Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Privatization Is Their North Star

Remember when ed reform was complicated, when it felt as if the whole business was a perfect storm of hydra heads, and it was all a public school supporter could do to try to track all the heads, let alone the body of the beast to which they were all attached?

Things have changed. And the change tells us a lot about the body of the beast, as the many heads of the hydra have become neglected or even abandoned.

Oh, Common Core. Once upon a time it looked like some folks really, truly wanted to lash all of US education to a single set of standards. But one of the first signs of Maybe Not was when the very guys who wrote the thing immediately moved on to new gigs, rather than sticking around to watch over their baby. And when the political winds shifted and conservatives turned on what had been essentially a conservative idea (except that it was being pushed by That Black Guy In The White House, and it turns out that sensitivity to federal overreach has a lot to do with who's doing the reaching)-- at any rate, besieged from both sides, the Core was abandoned. It was not, it turns out, the most critical priority of the disruptive reformster movement.

Nor have they stuck around to keep defending high stakes testing. Remember when they were pitching it so hard, comparing it to bathroom scales and medical check-ups and, hey, you have to take tests your whole life. But pushback has been steady for HST, with parents and teachers and students fed up with the whole test-centered schooling thing. And while disruptive reformsters have managed to get HST enshrined in law, they've mostly stopped arguing for it and fighting to keep it front and center. Turns out it's not the major priority, either.

Of course, the Core and high-stakes testing have accomplished one thing-- they've gotten plenty of parents and journalists convinced that "students achievement" and "score on a single narrow standardized test" are synonyms, that you can look up test scores and judge the quality of a school.

Another head of the hydra was going after the fabled Bad Teacher. Use VAM to judge them, mark the bottom 5, 10, even 15 percent and then just fire your way to excellence. Of course, to do that you have to first get rid of job protections ("tenure") and seniority rules. But-- as they kept telling us-- a teacher is the most important (in school) factor in a child's education (cue Raj Chetty's BS about how a bad first grader teacher will cost you millions in lifetime earnings). And yet this deep concern with high quality teaching never really got beyond getting rid of bad ones. How would we create and retain good ones? Nobody was talking so much about that. Sure, there were pitches for merit pay and bonus systems, but that was just pretty side of getting rid of job protections and slashing ay for everyone who wasn't getting a bonus. There was some talk of moving the best teachers to the worst schools, but nobody ever really tried to come up with a serious plan to make that happen. And of course we also threw in Teach for America, proof that actual training didn't matter, and once the mysterious teacher shortage hit the news, that was en excuse to throw any warm body in a classroom.

It's almost as if out of all that discussion of teacher quality, the only real priority was to get rid of pay, benefits and job protections for teachers, to make teachers less like gourmet chefs and more like the guy who drops the fry basket at McD's. Cheaply paid, easily fired, easily replaced.

We heard about making students ready for the future, for the jobs that will be appearing, for global economic competition. But somehow that has always been framed in terms of what corporations want, as if the purpose of schools should be to provide meat widgets for employers. Talk about students as product and companies as consumers. That sort of thing. Almost as if providing students with a better, broader, deeper education was not actually the priority at all. And this talk always comes with the idea of harvesting data-- lots and lots of data, which is in and of itself plenty valuable. As if students are a resource to be tapped and not young citizens to be served. With all the For The Children talk, doing things For The Children doesn't seem to be much of a priority.

School reform was about equity and helping the non-white non-wealthy students. But then Trump entered office and a whole bunch of free market reformsters said, "We can't just walk away from reform just because its major spokesperson now seems kind of racist."

School choice, in its many forms, has been a theme of disruptive reformsterism, yet it has been a shifting one. We need choice so that free market competition will make schools better. We need it so students can escape the regulations that we ourselves imposed on schools. We need laboratories of innovation. We need it to provide equity. We need it because fairness and freedom.

In fact, choice has been its own many-headed beast within a beast, but one thing has stayed constant-- the method of providing what's wanted.

Think about it. We could provide choices, freedom, options, innovation, even competition in a hundred different ways. If we are concerned that your neighborhood determines your school quality, we could decouple school districts from neighborhoods, or force neighborhoods into economic desegregation. We could (and in many cases do) provide educational choice under one roof. We could step in with funding and resources for poor schools in poor neighborhoods.

But I'm going to own the damned ship, and anybody
who doesn't like how I run it will be thrown over the side.
But alternatives have never been discussed.  The choice conversation sticks to the premise that all choice must involve schools that are privately owned and operated, that put public funds in private pockets. We have now seen dozens of models for charter schools and choice programs, but they all stick to that premise-- the choices must be privately owned, operated and controlled.

This and this alone has been the constant, the north star of disruptive reformsterism. Accountability and teacher quality and standards and models for choice may wax and wane, but the drive for a privatized education system, operated like a corporation and for the benefit of corporations-- that particular part of the reform vision has never wavered. It has been and remains consistent. As with any vision, there are those who sincerely believe in it and, in this case, many many more who steer by it because of a venal desire for money and power (you can spot them because they are sure that teachers and their unions are only interested in money and power). Everything else can be compromised or even abandoned, but privatization is the hydra head that will not fall, that belongs to the main body of the beast. This is what the last twenty-five years have been all about.

This is why charters have emerged as a main issue in discussing Democratic candidate education platforms-- because while other things like testing and pay matter, charters and choice come closest to the real heart of reform, the push for privatization.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Can Rich Content Improve Education?

Modern high-stakes testing really kicked into gear with No Child Left Behind, and then got another huge boost with the advent of Common Core. All through that era, teachers pushed back against the fracturing of reading instruction, the idea that reading is a suite of discrete skills that can be taught independent of any particular content
The pendulum has begun its swing back. Content knowledge is coming back into vogue, and while there are plenty of cognitive science-heavy explanations out there, the basic idea is easy to grasp. If you know a lot about dinosaurs, you have an easier time reading and comprehending a book about dinosaurs. If you are trying to sound out an unfamiliar word on the page, it’s easier if you already know the word by sound. If you learn and store new information by connecting it to information you already have banked, that process is easier if you actually have plenty of information already stored away. 
Classroom teachers have known this. Some have argued that the Common Core acknowledged this (but did so in the appendix, none of which is tested material). And while much of the education reform crowd joined the “skills” push (one attempted catchphrase of the new SAT created under Common Core creator David Coleman was “skilled it”), some reformers never lost faith in the work of Ed Hirsch, Jr., who has himself stayed committed to the idea through his Core Knowledge Foundation.
So if we restore rich content to education and provide students with a wealth of background knowledge, will that revitalize education and fix some of the issues that have plagued us? Or will this, like the great skills revolution at the beginning of the century, turn out to be a terribly misguided idea?
Well, both. Hirsch’s 1983 book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know, underlines two of the potential pitfalls of rich content in education.
First, consider the subtitle–what every American needs to know. If we had every single American compile a list, what are the odds that any two would match? English teachers especially are familiar with the problems of an ever changing canon. Kate Chopin was once a somewhat obscure U.S. writer; she’s now solidly in the canon. Alfred, Lord Tennyson was beloved, then reviled, then beloved. Someone is always looking to kick Shakespeare out of the canon, even as others will fight for him with their last breath. And somewhere, someone is at this very moment getting ready to correct me on one or all of those last three sentences. 
Agreeing in what should make the cut is, as all English teachers well know, an endless wrangling debate. Any discussion about loading up rich content knowledge for students will be accompanied by an endless argument about what content will be included–and I do mean endless. This is not to argue that the attempt should not be made–only to point out that if you insist that nothing will do other than your exact list, you will never get it done at all. Not only that, but the list that seemed sort of okay this year will need fixing next year.
Second, there is a danger in having a list, particularly if the list is generated by a large committee. A teacher has 180 teaching days, minus days spent testing, minus days spent practice testing, minus days lost to a school assembly, minus days lost to being randomly pulled from class for a conference, minus time lost for procedural things like handing out lockers. A really, really generous estimate of actual teaching days would be 160. So at the rate of one item of critical rich content background knowledge per day, we can hit 160 items. But there is no such thing as “rich” content that will be learned by a student in one day. 
One of two things may happen. Your list of crucial background knowledge may be radically reduced to, say, thirty items. Or the teacher will spend the year racing through and checking off a list (”Students! Please look at the front screen. That’s a picture of Plato, an old dead smart Greek guy. He wrote some stuff about a cave. Boom! Moving on to our next unit now...”).
There’s a further danger that the speedy check-off list approach finds bureaucratic expression in a big standardized test used to judge and compare schools. Such a standardized test would be a bad way to assess the richness of student achievement and education–different from our current bad tests, but still bad, and still incentivizing teaching the test, rather than to the richness of the content (Question 1: Plato is associated with A. a cave B. a boat C. a nation or D. the trombone). 
Nearly twenty years of test-driven top-down education reform has hollowed out too much of our education system. A rich content focus can reverse some of that damage, particularly by reversing the practice of pulling students out of history and science classes so that they can spend more of their day practicing reading skills (you may think that sounds nuts, but a principal in my old district regularly did it, and he was not an anomaly in the U.S.). Students could read full works of literature instead of excerpts of bad articles. Students could experience the fun and excitement of becoming knowledgeable experts on particular topics.
But it would be a mistake not to recognize that a content knowledge movement could be botched in ways that do new, different kinds of damage to the education system of this country. As the pendulum swings back, we need to be careful that it doesn’t become a wrecking ball.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Kristen Bell, Celebrity Charity, Flaming Possums


I was already thinking about this, about how Dana Goldstein's Common Core retrospective for the New York Times collapsed a lot of history, but still had room for that time that pre-disgraced Louis CK made a crack about Common Core math. A great reminder of how a gazillion teachers and parents can comment on the quality of the Core, but a celebrity makes a comment and suddenly people listen.
Well, here comes another one of those feel good stories that doesn't make me feel so good. Kristen Bell, actress, star, celebrity, has started doing a little crowd-sourcing charity for classroom teachers. She's been at this for a while--every Friday on Instagram she posts the story of some heart-warming teacher somewhere and the good work that teacher has been doing and the wish list that teacher has for her classroom. Bell's followers then flood that teacher with supplies forn the classroom.

Yes, it's nice that a celebrity is raising the profile of classroom teachers across the country. Yes, it's nice that the appreciation takes the tangible form of supplies a teacher can use. But it brings us back to the old flaming dead possum problem, which I'll illustrate with this conversation:

Employee: Boss! Boss! Come here. I want to talk to you. I have a huge problem. Somebody put a big flaming dead possum on my desk.

Boss: [Looking into employee's office] I don't see any flaming dead possum.

Employee: Well, I put out the fire, then I took the possum out back and buried it.

Boss: Well, then. It's look to me that there is no problem.

Employee: But-- but-- I shouldn't have to do all that!

Boss: [Walking away, wiping kerosene and possum hair off his hands] Keep up the good work. Glad you have no problems.

The flaming possum problem is always a tough choice-- you don't want the office to burn down, and the fdp really interferes with work, but if you solve the problem yourself, your boss dosn't hve a problem he needs to solve, and before you know it, you are dealing with flaming dead possums on a daily basis. Flaming dead possums happen in all sectors, public and private, but education is particularly prone to it because teachers don't want the possum to burn down a classroom filled with children, nor does anyone want to turn down the generosity of concerned parents and citizens who just want to help. Still, this year's "we received this equipment through the generosity of the PTA" is next year's "we don't have to budget for that-- the PTA will take care of it" which may sound find, but plugging holes in a school budget with scented candle sales is not a sustainable approach.

Plus, not every PTA is equally able to pick up the slack. Using charity to fund education exacerbates problems of inequity. 

You can't deny something like Bell's program. If a hundred Amazon boxes had showed up at my classroom with supplies I needed, I wouldn't have jumped on my high horse and declared, "No, until schools are properly funded, I will not accept these." Damned right I'd have accepted them (though I probably would have shared the wealth with colleagues).

But wouldn't it be cool if someone like Bell, in addition to the teacher's classroom address, also provided the addresses of that teacher's school board and legislators and each Instagram follower who sent a donation also sent a letter or email to the folks in charge saying, "Why do I, a complete stranger, have to help out this teacher? Why can't you properly fund the classrooms in this building?!" What if Bell herself started exerting pressure on the funders of classrooms instead of just helping put our possum fires.

Mind you, I'm not arguing to let the flaming dead possums burn. But at the same time, working on finding and stopping the guys who are killing and igniting the possums needs to happen, too. It may not feel as good, but if celebrities are looking for an education project, that's one I'd suggest.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Next Saturday: Dem Education Forum in Pittsburgh (Yes, I'll Be There)

Next Saturday, December 14, some assortment of Democratic Presidential hopefuls will offer their two cents about education. The crowd will be an invitation-only group of about a thousand public education stakeholders, including yours truly. The Network for Public Education kindly gave me the chance to attend this event, and I am looking forward to it.

If you are not among the thousand invitees, you can still catch the evens as they unfold on several  streaming options. NBC News Now, and NBC News Learn are all supposed to be carrying it, with MSNBC doing some coverage of it throughout their programming.

You can also head to this page for a look. If nothing else, I'm sure many of us will be tweeting along madly throughout the day (find me at @palan57).

Right now most of the big names are expected (though not, as of the moment, Booker or Bloomberg). Vice President Joe Biden, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Harris had expected to attend but then, well...).

Do I think amazing, momentous things are going to happen? I do not--any candidate who cant get his message locked and loaded for this particular crowd has to be exceptionally dense. The format doesn't allow for many surprises-- candidates talk, moderators ask stuff, crowd (or at least carefully selected members thereof) get to ask questions, rinse and repeat.

But I'm excited the thin is even happening. Remember 2016? You may recall that Campbell Brown set up The74 in hopes of using it to be a player, even a kingmaker, around the hot topic of education. Jeb Bush was poised to use his Florida education record as launch fuel. The74 intended to host two big education fora--one for each party. But the NH forum for the GOP pulled only six candidates out of the clown car field of something-teen (Bush, Kasich, Fiorina, Christie, Jindal, and Walker, and you'd already forgotten a couple of those people had even run, hadn't you). The GOP forum was just a big sloppy wet kiss for school choice and it didn't really matter because by that point it was clear that not one of those six was ever going to be setting national policy for anything. The Democrats snubbed Brown entirely, which didn't matter because none of them could muster anything more robust than "Pre-k is good, we should do it" and "College shouldn't be so expensive." They might eventually dip their toes in the K-12 charter pool, but it was all pretty weak sauce.

Pre-2016, name a single national election in which education was a big enough deal to merit the candidates sitting down to jaw about it.

So even if no news breaks, it's news that major candidates are going to perform some greatest education hits in front of an education audience.

Personally, I've never been to a big time political circus like this (I was at a coffee house meet-and-greet with Pat Toomey once) so I am looking forward to seeing the candidates live and in person, not to mention the chance to say hi to some of my favorite education folks. If I get to ask a question, that would be icing on the cake.

Later this week I'll make my predictions about the forum, once the candidate list is a little more firmed up. Block out your day next Saturday (because eleven days before Christmas, you're probably not super-busy or anything). I think it's going to be a great time.

ICYMI: New Car Edition (12/8)

So yesterday we replaced my wife's car, which has lost an argument with an errant deer. Used car shopping is a pain, but if you want to talk about something that has truly and completely been disrupted by technology. Little browsing, because everyone does that on line. Little haggling compared to the old says because everyone can go online and see what the car is worth. Few tremendous bargains, but few total rip-offs. But still enough paperwork to fell a tree. At any rate, we're mobile again. Now here are your readings from the week.

A Harlem School That Former Students Say Was Run Like A Cult 

Rebecca Klein at HuffPost with a scary tale of one private school that promises, among other things, to save its students "from te homosexual demons in the public school system."

Life For US Students Under Constant Surveillance  

The Guardian takes a look at how bad surveillance has gotten for US students. Spoiler alert: really bad.

How the Denver School Board Flipped  

Denver's super-reformy district was a point of pride for reformsters, but public school advocates just took it back with the last school board elections. The Have You Heard podcast has the story of how it was done.

Uber's Self-driving Car Didn't Know Pedestrians Could Jaywalk  

Speaking of Betsy DeVos's metaphor for school choice, and speaking of using AI for all sorts of edubusines... Wired reports on a cyber-car fatality and its cause-- bad programming.

PISA: Illusion of Excellence, Marketing Baloney  

Okay, I paraphrased the title a bit, but this Washington Post column from Yong Zhao, an education expert with a keen knowledge of China, is the week's best antidote to all the chicken littling over PISA scores.

The Teacher Walkouts

A California Sunday Magazine piece that interviews ten teachers with different perspectives on striking. Interesting piece, with photos by student photographers.

How GreatSchools Nudges Families Toward Schools With Fewer Black and Hispanic Students   

Matt Barnum ruffled many feathers with this Chalkbeat piece that takes a look at how those school ratings really work. Not well, as it turns out.

PA's Weakest Districts Targeted

The York Dispatch editorial board offers an absolutely blistering take on charter schools.

How Corporate Tax Credits Rob Public School Budgets

The headline of this CityLab article pretty well lays it out. A look at some fresh data shows just how bad the hit is.

Support for Charters in 2020 Elections Comes with a Price  

Andre Perry, at the Hechinger Report, is just the king of nuanced and balanced looks at charter policy that clarifies some of the root issues. Here he talks about the week's flap over Black leaders anjd charter support.

Teacher Turnover and Retention   

Brookings did a big fat meta-analyis of the research on teacher retention and attrition. Interesting discussion starter ensues.

America's Epidemic of Unkindness  

From the Atlantic, the best thing not ab out education that I read this week, and a hopeful, thoughtful piece. God damn it babies, you've got to be kind.

End of Semester Bingo  

From McSweeney's, the end of the semester bingo card you've been waiting for. An oldie but a goodie.

Friday, December 6, 2019

MI: Governor Whitmer Files Private School-Whomping Brief

Back in 2016, the Michigan legislature, always on the lookout for a way to send public tax dollars into private pockets, passed Section 388.1752b, a little amendment to the School Aid act that required the state to reimburse private schools for any money they spent "complying with health, safety, or welfare requirement mandated by a law or administrative rule of this state."

In other words, the state would pay them to follow the law.

This lady. I like this lady.
It's intriguing to imagine how a law like this would play out in the rest of the private sector. "We have a bunch of work to do to get up to code, but don't worry-- the state will pay for all of it." It's easy to imagine how this could be abused as well. Church needs some more access ramps and that will mean redoing the whole fa├žade of the building; just call the state and have them write a check.

But Michigan has an constitutional ban on giving public money to private and/or religious schools. So roughly five minutes after 388.1752b was passed, it was being taken to court. Now that it's made it to the Michigan Supreme Court, it's been generating a steady string of motions and amicus briefs from interested parties, like the Michigan Catholic Conference.

Today the stack of briefs got a bit taller with an addition from Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. Michael Rice.

Having taken a look at the case, the governor and superintendent have concluded "that the state can provide funds to nonpublic schools to help them pay the costs of complying with state mandates, but only if those mandates are related to student transportation. Beyond that, the statute’s funding of nonpublic schools is constitutionally prohibited."

In other words, the private schools, says the governor, may go pound sand, and do it on their own dime. But they can have busses.

Hard to say how this will turn out, but I have to say that it's certainlyj a breath of fresh air to see a governor, particularly in the state of Michigan (Motto: Betsy DeVos is our least popular export).

White Flight, Without The Actual Flight

We can talk about lots of complicated economic and sociological forces that have fed the problems of school segregation in this country, but the root causes are pretty simple–historically, we have a whole lot of white folks who don’t want their children to go to school with the children of black folks, and they have been creative about finding ways to avoid it.
When Brown v. Board of education forced desegregation, communities all across the South responded with segregation academies, private schools where only certain children were welcome. While we’ve long known about these schools, a new website called Academy Stories has launched, featuring first persons stories from people who attended those schools. The site has only a handful of stories at the moment, but each one is worth the read, a story of what the years of desegregation looked like to students. In some cases, the move to a private academy was masked by language about quality and being “pioneers.” Some were more direct. Writes one:
Others might cloak their racism in talk about providing “quality education” or “upholding our traditions,” but my father voiced his prejudices for all to hear.
There was also, of course, white flight. White families exited areas in search of neighborhoods that came with whiter neighbors, and whiter schools, taking their children and their money with them.
In recent years, another approach has appeared–the splinter district. These occur when a community aims to secede from their current district; these new districts frequently adopt a new border that corresponds to racial and/or economic borders–a sort of school district gerrymandering. It’s white flight, without the actual flight.
At least two studies in the last year have provided data on this splintering, and the picture is not pretty. EdBuild, a group that is aligned with education reformers, issued the report “Fractured: The Breakdown of America’s School Districts.” It comes complete with a map that shows the location of 128 attempts to secede. (The cluster in Maine is a different phenomenon, the result of a state attempt to force massive consolidation of districts; later administrations reversed that policy, and districts rushed to return to their original form.) EdBuild found that thirty states have processes in place to facilitate school district secession.
A study released by AERA in September found that this kind of school secession in the South had increased the level of segregation. The study looked at East Baton Rouge (LA), Shelby County (TN) and five counties in Alabama; it found that secession is “eroding what has historically been one of the cornerstones of school desegregation in the South: the one-county, one-school-system jurisdiction.” In East Baton Rouge, an October 12 vote was held on the formation of the City of St. George, a wealthier, whiter enclave within the larger city. Supporters argued that they just wanted local control, particularly of their tax dollars, but a separate school district is part of the deal. The measure passed the vote, and though the process would take several years to complete, it will leave the rest of the parish that much poorer.
St. George will become an “island district,” completely surrounded by the larger district. Sometimes island districts are wealthier than the surrounding districts, though in some areas, they may be isolated pockets of poverty. They are not strictly a southern phenomenon; such fractured districts can be found in states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania. Ohio also saw a new wrinkle this year when the tiny village of Hunting Valley (pop. 700), the state’s wealthiest community, briefly won a state tax law that excused them from paying $3 million in taxes to the area school district. 
Why is there an apparent rise in such shenanigans? In 2017, Emmanuel Felton at Hechinger Reports suggested that the federal government has simply stopped monitoring and enforcing desegregation orders. Betsy DeVos has been regularly criticized for undercutting the effectiveness of the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights. That falls in line with her hearing appearance in which she could not offer a single example of discrimination that would trigger a federal intervention.
We should not pretend that putting a stop to the fracturing of school districts would be a cure-all. In 2015, reporters outlined in painful detail how the school district of Pinellas County, Florida, had systematically segregated and underfunded five elementary schools, turning them into the worst in the state. We know that tracking and gifted programs can often be used to create segregation within a school. More recently, the documentary series “America To Me” has shown that even in a diverse and integrated school, racial issues abound. Nor do charter schools show any promise in solving the issue of segregation.
History tells us that white folks who want to keep their children separate can be creative and determined about doing so. Meanwhile, the white school age population has decreased steadily, leaving whites a majority minority in U.S. schools. Allowing the continued fracturing of school districts with widespread gerrymandering and the erection of a hundred little walls are not productive ways to deal with the new reality.