Sunday, April 26, 2015

Corinthian Is Done

It's final call for the leading titans of for-profit colleging:

SANTA ANA, Calif., April 26, 2015 – Corinthian Colleges, Inc. (Nasdaq: COCO) today announced that the Company has ceased substantially all operations and discontinued instruction at its remaining 28 ground campuses.

It has been a long hard road in the past year for these guys, and the helpful folks at USED have done their best to make sure that nobody's investment was severely damaged (well, except may the investment of time and debt put in by Corinthian students). Recently a group of students have even staged a sort of debt strike, and while the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has already asked the courts to grant relief, and the Department of Justice has reportedly said that the Department of Education has "complete discretion" to make the loans evaporate, so far, much of that debt it still alive and kicking former Corinthian students in the butt.

What will this mean to current students? The press release says that company is looking for other outfits to provide "continuing educational opportunities for its approximately 16,000 students." Given Corinthian's previous practice of hiring graduates to pump up placement numbers, I shudder to think what this might mean.

But this sucks mightily for the students who were presumably hoping they might get an education in before the roof collapsed.

In the end, Corinthia blames the feds for their lack of success in getting anyone to take over some of the chain. Apparently the feds have attached some penalties to the college's assets, including their former students, and nobody is in the mood to pay Corinthian's fines for them.

Would this have looked less ugly if USED had moved sooner? Hard to say. But this final collapse of Corinthian is a one more good lesson on how the Invisible Hand of the Free Market causes a lot of damage when it waves around the educational marketplace. Not just to the investor and business backers (though one would hope they'd be burned enough to remember the lesson), but the damage done to the students who were caught between being continually bilked and being tossed out of school with literally nothing but debt and lost time to show for it. A school that can abandon its students in the middle of their education is not a school-- it's a scam.

One can only hope that the USED will finally do the decent thing and make these bunco victims free of their debt. The feds can afford to do it, and it would be the least they can do to help rescue these men and women who were really trying to do the right thing and get skills to get ahead.

The Resistance Meets on Weekends

There is a great deal to try to absorb about this weekend's meeting if the Network for Public Education, and my brain is a little stretched as it is.

Some of it will take time, because the Drake Hotel is beautiful, but its hamster-driven wi-fi system and my not-exactly-cutting edge tech are not getting along well at all. In some ways I did better at following last year's conference from home. I am also a little gobsmacked by the number of people who know me. I knew that a number of people read some of what I put up, but I'm not sure how many people really, really read me. It's both amazing and humbling.

I have met so many of my own blogging heroes and I could use another couple of days to track down and talk some more (I still haven't got exchange more than a couple of words with the extraordinary Mercedes Schneider.)

But time is limited, and my exceptionally wonderful wife and will have to jet out of here right after I do my own song and dance later.

Because the resistance meets on weekends.

It is extraordinary and heartening to see and hear and meet all these folks from all across the country and so many different settings. It is also extraordinary that all of these voices for public education have actual jobs. Other jobs.

The reformsters have, collectively, a massive, hugely well-funded full time staff. The guys at the think tanks don't have to do their position papers later in the evening after they grade those third period assignments. The lobbyists for the corporations don't have to squeeze visits to legislators into their lunch hours. Even folks like the bureaucrats at the USED or the people in some state education offices, the people who should be working for public education, aren't-- too many of them are devoting their professional lives to dismantling it.

The reformsters work at it every day. That's what they do, full time, often for pretty good pay (which means they can also do it untroubled by thoughts about how to pay for braces and college loans).

But the teachers and parents and even students who work to preserve and protect America's awesome public education system for the most part already have a full time job. They aren't paid to do this. They aren't paid to blog, organize, speak up, write letters, make phone calls. They all do it in addition to their regular work.

And so the resistance meets on weekends.

Not since a bunch of colonial farmers picked up their squirrel guns to fight one of the biggest professional armies in the world has such a army of unpaid part-timers taken on such a huge group of well-paid professional policy-shapers. (And really, the colonial army wasn't very great).

Of course, the irony here is that while we are amateurs in the field of shaping, twisting, and spinning policy, they are the amateurs in the actual field of education. They may have the tools, the money, the hired manpower, and the paths of power on their side, but we are the one who know the territory.

It is amazing to see 600 people come together on their own time (and their own dime) to stand up for public education. The resistance may need to meet on weekends, but it's strong, and it's ready for a marathon run. The reformsters are tourists, and they'll move on.

The resistance meets on weekends, but it will carry the week.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Not So Friendly Skies

Blogging will be sporadic this weekend, as I'm coming to you from the Drake Hotel in Chicago, quite possibly the fanciest hotel I have ever stayed in in my life, but still in an earlier century when it comes to wi-fi (everyone remembers the steam powered wi-fi of the 1890s). Also, I'll be composing on my surface, so be prepared for even worse typos than usual.

The plane was delayed in Cleveland last night, and as we finally taxied down the runway, there was some soft of rhythmic thudding as if a large moose were caught in the wheels, or possibly a Studebaker. It gave me the opportunity to reflect on how calming it is to know that as we defy the laws of gravity and fling our frail little bodies through miles of sky, we are in a fragile tin can designed, built, maintained and piloted by people who are actual trained professionals, not amateur dabblers.

If you are going to fly me somewhere, I need more than your good intentions or really cool ideas that came to you in the shower. It will not comfort me to know that you were really successful at playing shuffleboard or running a widget factory or just moving money around into it swelled into a giant pile.

Nor do I Ned you to stand next to me at the airport and berate me for not having enough grit to propel myself through the air. Nor is it useful to tell me that I have no business using gravity as an excuse and don't I believe that people can fling themselves from Cleveland to Chicago?

The "friendly skies" motto is powerful precisely because we know the sky is not friendly-- particularly when there are tens of thousands of feet of it between us and the hard, hard ground. Toni Morrison wrote in Song of Solomon that if you surrender to the air, you can ride it, but I like that more as a metaphor than as practical advice. If I'm going to surrender to the air, it will be in the company of trained professionals using tools created by trained professionals. The very least we can do for our children when we try to connect them with an education is to promise them the same.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Tucker Searches for Misplaced Standards

Marc Tucker has been working at education reform even before it was cool (and highly lucrative). While he's best remembered by some folks as the author of the infamous Dear Hillary letter (a 1992 missive that lays out a vision of a centrally organized cradle-to-career pipeline), I've often found him willing to take shots based on what he thinks, rather than what side he's supposed to be on, and that's a quality I always respect.

But it also seems true that folks Of a Certain Age (say, mine-- and Tucker is almost twenty years older) to succumb to the temptation to write screeds on the topic of Kids These Days and Going To Hell in a Handbasket. Tucker has handily combined the two in a EdWeek post entitled "Why Have American Education Standards Collapsed?"

Tucker is honest about his purpose here. In a previous column, he had piled up a big batch o' reports suggesting that the American sky is falling-- college students can't write, textbooks have been dumbed down, colleges are teaching what high schools used to "and not doing it very well."

How could this be? What I have just described amounts to an across-the-board collapse of standards in American education over the last 40 to 45 years. All I can do is speculate on how and why that happened. Here goes...

I've been known to do a little speculating myself, so I think it's a noble goal. I just happen to think that much of Tucker's speculation is off the mark. But he is spinning an interesting narrative here, so let's see if I can speculate any holes in it.

Chapter I: Death of the Middle Class

Back around 1970, says storyteller Tucker, the US was enjoying prosperity and business mightiness. But then Asian countries challenged us with equally high-skilled workers for less money. Perhaps. What I remember from the time period is US corporate leadership started making cheap crap and trying to pocket money instead of spending it keeping technologically up to speed. US workers may or may not have kept pace with Japanese workers, but they certainly had no control over decisions to make the AMC Pacer, Ford Pinto, or the Pinto's more ridiculous cousin, the Mercury Bobcat. Nor did workers have any say over the steel industry's decision to just keep using the tired tech that had served them for 100 years. But US workers paid the price for management's money-losing ideas.

Tucker also notes the rise of automation in the march to stagnant wages, the loss of men in the employed workforce, and unwed mothers. Yes, he's going to go there.

Put them all together and they spell a crushed, shrinking and demoralized middle class, more poor children, and more children in one-parent homes. Bottom line: more children showing up at school bringing problems with them.

That birthy thing gets complicated. Note these two charts:


Meanwhile, more people are waiting longer to get married even as the marriage rate drops. While some folks view singlehood (and other naughty lifestyle choices) as a cause of poverty, it seems far more likely that the train runs the other way-- people put off marriage until they think they can afford it.

Chapter 2: Grade Inflation Hits

All these poor kids hit school at the same time as a powerful wave of Everyone Must Go To College swept through the culture. Blue color work became cause for "fear and shame" and so everybody has to get Junior into college.

In the U.S., the land of second chances and wobbly standards, it is far easier to put pressure on the principal to put pressure on the teacher to give Junior the grades required to get into college.  So grade inflation made rapid headway in our schools.

I think Tucker probably has part of a point. What he skims over is the source of that tremendous pressure to succeed, in particular the kind of pressure generated by a government that says all students must be ready for college or their schools will be defunded and their teachers fired.

Chapter 3: Teachers Start Sucking

Teacher status declined from 1970 forward, and women and minorities could find better jobs (finally), so "the absolute quality of our incoming teachers declined." I entered college in 1975, so I'm going to assume that he doesn't mean me.But I am confused by this narrative. We have more minority candidates entering teaching than ever. And when women couldn't do anything else-- well, my mom graduated from Keene State Teacher College in the mid-fifties, and she could get a job anywhere anytime she wanted. But that somehow got us the best and the brightest? I'm just not sure how tat worked, exactly.

But Tucker says that the literacy level of teachers was slipping, somehow, and so they had less mastery of the content. And I'm thinking about my mom and my wife, both elementary teachers, and while both are pretty damn smart and literate, I don't think their ability to excel as students in a classroom was the quality that students most valued in them. This point always rests on the notion that how well people take tests is a measure of how good a teacher they'll be. Is there anybody who has never, ever encountered a teacher who was a genius with total control of her subject matter, but who was still a less-than-awesome teacher? I'm pretty sure this whole point rests on measuring oranges to see how high the apple trees grow.

Chapter 4: The Accountability Movement Incentivizes Sucking

Then the standards movement was stolen by the accountability movement.

That sentence tells you most of what you need to know about Tucker's view of Ed Reform History. His conclusion here is partly correct-- most of us can recall the happy days of NCLB when our state would tweak test content and schedules in order to make it look like test results were going up. Tucker is correct. It happened, and not, as some suggest, because politicians wanted to look good, but because schools wanted to avoid punishment that would have hampered their missions.

But all of that only matters if you believe that high-stakes testing is either a driver or reflection of what a school is actually accomplishing. But the Big Standardized Tests don't measure even a sliver of what a school is actually doing, and they "drive instruction" only to the extent that they drive real instruction out of the classroom to make room for test prep. Tucker, like many ed critics, overlooks one other reason that states and schools set out to game the BS Test system-- because they knew that simply doing a better job at teaching students was not going to help.

Chapter 5: The Teacher Pipeline Breaks

Excellent veteran teachers bailed. And top students, "seeing the pressure teachers were under to produce under appalling conditions," avoided teaching careers. College teacher prep programs are dropping faster than a scary elevator ride at Disneyworld. Meanwhile, colleges have been driven to desperate measures, and will accept anyone with a pulse and a pile of money. Other nations became choosier; the US did not.

Meanwhile, a new culprit emerged-- US News and World Report. According to Tucker, their college rankings touched off an arms race to spend money on frivolities like fancy dining halls and student mental health clinics. Kids these days!! Ironically, Tucker faults the magazine because there are no agreed-upon metrics for rating college programs. And yet he believes that there are clear metrics for measuring possible future teacher greatness. This all seems to me like calling Santa bunk while holding fast to a belief in the Easter Bunny.

But his conclusion is that colleges lowered standards because they needed the money. Which on the one hand I can buy but on the other hand, when was the magical time when people flunked out of college right and left because it was so tough?

Chapter 6: In Which I Am Genuinely Surprised (The Draft!)

I have read a great deal about education reform, but Tucker has a theory that I've never encountered before. The end of the draft marked the end, for him, of the nation's biggest vocational training program, with local programs soon to follow due to the accountability movement. So... raise standards by bringing back the draft...?

Bottom Line

What this story comes down to is that the United States, having led the world in educational attainment for more than a century, thereby enabling it to produce the world's best-educated workforce, has, since the 1970s, made no gains at all in either attainment or quality, while close to 30 other countries, some of them abjectly poor in the 1970s, have managed to outperform us on both quality and quantity of education, many by a country mile.  Even more damning, we appear to have lowered our standards for our college students to the standards we used to demand of our high school students and, at the same time, to have more or less destroyed what was once a first-class vocational and technical education system. 

Kids These Days are dumb lazy slackers and because we've loosened up society to accommodate their slackiness, everything is Going to Hell in a Handbasket. Back In My Day, we walked to school uphill both ways in the snow all year, and we liked it, because we had high standards back then.

Tucker has skipped some points like, for instance, a detailed and data-driven description of the hallowed years in which the US led the world in these educational standards. We could also do with a link between these alleged high standards that we once had and, well, anything. If we get all eighth graders to do calculus, the clear result for our nation will be... what?

Tucker has some points. Accountability has pretty much been a disaster for everybody (except disaster profiteers), and the economic shift in our country has been very, very hard on many of our citizens, making it harder for our children to get the best advantages in life, including education.

And we could certainly use leaders who were better, particularly when we consider that much of disruption of the last forty-five years, from the industrial crash of the seventies to the economic disasters of the 2000s, has been human-created. Here's the thing-- I don't think the leaders of the car and steel industries, nor the banksters of the Great Recession, would have avoided all that mess if they had had better SAT scores or a better GPA in college.

Tucker reminds me of a person who sits fearfully in his house, hears a gurgle from the kitchen sink drain, and worries that it means that a burglar is coming in the second floor window. Or a chicken who gets hit with an acorn and fears the sky is falling.  It's not that there aren't real and serious issues, problems that need to be addressed. But he is seeing connections between these issues and other factors that have nothing to do with them. The danger with Tucker is that his core belief, stated through much of his work, is that we need to control everything so that we can make all come out as it should. Any time you find somebody who thinks that kind of control is a good thing and that he totally knows how to manage it, you have found somebody who is dangerous. When you find somebody who believes he can control the entire machine but doesn't really know how the parts fit together, you have found somebody who could make a serious mess. I'm really glad that Marc Tucker is in the world, but I'm even more glad that he's not in charge.

Nicholas Kristof's Tourist Balls

When a tourist is visiting a place, just passing through, but they feel that they must share their infinite wisdom with the natives and tell the natives How Things Should Be Done-- that takes big balls. Big tourist balls.

Your second cousin Fred who came to stay for a long weekend and wanted to re-arrange your entire kitchen? Tourist balls. The summer people who want to re-arrange the downtown of that quaint village in which they live one month out of twelve? Tourist balls. The European colonizers who wanted to remake all African civilization in their own image? Huge tourist balls.

Nicholas Kristof was in the New York Times yesterday announcing that it's time for reformsters to move on.

The zillionaires are bruised. The idealists are dispirited. The number of young people applying for Teach for America, after 15 years of growth, has dropped for the last two years. The Common Core curriculum is now an orphan, with politicians vigorously denying paternity.

K-12 education is an exhausted, bloodsoaked battlefield. It’s Agincourt, the day after. So a suggestion: Refocus some reformist passions on early childhood.

And at this point I was already steaming. My most immediate response was, "Ooooh! Iddums all tuckered out?? Poor iddle iddums." But I pressed on.

He offers three reasons that early childhood will be the new black next season.
First, tiny minds are malleable, so we can better shape them into what we want. All we have to do is "coach" parents to "stimulate" their children. And, without naming it, he uses Raj Chetty's totally bogus research that suggests that even though it looks like the results of early childhood boosts disappear in the teens, they actually reappear in the twenties in the form of cash. [Update: Kristof asserts, via Twitter, that I've missed the reference here. Fair enough. Doesn't make me any more convinced. ]

Second,  he cites all the research and anecdotal evidence that charters make magical gains appear with poor kids. Well, he doesn't so much cite it or examine it so much as he waves his hand and suggests its over there. 

Third, early childhood would be easier to work on because it's not so politically charged. So getting bipartisan money for early childhood ed should be easier.

There's a whole discussion to be had about how to do early childhood right (spoiler alert: it doesn't involve formal instruction and Pearson standardized tests). But I'm too angry about Kristof's giant tourist balls to have that discussion right now.

Kristof manages to say one or two things that aren't stupid-- like this:

Education inequity is America’s original sin. A majority of American children in public schools are eligible for free or reduced price lunches, and they often get second-rate teachers in second-rate schools — even as privileged kids get superb teachers. This perpetuates class and racial inequity and arises in part from a failed system of local school financing.

But then he immediately goes on to say this:
But fixing K-12 education will be a long slog, so let’s redirect some energy to children aged 0 to 5 (including prenatal interventions, such as discouraging alcohol and drug use among pregnant women)

This is the theme of his piece. He opened by noting that education reformers have been working at this for twelve whole years! Twelve!! Think of it. But now it's just oh so hard and it turns out that you can't just breeze in like some miraculous drive-by do-gooder and just fix things. There are real problems! And some of them are hard to solve! Gosh, those of us who work in education had no idea.
So clearly it's time to pack up and move on.

Look, I believe there are a handful of reformsters who know better, and I'm sure plenty of them mean well. But this is just too much. I'm pretty sure that I read Kristof more often than he reads me. But I have a message for him anyway.

Dear Mr. Kristof:

Does a decade seem like a long time to work at education? Does working at education seem hard? While we're at it, have you noticed that water is wet?

This-- this "well this has been difficult, it's time to move on"-- THIS is why from the first moment reformsters showed up on the scene, teachers across America rolled our eyes, squared our shoulders, and turned away. Because we knew that the day would come when the tourists decided they wanted to pack up and leave. Because you were not in it to get the job done.

Reformsters were never the white knights or the saviors of education. The vast majority of reformsters were the people who swept into a home, pulled all the furniture out from the wall, burned the drapes (because you don't want these old things) and started to tear the floor up. Then somewhere around day three, you declare, "Man this is hard, and this couch doesn't fit against that wall (which we had told you all along)" and so you pack up, drive away, and leave the residents to put things back together.

You think twelve years was a long time? I've been at this for thirty-six, and I have plenty more to go because there's still work to do, and as long as I can do it, I will. Plenty of my colleagues have done and will do the same. You think educating in the face of poverty and lack of resources and systemic inequity is difficult? Many of my colleagues have been doing it for decades. But reformsters have been so sure that they didn't need to listen to the locals. They and their giant balls knew better than any stupid teachers.

Doing the education thing takes a lifetime. In fact, it takes more than a lifetime-- that's why we've constructed an institution that provides continuity above and beyond what we could get from any single human being.

You think that the education thing is hard, "a slog," after just a decade! You amateur. You dabbler! You tourist! Has the education reform movement "peaked"? Well, guess what! Education has not. We are still working at it, still striving, still doing our damnedest. When reformsters have moved on because it's hard and challenging and a slog and not just as fun as it was a whole ten years ago, we will still be here, doing the job, educating students and doing it all in the midst of the mess created by a bunch of wealthy well-connected hubristic tourists with gigantic balls.

You think education is hard? What the hell do you think dedicated teachers across this country are doing with their entire adult lives?!!

So get out. Go. Move on to the next big opportunity and screw around with that until you're all distracted by the next shiny object. Education is not the better for your passing through.

Education needs people who will commit, people who are in it for the marathon, not the sprint, people who are willing to dedicate their whole lives to teaching because that's the minimum that it takes. Students and communities need schools that are permanent stable fixtures, not temporary structures built to long as a reformster's attention span.

It's hard? You've peaked? You want to move on to other things?

Get the hell out, sonny. The grown-ups have work to do.


Thursday, April 23, 2015

PA: York Schools To Remain Public

In what was not exactly the surprise ruling of the century, the Pennsylvania courts have finally put an end to the drive to privatize York city schools.

York was poised to be an exemplar, a public school that had already reached the end of its ability to withstand the Pennsylvania public school starvation diet. That led to a state-appointed overseer. Last December, Tom Corbett's lame duck administration tried an 11th hour attempt to put York schools in receivership. The receiver was to be David Meckley, the same businessman who had already been serving as York's minder and who had all-but-inked a deal with Charter Schools USA to take over the whole system.

This plan appealed to absolutely nobody in York, but it fit the pattern of privatization-- starve a district of resources until it fails, then declare it a failure, declare that the students must be rescued, and bring in the charters. Essentially, reform by arson (because you just can't count on hurricanes to come in and do the work for you everywhere).

The local challenge to the takeover initially did poorly, with the courts ruling that it was legally irrelevant whether the state intended to do something stupid or not. The state then tried to argue that since the school board had been stripped of power, it did not have the power to appeal being stripped of power (because someone in Harrisburg has invested heavily in the use of the word "Kafkaesque" and was trying to prop up the market). The courts said stop being ridiculous, and the clock continued to run out on Corbett as new governor Tom Wolf, who had been rather sphinx-like on the subject of charters and whose home town is York, came out on the side of public schools.

Using his best wall-reading skills, David Meckley resigned his Post de Privateur a little over a month ago.

Now comes word that the court has cleared away the last of the issues surrounding the appointment of a receiver, which makes sense since there is nobody in Harrisburg or York arguing in favor of receivership or charterfication. The district still has a recovery officer, and like virtually all school districts in Pennsylvania, it is in huge financial trouble, but the recovery officer is somebody from education, not business, and its financial issues still belong to the public.

In short, York still has a tall mountain to climb. The new governor's proposed budget will help, but it won't perform miracles-- and that's only if it gets past the GOP legislature. The people of York and their school leaders will have some tough struggles ahead-- but at least those won't include watching a profit-making charter operation strip-mine their city schools for fun and profit. For the rest of us, this little tale is a reminder of what the end game looks like, and that it's not an unbeatable, unavoidable fate for public schools.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

NY: Opt Out More Popular Than Charter Schools

The number of students opting out of the Big Standardized Test in New York State is still fluid, and we'll have more numbers shortly when this week's BS Test in mat inspires families to keep children out of the test-taking mess.

But a fair middle-of-the-road estimate would seem to be 175,000 students who chose not to take the BS Test.

175,000.

On a whim, I went looking for the number of charter school students in New York State. I found this number for the 2013-2014  school year in the report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a group that certainly has no reason to low-ball the number of charter students. Here's the number.

91,813.

New York leaders like Andrew Cuomo and Merryl Tisch have been vocal in their support of vocals. Back when Bill DeBlasio was daring to stand in the way of charter expansion, Andrew Cuomo stood up at a charter rally to defend the charters and declare their importance to the state's education.

Those 91,813 students were deemed worthy of being defended by the governor of the state:

"We are here today to tell you that we stand with you,” Mr. Cuomo said. “You are not alone. We will save charter schools.”

So my question is this: if 91,813 students deserve the full-throated defense of Governor Cuomo for their educational choices, then how soon can we expect him to stand up for the educational choices of the 175,000? If this week's numbers hit the projection of 200,000, will he be twice as vocal in defense of twice as many students?