Friday, September 21, 2018

Field Guide To Bad Education Research

Folks in education are often  criticized for not using enough research based stuff. But here's the ting about education research-- there's so much of it, and so much of it is bad. Very bad. Terrible in the extreme. That's understandable-- experimenting on live young humans is not a popular idea, so unless you're a really rich person with the financial ability to bribe entire school districts, you'll have to find some clever ways to work your research.

The badness of education research omes in a variety of flavors, but if you're going to play in the education sandbox, it's useful to know what kinds of turds are buried there.

The Narrow Sampling

This is the research that provides sometimes shocking results-- "Humans Learn Better While Drinking Beer." But when you look more closely, you discover the sample size lacks a little breadth-- say, fifteen Advanced Psychology male college juniors at the University of Berlin. These may be experimental subjects of convenience; the above researcher may have been a U of B grad student who worked as a TA for the Advanced Psychology course.

Generally these narrow projects yield results that are not terribly useful, but if you're out shopping for research to back whatever you're selling, these can often provide the "research base" that you wouldn't otherwise find.

The Meta Study

Meta research involves taking a whole bunch of other studies and studying the studies in your study. The idea is to find patterns or conclusions that emerge from a broad field of related research. Met research is not automatically bad research. But if the meta researcher has gone shopping for studies that lean in his preferred direction, then the pattern that emerges is-- ta-da-- the conclusion he went fishing for.

This is a hard thing to check. If you know the literature really well, you might look for which studies are not included. But otherwise just keep a wary eyeball out.

The Not Actually A Study

These are cranked out pretty regularly by various thinky tanks and other advocacy groups. They come in nice slicky-packaged graphics, and they are not actual research at all. They're position papers or policy PR or just a really nicely illustrated blog post. There are many sleight of hand tricks the use to create the illusion of research-- here are just two.

Trick One: "Because there are at least ten badgers in our attic, many of the neighbors took to drinking pure grain alcohol." There will be a reference for this sentence, and it will provide a source for the number of badgers in the attic. Nothing else, including the implied cause and effect, will be supported with evidence.

Trick Two: "Excessive use of alcohol can lead to debilitating liver disease. The solution is to sell all alcoholic beverages in plastic containers." References will shore up the problem portion of the proposal, establishing clearly that the problem is real. Then the writers' preferred solution will be offered, with no evidence to support the notion that it's a real solution.

The Not Really A Study is also given away by the list of works cited, which tend to be other non-studies from other advocacy groups (or, in the case of ballsy writers, a bunch of other non-studies from the same group). No real academic peer-reviewed research will be included, except a couple of pieces that shore up unimportant details in the "study."

The Thousand Butterfly Study

Like studies of other human-related Stuff (think health-related studies), education studies can involve a constellation of causes. When researchers study data from the real world, they may be studying students over a period of time in which the teaching staff changed, new standards were implemented. administration changed, new standardized tests were deployed, new textbooks were purchased, the cafeteria changed milk suppliers, a factory closed in town, a new video game craze took off, major national events affected people, and any number of imponderables occurred in student homes. The researcher will now try to make a case for which one of those butterflies flapped the wings that changed the weather.

Some butterfly researchers will try to create a compelling reason to believe they've picked the correct butterfly, or what is more likely, they will try to make a case that the butterfly in which they have a vested interest is the one with the power wings. This case can never not be shaky; this is a good time to follow the money as well as the researcher's line of reasoning.

The worst of these will simply pretend that the other butterflies don't exist. The classic example would be everyone who says that the country has gone to hell since they took prayer out of school; crime rates and drug use and teen pregnancy, the argument goes, have all skyrocketing as a result of the Supreme's decision-- as if nothing else of importance happened in 1962 and 1963.

The Bad Proxy Study

Education research is tied to all sorts of things that are really hard, even impossible to actually measure. And so researchers are constantly trying to create proxies. We can't measure self-esteem, so let's count how many times the student smiles at the mirror.

Currently the King of All Bad Proxies is the use of standardized test scores as a proxy for student achievement or teacher effectiveness. It's a terrible proxy, but what makes matters worse is the number of researchers, and journalists covering research, who use "student achievement" and "test scores" interchangeably as if they are synonyms. They aren't, but "study shows humus may lead to higher test scores" is less sexy than "humus makes students smarter."

Always pay attention to what is being used as a proxy, and how it's being collected, measured, and evaluated.

The Correlation Study

God help us, even fancy pants ivy league researchers can't avoid this one. Correlation is not causation. The fact that high test scores and wealth later in life go together doesn't mean that test scores cause wealth (wealth later in life and high test scores are both a function of growing up wealthy). The best thing we can say about bad correlations is that it has given rise to the website and book Spurious Correlations.

Just keep saying it over and over-- correlation is not causation.

The Badly Reasoned Study and The Convenient Omission Study

For the sake of completeness, these old classics need to be included. Sometimes the researchers just follow some lousy reasoning to reach their conclusions. Sometimes they leave out data or research that would interfere with the conclusion they are trying to reach. Why would they possibly do that? Time to follow the money again; the unfortunate truth of education research is that an awful lot of it is done because someone with an ax to grind or a product to sell is paying for it.

The Badly Reported Study

Sometimes researchers are responsible and nuanced and careful not to overstate their case. And then some reporter comes along and throws all that out the window in search of a grabby headline. It's not always the researcher's fault that they appear to be presenting dubious science. When in doubt, read the article carefully and try to get back to the actual research. It may not be as awful as it seems.

Keep your wits about you and pay close attention. Just because it looks like a legitimate study and is packaged as a legitimate study and seems to come from fancy scientists or a snazzy university-- well, none of that guarantees that it's not crap. When it comes to education research, the emptor needs to caveat real hard.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Digital Dictatorship Has Arrived

Here's a rarity-- I don't have a lot to add to this article, but you really need to see it. This is what the triumph of the data overlords looks like.

What may sound like a dystopian vision of the future is already happening in China. And it’s making and breaking lives.

The Communist Party calls it “social credit” and says it will be fully operational by 2020.

Within years, an official Party outline claims, it will “allow the trustworthy to roam freely under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step”.

A social credit score. Constant video monitoring of all citizens, complete with facial recognition. All behavior, choices, actions recorded and mined for data as part of your personal record, boiled down to a simple score. Smartphone and online actions monitored and recorded. Your shopping habits tracked. And of course your school, medical and employment records included as well. As the article puts it, "no dark corner in which to hide." All included in your social credit score, which will determine how you get to live your life.

Oh, and the scores of the people you associate with-- that will factor in as well.

Possibly scariest part? The woman who is profiled in the article is cool with all of this. It makes her feel safe. And, truth be told, she expects to be a winner in this game-- the old "only people who are doing bad things worry about surveillance and law enforcement"-- which only works if you think the people running the system share your values and priorities. But someone has to decide what characteristics are displayed by a Good Citizen.

Read this. If you don't read anything else today, read this. Big Brother was a slacker.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Non-wealthy People and Choice

When it comes to school, the poor, the argument goes, should have the same choices that wealthier folks have. The ability to choose a neighborhood gives wealthier folks the ability to choose a school, so even folks who attend public school are making use of school choice, the argument goes.

Let's skip over the usually-ignored part of that argument, which suggests that the problems of school selection could be addressed via zoning. Break up the last bastions of redlining, and put low cost housing in every neighborhood, including the ritzy ones and voila! everyone can exercise real estate based choice. I wonder why we never talk about that solution.

Instead, the preferred solution is to set loose the power of the free market to provide the non-wealthy with all sorts of choicey alternatives, a rich buffet of options. Reformsters used to say that choicey competition would create excellence as well, but that's no longer part of the pitch. Choice need not promote excellence; it's enough for reformsters that choice promotes choice.

It doesn't matter; any way you frame it, you run up against the same problem-- choice will not accomplish what its fans say it will accomplish.

The problem is that the free market is not a friend of poor people.

Oh, it likes them when it comes to marketing. Note-- the unwealthy are not stupid and they are not lazy, but they are busy just trying to hold things together between jobs and families and too few resources. Just the mechanics of being a family with two or three jobs but just one car can make for a very busy week, People who are spending all their energy just to tread water don't have a lot of time to extensively research advertising and PR claims.

Add to that Greene's Law: The free market does not foster superior quality; the free market fosters superior marketing. The market has a vested interest in making sure that consumers don't make informed choices, or at the very least, choices that are informed the way the marketeers want them to be informed.

So well-informed carefully-researched decisions uninfluenced by spin and puffery are not a very common thing in the marketplace.

But the free market is also not a friend of the non-wealthy because, well, they don't have much money. And that is important because of another True Thing about the market--

The market does not provide consumers with choices because it thinks those would be nice choices to have; the market provides the choices that businesses think they can make money providing.

My town has long needed some kind of youth facility, whether it be a youth-focused dance club or a specialized recreational facility. People have been saying it as long as I've lived here. We still don't have one. This is not because of any government regulations or state-sponsored monopoly or other market impediment. It's because no business thinks they can make money, as demonstrated by the two or three who have attempted it and then closed up shop because they couldn't make money doing it. We could talk about why they don't make money, but my point is that as much as we want it, as much as we would benefit from it, the free market is not providing it.

The free market is not Santa Claus. It does not provide goods and services because people need them or even deserve them.

Combine that truth with the lack of money in poorer communities, and you have a problem with the choice theory of action.

Can you name one kind of business that is providing poor communities with a rich buffet of choices. Maybe the fast food industry, but that encompasses a range of choices that go from A to B-- upscale restaurants are not in there tryin to enrich the choice list. Not supermarkets or other food providers; their absence from poor communities is why there's such a thing as a food desert. Auto dealers? Computer hardware stores? Dress shops?

Whatever the sector, what you find are a range of downscale choices with a business plan of catering to people without a lot of money.

There are businesses that specifically target such communities-- Walmart, and now Dollar General (five years ago there were none in my area-- now there's a DG roughly every ten miles on local roads) aim for the non-wealthy crowd, and again, that crowd is offered what Walmart execs figure they can pay for. Do wealthy people go shopping at Walmart in pursuit of top quality. Does Louis Vutton open shops in poor areas because those folks also deserve a chance to check out overpriced luxury luggage? No, because that's not how the free market works.

A school choice system will claim to circumnavigate this by using government money to pay for the schooling, thereby artificially inflating the wealth level of the families involved. It's almost like choice creates a new entitlement to send students to private school at public expense, but you'll never hear choice fans describe it that way because they are mostly conservatives and the "entitle--" word is verboten.

At any rate, that doesn't really help because in many states, the per pupil spending for education is already too little to really support a school, and then, anyone who's operating a free market business expects to keep some of that revenue as salaries or profit or, if they're part5icularly shady, fun vacations and a generally cushy lifestyle. So now there's really not a lot of money left to spend on the choice school. Some of the charters deal with this by hitting up parents and wealthy donors for some more cash. The vast majority of voucher schools are church related, so the church can help chip in. But a less wealthy community is limited in the ways it can help the charter business stay solvent.

Choice schools will make decisions based on business concerns. For instance, enrolling students who have special needs-- but special needs that are not expensive to deal with. Student performance is part of the marketing, so it becomes important to push out students whose performance will mess up the PR.

All of these considerations affect how charters approach doing business in not-so-wealthy communities. Advocates will point to some charters in those communities and say, "See? Charters are providing the same options as wealthy families have." And I could run on at greater length about why that's not true, but it's quicker to ask just how many wealthy families consider these charters as good a choice as any other they've considered and decide to send their children there. (And the answer is that occasionally that does happen-- and it's Step One in gentrifying a neighborhood by pushing the locals out.) Nobody is pulling their kids out of Phillips Exeter in order to enroll the child in Success Academy.

So what you end up with is many top educators or schools or just plain entrepreneurs saying, "Well, I'm not going to try to make money running a school in that neighborhood" and a few, maybe just one, saying, "Yeah, I think I can do this cheaply enough to make a buck at it." And some students will get a small choice, but not the choice they imagine, just the choice that "make a buck" company wants to offer. And choice fans will say, "Yes, but we got a better education to some of those students," and I will say, "By leaving everyone in a system that wastes a bunch of money that could have been used to educate folks."

The public education system is riddled with inequities as it stands. A choice system doesn't propose fixing that problem; it just promises to let a few more kids get in on the high side of the inequity, while making the low side worse off. In the meantime, choice turns out to mean "give businesses the choice of cashing in on the education racket" while providing little in the way of actual, legitimate choices for the non-wealthy.

Covering The Education Horse Race

This. This right here is the kind of education policy coverage that makes me cranky. (Okay, crankier.)

I'm looking at a piece by Matt Barnum at Chalkbeat, and before I lapse into spleen ventage, let me say that Barnum often does excellent education policy journalism that avoids everything I'm about to bitch about. The following is definitely NOT meant to be a "Matt Barnum sucks" piece. But this particular article tripped many of my triggers.

"What’s next for the Laurene Powell Jobs-funded effort to rethink American high schools" has many of my least favorite features of ed reform journalism.

First, it exists. Imagine how odd it would be to open up a website and read the piece "What the guy who fixed my muffler thinks should be done about US education" or "Ed reform policy promoted by hairdresser is Pahrump." Or even, "What Mrs. McTeachalot in  Room 123 at PS 15 thinks should be done about ed policy."Laurene Powell-Jobs has no expertise in education; what she has is a giant pile of money that allows her to try to buy influence and control of a piece of the system. I get that, because she was able to buy an hour of tv packed with stars and because she was able to get schools to dance to her tune in exchange for a pile of money, she is newsworthy. But I don't have to like it, and I don't. Nor do I like that she is covered uncritically, as if her wealth is an actual qualification to try to set education policy.

Second, we get all the usual suspects in quotes. Some Maine parent gets an anonymous quote, but when you need an ed policy quote toot de suite, call Mike Petrilli or Rick Hess. In this case, Hess got the call. Skeptical voices from outside the ed reform community are not included [Update: Barnm correctly points out that Warren Simmons, who's quoted as an Annenberg guy, is now with NEPC. So this article is partially absolved.]

But mostly what trips my trigger is the horse race coverage. We talk about this during every election cycle-- it's the kind of coverage that looks at whether or not a candidate's proposed policy is gaining traction, polling well or poorly, and just generally helping or hurting. In other words, we get coverage of how the policy is affecting the race, but nothing about whether it's actually an effective policy or not. Horse race coverage tells us all about who's winning, but nothing about who we might want to actually root for.

Barnum's piece discusses Powell-Jobs's education ideas, but all the discussion is like this

Simmons said one challenge of the approach is that simply creating a handful of successful schools doesn’t mean their approaches will catch on. “That viral theory of action has failed time and time again,” he said.

When the article talks about XQ schools being "successful," it doesn't mean "successful at educating students." It means "successful at winning the horse race and giving Powell-Jobs more traction in the ed reform world." By the end of the article, the average reader has no idea whether XQ schools are on to something really great for students, or if they're just full of expensive hooey. We have a better sense of whether or not Powell-Jobs is becoming influential, but no idea at all if she should be.

This is horse race coverage-- looking at how well a policy or the policy's patron is doing, but not at whether that policy is valid, effective, or able to deliver what it promises. Horse race coverage of pharmaceuticals would cover sales figures, but not talk about whether the drug actually worked or not (unless the reporter thought that was affecting the sales).

It's doubly frustrating because, as with political races, education policy horse races have real consequences for real people. When a President makes policy choices about health care or welfare, it's not just important because it influences his poll numbers-- it's important because people are going to die if he chooses badly. When some rich person decides they wan to appoint themselves a national education tsar, their fiddling around and privatizing in search of influence doesn't just affect their personal standing-- it screws with the actual education of live human students.

When I'm emperor of the world, nobody will be allowed to write horse race coverage without including a critical evaluation of the policies being discussed and a look at the effects of those policies on real people. And if that makes the piece too long, the horse race stuff is the first thin to get cut.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

DeVos, Truth, Free Speech, the Constitution, and Cognitive Dissonance

The National Constitution Center is an interesting place. The "nonprofit, nonpartisan institution devoted to the United States Constitution" was signed into existence by Ronald Reagan and the groundbreaking was attended by Bill Clinton. Located in Philadelphia, it houses the Annenberg Center for Education and Outreach; it also includes the Richard and Helen DeVos Exhibition Hall. Monday, it hosted Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos for a speech that reads like one of the more honest-- and seriously conflicted-- speeches she has delivered in office.

The coverage has focused on DeVos's call for freedom of speech, in particular, focusing on the ways that college campuses have restricted such speech, from bureaucratic regulations to crowds of students who exercise the "heckler's veto" (which is a pretty good little phrase). But there are several moments that, if nothing else, may help crystalize where fundamental disagreements with her may lie.

The Founders discussed and debated and proposed "to the states a national government that would restrain itself by empowering its people." Well, the white penis-endowed ones, anyway. But there is that article of faith that the feds were never supposed to have real power.

The freedom to express ourselves-- through our faith, through our speech, through the press, through assembly or petition-- defines much of what it means to be human.

This freedom, preserved in our Declaration of Independence, comes from the truth that our rights are endowed by our Creator, not by any man-made government.

If you've been waiting for DeVos to let her God flag fly, this speech has it waving at the top of the pole. I have mixed feelings about her definition of Being Human. Yes, expression is important. But does that define humanity? And here's her definition of the mission of education:

The fundamental mission of formal learning is to provide a forum for students to discover who they are, why they’re here and where they want to go in life.

It's the word "discover" that bothers me here. More about that in a bit.

Next is the portion of the speech where she decries, with anecdotes, the loss of free expression on campus, with everything from authorities who regulate what may be said to activists who heckle speakers into silence. Even the requirement to pay for security when you're hosting a controversial speaker comes under fire, as do "free speech zones."

I'm not going to disagree with everything she says on this topic, but I will point out that she's staked out an interesting position for a member of this administration. She calls out a university on a hollow promise that students have free expression "without fear of censorship or retaliation." She criticizes the idea of free speech zones that limit such speech to particular areas. One wonders how she squares this with a boss whose assault on a free press has been relentless, who has called for protestors to be beaten, who restricts the press to a special pen at his rallies, and who very much believes in retaliation against anyone who opposes him.

She goes on to point out that students don't know enough about the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, and she turns that into a criticism of schools, After she runs the sad stats, she says, "Just think about the real-world consequences" of those statistics. Well, yes. The consequences include a too-large chunk of the electorate that favors a thuggish authoritarian over the practice of democracy.

When students don’t learn civics or how to think critically, should anyone be surprised by the results of a recent Brookings Institution poll? It found that over half of students surveyed think views different from their own aren’t protected by the Constitution. Is it any wonder a growing number of students also say it’s OK to shout someone down when they disagree? And is it any wonder too many students even think that violence is acceptable if you disagree with someone?

The problems she's describing are real, but she might as well ask, "How do we counter these beliefs when they are all modeled, amplified and praised by the President of the United States?" She calls the problem on campuses a "civic sickness" that cannot be solved by federal intervention or government muscle. She notes that tribalization and social media have made things worse. But she points elsewhere to the heart of the problem.

The issue is that we have abandoned truth.

Learning is nothing if not a pursuit of truth. Truth – and the freedom to pursue it – is for everyone, everywhere. Regardless of where you were born, who your parents are or your economic situation, truth can be pursued and it can be known. Yet, students are often told there is no such thing.

This, then, is the problem. A "relativistic culture" that leads to symptom like this:

I think of the teacher who blithely wears a shirt that reads: “Find your truth.” Poor advice that is plastered on the walls of the classroom for her unsuspecting young students to absorb, as well.

Oddly enough, I think of a man who calls everything he disagrees with "fake news" and who has told more baldfaced lies in office than perhaps any other major political leader in our history. And I point this out not to say, "Neener neener, you're a big hypocrite," but merely to observe that DeVos can be just as relativistic as the rest of us.

Her office didn't print "truth" with a capital T, but they should have. DeVos is a believer in Truth, that there is Just One Right Answer in any situation. She's certainly not alone in this, but it creates a host of problems in the business of integrating one's belief's as well as dealing with people whose Truth is different from yours.

But if you believe there is just one Truth, then education is about receiving and retaining that Truth. As DeVos puts it, "if ultimately there are no facts-- if there is no objective truth-- then there is no real learning."

But she is conflating facts and truth, much like conflating knowledge and wisdom. She wants a world built on "objective truth," in which we can identify "objective good and objective evil." It's morally simplistic and ethically shallow. And it's extremely brittle. This is the kind of thinking that requires you to throw people like Galileo in jail-- because there is just one Truth and we already know it.

DeVos extols critical thinking and reasoned argument, but if her premise is that all critical thinking and reasoned argument must inevitably lead to One True Answer, then I'm not sure those words mean what she thinks they mean. Again-- DeVos is not all alone here. Most of us have worked with that teacher who says on one hand, "I want my students to think" and on the other hand "The proof that they're thinking well is that they get the answer I believe is correct." And that itself gets complicated. Some things fit in this framework-- two plus two always equals four-- but others don't-- the causes of World War I can never be finally determined.

Within this framework, the freedom of expression takes on different meaning. Debate, discussion, shared opinions-- if all of that exists only to guide us to the One True Answer, then not all voices matter. If, for instance, Christianity is the One True Religion, freedom for Muslim expression isn't all that important because critical thinking will lead us to conclude that Islam is a failed, wrong answer.

This also explains the other huge disconnect in DeVos's speech. She calls for engagement with those who disagree with you, and yet she doesn't appear to do so. Ever. She has studiously avoided the press, carefully avoided her detractors and critics, and even when dragged before Congress, never really engaged with their questions or engaged in dialogue with them. And my friends in Michigan say this has all been typical behavior.

But then, DeVos need not engage because there is only One True Answer and she already knows it, so what is she going to get out of engaging with people who are wrong? When she calls for freedom of speech, for dialogue, for engagement, what she means is that people who are wrong need to open themselves up to conversation with people who are right, so that the wrong people can continue their journey to the One True Answer. After all-- if she was not favored by God, if she was not right in tune with His Greater Truth, then why would He have made her so rich?

The final stretch of her speech is remarkably like the home stretch of a sermon. Get out from behind your twitter id and recognize you are talking to real, live human beings. We aren't all saints. DeVos actually admits to having had some bad ideas. She (or someone in her office) turns some nice phrases, like a call for meeting with "open words and open dialogue, not with closed fists or closed minds." And she calls to embrace a "Golden rule of free speech: seeking to understand as to be understood."

There is so much cognitive dissonance to process here. DeVos works for a man who exemplifies the opposite of everything she is saying. And there is very little one can point to in her own conduct, her own filling of the USED office, to show her stated beliefs in action. What exactly has DeVos done to understand the public education system and the people who are committed to what she once called a "dead end." What has she done to understand the teachers who work in public schools? What has she done to understand any of her critics since she took office? Or, after all these years, is she comfortable in the belief that she knows everything she needs to know about all those things.

I've known a hundred people of faith like Betsy DeVos. They master the language of humility and open-mindedness, but it just isn't in them.

A responsible use of free speech, in this sense, is a desire to prove why your ideas are better for your neighbor because you love your neighbor, not because you only want to prove him or her wrong.

Not to see if you can come to a better understanding yourself. Of course we all try to advocate for the ideas that we believe in. But it takes a higher level of patronizing confidence to approach it as , "You poor dear. Can't you just realize your life will be better when you see things my way?"

True freedom is ultimately ordered toward virtue and responsibility. Freedom detached from truth and disconnected from virtue isn’t freedom at all.

This is translated religious language-- "you can't be free if you are in bondage to sin." But her statement only makes sense if you are confident that you know what virtue, responsibility and truth are. This is a moebius strip of a concept-- you can only be free to choose many things if you exercise your freedom by only choosing the one correct thing.

You have to be free only so that you can choose the One True Path. We must have freedom of speech so that we can all say the One True Thing. And implied in all of this is a static reality-- one objective and unchanging Truth.

All of this means that Betsy DeVos and I have fundamentally different ideas about what it means to grow, to advance, to become more fully yourself, to learn how to be fully human in the world. And, following from all that, what an education system should take as its purpose. In the DeVosian model, we tell children that they are there to learn what is right, which is a thing we already know, and they may talk about it, but only as a tool to getting them to where their conception of what is right matches our own. We can talk about personalization, but what it means is that each child has different obstacles keeping her from seeing the One True Answer. We do not create, explore or build meaning and understanding-- we discover it, because all of it already exists. You have some purpose-- maybe to be a rich person who organizes the world, or maybe to be a laborer who works for the rich person-- but that purpose is to be found, not to be made or chosen. Everything is already written; you just have to learn to read it, and your "journey," such as it is, is about your learning to read and accept what has already been written about your life and your world-- and that hasn't really changed just because the world has. Sure, you may be different, and there may be strife around that. That's only because you have not yet learned to accept the Truth about yourself and your proper place in the world.

You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

There's more, of course. American exceptionalism. Ronald Reagan quote. You can't have both truth and harmony.

How do I think DeVos tolerates working for Trump? I suspect to her he is a buzzing background noise, a necessary irritant as she goes about the work that God and Money have set her to do.

It's a lot to absorb, and if you've never been around this particular world view, it can be hard to grasp. But I will tell you one last thing-- if you're a teacher, somewhere in your building are people who think just like DeVos does.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Why Teachers Join The Union

The past year has brought a renewed focus on teachers unions. This was the year that saw a wave of state-wide teacher strikes, a wave that continues right now in Washington state. It was also the year that brought the Janus decision which threatens to extend the effects of Right-To-Work to states that have not yet seen that law come to their state capitol. And conservative groups have been poised to launch a campaign of encouraging teachers and other public employees to quit their unions, even as unions have hunkered down to work at holding on to members.

It seems like a good time to ask the question: Why do teachers join the union at all?

For some people, the teachers union is a nest of crazy leftists, people who don't care about students but are just in the education biz for the money. But union members represent a far more complex group. Remember, one in five AFT members and one in three NEA members voted for Donald Trump. Union leadership itself, when trying to exercise some political clout, has reason to promote the idea that the unions are a monolithic whole, a unified army ready to be unleashed. But that's not true for all issues. Many of the same criticisms lobbed from outside the unions are also leveled from inside it.

So what unifies teacher union members? It's this statement:

I want to be a teacher, and--

I want to be a teacher, and I need to provide my family with a decent standard of living.

I want to be a teacher, and I can't do it well when I have to constantly watch my back because I could be fired at any minute for any reason.

I want to be a teacher, and I want to work alongside people who didn't settle for my district as an employer of last resort.

I want to be a teacher, and I don't want to be forced to sacrifice my entire life every time my employer decides to have me give extra time for free.

I want to be a teacher, and I don't want to risk my family's livelihood every time I stand up against injustice or stand up for my students.

I want to be a teacher, and I want to work for someone who provides the support or resources to help me do the job.

I want to be a teacher, and I want to be treated fairly, professionally and respectfully.

I want to be a teacher, and because I cannot negotiate any of these conditions successfully as just one person, I'm joining a union so that we can work for these conditions for all of us, together.

Every classroom teacher has great responsibility and very little power. The past several decades have foisted more responsibilities on them even as they have been given less and less power to decide how best to meet the demands set for them (get those test scores up, lift your students out of poverty, make sure you're following the newest set of standards that were just handed down, etc...). Meanwhile, states and school districts have steadily stiffed teachers financially, not just in the form of teacher pay, but in the money that is spent on supplies, support, and classrooms. The wave of strikes this year is just one measure of the discontent that conditions have stirred up among teachers. After all, a strike may be stressful and difficult, but those teachers plan to come back. The spreading slow-motion walkout that folks keep euphemistically calling a national teacher shortage is more problematic because those are people who have decided to walk away from the classroom for good. States like Wisconsin, which stripped its unions of power with Act 10, are feeling the shortage acutely.
Being, or even just becoming, a teacher comes with obstacles that can make a teaching career seem unsustainable. In a well-run district in a well-run state, good administrators and good policy makers can tackle those obstacles. But those folks just pass through for a few years while a teacher hopes for a lifetime in the classroom. What are the odds that she will always be working for good obstacle-tacklers? I suppose we could trust all the bosses to benevolently tackle those obstacles, but history does not give us optimism on that score; in fact, it's the bosses who created some of the obstacles in the first place.

Some union foes see the unions as an unnecessary buffet of caviar and gold-encrusted lobster, but for those who want to teach, the union is like the oxygen supply in a submarine--critical to completing the mission (even if they haven't actually joined). It's a system that doesn't always work well, but the alternative is millions of teachers struggling to survive on their own, with hundreds of thousands deciding they just can't do it.

Teachers do not join the union because they want to get rich or get out of work or decide elections. They join the union because they want to teach. If we could just remember that, conversations about the union might be a little more productive.

Originally posted at Forbes.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Life in the Immediate Feedback Loop

I was not more than two minutes into the lesson before I realized it just wasn't going to work. It had seemed like a good idea in the planning stage, but now, live and in the classroom, I could see that I was losing my students, that they were zoned out, confused, disengaged, and that I was not connecting them to the material. I would try it again later in the day, but I could already tell the lesson was fatally flawed and it would flop again (it did). I would go back to the drawing board and give it another try.

My only consolation was that every classroom teacher has a similar story.

People in the education thought leader business and thinky tanks and edubureaucracy and ed tech marketeers and manufacturers of edu-programming-- the whole crew of them worry about a programs effectiveness. How will we know if these lessons are any good? How will we know if these materials really work? What kind of extra assessments can we create to find out how well this initiative connected with students? They talk about this kind of thing as if it's deeply mysterious. This is one more reason that all of those folks should spend time in a classroom.

Classroom teachers live inside an instantaneous feedback loop every working day of their lives.

Teachers make a million little education choices every day, and they get feedback on each of those choices right away. Is the lesson boring? Is it confusing? Is the explanation of the material hard to follow? Is the teacher's delivery flat and uninspiring? Is her approach to questioning and interaction bringing the students closer to her? Students will answer all of those questions right away, sometimes indirectly and sometimes clearly and directly ("Hey, Mr. Greene-- I hate this.")

I've always argued that bad teachers are fewer than Reformsters allege, and likely to leave before you get around to throwing them out, because if you do a lousy job in the classroom, the students will punish you for it every day. Every. Day. You may be in denial about your role in the ongoing failure; you may blame it on those damned kids. But you'll still find the job punishing every day, and you'll soon reach the conclusion that you're ready to get out.

Any teacher who is reasonably alert can tell when a lesson is clicking. The students are hopping, excited, engaged. They make that face-- the "I am learning a cool thing" face is unlike any other face humans make. They're energized. You're energized. You feel like you're the cable and a million volts of electricity are flowing right through you.

Likewise, you know when it's not clicking. Even if your relationship with the students is so good that they will humor you out of sheer affection, you can recognize that face, too-- the "You're a great person, but right now this is the pits" face. Or that moment when you are trying to get a discussion started and everything you toss out thuds to the floor like lumps of elephant poop.

You don't need to wait for the end of the semester or the end of the year. And if you bombed, you will likely go home tonight and reconfigure, rewrite, replan, because you really don't want to go through more of that disaster. Heck, the really good teachers can react to their feedback immediately and retool the lesson on the spot.

Teaching a lesson badly comes with its own punishment attached, and that punishment will be doled out immediately-- not in the spring after VAM-soaked test scores come back or during some post-observation scary meeting. Immediately. The classroom is an immediate feedback loop

This is what happened to many if not most of the Common Core aligned teaching materials-- teachers tried them, got their rapid response feedback, and started rewriting the materials. Not just out of a desire to pursue effective pedagogy, but because it sucks to fail in a classroom, because you have to suffer the consequences immediately.

Ed policy folks seriously underestimate the power of the feedback loop, both to motivate teacher behavior and to evaluate how well something in the classroom is working, and so we end up with policies and approaches that are the equivalent of sitting in a windowless room and trying to decide if it's raining outside using every method except asking someone who is standing outside. Want to know if your materials or your program are any good? Give them to a teacher and ask her after about two weeks. Want to find out what is and is not working for a teacher, what she might need help with? Ask her (in an atmosphere that does not make her weaknesses cause for punishment or humiliation).

Are there teachers who are unaffected by the loop? Sure. They blame the students or make themselves numb to the bad feedback, but here's a thing to remember-- they're not going to do any better with feedback from other sources.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of teachers don't need your data because they are collecting mountains of data every day. They don't need your special assessment to measure what's working (or not) in their classroom because they get regular feedback on that subject every day-- from the small humans who are in the classroom watching it all happen.

Of course, this immediate feedback loop can't really be monetized, and the data isn't collected in a form useful for privatizers. But none of that changes the fact that there is a powerful tool being used in schools every single day, and everyone except classroom teachers is ignoring it.