Monday, January 18, 2021

A Really Bad Anti-Public School Analogy

You know I love a good analogy. I spent four decades trying to help people understand one thing by connecting it to some other thing. So I love a good analogy. 

This is not a good analogy.

Nick Freitas is an army vet and Virginia politician, who served in the house of delegates before making a couple of unsuccessful runs for the US Congress (both House and Senate). In his bid for national office, he was backed by folks Rand Paul and Mike Lee, the Club for Growth, and Freedomworks. He has been writing for the ultra-right Daily Wire, where he usually sticks to war and the evils of communism. But this week, he decided to stick his oar into education waters with "We Wouldn't Let Government Control Our Grocery Stores. Why Do We Let Them Control Our Schools?" Transparency requires that I link to the article so you can check my work if you're so inclined, but I'm going to ask you to resist giving this thing any more clicks than you can help. So here's the link.

There are so many things wrong here. But it's worth poking through this pile because it's representative of how the anti-gummint school crowd views the issues.

Freitas opens by reducing the many debates about school to two sides--one side all for "choice and freedom" and  the other side "insists that improved education can only be achieved through strict government control of schools." Well, no, not really. It's not clear what exactly he means by "government control" or "strict," but a lot of straw is going to fly before he's done. We have locally elected school boards, which is government, but their control is not particularly strict in most case. We have oversight on the state and federal level, which is where most of the rules and regulations that he might be upset about come from, but if we were going to have strict control from that level, we'd have lefties arguing to end local school boards and just put schools under direct control of the state or federal government, but the only people I know making anything like those arguments are conservatives. Without traveling too far down this rabbit hole, I'm just going to say that the debate has far more than the two sides he has described, and, in fact, at least one of the sides he has described doesn't really exist.

Anyway, his whole point is to skip over a rehash of old arguments so that we can try his thought experiment.

Rather than rehashing the same old arguments, let us instead engage in a thought exercise regarding government’s involvement in another important aspect of our lives — access to food and nutrition — and see if we can draw some relevant parallels. After all, while access to education is important, it can be argued that access to food is just as important — if not more so. With that in mind, what would happen if we put the government in charge of grocery stores?

We're in trouble already, because public education doesn't provide "access" to education, but rather sets out to provide education to every single child in the US. But lets move on.

For whatever reason, Freitas sets his experiment in the Depression, and asks us to imagine what would happen if "the government decided to set up thousands of grocery stores across the country." He posits that you would suddenly be unable to shop at the store of your choice, but would be assigned a grocery store based on your address. Further, he imagines a government-proscribed "scientific" approach to shopping, and you would be forced to buy according to government recommendations. And you'd have to lobby the government for change, but of course, money talks. Also, of course, the workers at these stores would not be rewarded for excellence, but just seniority. 

So that's the straw man he set up. Let me count the ways.

First, while his "controlled by the government" is a bit vague, grocery stores highlight some of the ways in which government regulation is useful. We shop in grocery stores with a high level of confidence that the food we buy will not poison us and that the store itself meets certain safety standards--"scientific" ones, at that. 

But more importantly, the world of grocery stores provides an excellent demonstration of why a market-based privatized education system is a lousy idea. Freitas is selling freedom and choice and decrying his imaginary government grocery store for imposing choices on citizens, but the marketplace imposes its own choices every day. You can only shop at the grocery stores that are available in your area, and you can only buy the things those stores choose to stock. Now, if you live in a wealthy community, that may be great--you may have a choice of several stores with a vast variety of products to choose from. But the market doesn't provide that for everyone. There are towns in the West where you have to drive 5, 10, 15 miles over to the next town to get groceries. 

And in the US, there is such a thing as a food desert, a community or area that lacks access to affordable or nutritious food. In 2010, the US Department of Agriculture "reported that 23.5 million people in the U.S. live in "food deserts", meaning that they live more than one mile from a supermarket in urban or suburban areas and more than 10 miles from a supermarket in rural areas." Note that one mile to shop for groceries is only "close" if you have a car. 

Bottom line-- the free market world of grocery stores does not provide a cornucopia of choice to all citizens in the country. It provides very fine arrays of choice to communities that are wealthy, and a lousy range of choices--or no choices at all--to communities that aren't. I've made this point roughly a gazillion times now--the "free market" is a wonderful thing, but it's a lousy match for public education because the market is mostly good at picking winners and losers, not just among the businesses, but among customers. Every single functional business model requires businesses to decide which customers they are going to make no attempt to serve, because it won't be worth their time and money to do so. That is not compatible with a mission to provide education for every child.

Public education already has trouble meeting that promise, precisely to the degree that its funding has been infected through the housing market. And the notion that we have government controlled schools that are tightly controlled and carefully managed by some central education planning group is itself absurd. What we have is a bunch of nesting dolls (I know--they're Russian!! Gasp!!) each trying to assert control over the system in an endless tug of war, so that every teacher in a classroom is required to serve a hundred different masters. 

The rest of his argument is the same old anti-public school baloney. The fake "vote with their feet" argument. The "evil unions run everything" argument (always news to the actual evil unions). The "teachers would be free to be rewarded for their expertise" argument, which closely parallels the idea that a rising fast food industry increased pay levels for chefs. Mostly it's the "we must take back control," with very little exploration of what exactly the writer means by "we."

Donors Choose Monday: Small Things

I have been trying to make a regular weekly attempt to give some small support to teachers on Donors Choose, a platform that allows teachers to solicit support for projects in their classroom. Not all schools allow their teachers to participate, and I wish there was a better way to find teachers who deserve a hand, but we work with what we've got.

Sometimes the asks are really small, simple things. The kinds of things that you'd hope school districts would fund themselves, but you already know how that goes. But I'm a big believer that small differences are what really move the needle in this world, especially from the perspective of the students who are getting the help.

So I have some small things for your consideration this week.

In Mount Airy, NC, Mrs. Fletcher is looking for bookmarks for her littles at Franklin Elementary School. It's not a big ask, but it struck a chord-- I remember how much I liked a really cool bookmark to stick in a book I was reading (it is possible that I have not outgrown this). 

In Friendswood, TX, Ms. Gardner is looking for some help funding her cache of classroom treats and prizes for good work. As with many Donors Choose asks, you may be thinking, "Well, hell, all the teachers in the world self-fund their classroom prize store, and I agree. So let Ms. Gardner be a reminder and an inspiration, and help provide some teacher you know with some classroom rewards. And if you don't know a teacher who could use that, then help Ms. Gardner.

Also, I am shocked--okay, not shocked exactly, but disturbed--to see how many teachers are on Donors Choose asking for hand sanitizer, masks, basic PPE. I'm not going to put any of them up, but I am going to suggest that you could easily grab some extra of these items the next time you're shopping, and drop them off at a school near you. Should the school already be providing such things? Absolutely. But the need is still there. My old district stopped buying facial tissue a few decades ago, and many parents got in the habit of just sending a box into school with their child every so often. An absolute godsend.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

ICYMI: Well, Nothing Blew Up This Week Edition (1/17)

Did we just get through a whole week without anything more than whingings based on the willful misunderstanding of the First Amendment and admittedly horrifying details from last week's insurrection? I feel like maybe we're having the equivalent of when someone screams in your ears and then stops but your ears still keep ringing. Or maybe my brain has just reached an overload stage and something horrible happened this week, again, and I've simply blocked it out. If that's the case, you can disillusion me in the comments (I'd rather have truth than comfort).

At any rate, I have some stuff for you. And I promise you something beautiful and encouraging at the bottom of the page.

A Look At The Biden Education Team

Thomas Ultican runs us through all the players in the Biden education sector. A thorough look. 

State Disinvestment after Great Recession  

This is not beautiful. The Education Law Center crunched some numbers, and they figure that post-2008 states underfunded public education to the tune o0f about $600 billion. This article has a link to the full report, if you're feeling tough enough to read it. 

Education Still Top Issue in Arizona   

Arizona is getting more interesting all the time--solid red, except for the people they elect lately. And still screwing over public education even as surveys like this indicate that the voters want something else.

Private school vouchers back on state legislative agenda  

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution writes about how Georgia is back to pushing school vouchers, an oft-defeated proposal, but we're going to give it another try because Covid.

Well, That's a Special Kind of Dumb  

As long as we're touring states, let's check in with Dad Gone Wild to see what Gov. Lee is up to with silly education bills in Tennessee.

Use of CARES funding by cyber charter schools in question  

In Pennsylvania, The Citizens' Voice is wondering how cyber-charters managed to play the double dip game with relief funds yet again. They're public schools! They're private businesses! They're whatever will get them a check.

School Finance Indicators Database  

"Often imitated but never duplicated," courtesy of the Albert Shanker Institute and Rutgers Graduate School of Education, it's a big mountain of curated and collected data about school funding. 

Why Billions in Food Aid Hasn't Gotten To Needy Families  

Anya Kamanetz at NPR looks at how red tape is keeping so many students and their families hungry

These Textbooks In Thousands of K-12 Schools Echo Trump's Talking Points  

Okay, it's Huffington Post, so the headline's a little clickbaity. But it's Rebecca Klein, who specializes in the many ways that school choice has been used to finance schools of Christianist nationalism and assorted anti-science baloney.

Why doesn't increasing knowledge improve reading achievement [sic]?

Shanahan on literacy, and the actual question he's asking is "why doesn't increased knowledge raise reading test scores?" The resulting article has a subtext contrasting the goals of  "raising test scores" and "building a better life."

Books of 2020

Nancy Flanagan has her list of big books from last year. If you're looking for something to pick up...

Grendel should not have rampaged through our capitol, but slaying him will only further divide the clans

Lit nerd political humor from McSweeney's

And I promised you something encouraging. This is from last spring, but I missed it at the time. It's a music video written and produced by a student and her friend, involving students from across eleven states. There are references to "September" which make it a little bittersweet (ah, how young and hopeful we all were last spring), but it's still a great piece of work.

Make the World Better from EL Education on Vimeo.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Moral Distress and Teaching

 I've run across this new-to-me term several times in the past few months-- moral distress. It wasn't developed for the teaching profession, but lots of teachers are going to recognize what is being described here.

Andrew Jameton gets most of the credit for drawing the moral distress picture, looking at the world of nursing. This piece from the AMA Journal of Ethics lays out his ideas pretty succinctly and points the way to broadening them. Here's the basic definition:

Moral distress, according to Andrew Jameton’s highly influential definition, occurs when a nurse knows the morally correct action to take but is constrained in some way from taking this action.

This is immediately recognizable for anyone who has been in the teaching world for the past few decades. "Stop teaching all those full literary works," some of us were told, "and start drilling these short excerpts with multiple choice questions instead." Pull these kids out of their electives and put them in test prep classes instead. Stop worrying about their education and their life after school, and start worrying about their test scores instead. 

Honestly, moral distress in teaching can't be blamed solely on education reform. There have always been those moments. The time a supervisor told you that you needed to stop counting spelling for a student's work--including his spelling tests. The students you were required to pass because the front office wanted that kid out of there. I was in a meeting with a special ed supervisor once, debating the scores for a student in my class, and I lost my cool and snapped, "Look, why don't you tell me what grade you expect the student to get in my class, and I'll just fudge the numbers to get that." Without a hint of irony, she told me that would be very helpful. Beyond the special events, most teachers carry in a dark corner of their heart the catalog of times that they failed to provide a student what she needed.

So, yeah, the moral tensions of teaching have always been present. But ed reform ramped the whole business up by creating a set of goals that teachers know are wrong. Working the student over until she spits out the test score that the school administration wants from her--that's not what anybody went into teaching to do. 

This article lays out three stages of moral distress--indignation, resignation, acclimation. It strikes me that those of us who made ourselves barely-sufferable over the past many years simply never moved on beyond indignation, though I suppose a certain amount of acclimation is necessary in order to get things done.

I wrestled often, particular in the last decade or two of my career, with the stress of being required to do things that I knew were simply educational malpractice. Some, like coaching students to do the kind of writing that makes for high test scores, were not just about NOT teaching the right things, but actively teaching wrong things, things that would never be of any use to the student. For most of my career, my growth as a teacher was about pushing out against my own limits, finding ways to get one more ball in the air each year. The last few years, I felt stymied-- I was no longer getting one more ball in the air, but was trying to figure out how to lose as few balls as possible (har) because my administration was requiring me to carry an anvil at the same time.

"Well, just refuse," is common advice offered by people (specifically, people who don't teach). But it's tiring to go and fight every day, to fend off an angry dog with one hand while trying to engage positively with students with the other hand. And refusing is insubordination, which puts your job on the line. And so you keep computing the moral calculus, the complicated four arm balance between then good you can do while you're there, just how bad the requirement is, how well you can mitigate the damage, which choice will let you keep looking in the mirror. 

Right now teachers are struggling with a different moral distress as they are confronted with the demand to Get Back To Work (as if distance learning isn't work) even if the school's conditions haven't been improved one iota since this pandemess started. 

I don't know of any particular solution for moral distress beyond making choices that you can personally, morally live with. But now you've got a name for it. 

Friday, January 15, 2021

PA: Chester Upland School District On Verge of Charterization

I don't usually do this, but I've spent a ton of time working on a piece about a PA school district that is on the verge of making history by becoming the first district in the state to be fully charterized. It's a big complicated story, but it hits on many of the classic problems. The charter funding death spiral. The long term effects of de facto segregation; this school district shares a border with one of the wealthiest, top-rated districts in the state. 

And while we're all listening to testocrats argue that the spring test must be given because that's how states identify need and target resources--well, Chester Upland test scores have been screaming "help us" for a long time, and the state hasn't sent jack or squat in targeted resources--just a long string of disruptive, failed takeover attempts. 

So this is a story that's important and worth reading, and I'm hoping you'll click on over and take a look while it's still fresh

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

AZ: Teachers Slapped Yet Again

Arizona is one of a handful of states that owe a debt to Florida; were it not for the Sunshine State, Arizona would be a strong contender for State Most Hostile To Public Education. And now their governor is sticking it to teachers yet again.

Arizona has a long-standing problem with convincing teachers to work there; they are one of the states that was recruiting folks from the Philipines to fill teacher positions. Their teacher pay stinks, and their actual money spent on students stinks as well (in 2015, per pupil spending was at $3400). Governor Ducey turned to public education demolition experts like Paul Pastorek (obliterator in chief of New Orleans schools) and Joel Klein. 

Arizona is a great playground for charter profiteers (just gut public schools to make privatized options more attractive). They have long hemorrhaged teachers from their workforce, even as they keep electing lawmakers like the GOP House Leader who claimed that teachers were only working second jobs so they could buy boats and bigger houses. They tried and failed at merit pay for teachers. Oh, and they're one of those states that fake-dumped the Common Core.

So it should not have been a surprise in 2018 when the state's teachers put on their Red4Ed shirts and walked out in staggeringly large numbers. It had a large-but-not-large-enough-to-replace-the-governor impact. And it made some GOPpies like Kelly Townsend mad enough to try to slap a gag rule on teachers across the state (after trying to sue them). 

But Gov. Ducey was pushed to at least admit out loud what was obvious from the facts and figures--Arizona's teacher pay sucks. In fact, back in 2018 he was promising a 20% raise spread over three years. That didn't happen. That half-assed attempt at a serious raise was still better than the latest proposal.

Ducey just announced that "it's time for a raise for Arizona teachers."

His budget proposal called for a teacher raise of 2% over 5 years. 

Also, somewhere in there he threw in some threats about how the state would only pay schools for butts in seats--none of that distance learning stuff. His office tried to clarify that Ducey just meant that if students changed their enrollment to a different school (AZ is an open enrollment state), the money would follow the student, which is how things normally work there anyway, so why highlight it in the State of the State address. For educators, it sounded like a threat, and that seems like a correct read. Because everyone knows that distance teaching is like being on vacation. SMH.

But back to that raise. 0.4% raise per year? It seems kind of like a joke. Well, not a joke. A deliberate insult, like leaving a dime as your tip at the restaurant. 

Ducey also took a speechifiying swipe at Prop 208, a measure passed last November that funds teacher raises by putting a tax on income over $250,000. Ducey has indicated that high taxes make rich people sad and he would like to lower them. 

Maybe it's not fair to say that Arizona's leaders are hostile to public education, but they certainly aren't serious about supporting it or strengthening it, and they certainly do come up with lots of ways to express disrespect for the teachers who work in public education. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Did DeVos Get A Raw Deal

In today's National Review, Rick Hess is suggesting that Betsy DeVos got a raw deal, that attacks on her "have taken a torch to the basic standards of public discourse and democratic civility." 

Hess acknowledges some of the issues surrounding her as legit ones:

During her tempestuous tenure in office, DeVos evoked strong feelings among her critics. Many disagreed vehemently with her views on school choice, religious freedom, and government regulation. They profusely criticized her talk of “factory-model government schools” and often deemed her ill-prepared for the role. Many thought she should never have agreed to serve under Trump, or else should have resigned in response to his earlier provocations. These complaints are legitimate and fair grounds for tough-minded debate.

But Hess finds attacks on DeVos go above and beyond that, and often "curiously unmoored from what she has actually done in office." Here he has a bit of a point. DeVos somehow entered popular culture pictured as a fool and a dope; I've argued before that while it may be fun to imagine DeVos as the dimmest kid in class (you may have seen the "Dere Mr. Presidne I resine" meme floating about), I don't think it's a particular fair or accurate caricature of her.

Hess also hints at another argument in DeVos's favor when he alleges that most of her critics can't actually point to awful things she's done. She messed with Title IX rules. She cut the Office of Civil Liberties off at the knees. She consistently sided with predatory for-profit colleges over defrauded students (you've probably already forgotten her plan to sic the IRS on borrowers). But many of her noteworthy actions were notable for her failure, like her repeatedly thwarted attempts to steer extra stimulus dollars to private schools, just part of the DeVos Ed Department's record-breaking 455 lawsuits

It did not help that she was uniformly terrible at articulating her ideas. Arne Duncan may have stunk as a secretary of education, but he could, occasionally, sound like a guy with a vision. From her terrible confirmation hearing appearance to her terrible 60 Minutes interview to her various terrible Congressional hearing appearances, DeVos showed that thirty years of practicing checkbook politics really doesn't prepare you to make your case to people who are not either already in agreement or hope to be beholden to you. She was the queen of the non-answer, which added to the myth of her dopiness. I've argued before that the real explanation is some combination of her checkbook advocacy past and her conservative Christianist faith. She was also a good soldier for Trump, and spent some time looking at the underside of the bus; the annual theatrics of an education budget that zeroed out the Special Olympics budget which she would dutifully defend until Trump stepped in to un-zero it, all of which smells very much like the standard Trumpian arsonist firefighter shtick, where he would create a problem so that he could heroically solve it. 

But let's face it. Far fewer people were interested in understanding DeVos when it was easier to just hate her.

Hess wants to argue that she was a mostly-unknown outside-the-box candidate that was held to a double standard; he suggests that Miguel Cardona is not being held accountable for Connecticut schools in the same way DeVos was blamed for Michigan and Detroit's schools. But there is no double standard there. Cardona has barely been in office a year. Hess argues that DeVos never held a position of authority in Michigan, but that's disingenuous--DeVos spent decades using her fortune to bend Michigan lawmakers to her will. Remember this classic DeVos quote on her family's political spending:

I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect some things in return.

Betsy DeVos deserves plenty of blame for her failed experiments in Michigan.

Was that enough reason for folks (at least folks outside of Michigan) to take such an intense dislike to her? Probably not. But DeVos engendered plenty of ill will on her own.

She was a fine example of the outsider myth. In a soft, fuzzy exit interview with Hess, she said that because she didn't know all the things "you 'can't do'" she came in with "fresh eyes and a laser focus on rethinking the ways we approach all aspects of work at the department." It's a pretty thought, but as many folks pointed out early on, DeVos was spectacularly unqualified for the job-- had never held down a real adult job, never spent time in a public school, never run a large organization, and the ones she had run she ran via her fortune and political clout, so she'd never had to sell an idea to a boss or a peer. I say that not to argue she's a terrible person, but to point out that these, plus the general insulation of living one's entire life swaddled in wealth, meant there was no reason to think she had any of the skills needed for the job. "outsider status," is not a qualification. I don't want my brain surgery performed by someone who has "fresh eyes" because they have spent all their time outside the medical field.

DeVos never disguised her contempt for public education, for the "government schools" that she views as a "dead end," and she repeatedly struck out against the "education cabal" or even the "unholy mob." There were some attempts to at least look interested in public schools, like trading visits with Randi Weingarten, or her disastrous visit to a DC school where she criticized teachers for being in "receiver mode." But mostly she conveyed the message that there wasn't anything she didn't know about public schools that she needed to know. She called education an industry, compared it to Ubers and food trucks, and just showed in a thousand little ways that she doesn't get it. She became noted for her smug smirk, and although I've been a pretty dedicated DeVos tracker for these years, I can't turn up a moment of humility or an admission that she had anything to learn; certainly, like her boss, she's not one to say, "I made a mistake." 

Perhaps DeVos is in part the victim of really bad timing. At this point, teachers and other actual education professionals have just about had it with well-heeled well-connected amateurs swooping in to say, "I don't really know anything about how your job works, but I am still going to tell you all about the many ways you suck," and she seemed like the ultimate unvarnished personification of that attitude. So maybe she's taking the heat for a lot of other people. 

She became identified with that smug smirk (less in evidence the longer she was in office) and a quality that looks, at least to me, like the classic Christian "I am in the world, but not of it" stance, but comes across as an aloof elitism. When she claimed her resignation was an act of protest, not cowardice, maybe educators should have given her the benefit of the doubt, but why would they--she has never given them that benefit, never, in fact , suggested that she had an ounce of doubt in her belief that public education should be dismantled and replaced with religious private schools. She has been clear--the folks who work in public education are the enemy.  

All of that can, I think, explain the vitriol directed at her. I'm not going to try to argue that it justified it--that takes us down a whole other dark philosophical road. But I will make one more observation. There is an obvious power differential between cabinet-level officials of the federal government and, say, classroom teachers. DeVos was in the leadership role; the job of setting a tone for her relationship with the education world was with her. She could have made critics, like me, eat our words by working hard to understand the landscape, learning about public schools, offering support, even just using language that built bridges. She could have displayed grace and humility. Instead she used the bully pulpit to punch down. Civility requires more than thinly veiled insults issued through clenched teeth. 

Yes, given her disdain for everything that she was set in charge of, DeVos did remarkably little real damage during her tenure; her ineffectiveness mitigated her worse instincts. And yes, Trump could have put Ivanka or Eric or his favorite pretzel vendor in charge of the department so maybe we didn't live through the worst possible scenario. But Betsy DeVos came to DC to break things with a smile on her face and self-righteousness in her heart, and if those things decided to push back against being broken, well, that seems only right and well-earned.