Sunday, November 23, 2014

Core Ready Schools, Aspen and Achieve

So you want to know how your district is doing on the implementation of the Common Core? Well, the folks at Achieve and the Aspen Institute have a tool for you. It's Core Ready Schools, 
a handy tool for evaluating your school's progress in implementation that only misses one huge, gigantic, Uranus-sized indicator. But let me work up to it.

There is a whole 90-minute rollout presentation on video right here and I know I usually watch these things for you, but I couldn't quite get through all of it. But let me tell you about what I did get through, and if you actually want to watch the whole thing, drop me a note in the comments and let me know how it was. Because who knows-- it might not have been quite as mind-numbing as I began to fear it was.

The video opens with a nice lady from Aspen who covers a bunch of specs and screenshots about the-- well, she keeps calling it an app, but it appears to be a website. Also big thanks to the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, and their Program Officier, which I infer is a person from the foundation who comes and works with you on your program so that you don't have to do that nasty application process, and for some reason I'm thinking of the Roman system of local governors, but maybe we should leave this for another day. What's this thing actually for? Well, it's not an accountability tool (I know because she said so). Let's bring up Mike Cohen from Achieve to talk.

Mike from Achieve talks about Achieve's Core cred and says "I feel like the Home Depot of the Common Core" Nobody laughed and he took that to mean that nobody got that joke at all."It's a tough crowd this morning"

Anyway, Achieve was concerned about a lack of data and tools to monitor implementation. They needed a way to get data on how implementation was going on state level. First tries they gave up as too hard. But then somehow we all realized that Aspen had already kind of done the work, with their handy transition guide for school leaders and so the Core Ready Schools app-site-tool covers similar ground.

Core Ready Schools ia aimed at things you would want to monitor, and that chiefs at CCSSO would commit to using. Something lightweight, but with depth. Balance of common across states but flexible enough for individual states. Here are the seven factors Mike says (the site calls them "levers") the tool is designed to consider.

1) Is leadership focusing on CCSS as part of school improvement
2) Is instruction being aligned with it
3) Is ongoing professional development supporting CCSS
4) Do you have an aligned assessment system?
5) Do you have aligned instruction resources and curriculum in school
6) Do you have mechanisms for engaging families and communities (because you're going to have to get them to buy into this, so by "engage" we seem to mean "talk to" and not "listen to.")
7) And are there sufficient resources and staffing (technology)

The tool is supposed to allow for different states' emphasis and ways to collect data. Mike tells a story about how one school chief was just going to ask superintendents how things were going and not dig any deeper. "Don't you think there will be inflation" "Yes, but then they'll have a harder time explaining results on assessments." So, give a principal enough rope? With this not-an-accountability tool?

Mike also says, "They desperately need it to know what's going on-- there's no debate about that." I would be happy to debate him. Also, though this started as Common Core thing, but they've been flexing it to handle states other CACR standards. Because we'd hate to get left behind when the Core is dumped.

Do you know what we haven't talked about?

I said there was a glaring omission. So far it appears that when we're assessing the success of our Common Core implication, we are not going to ask if the students in the schools seem to be getting a better education. That seems to be primarily because we assume that if Common Core is well-implemented, it will automatically lead to better test scores (what? is there some other way to measure how well children are being educated?) But no-- at no point in this entire process do we actually look at the affect of Core implementation on student learning.

Who is this for again?

This tool fits the whole reformster style because it assumes that superintendents simply can't know what is going on in their own districts, presumably because of some combination of stupidity and lying subordinates. Also, of course, information is far more informationny when it's in number form.

The big selling point here is that this tool will be useful inside of districts, helping leaders tell how well the implementation is going on inside the district. This skips over the question of whether we should implement CCSS in the first place, plus it skips over another question-- when school leaders are implementing a program because it has been mandated and they had no say in it, how much time to they spend worrying about implementing it well? Or, on the deeper philosophical level, how much commitment to doing a bad thing well is a good amount of commitment to doing a bad thing well. Or, if you prefer classic filmic references, exactly whom should we be rooting for in Bridge on the River Kwai?

Never mind that for a moment, because I'd like to offer for your consideration the user agreement from the Core Ready Schools website:

By clicking the button below, you agree to have your anonymized survey results recorded by Anabliss Design + Brand Strategy and shared with the Aspen Institute. The Aspen Institute reserves the right to utilize the data in research, analysis, and reporting on the implementation of the CCSS and other education-related trends; however, the Aspen Institute agrees that any data disclosed will be anonymized data that is not tied to specific users and is not released in any manner that could identify an individual, school, or school district.

So, NOT just collecting data for your district. You're also collecting data for Aspen and their friends. You are volunteering for a walk-on roll for the next production of "How the Implementation of Common Core Is Going in Our Schools." Yes, it's one more great chance to do free grunt work for our Data Overlords.

More fun with websites

One cool things about Core Ready Schools? Anybody can log in and create an account. You could, for instance, sign in and start the account for your school or district; I did that, and I'm sure my superintendent will be calling to thank me if she ever hears about it. I suppose you could log in and start an account for any school-- even fake ones-- although if a lot of people did that, it might make Aspen's aggregated numbers less accurate, and that would be a shame, I imagine.

You're allowed to take the survey ten times over five years. I found the questions simple and the interface easy to navigate. There are just a handful of self-assessment questions for each "lever," and most of them are unexceptional. The program occasionally reveals its blind spots. One of the questions about instruction asks about how well teachers understand and use the Core, and it does not allow for the possibility that teachers are familiar with the Core but don't use it because they don't want to. Everything in the survey assumes that we all want to welcome the Core into our home and make it happy here and that its success will naturally flow into educational awesomeness and joy for all. There is no "You're not my real mom" option.

The whole effect is very Borgian, and it reveals an extremely specific view of exactly how a school should be assimilated into the Core universe. This is no surprise. Since the Core is a one-size-fits-all prescription for students, why would it not come with a one-size-fits-all school districts to implement it? Yes, Aspen is promising customizable versions of this tool (for a price), but this is customizable in the same manner as a fast food burger-- you can change the balance of the elements a bit, but you'll be choosing how to tweak the ingredients that the restaurant has chosen for you. So, not very customizable at all (kind of like that "personalized" education we keep hearing about).

So if your school district decides to sign on to this handy tool, God bless you and have fun. Thank you for making a contribution to the giant holding cells of our Data Overlords.And remember-- student learning is irrelevant to the process.

Michigan Court Okays Crappy Schools

I waited a while on this story because I thought surely, surely, there would be more to it, and it couldn't be this simple.

But no-- a November 7th ruling of the Michigan Court of Appeals says that the state need not do jack about actually educating students.

A lower court rules that there was a “broad compelling state interest in the provision of an education to all children.” No, the appellate court said-- the state just had an obligation to spend some money on something called education. It did not matter whether the state bought a guernsey cow, a goose that laid golden eggs, or a handful of magic beans. As long as the state can show a store receipt proving, "Hey, we totally bought ten pounds of high grade education," the state has no obligation to check and see whether packaging contains excellent education or just packing peanuts.

The specific case involved was a lawsuit bought "on behalf of" eight students (because we now live in a world where lawyers just go ahead and sue whoever, whenever, and then round up some cardboard cutouts to take with them to court) who wanted to spank the state of Michigan and the public schools of Highland Park because they (the students, not the state and schools) can't read at grade level.

I'm not a big fan of the sort of legal maneuver that this lawsuit exemplifies, but the court's response seems to be the legal equivalent of settling a dispute about living room drapes by burning down the house. And I have a hard time seeing the ruling as anything but bad news for everyone.

This means that the state now has no obligation to either give enough funding to public schools or to make sure that charters they bring in know what the heck they're doing. But it also undercuts their legal foundation for closing a public school and replacing it with Big Al's House O' Education ("we have an obligation to rescue students from failing public schools").

But it's mostly bad news for education in Michigan, because it's a pretty clear ruling. Michigan only has to fund something called education-- it doesn't have to be any good. And the courts bailed on all future education cases by declaring that they were not able to distinguish a good education from a bad one, a ruling so broad that they might as well put a sign over the court door in big bold easily-read letters saying, "Don't ask us to decide anything about education ever again." It's an interesting stance for a court to take, and I/m wondering if we can also expect the court to rule themselves incompetent to decide cases involving psychology or ballistics or law enforcement. 

I suppose the ruling means all future education issues must be settled by streetfights or arm wrestling matches or by TP-ing important buildings in the capitol. Unfortunately, it also means that the state of Michigan has been absolved of any responsibility to provide decent schools for its children, which would seem to mean that the state government can slash its education budget to $1.98 for a single workbook for every school to pass around to its students and the courts are totally cool with that.

I wonder what would happen if the state decided that it also had no obligation to provide a decent court system and told the Court of Appeals that they had to hold court in a tent and the judges had to take turns playing bailiff.

The Big Picture

Why do we have these policies that don't make sense? Why does it seem like this system is set up to make schools fail? Why do states pass these laws that discourage people from becoming teachers?

My friends, colleagues and family ask these kinds of questions all the time. So my goal today is to step back and try to fit the pieces into the larger picture. If you have been paying attention, you already know this stuff, but perhaps this post will help someone you know who's trying to make sense of reformsterdom. Here, then, is my attempt to show the big picture.

The Perfect Storm

The Current Education Reform Wave is driven by a joining of two major impulses in the US. Neither of them are new, but over the past decade they have come together in ways that are proving powerful.

Growing steadily (at least since A Nation at Risk) has been a desire for Centralized Efficiency in education. Their basic narrative has always been that American schools are failing, and what is needed is strong, clear-headed, direction from People Who Know Better. The rise of massive computer based data capabilities and the internet's ability to lock together widespread organizations first led the CE folks to believe they could actually do it.

And then, they realized that they could do even more. The infamous Marc Tucker letter lays it out as clearly as anything--  we could create a cradle-to-career pipeline, a massive planned track fed by mountains of data. Through computer-based testing and data gathering, we could track each individual starting shortly after birth, so that we could design an educational program that would perfectly prepare each person for a productive place in society.

To do that, we'd need to get every possible data source plugged in, and for the data to mean anything, we'd have to have all schools doing basically the exact same thing. Standards could be used to tag and organize every piece of data collected about every student. This suited people who see US education as a slapdash, sloppy, disorganized mess of many different schools doing many different things (this bothered them as much as your pictures hanging cockeyed in the den drive your OCD aunt crazy). But all of that would require massive planning and infrastructure far beyond what government could politically or financially manage.

This dovetailed perfectly with the other powerful impulse-- the desire of Educational Privatization. Public education represents a huge, huge mountain of money that has historically been unavailable to corporate interests. Companies have been forced to jockey for the crumbs of book contracts here and there, or occasional consultant work. Now, making the Centralized Efficiency dreams come true would also provide corporations with unprecendented access to that mountain of money. This was also appealing because many business-folks find their sensibilities offended by the unbusiness-like running of US education.

Combining these two impulses finally opened up the possibility of remaking the entire US education system in a new image. Just as Rockefeller had brought vertical integration to the oil industry by owning everything step of the process from oil wells to consumer marketing, reformers envisioned a fully integrated system that generated financial returns at every step of the educational process while simultaneously organizing education around a centrally planned and controlled system. It is an unholy marriage between the worst aspects of socialism and capitalism, but to make it happen, certain steps must be taken.

Opening the Supplier Markets: The Mystification of Education

Producers of educational materials have long had to live on the fringes of education, subject to the individual preferences of thousand upon thousands of individual school districts. Texas was a hint of how sweet life could be-- a place where you just had to make a textbook sale to one central authority. Could the whole country become Texas?

Well, yes, kind of, and Common Core was key. Get everybody on the same page, and everybody needs to buy the same books. Common Core was envisioned as a way to get everyone teaching the same stuff at the same time, and therefor content providers need only align themselves to one set of expectations. Instead of trying to sell to thousands of different markets, they could now sell to a thousand versions of the same basic standardized school district.

The less obvious effect of the Core was to change the locus of educational expertise. Previously teachers were the educational experts, the people who were consulted and often made the final call on what materials to buy. But one message of the Core was that teachers were not the experts, both because they had failed so much before and because Common Core was such a piece of "high standards" jargon-encrusted mumbo jumbo that you needed an expert to explain it.

Educational experts were no longer found in the classroom. Now they are in corporate offices. They are in government offices. Textbook creators now include "training" because your teachers won't be able to figure out how to use teaching materials on their own. More importantly, teachers can no longer be trusted to create their own teaching materials (at least not unless their district has hired consultants to put them through extensive training).

Meanwhile, testing programs, which would also double as curriculum outlines, were also corporate products (which require such expertise that teachers are not allowed to see or discuss their contents), and every school must test as part of an accountability system that will both force schools to follow the centralized efficiency program and label them as failures when their test scores are too low, as well as feeding data into the cradle-to-career pipeline.

The entire supplier market for education had become the sole property of the book publishers, who could market more efficiently while reinforcing the Centralized Efficiency picture of exactly what should happen in schools. And teachers were shut out of the process because they would only gum up the works.

Opening the Provider Markets: Breaking the Government Monopoly

But owning the entire supply chain was not enough. There was a ton of money to be made by running the schools themselves. Attempts to bleed money from the system by the use of vouchers had been repeatedly slapped down by the courts and simply not borne fruit

But another mechanism was already in place-- charter schools. Charter schools have been a way of using public tax dollars to finance an independent school for ages. Now the privatization crowd could harness this business model. It was ripe and ready; Clinton-era tax laws made the ROI from investing in charters wondrous. Charters were a ready-made tax shelter, a way to get solid investment results while looking like a do-gooder to boot.

But the market for schools was covered and controlled by the public school system (except for Pre-K, which was ripe for the plucking). So that nut had to be cracked. The government "monopoly" on schools had to be broken.

First, it had to be shown that public schools were failing. That job was half done, because Schools Are Failing had been the mantra since Nation at Risk. But people still tended to believe that their own local school was pretty good. We needed more proof. Common Core has been used as its own proof-- we need these "higher standards" because schools suck, and teachers never teach reading or critical thinking and look how bad our test scores are. Standardized testing, particularly testing that was poorly done, instigated before the actual standards that it was supposed to measure, and using cut scores set politically rather than educationally, could help "prove" that schools were failing. There was also a focus on how college unready students are.

The beauty of testing is that since test results generally line up with economic class, the schools that would fail would be the schools of the poor-- the people also least able to muster resistance to school takeovers. The discovery of failing schools for the poor also allowed reformers to adopt the language of the civil rights movement (and in a bold move by the Obama administration, to use civil rights law to enforce school reform). Real school failure could also be hastened by simply cutting money and resources for poor schools.

There have been attempts to create other means of failing schools. (The parent trigger law was one that never quite worked out.) But the result is always the same-- the discovery that a school is failing does not lead to meetings with the parents, teachers and administrators, but instead leads to hiring turnaround experts or charter operators or consultants. When a school "fails," somebody is going to make money from it. The more schools we can prove are failing, the more money somebody can make. And of course the rising tide of school failure has been the excuse for the Obama administration to make "open more charters" a requirement of waivers. And when more charters open, more resources are taken from public schools, adding to the ways in which they can fail.

Opening the supplier market also means breaking the geographical limits. The rhetoric of making sure that students are victims of their zip code is about opening up markets, about making it possible for charters to recruit from outside a defined geographical area.

Opening the Teaching Market: The De-professionalizing of Teaching

It drives corporate privatizers crazy that A) the biggest operating expense in schools is staff and B) that they can't simply hire and fire as they wish. It drives central planning fans crazy that teachers insist on doing whatever they feel like doing instead of all teaching the same things the same way at the same time. How could both groups effect change?

One step we've already discussed. By creating a system in which teachers are no longer the experts on what they teach or how to teach it, reformsters turn teachers from educated professionals into content delivery workers. You don't need a building full of education experts-- just one or two to direct the rest of a staff of drones. Use a boxed program like engageNY-- anybody who can read the script and the instructions can teach students.

Teachers frequently scratch their head and ask, "Are they TRYING to drive people out of the profession? " Well, probably, yes. Teach for America "teachers" are not a stop-gap measure-- they're the ideal. They don't stay long enough to get raises, and they don't saddle the district with any expensive pension costs. And they're young and healthy, so even insurance costs are low. Teachers who spend a lifetime in the profession are an expensive nuisance; what we need are a regular supply of compliant short-timers.

We can facilitate that by, of course, doing away with tenure and any other job protections. And systems like merit-based pay allow us to manage costs effectively and limiting the amount of pay that will be handed out. A low-paid, easily-replaced staff that serves at the pleasure of management provides optimum control of expenses and "human capital." These reforms can be applied to public schools as well, forced by budget cuts.

We can accelerate the process by taking the failure we are imposing on schools and blaming it all on teachers. The low scores that poor students always get-- teachers' fault. We can keep framing it as praise (teachers are the most important part of schools), but what's really being said is that everything that goes wrong is a teacher's fault. If there's a lot of failure, it must be caused by bad teachers-- and that's why school leaders must have the tools for hiring and firing at will.

And we can turn schools of education training into parking lots or basic training for delivering teacher-proof programs.

Is this some sort of conspiracy?

Am I suggesting that there is some sort of vast conspiracy? No. I'm not a believer in vast conspiracies. Hard to organize. Cumbersome. But all it takes for all of this to happen is people in power who believe that applying free market business principles are innately good, teamed up with people who believe that centralized standardization.and efficiency are innately good. There's a network of such people in power, and while some of them undoubtedly are motivated by greed and ambition, I believe that some of them simply believe they are giving schools a good hard dose of reality, of How The World Really Works.

The end effect is the same. Ignore the rhetoric. Watch what they do and what the effects are. Everything happening in education reform is about 1) reducing the autonomy and local control of schools and 2) mining the school system for every cent of economic advantage. Education reform has literally nothing to do with providing quality education for America's children.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Principals vs. VAM

The National Association of Secondary School Principals issued a statement on November 7 that it intended to adopt a policy statement regarding the use of Value-Added measures in teacher evaluation. The policy statement is currently in its 60-day comment period, with final deliberation on the policy at the February meeting.

You can read the whole thing here, and you should. But let me run through the sparknotes version for you.

The Challenge

States are adopting new VAM measures that count for up to 50% of teacher evaluation scores in some states. At the same time, states were adopting certain "more rigorous college- and career standards. These standards are intended to raise the bar from having every student earn a high school diploma to the much more ambitious goal of having every student be on-target for success in post-secondary education and training."

Do you detect a whiff of feistiness in the NASSP language? It's subtle, but I think I can scent it on the breeze.

For instance, the statement notes that the new standards require a departure from the "old, much less expensive" tests. "Not surprisingly," raising the bar and adding new assessments results in far fewer "proficient" students.

Herein lies the challenge for principals and school leaders. New teacher evaluation systems demand the inclusion of student data at a time when scores on new assessments are dropping. The fears accompanying any new evaluation system have been magnified by the inclusion of data that will get worse before it gets better. Principals are concerned that the new evaluation systems are eroding trust and are detrimental to building a culture of collaboration and continuous improvement necessary to successfully raise student performance to college and career-ready levels.

 And then there's VAM.

The Trouble With VAM

Given what VAM claims it can do, "at first glance, it would appear reasonable to use VAMs to gauge teacher effectiveness." But the statement continues-- "Unfortunately, policy makers have acted on that impression over the consistent objections of researchers" who have said it's a bad idea. And then they start ticking off the VAM objections.

They cite the 2014 American Statistical Association report urging schools not to use VAM to make personnel decisions. They offer some strong quotage from the ASA report.

They cite the "peer-reviewed study" funded by Gates and published by AERA which stated emphatically that "Value-added performance measures do not reflect the content or quality of teachers' instruction." This study went on to note that VAM doesn't seem to correspond to anything that anybody considers a feature of good teaching.

They cite the objections of researchers Bruce Baker and Edward Haertal. They move on to Linda Darling-Hammond. They include plenty of well-researched, clear but not inflammatory language that hammers away at how VAM simply can't be used to evaluate teachers in any real or meaningful way. It's very direct, very clear, and kind of awesome.

Their Recommendations

I'll compress here.

NASSP recommends that teacher eval include multiple measure, and that Peer Assistance and Review programs are the way to go. Teacher-constructed portfolios of student learning are also cool.

VAMs should be used to fine tune programs and instructional methods as well as professional development on a building level, but they should not be "used to make key personnel decisions about individual teachers."  Principals should be trained in how to properly interpret and use VAMmy data.

And they have footnotes.

If you are looking for a clear-headed professional take-down of the idea that VAM should be used for personnel decisions by the people who have to help make those decisions. As many reformsters on the TNTP-Fordham-Bellwether axis of reformdom bemoan the fact that school leaders don't use data to inform their personnel decisions, here is an actual national association of actual school leaders saying why they prefer not to use VAM data to make personnel decisions. Now if only reformsters and policy makers will actually pay attention to the school leaders on the front lines.

Charters Make Money. So What?

It's a response that comes frequently to the charge that modern charter schools have become all about grabbing large piles of money for their backers and operators.

"I don't care if they are making a pile of money," is the response. "If they're getting the results, what difference does it make?"

It's a response that bugs me, and it has taken me a while to figure out exactly why. You know I love a good illustrative analogy. I'm going to give you the following analogy instead.

That response makes the same sense as saying, "I don't care if I'm going to bed with a person who's committed to a loving, long-lasting relationship or if I'm going to be with a hundred dollar an hour hooker. As long as the sex is good, what difference does it make?"

I might argue that it ultimately makes a difference because sex is better within a committed relationship with someone you love than a stranger paid to fake affection. I might also argue that absent a more stable relationships, you don't really know what other factors, concerns, agendas and second-hand biological effluvium are in bed with you.

But even those arguments assume that you're using the right metric, and maybe comparing the quality of the sex is not the only way to weigh the relative merits of a long term committed relationship versus the merits of hiring a hundred dollar hooker. Maybe we should be comparing on the basis of other, deeper, ultimately more important considerations. I mean, if the quality of the sex is the only thing you care about, then maybe the hundred dollar hooker is the best choice for you. But I'm pretty sure that is not the prevailing metric for most people.

In particular, I would argue about the "long term commitment" part. Your hundred dollar hooker will only be around as long as you can come up with a hundred dollars, whereas in a long term committed relationship, the idea is to stick around for the long term. The hundred dollar an hour hooker is not worried about your needs or concerned; the hooker is just watching the clock and the money, and not because the hooker is a wretched evil awful human being but because that's just the nature of the transaction. Yes, many LTR and marriages are miserable or unsuccessful or fall apart. Even then, I don't believe the most commonly suggested solution is hundred dollar hookers.

Yes, yes, yes. I'm aware that this analogy is imperfect, and I don't mean to suggest that all charter school operators are prostitutes (some classic charters are like, I don't know, Mother Teresa), and I certainly don't mean to suggest that standardized tests and the results thereof are like sex. And, no, I haven't really figured out where charter teachers or students themselves would fit in this analogy.

My point remains. "Who cares if charters make money as long as they get results" fails for the following reasons:

1) "Results" inevitably means "test scores." Test scores are the not the ultimate measure of student achievement, teacher effectiveness, or school quality. You might as well tell me "I don't care if charters make a profit as long as they have pretty door jambs." If by "results" you mean something other than "test scores," we might be able to have a real conversation here. (And if you mean test scores, you need to look at what charter results actually are.)

2) Charters make more money by spending less on students. Charters will always only be able to get more money by taking it away from students. They are not worrying about student needs; they are just watching the money. That is not because they are evil or terrible human beings, but because that is the nature of the transaction.

3) Charter schools will be there only as long as it makes good business sense to be there. If they aren't making enough money, they will close up shop. A public school starts with the premise that the community, through its school, must provide an education. A charter school starts with the premise that it must bank enough money to be viable. Just because a charter school has good (test) results today doesn't mean it won't be a MegaMart parking lot next week. Is that hard on students and the community? See #2.

Public education, like other important relationships in life, is not best served by being re-interpreted as a simple retail transaction. That's my answer to "so what?"

Thursday, November 20, 2014

A Note To Your Hero

I've been a local newspaper columnist for almost sixteen years, and every year at this time, I write a column about heroes. I thought I'd carry that on here.

The premise is this: take out a piece of paper, and write a note of appreciation and send it to one of your heroes. I always think this is the perfect time-- just before the onslaught of the holiday season. It has become a small tradition here, and many of my colleagues use it as an i class writing assignment (so if you want a connection to education, I guess there it is). Here's how I explained it a few years ago:

We all have our heroes—people we admire, people who we think are examples of what’s good about humans. And yet somehow, we never get around to telling them how much we appreciate them.

You know when we finally get around to talking about all the great things we really loved about them? After they pass away. After they could actually get to hear how much they are appreciated.
Why do we wait?

Sometimes we wait because we think we have all the time in the world. We really ought to know better. Tomorrow is not guaranteed for anyone.

Sometimes we refrain from praise because the act we admire seems like a small thing. But you don’t have to save the entire world to make your corner of the planet a better place. Every little bit helps.

Sometimes we hold back because our heroes are not perfect. I don’t mean quirky movie-style minor flaws, like Indiana Jones and his fear of snakes or Patrick Dempsey and his fear of shirts. Real people can come with pretty significant flaws. Our own founding fathers were loaded with them, from Thomas Jefferson and his slaves to John Adams and his mega-jerkiness.

We struggle with the brokenness of human nature. If someone behaves like a hero on Monday and a terrible person on Tuesday, what do we call him on Wednesday? We keep waiting for a perfect person to elevate to hero status, and it never happens.

We could pull lots of lessons from that, but here’s the one I prefer to focus on: everything great ever done was done by somebody with flaws, but it was still great.

We can wait for our heroes to be perfect, or we can wait until they’re dead and their flaws suddenly don’t seem so awful. Or we could honor their best stuff while we still have the chance.

If you want to strengthen your world and make it even a marginally better place, you give your strength and support to the things you want to see more of. Honoring someone for the good they do is not the same thing as applauding their mistakes and messes. If anything, it can lend a compass to people who might be having trouble finding their way. When they are standing puzzled at a crossroads, it’s a way to say, “This. This is what is best in you. This is what you should trust about yourself.”

So once a year, I give you homework. Here it is.

Write a letter to one of your heroes. It doesn’t have to be complicated (even if your feelings are). It doesn’t have to be long. It can follow this simple formula:

Dear [insert name here], You are my hero because

Fill in the blank with just a sentence or two. Do not add a “but” or an “even though” or some account of a time they let you down to “balance” things. You can work that out some other day, if you must. Your assignment here is to focus only that quality that you admire.

It has to be a letter. You can’'t just send an email or make a phone call. A letter is something your hero will be able to get out and read, more than once, over the days or weeks or years ahead. Letters have permanence. My elementary phys ed teacher Lou Slautterback still has a thank you note from my folks. Write a letter.

It may feel awkward or odd to write something so directly positive. Trust me. You’ll feel better once you’ve done it. One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard was given to a woman who was having trouble figuring out how to handle a difficult relationship in her life. “Imagine that the person has died,” the advice-giver said. “Think about what you would regret not having done or said. Now go do that.”

We all have heroes, and we all too rarely tell them why they are heroes to us, why they are valuable and important people in our lives. They deserve to know why they matter, how they inspire you, what they do to make the world a better place, even if their heroics happen in small ways. You have your assignment. Write a letter.

Bush: Nuanced and Wrong

As Jeb Bush's Reformapalooza gets under way, Bush himself is tap-dancing carefully to stick with his beloved Common Core without letting it actually stomp on the toes of his Presidential hopes.

At the Washington Post, Lyndsey Layton gives us a look at his opening speech and gives him credit for slathering on the nuance. Perhaps. Let's look.

Bush includes a comparison to the Chinese, because when it comes to cultures we want to emulate, you can't beat the Chinese. This is one of the wonders of modern education reform-- that we've come to a place where some conservatives idolize the world's largest repressive Communist regime. Anyway, he compares this to his mischaracterization of the Florida district that imposed a 50% floor for grades (I'll tackle that subject another day). Shanghai gets higher scores than we do, says Jeb, "So let's get real." If we're talking about ways to emulate the production of high test scores, Bush may be suffering from a little reality disconnect himself.

“We have built a nationwide reform movement based on a set of proven principles,” Bush told the gathering of several hundred state policy leaders, charter school managers and executives from education companies.

 “Of course, choice is at the center of our reform efforts. But there are others: High standards. Rigorous, high-quality assessments. Accountability for school leaders. Early childhood literacy and ending social promotion. Digital and distance learning. Transparency for parents to see whether their schools are getting better or getting worse.”

Speaking of getting real, Bush might want to reconsider calling anything on his wish list a "proven principle." None of those have been proven to be effective.

“If we were designing our school system from scratch, what would it look like? I know one thing: We wouldn’t start with more than 13,000 government-run, unionized and politicized monopolies who trap good teachers, administrators and struggling students in a system nobody can escape. We would be insane if we recreated what we have today.”

That's an interesting way to approach it. It would be interesting to see him finish the thought. Would we be insane to try to create a system that provides a free education for every single child in the United States as long as the country exists? Does he imagine that a free market choice approach could do that? Because if he does, I believe he's nuts. A free market will gladly provide an education for the students who can be profitably served, for as long as it pleases the vendor to do so. A free market will gladly discard any children it doesn't think it can make a buck educating. That would be an insane system.

“In my view, every education dollar should depend on what the child needs, not what the federal bureaucrat wants,” he said. “Where the child goes, the dollars should go as well. When that happens, we’ll see major reforms and major gains for America’s children and the federal government will go back to playing the supportive and completely secondary role it should be playing.”

A talking point straight from the charter school marketing bible. It makes two hugely incorrect assumptions:

1) It costs no more to educate 100 students in 100 schools than it does to educate 100 students in a single school. This is self-evidently bunk.

2) That the only two parties with a stake in education are the child and the federal government. School tax money is not a stipend paid to each individual child. It is an investment by the community in the community. I agree-- the feds should play a secondary, or even quaduciary role, in education. Particularly when federal ed policy is being dictated by the kind of anti-public-ed amateurs we've been subjected to for at least two administrations (and probably the next one, too). But local communities and, to a lesser extent, states should be hugely involved.

Choice and charters are, of course, all about cutting local control and community investment out of the picture. That is simply wrong, and bad for education as well.

Bush may be nuancing himself from CCSS cheerleading back to charter champion, but he's still bad for education.