Monday, September 19, 2016

16 Policies for the Next President

Bellwether Education Partners, a reliably reformy right-tilted thinky tank, recently issued a compendium of policy ideas for the next President. "16 for 2016" comes with sixteen writers and sixteen ideas, though it's not entirely clear which candidates it's aimed at-- presumably not Hillary, whose contacts among the right-leaning world of corporate education privatizing are probably better than Bellwether's, and presumably not Trump, who neither takes nor comprehends advice.

Hmm. What do all these policies have in common?

So let's think of this as both a thought experiment and a look at the kind of policy ideas reformsters will be pitching to Congress, as well as a signal of the kinds of things reformy types would like to push these days. I have read this so that you don't have to, but since there are, in fact, sixteen of these things, I am going to summarize pretty brutally here.

1) Seed More Autonomous Public [sic] Schools

Sara Mead argues that we've proven that bad urban schools can't be turned around, but (citing a 2015 CREDO study) some charters do some better with some students similar to the urban poor students. So instead of trying to turn around low-performing schools, let's just open a bunch of charters to replace them. This is not so much about improving education as it is about opening markets to charter profiteers.

2) Transform School Hiring

Chad Aldeman has a point-- many schools have crappy hiring practices. He observes that it is a homegrown business, with the majority of new teachers working within twenty miles of their home town. And if you read here regularly, you already know how much I agree with this:

Despite complaints of a “teacher shortage,” districts act like the laws of supply and demand don’t apply to teachers, and they treat teachers as if they’re immune to financial incentives. 

Aldeman recommends adding performance tasks to the hiring process (something that many districts do "unofficially" by using hopefuls as substitutes before finally hiring them). Why is any of this part of recommendations on the federal level? Because some of these ideas are costly, and Aldeman suggests some federal grant incentives to help districts, particularly poor ones, do better.

3) Bring the Blockchain to Education

Oh, this dumb idea again.

Technocrats are sure that teacher professional development can be handled just like bitcoins, and that we can just plug teachers in to earn badges that show their competencies. This is a dumb idea for so many reasons, but the biggest one is that this kind of competency-based learning ignores what we know about authentic assessment. My earning of a badge doesn't measure any competency except my ability to earn badges. On top of that, these sorts of proposals (many companies are working on this model) have staggering implications as far as data privacy-- to work we need to put everything there is to know about you in a data file, and that data file needs to be open to the world, all maintained by whatever corporation manages to win market control, partnered up with the federal government. What could possibly go wrong?

4) Share the Risk of Student Loans

Andrew Kelly checks in with a new idea-- make colleges and universities share the risk on the loans their students take out. Practically, speaking, this might mean charging institutions a percentage of the outstanding balance on "non-performing" loans. This might arguably make institutions more interested in keeping their costs affordable. Kelly acknowledges that it would also give them an incentive to take very few low-income students who would be more likely to default on their loans. Colleges and universities point out that this holds them accountable for behavior completely out of their control. I'd like to point out that it would also give colleges and universities an incentive to cut programs that don't reliably lead to big loan-paying incomes.

5) Get Schools in the Fight Against Child Sex Trafficking

On the one hand, definitely. The writers are absolutely correct in saying that schools should be a safe haven for students, and that the school community is a good place to both keep a watchful eye and inform people about what to watch for. On the other hand-- hell, one more social ill that schools have to somehow fix on top of everything else. Do you suppose someone will finance this, or will it be one more unfunded mandate?

6) Scale Great Mentoring to Reach More Kids

Steve Mesler, Olympic gold medalist and  co-founder of Classroom Champions, thinks that we should have mentors out there to help every students to "persevere like an Olympian" (and he has a company to work on it). Scaling up mentoring for all kids means "a shift away from the one-on-one model" to a (surprise) computerized online techy model. There are some folks with super-cool ideas. Just give them about $90 million of grant money and they will whip this right up for you.

7) Network Early Childhood Education Providers

The Head Start "network" is not getting the best results. Let other early childhood providers network, share best practices and, of course, drive it all with data while encouraging innovation. In other words, rip the early childhood biz out of the cold. clammy hands of the feds and surrender it to the warm, friendly embrace of private corporate providers. But keep that federal money flowing.

8) Give Good Food To Kids

Local foods for local schools. A cool concept, but as acknowledged by the writers, depends on the capacity of local farmers. The writers get into a lot of the wonky bits of this, and it reminds me that the US food system is a behemoth that has been both absorbed and seriously warped by huge corporate interests; in many ways, it resembles the future that corporate interests seem to have planned for education. So while I like the idea of Farmer Jones bringing his harvest to my school cafeteria, I'd need a lot of reassurance that we're talking about anything that homey and simple.

There's also a bit here from Tom Colicchio (yes, that one) talking about putting quality over cost, which is another idea that I like except that, of course, the cost factor will be fought tooth and nail. He offers some wonky info about procurement procedures that might help.

9) Make Competitive Grants Work

Yes, sure. Also, make pigs fly out of my butt. Competitive grants are a hallmark of the Obama administration, and they work exactly as you would expect-- the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and the rewards go to the people who are good at the grant-grubbing process, not the people who are good at education. Juliet Squire suggests that the process would be better if the feds were more clear about accountability and implementation, and if they didn't require that grant applicants propose unrealistic goals. Those are not bad ideas, but they don't address the fundamental badness of the competitive grant idea itself.

10) Build Charter Schools Like Affordable Housing

What James Wilcox means is not "build charters like crappy, poorly-maintained housing that nobody who had a choice would choose." What he means is "offer lots more tax credits to people who build charter schools." These would presumably be over and above the generous breaks offered under the New Markets Tax Credit that allows investors to double their money in seven years. Because throwing money at public schools is terrible and stupid, but throwing money at charters is awesome and smart.

11) Connect Career and Technical Education to Real Post-Secondary Opportunity 

I'm a huge fan of CTE-- while other parts of the country are trying to get it back, here in my region it never left and it has always been super-excellent education for many of my students. And any such program benefits from a high school version of a job placement program.

However, what Alex Hernandez reminds us is that there's a slim line between offering job placement services for students and turning a CTE program into a taxpayer-funded training program for specific industries and employers. Hernandez suggests that we could even go as far as apprenticey programs (we call them work release here) where students leave school and learn in the workplace. All of this is great as long as the school system maintains its commitment to the students and NOT to their future employers.

12) Provide Sector Agnostic Federal Support for Schools

Andy Smarick's argument is detailed and developed, but it boils down to one more privatizer plea for the feds to stop favoring public schools, which is pretty close to getting the feds to drop their commitment to a public school system in this country.

13) Expand Accountability in HIgher Education

This reformster argument always puzzles me, because the higher education system comes really close to their dream of a free market education system. But Michael Dannenberg loses credibility right out of the gate by citing the US News rankings. But he has an ear-worthy argument here about institutions of higher learning that have become endowment investment businesses with universities loosely attached-- and which somehow fail to reap the rewards of their funding wealth. He also scolds them for calcifying inequality rather than erasing it. He is perhaps oversimplifying (poor students fail to thrive at big time universities for reasons other than affording the education), but he has a point. Of course, part of his point is that the feds must interfere with this market and take a stronger hand in telling management how to manage and spend its money.

14) Creating Real Second Chances for At-Risk Youth

It's legit to note that some alternative schools are more holding pens for problem students than a legitimate attempt to find an alternative path to success. I'm less impressed that Gary Jones pivots from there quickly to the notion that the feds should finance more private (charter) schools to meet the need. Who exactly are we creating second chances for?

15) Give Education Power to Families

Ben Austin likes school choice. He pretends to be shocked that federal law does not explicitly note that education exists to serve the needs of children, on his way to making the old argument that schools put adult interests ahead of student interests. This is a bad argument based on a flawed premise-- public education was never about providing a service strictly for students, but about creating an American public that is educated and prepared to participate in a democracy. Students and their parents are stakeholders in the system, but so are future neighbors, employers, taxpayers, co-workers, and fellow voters. Austin would like the system to be changed so that it explicitly is all about the children and so that parents can file more lawsuits. He appears to want more Vergara's, and not ones that get reversed on appeal.

RiShawn Biddle wants more choice, because " we know that expanding school choice and empowering parents can be key to improving student achievement," which is a bold statement, a ballsy statement, a statement for which there is not a speck of evidence. Biddle wants a charter choice system, and he deploys all of the same old arguments, including all the ones that have been repeatedly debunked (waiting lists? really?).

16) Democratize Data

Aimee Rogstad Guidera is here from the Data Quality Campaign, an advocacy group for lots of folks who hope to make a bundle playing with data. She's here to argue that schools should be data mining like crazy, and using the two smoke screen arguments preferred by all the folks who want to make a mountain of money in the data mines-- parents need it, and teachers need it. This is baloney. Teachers are already prodigious collectors of data, and it is far more deep, wide, and nuanced than anything available from the  Data Overlords. Parents who want access to rich data about their children (you know-- the human beings that they have raised from birth and who live in the same house) can get ahold of the child's teacher.

Neither of the groups need the prodigious mountains of data argued for here, but talking about them is far less off-putting than saying, "If you let us collect all the data about your child, we can make a mint selling it to various other interested parties." And no-- I have no idea what it means to "democratize" data

So there you have it

Some points worth thinking about, and a whole lot of swift repackagings of the same old reformster profiteering sales pitches. As I said at the top-- Clinton already knows all of this and all Trump really wants is a tub of gasoline and a blowtorch, so I'm not sure to whom this pitch is aimed. But it's on the reformster radar, so it should be on our as well.

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