Sunday, May 29, 2016

HAL Wants To Pick Your Teacher

Are you responsible for hiring teachers in your district? Do you hate all the mess and bother of actually interviewing other carbon based life forms?

Well, meet TeacherMatch.

If  you are a teacher, TeacherMatch will help you find work, and if you are a hiring department, TeacherMatch can perform flat out magic through the power of Predictive Analytics. From the TeacherMatch blog...

Previously, school districts sorted through a stack of resumes and asked scripted questions during the teacher recruitment process. Today, human resource (HR) departments use predictive analytics to improve the quality of hire, because it allows districts to predict which teachers will positively impact student achievement before they enter the classroom.

Sigh. First, any districts that use "scripted" questions during recruitment and hiring deserves to get the worst hires available. If you are responsible for hiring and you're using scripted questions to do it, you are in the wrong job. Go do something else.

Second, any district that is looking for teachers who "will positively impact student achievement" aka "raise test scores" has lost track of their actual function.

Third, anybody who believes that a consulting service can predict how good a teacher will be before that teacher enters a classroom should go buy a bridge that leads directly to a swamp in Florida.

But wait! There's more! TeacherMatch points out that the power of predictive analytics can be used on students so that teachers and school leaders can "make informed decisions."

One thing TeacherMatch is not is shy. Their "about us" page notes that they were founded by four super-duper people who "worked in the K-12 education system" and who developed a system so awesome that "the U.S. Department of Education used it to shape their multi-billion-dollar school improvement program." It's a bold claim, considering the USED School Improvement Grants program turned out to be a seven billion dollar bust.

So who are the great educational minds behind TeacherMatch?

Well, there's Ron Huberman, co-founder and executive chair. Huberman was Chicago Mayor Richard M/. Daley's Chief of Staff. Later, when Arne Duncan went to DC, Daley moved Huberman into the top spot of Chicago schools. His most recent job before that one? Running Chicago's transit authority. His previous experience of any sort in education? None. Never.

Huberman was hired because of his management experience, and he talked like a manager. He brought in a group of upper managers, all completely devoid of education experience, and he tried to kick his teachers into high gear with a power point presentation described as "Orwellian."

"Be sure to get granular about your metrics before you deep dive into those outcomes and be sure you don't avoid those brutal facts' qualitiatives... Got that?"

Huberman's big accomplishment at the Chicago Transit Authority was to "fix" the budget and the pension problem, and it was that bean-counting skill that was called for at CPS. His clever trick for dealing with the huge debt the system owed teacher pension funding-- get permission to just not pay it. Then he went on to work in the field that he truly loved-- private equity.

Co-founder Don Fraynd taught at a prep school, became a principal, and eventually ran the CPS turnaround office. Co-founder Sanjeev Arora is an investor-entrepreneur who once worked for McKinsey. The rest of the management team includes data science specialists and PR folks-- but not one person who's ever taught in a public school. TeacherMatch has also research partnered with the University of Chicago and NWEA.

Their product is a battery of on-line tests for candidates and teachers to take, everything from QUEST (for recruiting) to EPI, the predictive analytics tool that will identify the four core factors in teacher success. Those four factors are qualifications, cognitive ability, attitudinal factors, and teaching skills, and TeacherMatch can totally tell if you've Got the Right Stuff by using their super-duper proprietary questionnaire.

How shady is this? This shady.

You know when you're on shaky ground? When the National Council on Teacher Quality has questions about your methodology.

Yes, NCTQ, the group that evaluates teacher preparation programs that don't exist, and that evaluates the rigor of a program based on commencement programs-- those guys. Kate Walsh, head of the least serious "research" group in education, said that it's hard to know if TeacherMatch is bunk or not.

“We don’t know whether their predictive analytics are accurate,” she said. “It might be snake oil or it might be great.”

I'm prepared to make the great-or-snake-oil call, but let's see what Huberman has to say about the origins of this magical tool:

Huberman said the company enlisted the help of researchers who analyzed reams of data on student performance, looking for teachers whose students consistently made large gains on standardized tests and teachers whose students consistently did not make those gains.

Then the company surveyed both kinds of teachers, looking for patterns in the way they answered questions about how they might respond to classroom misbehavior, for example, or how they might teach a certain academic standard. That work became the backbone of the inventory now used in dozens of districts.

So what TeacherMatch has done is reverse-engineer a Value Added Measure system-- only sloppier, lazier and with even less basis in solid data and research. Huberman and his buddies actually found a way to make VAM worse! Though when it came time to pitch this, they whipped up a video that is both full of jargoneque vaguosity, and yet somehow promises more than Huberman's quick explanation. Get out your business bullshit bingo card, and play along:




Note that "teachers matter most" as we repeat the old misrepresented data about teachers being the single largest in school factor. And look--here are some logos of "renowned universities" (and the Gates Foundation). I like the part where they call themselves "a team of dedicated educators," which may be one of the more loose definitions of "educators" I've encountered in a while. And look-- they flipped through decades of research to "extract actionable conclusions" which sounds so much cooler than "to write some multiple choice questions" (any experts on test design in your group, there?) But at least they used "advanced scientific techniques that provide multilevel analyses of nested groups, test causal relationships of abstract variables and measure comparative outcomes" and how in the name of God does this NOT set off everybody's bullshit detectors? I can't even imagine writing this with a straight face.

The EPI is reportedly just a 100 item multiple choice question test. And Huberman does say that you should have other parts of your hiring process. But that's not the question-- the question is, why would you use this at all ever? Although you know who might use this? Other people with no first-hand knowledge of teaching, like charter school operators and Broad-trained superintendents. So maybe there is a market.

The Bad News

There must be a market, because another company just bought TeacherMatch. Here's the lead from the May 24 press release:

PeopleAdmin, the leader in talent management software for education, announced today that it has acquired TeacherMatch, joining forces to offer the industry’s most comprehensive talent management platform and analytical solution for identifying, hiring, and developing educators most effective at driving student achievement.

If you want to learn more about PeopleAdmin, you could attend their big June convention in Austin, a "can't miss industry event for Higher Ed and Government customers, thought leaders, and PeopleAdmin employees."

In the meantime, we are left to conclude that TeacherMatch actually is actually making money, which is sad. It's the kind of thing that really shakes my faith in capitalism and the free market, because this is clearly a company that deserves to die.

ICYMI: Goodbye, May!

It's that time of year, so I'm going to start with a non-education recommendation. If it's useful to you or someone you love, pass it on. If not, skip ahead to the education readings for the week.



My daughter has extensively researched and researched, looking for resources that are both eco-friendly and are made in the USA, and she recently gathered all her research about wedding-related stuff in one post. If you want to be a more responsible consumer, but can't find the time to look everything up, her blog is loaded with resources and links to help you. 

Charter-Choice-- A Closer Look

God bless Roxana Marachi, who has used scoopit to collect a ton of reading about charters and choice. I probably should have put this last, because it's a whole day's worth of reading all by itself.

Another Brick in the Data Wall

If you are not a regular Nancy Flanagan reader, you should fix that. Teacher in a Strange Land is a reliable source of sensible writing about education (don't be put off by the Education Week address).I love the opening of this one:

"To the man who only has a hammer, everything he encounters begins to look like a nail." (Abraham Maslow)
And to the man who has a computer, everything he encounters begins to look like data.

Alice in PARCCland: Does validity study really prove the Common Core is valid? 

Education Next trotted out a "validity study" from last fall, and William Mathis at the National Education Policy Center did a fine take down. I refer you to Valerie Strauss's coverage instead of the original NEPC post, because Strauss also has the response from the researchers.

Does School Choice Help Close the Graduation Gap"

Sabrina Joy Stevens addresses one of the big claims of choice fans. Yet another good piece of work from the Progressive Education Fellows (full disclosure-- I'm one of them, but it's an otherwise very reputable group).

Response to Chait

Perhaps you saw Jonathan Chait's piece this week in which he tried to argue that She Who Will Not Be Named, former education queen on DC, was actually a rousing success. Here the Daily Howler shows how full of it Chait is (with data, too).

Confronting the Parasite Economy

This piece is long, but it's the best thing I've read for explaining why an economy resting on minimum wage working poor people is no good for anyone-- and it does it without resorting to anything except cold, hard, self-interested economics.



3M Dance Party

Yesterday, views on this blog passed the three million mark.

It's kind of amazing and definitely humbling. But mostly what it tells me is that the issues I vent about here are important to a lot of people. As I said a million hits ago, those hits don't mean I'm an important guy-- they mean I'm writing about important stuff.

The fact that I have an audience is a testament to the connectedness of those of us who care about public education. The BATS and Diane Ravitch and Anthony Cody and a legion of other people who saw something in what I wrote and passed it along-- that's why there's an audience here. That's why yours truly and the many excellent bloggers over there in the right-hand column have audiences and other websites with budgets of millions of dollars still struggle for traction.

The question I'm most frequently asked is about the output-- how do I put up at least a post a day, every single day? I'm never sure how to answer that, because I don't really have a choice. The news is filled with Stuff Happening every day, and I read a lot, and public education is on my mind all the time. I never sit down and start by thinking, "Hmm, what could I write about today?" It's always, "I've got fifteen things on my mind right now-- how many do I have time to clear off my plate?" I'm not sure this proves anything except that I need a hobby.

My other secret is low standards. Seriously. If I set out to make every post a masterpiece, I'd never get anything done. I have huge respect for people who do create mini-masterpieces with care and craft. I'm just a banger. And people who do the work of actual journalism and research? Worth their weight in gold.

If I knew then what I know now... well, I might have made different platform choices (cough*wordpress*cough). And I still have trouble managing my comments. Lord, I still remember how excited I was to get my first spam. Now I could sculpt a spam army.

Anyway, my thanks to you, loyal readers and casual drive-bys. I am grateful that my writing has ended up being more than just venting into the void. May the day come when I have nothing interesting to write about.

In the meantime, let me share some music with you. We'll call it a dance party.























Saturday, May 28, 2016

FL: District Officials Lose Their Damned Minds

School district officials in Sarasota and Manatee counties have completely lost any sense of what they're supposed to be doing.

There are areas of policy and practice in the education debates where reasonable people can reach different conclusions about what might be best. This is not one of those times. Some Florida school districts have simply and completely lost the thread.



The issue is simple. In Florida, some third graders opted out of the Florida Standards Assessment (Florida's version of the Big Standardized Test). They also opted out of the alternative BS Test, the SAT-10 (a version of the Stanford Achievement Test, and not one more piece of money grubbery from the College Board).

But Florida insists that its students take the BS Test, regardless. And Florida also has one of those sense-defying laws that says third graders who can't pass the reading test must be retained. It's a dumb policy for many reasons, not the least of which is that there isn't a lick of evidence that holding third graders back helps. And cooler heads seem to have prevailed last year when the Florida legislature, in a brief moment of lucidity, decided to suspend the rule and just let the actual local school where education professionals worked with the actual children-- just let those guys make the call.

But not this year. This year a third grader can have great grades, the recommendation of her teacher and principal, and the admiration of her peers-- but if she didn't take the BS Test, she will fail third grade. 

Let me say that again. An eight year old child who had a great year in class, demonstrated the full range of skills, and has a super report card-- that child will be required to repeat third grade because she didn't take the BS Test.

This is what happens when the central values of your education system are A) compliance and B) standardized testing. This is what happens when you completely lose track of the purpose of school.

What possible purpose can be served by this? Are administrators worried that the child might not be able to read? No-- because that is easily investigated by looking at all the child's work from the year.

What possible benefit could there be to the child? Mind you, it's impossible to come up with a benefit in retention for the child who has actually failed the test-- but what possible benefit can there be in flunking a child who can read, her teacher knows she can read, her parents know she can read, she knows she can read-- seriously, what possible benefit can there be for her in retention. How do you even begin to convince yourself that you are thinking of the child's well-being at all when you decide to do this?

This is punishment, not so pure, but painfully simple. Punishment for non-compliance, for failing to knuckle under to the state's testing regime. And in taking this step, the districts show where their priorities lie-- the education of the children is less important than beating compliance into them and their parents, less important than taking the damned BS Test.

Officials in these counties scratch their heads? What can we do? The law is the law. Well, in the immortal words of Mr. Bumble, "the law is an ass." And furthermore, just look across county lines at some other Florida counties that are NOT doing this to their third graders. Go ahead. Peek at their answer. Copy it.

Hell, Superintendent Lori White of the Sarasota schools is retiring in February of 2017-- is this really how she wants to finish up her time there?

[ Update: Meanwhile, in Manatee County, Superintendent Diana Greene has dug in her heels and declared that the state's directive is clear, and maybe those other counties are the ones that need to shape up and stop passing kids willy nilly. Manatee students may use an alternative assessment like a portfolio-- IF they take the BS Test.

Greene may well have read the state correctly. In the same report from the Bradenton Herald, Deputy Superintendent of Instruction Cynthia Saunders is quoted as saying, “We cannot promote a child based solely on the teacher’s report card in third grade."

In other words, the state does not require proof that the child can read. The state requires proof that the child took the Big Standardized Test.]


There are times when the tension between test-driven schooling and education centered on the best needs of the children can be fuzzy, blurry, hard for some folks to see the dividing line. This is not one of those times. When you are planning to hold a child back a grade for absolutely no reason except that she didn't take your mandated BS Test, and when you have ample evidence and data about how well she learned and grew this year-- when you have reached that point, you have absolutely lost track of what you're supposed to be doing. You have lost your damned mind.

There is no excuse for holding back a student with good grades. No excuse at all, certainly not that the child wouldn't take your precious test, your crappy test that wouldn't tell you a thing that you can't already better find out from sources you already have. This is deeply and terribly wrong, and I hope the administrations and school boards of the offending counties find themselves buried in a mountain of angry letters, emails and phone calls, as well as a shit storm of deservedly negative publicity. Then I hope they go sit in the corner and think about what they've done and consider whether or not they have a future in education.



  Seriously-- this is what we're talking about. I'm including this visual because it's hard to believe.

ESSA: Regulatory Baloney

Legislators write and pass laws. But the laws they create are sometimes vague and sometimes contradictory, a weird quilt of intentions and tissue. So it falls to other parts of the government to turn laws into regulations. And that's where we are now with the Every Student Succeeds Act (the latest version of the Big Bunch O'Federal Education Laws, the sequel to No Child Left Behind).

Many eyes (not all eyes, unfortunately-- it would be great if all eyes were paying attention, but eyes have been diverted by the dumpster fires that are our primary season, among other things) have been watching John King and the Department of Education, because it's at this stage of the game that King gets to "interpret" ESSA to suit his own ideas of what it ought to say.

This is what Arne Duncan was talking about last December when he told Politico that the USED lawyers were smarter than the members of Congress, and this is what Lamar Alexander has been talking about in his scorching calls to war against John King's USED. Alexander has been crystal clear-- if King tries to turn himself into America's School Superintendent, Alexander is going to come after the secretary with every garden tool in the Congressional woodshed.

The USED is trumpeting its move away from the narrow definition of school achievement based on a single Big Standardized Test, with a new "holistic" approach that allows for four factors:

the proposed regulations build on the statutory language by ensuring the use of multiple measures of school success based on academic outcomes, student progress, and school quality, reinforcing that all students deserve a well-rounded education that prepares them to succeed in college and careers. 


 So it's in that context that USED released the draft version of the accountability rules under ESSA. And King is proving to be just as politically adept and  responsive to outside voices as he was a Education Chieftain in New York, which is to say "Not At All." There are, as we always knew there would be, many things not to like about the regulations. Here are some of the bad ideas that are enshrined in the proposed regulations.

Stack Ranking of Schools

Schools must be given a "summative rating," which is such a made-up baloney term; I just googled it and got only 209 returns, most of which had to do with financial services, and Google Ngram returns zero instances of the term. 

The meaning is clear enough from the context. "Summative rating" means "grade." Every school has to be given a grade, and that grade has to be used to stack rank schools, because states must show the feds that they have a plan for dealing with the bottom-ranking schools. The regulations once again target the magical "bottom 5%," an arbitrary number that has never, ever been explained, but is just the go-to number for targeting the bottom of the stack. And of course, since we're stack ranking, there will always be a bottom 5%. If every school in the state is cranking out magna cum laude college graduates and 100% of the state's students are getting straight A's while acing the SAT and, in short, every single school is awesome, there will still be a bottom 5%.

Stack ranking guarantees that there will be losers, no matter what.

The 95% Rule and Opt Out 

Congress sent a severely mixed message in ESSA by forcefully recognizing parents' right to opt their children out of taking the Big Standardized Test and by forcefully demanding that states have 95% participation in BS Testing.

King and the USED have resolved that conflict by simply ignoring the parental right portion.

The regulations say that "robust actions" must be taken against schools that don't get 95% participation. "Robust actions" is itself a little slice of meaningless word salad (should the superintendent stand outside the offending school, rip off his shirt, flex his muscles, and grunt strenuously?) but USED turns it into a multiple choice question, saying that the government-approved robust actions include lowering the school's grade, giving them the lowest score for academic strength, moving the school straight onto the naughty (needs improvement) list, or anything state-approved that would punish the school good and make its rate go up.

No word on whether or not this would include low participation because the test manufacturer completely botched their job.

This set of regulations and punishments are a tell about King's priorities. Look at that second option-- if your school's BS Test participation is too low, you could be given the lowest score for academic achievement. But if academic achievement is being measured with instruments other than the BS Test, you would still have that data. If academic achievement is going to be one more massaging of the BS Test scores, well,  A) that's stupid and B) you have no idea what the rating should be, so why default to lowest possible?

In other words, we either know perfectly well what the academic achievement is, or we have no idea at all. But USED doesn't care. Or at least knowing the actual academic achievement is not as important to them as punishing non-compliance with test-taking.

At the end of the day, King's USED is more interested in making students take the test than in actually knowing how the students are doing.

Datapallooza 

ESSA comes loaded with lots of data reporting. Transparency! We are totally about transparency, and that's why the complete text including all questions and answers from the BS Tests will be released every year to students and parents. Ha! Just kidding. That stuff will still stay under lock and key. Transparency is okay for schools, but not valuable corporate interests (even though both are being paid with tax dollars).

Anyway, the USED has all sorts of things that must be reported now that "Ensures that families and stakeholders have clear, robust, and consistent information needed to engage meaningfully in their education systems."

School report cards must be made public before the end of each calendar year (also known as "roughly half way through the school year," so I'm not sure what help this is providing). The report card has to include financial recording, too, as well as post-secondary enrollment numbers. That sounds relatively innocuous, but I'm imagining a nineteen year old who gets a call or email from his old high school saying, "We want you to tell us what you're up to now" and who thinks-- correctly-- you are no longer the boss of me, and I don't have to tell you jack. Or who just writes down "clown school."

Is Anyone Excited

The Obama Administration has approached education oversight as a civil rights issue, and so they have depended on civil rights groups to give them backing and cover. Those groups are lukewarm in their response; roughly, "This stuff could be okay, probably, if anyone can figure out how to enforce it.

Congress is not excited. Alexander observed that Congress discussed some items for the law, decided not to include those items, and now the department has just gone ahead and put them back in. John Kline of the House Education and the Workforce Committee was equally unimpressed:

“I am deeply concerned that the department is trying to take us back to the days when Washington dictated national policy,” he said. “If this proposal results in a rule that does not reflect the letter and intent of the law, then we will use every available tool to ensure this bipartisan law is implemented as Congress intended.”

For the rest of us, ESSA continues to look pretty much like it has always looked-- probably marginally better than NCLB and RTTT-Waiverpallooza, but that's not saying a lot, is it? Probably better to be stabbed with a clean, sharp knife that a rusty shovel, but could we please see some other options? The school grades are maybe better than NCLB's pass-fail for schools. Multiple measures will be better than just BS Test scores, but the test scores are still in the mix, and they are still crap. There's a whole bunch of noise about shuffling subgroups about; I'm sure that's going to be awesome.

The Unexpected Benefit of ESSA

There is one interesting new feature of ESSA-- an open, contentious split between the department and Congress. Under Race to the Top/Waiverpalooza, Congress just kind of sat on its hands doing nothing because it couldn't get its act together and was not, for a while, sure how it collectively felt about the whole mess. When the Obama administration wadded up NCLB and wiped their nose with it, there wasn't much to say-- they could only get away with that because Congress hadn't done its job and the alternative was to deal with the mess of every single state in the nation standing in violation of what was technically still the law.

But things are different now.

Congress did their job. Maybe not great, but they did it, and they did it with a level of bi-partisanship that we haven't seen in quite a while. That, and they actually took power away from a federal department-- another unprecedented feat.

They were pretty proud of their work. Lamar Alexander is no choir boy or education hero, but he's made it quite clear that he'll be damned if he's going to stand by when the administration tries to wad up ESSA and blow their noses on it. All the signs point to a protracted battle about what the law is actually going to say and what kind of maneuvers might be used to interfere with it.

In other words, Mom and Dad are having a big fight over curfew and room cleaning and which chores we do or don't have to do. And as every kid knows, when Mom and Dad are wrapped up in fights about house rules, there's no telling what golden opportunities you'll have to do what you want. For those of us who can find some brave and tough champions for education on the state level, these could be interesting times.








Friday, May 27, 2016

A Bad Child?

I don't remember the first person to ask me, but I remember how I felt when I heard the question, asked of my then fresh-out-the-package daughter.

Is she a good baby?

I was stumped. She's a baby. I'm pretty sure that her moral and ethical sense are somewhat limited at the moment, that she doesn't really know much about the world or her proper relationship with it. Good? Bad? She's a baby.

Of course, what the question meant (and still means, because now I hear it asked about my grandson) is does she go to sleep easily? Does she cry much? Does she stick to a regular schedule? Does she let you sleep at night?

In other words (literally), "is she good" meant roughly "does she behave in a way that is convenient for you?"

This is crazy talk. The child is hungry when she's hungry-- are we suggesting that she should have the decency to just suck it up until a decent hour of the morning? Do we think she should stop crying, stop using the only expression she has for "I feel really bad," out of consideration for our adult feelings? 

I was sensitive to the idea because in those early days of my career I was teaching in middle school and I was wrestling with the uncomfortable realization that what some of my colleagues meant by "Good student" was not "a student who displays curiosity, insight, creativity, hard work, and interest in learning." What they meant was, "A student who behaves in the ways that are most convenient for us." In those days, we were institutionally fuzzy about the difference between "excellence" and "compliance."

This is how we label a child and set that child on track for failure, conflict and all the worst things that we can throw at them. We label that child "bad" and what we mean is "that child is non-compliant and won't behave in ways that are most convenient for those of us who have the power." And that word "bad" just keeps meaning that through elementary school, high school, and on after, when we declare that the neighborhood that the now-grown child lives is a bad neighborhood, a neighborhood where too many people are non-compliant, too many people behave in ways that are inconvenient and undesirable for the folks in power.

This is the worst conceivable definition of "bad"-- "inconvenient for me and the exercise of my power over this person."

There was a time when teachers received plenty of sensitivity training, where we were told to respond to bad children by asking what it was, exactly, that made them so bad.

I would suggest, instead, that we ask ourselves why we are trotting out the B word.

A rational human being does not respond to a crying infant with, "How dare you do this to me! You shape up right now or else!" Instead, you ask, "Why is this child crying? What is she trying to tell me?"

I am not sure there is ever a reason to stop asking that question.

Now, I'm not saying that some of the actions don't need to be dealt with. If a student picks up a desk and tries to throw it at other students, that action is destructive and injurious and needs to be stopped.

But after the danger and damage have been dealt with, there is still time to ask the question why. What is the person trying to communicate? What's the message that's being lost in translation? What is it we're not hearing?

"Bad" gets in the way of that process. "Bad" is the conversation-ender. There's no explanation, nothing to understand, because the person is just bad.

And there are certainly times when "bad" is the right word, where we are dealing with a person whose choices, actions, inclinations, values are violations of moral and ethical standards. But before we deploy the B word, we should be certain that it really applies. When we use the B word, do we mean that this is a person who is actually and demonstrably evil, or do we just mean that this person insists on behaving in ways that are inconvenient and annoying to those of us with power.

One lesson of Teacher 101 is "It's not personal." Though a student's action may feel like a bold statement of, "I hate you, teacher, and you suck," it probably isn't (even if the student actually says, "I hate you, teacher, and you suck). What I'm proposing is just an extension of that.

A student's action might be non-compliant. It might be inconvenient for us as the power in the room. But unless we're prepared to argue that compliance to authority is a higher moral virtue, we had better think for a second or twelve before we call that student "bad." If our message is that Good People are the ones who always kneel to the dominant power or culture, we need a new set of definitions, and perhaps a new approach to the "good" and "bad" people in our classrooms.



Ed Debate Political Fault Lines

Even a casual stroll through the Garden of Reformy Delights reveals some flora and fauna that do not ordinarily grow together. Here are some small government types clamoring for education standards imposed on the federal level. There are some nominal liberals complaining about the evils of teacher unions. Support for charter schools runs across the entire political range.

And it's no different in the Greenhouse of Reform Resistance. The push against Common Core united Bible-thumping conservatives with godless heathen liberals. The lawmakers in Oklahoma who just rejected test-and-wonky-math-driven evaluation for teachers were not Democrats standing up for teachers' unions, but Republicans standing up for local control.

The Ed Reform Debates have been marked by wholesale traffic in Strange Bedfellows, and that tends to create some stress and strain within some alliances.

At the Fordham blog, Robert Pondiscio is concerned that schisms within the reform camp are creating problems for conservatives. Specifically, he sees the "liberal" wing of reform, the social justice warriors, pushing out the conservatives, the fans of unleashing free market forces, a conflict that Pondiscio says he's been seeing unfold at various reformy gatherings.

One veteran conservative education reformer describes himself as “furious and frustrated” by the increasing dominance of social justice warriors in education reform and the marginalization of dissenting views. “It's an existential threat,” he notes. “Any group that only associates with likeminded people is susceptible to becoming extreme, inflexible, self-righteous, and losing its ability to see its own weaknesses.” This opinion was echoed in a series of interviews with other prominent reformers—most right of center, though not all—in the past week. One sign of the dominance of the new orthodoxy: Almost none were willing to be quoted on the record. “I'm involved in too many fights,” says one. “I can't pick another.”

Pondiscio is worried that the collapse of an alliance between social justice liberals and free market conservatives will keep both from achieving their goals, and of course, I'm okay with that. But if I'm honest-- well, it's not like the Pro Public Education side of things is devoid of any disagreement or infighting. There are some pretty fundamental splits over here, such as disagreement about whether Common Core was an aberrant attack on US public education or a symptomatic expression of everything already wrong with US public ed.


But as someone who doesn't parse politics for a living, I want to suggest that there is both more and less to these sorts of divisions than meets the eye. In the interests of full disclosure, let me say that I'm a registered Democrat (because PA independents don't get to vote in primaries) with virtually no political heroes (except my grandmother, a lifelong NH legislator) and who comes from a family background of Republicanism.

So what are some of the fault lines running through the education debates?

Tribal Alliances

We're living through the very worst of political tribalism, as both GOP and Democrats jettison every pretense of principle just in hopes of being able to say, "Somebody nominally labeled a member of my party won the Presidency!" With both Trump and Clinton, we are treated to a display of party leaders declaring, "There is no belief that I would not toss in the trash in return for the chance to stand next to a winner."


In many states, education alliances have been built on similar principles. If a Democratic governor comes out for ed reform, GOP legislators must oppose him, because reasons. Ditto GOP backers of reformster policies. Once just one person takes a stand, everyone else has to line up based on their party allegiances and not any particular principles about education.

Follow the Money

The reformster movement draws much of its power from the basic observation, "Hey, that is one huge pile of money over there in public education. We want a piece." The hedge fund industry was not suddenly struck with concern about education; they saw a plum ripe for the plucking, and they got out their hedge fund trimmers. Free market fans say, "Sure, and that pursuit of money is what will fuel a competition for educational excellence," and I think they are full of what my grandmother used to call manookie.


But money is politics-blind. It is amoral. When The Gates spends a gazillion dollars on ed reform advocacy, it doesn't care about the political or philosophical stripes of the recipients-- Gates would have given a pile of money to the Church of the Flying Spagetti Monster if he thought that church could help promote Common Core. Whitney Tilson's decision to found Democrats for Education Reform instead of Republicans for Education Reform was, in his own telling, a tactical choice and not connected to any particular political convictions. Only Nixon can go to China, and only a Democrat could argue that the teachers unions should be banished to Outer Slobovia.

So in many cases, we're not talking about convictions or philosophies or deep-held ideas. Just money.

Rhetorical Tool Bags

Civil rights and social justice. Escaping zip codes. Let the students have control of their own school money. Provide all parents with a choice. Freedom. Escape government schools. Stifled by teachers unions. Achievement. Achievement gap.

The list is long. Advocating for a political policy point is about finding the language to frame the issue and control the narrative. You don't get there by asking "What do I actually believe" but by asking "What language will best push people to our side? What will help us sell the policy?"

This is politics as usual. Hire a group to do market studies, and create a manual, as the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools did when they hired the Glover Group to create the Charter School Messaging Notebook. Set up your talking points, hire some guys to help deploy them, rinse and repeat.

What muddies the water is that with every talking point, you will have some combination of people who actually believe the talking point and some who are just cynical operators. The civil rights issue that is at the heart of what troubles Pondiscio is one such tool-- there are plenty of folks who are really and sincerely committed to the civil rights and equity side of the education debates, and there are others who have latched onto the argument as a way to win their true goals. The ultimate effect is people who are saying the same thing, but who have completely different intentions and values behind their words. Which brings us to...

Honesty

Some participants in the ed debates simply aren't honest about what their goals and values are, mostly because they understand that if they were honest, they would lose. You can't just say, "We really want to make a lot of money by taking over part of the public education system" or "We really want to increase our political clout by making alliances with people that our members find odious" and definitely not "I'm going to push this idea mainly because I've been paid well to do so."

So you find ways to dress it up and thereby establish that one of the Rules of Engagement will be that folks can go ahead and sling bullshit as much as they want, which has the extra consequence of having everyone enter the debates with their bullshit defectors set on "High."

There's a huge level of intellectual dishonesty among many reformsters, who select whatever argument they believe will help them make the sale, though there are certainly conservative reform fans who display a willingness to follow their principles where they lead, rather than trying to create an argument for the outcome they've pre-selected. I read guys like Pondiscio, Andy Smarick, and Rick Hess not because I agree with them, but because they are generally honest and consistent about what they say and how they follow a line of thought.

And about those political labels

This morning I saw someone responding to the article by calling Pondiscio a liberal, which is seriously off the mark. Well, I think it's off the mark. Because labels are hard to sort out these days. We have Democrat and GOP governors who are standing up for exactly the same thing. I would be hard-pressed to find the difference between the "left-leaning" Center for American Progress and the "right-leaning" Fordham Institute when it comes to education policy. What's the difference between a neo-liberal and a free market conservative, again?

I'm far more interested in the principles that guide a person than what label we can slap on that person. As soon as we start labeling, we lose a ton of nuance and we start to group things (and people) together in ways that don't necessarily hold up or make sense. Pondiscio is worried about the liberals throwing the conservatives out of the reform movement, but I have some doubts about how many of those "liberals" and "conservatives" are really, actually either.

Those kinds of alliances make sense for specific goals ("Let's get all the fences painted red") but have a hard time holding together for broader, vaguer objectives ("Let's insure policy is more influenced by neo-syllogistic free market equity concepts").

False Equivalency Disclaimer

While it's possible for all sides (there are definitely more than two) of the education debates to be riven by these fault lines, you will be unsurprised to learn that I think reformsters are far more susceptible.

For one thing, there is far more money in play in pro-reform circles. Carol Burris, head of the Network for Public Education, is literally the only person I can think of who is even sort of making a living as an advocate for public education. Meanwhile, Gates and Walton and the rest have thrown enough money at reformsters to support a small country, and that money is being thrown because even more money is at stake as winnings in the ed policy debate. That kind of money draws a large number of flies, including flies that may or may not care about anything except the money.

Meanwhile, there's no good reason to be an advocate or activist for public education except that you care about the issues involved. I know some reformsters find this hard to believe, hence the occasional claims that somebody is being paid Big Bucks by the unions. But no-- we're just here sticking up for what we believe, in a fairly uncoordinated, disorganized manner. There's no question that the Resistance is not one tight, completely-in-agreement coalition, but there aren't as many of us, and we don't have a lot of power or money riding on the outcome. I'm not in a Movement, and so I don't have to make sure that I'm saying the currently-approved statements or throwing support to people I disagree with just because we are paid by the same backers. If you're an opportunist looking to score power and money, the reform resistance movement is a bad investment.

The reform movement has always stapled together folks who are not naturally allies. Throw in all the rest of these fractures and issues and you're sure to see pieces and parts come flying off the machine from time to time. Heck-- the Common Core Cheerleaders Club has gotten mighty small and lonely and now has to sit in the back instead of taking reformy point. If I were a reformster, I might worry less about the mix of liberals and conservatives and more about the mix of people who are sincerely concerned and people who are just opportunists.