Wednesday, December 7, 2016

What Do The Tests Measure?

Christopher Tienken (Seton Hall) has solved a mystery.

Along with Anthony Colella (Seton Hall), Christian Angelillo (Boonton Township SD), Meredith Fox (Nanuet Union SD), Kevin McCahill (George W. Miller Elementary) and Adam Wolfe (Peoria Unified SD), Tienken has once again answered the question-- what do the Big Standardized Tests actually measure?

Put another way, Tienken et. al. have demonstrated that we do not need to actually give the Big Standardized Test in order to generate the "student achievement" data, because we can generate the same data by looking at demographic information all by itself.

Tienken and his team used just three pieces of demographic data--

1) percentage of families in the community with income over $200K
2) percentage of people in the community in poverty
3) percentage of people in community with bachelor's degrees

Using that data alone, Tienken was able to predict school district test results accurately in most cases. In New Jersey 300 or so middle schools, the team could predict middle school math and language arts test scores for well over two thirds of the schools.

I suppose some folks could see this as good news ("Cancel the PARCC test and don't pay them a cent! We can just fudge our test results by plugging in demographic data!") but I'd characterize it more as frightening, given that ESSA continues to demand that teachers and administrators and schools be judged based on test scores (generally under the euphemism "student achievement") and if those test scores can be fudged based on data having nothing to do with what actually goes on inside the school, then a whole bunch of careers and funding are riding on things that have nothing to do with schools.

This is also one more reason that any future teacher (there are, I hear, still one or two out there) who is paying attention should know better than to take a job in a poor neighborhood, where anything from her professional standing to her future career is liable to be trashed by the demographics of her neighborhood.

There are other conclusions to be drawn here, not the least of which is that you are in one of those A-F school rating states, the best way to change your school's grade is to change your demographics (aka turn into a charter and recruit students from outside your old neighborhood).

Make sure to read this report and pass it on. It has been peer reviewed, it is legitimate research, and it does raise huge red-flaggy questions about the validity or usefulness of the BS Tests. At the very least you can be asking your state and national policy leaders, "If we can generate the same data by just analyzing demographics, why are we wasting time and money on these tests?"

In the meantime, here's an oldie but a goodie from Tienken, in case you like your explanations more video style.

ESSA Won't Spur "Best Practices"

Eric Kalenze, Director of Education Solutions at the Search Institute, is guest-blogging at Rick Hess's EdWeek spot this week. His interest leans towards questions of research and best practices and how any of those things ever hope to line up with actual classrooms. Today he's asking one particularly interesting question--

Will ESSA's Evidence Requirements Spur Actual Best Practices? comes with its own answer included-- no. Kalenze wants to jump ahead to the answer.

His premise itself is a bit faulty-- he concludes that best practices are not in use in classrooms because of this:

If the practices and ideals that feel right and we continually work to execute are indeed 'best', how can we continue to show weakly in international comparisons, leave scores of the same populations behind, and not see progress jump more steeply over time on internal measurements?

He's missing the more obvious answer. If everything I know tells me that my Big Stick is three feet long, and I pull out a tape measure and that tape measure tells me it's not three feet long at all, I should be looking at the tape measure. Kalenze is starting with the premise that things like PISA and Big Standardized Tests scores are an accurate and complete measure of student achievement and educational attainment. There is no reason to believe that they are such a measure, and in fact the discontinuity that Kalenze brings up is one more reason to suspect that they are NOT a good measure at all. He also moves from there to the issue of examining whether or not our best practices really are best, and that is always a worthwhile question. You can't hurt anything. If a best practice really is a beat practice, then examining it will only confirm its bestness.

But mostly Kalenze has noticed that schools don't really do much in the way of implementing Best Practices, and while he thinks it's swell that the newest version of education law (ESSA) calls for schools to implement evidence-based improvement strategies, he has no confidence that it's actually going to happen. And he sees three reasons why:

1) Limits of Cataloging Interventions. You can't implement what you can't find information about, and beyond the Institute of Education Science's What Works Clearinghouse (a wholly-owned subsidiary of the USED), there's not much to be found (and let me add that WWC is not a particularly impressive resource.

And this would be a good time to remind you that "evidence-based" is an extraordinarily loose framework that includes "somebody has expressed a convincing rationale even if they have no evidence." Yet there's still not much out there for teachers to choose from.

2) Ed Decision-Makers Are Key-- And They Need Better Research Literacy. In other words, if your principal or superintendent is neither up on the research or a very good student of same (not that I'm in any way suggesting that administrators are poor students, but, you know, "those who can't teach..."). Also, a lot of crappy research is packed in giant slabs of baloney, which means whoever reads through research in your district needs to have a nice sharp baloney slicer.

3) Flexibility With Responsibility Won't Move Needles on Leaders' Research Literacy. This may sound like jargon, but his point is dead on-- all that ESSA has really added is one more piece of paperwork for administrators to fill out, and other than jumping through that "wordsmithing hoop," they will be free to continue exactly as they have in the past.

I largely agree with Kalenze, as far as he goes. But the big problem here is that, despite the widespread wonkery on the subject, this is not a policy issue.

There is one single way that best practices are effectively spread-- from teacher to teacher. Mrs. Teachowicz says to her teacher colleague Mrs. McPedagog or her teacher friend Mrs. O'Teachlots, "Hey, here's this thing I've been using with my students to teach cheese straightening, and it really works well for me."

You can pitch research at me all day, and I will certainly scan it for possible ideas. But at the end of the day, there is only one measure for Best Practices and that is this: when I do it in my classroom, are my students engaged and learning? Because even if Mrs. Teachenheimer has great success with an approach, it may not work for me or with my students, because we are human beings in a classroom and not toasters on an assembly line.

Behind the Search for Best Practices is the ongoing belief that if we could just identify some fool-proof, awesome teaching techniques, we could just pack those in a box and and any sentient life-form that unpacked the box and used those Best Practices would be an awesome teacher. This is a profound misunderstanding of what teaching is an how it works.

Are there practices more likely to be useful than others? Sure. If we're giving general marriage advice, there are some mostly-universal truisms that can be widely applied (Don't be abusive to your spouse every day. Occasionally speak to each other.) but the more specific the advice, the more limited its use (Every morning at 6:05, say "I love you, Brenda.")

So is it useful to have someone offering Best Practices out there? Probably, as long as we understand that what's Best is one classroom may be much less Best in another. Is it useful to have the federal government trying to push these practices? No, not at all. Given the choice between looking for teaching ideas on WWC or on any of the major teacher sharing websites, I will pick the latter every time. And as Kalenze correctly observes, the ESSA requirement is a nothing-burger, a demand for more paperwork so that federal bureaucrats can pat themselves on the back and say, "Look how we made education better! The proof is right here in all these forms! Yay us!" As always, any policy based on the assumption that the federal government has a better idea of what is happening in my classroom than I do is a dopey policy.

Kalenze's concern-- that some of the policies passed around virally by administrators like, say, implementing a whole bunch of unproven tech because computers-- is a valid one. He doesn't address one of the main sources of bad practices-- corporate sales. The people in the education field who are working hardest to push particular practices are the people making money from those practices. Some of the worst abuses have happened when government decides to endorse a particular company's product as The Way To Go. In that perfect storm we get the company's desire to grab money laced with their own company-sponsored bad research and bolstered by friendly government officials picking winners by strongly suggesting particular programs. This process has gotten us everything from Accelerated Reader to the modern charter school movement.And I don't have to time here to rehearse the whole sad history of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Common Core, each symptomatic in its own sad way of the transformation of government into a corporate marketing department.

If we really want to talk about how best practices are being blocked out of the classroom by other baloney, we should talk about corporate marketing and its role in education. The danger in ESSA is not that it fails to properly push or enforce the choice of Best Practices-- the real danger is that someone in government will try to "clarify" or "strengthen" that aspect by offering specific "recommendations" of which practices the feds judge to be best.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Write Your Own PISA Post

I actually considered a Reaction to PISA Scores post and then decided that I didn't have the heart for this annual exercise in futility, and wiser heads than mine were already on the case. So instead, I'll let you take this little quiz (in, of course, multiple choice form) and in the process create a Choose Your Own Madlibs Fake Journalism story for the occasion. Enjoy!


International Testing Authorities today released the highly anticipated PISA scores. PISA stands for
           a) Programme for International Student Assessment
           b) Program for International Student Assessment
           c) Probably Isn't Scaring Anyone
           d) Problems In Silly Accounting

The scores indicate that American students have improved their international standings in
          a) math
          b) reading
          c) nothing
          d) making multiple choice decisions

But in the meantime, there has been a drop in US standing when it comes to
          a) math
          b) reading
          c) making a decent bagel
          d) bureaucratic thumb twiddling over random scores

Some educational experts have declared that the new battery of scores is a sign of
          a) something wrong with the damn teachers
          b) shift in the tides
          c) the apocalypse, due any day now since 1983
          d) everything except a failure in the test-and-punish, standards-based reforms of the last decade

On the other hand, other educational experts declared that the scores as a sign of
         a) the opposite of whatever those other guys said
         b) the awesome success of reform programs
         c) the rest of the world getting dumber
         d) America is great again already

All experts agreed that the PISA results show proof
         a) of whatever viewpoint I'm already invested in
         b) my opponents are dum-dum doody heads
         c) USA! USA! USA! USA!
         d) I'm rubber and you're glue

Further examination of the results and interpretations of them show that
        a) innumeracy is a problem among education writers
        b) lots of folks don't understand how stack ranking works
        c) writing about boring data is hard
        d) measuring the educational attainment of entire nation's is mostly impossible

The PISA is an international test that serves to measure educational achievement in nations that don't even speak the same languages. Its validity and accuracy has been established by
          a) the organization that created it
          b) tiny invisible accountants
          c) hopes and dreams
          d) insisting real hard repeatedly

Somwhere, a handful of education historians are repeatedly trying to remind us
          a) the US has always ranked low on these international tests
          b) the US has always ranked low on these international tests
          c) the US has always ranked low on these international tests
          d) the US has always ranked low on these international tests

In the weeks ahead, education thought leaders and policy wonks will, in response to these scores
          a) beat their PR horse to death
          b) make no meaningful policy recommendations or decisions
          c) move on to the next shiny object
          d) all of the above

The best headline pun for this article would include
         a) anything with Tower of Pisa
         b) malPISAnce
         c) PISA'n me off
         d) The Princess and the PISA

Monday, December 5, 2016

Kindergrinder Toxicity

The LA Times last week ran this story aimed directly at the feels. It's the tragic cautionary tale of a poor little five year old who arrived at kindergarten only to discover that she was already behind.

At a kindergarten screening two months before her first day, she happily chattered about her dog Toodles, her favorite color pink, her Santa Claus pajamas, her nickname Gigi, her outings with dad to see SpongeBob SquarePants movies.

But many of her 21 classmates already knew most of the alphabet, colors and shapes. Two of them could even read all 100 words — at, the, there, like — that kindergartners are expected to know by the end of the year.

The story is centered around the Great Suspenseful Question-- can Gigi, who never went to pre-school and was not read to daily, ever hope to catch up?

Teresa Watanabe chronicles the tale, duly noting without question that Gigi is facing what used to be first grade work, a situation created by the Common Core. Gigi also had the great good fortune to be enrolled at Telesis Academy of Science and Math in West Covina, a school that proudly bills itself as the "first ever No Excuses Prep Academy in the nation." You'll be happy to know that thanks to a loving teacher and hard working family, Gigi's academic career was snatched from the jaws of disaster.

The whole story is immensely depressing. The major sin of Gigi's parents is that they wanted to have a childhood, one that apparently included lots of travel and outdoorsiness and familial time. Little did they realize that while they were showering their little four year old with love and attention, they should have been prepping her for the rigors of kindergarten. I mean, I am a huge supporter of reading to your child every day, but of all the reasons to do it, "Get my child ready for rigorous academic kindergarten" does not rank high.

Is there any reason to believe that getting littles jammed full of more academics sooner actually pays off further down the road? The story doesn't address that question, nor does Watanabe consider the issue of how widely Littles differ in developmental speed-- after all, what does it mean for a five year old to "catch up"? Catch up to what? Who sets the mark that she's supposed to hit and is it reasonable to expect her to hit it if she's lived six months fewer than a peer?

I read about her mother's guilt and Gigi's own fears of failure and being wrong or different, and it just makes me sad. This story is a reminder that the transformation of kindergarten into a kindergrinder isn't just about unfounded academic practices, but taking vulnerable young children and parents and making them doubt everything about their family lives even as it teaches them to think of learning and school as something to be feared, something to be approached with dread and caution instead of embraced with joy. The toxic nature of kindergrinding isn't confined to the school building, but spills out into the community-- and all without real evidence to prove that all of these sacrifices are worth it.

I love reading. I loved sharing it with my children growing up. I loved the moments when grew into their own love of it and pushed forward to learn all about how to do it-- in their own time. But not like this. Books are for children to stand on in triumph and excitement, nor for them to be crushed under.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

How Charter Students Would Benefit from Teacher Unions

As part of the general "Please don't leave us" hubbub arising from the nominally-Democratic-neo-liberal fear that a bunch of Trump-hating lefties are about to bolt out of the reformster tent, Peter Cunningham over at Education Post ran a big discussion about how unions and charters should maybe be BFFs (you can read my take on the discussion here, here and here).

Arguments included that unions would be great if they didn't act like unions, charters would start implementing policies they've always avoided like the plague, unions would make charters look better, and it would be innovative, somehow. But these all involved supposed benefits for the unions and charter operators. Can the marriage of unions and charters be a happy one?  Later on twitter, Cunningham tweaked the focus--

Would there be a benefit to charter students if charters welcomed a teachers union? Would this be the kind of marriage that would benefit the children, even if it's a little rocky?

Benefits for the Kids

Well, actually he used the term "student achievement" which is a euphemism for "standardized test scores." If the question is "Would having a teachers union raise student scores on the Big Standardized Test," I have three responses.

1) We already know that there is a positive relationship between unions and test scores. We've known this for a while. It's a fuzzy correlation-causation connection, but we've done the research and while it may say a number of things, it clearly does not say that the getting rid of unions gets you better test scores.

2) If we really want to raise test scores, we don't need a teachers union. We don't need teachers. We can just stop spending any time at all on anything that isn't on the test, strap students to computer drill-and-kill programs, and test scores will be awesome.

3) Who cares? Big Standardized Test scores remain a terrible proxy for student achievement. Find me more than a handful of parents who say, "Look, I don't care what else happens with my child in school as long as she gets a really good standardized test score." Or find me an adult who says, "I came from such a rough background, but that high score on the PARCC just opened up all kinds of doors for me."

So I'm going to answer the question that Cunningham almost asked-- how would a teachers union benefit students at a charter school?

First, let me unpack my own biases. My feelings about my union on the state and national level are hugely mixed. I have been a local union president, and I have been a union critic. You will never ever see me jump on a bandwagon just because the union is conducting; they have gotten so many things so spectacularly wrong (guess we can put that chair at Hillary's table in the attic next to the box of Common Core love notes) and they do sometimes have interests in mind that don't match local concerns. On the other hand, anyone who believes that  unions are unnecessary because you can just count on management to do the right thing out of the goodness of their heart-- that person deserves every bit of nothing that management is going to give him.

And we're going to maintain focus here. There are any number of moral and ethical arguments that can be deployed in union-management discussion, and there are many ways in which charter operation would benefit from a teacher union, but we are going to focus on just one thing--

How would a teachers union benefit charter school students? Would it be a good idea to put this marriage together for the children's sake?

Students would have adult advocates in the building. Having a union means teachers have job protections, which means that teachers can stick their necks out for the students. There are plenty of stories of charter teachers who tried to stand up for students, or even offer educational enrichment, and they were summarily fired. We don't know how many teachers have said, "I'd love to help ya, kid, but it would mean my job" or just turned a scared, blind eye, but I feel dead certain that there are more than a few. Students need the security of knowing that there are adults in the school who can stand up for them, and they certainly don't need the guilt of thinking that Mr. McGuts lost his job over them.

Students would be more certain to have trained, experienced teachers. With a union, teachers may be more inclined to stick around, giving the students a sense of stability as they work with a staff that has had time to grow into that particular school community. A union could also help insure that students will have teachers who have some sort of actual education training.

Students would have teachers' full attention. A unionized school is more likely to have decent pay and hours for their teachers, reducing the number of times that little Chris is going to hear, "I haven't graded your tests yet because my shift at Piggly Wiggly ran long last night."

Students would work with fully-functioning adults with real lives. Part of a teacher's job is to model the life of a fully-functioning adult. As with the previous point, his is easier to pull off by people whose union has put actual limits on their workload, hours and pay. I know some charter managers hate the idea of anyone telling them when and where and how and how many hours their teachers can work, but here's the thing-- if nobody ever drew a line, all teachers would work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and it still wouldn't be enough. A teacher who is exhausted is not the best teacher. A teacher who never climbs out of the teaching bubble to see the rest of the world is not the best teacher. You cannot prepare students to take their place in a world you've never seen.

Students would have a broader, richer experience. Teachers who have job protections can also take chances in the classroom, giving students an opportunity to have the greater variety, creativity and experimentation that charters are supposed to be known for, instead of the cookie-cutter top-down proscribed curriculum that is too common. Teachers with job protection can stand up to a "visionary" charter leader to explain why his vision is wrong, bad, or just plain not working. Beyond that, union teachers have ready access to a network of fellow professionals who can help with pedagogical puzzles; if they're stuck on a lesson, they have people to consult besides Dr. Google.

Students would have a safer, more nurturing, more stable environment. A union provides a clear open method of communicating with school management. That means that issues noticed and raised by students or classroom teachers can be quickly brought to the attention of the right people. Physical hazards or failing procedures don't go unaddressed because nobody knows who to tell or how to tell them. This is also one of the benefits of a stable workforce; when you burn and churn staff every year then you never build an institutional memory and nobody really knows How We Take Care of X Around Here. A union can facilitate connectivity within a school, both by providing a network for in-house communication and also by holding onto staff with work conditions and job security. Put another way, it is not helpful for an eight-year-old to realize that she knows more about how her school works than her teacher does. Charters often market themselves as a safer alternative-- a union could help charter operators make that PR pitch actually true.

To the contrarians--

The immediate response to some or all of these points will be, "I can name a bunch of public schools with teachers unions that suck in some or all of these aspects." You probably can. Those would be mis-managed schools where administration doesn't know how to properly work with the union. Some married people make each other miserable and then get divorced; this does not mean that marriage is a terrible idea, only that some people are not very good at it.

The real problem here

As I've noted elsewhere, the central irony here is that even though I'm arguing for a union presence, there's virtually nothing on this list that couldn't be accomplished by good school management and without any union at all-- if the school operators wanted to do it.

But mostly they don't. The whole point of the modern charter movement is to set up schools where the People In Charge don't have to answer to anyone else and most definitely don't have to deal with a bunch of uppity employees who don't know their place. The movement is also about the Bottom Line, the deliverables, the metrics, and right now, the only metric anyone has is the stupid BS Test scores. Some reformsters are going to look at my list and say, "Yeah, that's very nice, but I can't measure any of this, and so I can manage it or pitch it or grow it. It's not actionable data. It's not a deliverable."

Let me say with absolute, heartfelt sincerity that if this is your thinking and your approach to education, you should go do something else, because you have absolutely no business working in education.

But if you're going to insist on sticking around, let me point out that deliverables and test scores are not what growing young humans is about, and you already know that. You don't measure your own child in with data and deliverables-- you look to see if your child is happy, healthy, excited, and learning stuff as measured by her ability to talk about that stuff. Charters know it, too-- that's why a cyber-charter in PA spent an entire year pitching the idea that dropping out of public school to cyber-educate would make the child happier.

If a charter operator dismisses all of the above benefits as unimportant because they aren't on the test, or not nearly as valuable as management autonomy and the power to be a Tiny God in your personal school system, then of course none of this is going to happen. But if your position is, "Look, I just want to run a school the way I think it should run, make some money from it, and generate enough data points to look like it's working," then we're working toward entirely different goals, and this marriage between a teachers union and your charter school is never going to work. A teachers union would bring a world of benefits to students in any school, but that only matters if benefiting students is your primary concern. Unions are often accused of putting adult concerns ahead of student concerns, but I can't think of anything that more typifies that problem than an adult sitting in his big office declaring, "This school is going to run the way I say it's going to run, and nobody is going to tell me differently."

ICYMI: As It Sinks In (12/4)

Share what speaks to you. Amplifying each other's voice is how we cut through the noise, how we make sure that what needs to be heard has a chance to be heard. Oh, and call your Senator and tell him to just say no to Betsy DeVos.

The Need To Read

An uplifting an encouraging essay about the value of reading.

Waiting for the Barbarians

Chris Hedges is, as always, really pissed off. And not very optimistic. But there are few things in this piece to think about.

A Nashville Board Member Figures out the Secret of How Charter Schools Get Rich off Public Tax Dollars

A Nashville board member writes to say... well, the title kind of gives it away.

Secret Teacher Invasion: An Invasive Alien Species Is Taking Over Education

The UK is suffering from their own version of reformsterism. Here's one assessment of the effect it's having on the teaching force.

Betsy DeVos and the Segregation of School Choice

A look at how DeVos's version of school choice is also a powerful tool for segregation in Michigan. This piece comes recommended by Nancy Flanagan, so you know it's worth your time.

Unspoken Rules of the Teachers lounge

Let's just take a little McSweeney's break in the midst of all this, shall we?

Public School Enemy Number 1

Yes, I keep saying I'll stop reading DeVos profiles, but there's a lot to know and I want to be fully informed when I call up my Senator to say, "Please do not approve this woman." Democracy Now does a great job with the topic.

The Teacher Union Vote

You've know doubt read the headlines that the teachers union skewed Trump in the election. Here's Fred Klonsky with some old-fashioned facts to put all the data in proper context.

Amy Moore Welcomes Donald Trump to the Service Profession

Reminding Herr Trump for whom he actually works now. Moore has been away from the blogging game for a bit; it's nice to have her back.

The Long Game of Betsy DeVos

Jennifer Berkshire (Edushyster) provides a well-researched piece of reporting that gives us the big picture of DeVos's big picture view of public education and the dismantling thereof.

Madeline L'engle, Creativity and Hope

If you don't subscribe to Brain Pickings, you really should. Here is a wonderful piece chock full of encouraging and beautiful L'engle quotes. Just the thing to finish today's reading with. Also, call your Senator.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Smarick: How It Could All Go Wrong

Regular readers know that Andy Smarick is on my short list of folks from The Other Side whose writing I generally respect. Smarick is often a thoughtful voice for what I think of as "old school conservatives" or "traditional conservatives" or even "real conservatives." And he's comfortable with nuance. None of which is to say that I don't totally disagree with him on many subjects. But he makes an interesting read.

Case in point. In a recent piece for American Enterprise Institute (Smarick, while nominally associated most with Bellwether Partners, floats freely in the Bellwether-Fordham-AEI nexus), Smarick lays out exactly how the Trump administration could go into weeds on education policy.

He starts by asking "the most important question"--

Are you hoping to advance particular programs or a steady, coherent conservative philosophy?

He considers it an important question in general, and specifically important since the Trumpsters have never articulated a coherent philosophy about anything, conservative or otherwise.

Smarick observes that just going item-by-item can be appealing. It makes news and generates a list of see-how-much-I-love-kids accomplishments. But Smarick sees two problems here:

The first, smaller issue is that education is always highly susceptible to the fad of the week (exactly why the initial response of many seasoned teachers to Common Core was "this too shall pass") or even a whole bunch of fads that don't even fit together (like, say, Common Core Standards and Big Standardized Tests that aren't even aligned to them).

The second issue is the biggie.

An explicit, comprehensive philosophy of governing is extraordinarily important any time we invite Uncle Sam into our schools. That is, absent a clearly articulated view about the federal government’s strengths and weakness, what it should and shouldn’t do, and how it ought to interact with families, schools, districts, and states, an administration is asking for trouble.

The trouble Smarick is talking about is Creeping Federal Overreach. You may think you're going to be a good old small-government, local-control conservative, but once you're in that beautiful DC office and the reins of power are in your hand, the temptation becomes just too great to start making some rules to force Those People to Behave The Way They're Supposed To (e.g. Bush II and No Child Left Behind).

When people are given authority, if they lack a conservative disposition or ideology and aren’t given conservative direction from above, they have a tendency to want to bend the world to their will. This is their big chance to direct others’ behavior, and so they can easily succumb to the temptation to use their fleeting power to its fullest. 

In other words, let's say that the Department of Education is in the hands of a person with a long career of trying to force a new system of education, even (in defiance of the Constitution) working toward the goal of replacing a secular public school system with a Christian system of education. We've had folks who believed that the federal government should throw its weight behind telling schools what to teach, how to measure success, and how schools should be punished for failing. What if we had someone who not only believed all that, but also believed the federal government should throw its weight behind deciding who should or should not get to even run schools, and was even more willing than previous administrations to make the federal government a main player in picking (and rewarding and punishing) winners and losers in the education sphere. Let's say we had that person as Secretary of Education, working for a President with no coherent political philosophy at all.

That would be bad.

Unmoored from conservative principles, they can decide to use the federal government’s substantial power — its bully pulpit, budget, regulatory power, guidance documents — to force policies they like. They can end up as bossy about their preferences as progressives would be about their own. It is instructive that while the Obama administration sought to nationalize its policies on teacher evaluation, standards, and assessments, the Bush administration attempted to do the same on accountability. When an ascendant team doesn’t govern deductively from conservative principles the upshot is predictable: local-led gives way to federal; organic gives way to centrally planned; small gives way to large; longstanding practice and incremental improvements give way to novel ideas and grand schemes.

Smarick goes on to soft-peddle his point. He says the path of the Trump administration is "not yet clear" and I believe that is true if you have vaseline smeared over your eyeballs and your head in a bucket. We have moved now from a conservative-ish neo-liberal President to a liberal-ish neo-liberal President to a corporate narcissist six-year-old's id graceless and clumsy neo-liberal President. Put another way, the weapons of federal over-reach are not going to be put away any time soon; they'll just be pointed at different stuff. We're all still trapped in a dark alley with a self-important mugger; all that is changing is who gets mugged first.

Smarick imagines a world in which Trumps $20 billion choice plan actually works out well, even for progressives. But of course the devil is in the details, and the number of details to date is exactly zero, and given the story so far, I'm expecting that those details are going to carry the devil in on a big comfy chair. Than there's this--

By choosing the talented Betsy DeVos as his nominee to be Secretary of Education, President-elect Trump might have intimated a policy-by-conservative-principles approach. 

Sure. Also, the DeVos choice might intimate that pigs are about to fly out of my butt.

DeVos has devoted most of her adult life and huge chunks of her personal fortune to getting government to support and implement the policies that she wants to see implemented, not just in her own neighborhood and her own state, but in other neighborhoods and states around the country. When she is the department chief and actually has the power that, for decades, she has been trying to buy and cajole, do you think she's going to just let it sit unused?

Here's a conversation that is never going to happen in the DeVos USED.

Assistant Undersecretary of the Department of Silly Titles: Secretary DeVos, a state has declared that they are going to ban vouchers, cut school choice, and appoint a committee to make certain that not one dollar of tax money goes to any sort of religious school.

Secretary DeVos: Well, that's unfortunate, but the state should pursue whatever policy it likes without any interference from us. Do nothing about this. Nothing at all. We're just here to help them implement whatever policies they choose.

Smarick ends by noting that being in power comes with many temptations, and how things go will depend a lot on who is appointed to various positions. This is probably true, given the minimal amount of policy guidance that is likely to trickle down from The Top. Okay, not entirely true-- there do seem to be some philosophical underpinnings like, say, "Some people matter and some people don't." That's probably not going to inform education policy in many useful ways.

This sort of wishful thinking (Conservatives: Trump could turn out to be great) is not confined to any part of the political spectrum (Liberals: Obama is leaving an economy in awesome shape). And I think Smarick's picture of how this all goes south is sound. It's framed as a warning, but I'm afraid it's more of a prediction.