Gary Rubinstein breaks down the stunning attrition numbers more exactly here).

Success Academy has two secrets, and neither of them are important new developments in the field of education. Also, neither of them can be scaled up.

First, as indicated above, is the secret power of attrition. Get students to leave-- you might even make a got-to-go list of students that you want to push out. Never fill any empty seats after the first couple of years, so that over time you can whittle student body down to just a few who are able to work the way you want them to.

Second, be well-connected so that movers and shakers in NYC help get you what you need (including lots of contributions at fund-raisers). Use your customers as free muscle in the state capital to help get more political leverage.

Without these secrets of her success, Moskowitz is nothing special. Enroll 15,500 students? Super-- when all 15,500 graduate from your schools, then you'll have done something remarkable. And if you can do it without extra favors and extra money-- just with the same resources that any public school would have-- then you'll have done something extraordinary.

I would not for a second want to diminish what this accomplishment means to those sixteen students. This was a great thing for them, and I hope that the years ahead bring them nothing but continued success.

But do not pretend this accomplishment is magical or scalable or offers any lessons other schools could learn from. Any school with a mountain of extra money, friends in high places, and the ability to teach only the students that suit it-- any school could do the same under those conditions. If government were willing to mobilize these kind of resources for every school and every school, it would be a great thing. But in the meantime, don't tell me that Moskowitz has accomplished something great and special here. It's a great day for those sixteen students, but as a lesson in how to operate a school system, it's a big fat nothingburger.