Friday, October 19, 2018

The Promises Charters Don't Make

Because the term "charter schools" often comes with the word "public" attached, parents can be surprised by some of the ways in which charters do not operate like actual public schools. Here are just a few factors that emptors should caveat when considering a charter school.

A Stable School

Recently in just one week, word that two separate charters will be closing their doors immediately. In Delaware, the Delaware Academy of Public Safety and Security closed its doors on Tuesday. It announced that closure on Tuesday in a letter to families. Wednesday, Detroit Delta Preparatory Academy for Social Justice announced that its last day of classes would be Friday.

Sudden closure of charter schools is not unusual. The Center for Media and Democracy found that about 2,500 charter schools closed between 2000 and 2013. Some of them closed at the end of the school year, some never opened in the first place, and some closed abruptly in the middle of the year. Charters can close for a variety reasons; this week's closings appear to be due to financial problems because of low enrollment.

Charter schools are businesses, and they close for business reasons. That doesn't make them evil, but it does make them different from the public system, which is built, however imperfectly, on the promise that the community will guarantee an education for every student. Charters promise to educate students as long as it makes business sense to do so.
Charters in most states have no obligation to find placement for the students that are left schoolless by a closing. Those families must now scramble for a seat for their children in some school. Of course, the public schools will always take them, but in Detroit, where the city's troubles and a drive to replace the public system with a charter one have hollowed out the public education system, even finding a public school is now a challenge.
Fans of the competition model will say these closing are a feature, not a bug, and that it's simply the market's way of replacing bad schools with good ones. But there's little evidence that any such improvement is occurring (see, again, Detroit). And one must question if such competition is worth the disruption and uncertainty for students and their families. Closing a school is not like shuttering a fashion store at the mall. Starting at a new school multiple times in one year is not beneficial for student learning.
A Strong Education Program
In many states, lack of tight regulation means that charters may not be providing valid, professionally-developed and -delivered educational programs. It's also common for charter school classrooms to be led by staffers who are neither trained nor certified to teach.
An outstanding example is the Eagle Arts Academy of Florida. Founded by a man who was first a male model, then bought a publishing business, then went bankrupt, the school was supposed to have a proprietary education program developed by an education professional, who swiftly quit, leaving the founder to finish the work himself. The school burned through three principals in three months, and funneled much of its money to the founders other companies, but neither academic nor financial shenanigans gave the board charged with charter oversight the power to close down EAA.
Responsive Management
With major charter school chains, the People in Charge can be located hundreds of miles away, or even in another state. Each state has a system of authorizers-- people who have the power to decide if a particular charter school should exist or not, but that system is not always helpful.
For example, some charters in Detroit are authorized by Bay Mills Community College, a two-year school located on the Canadian border. Google says it would take five hours to drive from Detroit to BMCC. It seems unlikely that Bay Mills keeps close tabs on its Detroit charters, and it seems unlikely that parents who were unhappy at those charters could reach out to Bay Mills to voice complaints.
Promises, Promises
There are undoubtedly particular charter schools that make these promises and work hard to keep them. But the patchwork of charter regulation (or lack thereof) across the country, combined with the idea that charters work best when freed from the regulatory restraints under which public schools operate, means that no parent can assume that a charter school has a commitment to these promises that many parents assume are part of operating a public school.
Parents can try to do their due diligence, but part of running a business is doing marketing, and charters are not going to market themselves with phrases like "financially troubled" or "featuring a curriculum made up by unqualified amateurs" or "barely hanging on."
Until the modern charter landscape changes, we can continue to hear from parents like Avian Retick. "We were blindsided," she said. "They sold us on a lot of opportunities that aren't going to come to pass."
Or Delta parent Victoria Haynesworth, who said, "I trusted the school with my child. This is horrific."
Charters as currently managed make fundamentally different promises than public schools. We can either require them to live up to those public school promises, or make a fundamental shift in what promises we expect schools to make.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

DeVos Organization Issues School Choice Guidebook

The American Federation for Children is a dark money group that advocates for school choice in general, and vouchers in particular. It was founded and funded by the DeVos family (Betsy was chair right up through the summer of 2016), and is well-connected via ALEC, that special organization in which corporate sponsors get to write bills for legislative members. The AFC Growth Fund is another wing of the group, and they produce an annual School Choice Guidebook. This year's book is out, and I've looked at it, but you probably should anyway.

The report is 88 pages of reform chatter, so this trip will be neither quick nor easy, but if you stick with me, you'll get to see some stunning reform logic at work, gather some fun factoids along the way, and see exactly what their idea of a perfect voucher program would be.

It's Not All Awful

Okay, it is kind of awful, but it's worth noting that the guidebook contains a ton of information, much of it arranged in handy charts. If you have questions about, say, which states have which kinds of voucher programs, and how the details of those programs vary from state to state, this guidebook has answers, often arranged so that they can be viewed easily at a glance. I doubt that it's all perfectly accurate, but honestly, this is a resource I'll probably return to for answers to certain questions about the state of voucherdom.

So let's dig in and see what the report has to offer.

Types of Private School Choice Programs and $$$

A whole page of the different flavors of choice, though oddly they lump magnet schools and homeschooling as "private school choice programs." They've even included charter schools, despite the insistence of charter fans that charter as public schools. 

Of the ten different flavors listed on the page, AFC is going to focus on three-- tax credit scholarships, vouchers, and education savings accounts.

This is followed by a map and chart that shows which states have charters, which have some sort of voucher, which have both, and which have neither. Only four states have neither. There are fifty-four voucher programs in the US-- twenty-four voucher, twenty-two tax credit scholarship, six education savings account, and two individual tax credit programs. The average "scholarship" amount is a measly $5,408. Of the three types, ESAs have the highest average amount.

According to AFC, the total amount expended for the programs is $1.1 billion for vouchers, $1.1 billion for tax credits and $158.3 million for ESAs.

There's a cute graph of annual enrollment in these programs that starts with 29,03 enrolled in 2000-2001 and comes up to the last hard figures, from 2016-2017-- 442,475. Likewise, the number of states involved has grown.

More Charts!!

This guidebook really is a chart and graph fan's playground.

The next set of charts show the enrollment and funding for various programs by state, with separate charts for each of the types of voucher programs.

So if we look tax credit scholarships, we find that Montana has such a program-- and it took in #29,950 in donations that were divided among the 39 students who signed up for the program.  Five of the programs only make triple digits for students enrolled. Only one state hits six digits for students enrolled, and that's Florida, with 108,098 students in a $631 million dollar program (that's not counting the Hope Scholarships). There are some states that have a fairly impressive dollars-to-students ratio, including Alabama where the Tax Credit for Contributions to Scholarship Granting Organizations program only enrolled 4,181 students, but took in a whopping $29,699.374 in donations. Kansas took in over $4 million to serve 307 students. And New Hampshire had 332 students enrolled in a program funded to the tune of $713K. Incidentally, all of these figures are from the 2017-2018 year.

The six ESA programs make a wild field, including as they do Nevada's ESA program which was passed, but then denied any funding. So it exists, but it currently serves 0 students with 0 dollars. Florida, however, has over 10K students in its Gardiner Scholarship program, funded with $105 million. In fact, two thirds of the total ESA funds in the US are in that Florida program.

For the regular old voucher programs, the leading spender is, once again, Florida leads again with $220 million spent on vouchers for 31,000 students. Wisconsin and Indiana are close behind, with Indiana actually serving more students. Ohio is the only other state in the big leagues for vouchers. Are any of these factoids surprising you

Florida Blue Ribbon

By AFC's count, of the $2.4 billion total spent on various voucher programs in the US, $956 million of that was spent in Florida-- that's 39%. No wonder Betsy DeVos thinks Florida is an exemplar of how education should work. That's almost a billion dollars taken out of taxpayer pockets and placed in the bank accounts of educational entrepreneurs. In one year.

Who's Eligible

One of several interesting breakdowns in the report, this shows which states have which kind of eligibility requirements. So we learn that there are twenty-eight means-tested program, nine for failing schools, twenty-one for students with special needs, two for bullied students, and three that are open to everyone (Arizona, Georgia and Montana).

Why so many for special needs? Because it's a political winner, and because it's a better money-maker. As we've learned repeatedly, a school that can gather students with low-cost special needs (like a mild speech impediment) can still rake in the extra money that follows students with a special needs label.


Perhaps because it is aimed in part at investors, the guidebook is more exacting on the subject of accountability than you might expect. Again, some nifty charts guide us through the type of accountability standards that are or are not present, program by program.

For instance, on the voucher chart, we learn that only six of the twenty-four programs require independent evaluation of academics in the voucher school. Only ten require proof of financial viability. Only thirteen require annual financial reports, meaning that eleven do not. And four programs require no background checks for personnel.

Tax credit scholarships come with even fewer background checks, and only four out of twenty-two require proof of financial viability. Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island have non academic accountability requirements at all. Most programs require some sort of financial reportage.

ESAs are academically lax. And North Carolina's ESA program is the only one of all the active programs listed in all categories that has no non-discrimination requirement.

Now for the Sales Baloney

If all those facts and charts are getting you down, let's move on to the sales pitch.

AFC strongly believes that all school choice programs should collect and report data on how the students are doing in the programs–both academically and socioemotionally–and also on their academic attainment after they graduate from the programs. Our hope is that a greater number of choice programs do this important research, particularly on postsecondary outcomes.

This is a pleasant dream, and it's also carefully placed right in front of a graphic about "gold standard, random assignment empirical studies of private school choice programs." The seventeen studies they picked are broken down to eleven positive, four neutral and two negative "effects on student learning." Not about post-graduate results.

There are no footnotes, endnotes-- nothing to indicate which seventeen studies they are talking about. A quick check with my research assistant Dr. Google tells me that at least three legitimate studies show vouchers producing negative effects for students. And when we talk about these kind of student effect studies, generally all we're talking about is test results, anyway-- and so what? AFC itself seems to be trying to shift rhetoric away from test scores and on to college enrollment and "persistence" and so they toss out two studies about those things, neither of which is exactly earth shattering. In both, researchers found that students who enrolled in voucher programs were more likely to enroll in college than their peers who did not. Since voucher enrollees are a self-selecting group of students with families that are supportive of education, it seems safe to assume that they are also more likely to attend college. In other words, the studies found that students who care about education often later seem to care about education.

Mostly this seems like a page designed to distract attention from findings that voucher programs actually hurt the students who participate.

Myths and Facts

Oh, these are my favorite. This is the part where reformsters say, "Look, here's a mean thing that people are saying about us, but nanny nanny boo boo to them." It's also where we find out what they think their vulnerabilities and strengths are, and where they try to steer the discussion. All fun stuff.

AFC has a whopping ten myths they want to address. Let's see how they do.

Myth #1: Private school choice programs drain money from public schools.

AFC's claim is that school choice programs "save our government millions of dollars each year." They even attach a number, claiming that the participating states saves "anywhere from $13 million to $120 million annually." They offer not a single piece of support, which is a wise choice. There's some carefully worded argument here-- "the cost to educate a child in a traditional district school is greater than the public funding provided for each child in a scholarship program." Technically sort of correct in the case of tax scholarship or ESA programs, because in those programs the donors give money to fund the voucher rather than paying that money in taxes, so we can argue that it's not public money because the government never actually touched it. However, tax revenues for the school district are still reduced because donors paid for a voucher instead of paying school taxes.

AFC also tries the old "the district saves money because they don't have to educate that kid" argument, which ignores problems of scale-- a district can easily shed a couple of students with no reduction of expenses for the district. And in some voucher programs, the student didn't even have to be in public school to begin with, which means a chunk of money is diverted from the public school but public school enrollment is reduced by exactly zero.

Of course vouchers drain money from public schools. If you're household budget is tight, do you buy a second house to save money? Of course not-- and you can't run multiple school systems for the same money you used to operate one. And since all that money was collected in a bin marked "public education," you can't take anything out of the bin without reducing the money going to public education.

Myth #2: Private school choice programs violate the separation between church and state.

AFC's argument is "some courts ruled in our favor." Of course, some courts also ruled against them, but we're not mentioning that. Voucher systems overwhelmingly direct money to religious schools. And voucher backers like DeVos know this full well-- the whole point among many religious conservatives is to take back society from the Godless heathen liberals, and that includes, especially, schools. They know that vouchers violate the separation of church and state-- they just don't believe that separation was intended by the Founding Fathers of this Christian Nation. As far as they're concerned, breaking down the wall is just setting things right. As one of my Christina right friends explained to me (yes, I have Christian right friends), the whole wall between church and state is the result of confusion and failure to really understand the Constitution.

Myth #3: Students don't benefit from private school choice.

This is based on their cherry-picked set of studies (the list we aren't allowed to see) and the two post-grad studies they found that helped their cause. That's before we even get to all the studies that show that the measure of choice-- raised test scores-- is bunk. We should believe that this is a myth because AFC says so.

Myth #4: School choice is anti-public school.

AFC doesn't really answer this, but then, this is a group founded and led by the woman who said that public schools are a "dead end." They go with the old "public schools have their place, and we're sure there are some fine ones." And it is largely true that DeVosian style reformsters don't want to see an end to public school, because Those Peoples' Children have to go to school somewhere.

Myth #5: There is no accountability in private school choice programs.

They harken back to the charts showing that things like health and safety regulations are followed by choice schools, and that some even have to take the same Big Standardized Test as the publics. They have "some level" of financial accountability, which is not true in all states per their own charts. And families can vote with their feet, which simply doesn't count as an accountability measure.

Myth #6: School choice hurts traditional public schools.

There are studies that show students who stay in public school near choice schools improve. There are many of them, but AFC requires us to take their word for it. And wait- I thought that studies showed that voucher students outperformed public students.

Myth #7: Only private schools have selective admission policies.

They argue that plenty of public, magnet, charter etc schools also have selective admission requirements. They are correct-- because they have carefully misstated the "myth." In their defense some public school advocates also misstate this. But the real point is this-- only private school systems have selective admission processes. A magnet school may have a selective admission process, but that is for students who are within the system-- and nobody has to apply to get into their public school system. Within that system there may be requirements or pre-requisites to get into a course, a performing group, a sports team, or a magnet school. But nobody has to apply to get into their public school system. And no, charters aren't public schools.

Myth #8: Private choice programs increase racial segregation in schools.

"No reputable study shows that private school choice increases racial segregation." Oh, we should just be done here, because the rest of the paragraph is carefully worded attempts to deny and shade what has been true since the first segregation academy opened in the South. We can look at a city in the DeVos's own home state to see the effect in action. AFC cites a study of Louisiana from 2016 as evidence that segregation is not increased, but another scholar looked at the same data and got very different results-- more segregation. The fact that choice appears to free lots of white parents to indulge their desire to get their own children away from Those People-- well, it's not an admirable impulse, and it's not choice's fault that the impulse to segregate is there, but it sure does seem to empower that impulse.

Myth #9: School choice only helps urban students.

Choice can help rural students? Well, let's not talk cyber-schools, the kind of choice that's prevalent in my neck of the woods, because cyber-schools kind of stink. Bricks and mortar charters aren't interested in the rural market because there isn't enough market there to make a strong business case for the rural charter-- and charters are businesses. There are rural-ish religious schools, and vouchers might be a windfall for them, but for students they won't make any real difference.

Myth #10: Private schools don't serve students with special needs.

Well, now we see why all; those charts made sure to break out the programs specifically for students with special needs. If I go back and crunch the numbers, the total number of students enrolled in the voucher programs aimed at those with special needs, I get a grand total of 50,786, out of the under-500K students using any voucher program. And of that 50,786, a full 31,044 come from just one state. Can you guess which one? Yes, it's Florida's John M. McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities.

It's a small number of students in just twenty targeted programs in the country, but admittedly 1 is a big enough number if it's your kid. But AFC doesn't answer two critical questions. One is the nature of the special needs, because there's a big difference between providing services for a student with a mild speech impediment and services for a non-verbal student confined to a wheelchair. The other critical question-- how do students with special needs fare in schools that belong to the other programs? Having targeted special needs programs is no plus if it's just an excuse for every other program to say, "We won't take you-- there are programs set aside to handle your problems, so go see them."

They are correct that ESAs can be used to provide special services in the home, but that really dodges the question. They also say that each year 0ver 70,000 students with special needs use ESAs and other private choice programs to meet their needs, and I have no idea where that number comes from. And it still doesn't address the criticism. Can a student with special needs be accepted at any voucher school (as they must be by any public school), or can they only expect to get in to schools that are specially marketed to them.

The States

The rest of the report (we're only on page 17) is a state-by-state evaluation of the various voucher programs. The tax credit scholarship programs are actually ranked based on scores in various categories-- we'll get back to that in a bit. Of the eighteen tax credit scholarship plans ranked, number one is-- ta-dah-- Florida's. Of the eleven ranked voucher programs, number one is Wisconsin's Racine Parental Choice Program.

Each program (some states have more than one) gets a page loaded with information and details. It is a good at-a-glance reference for seeing what's going on around the voucher world.

Alabama's individual tax tuition credit program only involved 127 taxpayers-- but the total tax credits refunded were $351,140. Arizona's ESA program requires parents to sign an agreement to provide education in reading, grammar, math, social studies, and science. Enforcement of that agreement...? That "parents must sign" requirement is a common one, as is the absence of any stated accountability for the parents. Florida's tax credit program requires teachers at participating schools to have three years of teaching experience-- or a bachelor's degree or "special expertise." So, anyone. Rhode Island requires at least a bachelor's degree.  Some tax credit scholarship programs allow a tax credit of 100% of donation, while stingy states like Indiana allow only 50%. Iowa, Virginia, and some other state families are eligible with up to 300% of poverty guidelines. Lots of states forbid discrimination on basis of race, color or national origin; LGBTQ discrimination is largely unmentioned (Maryland is one state that does forbid discrimination based on "sexual orientation.") Mississippi has a voucher program for students with dyslexia and very specific directions about what therapy must be used. New Hampshire's tax credit program, unlike some others, does not allow donations to be tagged for one specific school. In Tennessee, the ESA requires parents to waive their child's rights under IDEA. In Utah, students using the special needs voucher must have an IEP; however, if they are already enrolled in a private school, that school can do an assessment to see if the student is eligible to bring the school a voucher bonus for special education services. Wisconsin's parental choice voucher program has a slow-releasing cap, raised one percent of public school district enrollment per year until 2025-2026, when the cap is completely lifted.

There's a lot to dig through

The Rankings

This section presents the same info in different formats and lets you check and compare the scores. It also shows how the points are awarded, which provides a straightforward look at what AFC thinks matters most. Here's the breakdown by categories, showing what AFC's ideal voucher program would look like.

Student Eligibility

The less limited, the better. Highest score for income limits over 200% of free and reduced lunch. Highest score for no limits related to public school performance-- you get zero points for a voucher program set up only for students in a "failing" school. No geographical limits-- highest score for program that includes all students in the state.

This one is important-- AFC wants to see no limits based on students' previous school. That means that money would flow away from public schools for students who never attended the public school in the first place. On the day those vouchers start, public schools lose a ton of money and no students. Meanwhile, the voucher schools-- who had already enrolled these students-- get a tremendous windfall.

AFC also wants to see "once in, always in" so that even if the family moves above the income limits, they don't lose eligibility for the program.

Program and Scholarship Size

Highest score for programs that give 100% of per-pupil expenditure to the choice school/ 100% of students eligible. No caps on enrollment or the amount of money the program can suck up. Schools that are new start-ups can play, too. And of course high growth rate and participation rates are preferred.

School Accountability

These are not heavily weighted, but at least they're here. AFC says school's scholarship students should take the Big Standardized Test, and their results should be reported. Schools should run background checks on staff. Annual financial reporting is required (for whatever reason, they consider this less important for ESAs). Beyond these items, however, AFC says no additional regulation should be required.

Additionally, For Tax Credit Scholarship Programs

100% of donation should be a tax credit. The cap should be 100% of donor's tax liability. The scholarship organization must use 90% of donations for actual scholarships. Donors should not target particular school or particular student. Annual reports and background checks for scholarship organizations.

And For ESAs

Someone from the state should keep an eye on how the program debit card is being used. Tutors and other practitioners must be licensed or accredited. Really? You were going to let people with no teaching credentials teach in schools. And "extra" money can be rolled over for later college expenses.

And you can see all the point totals, program by program.

And we've reached the end! Still here? God bless you. My overall impressions? Well, given the amount of groups like AFC have made, it's a little surprising to see what a small portion of the US education landscape is taken up by these folks. Especially if you take Florida out of the mix (and taking Florida out of the mix makes almost everything in this country better). They've had all these years, and thrown spectacular amounts of money at the issue, and this is what they've got to show for it? No notable clearcut successes, and while they have grown steadily, they're still smaller than the average number of viewers on a Justin Bieber video.

Voucher programs involve fewer students than are enrolled in Catholic high schools. AFC claims under 500,000 students in voucher programs. There are over six million students in 4-H clubs. There are 2.4 million Boy Scouts. A little over 1 million students play high school football. Roughly 12 million teens (47% of 25 million) use Snapchat daily. 18-year-old Bretman Rock has well over a million followers on YouTube (and you don't even know who he is, do you). Over one million people bought the soundtrack to the first Alvin and the Chipmunks movie.

I'm not saying half a million is nothing. I am saying that in a country where there are 56.6 million K-12 students, half a million (less than 1%) do not represent a major piece of the action. Vouchers deserve our attention, because they are a bad anti-public ed, privatizing idea that is being pushed hard by some folks who know less about education than they know about Bretman Rock and the Chipmunks. But as much as they have managed to grow their movement over the last two decades, they are still just a blip on the education landscape. That's one big message they unintentionally conveyed to me with the handbook.

PS: Shame on you, Joe Lieberman

For sitting on the board of AFC. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

PA: Testing Good News And Bad News

As was reported a few months ago, the Pennsylvania legislature has been working on finally lowering the stakes on our high school Big Standardized Tests, the Keystone exams (or rather permanently failing to raise them, as Harrisburg could never quite bring itself to say "Pass these tests or no diploma for you.")

Gov. Wolf gets a partial win
Now the bill has passed both houses, and the governor has indicated that he will sign it.

This is a good news--bad news situation. Here's why.

Good News

Students will now have a very broad range of methods for proving they are diploma-worthy. Graduation will not depend on their successful score on a lousy standardized test on which the cut score wanders from year to year, essentially norm referenced so that someone must fail, always. This new bill is excellent news for students, who can now graduate based on grades or big-time tests like the ACT or even a college acceptance letter.

For high school students, the Keystone exams are now no-stakes, meaningless nothing-tests. And that's a very good thing.

Bad News

The no-stakes meaningless nothing-tests will still be used to evaluate teachers and schools. Teacher professional rankings and school standings will rest on students taking a test that is a complete waste of their time, a game in which they have no skin at all. Will students try their very hardest to make their teacher and their alma mater look good, or will they breeze through quickly so they can take a nap? And will local school districts undo the legislature's work by making the test a local graduation requirement as a way of extorting effort out of their students (as many districts have done in previous years while waiting for Full Keystone to kick in)?

There may even be a bitter irony here for district's that restructured as a way to game the test. Some schools rolled their middle schools into their high schools. See, eighth graders generally test poorly (because have you ever met an eighth grader), so putting them under the same roof as high school students helped pull the average up. I do wonder if that trick will keep working.

So Here's Hoping

That Harrisburg completes the job and uncouples teacher and school evaluation from a test that students have officially no reason to care about. The new bill is a great step forward, but there are more steps left to take.

Monday, October 15, 2018

The Lesson of Child Care Expenses

The group Child Care Aware last summer posted their answer to the question every parent of a little asks-- if child care costs so much, why aren't child care providers rich? They have a nifty little video that simplifies the answer so that even the math-impaired can get it.

Imagine your going rate is $10,000 per year per child. Assume a child care center with forty students, and therefor looking at revenue of $400,000. Where does that go?

$45K for building and maintenance.

$92K for classroom materials, food, and administrative costs (niceties like liability insurance).

Boom. You've burnt through all but about $260K, and you need to hire a director, three lead teachers (one for each classroom) and six assistant teachers (in most states, the law dictates what you need for personnel). That means your director makes about $22/hour while your assistants get about $10.50/hour. Nobody here is getting rich. In fact, depending on the specifics of your location, the whole thing may barely be staying in business.

I'll think of this now every time somebody wants to complain that the public school system is filled with waste and that spending just keeps increasing but taxpayers aren't getting more bang for their bucks. Because what is the above model except a much simpler version-- to get a real public school we'd have to add students with assorted special needs for which we needed more classrooms and more materials. Of course, we'd have to add more expensive professionals, but we'd compensate for that by cutting the number-- where your state law might require nine teachers and assistants spread over three classrooms for forty students, in some schools we just pack forty students into one room with one teacher (because while we have laws to protect the tiniest children from being under-supervised, we're not so concerned about actual school students).

It's not cheap to do education right, or even half-right. If there are any simple truths we struggle to avoid in this country, that's one of them.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

What Just Happened To Summit?

Summit Schools were an early entry (2003) into the world of charters, with founder Diane Tavenner trying to do personalized learning the low tech way. Tavenner is reportedly a former teacher, asst. principal and a graduate of the Broad Faux Academy of Superintendenty Stuff-- (oh, she's the board chair for the California Charter Schools Association, a board that includes Joe Williams, head of DFER as a member). Mark Zuckerberg ran across the Bay area school in 2014 and decided that he would give it not just an infusion of cash, but an infusion of technology. Including engineering support to "make this better."

Not feeling the magic here
Like AltSchool, another super-duper techno-personalized charter system, Summit decided they could make some real money selling their program to schools across the country, and in fact a few hundred schools are now Summit schools, using some form of the computer-based algorithm-driven education-flavored product.

Summit is one of Zuckerberg's pet projects, and it's also beloved by that other well-connected super-rich education amateur, Bill Gates, who has some of his Top People promoting hell out of it. Summit is, I presume, a dream product for many in the privatization biz, because it has been so successful in getting actual public schools to invite it to come and stay.

Not that everyone is a fan. Take a look at some of the comments in this piece "The Inherent Racism of Summit 'Public' (Charter) School." And many schools have backed away from the Mass Customized Learning Program (a term that deserves a place on the oxymoron shelf right next to Jumbo Shrimp and Peacekeeper Missiles). The program is a model for Personalized [sic] Learning via Competency Based Education, featuring playlists for students to work through at their own pace.

Indiana, Pennsylvania schools tried to quietly implement Summit programming, and parents began to squawk almost immediately. After just one month

parents began telling the school board that their kids were not adjusting to the new learning style, that they found questionable and objectionable material in the recommended online resources in their classes, and that their children were spending too much time in front of computer screens.

NY Magazine just profiled Cheshire, Connecticut, another town that fought back when the mass customized learning program came to town (or rather, the town came to them, since the Summit model involves logging on to the Summit website). The Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative had paid for the 130 Chromebooks needed, but once again, reality got in the way of CZI dreams.

Students rarely met with teachers, but instead had lots of screen time with a computer program that was reportedly easy to trick (just skip the lessons and go straight to the tests). The program still has glitches, including questions that cannot be answered correctly (maybe some nerdy programmer decided Summit needed its own Kobayashi Maru?) And there's the problem of the open-sourced playlists themselves:

Nothing about the platform said Silicon Valley more than the open-source approach to the “playlists.” Teachers were encouraged to customize them, to add and subtract — and Cheshire’s teachers were working on this, Superintendent Jeff Solan said in an email — but the base material was often just a bunch of links, to sites ranging from Kids Encyclopedia to SparkNotes to the BBC. I interviewed several educators who were involved in developing the platform in 2014, and when I mentioned this to one, he agreed they were “shoddy.” “We knew it,” he said. They were in such a hurry, he said, “we were just throwing things in there, that, at least from a Google search, looked reputable.”

Yikes. It's almost as if the actual education piece is secondary to some other part of the operation. I wonder what that could be...

And there was the question of data. Summit is clear about the 18 partners it shares its data with, and subjects itself to its own strong privacy agreements in addition to the legal protections around student data already in place, but parents and other locals were nonetheless concerned. “The Chromebooks were free. Nothing’s free. There’s always a reason,” said Mary Burnham, a retired educator who was part of the campaign against Summit. “If somebody’s giving you something free, chances are, they want something back, or they’re already getting something from it. As best I can tell, with Summit, it’s data.”

All of which brings us to the newest news from Summit Learning.

As we look to the future, we are excited to continue expanding our impact within the broader public school system by sharing the Summit Learning Program with more schools and refining the Program to best meet the needs of all students. To do this, and with our support, a new nonprofit organization will independently lead and operate the Summit Learning Program beginning in the 2019-2020 school year.

My emphasis. Who will be on this new board operating Summit. Well, Tavenner herself. And Priscilla Chan. You know who she is. Peggy Alford-- she's the CFO and Head of Operations for CZI. And Alex Hernandez. Tavenner plugs him as a "seasoned educator," but I'm betting he's on this board more because of his experience as a Broad graduate, a venture capitalist, the lead on Charter Schol Growth Fund's Next-Generation Schools practice focused on personalized learning and school model innovation, and superintendent at the Aspire charter school chain.

At this juncture, we might want to take a moment to step aside and review what CZI actually is-- not a strictly philanthropic organization, but an LLC-- an actual business with certain legal and tax benefits, but still able to think about things like profits and control and not having to divulge that which one does not wish to divulge.

So my question is, did Summit just become a subsidiary of the Zuckerberg empire. Did Mark Zuckerberg, who's entire fortune is based on the biggest data-mining operation ever seen in human history, just manage to grab himself a piece of (currently) 380 schools and all the students therein?

If you are the connect-the-dots kind of person, we've got public schools connected to charters connected to one of the biggest data grabbers on the planet, all tied up in a personalized [sic] learning bow. If your school district decides they'd like to let Summit, I'd recommend you ask some big questions, before someone in your district gives away the data cow in return for some not-very-magic beans.

ICYMI: October At Last Edition (10/14)

Is fall finally here? We can only hope. 

Remember, if it speaks to you, pass it on. 

Every Morning Is An Affirmation

If you're only going to read one thing this week, make it this piece by Jose Luis Vilson. Affirmation indeed.


Burning that candle without being consumed.

New Orleans Teacher Held Against Her Will      

What a bizarre story! Mercedes Schneider has the details.

While Kavanaugh Craziness Rages, DeVos News Gets Lost    

Jeff Bryant reminds us about what DeVos has been up to while everyone else was watching Bro Brett audition for the Supremes.

Teacher Autonomy-- An Often Ignored Victim of High Stakes Testing

A reminder of one important casualty of test-centered school.

Quit Saying Special Ed Costs Too Much 

Nancy Bailey talks about the eight signs that someone is about to take an ax to special ed.


Saturday, October 13, 2018

How Teachers Avoid the Common Core

Here's an important thing to understand about the Common Core Standards--nobody is in charge of them.

Many standards have official gatekeepers. For instance, the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Colorado is the official civilian source for the answer to "What time is it?" through the national atomic clock.

There is no such body for the CCS. When the standards were first unleashed, the official word was that a state could not change a single word of them, and the states could add no more than 15%. The unanswered question was, "Or what...?" There has never been an official body to monitor state use of the standards. The folks who wrote the standards might have fulfilled such a function, but they dispersed almost immediately to new jobs (David Coleman took over the College Board, Jason Zimba booked some consultant gigs, etc). Sure, there's a site where you can look at the standards and read some PR, but it's the equivalent of a business site that won't let you contact the company or order product.

There has never been an official Common Core office to say, "This is correct, but that is not."

The implications for the use of the standards are huge. There is not, for instance, a body that approves whether or not a textbook can call itself "Common Core ready." Some organizations have tried to fill that gap by doing reviews based on textbook alignment to the Core, but those groups are themselves taking an unauthorized stab at what the Core says.

When the Core started finding its way to individual districts and schools, an army of consultants was unleashed to lead sessions on "unpacking" the standards. At these sessions, teachers would be put through the painstaking process of saying, "Well, what this standard is actually after is this..." with an explanation of what the consultants believed the standards said. Again, there was no oversight, no authority to "certify" that a consultant had a True Understanding of the standards.

That process was often followed by alignment--a process by which curricula were supposed to be written to match the requirements of the newly unpacked standards.

Problems emerged almost immediately. For instance, the lack of a Central Common Core Office meant there was also no Common Core review and revision process. If 500 schools all discovered what they believed was a flaw, omission, or misplacement of a standard, there was nobody to call, no process by which the regular review of the Core would lead to a Core 2.0 that improved the flaw. The Core's writers were either so confident or unconcerned that they created a system in which the standards would be more set in stone that the United States Constitution. All of that meant that if a district or state felt that there was a flaw in the standards, they had no option other than to just be rebels and change some standards anyway.

Another issue was the parallel roll-out of the Big Standardized Test, a test which immediately signaled that some standards mattered and some did not. Some states gave some standards fancy names like "anchor standards" which meant, roughly, the only standards you need to care about. For instance, there are ELA standards about speaking and listening, but they don't matter, because speaking and listening will never be on the Big Standardized Test.

The theory was that if one unpacked the standards and aligned one's curriculum, higher test scores would fall like manna from heaven. It became almost immediately obvious that this was not true--higher test scores would result from teaching to the test, standards be damned.

A few years in, all of these factors contributed to one important revelation.

What happens to a teacher who doesn't teach to the standards?


Oh, teachers still had (and have) to submit lesson plans that show alignment to standards, based on curriculum that is aligned to the standards. However, the alignment process is simply a piece of bureaucratic paperwork-- you can simply write down the lessons and units that your professional judgment considers best, and then just fill in the numbers of various standards in the blanks. Maybe you have an administrator who will hold your feet to the fire ("Mrs. McTeachalot, I believe your use of standard RL.5.2a is not entirely on point"), but mostly, life will go on, your paperwork will be filed, the district's report to the state will show that teachers are teaching to the standards with fidelity, and you can close your classroom door and do what you know is right. As long as the paperwork is good, reality can take care of itself.

This avoidance of the Common Core is also widely practiced by teachers and administrators who will deny that they're doing it. Innumerable teachers have written glowing essays about how they've used the Core to open up new avenues of swellness in their classrooms, and then go on to describe lessons that have nothing at all to do with the standards. But that's where we are. I can claim that my lesson about students meditating on a head of cabbage is Core aligned, and I may know I'm lying, or I may sincerely believe that I'm doing great Core things, but it doesn't matter--nobody is ever going to show up at my classroom door to say that the lesson is not Core-approved.

There are teachers who are less able to escape, who are trapped in micromanaged situations where administrators insist on scripted lessons straight out of the box. Mind you, those scripted lessons may also be a poor representation of the Core, but that's a small matter compared to scripting (it's a topic for another day, but the short line is that any administrator who insists their teachers teach from a script should be banished from education forever).

The Common Core Standards remain a sort of toxic vaporware--dangerous and damaging when first released, but slowly dissipating into a vague and formless while people try to recover from the damage they originally caused and are, in some places, still causing. We can only hope more teachers figure out how to escape.

Originally posted at Forbes.