Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Free Market vs. Customers

I write so much about the free(ish) market that one might assume that I hate it. I don't. I think the profit motive, properly harnessed and directed, can accomplish a great deal. Making money is not inherently bad.

However, there are certain things that the free market will not do, and those weaknesses are in direct conflict with the purposes and goals of public education.

If you want to see what the problems would be, all you have to do is look around right now at every other sector of Trumpistan, where the Privatizer-in-Chief and the members of his Free Market Fan Club have been pursuing a particular set of goals.

This week the FCC took some steps to "relieve thousands of smaller broadband providers from onerous reporting obligations." More specifically, they removed some regulations that require ISPs to publish pricing and service information. This is seen by some as a first step of a general assault on net neutrality.

Meanwhile, some environmental regulations are already rolling back, a trend that is expected to accelerate under the new EPA head. Elizabeth Warren's Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is under attack. And in the education world, for-profit colleges that were feeling some pressure under Obama (though, seriously, how much pressure really) are feeling like there's a fresh new day a-borning.

These and the many government actions like them come from the same basic free-market complaint, addressed to government:

"We could make a lot more money if we didn't have to [insert regulation you don't like here]."

Free market fans (like Betsy DeVos) prefer to argue that free market business needs no regulating because customer reactions provide all the regulation needed. If the business fails to do a good job, customers can vote with their feet, and free market justice is served by the invisible hand.

This is bunk, and any successful business people know it's bunk.

In fact, between "this company is awesome and I love them" and "these guys suck and I'm going to start foot-voting right now" is a whole grey area where businesses actually operate. Awesome-love is really expensive to provide, so the smart business play is to figure out just how little you can get away with providing before the foot-votes start to hurt.

Government regulations are a pain in the ass because they interfere with the search for that sweet barely-enough spot. Auto makers might love to cut the costs associated with things like air bags and seat belts, but regulations won't let them. Industries could be far more profitable if they didn't have to follow environmental regulations. Internet providers could make way more money if they were allowed to give special treatment to rich customers. Any business could be more profitable if it could pay workers the very lowest pay it could get away with.

If Donald Trump possesses anything like a business genius, it would be this-- he has really pushed the boundaries on "the least you can get away with." Lying to investors and refusing to pay contractors, as well as extracting pay-to-play bribes good treatment, Trump has dared people to walk with their feet or hold him to any code of conduct. And he has mostly won. Like that annoying kid in your fourth period class, he has a genius for figuring out exactly how little he has to actually do to get by.

This is what the privatizers want to see-- a world in which the bare minimum required to run a school is hugely lowered bar. They want a friendly federal government, someone prepared to listen to them when they say, "We could make so much more money running this school if we didn't have to [fill in any school function or service here]." We could make so much more money if we didn't have to serve high-needs students. We could make so much more money if we didn't have to pay teachers more than minimum wage. We could make so much more money if we didn't have to pay prevailing wages to our contractors. We could make so much more money if we didn't have to meet all the items on this list of regulations.

Can government go way too far when it comes to regulation? Absolutely-- particularly when it's going in the wrong direction.

But what the privatizers promise to do to education is put the needs of the business operators ahead of the needs of the students. In the business world, that is common and results in a kind of sorting-- the business chases away some customers and focuses on the smaller assortment of customers whose needs best match what the business wants to do as its bare minimum.

That's a rational business approach, but it is an immoral approach to education. And it creates a hugely unbalanced contest. On one side, we have the businessmen and hedge funders and national charter chains plus the elected and unelected government officials who are looking out for their interests. On the other side, we have parents.

That's why it's absolutely necessary that government stand up for those parents and for the interests of those students. That's why it's up to government to set boundaries, to determine what the barely acceptable minimum will be (because businesses will always sink to that low bar). That's why it's up to government to stick up for citizens, and not the invisible hand.

ICYMI: Here Comes March Edition (2/26)

A wide assortment of stuff today, because fake spring is over and real winter is back.

Homeschoolers Revolt Against Republican School Choice Bill

Yeah, it's Breitbart, so it may be 100% crap. But it might also be an interesting look at how very conservative  folks end up opposing school choice.

Charter Schools Have Lost Their Way

A look at how folks who started out as charter supporters could end up disaffected and abandoning the cause.

4Chan- The Skeleton Key to the Rise of Trump

A really interesting look at 4chan, anonymous, gamergate, and the whole angry young white guys in their Mom's basement part of society. Not directly related to education, but still a fascinating read.

Decaying Buildings and the Rise of Digital Education

Using the deliberate abandonment of physical plants as a way to drive the new industry

The Failure of the iPad Classroom

A long look at how the movement to put ipads at the center of classrooms has been a sad and wasteful failure.

Betsy DeVos and the Plan to Break Puiblic Schools 

Ffrom Rebecca Mead at the New Yorker, a well-thought-out look at the Big DeVos Picture, with lots of links.

The Disappearing Educator

At the Michigan Education Association website, a look at why the teacher pool is shrinking.

Have We Lost Sight of the Promise of Public Schools

At the New York Times, Nikole Hannah-Jones looks at the difficulties we've always had fulfilling the promise of public education (hint: they're related to our problems acepting all citiizens as equal parts of the public).

Betsy DeVos and the Task of Satffing Donald Trump's Education Department

Andy Smarick at US News breaks down the five hurdles future USED staffers will have to clear, and in the process, he gives us a picture of what the Trump-DeVos USED will look like. Forwarned is forearmed.

W.E.B. DuBois and Dual Consciousness for Teachers of Color

Jose Vilson looks at DuBois and the questions teachers of color must ask.

It's Not About Them (It's About Us)

Blue Cereal Education with a piece that looks at the basic foundation of how principled people behave toward other people.

Oh, Hey-- a Lot of Private Charter Schools Are Just Dumping Grounds for Poor Students-- Imagine That

I suppose I could have just linked you to the original report, but Wonkette's take is so much more spicy and entertaining, while still presenting the meat of these shameful findings.

Success Staff Questions Moskowitz's Ties to Trump

From Politico, we learn that Eva Moskowitz suddenly has scruples about being politically active in her position. Who knew?

Saturday, February 25, 2017

WI: State Superintendent Vs. Voucher$

On April 4, two former school superintendents will square off for the state superintendent spot. The shape of that race tells us a lot about what the new politics-as-usual will look like in the years ahead.

Wisconsin state animal. She is not rich, either.

In one corner, we find Tony Evers. Evers has been the state superintendent of public instruction since 2009; before that he was deputy superintendent for eight years. He's a Wisconsin boy, born raised and 3educated, and he married his high school sweetheart. He's also the president of the Council Chief State School Officers. Policy-wise, he's a mixed bag-- on the one hand, as CCSSO president, he's been a Common Core advocate; on the other hand, he has steadfastly resisted attempts to expand vouchers and privatization in Wisconsin.

For those reasons, he has been in the GOP cross-hairs for a while. Don Pridemore (his real name) had a brief career in the legislature, during which he backed legislation for photo ids for election and a resolution declaring unmarried parenting as a contributing factor in child abuse. He took a run at the state superintendent job in 2013 and got his ass handed to him by Evers.

So this time around, Pridemore reached out to another unsuccessful superintendent candidate, and Lowell Holtz was brought in to try again. That led to several contentious moments with a third candidate-- John Humphries (in Wisconsin, the state superintendent race is non-partisan-- everyone runs in the primary, and then the top two vote-getters from the primary face off in the general election). Humphries claimed that Holtz offered him the bribe of a $150K job, a car, and the right to manage five big Wisconsin districts. Holtz said, no, it was an offer from an unnamed business leader to both of them. They both called each other big fat liars.

Then it turned out that Holtz hadn't even expected to do any of the hard work of running for office himself, that he felt that the deal was that an advocacy group run by Pridemore would do the grunt work. Much of this was documented in emails that Holtz sent with his school account (oops).

Why were Holtz and Humphries, neither of whom emerges from accounts as a particularly formidable political player, attract such attention and support?


Or as Holtz said when he was explaining why he really hasn't done any local fundraising, "The folks that support the vouchers nationally have lots more money than I could ever raise in the state of Wisconsin."

And why would the business interests and voucher fans think that they had a better shot than usual against the popular Evers? The clue rests in this paragraph from Wisconsin State Journal coverage of the race:

Evers is seeking a third term in the wake of massive membership losses for the state’s largest teachers union — a strong campaign contributor for Evers in the past— setting the stage for the potential of third-party groups spending on behalf of Holtz to ensure the election of a voucher supporter.

Scott Walker's assault on public sector unions was never just about putting the help in their place, but about reducing their strength as Democratic Party supporters. Unions were, among other things, an effective way for working people to put together the same kind of clout-commanding contributions that rich folks are now allowed to toss around with abandon (thanks, Supreme Court). So now even clumsy amateur-hour puppet candidacies like Holtz's can stand a chance because they can muster the big bucks, while Democrat money has been hobbled. 

Evers cleaned Holtz's shiny clock in the primary, and so he still looks like the odds on favorite, and he has a well-stocked war chest, but he's still worried.

“If it’s all in, it’ll be very difficult to compete with that amount of money. There’s just not that much in the state that’s available,” Evers said. “And we’re talking about Amway money and the money from the family that owns Walmart and I don’t know any of those people.”

The election will be April 4. We'll have to wait and see how badly national voucher fans want it, and how much they're willing to spend to buy it. Pay attention. This is how these sorts of elections work these days.


Friday, February 24, 2017


One of my regular reads is Blue Cereal Education, a blog that regularly makes me say, "Gee, I wish I'd written that." Just this week, the post "It's Not About Them (It's About Us)" gave me both that feeling and a wave of flashbacks to when my children were young.

The point is deceptively simple-- we should treat people based on our understanding of the right way to treat people, not based on what we think they've earned. We oppose, for instance, cruel and unusual punishment not based on what considerations the felon in question has earned, but because we'd rather not be the kind of people who use cruel punishment on others.

How we treat others is not about who they are, but about who we are-- or at least about who we want to be.

It's a good piece. You should really go read it. Go ahead. I'll wait right here.

It takes me back twenty years because this was how the children's mother and I would short-circuit all protests about why somebody really needed to be hit or "you just don't understand the awfulness of Person X"-- you don't hit people because you don't hit people. That's not how you treat other people.

As a moral principle, it really is a great simplifier, which is probably why the basic principle has been around for so long (including that Jesus guy with his "do unto others' and "let he who is without sin" and "judge not" or "the least of these" stuff). We are to extend loving, caring behavior to others because of who we aspire to be-- not because of who they are.

There are always some concerns with this approach. Surely we're not meant to extend decent, caring attention to people to people who lie to us, attack us, try to hurt us (What's that? "Turn the other cheek?" Ssshhhhh!). But there is nothing about living a principled life that means we have to be stupid or self-destructive.

As human beings, we have created lots of loopholes. One is otherize people and provide them with a label that makes it clear they aren't really people at all, as in "Well, of course, I strive to treat all people decently, but that Mugwump over there is a whole other matter."

Mostly we like the judging. We insist on including a clause that adds "who deserve it" to all "this is how we treat people" statements.

But when we start talking about "deserving" people, we invariably end up de-serving people.

In other words, talking about "deserving" is usually an excuse to select people that we can legitimately refuse to treat with love or caring or consideration or decency or kindness or whatever we're figuring out an excuse to withhold. When we talk about who deserves to be in this country, we're really highlighting the people that it's "okay" to throw out. When we talk about good pay for deserving teachers, it's really a conversation about how we can pick out the teachers who will be paid poorly. When we make convoluted arguments and assumptions that poor people "deserve" to be poor, we are justifying a callous, careless, neglectful approach to poverty and the poor.

Teachers already understand much of this. Most of us understand that the gig does not include deciding which students deserve our assistance and compassion and instruction and support-- we are supposed to treat them all well not because of who they are, but because we are teachers, and that's how teachers are supposed to behave. The principled teacher does her best for her students-- regardless of their race, their background, their gifts, their talents, their willingness, their inclination to work, their personality-- because that's what she is supposed to do.

As BCE notes, this principled approach is hardwired into our nation, that this is a place where how we treat each new arrival is based on who we want to be as a nation, not on who you are as a person. There's absolutely no doubt that we have usually failed to fully live up to that ideal, to that principle-- but it has been the business of steering toward that principle that has helped us at best get better and at least acknowledge that some things are just not right. And sometimes, we lose sight of it entirely. These are not our best moments as a nation.

When I say that public schools are foundational to our country, that's part of what I mean-- we are an institution that is supposed to be dedicated to doing the best for each child, regardless of who that child is.

But that's been suffering a toxic erosion for a while now. The modern reform era has been all about sorting and deserving-- who are the deserving schools, who are the deserving teachers. Never mind how schools are treating and serving their students-- what outcomes can they show, what test results have they generated, that prove these schools and teachers are deserving. Obama-Duncan waiver-palooza codified that further by saying that rather than honoring a commitment to support and fund education across all fifty states because that's the kind of administration they wanted to be-- instead of that, they raised a bunch of funding for schools and said, "We are only going to give this money to the states that deserve it, and all other states will be de-served."

No child that enters my classroom should ever have to prove that he or she deserves my attention, my help, my best effort. But reformsters have, for over a decade, made the central tenet of public education not "we will serve all students without asking if the deserve it" to "at all levels, everyone must always be ready to prove what they deserve."

And now in the Trump era, it becomes even worse. Because now a simple statement such as "all human beings of all races, genders and background should be treated with love and support" is viewed as a political statement. A school in Maryland required teachers to take down the series of "we the people" posters because they were seen as anti-Trump. Because that's where we are-- stating that you value human beings of all types means that you are a political opponent of the President of the United States of America.

Use every man after his desert, and who should ’scape whipping? Use them after your own honor and dignity. (Hamlet, Act 2, Scene ii)

Shakespeare reminds us that nobody deserves anything but punishment, and therefor nobody deserves to be the one who judges and punishes. The choices we make about how to treat others reveals much about our character and the principles that drive it.

In the end, how we treat others says a lot more about us than about them. The Trump administration's treatment of its many others tells us much about the administration. The refornsters treatment of teachers and schools, as well as the kind of treatment that they have pressured us to pass down the line, all the way to the students. It is a challenge to stay focused on principle in unprincipled times, but that is, these days, the gig, just as it remains the gig to treat students (and others) well, whether they deserve it or not. Not because of who they are, but because of who we hope, strive, wish to be.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

DeVos Folds

It was pretty much zero surprise that the Trump administration chose to undo the Obama protections for transgender students (despite his vociferous campaign assertion that he would be a far better friend to LGBT folks than Clinton).

Yeah, that's a real Trump tweet.

Only a tiny bit of my soul died this week. Hardly hurts at all.

But no-- the actual surprise was that according to several published reports (because, apparently, DC leaks like a buckshot-blasted colander) Betsy DeVos balked at this move. Rescinding the protections required two departments to sign off, and DeVos reportedly did not want to do it. She expressed her concern that transgender students could be more vulnerable to harm without the rue, according to "three Republicans with direct knowledge of the internal discussions." Attorney General Jess Sessions escalated to Defcon Five. Per the New York Times:

Mr. Sessions, who has opposed expanding gay, lesbian and transgender rights, pushed Ms. DeVos to relent. After getting nowhere, he took his objections to the White House because he could not go forward without her consent. Mr. Trump sided with his attorney general, the Republicans said, and told Ms. DeVos in a meeting in the Oval Office on Tuesday that he wanted her to drop her opposition. And Ms. DeVos, faced with the alternative of resigning or defying the president, agreed to go along.

Soon after, DeVos was toeing the party line and issuing a statement that boiled down to "vulnerable students are vulnerable, and somebody really should look out for them, but it won't be the federal government."

The actual policy doesn't tell us anything about this administration that we didn't already know. But the way it happened tell us-- and perhaps DeVos-- a bit about her role in this administration.

First, I was actually a little surprised that DeVos rolled over so easily. I thought she was tougher than this. I thought she was a policy pit bull. But she is also a DC newbie. GQ has called her, more than once, a rube. Now Lord knows, when it comes to the DC political world, I am worse than a rube. But I can't help thinking this would have been a time for DeVos to read the national room and say, "Do you really want to fire a cabinet official one month in over where transgender kids can pee? Is that the story you want on Saturday Night Live this week?" Still, I'm certain that it's pretty hard to face down a US President, particularly one who is well-known for gutting enemies and holding long grudges (an approach that DeVos knows something about). Bottom line-- she had her first test, and she folded like a cheap lawn chair.

Second, while this was a protection of huge importance to trans kids and anyone who cares about them, and while this makes a huge statement about our compassion or lack thereof for vulnerable students, it was still relatively small potatoes to the Trump administration. It's not repealing Obamacare or building a wall or any of the marquee promises on which Trump built his brand. And yet he was willing to take DeVos to the wall on this.

Which raises the question-- just how much autonomy will DeVos have as Secretary? Will Trump and his boys micromanage her on every single issue? And yes, it's worth noting in this administration that along with a lack of administrative experience and management background and any time at all working in government, the other thing that Betsy DeVos lacks is a penis, which in any administration should make zero difference-- but in a Trump administration? I have to wonder if DeVos went home yesterday and sat thinking, "Why the hell did I even take this job? Have I made a huge mistake?"

Third, I told you so. And not just me. Regardless of how you feel about her actual preferred education policies, DeVos was always unqualified by her sheer lack of any experience that would have prepared to run a cabinet-level department while going head to head with other major players in the federal government.

It's possible we've been worrying too much about DeVos's beliefs and policy goals because her voice simply isn't going to matter in this administration. Maybe she'll find herself a crash course in How To Be An Effective Cabinet Secretary, or maybe she'll just sit in her office, holding a rubber stamp and waiting for Fearless Leader to tell her what policy she's supporting this week. We'll just have to wait and see if the story, or DeVos, will unfold.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Decline of Accountability

It was just a few years ago that outcomes were all the rage with the reform crowd. The problem with public schools, they said, was that we focus too much on inputs. Outfits like the Rand Corporation produced big reports on giving more weight to outputs. Or here's a paper by Mike Petrilli (Fordham Foundation) telling the state of Wisconsin how to look at those all-important outputs for quality control. The basic sales pitch for charters, repeated again and again, was that charters traded greater autonomy for greater acountability.

But there's a new breeze a-blowin', the same breeze that brought Betsy DeVos, Poppins-like, into town. As has been noted repeatedly, DeVos was never really on board with that accountability thing. Her faith is in God, the free market, rich corporate leaders, and parental choice (well, as much as the first three allow for)-- and that's all we need. In her spate of early interviews, she allowed as how there's not really any issue on which the feds need to intervene. The invisible hand will fix everything.

We don't need accountability. The only part that matters is choice. That is the output that matters.

You can see this new attitude sneaking into the reformsters themselves.

Every year the Fordham Foundation holds a wonkathon, in which they solicit policy ideas and proposals. Last year they also held a design competition in which they solicited ideas for accountability systems under ESSA (I entered that one but, shockingly, did not win). Last year's wonkathon was about looking for a choicy silver lining in the ESSA. 

This year?

This year the Fordham is looking for ideas about how to spend the Trump $20 billion in voucher money. There are three requirements that the submission must meet:

  • It promotes the expansion of parental choice in education
  • It could reasonably be included in a tax reform bill and passed via reconciliation (since, as Politico is reporting, that appears to be the vehicle the Administration and leaders in Congress will try to use)  
  • It includes the number “$20 billion” (though of course it need not start there and might not grow to there)

Notice what's not here? No accountability requirement. No component to make sure that the $20 billion is not spent on fraud or waste or Jesus school or Sharia Law academy or White Kids Only High School or a school run by some guy who knows nothing about schools except how to make money at setting up pretend ones.

I mean, I have my entry ready right now. There are (very) roughly 50 million K-12 students out there. Divide up the $20 billion and write each student a $400 check, which their parents can then choose to spend on whatever they think would be educational-- textbooks, trip to the zoo, Playstation. Get the $20 billion by cutting the defense budget.

That's $20 billion in taxpayer money, to be spent on a new set of entitlements. Why would any plan not include some means of accountability, some way for taxpayers to know that their money had not been flushed away by unaccountable schools run by unelected businesses?

Mind you, the way we've been doing accountability is terrible. The Big Standardized Tests do not provide anything remotely like a measure of student achievement or school success. But after listening to years of reformy cheerleaders say, "Yeah, you teachers hate BS Tests because you don't want to be held accountable," it seems more than a little ironic that reformsters themselves are now ready to jettison accountability as a leg of school reform. This is not a new position for me-- I've always welcomed accountability as long as it actually gives a true measure of an actual thing that matters. But it does seem like a bit of a shift for them.

Accountability matters. We'll just have to see how completely reformsters will stop caring about it now that they are sitting in the driver's seat as the new status quo.

The Lessons of Fordlandia

This week in the New York Times, Simon Romero took a fascinating visit (with photos) to one of Henry Ford's most monumental failures. It's reminder that billionaires who want to remake the world in their own preferred image are nothing new-- and their failures frequently come back to the same old lessons.

In the 1920s, Fordlandia was going to be Ford's solution to several problems. It would help break the British near-monopoly on rubber production, and it would allow Ford to set up his ideal American town. Even if it was going to be in the Amazonian forests of Brazil. It was a high aspiration, and it was doomed to failure.

Henry "History is bunk" Ford made no attempt to tap the expertise of people who knew about life in the Amazon. He dismissed the expertise of people who knew about how to cultivate and grow rubber trees. He made a series of rookie mistakes when it came to establishing his cash crop.

Ford also seriously overestimated his power to shape the lives of his workers (who were to live in made-in-Michigan bungalows). It was his growing belief that to fix the world, he would have to expand his horizons, creating not just factories, but entire cities and cultures in his image, all managed by an overseer who managed the city like a plant manager would manage a manufacturing floor.

Beyond producing rubber, Ford, an avowed teetotaler, anti-Semite and skeptic of the Jazz Age, clearly wanted life in the jungle to be more transformative. His American managers forbade consumption of alcohol, while promoting gardening, square dancing and readings of the poetry of Emerson and Longfellow.

But his workers just left town and procured alcohol anyway. And his vision of a world where workers knew their proper place and became good, compliant citizens ran into trouble as well.

Just when things appeared to be settling down in Fordlandia, violence broke out again on 20 December 1930. At the workers’ cafe, in which skilled workers were separated from manual labourers, an argument between supervisor Kaj Ostenfeld and Manuel Caetano, a brick mason working at the city, quickly escalated. Workers rallied behind Caetano, vandalising the city, destroying generators, manufacturing equipment, and even their own homes. 

Greg Grandin has written the definitive history of Fordlandia; published in 2010, the book lays out the still-important lessons of what happens when guys get rich and think their money means they can ignore the experts and bend the whole world to their vision

With a surety of purpose and incuriosity about the world that seems all too familiar, Ford deliberately rejected expert advice and set out to turn the Amazon into the Midwest of his imagination,” Mr. Grandin, the historian, wrote in his account of the the town. 

Today Fordlandia is a sparsely populated town, its factories empty, and some of its major buildings, like the hospital, long-since stripped of any valuable pieces. It lives on in a couple of pieces of music, and is sometimes cited as the template for new London in Brave New World. The city was never a success-- not as a rubber producer and not as a social experiment, and all of those failures can be traced straight to Ford's doorstep. Unwilling to heed experts and absolutely certain that he was right to inflict his vision of community on his lessers, Ford sowed the seeds of Fordlandia's collapse from Day One.

One can only hope that copies of the book find their way to men like Bill Gates and Michael Barber and Eli Broad and Betsy DeVos and all the other reformsters who have confused wealth with wisdom and believe they have the right to inflict their uninformed, unelected vision on the education world.