Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Eight Weeks Of Summer: Getting It Done

This post is week 6 of 8 in the 8 Weeks of Summer Blog Challenge for educators.

I've been doing this challenge because why not. I answer the prompts as my pre-tirement self. Here's this week's question:

How are you planning to implement change next school year?

This often depended on the change. For lots of changes, I just did it. Changing how I approached vocabulary? Just did it. Changing the reading list for Honors English? Just did it. Experimenting with my room lay out (like the year I got rid of desks)-- get help from the custodial staff, and then just did it.

My school was generally supportive of teacher autonomy in many areas (whether this was a matter of trust or indifference was always a topic of discussion), and so I was free to do a lot of implementing on my own. However, there was one element that was supremely important--


I worked with a wide variety of principals over my career, and I can't say that any of them were that concerned with the nuts and bolts of English classroom instruction. Nevertheless, I still told them what was going on. In particular, my rule at all times with administrators is that anything that might result in a phone call had to be communicated to them first.

Everybody wants a supportive boss, but you make being supportive hard when you set your boss up to be blindsided. If she's getting a call asking, "What the hell does Mr. Greene think he's doing with that new unit," it's not helpful to leave her stammering, "Well, now, actually, I have no idea what you're talking about."

So I would visit the office. "Just wanted to let you know. This is what I'm doing, and this is why I'm doing it, and here's why you might get a phone call about it, so here's my explanation of why this is professionally sound." This gives your admin the information they need to support you, and let's them respond to phone calls (if they come) with, "Yes, I'm already on top of that," instead of "Homina homina homina."

I also communicated with my department members, particularly those directly upstream and downstream of me. "You know how I've always done this thing? Well, I've decided to stop doing it, so next year the students I send you won't have done it." Of course, much of the time before I actually decided to change something. I had already discussed it with colleagues. But it's still useful to tell them that the change is actually happening.

The better your discussion, research, study, and general thinking-through for a change, the easier it is to implement. You just do it. The above mentioned deskless room lasted just one year, because I really hadn't thought it all the way through, and so I rolled it out before I was really ready to work it through. The deskless problems were secondary to the I-didn't-seem-like-I-knew-exactly-what-the-heck-I-was-doing problem. It's not necessary to have a micro-detailed plan for the change, because that can make you too rigid, and you'll miss some amazing opportunities that happen organically. But you can't just build the plane in mid-air, either.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

ICYMI: House Painting Edition (7/14)

Yes, we're getting the house painted. If that's not fun, I don't know what is. But in the meantime, here's some reading for you.

How Did We Miss This?  

The story of the Indiana cyberschool collecting money for ghost students.

Palm Beach Real Estate  

What can you do when you're a charter school entrepreneur? Sell one mansion you never actually lived in and then buy another one.

Common Core Tests Are Junk  

Okay, I'm shortening headlines today. An actual psychologist explains why some Core-related testing is neither valid nor reliable.

Charter School-Enabled Profiteering Is The Problem  

Mercedes Schneider unpeels the layers on another example of charter shenanigans.

How US Tech Giants Are Helping China Build The Surveillance State  

Not technically an education story, except of course that it's totally an education story.

The Giant Florida Data Base  

Speaking of the surveillance state, Florida would like to prevent shootings by collecting all the data about students. Big Brother is just looking out for you.

Waving the White Flag on High Stakes Testing   

More observations about how the tide seems to be turning, and how HST is an experiment that already failed a century ago.

The Messy Reality of Personalized Learning  

Yes, this miracle cure isn't a miracle cure after all. A pretty thorough piece from the New Yorker.

The History of the Future of the 'Learning Engineer'  

Audrey Watters tells us where they came from and why they're a problem.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

The New Koch Ed Reform Rebranding Astroturducken

The billionaire Charles Koch has launched another adventure in astroturf, this time aimed at rebranding ed reform while still pushing reformy ideas, playing the reform greatest hits and-- well, it's a little unclear what else is going on. But every layer is more special than the last.

This has been coming for a while. Back in January Koch announced that they were going to  increase their level of meddling involvement with K-12 causes. You may have caught an inkling back at the end of June when EdWeek noted that the Kochs were going to team up with the Waltons to throw a pile of money-- a great big honking pile of money-- at incubating schools, programs and what-have-them across the country. In that same article, EdWeek noted the creation of Yes Every Kid, "a group that intends to find common ground between groups that typically have disagreed vehemently over issues such as labor protections and school funding." It's a social-welfare organization, which means it can lobby and work on political campaigns and ballot measures.

Looks totally real

This week, AP's Sally Ho put out a very widely reprinted story that looks at Yes Every Kid in more detail, and those details seem like a grab bag of all the best reform details, right up to the use of "task" as a verb:

The Yes Every Kid group is tasked with monitoring statehouses where it can be influential on school choice, said Stacy Hock, a Texas philanthropist who is among hundreds of donors each contributing at least $100,000 annually to the Koch network's wide-ranging agenda.

Hock and officials with the Koch network said it's too early to provide specifics about what policies the group is pushing.

"The priority is to go where there is a political appetite to be open to policy change and lean in there," said Hock, who also leads the Texans for Education Opportunity advocacy group that supports charters and other education alternatives.

Texas, West Virginia and Florida are high on their list, apparently. Randi Weingarten calls the whole thing a publicity stunt, saying "To date, the Koch strategy has been to profit from and compete with public schools, while trying to 'defund and defang' anyone who got in their way." Ho also talked to Darrel Bradford of various advocacy groups, including 50CAN, the group that, among other things, wrote an actual book about how to astroturf build advocacy campaigns. Oh, and it turns out Bradford is a board member of YEK as well.

The Koch network is turning to community leaders to help support local priorities, rather than prescribing its own goals, said Derrell Bradford, a Yes Every Kid board member and executive vice president of 50CAN, a school choice advocacy group.

This is the astroturducken. You local folks name your priorities; we will tell you how our preferred program will achieve your priorities, and help you create a groundswell of political noise. Our astroturf stuffed inside your priorities. Astroturf in duck's clothing. Astroturducken.

And Ho put all this in the context of call by Nina Rees (National Alliance for Public Charter Schools) to push charters into suburban and rural areas. Overall, Ho did a pretty good job of laying out the basics of the story. But can we find more? Yes, we can. Fasten your seatbelt as we go down the rabbit hole.

Yes. Every Kid. has a website. It's a beautiful thing, slick and pretty and almost entirely devoid of substantive content. But it has grand education aphorisms out the wazoo. The factory model is old. Building an extraordinary system, for extraordinary kids. One size does not fit all. There is no average. Let's break the mold.

YEK (yes, that's an unfortunate acronym, but as we'll see elsewhere, they use it themselves) has a big streak of affirmation, like the best Marianne Willamson fan.

Let's say yes.
We're done hearing no.
We demand a system that believes in each of us.
We demand a system built to unlock the potential of every kid.
We demand a system that says, "Yes."

I've got chills. Almost makes me forget that the Kochs have been relentless in pursuing a government that says no to as many people as possible.

Along with affirmation, YEK seems to be focused on rebranding education reform entirely.

It's that simple. Instead of saying no. We say yes. We're done with negativity. Education reform has been saying "no" for decades. Saying no to educators, parents, and real solutions. Instead, we say "yes." Yes, every kid can learn. Yes, your ideas matter. Yes, together we can make change. We know that if we wait for change to come down from above, it won't be change in the right direction.

Yes, don't wait for things to come down from above, says this website that has come down from a billionaire who wants to drive the education bus despite his complete lack of educational expertise. But this astroturfery is insistent. "Real change has to start from the ground up. We're here as your resource to facilitate conversation." That might be really moving if the very next sentence weren't "We're here to foster a culture of disruptive innovation," which suggests that these facilitaty listeners already have some answers in mind. Also missing-- an acknowledgement of where all that negativity came from. Here is yet another reformy outfit talking about negatives from the past as if they simply fell from space, instead of saying, "Yeah, that was us. Sorry." And here comes the tell:

We want to hear new ideas, new solutions, and new voices. And it can only happen when we listen to the real stakeholders in education: you.

But who is this "we" and why should stakeholders feel any need or obligation to talk to "we" in the first place? This is the same old rich fauxlanthropist baloney-- we're not only going to vote ourselves a seat at the table, but we're also going to go ahead and give ourselves the seat at the head because, yeah, this is our table now. It's so big and generous of you to agree to listen to us, Sir, but I still haven't heard a reason that we should be talking to you. This is the overarching narrative of decades of modern ed reform-- actual teachers and educators were working long and hard on the problems of education, and a bunch of rich amateurs strolled up and announced, "Good news! We're going to take over this whole conversation now!" Thirty years later we're still all waiting to hear why these guys should be running any part of the show beyond reasons like "I'm rich" and "I want to."

Rant over. The website also let's you tell it what is important you. You can also sign up for the emailing list and agree to start a local yes group with astroturf from your very own home.

So who is the actual we here? This is where it gets a bit more interesting. I signed up for the mailing list and that took me to an address--

yes. every kid.
419 S. Whittaker Street
New Buffalo, MI 49117

That address is apparently a single family dwelling, but that house apparently is occupied by a hair salon (I called the number and the salon's answering machine answered). New Buffalo, Michigan is in the western almost-Chicago part of Michigan. So that part of the whole business is a mystery. I have actually tweeted a question at the Yes. Every Child. twitter account; we'll see if I get an answer.

What's less of a mystery is what we find on the group's Facebook page, where we learn that the chairman of YEK is Meredith Olson. That appears to be this Meredith Olson, whose LinkedIn page lists her as Vice President, Public Affairs at Koch Companies Public Sector, LLC. She's located in Wichita and has been with Koch since 2005, first as Director, Business Development, then Managing Director, Operations, and now five years in the VP spot.  Before that she worked for Shell Oil. Her degrees are mechanical engineering and an MBA.

YEK's launch announcement comes datelined Colorado Springs, with a subheading about being "dedicated to driving a new conversation, new results, and new possibilities" which gets low points for originality. We now have several organizations/websites launched by Very Rich People who are Very Sad that their point of view isn't getting the kind of hearing they'd like, and so they would to start a "new conversation." And it's not that I'm opposed to a new conversation, but the new conversation starter always seem to default quickly to the old conversation where they scold the same old targets and push the same old policies and do the same old Not Listening.

Olson is heavy on the "wholesale reimagination" of education "which requires us to empower and work alongside educators" and I realize that this ends up sounding prickly and mean, but who said you belong alongside educators? I mean, if I showed up at the offices of, sat, Americans for Prosperity or Koch Industries and said, "I think what we need is a fresh new approach to what you're doing, and I'm certainly willing to let you work alongside me to reimagine the whole business," how quickly and how far do you think I would be flying out the front door?

Meanwhile, Olson goes on to say "Together, we stand for the possibility and opportunity to ensure all students rise by receiving a customized education designed to meet their needs." So all that "let's find solutions together" happy talk is just a sales pitch, because YEK has one solution already in mind-- personalized [sic] learning. But this time they're committed to getting teachers, somehow, to buy in (which is all in line with what we first heard in January).

The release PR includes parts of a poll that YEK paid for (conducted by YouGov) that uses some pointed questioning techniques. "Over the past five years, have K-12 school [sic] gotten better or worse?" Nearly half of both public and educators say worse, which might tell us something about ed reform policies, but let's just move on, because the rest of the questions are so delightfully loaded that I'm not even going to talk about the responses:

Should K-12 schools focus on preparing students to do well in college or exposing students to a variety of subjects so they can find their own passion and intellectual path?

Should local K-12 administrators have more or less flexibility to structure their schools in the way they think is best?

Should K-12 teachers help students discover and excel at subjects that matter most to them or ensure their students excel on an education path that is laid out for them? 

Each of these was answered exactly the way you think it was, though only 39% of adults thought administrators should have more flexibility. And here's a lesson in how to massage results. In the press release for the poll, that 39% is called a "plurality," but later, when we're talking about whether student proficiency should be judged by tests  or projects, the 37% who support standardized testing are an "only." The poll is used for the purpose for which it was made-- to argue for personalized [sic] learning.

So in the end, Yes. Every Kid. is, besides being a punctuative pain to include in a sentence, the sane old thing. It's a new conversation in which teachers will be deeply valued and we look forward to working with them to achieve the conclusion that we're already committed to, which is implementing the Next Big Thing in education, which we are sure is going to be awesome even though we have no actual education expertise. Break the mold. No one size fits all. For the students. Now we just have to wait and see if the country fills up with "Yes" groups that say "Yes" to Koch dreams, "Yes" to lobbying for Koch's vision of ed reform, and "Yes" to a big plate full of astroturducken.

I'm waiting to see how that all turns out. But most of all, I want to know what the hair salon has to do with any of this.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Are These Lessons To Learn From Cyberschools?

At this stage of the game, there's no reason to keep imagining that cyberschools are a viable option for education on any sort of scale. There's a small group of students with specialized needs that they can serve well, but mostly they've failed big time. But they are also excellent money-makers, and so we periodically find folks trying to rehabilitate the cyberschool image. Here comes another such attempt.

Where did this one come from?

North Carolina-based Public Impact is yet another reform group dedicated to advocacy for charter schools etc. It has all the usual features. For instance, the jargon-soaked product line:
Using our unmatched thought leadership and experience with charter schools, turnarounds, and innovations for great teachers and principals, school design, funding, technology, parent support, community engagement and data analysis to help states, localities, districts, charter organizations, funders, and nonprofits choose the right strategies for dramatic improvements.
And the leadership which, you will be shocked to learn, involves a minimum of actual educators. Co-President Bryan Hassel is a big-time consultant and "recognized expert" (recognized by who, one wonders) on charters and turnarounds and funding systems and writing pieces for Education Next and EdWeek. His Co-President is Emily Hassel, who provides thought leadership and oversight. They're both Pahara-Aspen Education Fellows, which puts them in the company of many other charter and reformster folks. Lucy Steiner is the senior vp for "educator excellence and implementation services," and she has some actual classroom background-- she taught English from 1993-1996.

Like most such groups, Public Impact likes to crank out "reports" that serve as slickly packaged advocacy for one reform thing or another. Two of their folk have just whipped together such a report for Bluum. Sigh. Yes, I know, but it's important to mark all the wheels within wheels if for no other reason than A) it's important to grasp just how many people are employed in the modern reformster biz and B) later, when these groups and people turn up again, you want to remember what they've been up to before.

Okay. I'm sure we'll get to the report eventually.

So Bluum. This Idaho-based is a "non-profit organization committed to ensuring Idaho’s children reach their fullest potential by cultivating great leaders and innovative schools." Its 2016 990 form lists that mission, though it includes some more specific work. "Bluum assists the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation determine where to make education investments that will result in the growth of high performing seats in Idaho." (I will never not find the image of a high-performing seat" not funny.)Then they monitor the results. The Albertsons are Idaho grocery millionaires with an interest in education causes.

Blum's CEO is Terry Ryan, who previously worked for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Ohio.

Bluum partners with Teach for America, NWEA. National School Choice Week, the PIE Network, and Education Cities, to name a few. And they are the project lead on the consortium that landed a big, juicy federal CSP grant to expand charters (that's the program that turns out to have wasted at least a billion dollars).

Just so we're clear-- this report did not come from a place of unbiased inquiry. It came from a place of committed marketing.

So who wrote it?

The report was created by two of Public Impact's people. Daniela Doyle is the vp for policy and management research; she's a Teach for America product. Izzi Hernandez-Cruz is a consultant who spent two years as an AmeriCorps teacher.

Can we talk about the report now?

Sure. "Meeting the Potential of a Virtual Education: Lessons from Operators Making Online Schooling Work" is the report. The idea here is, "Sure, lots of virtual schools have turned out to be a bust, and yes, we read the CREDO report that absolutely lambasted cyberschools, and yes, we are aware of massive scams like the ECOT mess in Ohio where the school fleeced the state by collecting money for phantom students. Nevertheless..."
But after more than two decades, we have developed a strong sense of the challenges that virtual operators face, as well as strategies to address those challenges. Moreover, a handful of online schools are demonstrating that success is possible.
So we're going to rebrand "failure" as "challenge." Boy, that would have been nice back when charter advocates were hammering away at "failing" public schools. The report will look at two schools, which is a small handful, but okay. One is the Idaho Distance Learning Academy and the other is New Hampshire's Virtual Learning Academy Charter School. By looking at two schools, the report hopes to unveil the secrets "for other online operators and policymakers who are eager to make virtual school success the rule, rather than the exception."

It's an intriguing research model. Reminds me of Grace Jones-- no, not that one, but the woman who was one of the oldest persons in the UK, who always swore that the secret of long life was drinking whiskey. And yet, oddly, scientists never started recommending that everyone drink whiskey daily, perhaps because really small samples don't yield significant results, and the singular of "data" is not "anecdote."

No, not this Grace Jones
We get a quick sidebar on each school. VLACS turns out to be not just a cybercharter, but a cybercharter that is built around competency based education. It has 400 full time students and 13,000 part-time ones, and the report doesn't really explain that part-time thing, but I am familiar with both homeschoolers and very small private schools that depend on cyberschool to plug some gaps in their programs, so perhaps that is also going on here. Also, VLACS does adult ed, so that's probably part of it. I-DEA enrolls about 700 full timers. Those are not large numbers; here in PA, 14 cyberschool enroll over 35,000 students.

The profiles note that both schools enroll fewer students of color than the state, and VLACS is also behind the state on low-income students. So it's not entirely clear if their brags about greater testing success than the rest of the state are valid, but the report is just going to go with it. The superiority of these two schools is going to be a premise of the report, not a hypothesis to be tested. The report offers a whole sidebar about how hard it is to define success, acknowledges that hardly anyone knows how to do it, and then just shrugs its shoulders and says, "Well, we'll just go with test scores, then."

So what are the lessons that we are supposed to learn from these two schools?

Lesson 1: Strong Teaching Drives Student Success

The report notes that both schools "take painstaking measures" to select teachers "with a track record of success" and give them training, as well as expecting high expectations. VLACS takes almost four months to bring newbies up to speed, starts them out with four or five students, and gets them up to a "full caseload." I-DEA doesn't hire new teachers based on the belief that you have to know what good teaching looks like in a classroom before you can do it in a cyberenvironment, which-- well, is that not admitting that cyberschools are a kind of weak imitation of "real" school?

At any rate, the actual lesson here seems to be "be careful who you hire, and make sure you train them." This does not strike me as a particularly profound insight.

Lesson 2: Personal Connections Are Key

Cyber-connections lack the level of personal connection that is critical to K-12 education (both I-DEA and VLACS are high schools). VLACS tries to bridge the gap with advisors, who "connect" with students at least once a week and provide families with monthly progress reports. This is.... not impressive. Also not impressive is this story of a "common occurrence" at the annual live in person graduation ceremony from the VLACS chief:
Students will often come up to me and ask if the woman standing on the other side of the room is their advisor. When I say ‘yes,’ I have often watched them approach one another and embrace, even though it’s the first time they’ve met in person.
So, students don't actual meet their main human connection with the school until graduation (and again-- is the "live" graduation not an acknowledgement that cyber contact is not really good enough), where they probably won't even recognize the person on sight. That seems... sad.

I-DEA staff all work from one of three actual buildings "which improves staff accountability and fosters connection that facilitate collaboration and support," so I guess I-DEA recognizes that human beings work together best when they are physically together in the same space. I mean, what does it say about your faith in the virtual classroom model when you won't use it to run your actual organization?

Side Note on Visuals

This very pretty report includes lots and lots of nice photos. Despite the fact that the report indicates that these two schools are whiter than the student population of the state (and let me remind you that we're talking about Idaho and New Hampshire here), the photos in the report are very heavy on people of color. Trying to compensate?

Lesson 3: Student Learning Must Be the Center of School Design

There's a huge issue in virtual learning, and this report isn't going to address it. In any technology-based education system, we're going to have a steroid-infused version of the tension present in all education-- the tension between what we need to measure and what we can most easily measure. Both of these schools are leaning into the Personalized [sic] Learning, which means there are a variety of other factors and issues involved here. But this report seems to make the classic error of conflating personalized learning with personalized pacing. The CBE and personalized [sic] learning discussion will have to wait for another day if we're ever to get through this. Suffice it to say that none of the major issues are addressed by the report.

Lesson 4: Schools Set High Expectations for Students and Families

These two schools want you to know that they are not Easy A credit recovery programs, and I certainly applaud that. But what high expectations seems to translate to here is the ability to push out families that aren't up to snuff. VLACS even has a 28-day trial period during which students may be dropped for cyber-truancy. The ability to weed out low-performing students is very useful in keeping those numbers up.


The report ends with some suggestions for "virtual operators."

First, do the same stuff that makes bricks-and-mortar schools successful, because, as you may have already noticed, nothing in the four lessons is exclusive to a virtual school. An interesting specific they offer is don't take on too large a student caseload. Not for the first time, I'm wondering what the audience for this report is supposed to be. Because in Pennsylvania, one of the biggest cyberschool states, operators are looking at some of this and are saying, "Are you nuts? More students means bigger payday. And these small class sizes that these guys have? Forget that! Ka-ching!"

Identify what is truly different. IOW, figure out how to communicate through this very limiting medium. But use the "unique opportunities online schooling offers." This translates into an argument for personalized [sic] learning.

I do like this next one-- "Innovate, don't just automate." And this: technology "can also lead to inappropriate automation." But I'm pretty sure they're whistling into the wind here; the obvious financial incentives are lined up behind turning over as much of the process as possible to the software, which is far more attractive in cyberschooling because the computer infrastructure is already naturally in place.

Concluding thoughts

After asking legislators to loosen rules for cyberschool benefits, the writers offer some closing thoughts.
Much of the discussion of virtual charter schools tends to focus on their scandals or poor academic outcomes. And there is clearly ample evidence of both. Accordingly, policymakers have largely focused their energy on how best to regulate the sector as a way to protect students and taxpayers.
Boy, I wish that were so. But in PA, we just had yet another failed attempt to roll back some of the rules for our spectacularly lousy cyberschool sector (no PA cyber has ever earned a "passing" score). We still pay cybers 100% of the per-pupil rate for the sending district, which is not only a huge drain on local district finances, but it's a huge incentive for bad actors who are guaranteed huge profits. Meanwhile, the legislature couldn't even pass a rule telling cybers that they had to stop advertising that they were "free" and must instead acknowledge that they are paid for by taxpayers.

That work is certainly justified, and it is important. But so too is learning from the online operators who are getting it right. This report demonstrates that virtual success is absolutely possible.
Well, no, not really, it doesn't. It tries to draw some suggestions out of two very narrow and specific examples, crossed with what the authors believe are good practices for cyberschool. In fact, if this report had just been an article entitled "How We Think Cyber Charters Should Best Be Run" I wouldn't have much beef with it, other than to point out that a huge number of cyber operators ought to take some of this advice but probably won't.

These two schools also offer some confirmation of other old lessons, like small class sizes are better and it's easier to teach when you don't have to teach the students who won't work and don't want to be there. And there are many, many questions that remain unanswered-- most especially, are these two schools really any more successful than any other schools.

So argue your points. Make your pitch. But I do wish we would stop trying to package these marketing pitches as "research"

Incidentally, Grace Jones died just last month at the age of 112, having finally taken the title of the oldest person in the UK. 112 is not a bad run, and she was fit and active till the end. But I would still not recommend drinking whiskey every single day.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Eight Weeks of Summer: Big Hairy Say What Now?

This post is week 5 of 8 in the 8 Weeks of Summer Blog Challenge for educators.

I've been doing the Hot Lunch Tray eight week challenge. Unlike other challenges, it does not require me to eat responsibly or beat myself up with ice water or plastic gerbils. I'm answering the questions as my old pre-retirement self. You can see what other folks are writing by checking out the #8WeeksofSummer hashtag. So here's this week's prompt:

What is your BHAG for next school year?

That's "Big Hairy Audacious Goal" for those of you haven't sat through professional development that pushes this kind of thing.

So I guess I have to address this one with a confession-- in thirty-nine years of teaching, I never set a BHAG. For that matter, I not sure I know anyone who did.

Maybe it's just a matter of phraseology. BHAG strikes me like "wacky" or "wise" or "hilarious" or "weird" or "badass rebel"-- if you have to apply the term to yourself, then you aren't. BHAG is an approach that calls attention to itself, that hollers, "Wow! Look at how bold and outside the box I'm being!" Maybe it's my New England roots or my general attitude, but this kind of thing takes me right back to Rule 10: Shut up and do the work.

I always had goals. Any teacher who's worth their salt (or cod, or whatever you want to trade in)always has goals, because any decent teacher can tell you, right now, the list of things that she knows she needs to get better at. There's never enough time, and while we refine and refine our game, it's never perfected. So teachers have projects, all the time. Get faster at assessing papers. Reconfigure the room. Rebuild the reading list. Incorporate ideas from that book/video/presentation that set my brain on fire. Come up with a better approach for that unit I can never quite sell.

Are any of those goals hairy and audacious? I don't know. I don't know how you would upscale them.  But-- and I guess this is also where BHAG rubs me the wrong way-- what is wrong with setting a goal of substantially improving your classroom practice? It may not be stunningly dramatic, but it will certainly benefit the students, and you'll enjoy feeling like you've gotten a better handle on the job you love.

I mean, yes, do something. There is no surer sign that a teacher has started become a lousy teacher than a declaration, spoken or un-, that they have everything pretty well figured out and there's nothing they really need to work on. Don't do nothing. And if you can't think of anything you need to work on, it may be that you are just done in the classroom. Spend your summer job hunting.

I also worry about the effect of setting a BHAG you don't reach (I once heard a presenter argue that a BHAG should seem unattainable). If you end up wasting energy, paying an opportunity cost, and feeling like you failed, well-- that doesn't seem helpful.

I don't want to be dismissive of those who have BHAGs. Maybe the big jolt or drama and adrenaline is just what you need, or maybe you feel the need to blast yourself out of a rut. That's fine. I may the kind of person who makes you bored, and you may be the kind of person who makes me tired. The world, and the students, needs all kinds.  But BHAGs seem vaguely accusatory, like  those Facebook posts from your friends at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro while all you've got is a picture of the mess you made trying to feed your toddlers avocados. "Audacious" is a word that wants to brag "I just had to take it further than ordinary mortals," and it hard to send that message without also sending the message that ordinary mortals are just not so great.

Maybe my BHAG was to keep improving professionally for 39 years, to better at juggling more balls and doing it more efficiently, to run the race as a really long marathon and not a sprint. Maybe it was  to push my own personal envelope just one more notch each year. But I was never a superhero teacher and nobody ever came back in the fall breathlessly wondering what new mountain i had conquered since last May. And I was-- and am-- always okay with that.

So if you're working on your BHAG, good for you. And if you are just plugging away at the goal of doing your job better than you did before, I'm here to tell you that your goals don't have to be larger than life in order to be worthy of your time and effort. Set goals that help you grow and improve as a teacher and don't worry about whether they have hair on them.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Does The Most Interesting Teacher Pay Proposal Belong To A Billionaire Friend Of Trump?

Stephen Schwarzman might have an idea. Schwarzman, cofounder of the Blackstone Group, has been named a Bloomberg Most Influential person of the year more than once, and in 2007 he was one of Time's 100 Most Influential people of the year. He is a long-time friend and advisor of Donald Trump, including help set up Trump's Strategic and Policy Forum. He has given away a great deal of money and put his name on a wide variety of enterprises, from the Schwarzman Scholars program for global leadership at Tsinghua University in Beijing, to having his name inscribed six times on the New York Public Library. You may remember him from a donation to his old high school that turned into a flap about renaming the school, but he is most recently in the news for a huge donation ($188 million) to the University of Oxford to change the way the humanities departments at Oxford interact, and to study the ethics of artificial intelligence. That's in line with his donation last year to M.I.T. of $350 million to anchor a new billion-dollar Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing for the study of artificial intelligence.
Schwarzman is well connected and he lives large, but some of his ideas do always not match what we might expect from the typical plutocrat. His interest in AI ethics, for instance, is in part focused on the problem of displacing human workers. And when he spitballed an economic Marshall Plan for the middle class in April, he identified "income insufficiency for the bottom 50% of society" as a major problem, and said finding a solution "is not optional." He advocated for a minimum wage increase, and for more CTE style education.
In education, he shares a common misconception; he thinks that when he was young, the US was number one in primary and secondary, and now they have slipped. It's unclear what measure he's using, but if he is commenting on PISA testing, the golden age he remembers from his youth never existed. The US was never number one.
But his most intriguing suggestion was his third one. Teachers are central to education, he says, so "we should make teachers pay no tax."
"It's not just money," he adds. "We need to make teachers a special class in our society."
And then the interviewer cut him off. I reached out to Schwarzman to elaborate, but did not receive a reply. But let's look at this.
The financial side of this is interesting. Several Democratic candidates have proposed raises for teachers, but there are plenty of problems with trying to collect federal money and somehow spread it down to local school districts. How will distribution be determined? How will federal and state authorities move the money around?
Let's assume that we're only talking about federal tax exemption for the moment. Teacher Tax Freedom would give almost every teacher in the country an instant raise. For some it would be a few thousand dollars. In states and districts where the pay is well below the national average, the raise would not be huge--in fact, for some folks struggling with low pay and a family, the tax freedom would give them almost nothing except a respite from tax form paperwork. From the local school district's point of view, it is an instant raise that doesn't cost them a cent. In fact, it reduces the amount of work they have to do to deal with deducting taxes from paychecks.
Of course, there would be lost revenue for the federal government. The exact amount is impossible to calculate, but let's look at some rough numbers. According to the NEA, the national average teacher salary in 2017-2018 was $60,477. Federal taxes on that amount, for a single person, would be, according to tax calculators, around $6,500. Add a spouse and two kids and that drops to $3,764. But the average tax bite will be lower because teachers on the lower end of the scale fall under a lower effective tax rate. There are roughly 3.2 million public school teachers. If we arbitrarily set the average tax bite at $3,000, we get a loss of under $10 billion to the federal government.
That's roughly double the hole that DeVos would like to open up in the budget with the proposed $5 billion tax credit scholarship program. One could argue that Teacher Tax Freedom would put that $10 billion in the hands of people all across the country, to be spent in the local community in ways that would stimulate the economy. But we would be trading a cost to the government for teacher financial gains that would be limited. All the tax forgiveness in the world does not turn a $39,000 salary into a $60,000 salary.
But there is no discounting the second part of Schwarzman's explanation. Teacher Tax Freedom would clearly mark teachers as a special class in society. Closing the respect gap is no small thing, and a proposal that did so would have value beyond dollars and cents (though if more respect for teachers were there, it would be followed by dollars and cents). Education policy in the last few decades has been exceptionally creative in the many ways it has found to treat teachers with disrespect; Schwarzman may have stumbled on a way that policy could actually work in the other direction. It wouldn't solve all the issues of respect for teachers, and it wouldn't solve the problems of teachers who are working multiple jobs to get by-- you can't eat respect. But it wouldn't hurt and, unlike more complicated and ambitious plans, it would be really easy to implement. We'll wait and see if anyone besides Schwarzman decides to talk about it.

Whom Do We Trust

One of the unending underlying challenges in education is that parents and taxpayers have to trust somebody.

Back In The Day, the default was to trust teachers and administrators. That would be back when the default was to trust authority figures as a whole-- but that pendulum has swung far in the other direction (on behalf of all the Boomers, let me just say, "You're welcome"). Heck, even within the more recent past of my own career, a shift has been visible. In my first job (1979-1980) parent-teacher-student conferences often involved a parent absolutely taking my side, even though they didn't know me from a hole in the ground.

The erosion of trust has been widespread and has resulted from a variety of causes, and many of them have been--and continue to be--legit. Some of it is not an actual erosion at all, but simply finally hearing the voices of people who have never had a reason to trust authority. And some of it is the result of baloney, the kind of thing we see when someone explains that a youtube video deserves far more trust than an actual trained medical doctor. And some of it is the result of deliberate attempts to break down trust.

Education has been hit by a trust problem that really kicked off in 1983 with A Nation At Riska work which had as its singular purpose to deliver the message that public education, and the people who work in it, cannot be trusted. "Those folks," it said none-too-subtly, "are no more trustworthy than a hostile foreign power."

For thirty-six years, that drumbeat continued. Teach for America launched with the premise that teachers and the programs that produce them cannot be trusted. Common Core was sold as an antidote to untrustworthy teachers who just randomly pulled up standards for their classes higgledy piggledy. Reformsters boosted High Stakes Testing with the message that parents couldn't trust teachers to accurately report student achievement.  Charter advocates sold their business with the idea that public schools couldn't be trusted with anyone's children. And ed tech continues the pitch by suggesting that teachers can't be trusted to do their jobs.

Though some folks have turned down the volume a bit, one continuing thread running through all of modern ed reform is the notion that public schools and the people who work there simply can't be trusted.

It's not like some schools, administrations, and teachers haven't broken trust with parents and their community. Institutional racism, institutional inertia, just plain bad choices--public schools and the people who work there are capable of all of it. "Look, just trust me to do  my job," doesn't really cut it any more.

And yet, we have to trust somebody.

Reformy organizations like TFA ask us to trust their training, their process, their claim to really know what they're doing. Common Core asked us to trust the people who wrote and pushed the standards. Charter operators ask us to trust their intent and their methods. Rich education dilettantes ask us to trust them to run the whole edubiz.

Some reformy tools are sold as some sort of objective view. Your teacher's test might be biased, so that's why we need a standardized test to tell us the truth. The computer delivering the lesson won't be biased in any way, because, you know, computer magic.

But that's a lie and an illusion. High stakes testing, particularly in states like PA where teachers aren't allowed to see the test items and students must pledge  to keep them secret, asks us to trust the test manufacturers. Every kind of computer based lesson delivery system asks us to trust the people who wrote the software. And in these cases, parents and taxpayers are being asked to trust someone who is far away, separated from the students in both space and time. How many Black and Brown test manufacturers do you suppose the company employs?

In short, I don't care how scientific or evidence-based or expert-created or whatever your educational thing is-- you still have to trust somebody. The dream may be a system that depends on completely scientific objective elements, but that's simply never going to happen. It may look like systems and computers  and the like dispense with those untrustworthy carbon-based life forms, but behind every system, behind every piece of software, lurks a live human being who is no more or less trustworthy than any of the rest of us.

Trusting a whole bunch of teachers who each bring individual issues and perceptions to the table may well seem foolish. Trusting folks who support an institution that has consistently treated you and others like you badly is a bridge too far for most normal humans.

But you have to trust somebody.

You have to trust a politician who swears they're going to wrote policy that will make it better, and then you have to trust the people who will implement it. You have to trust the standardized test makers or the standards writers or the software engineers. But one problem with so many of these folk is that they aren't here to answer your questions or complaints.

You have to trust somebody.

It's almost impossible to operate a system in which the default assumption is that your front line workers can't be trusted. To effectively monitor and micro-manage all those untrustworthy teachers would require an enormous amount of humanpower and technology--a huge expense that requires you to somehow come up with a 100% trustworthy workforce for the task (otherwise, who watches the watchmen?). And while you'll effectively hamstring the people who could have been trusted, the less trustworthy folks will still find a way to gum up the works.

Plus, a school that soaks its employees in a constant soup of distrust cannot avoid slopping that soup all over the students. How effectively can students be taught in an atmosphere of distrust. What lessons do they learn in an institution where everyone is considered untrustworthy until proven otherwise? What kind of human beings does such a school produce?

You have to trust somebody.

We talk about earning trust, but I'm more inclined to think in terms of growing it. It does have to be nurtured and fed and watered and cared for and if you screw up you can kill it. But like any other plant, you can't grow it from nothing. There has to be a seed.

I have to plant that seed and start to trust someone, so I pick the teachers and other educators in the school. Not blind trust. Not I-will-ignore-the-evidence-of-my-eyes-if-you-say-to trust. There has to be an accountability piece. There also has to be a piece that allows me to speak up when I believe something is wrong. There have to be some checks and balances in the system (starting with this question-- if you have a bunch of untrustworthy employees, who hired them, and why?) There has to be a means for dealing with the misplaced, the racist, the misguided.

But teachers have chosen to be there. They have chosen to get (and continue) training. They have chosen to work through all the daily grinds and nuisances of this particular career. They are there in the trenches, and they have spent the most time right at that magical spot where learning and young human minds meet. Those factors alone mean that teachers deserve, at least provisionally, our trust.

We have to trust someone, and lord knows, sometimes it's hard to find people that can live up to that trust anywhere. Trusting educators, not blindly, but with eyes wide open and paying attention, because trust can never be a substitute for paying attention-- well, trust is scary. And it is a the worst possible way to operate an educational system. The only thing worse than that is every other possible system.