Sunday, May 24, 2015

PA: Huffman Sells Snake Oil

As i wrote earlier this week, some Pennsylvania legislators have been looking at an Achievement School District for the Quaker State. This is a great idea if you are interested in converting public education into a system of private schools that make investors and operators rich. If your goal is to actually educate children, an ASD is probably not your best shot-- the process disenfranchises local voters and taxpayers and hands their schools over to charter operators.

Kevin Huffman has thrown in his two cents. Huffman is a former Chief for Change, a lawyer who managed to become Tennessee's education head on the strength of two years with Teach for America and plenty of fine connections. He eventually slunk away from that job, but since reformsters seem to only fail upwards, he's still working the circuit, pitching reformsters programs.

That pitchmanship brought him to PA, where he "testified" in favor of the ASD and penned a lovely op-ed for PennLive.

In that piece, he notes that "additional funding is key," which may seem like a violation of the reformster mantra that throwing money at public education is a bad idea. But throwing money is actually an approved reformster idea-- as long as you throw the money at the right people.

Huffman outlines his two-step program for turning schools into healthy investment properties around.

First, we created an Achievement School District (ASD) - a district that has the authority to remove chronically low performing schools and manage them outside of the home school district.

Second, we empowered local districts with district-run Innovation Zones in which schools are given more autonomy to select staff, run different programs, and change the school-day schedule to improve performance.

So first, strip local school boards and voters of authority over their own schools. Second, allow a mixture of innovation and stripping teachers of job security and pay. The stated plan in Tennessee was that the bottom 5% of schools would move into the top 25% within five years. Doesn't that all sound great? But hey-- how is it working out in Tennessee?

That depends (surprise) on who is crunching which numbers, but even the state's own numbers gave the Tennessee ASD the lowest possible score for growth.

In fact, Huffman forgot to mention the newest "technique" proposed to make ASD schools successful-- allow them to recruit students from outside the school's geographical home base. This is the only turnaround model that really has been successful across the nation-- in order to turn a school around, you need to fill it with different students.

Meanwhile, Tennessee is just starting to digest the news of this year's magical increased test scores. Could these be inflated for political reason? Well, duh. You didn't think that cut scores are set by some sort of sound pedagogical process, did you?

Huffman has been known to say Dumb Things. He once claimed that students with disabilities lag behind because they aren't tested often enough. He uses his special Dumb Thing skill to wrap up his op-ed.

When I spoke with Pennsylvania state senators last week about school turnaround work, one senator asked me directly, "When you created the Achievement School District, were you worried that it was too risky?" I responded, "The greatest risk would be to do nothing."

Pretending that any senator actually answered that question, the answer is still dumb. Your child is lying on the sidewalk, bleeding and broken after being struck by a car. A guy in a t-shirt runs up with an axe and makes like he's about to try to lop off your child's legs. "What the hell are you doing?" you holler, and t-shirt guy replies, "Well, the greatest risk would be to do nothing."

Doing Nothing is rarely as great a risk as Doing Something Stupid. Achievement School Districts are dumb ideas that offer no educational benefits and run contrary to the foundational principles of democracy in this country. They are literally taxation without representation. Huffman should move on along to his next gig and leave Pennsylvania alone.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Newark: The Civil Rights Lie

Friday, the students of Newark took to the streets. Thousands of students. Students from many different schools within the city. They took to the steps of City Hall, and then they moved to shut down the main drag. And unlike a previous protest in Newark, this one resulted in actual press coverage. In addition to coverage from Bob Braun, who has covered the story in Newark faithfully, the walkout was also covered in the "regular" media here and here.

As always, the students' actions were thoughtful, measured and positive. Their message was vocal and clear. Accountability for superintendent Cami Anderson (skewered in one sign as "$cami"). A return to local control. And end to charter takeover of schools that have no need of takeover.

Imagine you are someone thinking, "I believe that equitable education is the civil rights issue of our era. I believe that students who are not wealthy and not white are not represented and their needs are not respected. I am concerned that without test results, these students will become invisible."

Could you possibly have stood in Newark and said, "Boy, I just wish there were some way to find out what black families and students want, or what they think about the direction of education in Newark."

And yet, per*, the district had this to say:

"While the District supports our students' right to express their opinions and concerns, we cannot support these actions when they disrupt the regular instructional day," Parmley said in the statement. "The District remains committed to broadening opportunities for Newark's students through expanded learning time and through creating additional professional development opportunities for teachers."

Right. The district remains committed to doing everything except actually listening to their students. They will tell students what they need. They will tell students what they want.

Reports indicate that throughout the district, principals followed a directive to shut the student voices down by any means necessary. Hold lockdowns in the schools. Run long assemblies. Make phonecalls to threaten families with consequences (no prom, no graduation) should a student walk out. In other words-- make sure that those students are neither seen nor heard.

This is the opposite of listening. This is the opposite of making sure students have their civil rights. This is the opposite of treating members of the community as valued partners. This is the opposite of making sure all students are visible.

I am waiting. I am waiting for any of the reformsters who are so deeply concerned about the civil rights issue of the era, who are so concerned that some students might become invisible without certain policies in place, who are so worried that black students will not be heard-- I am waiting for any of those reformsters to speak up and say, "Hey! You have a perfect opportunity in Newark to talk to the people we're all concerned about, people who are clearly motivated by a passion and concern for education and schools. This was the perfect chance to talk to exactly the people we're concerned about, and you blew it. Cami Anderson should get out there and talk to them. Now." I am waiting to hear that.

Reformsters repeatedly claim that they are most concerned about American students like the students of Newark. The students of Newark have given them a chance to put their money where their mouths are, and reformsters have stayed silent. Cami Anderson remains unwilling to so much as talk to the students of Newark, and no leading "reform" voice has stepped up to call her out.

Newark is a clear and vivid demonstration that reformster talk about civil rights and the importance of hearing and responding to the voices of students and families-- it's all a lie. In walking out, the students of Newark have stood up, not just for their own community and schools, but for students and communities all across the country.

* also included a completely egregious piece of reporting, noting that several students ran into a Rite-Aid and then later cops were at the Rite-Aid, so of course their reporter asked if there had been looting. Police replied there had been no reports of looting-- so there was nothing to report, and yet this business took up a full paragraph. I suppose it could have been worse-- they could have called the students "thugs."

Is There a Good Standardized Test?

It's a fair question, and one I've actually thought about often in the past few years. Have I ever encountered a standardized test that I found useful, or can I even imagine such a thing?

The short answer is, "No." But that also the glib-and-not-very-useful answer, so let me see if i can explain why not?  (My previous attempt to answer the question is here.)

Those in existence?

In thinking about existing standardized tests, I don't have much to consider. As a secondary teacher, I historically haven't dealt with nearly so many of these as my elementary brethren and sistren.

Of course, the giant of high school standardized testing has always been the SAT, and we have always understood that it's a lousy measure of what it claims to measure. For years it claimed to test student verbal reasoning skills when, in fact, it mostly just tested vocabulary. It also arguably tested student ability to think like middle class white kids. On top of that, it was, of course, highly gameable, as witnessed by the cottage industry of books, software and coaches generating revenue by helping students raise their scores.

And as omnipresent as the SAT's were and are, if we apply the Beneficial To Students and Teachers test, the SAT's fail. I learn nothing useful about my practice from SAT results, and my students take nothing away except their score. "Hey, these SAT results show the cognitive and knowledge areas in which I need to improve. I think I will take a summer school course in English just so I can work on them," said no high school junior ever.

The closest I've ever come to a useful standardized test would be the materials that came with an excellent literature series that I used years ago. The questioning strategies were excellent-- but that series only provided the questions. I was still grading the materials myself, so not quite a standardized test.

Could I do it, though. Could I finance my retirement by developing a grand and glorious English standardized test that would be useful to students and teachers across America?

I would face two challenge areas-- skills, and knowledge. Let me consider them separately.

Simple Skills

This would seem to be the easy area, at least for measuring simple skills. After all, shouldn't we be able to design a simple and useful standardized test for measuring, say, the skill of properly using commas in a sentence?

Probably not. My typical standardized test question will involve some sort of task involving comma use, say something like this:

Bob (1) you really annoy me (2) when you put the ocelots (3) hamsters (4) and beavers in the bathtub.

Commas should be inserted in 
      a) 1, 2, 3, 4
      b) 1, 3, 4
      c) 2, 4, 6, 8
      d) The Treaty of Versailles

Except that the skill of answering questions like this one is not the same as the skill of correctly using commas in a sentence. Proof? The millions of English teachers across America pulling their hair about because twenty students who aced the Comma Usage Test then turned in papers with sentences like "The development, of, language use, by, Shakespeare, was highly, influential, in, the Treaty, of Ver,sailles."

The theory is that Comma Use is a skill that can be deployed, like a strike force of Marines, to either attack writing a sentence or answering a test question, and there are certainly some people who can do that. But for a significant portion of the human race, those tasks are actually two entirely separate skill sets, and measuring one by asking it to do the other is like evaluating your plumber based on how well she rewires the chandelier in your dining room.

In other words, in order to turn a task into a measurable activity that can be scaled for both asking the question and scoring the answer, we have to turn the task we want to measure into some other task entirely.

Complex skills

Not a chance. I would like my students to be able to read an entire work and draw out some understanding of themes, character, writing technique, literary devices, and ideas about how the world works; and then to relate to all of that in some meaningful, personal way that they can express clearly and cogently.

The AP test comes as close as anything to handling a complex of skills like this, and they still add the element of "adjust your ideas and the presentation thereof to fit the preferred format and approach of the people delivering the test." The AP test also is delivered to a self-selected sliver of the whole school market-- if we tried to scale it out to every student in America, we would not get useful results.

As I've argued elsewhere, none of these critical thinking skills will ever be on a standardized test.


Well, what about knowledge. Can't we use a standardized test to see if students Know Stuff like the author of The Sun Also Rises or the contents of the Treaty of Versailles?

Probably? Maybe? At least as long as we stick to things that are simple recall. And while knowing a foundation of facts can keep us from saying ridiculous things (like "Hitler and Lincoln signed the Treaty of Versailles" or "American students have the worst test scores in the world"), there's a good argument to be had about the value of simple recall in education.

There's a reason that people associate standardized tests with simple recall and rote learning-- because that's the one thing that standardized tests can actually measure pretty well.

But more complex knowledge and understanding, the kind of knowledge that really only works its way into the world by the use of critical thinking and application-- that kind of knowledge doesn't make it onto a standardized test because it can't.

Context and Shared Language

Designing tests is one of the most challenging part of my job, particularly because years ago I concluded that I needed to stop using tests over from year to year.

See, for any of our higher order work, context and shared language matter, and that changes from year to year.

First, if I am going to be open to my students in my classroom, my instructional focus is going to shift from year to year. Understand, I am not not NOT a teacher who believes in a student-directed classroom. We don't take a vote on what we want to study, and I don't leave them unguided to somehow suss out the layers of Romantic poetry on their own. I am not the Sage on the Stage, but I am the adult in the room who's paid good money to direct and organize the learning, and I am supposed to know more about this stuff than my teenaged students, and pretending I don't is just a silly lie.

But all that said, I have to leave space for them, take cues from them, and sometimes follow their lead. There is no more powerful tool in the classroom than student curiosity, and I would be a fool not to follow it when it rears its rare and beautiful head.

All of which is a long way of saying that my instruction every year is shaped, to a greater or lesser degree by my students, their strengths, their weaknesses, their interests, and the things that just kind of come up. Which leads to

Second, our shared language in the classroom. By the time an assessment rolls around, my students should have an idea of what I mean by "explain" or "support." Heck, by the end of the year, they should know what I mean by "write a few paragraphs" about a topic. One of the most basic functions of an academic pursuit is to develop shared language, or more exactly, a shared understanding of the language. Because anybody who wants to tell you that a word has only one exact meaning that is understood by every single language user-- that person is a dope (though, yes, while we may not agree on exactly what I mean by "dope," you get a general idea).

This is why Test Prep is a thing and will always be a thing-- because the test manufacturers have a special language which has never been shared with the students, and so, somehow (test prep) the students have to enter into that shared language so that they can understand what it is, exactly, the test is asking.

So frequently BS Test results only tell us how well (or not) the student acquired the unshared language of the test manufacturer, and not how much skill or knowledge the students possess.  This may well work better for math (though I have doubts), but in reading, literature and writing, there simply is no universally shared academic language, which means that all standardized English tests are written in a special English-ish foreign tongue. That inexactness would not be a big deal if we were not imbuing these tests with superhuman powers of analysis.

A good assessment is the culmination of what we've done, not the the reason we did it in the first place. Bottom line-- I can't write a really good test for students I've never met, unless we've somehow all agreed on the language that we're using and the nature of the content we're testing. Common Core was arguably an attempt to bridge that gap, and, gosh, that's just working out so very well.

Testing Testing

In fact, my classroom practice over the decades has moved slowly and steadily away from testing and toward other sorts of assessment, because all tests ultimately and primarily test the student's ability to take a test. Now, that's not the end of the world-- there are such pointless activities in life and in some cases, testing gets us close enough to the heart of the matter to do.

But any kind of assessment ultimately has to be about the teacher trying to find out what the student knows and can do, not, as is sometimes the case, about making the student prove something to a Higher Authority.

The search for a good, useful assessment (or constellation of assessments) is an ongoing one, a journey that none of us will ever complete. But I am pretty sure that standardized tests lie in the opposite direction. As I said at the top, perhaps when we're dealing with smaller children with fewer filters and simpler skills, there are useful standardized tests (though watching my wife teach first grade, I have my doubts). But at the high school level, I think not. Consider that the use of standardized testing in college classrooms is not exactly widespread.

Poor Charles. Ask a simple question in a 140-character medium, and get this monstrosity of an essay in response. It probably would have been easier just to read the Treaty of Versailles.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Myth of the Hero Teacher

Oh, that hero teacher.

Larger than life. Leaping tall filing cabinets with a single bound. Taking a few moments out of every day to personally reach out to every single student and making that child feel special, while at the same time inspiring greater levels of smartitude just by sheer force of teacherly awesomeness. The Hero Teacher shoots expectation rays at students, making them all instant geniuses.

The Hero Teacher is featured in movies and television, from Sidney Portier's Sir to William Daniels' Mr. Feeney. The Hero Teacher usually has only one class (Feeney is the ultimate example, staying with his students through their entire academic career), and limitless time and resources to Change Their Lives. The Hero Teacher is committed, miraculous, transformative.

The Hero Teacher is also a giant blight on education.

The Hero Teacher haunts the dreams of real live teachers, taunting us with a level of perfection we will never achieve. We will skip over the 100 students we reached to obsess about the twenty we didn't connect to at all because if we were real Hero Teachers, we would have connected with every last student.

Worse, the specter of the Hero Teacher tortures and twists education policy as well.

See, if Hero Teachers are real, then our education policy should be built around finding and retaining them. Hero Teachers are imbued with some teacherly gift (maybe they're born with it, maybe they were infected by another Hero Teacher) and so we don't have to develop and support such people-- we just have to find them. It's possible that some of them aren't even teachers, so we need to make it easy to bring them into the schools from whatever line of work they're currently in. They certainly don't need any special training, because a Hero Teacher just has It.

If Hero Teachers are real, we don't have to address the system. We don't need to build a school that is a community with systems and processes for providing support and development. We don't need to try to develop a good system; we just have to root out the Bad Teachers and hire more Hero Teachers.

This is what reformsters are talking about when they proclaim that we must find the most excellent teachers and pay them really well (though a Hero Teacher would never actually ask for a  big salary, because noble)-- find the Hero Teachers and get them to teach everyone. Maybe they could have teaching assistants, or maybe they can just teach 200 students at once (because, after all, they are awesome Hero Teachers). Maybe this is appealing in part because ten well-paid Hero Teachers are still cheaper than fifty moderately-paid regular old teachers. And the as-yet-unrealized requirement that states have a plan for moving highly effective teachers to problem schools is also based on the Hero Teacher story-- we find a Hero Teacher and we send that Hero off to trouble spots, where Hero Teacher will heroically Fix It All.

It's not poverty. It's not systemic failures. It's not crumbling infrastructure. It's not a lack of resources (because a Hero Teacher can MacGyver instruction out of two rocks and a shoelace). It's not the absence of a system to build community, stability, and the room and help to grow as a professional.

No, it's just that we haven't found enough Hero Teachers yet (or maybe, as some reformsters posit, we actually need to find Hero Principals or Hero Superintendents or Hero Charter School Operator).

The Hero Teacher narrative is appealing, but it's lazy, and it lets everybody else in the school and community escape responsibility-- the responsibility to do the best they can for the pieces that they work with, the responsibility to be an active part of a community, the responsibility to help build and grow and lift up the people around them. Effective schools do not run on Hero Teachers, but on strong, stable, supportive communities, and that is no myth.

Jebster on Education

Hats off to the folks at Fordham who have added a new feature to their site-- it's Eduwatch 2016, and it is a handy compendium of education quotes from each Presidential candidate. We'll be turning to that more than a few times, I'm quite certain.

They attracted my attention with what is actually the ninth installment in the series, featuring ten quotes from Jeb Bush. They don't entitle it "Ten Things That Jeb Gets Wrong About Education" or even "One More Attempt To Mitigate Jeb's Common Core Conservative Problem," but they might as well have. I'm going to call it "Ten Reasons People Who Care About Public Education Should Not Vote For Jeb Bush."

1) Common Core as a floor, not a ceiling. Here's a Jebby quote about how states should "aim even higher, be bolder" and just keep raising standards forever. It sounds pretty except for two problems. First, it's reinforces a childishly simple two-dimensional model of school, where education is like a flagpole and you can choose higher or lower and that's it. Education is more like a four-dimensional galaxy, expanding and growing in all directions through space and time. Second, it ignores the question of whether the Core even makes a decent floor (spoiler alert: it doesn't).

2) States are in charge. This quote oddly acknowledges that the Common Core brand has become a fuzzy meaningless mess, so that no two people using it may mean the same thing. But from there Jebby somehow gets to "The federal government should play no role in this, either in the creation of standards, content, or curriculum." Which-- well, first, that ship has sailed, and second, if that's the case, why is a Presidential candidate talking about it? Will some journalist please ask Jebby, "Knowing what we know now, would you have signed off on No Child Left Behind?"

3) School choice. “Consumer choice created the most innovative and powerful economy in the world....Choice rewards success and weeds out stagnation, inefficiency, and failure." Wrong, and wrong. The fact that people have been repeating this mantra for decades does not make it so. Coke and Pepsi. Microsoft. Standard Oil. Cable television.

4) Class size. He cites the Harvard study on class size. He should probably take a look at what we could loosely call "all the other research" on this subject. Class size matters. Do note, however, that he also says "We have spent billions of dollars on more buildings and for more teachers with no evidence this policy produced better results." I can only hope he plans to apply the Dollars Spent To No Results metric to charter schools, Common Core and Big Standardized Testing.

5) Teacher pay. There was a time I might have let this one go ("Pay our best, great teachers more") but I have come around to the way of thinking favored by Michael Fullan and many others-- the myth of the Hero Teacher is bad news. Believing that a great school is one with room after room captained by a Hero Teacher just leads us to the idea that we don't have to look at the system or the supports or the processes we've put in place to help each teacher grow and improve-- we just have to fire Bad Teachers and hire Hero Teachers. It's lazy, it's unrealistic, and guys like the Jebster like it because what they really imagine is a couple of well-paid Hero Teachers teaching 200 kids each, for a net payroll savings of big, big bucks.

6) Preschool. Here's my rule about pushing preschool-- preschool can be a great thing, but if you can't get anything else about education right, you're going to muck up preschool, too. Jeb thinks the magic formula is choice (marketing), early literacy focus (developmentally ignorant), measure and report (test test test), focus on outcomes not inputs (test test test test). This absolutely guarantees that Jeb is the worst person in the world to set up a preschool.

7) The achievement gap. Poor minority students should get better test scores. It is up to the school to fix all the problems of society; there is no obligation for society to address problems so that kids can more easily get a better education. Well, not an education-- just better test scores.

8) Course access. This is cutting edge reformster stuff. Choice on steroids-- you don't just choose a school, but you put your education program together course by course, from a wide variety of vendors who are peeing themselves with delight because they don't have to provide a full program, just whatever niche market material they're pushing. An almost-interesting idea until you spend even five seconds trying to think about how it would actually work. It really is choice on steroids-- misshapen, unhealthy, and prone to sudden fits of rage and/or heart failure.

9) Education and technology. "The main challenge facing the country is how to redesign education around what technology allows us to do." Man, that is so perfectly and utterly backwards. We do not need to redesign education to fit the tech; we need to design the tech to fit education.

10) Raising expectations in education. “Some in the education community complain that every time they achieve the results expected of them, we raise expectations, and school grades drop as a result. That was our goal. We have learned that students and teachers rise to the new challenge, and the school grades go back up because everyone rises to the challenge. This formula is how you drive success in any endeavor.” That's really inspiring, but it always raises the same question for me-- if expectations are so powerful, why aren't we unleashing their power everywhere? Instead of saying "Colleges have to give too many remedial courses," why don't we say, "Colleges, just expect more from your freshmen." Instead of saying "We need young people to be better prepared for the workplace," why don't we say, "Employers, if you just raise your expectations, you can hire anybody."

It tells us something about the political-educational landscape that Arne Duncan would be perfectly suited to serve as Jeb's Secretary of Education-- they don't disagree on anything (and they both have that lanky, slightly-confused look).  There are many things about a Jeb Presidency that would be uncertain, but one thing is clear-- we would get four more years just like the last sixteen years of anti-public education policy.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Is NAEP Really a Benchmark?

The recent Achieve study (the one with the Honesty Gap) is just the most recent example of someone using the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) as a benchmark test, as the gold standard of Sorting Students Out.

But not everybody agrees that the NAEP (aka "the nation's report card) is a good measure of, well, anything. Google "NAEP fundamentally flawed" (people seem to love that Fundamentally Flawed verbage when discussing NAEP) and you'll find lots to chew on.

Most debate centers around the leveling of the test. Folks don't care for how they're set. Many critics find them to be irrationally high. In 1999, the National Academy of Sciences released Grading the Nation's Report Card.  I can't direct you to a free copy of that to read, but I can summarize second-hand the basic arguments brought against the NAEP.

1) The results don't match the results of AP testing, finding fewer top students than the AP test does.

2) The NAEP gives more weight to open-ended questions.

3) The cut score lines are drawn in vague and hard-to-justify ways. NAS specifies this down to "You can't tell whether a kid just over the line will or won't answer a particular question correctly.

These arguments are not perfectly convincing. The Center for Public Education found, for instance, that NAEP's people had a pretty clear idea of how they were setting achievement levels.

A more damning report came from NCES way back in 2007, in turn looking back at students and test results in the nineties. That time span allowed researchers to do what folks looking at PARCC or SBAC still have not done-- follow up on later successes from the students. Here's a look at what the class of 1992 had done by the time eight years had passed.

NAEP Score
No Degree
Assoc. Degree
Bachelor’s degree or higher
Below Basic

Note that 50% of students judged Basic went to college and earned a degree. It's almost as if they were, in fact, college and career ready. And in fact that is a frequent complaint about NAEP level setting-- that their "Basic" is everybody else's idea of "Proficient." Which would certainly explain the finding that state tests find far more proficient students than the NAEP does.

By 2009, deep into the reformy swamp, the government asked for another audit of NAEP, and got this report from the Buros Institute at the University of Nebraska. The report had some issues with NAEP as well:

1) No real validity framework, meaning no real framework for determining what the test actually measures nor what the data from the test can actually be used for.

2) The fact that no other tests, including various state tests, found the same results. This suggests that either NAEP has a singular unmatched vision, or it's out of whack.

3) There's no demonstration of alignment between NAEP and state standards and tests, which means using the test for matters such as, say, Achieve's Honesty Gap study, has no basis.

4) All this means that many "stakeholders" don't really know what they're looking at or talking about when it comes to NAEP scores.

My conclusion? The NAEP, like all other standardized tests, best functions as a measure of how well students do at the task of taking this particular standardized test. As soon as you start trying to figure out anything else based on the test results, you're in trouble. That includes writing fancy reports in which you suggest that states have an honesty gap.

PA: Another Charter Boosting Plan

Pennsylvania is joining the list of states contemplating an Achievement School District. This is a great mechanism for replacing public schools with charters, disenfranchising taxpayers, and wasting a ton of money, but the push is coming from Sen. Lloyd Smucker, the Lancaster Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee even though he is no friend of public education in PA.

Smucker is proposing the bottom performing 5% of PA schools be given a choice-- either "transform" themselves by turning charter or "contracting with outside providers" and fix things in three years, or the state will take them over and then turn them into a charter or hire an outside provider to run them. So, hey-- actually, no choice at all! Schools that fall under this category will also get to scrap union seniority rules. And Smucker would like to include a parent trigger rule as well. So a veritable smorgasborg of corporate profit opportunities educational transformation.

Of course, the beauty of the 5% rule is that there are always schools in the bottom 5%. Theoretically, you could eventually end up converting a considerably larger percentage of your total schools.

The proposal frames this as a state takeover, and that's a bit odd since it presumes that the folks in Harrisburg apparently know the secret of educational success and they've just been holding out on us all these years. But it's not really a state takeover-- it's a state handoff, in which the state takes control of the schools away from local voters and taxpayers and hands that control over to charter operators. That's the beauty of the ASD.

If you are unfamiliar with the term, here's a quick primer:

Reformsters love how things worked out in New Orleans. A major disaster hit the city, crushed its public school system along with everything else, and cleared the ground for the installation of an all-charter system, the Recovery School District. That system allows the state to install a management board that serves as the maitre d' at a big, ole school buffet, giving various charter operators the opportunity to step up for their big fat slice of the tax dollar pie. Arne Duncan famously called Hurricane Katrina "the best thing that happened to the schools in New Orleans" and reformsters sat at home quietly dreaming of natural disasters obliterating all public schools across America.

But there's just never a natural disaster when you need one, so in most areas refomsters have had to settle for the slow-motion man-made disasters of funding cuts and "failing" scores of Big Standardized Tests. Combined with reformsters in charge like Tennessee's Kevin Huffman (the first TFA grad to be put in charge of an entire state's education system) man-made school disasters opened the door for Achievement School Districts.

The principle of an ASD is the same-- in theory, the state takes over some schools and lumps them together in a state-run school district. In practice, the state hires charters to come in and run the schools. An ASD is simply another mechanism for privatizing public schools.

How's it working? Well, New Orleans is now a charter paradise, with no public schools left at all. This means no neighborhood schools; every morning students travel back and forth across the city in a crazy quilt of bus routes to get to their schools. Local taxpayers have been completely disenfranchised, democratic local control of schools is gone, and families are pretty much at the mercy of schools that get to pick and choose their students ("school choice" it turns out to mean "school's choice").

As far as academic results go, there are mixed opinions. It's the opinion of everyone who's making money from the charter system that it's doing great. It's the opinion of everybody else that it's not. The failures of the RSD have been extensively documented by bloggers Mercedes Schneider and Crazy Crawfish, among others.

The ASD of Tennessee has produced similar results, converting a chunk of Memphis schools to charters with no improvement to show for it, despite claims that it would "catapult" the bottom 5% of schools into the top 25%.

So why are we considering this, exactly...?

Top reformster ronin Mike Petrilli (of the privatization-loving Fordham Institute) stopped to offer his well-paid opinion, and it offers the argument for an ASD.

It starts with the premise that "failing schools are, by and large, a creation of dysfunctional school districts." Here's Petrilli's explanation of how ASD's make everything All Better:

The genius of the Recovery School District and the Tennessee Achievement School District is that they pluck failing schools out of their dysfunctional districts and give them a new lease on life. They pump new blood into these schools with new staffing arrangements. They get rid of the sclerosis of the arteries by cutting through the red tape of overbearing central offices. But they also bring accountability—and a willingness to pull the plug if, despite heroic efforts, the patient still isn’t getting better.

It's a picturesque way to put the argument. It sounds so much better than "We take away local control, fire all the teachers and replace them with low-cost temps, and install a new bureaucracy that isn't accountable to anybody but owners and investors. But charters will totally retain the right to close up the school (even in the middle of the year) if they decide the business just isn't working for them."

Petrilli also trots out a Fordham study that purports to show that having your school closed and getting yourself booted to some other school is awesome. This study is not very convincing. It is even less convincing coming from the guy who has said that charters exist to save worthy wheat while leaving the chaff behind.

ASD vs Philly (and about those civil rights)

Currently, a big chunk of those bottom 5% schools are in Philadelphia, which makes this extra Kafka-esque, because that means the proposal is that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania should take control of the schools away from-- the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

But launching the ASD in Philly would keep one aspect of these turnaround plans consistent-- from New Orleans to Holyoke to Nashville, the rescue efforts consistently involve taking local control away from non-rich, non-white citizens. Because school reform involves overdoses of irony, the "civil rights" issue of our day involves taking away community schools and a democratic voice in running them from poor, Black Americans.


Mike Wang is executive director of Philadelphia School Advocacy Partners, a group that advocates for charter expansion through the usual use of highly selective/inaccurate data, thinks this sounds awesome and claims it has worked in other states, which is true if by "worked" you mean "made some charter folks a ton of money." He says, "It seems to be really grounded in empowering local school districts to address their lowest-performing schools." Which is true is by "empowering" you mean "stripping of all control over their own schools."

Donna Cooper of Public Citizens for Children and Youth calls the proposal "a diversion and a smokescreen," which I think is a little unfair, since it's actually pretty clear what the proposal is about, if you just look.

But thank God for the ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, Senator Andrew Dinniman, who according to "said that although he had not seen the proposal's details, he believes there cannot be a conversation about how to adequately deal with consistently low-performing schools without a serious discussion about the impact of poverty on education."

So if you're in Pennsylvania, you might want to take a moment to let Dinniman (and Smucker, too, if you have a taste for brick wall head banging) know that this is, indeed, a terrible idea designed to dismantle public education and sell off the scraps.