Sunday, July 22, 2018

What Ever Happened To Common Core

You remember Common Core. First it was going to save the educational universe (and help lift a couple of political careers). Then it was going to turn all our children into gay communists. Then, most everyone stopped using the words. These days, it's considered more appropriate to talk about "college and career ready." Meanwhile, while many states still have the Common Core Standards in place, many other states have made a show of throwing them out, then re-installing them under some new name.

But most of the heat and light surrounding the Core erupted on the policy level. A decade after they slid into view, what effects have the Core had on actual classroom teachers?

To begin with, the entire set of standards never really gained traction. The standards that really mattered were the ones that appeared on the Big Standardized Test. Whether it was the PARCC or the SBA or a special state-specific test, the end-of-year testfest dictated which standards really matter. For instance, the Core includes some standards about speaking and listening, but nobody in an actual classroom worries about those, because they are not on the high stakes BS Test.

Whether they were called anchor standards or key standards or special focus or else standards, some standards turned out to be far more important than others. In this way, the standards were re-written almost immediately.
The Core also had the effect of what Thomas Newkirk calls the "mystification" of education-- "taking a practice that was once viewed as within the normal competence of a teacher and making it seem so technical and advanced that a new commercial product (or form of consultation) is necessary." The Common Core turned teaching into a task that couldn't be entrusted to mere teachers (or parents).

The Core also narrowed instruction. There's been a great deal of discussion about how courses other than reading and math were squeezed out, with some schools even eliminating recess so that more time could be spent on the test-weighted subjects. But the Core narrowed instruction in other, less obvious ways, as well.

The Common Core Standards can be understood as data tags, a way to label tasks and achievements of students. But consider a set of data tags such as the mood tags on Facebook. Back in the old days, we made do with a simple like, but now Facebook users can also express amusement, love, or anger. But to keep such a system (and the data it generates) manageable, a certain narrowness of categories is necessary. So I can show Facebook that the video about pandas makes me laugh, but I can't tell them that it also elicits a wistful sadness from remembering my old dog, or that it also makes me a little angry to consider the conditions under which the pandas are kept. Emotions are complicated, but Facebook's tag system isn't, and so lots of information is thrown out.

The same is true of the Core. Writing is complicated, but the Core writing standards are not. Reading literature and non-fiction is complicated, but the Core simplifies the matter by being unconcerned about content. With the exception of a side note and a reference to certain American historical texts, the Core's reading standards could be taught by using the morning newspaper. If your expectation is that a "good" reading program would include certain classic texts, well, the Common Core doesn't really share your concern.

Now, at this very second, someone is hitting their keyboard to say that their school's standards-based reading program absolutely contains classic content. This highlights one other feature of the Common Core-- after all these years, individual districts, schools and teachers have rewritten it like crazy. Teachers, working in the laboratories of their classrooms, have kept what worked, thrown out what didn't, and have put back things that were missing. Many teachers have discovered an empowering truth about the Common Core-- one may teach anything in their classroom and claim that it is standards-based. There is nobody in a position of authority to contradict them.

Some observers of the education biz may have one other question about the Core-- won't the pushback on the BS Tests and the rise of personalized learning wipe the Core standards off the board?

The answer is no. If the Core can be understood as data tags, then carrying them over into a computer-based algorithm-driven system like the current model of personalized learning will be simplicity. In fact, it will make setting up an algorithm-driven software-centered program even easier, because it is a ready-made cataloging system already available and, in most cases, already in place.

So the Common Core Standards may have changed their name and be re-written in a dozen different ways, but they are still alive and bubbling beneath the surface of public education. Nothing the federal government has done or talked about doing has changed that in the slightest, and the new wave of education reform ideas will actually reinforce the Core. We may not be talking about them anymore, but in one form or another, we are still living with the Common Core Standards every day.

Originally published at Forbes. You can check me out over there these days.   

ICYMI: Back from Vacation Edition (7/22)

We're back from Seattle and I've managed to collect a few things for you to read. Remember-- the internet gives you the power to amplify the voices of others. Use it!

The Great Academy Schools Scandal  

Great Britain has been trying its own version of charter schools. It hasn't gone well.

College Board AP World History and Colonialism

David Coleman's College Board has decided, for some reason, that AP history needs to be scaled way back, reducing the scope of world history to just the white parts.

A Teacher Explains Why the Janus Ruling Is Bad for Students

Just in case it's not obvious already.

Mr Rogers and Talking To Kids

This is a great and insightful piece about how Fred Rogers crafted his message very precisely for children.

PARCC, Phil Murphy and Common Sense

Jersey Jazzman takes a look at some New Jersey issues that concern everyone.

Summit Learning Under Fire

Charter-in-a-box provider Summit is taking some heat in Idaho.

What Elon Musk Could Learn from Thailand

The NYT looks at the lessons Musk could learn from his attempt to save some boys in a well, and the lessons that the tech masters could all stand to learn about intervening in areas about which they know little.

How Can Schools Make Their Teachers Feel Valued and Supported

It's just about as easy as you think it is.

Do Not Follow New Orleans' Lead

Mercedes Schneider reminds us that NOLA is not exactly a shining success.

What Works Can Hurt

Yong Zhao with a reminder that the side-effects of education ideas can matter a great deal.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Oh, Privatization Isn't All That Hard

I appreciate a good batch of snark as much as the next guy, but to really land, you need to not pretend that you don't know what you fully well know. Recently at Education Post, the war room web operation set up to advocate for the poor reform billionaires like Eli Broad, Lane Wright took a swing and a miss at some wacky pro-reform satire.

The piece is entitled "Turns Out Privatizing Education Is Harder Than It Looks," and it's goal is to say, "Gosh, what silly dopes think we're trying to do that?" But to sell his point, Wright has to pretend he's a dope.

Lane Wright is no dope. Currently the Director of Policy Analysis/Jargon Slayer at Education Post, he previously served as Director of Communications for the reform TNTP, Press Secretary for StudentsFirst  in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina (both TNTP and StudentsFirst are very reformy projects linked to former DC chancellor, She Who Will Not Be Named), Press Secretary for Governor Rick Scott in Florida, and Managing Editor of the Sunshine State News where among other duties he "coached reporter's on the organization's mission of telling stories from a conservative perspective." All this came after serving as reporter/editor for Four Points Media Group, a holding company that owned some tv stations. He graduated from Brigham Young in 2005 with a BA in communications and broadcast journalism. He's been working with education reform groups since 2013.

So he doesn't get to play dumb about any of this. But he's going to try. Starting by being surprised that Valerie Strauss says there's a" movement to privatize public education in America."

Unfortunately, none of us who are supposedly doing the privatizing are aware of it. We all thought we were working to give families better schools to choose from, especially those families stuck in schools that are either a bad fit individually or failing students on a mass scale.

Har. Wright does not address the biggest question he raises-- why, if it's so hard to find evidence of privatization, have so many people come to the conclusion that privatization is going on?

One hint is that reformsters work to give "better" choices by creating charters, rather than by trying to create more choices within the public system. Another would be that the charters they advocate for are private entities, run by private businesses and private organizations.  Charters are not operated by publicly elected boards.Charter schools themselves have argued in court that they are private entities that should be free from public scrutiny, and that taxpayers may NOT follow the money that they forked over to the private schools. Moderrn charters are private schools in all ways-- except for being financed with public money.

Wright also mocks the idea that privatizers are funneling public money into private school systems. That's a bold argument, and Wright fails to make it.

..if we want the benefits of privatizing schools, which must be gobs and gobs of money, we should all stop working for nonprofits that run the majority of charter schools and for the nonprofits that exist to advocate for school choice.

First, Wright has worked in Florida, so he knows full well how many charter operators make a profit while operating non-profit schools. The basic approach is to have the school run by a non-profit shell that pays costs for building rental, curriculum and even janitorial services to a for-profit company that may be run by the very same people operating the "no-profit" school. Heck, Eagle Arts Academy in Florida pays its owner and founder for the right to use their own logo. He also knows full well that the non-profits that advocate for school choice (like, say, Education Post) are heavily funded by some of the same billionaires and hedge fund managers who hope to profit in the education biz.

Are people attracted to ed reform by the money? Of course they are-- it's a $600 billion mountain of cash, and ed reform has always been driven, in part, by hedge fund investors and real estate moguls and tech whizzes who believe they should be allowed access to that market. Ed reform has always been, in part, about opening a closed market. Some people sincerely believe that the profit-driven free market would make education better, and others just smell huge profits.

But what about the "massive philanthropy organizations" like the Gates and the Walton family and a half dozen others (that help fund the organization that Wright works for). They're just throwing around all this money-- surely they're not in it to get rich. And here Wright has finished switching the terms of the argument from "privatizing" to "profiting." Some folks on my side of the fence will argue that the Big Guys are indeed in it for the money-- I'm not so sure that's true, but more importantly, it's beside the point.

What we have witnessed with Gates and Walton and Broad et. al. is, in fact, an attempt to privatize public education-- to take a public institution and bring it under private control. Sometimes they're pretty direct about it (see Reed Hastings argue that publicly elected school boards ought to be done away with). Nobody elected Bill Gates the head of the US school system, but he decided that he should go ahead and oversee, nudge and otherwise push the implementation of Common Core across the entire nation. Some of what has pushed reform in general and privatization in particular is the idea of the visionary CEO, the bold innovative leader who shouldn't have to deal with government regulation and unions and anything else that would stand in his way. Privatization for these folks is not about profits-- it's about control. It's about imposing their personal, private vision on a democratic institution-- which means we have to either circumvent or eliminate the democratic elements. That aspect of privatization bothers me more than a bunch of shysters running an education-flavored scam.

Wright also wants to argue that if they were really trying to privatize schools they would make things a lot more secretive, which-- well, see above. They do that. He argues that since charters take the same tests and have their results published, they are just as accountable. Again, I have to believe he knows better. The secret here, particularly from a marketing standpoint, would not be to keep student scores secret-- it would be to make sure that your student body was going to bring in great numbers. You could do this by being super-focused on test prep, or by nudging out the students who were going to make you look bad. Plenty of charters do one, the other, or both, and then start pumping out PR bulletins about their "miracle" school.

What else has he got? Well, if they were really good at this, he argues, far more students would be in charter schools. There are many possibilities, including the obvious-- charters aren't good enough to attract a large market share. As an old Florida hand, Wright certainly knows about techniques like "cut your public schools off at the knees financially so that they can't compete." Wright suggests that the low charter numbers is proof that they aren't all that serious, but the many reform articles searching for a solution to the problem indicates they are quite serious-- they just don't have a solution.

Wright also mocks civil rights concerns, and offers nothing but "civil rights apply to everyone." Again-- he knows better. He knows about the concerns that charters accelerate segregation, that the NAACP has called for a charter moratorium, that some folks find some charters have a rather colonial attitude about their students of color.

But after somehow managing to mock The Lorax, Wright chooses a big fat straw man with a side of false choices for his conclusion:

But I suppose I have to accept who I am, as defined by the defenders of the status quo. I’m not a public-education advocate, I’m a privatizer. I don’t care about kids. I care about making evil companies rich at the expense of the little guy who, for all these years, I thought I was fighting for.

"Defenders of the status quo" is so 2012. Charters, test-centered accountability, common core (under various aliases), VAM-soaked evaluations-- the whole reform agenda is now the status quo. And while Wright may not be a privatizer, he is certainly not a public education advocate. The rest is whiny straw manning.

Look-- I'll allow that some reformsters really are in it for the kids. But even some of the most hard core reformsters recognize that some of their allies are in it for money and/or power. Wright isn't here to advocate for reform; he's here to pitch for charters. He shows his hand by equating privatization with charters, when in fact reformsters have also worked hard to privatize testing, teacher creation, and any other aspect of education where one can make a buck. He shows his hand when he opens with a reference to "Florida's remarkable achievements," an list so imaginary I can't even guess what he means; Florida remains a playground for privatizers, a state with legislators openly hostile to public education.

But mostly he shows his hand by not admitting that any of this is complicated. The manner in which most states have locked charter and public schools in a zero-sum battle for funding is complicated. The ways in which some states (like Florida and Ohio) have failed to provide oversight of charters is complicated, and the ways in which some states let anybody with a pulse open a charter is also complicated. Accountability for charters and cyber-charters is complicated. The civil rights issues surrounding charters aremegaphone
 super-complicated. Even the idea of providing families with a choice is complicated. Wright needs to get his head out of his little corner of the reform bubble, because if he's going to further EdPost's alleged goal of "better conversation," he's going to have to contribute pieces far more honest than this one.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Fixing Education Journalism

I'm not going to attempt the entire fix in just one post. But Amanda Ripley wrote a thought-provoking piece about "Complicating the Narratives" in which she discusses how journalists need to apply the lessons about human psychology in conflict to how they cover issues (Ripley often covers education). Alexander Russo wrote an ed-centric piece in response to her piece, interviewing her for a bit more clarification. I'm just going to add my two further down the food chain. I'm going to cut some corners here because both of those pieces are pretty hefty; if you want a fuller picture, follow those links (I also recommend Paul Thomas's blog, where these issues are regularly discussed).
Hey! Look what isn't mentioned!

Ripley offers six steps to improve education journalism:

1. Amplify contradiction
2. Widen the lens
3. Ask questions that get to people's motivations
4. Listen more, and better
5. Expose people to the other tribe
6. Counter confirmation bias (carefully)

And that list isn't bad, though I don't think it's complete. But Russo gets my ears to perk up with this observation:

Those of us who write about education may think of ourselves as objective seekers of the truth, but we choose and frame and report our stories in ways that aren’t always as self-reflective as may be necessary. In the process, we may be allowing ourselves to be used by polarizing forces that want us to take up their causes, playing the role of the kids goading classmates to fight rather than the role of translators we aim to be.

Well, yes. Russo quotes Ripley suggesting part of a solution:

Education journalists tend to hover around a conflict, throwing gasoline on it every 20 minutes or so but never asking…’What’s driving people to have these very predictable positions?'

And yes, there is the usual journalistic focus on conflict, coupled with the addiction to false equivalencies (e.g. creationism and science are just two equally valid points of view, which-- no, they aren't). Focusing on motivations would, indeed, be helpful-- exactly why is this person pushing a particular point of view? Exactly why is this other person disagreeing?

But for me, this all nibbles around the edges of some critical issues in education coverage.

If I could add to Ripley's list, I would add this:


Maybe I'd underline it, too.

One of the things that drives me absolutely bonkers is the widespread, absolutely unquestioned use of terms such as "student achievement" and "teacher effectiveness" in placer of the more accurate "standardized test scores." This is no more sensible than referring to pro-choice activists as "anti-baby" or using alcohol consumption figures as an "American happiness index." But by using the terminology, journalists helped cement the unsupported notion that standardized test results are a good proxy for educational achievement just as surely as writers of an earlier era sold a particular point of view by always preceding the word "Communist" with "godless." Seriously-- I cannot overstate how much this bugs me. Most of the architecture of ed reform is built on the assumption that these tests are valid, are being used for their correct purpose, and generate hard data. And ed journalists just keep pushing those assumptions without ever examining whether they are valid. Examine those assumptions.

Too many ed journalists also amplify and repeat the notion that the ed debates involve just two sides. It doesn't really matter what you identify as the two "sides"-- as soon as you've decided there are only two, you are in trouble. You're ignoring some important parts of the debate. Examine those assumptions.

Ripley and Russo like the idea of talking to actual students, and talking to actual teachers would be great, too. But journalists always need to question who selected the people they're talking to. Teachers who have been awarded certain honors have been chosen to reflect the values of whoever is awarding those honors, and students are often hand-picked so that only the "good" ones are shown to the public.

To Ripley's list I would also add this:

8. All sides are not equal.

Yes, if journalists pay attention to Ripley's six suggestions, they should sort of stumble into this. But the education debates are unique in how mismatched the players are.

Pushing various forms of ed reform are organizations with vast resources, huge piles of money to throw at the issues. There are people out there being paid handsomely to do nothing but write and talk about how awesome various ed reform ideas would be. There are entire organizations that have been set up to do nothing except push an ed reform policy. And when billionaires like Bill Gates place a call to Important People to explain why, say, Common Core should be a thing, their calls are answered.

There is nothing similar on the pro-public ed side. Ed reform advocates like to point to the unions as equally as powerful as the various billionaires and corporations, but the union positions are a bit more complicated, and not always solidly on the side of public ed  (e.g. the leadership support for Common Core over rank and file objections). The rest of the pro-public ed side is made up of people like me-- folks who are advocating, in their spare time, for free. Folks who don't have great media connections and who, because they have a real day job, are not easily available for a quick quote or timely interview. Education continues to be one of the few journalism areas where actual practicing experts in the field are rarely consulted.

Education journalists have been really really really really REALLY slow to recognize that much of the education "news" coming across their desks is actually PR from people with vested business interests in whatever piece of "news" is being sold. And most of them have not developed the contacts in the teacher world that would allow them to say, "Hey, could you look at this and tell me if it smells funny?" Journalists repeatedly fail to ask the critical questions because they lack the expertise (which is not a failure on their part) and they lack contacts with the needed expertise (which is). So dozens of journalists write pieces about charter schools that send all their graduates to college without ever asking how many students in the original ninth grade cohort were washed out before they could become graduates. Or they get suckered into promoting the non-existent DC miracle.

That pushing is coming primarily from the folks with the money. Guys like me do not have an available mechanism for pushing our story ideas to mainstream ed journalists. I mean, I suppose I could, but as it is I'm trying to finish this post before my babies wake up from their nap.)

There are some people out there doing good work in the world of education journalism, and it's great that conversations like the one Ripley kicked off are going on. It's a much more complicated field to cover than it was twenty-five years ago, and many editors have not caught on to that ("Hey, Freshface McNewby-- why don't you go get your feet wet by covering education! Who's your team? Why, that would be you!").

Ed journalism can be better-- much better-- and Ripley has opened up a worthwhile conversation. Let's hope it actually helps.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

How To Build a Teacher

Now that we're talking about teacher residencies again, let me trot out my own teacher training, because I think it's a model for how teachers can be created. Then I'll tell you why it's probably not going to happen.


I attended Allegheny College, a small liberal arts college that, at the time, had a bit of a personality disorder (on paper, a liberal arts school and in practice, a pre-med, pre-law school). The school is located in northwest Pennsylvania. My graduating class had about 400 people in it. The education program was tiny (there were about eleven of us in my graduating class), but it was unusual.

Undergrad Prep

My Bachelors degree is in English, not education. The first principle of the program was that I should be an expert in my content area. I took about two education courses before I student taught. I was required to do some volunteer field work, including some sort of activity in a local school (I taught King Arthur to a high school class and Beowulf to a handful of gifted third graders) plus some sort of work with students in any setting (I helped out with the youth group at a local church). So we needed to have some acquaintance with the species of human students, and we had to be well-versed in the subject area we planned to teach.

This was definitely better than the student teachers I have received from local colleges, many of whom had basically no more than a high school education in the subject matter-- meaning they literally knew very little more than my students in class. This is a recipe for Bad Things. Classroom Management Rule #1: Know what the heck you're talking about.

Student Teaching

Student teaching for Allegheny folks happened in Cleveland. Before I student taught, Allegheny placed teachers in Cleveland City Schools, but it was the 1970s and the taxpayers kept voting down referendums which meant the schools kept closing in October when they ran out of money for that calendar year, and that was a bit too unstable for the college's tastes. So I taught in Cleveland Heights (Wiley Jr. High).

While student teaching, we all lived in apartments in a building at the corner of E9th and Superior (it's a hotel now). The college also rented several conference rooms, and most nights of the week we took education classes there, including methods for our specific disciplines as well as general ed classes.

I cannot begin to tell you how powerful it is to sit in a methods class and , instead of discussing what might happen some day in some hypothetical classroom, to talk about what happened to me today in my classroom, or what I am planning for that classroom tomorrow. Several of the classes were taught by working teachers-- not college professors.


That model of taking education classes just hints at the support the program provided. One of the classes was taught by the same professor who visited us in our classrooms. And unlike the typical twice-a-semester drive-bys that many student teachers get, my supervisor saw my usually once a week, for a couple of hours. So that once again, in his methods class, we could talk about very specific issues and very specific solutions while still looking at the larger picture. We could talk about issues specific to my own style in the classroom.

The Graduate Program

By the time all this was happening, we had to be accepted to the colleges Masters of Arts in Education program. That meant we went straight from graduation to summer school, where we took more high-level education courses and had the opportunity to take elective courses in areas where we thought we could use a boost.


The most nerve-wracking part of the program came next-- we needed a teaching job within forty miles of down town Cleveland. That's because our employers would view us a first-year teachers, but the college viewed us as interns. We had to be near Cleveland because a couple times a month we would drive in to that field office for classes, and the same professor who supervised us in student teaching now supervised us in our first year of teaching. Not as often by any means-- but that extra support through the first year is invaluable (particularly if, like me, you started your first year with a six week strike).

Some additional coursework over the next few years, and we were done, with a degree and teaching credentials for both Ohio and Pennsylvania.


Just one big one-- the huge cost. If you were paying attention to the numbers, you noticed two professors (one elementary, one secondary) based in Cleveland, a couple of rooms rented for a field office, and some part time faculty for those courses, all for just eleven students. The college ultimately decided that it couldn't afford to keep the program, and so they axed it.

In connection with a residency discussion, someone brought up the question of who pays the cost, and that remains a problem in teaching. Too many schools are trying to stay solvent by doing mass business in teacher preparation, but you can't mass-produce good teachers any more than you can mass-produce good doctors or nurses. It takes some personal mentoring and support. Allegheny's model co-opted the school district for my first year/internship, because I was a paid staffer. But nobody was paying the college extra to run a department with the highest prof-student ratio on campus.

Training teachers better than we do now means spending more than we do now, and where will that money come from? School districts that pay for a first teacher draft pick, sight unseen, a few years from now? More money from the government that won't adequately support education now? Do colleges make the education department more expensive to get into? None of these seem likely.

Finding a way to involve active or retired classroom teachers seems promising-- after all, we have a huge workforce of practicing experts in this field. But how that works out practically I do not know.

What I do know is the list of elements needed for a good teacher prep program-- strong foundation in content, strong support during student teaching, and strong support on into the first year or two in the field. Plus, in some states, a way to get potential co-operating teachers past the question, "Do I dare take a student teacher when my own career depends on these kids' test scores?"

It can be done, but it won't be cheap. Which is why it probably won't be done. But if a few more programs could even inch a bit in the right direction, it would help.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Where Are The Robot Teachers?

This week Neil Selwyn (Monash University) turned up on the website of the British Educational Research Association with "Robots in the Classroom? Preparing for the automation of teaching,"
a title which poses a question and then skips over the really long discussion that question ought to prompt. 

Fifty years after Stanley Kubrick introduced cinemagoers to HAL9000, the prospect of a robot-infused world still feels more science fiction than social fact. Yet robots are steadily beginning to impact on the nature of contemporary work. Industries such as circuit-board manufacturing and underground mining now rely on automated, mechanised robots. Elsewhere, intelligent systems are prompting forecasts of the ‘end of the professions’ and declining need for human doctors, lawyers and accountants. High-tech automation is now a real proposition across many sectors of work and employment.

One notable exception to this trend is education. 

Selwyn notes that "it is generally assumed" that teaching is going to be done by humans. But that assumption, he suggests, is tied to the "continued dominance of mass schooling." But advances in artificial intelligence, robotics and machine learning should change that. Why are people pushing classroom robots. Well...

There is clearly growing corporate impatience to reform what are perceived as outdated and inefficient school systems. Calls for the automation of classroom teaching are often driven by desires to ‘reboot’ 20th century school systems that business interests suspect are no longer fit for purpose.

Without discussing exactly which "purpose" we're talking about, Selwyn connects this push to "growing political disgruntlement" with the teaching profession. Robot teachers would help disrupt unions and the profession as a whole.

He notes the wide range AI products out there, and the ability to "capture over a million data-points per user," without questioning if that might also be a motivator for business as well as a huge threat to the privacy of the children themselves.

But it's the non-response of the profession that seems to bother him. Why, given the momentum of the robot onslaught, is there not "greater consternation throughout education." Why is education as a sector not spending more time preparing for the arrival of our robot overlords.

There are plenty of reasons not to get excited about the robots. For one, the industry itself is questioning the AI developers themselves. A recent sciencemag.coim piece focuses on Ali Rahimi, a Google researcher who got a huge ovation at an AI conference for charging that machine learning algorithms have become a form of "alchemy." Researchers can't reproduce results and many developers do not seem to know which parts of the programs are actually doing the work.

Despite this lack of ability to actually produce Chief Instructor Robot, many school leaders are moving from a bunch of algorithm-driven learning software to even more of it. In Clearwater County, Idaho, for example, parents are complaining that the Summit software has moved from being a curriculum supplement to the actual curriculum. In response, the school board president touted the promise of Personalized [sic] Learning, which leans even more heavily on an algorithm-driven mass instruction software set up.

There are many reasons to resist the Robo-Teachers-- the lack of data privacy, the biases embedded into any software by the programmers, the lack of actual education expertise in the programmers, the lack of human contact and interaction for students. But there are problems even more simple than that.

I've just returned from a visit to my daughter and her family in Seattle. They have a Google Home system (similar to the Alexa) and it sort of works, except when it doesn't. I watched my grandchildren and there parents ask for the same song many times over the course of the visit, and there was no predicting what Google would actually do in return (on the plus side, I've know heard the German version of the Gummi Bear song). My wife and I used the GPS programs in our phones, which as usual worked well except when they didn't (first it couldn't find the grocery store, then it couldn't find us). And I'll just refer you to the story of my ex-wife's mail.

In other words, on top of the philosophical objections to robot teachers, we have to also consider whether or not they could actually do the job well. All the empirical evidence says no. Like the sort-of mostly self-driving kind of cars, most of our computer-based algorithm-powered tech works as long as there's a human buffer between the tech and the world-- because the tech doesn't work well enough on its own to be trusted. And that means it doesn't work well enough to be entrusted with the running of a classroom occupied by tiny humans-- or even a single tiny human.

But here-- since Selwyn opened with a Kubrickian HAL9000 reference, it seems only appropriate to end with this:

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Why Protest Betsy

This Monday, Betsy DeVos will be touring a public school in Erie, Pennsylvania (it's an ironic choice, considering how badly Erie's schools have suffered from "choice" and other nifty reform policies). This means that lots of pro-public education folks are mobilizing to make a strong, vocal, public protest in her immediate vicinity. And a lot of other people will be asking the question, "Why bother?'

It's a valid question. And look-- here are some of the things that are not going to happen as a result of this or any other protest:

DeVos is not going to say, "Dang! Look at all; these protestors! All right! You win! I'm going to change the policies I've previously supported because you guys just talked me into it."

DeVos is not going to go home and think, "You know, one of the things I heard shouted at me, or one of the posters I saw, made me rethink some of the philosophical premises on which I've based my entire lifetime of anti-public ed activism. I think I shall change my ways."

Neither DeVos nor any other member of this administration is going to think, "This is just awful. I'm so ashamed. I'm going to quit."

DeVos is not going to stop and think, "You know-- I really should just sit down and listen to these people. They might have a valid point."

And no DeVos nor Trump supporter will feel one iota less supportive at the end of the day than at the beginning.

So why bother?

DeVos will dismiss the protestors as protectors of the status quo, opponents of Good Change, and generally awful people. She will connect education protests to one of the over-arching narratives of this administration, that only some people are the Real America, and Those Other People are not. That only Real Americans deserve to receive the blessings of this nation, and that the others should stay in their proper place, silent and compliant.

So why bother?

I can offer several reasons.

First, because the alternative is a small or non-existent protest, which allows the administration to push the story that they already try to make live as a lie-- there just aren't that many people who care, aren't that many people who oppose Trump and DeVos and the rest. The opposition is weak and tiny and can safely be ignored or mocked. If nobody shows up to protest, then the feds get to share photos of empty streets and the rest of America shrugs and says, "Well, yeah-- I guess there really isn't anyone who's all that upset with the current trends."

Second, because cognitive dissonance is taxing. Many have noted the DeVosian smirk. It's a smirk that says, "I don't really have to listen to any of this. I'm above this. None of it matters. None of it is real." It's the look of someone who must filter out the evidence of her own eyes and ears in order to maintain her own view of what is happening. This is the work of dampening cognitive dissonance, and as someone who has played that game before, it is tiring. Filtering out all the protestors is tiring. Maintaining the fiction that you are on a mission from God and wise people recognize it and are grateful to you for stooping to better their sad lives-- that's tiring. I don't believe we can get DeVos to change to another track, but I believe we can make it cost to her to hold to the one she's on. When voices get really really loud, you can only block them out by stuffing so much cotton in your ears that it hurts.

Third, if there's one thing I've learned writing this blog, it's that pro-public ed folks, people who have invested their hearts and souls in one of the US's greatest and most important institutions, feel isolated. When you are constantly told that up is down and white is black and that standardized tests are the best measure of children and teachers, you start to doubt yourself. When something is not right, it's important for people to stand together and say, "This is not right." It's important for them to be able to look around and see that they are not alone, that they are surrounded by thousands of people who see what they see. And all the people who can't be there, but watch from elsewhere get that same benefit. Teachers from all across the country can look at pictures of a protest and think, "Wow. It's not just me."

Fourth-- collateral leverage. DeVos's visit is being handled by Mike Kelly, a GOP Representative who is in a tight race and deserves to be defeated for so many reasons. If he's hoping that a visit from a high-ranking DC secretary will help him out, he deserves to learn otherwise.

Henry David Thoreau in his essay "Civil Disobedience" encouraged us to be friction in the machine, like sand dropped into gears. We may not make the machine stop today. We may not end its movement right now. But we make harder to keep grinding away, and that wears it down and brings about its eventual collapse. I believe as an absolute rule in life that you are always either getting better or getting worse, making things better or helping them fall apart. There is no standing still.

My wife and I can't be there Monday (we are visiting family in Seattle-- no doubt DeVos deliberately waited till we were going to be out of town), but if you're anywhere near Erie, you should go. Yes, it will be hard to park, and crowded and messy, and somebody may even stand up and say something stupid that you disagree with. But it's important to be there, to be visible, to be heard. Years from now you don't want to be explaining to someone, "Yeah, I knew it was wrong, but I stayed home and didn't speak up." Public education has been under attack for too long in this country, and people have been too quiet about it. The time to stand up and speak up is now. No, it's not going to suddenly make everything better if you stand up and speak up, but the alternative is to step back and watch it get worse.

Speak out and rally begins at 1:00 on Monday, July 16, outside Pfeiffer-Burleigh Elementary School, 235 East 11th Street in Erie PA.