Saturday, December 31, 2016

2017: 9 Wishes

It is easy when you're in the pro-public education camp, trying to call out and push back against the many and varied attacks on public education-- it's easy in that place to get wrapped up in No and forget to articulate what you want to see. So as a sort of New Year's palate cleanser, let me lay out what things I do want to see happen in the world of public education in the year ahead.



I should note that this is an ideal wish list, and I recognize that it's a really long journey to get from where we are to these goals. But even if we can't get there, these are the stars we should steer by, the harbor we should navigate toward. I'll be happy to talk details and specifics another day. This is strictly New Year's Eve wish-mongering.

1) The end of the Big Standardized Testing.

We are achieving literally nothing by these tests, other than wasting huge amounts of time and money and twisting the entire sense of public education's purpose. If I could only achieve one wish on this list with a wave of my magic wand, it would be this one. Test-centric education is a poisonous acid, eating education from the inside out.

I'd settle for some sort of initiative to find systems of accountability that would give taxpayers the assurance that their money is being well-spent, to replace the test-centric system that does not actually deliver anything that it promises. Other goals for the test, like comparing students across state boundaries or informing teacher instruction-- those are either a waste of time or unachievable through broad standardized testing.

2) Fair and equitable funding

Reformsters are often correct in pointing out that some school districts are failing to educate all their students. They then leap to an incorrect solution for the issue, when in fact we know exactly what we need to do (in fact, charter fans propose to do exactly those things, but only for a handful of students)-- make sure that every single school in the country has the resources, support, fiunding, staffing, and leadership necessary for success.

We know how to do that, because we already do it for many schools in this country. We just have to decide that we want to do it for Other Peoples' Children, too. We do not need to come up with clever ways to provide public education on the cheap for just a few children. We just need to do what it takes as easily as we decide to drop a few trillion on endless wars.

3) Democratic control of school governance.

Every school district should be run by an elected board of local taxpayers. Period. I know this gets tricky in some places-- I strongly suspect that several of our largest urban districts need to be broken into smaller districts. But every school in this country should be transparently owned and operated by the local community through board members-- elected stewards of local resources.

There is some place for some oversight by state and federal authorities, to make sure that certain lines are not crossed and that funding is handled reasonably fairly (I have limited faith in the federal ability to identify fairness, but perhaps with clear guidelines...).

But local democratic control with total transparency. Period.

4) Teachers installed as authorities in the education field.

Much of the damage done in education has been done by self-appointed amateurs, while the voices of actual experts and practitioners have been ignored. Done with that. You can't serve as a teacher without proper training (I'll spend a whole other day on what that means, but it sure doesn't mean five weeks of summer camp or a weekend training session), and you can't serve in major positions of oversight without teaching background. You can't do teacher preparation on the college level without ongoing renewal of your classroom experience, and you can't set up a college teacher prep program without approval by a board of working teachers (not some bunch of state-level bureaucrats).

Did I notice that in #3 I demanded that local elected amateurs run the local school district? I did. There has to be a place for the voice of the public in education.

5) Any standards that exist are generated and spread from the bottom up.

Yes, I have plenty of friends who disagree with me on this, but I do not see any practical, useful way that national standards can be established-- and certainly not enforced. The only useful way to spread pedagogical ideas and standards for learning is for teachers who have developed and tested their craft in the field to share what works. You may find it messy and inconsistent, but I will argue that nothing else works better, and that national uniformity is not a desirable goal anyway.

6) Technology serves teachers and students, not vice versa.

It is still still still the same old refrain. "If you just change the whole way you do your job, this technotool will be really useful for you (and profitable for us)."

Thank you, no. I love my technology. I use it all the time-- when it helps me accomplish my job or opens up new opportunities for me to get things done in a new and interesting way. Happy to check around and see what's out there; heck, we even have a technology coach who does a lot of the looking around for us. But don't call us-- we'll call you. I want ready and easy access to new tools, new software, new approaches. I can't do that when you're trying to shove your sad junk down my throat.

7) No secrets. Total transparency.

I just interrupted writing this post to get in a twitter discussion about the interests of parents, and I'll get into that in depth in a future post, but the short answer is that the education system should be absolutely transparent so that parents can get whatever information they believe is important, and not what someone else is telling them is important.

Transparency also addresses a world of reform issues. School boards and administrations and teachers, too, should be free to pursue whatever they think will be positive and effective, but they should also feel the need to make a case for what they want to do. There may have to be some practical limits to this; I don't want to see a superintendent's six-year-old being stalked at T-ball practice. But in matters of policy and procedure and results, school districts should be fishbowls. Individual humans in the district, however, should enjoy perfect privacy. Yes, I know that's hard. Stars to steer by, people.

8) Schools are safe places that address the needs of the whole child while protecting and valuing that individual human being. 

I think that explains itself. No child should fear school for any reason. Every child should feel safe and loved and supported at her school. Schools have to have the support, flexibility and breathing room to do it.

9) Schools should be all about learning, and helping all students become their best selves.

Everything else is just the how. This is the what. Students should walk out of graduation, not like toasters rolling off an assembly line or like sneaks who slipped through the system, but as strong, confident men and women who know who they are, know what they want, and feel equipped to at least start the process of achieving their dreams. They should be taught the full depth and breadth of learning across all disciplines; they should get a taste of what it means to be fully human, fully themselves.

Every student in America should get this. Actually get this-- not get the "opportunity" for this. Will some students refuse or reject this education? Probably. But we should do everything in our power to make it happen for every single student in America, and if some student walks away without it, that should be their choice, not ours.

Every student. Not the chosen few, the wealthy few, the privileged few, the profitable few. Every student.

That's my wish list. Granted, it may take more than just a year to get there (probably more than four, given the current political situation), but this the constellation that I want to steer by.


The 2017 Dozen: What Can I Do?

All right. So some folks are pretty upset about 2016.

There was certainly lots to not love about the year on many scales. Some of that is real (Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds gone in two days??!!), and some of it is just heightened sensitivity to what is not really news (What?! America still has racism!?). There's a veritable cornucopia of reasons for folks to be dissatisfied with the year. On the other hand, personally, my son got married, my daughter delivered her second child, my wife and I made a cross-country trip I've always dreamed about, and we are expecting twins next summer. Plus I still have one of the best jobs in the world.

 So as we've all been trying to answer the question of how to move into 2017, I've been thinking about the space between the personal view and the larger picture. The larger picture can seem loaded with lots of frustration and despair and helplessness, but on the personal level...? On that level I get to choose what I do, how I react, what steps I take . It's where my greatest power lies, and so, my greatest responsibility.

So here's what I tell myself going into 2017.

1) Be present and pay attention. It is easy to get wrapped up in the To Do List of the classroom teacher. Well, easy for me, anyway. But our students need to be present and paying attention, to hear what they say and see who they are even when they aren't explicitly trying to be seen and heard. Nothing that I do in a classroom is more important than finding the connection to each student.

2) Do not wait for someone else to stand up. Do not count on someone else to advocate for what I care about. Do not leave it to someone else to call a Congressperson or a state official about the issues that matter. Especially don't say, "That's what I pay union dues for. They can handle it." Call. Write. Speak up. Stand up.

3) Don't waste energy. Don't waste energy getting worked up about things that haven't actually happened yet. Pay attention, but don't mistake your predictions and fear for true future history. React to what actually happens. You know you've lost the thread when you are angry at students, colleagues, friends, and elected officials for things they haven't actually done.

4) Read up. Study up. Know what there is to know about the work of teaching, and keep trying to learn more.

5) When the door opens, say yes. If it's the teachable moment, don't reject it because it's not in the plan. If it's the moment someone needs you, don't turn your back because you have other things to do. If it's opportunity, don't close the door because the timing is inconvenient. Mostly you don't get to choose when the door opens, but you do get to choose whether or not to say yes. Say yes.

6) Be honest. There isn't anything more important. Even if it bothers members of your own tribe. Even if it isn't what was true to you yesterday. Even if you are afraid to be seen by those who may strike back.

7) Give the students more feedback more often more soon. I make this pledge every year. It's possible I will not ever be satisfied with my results.

8) Remember that while you share fundamental human qualities with every other human being, you have vastly different experiences. Your normal is not everybody's normal. In particular, remember that other people may be struggling on a hill that you never even had to climb. Do not confuse a difference in experience for a difference in basic humanity; if you imagine that the hill they are struggling on would never have stopped you for a second because you are stronger or grittier or better, you probably don't understand either yourself or that hill as well as you should.

9) Value people. Value people. Value people. Money and power and privilege are only important insofar as they help you take care of other people. The circumstances of your life, particularly the circumstances of your profession, have put a whole bunch of people right in your path. Start by looking out for them.

10) Advocate for what you want, not what you don't want. You already know this from the classroom-- it is infinitely more useful to tell a student what you want him to do instead of what you want him not to do.

11) Always say what you mean, and say it like you really mean it. Never stop considering the possibility that you may need to change your mind.

12) Never let tradition, authority, systems, habit, or other people's power substitute for using your best fresh judgment. Start the question from scratch; if you were in the right place before, you'll be lead right there again. Don't just grab last year's unit plan-- ask yourself how you, right now, would teach that unit. And always make sure your best fresh judgment includes consideration of the ideas and words of other smart people.

That's my dozen for this year-- which should be an exciting year indeed.


Friday, December 30, 2016

TX: Education Savings Accounts & Vouchers 2.0

Yesterday the Dallas News gave Mack Morris "Special Contributor" some space to plug Education Savings Accounts. ESAs are often called another way to do vouchers, but they are actually worse. Still, folks can be excused for misunderstanding-- the Dallas News includes headline art of a cap-and-gowned woman holding a giant $100 bill, suggesting that even the Dallas News has confused vouchery ESAs with the other Education Savings Account meant as an instrument for collecting money for college.


Morris is actually the Texas deputy Director for Americans For Prosperity, one of the Koch brothers astroturf groups that has crusaded against Obama, Democrats, and government (you know-- that big organization that takes your money and gives it to Those People when you know darn well that if God wanted them to have money they wouldn't be poor). The AFP helped launch the Tea Party and was the single biggest spender on political advertising in 2014.

Morris's pitch is the one currently preferred by privatizers of public education-- families must have choices so that they can escape zip codes where their children are "trapped" in failing schools. As always, this does not lead us to consider what the state's role is in the "failure" of those schools, or what the state could do to help. Instead, Morris wants you to know that there are these cool ESAs happening in other states like Florida and Nevada. Morris spends a whole paragraph talking about the failings of Texas education-- low test scores, high drop-out rate-- as if these things make a case for vouchers and not for a case that Texas should maybe fund and support its school system.

As proof that vouchery goodness would help, he cites University of Arkansas Distinguished Professor of Education Policy Patrick Wolf-- oops! Somehow Morris omitted Wolf's full title "Distinguished Professor and 21st Century Chair in School Choice in the Department of Education Reform." So perhaps not an objective academic here (and if you want to be slightly more depressed, look at how much time Wolf has spent working in the USED). He's a go-to guy for pro-voucher press.

He estimates that if Texas adopted an education savings account program that went into effect in the fall of 2017, a total of 11,809 additional students would graduate by 2022 — and that number would likely increase over time.

Man-- that "11,809" is so awesomely specific that you just know it's a product of True Science and not just a number he pulled out of his butt. Personally, I estimate that 643,311 students will have more trouble completing school because of the funding their school will lose through ESAs. See? I can estimate my way to science, too!

But Morris is ahead of me. ESAs would totally boost performance in the schools that students quit, because reasons. He also claims that there are twenty-nine studies that show traditional schools improve because of choice programs. He does not link to, name, or cite any of these studies. There are twenty-four national studies that show that Morris is making shit up.

"But hey," you ask. "What are Education Savings Account and how are they both the same and different from vouchers? You said they were worse. What's up with that, anyway?"

In a voucher system, families are given a... well, voucher, like a coupon good for (usually) around $7-10 at any state-approved school. But in an ESA, families are given a small stack of money and told, go spend this on education or, you know, whatever. You could go to a public school, or hire a tutor, or take educational field trips, or even just bank a bunch of it to help pay for college. Hell, buy a Playstation and play "educational" games all day.

ESAs typically take about 90% of the cost-per-pupil of the school district. In Texas that amounts to about $7,800 per student (special needs students usually get more money, but since Texas has made the bulk of its special needs students mysteriously disappear, that may present a special Texas challenge).

$7,800 is not a heck of a lot of money to send your kid to a private school. However, here's a thing we know about how voucher systems tend to work-- a bigger-than-half percentage of voucher students were never in public schools in the first place. With a voucher system, the school gets money from the state and depending on how much they were scraping to pay tuition, families get to keep money for other stuff. With ESAs, families get a stack of money which they can then just spend on whatever. It's like a special taxpayer-paid bonus for sending your kid to private school.

So private schools (particularly religious ones) benefit. Families that could already afford to send their kids to private schools benefit hugely. People who wanted to wash their hands of any obligation to make sure that non-wealthy non-white kids got a decent education-- well, they'd be able to say, "Look, we gave you your ESA money. If you still got a crappy education, that's not our problem. We've done our part. The rest is on you." It also creates a whole new ethical dilemma for the poor-- you don't have money for food, but you have your ESA money, so do you choose half-day school so you can put some food on the table? ESAs represent a whole new market for bottom-of-the-barrel education providers.

ESAs also dovetail nicely with next generation choice on steroids, a future envisioned by some in which families get their child's education from a variety of specialized vendors. Team that up with "personalized" on-line education, and you can imagine ESAs as your on-line credit. For just ten tokens you can unlock the next level of your Calculus I training!

That's because what ESAs do best is bust up the binding on education funding. The first problem for privatizers was to disrupt the pipeline than ran straight from taxpayers to public schools, to break that pipeline open so that all that sweet sweet tax money could go to other places. The second problem is to break the bundling-- all that money tends to travel in large chunks, so that if you want to grab some of it, you need an enterprise large enough to attract one of the big bundles, like a national testing company or an entire school. But if privatizers could break those bundles of cash up, they could nickle and dime themselves into decent revenue streams.

That's what ESAs promise-- instead of voucher customers who have to spend all their money on just one thing, ESAs promise customers who can spend any amount of money on pretty much product. ESAs also promise to absolve the state of its obligation to actually educate its children, which could liberate wealthy Texans from having to suffer a tax bite to help Those People.

It's a big win for everyone except, of course, students and poor families.

Texas has several other details to work out, and a lot of people to sell on this idea for gutting public education. Let's hope that Texans get to hear from people other than Mack Morris, or else a whole generation will end up paying a huge price for this foolishness.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Reading Reformsters

Earlier this week I created a big ol' reading list of edubloggers. Today, I'm going to offer a supplement-- a list of recommendations to read from the Other Side.

Not all reformsters can be taken seriously. Some are simply PR hacks, doing their best to sell a product and doing it badly. Some are blindly attached to their product, either because they have limited vision, because they don't bother to try, or because they're paid to do one thing-- shill. And there are reformsters who suffer from an astonishing helping of hubris (no need for self-examination when you are just so freaking awesome).


But some of these folks are worth taking seriously, either because they do some thinking or because they are willing to examine their own side's behavior or because they articulate clearly the other side's argument. As I've said before, you can't defeat or even dialogue with people you don't understand.

My list here should not be taken as an endorsement. I disagree with most of these guys almost all of the time. But they are worth reading (and most of them can even carry on a civilized conversation) for a view of what reformsters are thinking, even if I don't think it, too. It should go without saying that you may get riled up by some of what these guys write, and you may have already developed opinions about some of them. My advice-- don't read what you don't want to read.

Mike Petrilli

Petrilli is the head honcho at the Thomas Fordham Institute, a right-tilted thinky tank that has often served as a hired gun to help promote Common Core and charters. Petrilli can come across as cocky; I guess the upside of that is he rarely gets angrily defensive. He mostly reminds me of that kid in class who likes to argue, and doesn't really care what side he's on-- he just likes to argue. I remain curious about how much he actually believes the things he says and how much he's just doing his job. Not afraid to step outside of reform orthodoxy now and then, and will also occasionally say shitty things just to provoke.

Andy Smarick

Smarick as attached to Bellwether Education Partners, but he also turns up on the Fordham blog and in other spots. Smarick's specialties are an interest in the structure and function of urban districts, but he also returns often to the questions of traditional conservative thought and how it fits with the reform movement (and he concludes at times that the fit is not necessarily a good one).

Robert Pondiscio

Another conservative writer in the Fordham axis, Pondiscio's work turns up in a number of places. He has the distinction among reformsters of having actually taught (four years of fifth grade in the South Bronx). A big crusader for the importance of actual content in education (as opposed to the "skills" beloved by Core fans). He also touched off a big intra-reform contratemps by suggesting that social justice reformsters were not playing well with the conservative wing of the movement.

Rick Hess

Hess is with the American Enterprise Institute, a right-tilted thinky tank that loves itself some free market thinking. But while there's never any doubt what side Hess's bread is buttered on, he is usually intellectually honest and willing to call baloney on other parts of the reform movement. There's no question he does it from a standpoint of "This is what we need to fix so we can win more," but he's got a good eye for some folly.

Jay P. Greene

Greene (no relation, so far as I know) has a feisty style, but he has an extraordinarily keen eye for the various divisions and tribes within the reform movement, and like Hess, in the name of strategy, will call out those tribes that he thinks are screwing up. Greene is Tribe Parent Choice, but he has delivered some brutal smack-downs to other tribes.

Neal McClusky

McClusky is education point guy for the CATO Institute, which means he is an excellent source for the purebred Libertarian point of view. He can be fun to follow on twitter because, generally speaking, everyone else is too liberal for his tastes.

Now that I'm writing this, I can see that my list skews rightward, and as I think about it, I realize that there are far fewer allegedly left-leaning reformsters that I take seriously. Not only that, but I generally find them far angrier and meaner and more likely to start name-calling (maybe it's me). But if you want to get a feel for that side of the reformster argument, I can make a couple of recommendations.

Derrell Bradford

Last time I checked, Bradford was heading up NYCAN, but he's moved around reformy circles. But he wrote what I still consider one of the better articulations of the lefty side of the charter argument. And we've managed to have some respectful decent conversations.

Dmitri Melhorn

I've had some interesting, productive conversations with Melhorn. On the other hand, I've also seen him go off on people with scathing personal attacks. Maybe some people just shouldn't use Twitter. But he's a reliable articulator of the whole "unions are trapping poor minority kids in terrible schools" argument.

If you can stomach it, Peter Cunningham's website it a reliable source of reformy rhetoric. I've actually met Cunningham in person, and he was pleasant. But he has a job that he's been hired to do, and his website (heavily funded by folks like Eli Broad and Bill Gates) is set up to do that job-- functions like a campaign war-room to manage and disseminate for the reform "campaign."

Campbell Brown's website, on the other hand, has settled into an odd mixture of actual journalism, clickbait, and full-on-biased advocacy (which, in all fairness, is what she promised). Read with caution.

You don't have to read any of this stuff. But if you are interested in getting a picture of what's happening across town, where people get paid to worry about this stuff instead of writing about it during lunch breaks and vacation, these writers are a place to start.

Life Is Too Short

2016 is not winning any kind of popularity contest lately. The list of celebrity deaths is staggering; I thought maybe we were all just over-reacting so I looked at lists from previous years and, no, this year really does carry an extra celebrity death punch.

But of course, people die every day.

This week, while we were reeling form the loss of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, two of my old friends died as well.

One was my former pastor's wife. Her children were former students; she came to town when her husband was assigned her and when he passed, many many years ago, she decided to stay. Marlene was involved at the church and in community theater as well as education for littles. Her daughter still lives here in town and was here to help her mother as Marlene slid into dementia. That was a big challenge, but then just a week ago, doctors discovered that some physical problems were related to widespread cancer. Very soon after, she passed quietly, her daughter at her side.

Last night, my ex-wife's sister passed away after a five-year battle with cancer. Ann was the very definition of a good-hearted person, kind and decent and yet stronger than people sometimes gave her credit for. She pressed on through marriage, divorce, single parenthood, getting on her own two feet, remarriage, career changes, location changes-- wherever she landed, that place was better for her being there. She was a devoted mother, a loving grandmother, and an exceptional aunt. Her own mother died when she was a teenager; she and my ex-wife have always been the ideal picture of close sisterhood, closer than mere friends could ever be.She had one of the biggest, kindest hearts I've ever known, and she brought love into every room she entered.

These were good women, women who made the world better by being in it.

This week I've been thinking of them. I've been thinking of George Michael and how he turned out to have been a quiet philanthropist, a doer-of-good-deeds in silence. I've been thinking about Carrie Fisher and how her willingness to live her life loud and honest and in public ("I think with my mouth, so I don't lie" is one of my many favorite Fisher quotes) helped make the world a better place. I've been thinking of my friend Susie, who died after her second cancer battle, and how she kept working as long as she could as a high school choral director. She was exhausted and would step outside between classes to throw up, but her feeling was that she would keep living rather than start dying.

I've been thinking of the students I've had who have died, and how they never got to live their lives "later."

People die. The finiteness of our lives is important, because we do not have infinite opportunities to live all the lives we can imagine. At some point we run out of time, out of opportunities to get things done, to invest time and effort in things that matter. At some point we'll be done and people can look at how we've spent our time and render a judgment-- was this a life well-lived or not?

I am always humbled in the face of deaths like these, where we can say, "She died too soon, and she should have had more time, but she made great use of the time she had. She lived her life well. She made people better. She made her part of the world better." That's the goal, the point, the purpose.

You can't take it with you, so you have to pay attention to what you leave behind. That was the horror confronting Scrooge in Christmas Future-- that he would die and leave nothing behind, nothing of value or importance.

Life is too short to tell ourselves that we can be all about grabbing power or money, that we can be miserably rotten people now, but somehow, later, we'll turn it around and start living like a decent person who treats others well. Life is short and "later" is not promised. "Later" is not the time to do better; that is for today, now.

So Godspeed Debby and Carrie and George and Prince and David and Marlene. Great blessed Godspeed, Ann. Thank you for being here and making the best of your time. May we all think of you and take inspiration to make the best use possible of today.

Just Say It

Fox News suggests that we might want to get rid of the food stamp program because fraud is at an "all time high." Never mind that this amounts to 0.09% of the food stamp program, that there are far greater money-wasters in DC, or that this isn't even close to an all-time high (or actually fraud). It's at moments like this that I just want to holler at my screen, "For the love of God, just say it!"

Just say "We don't want to spend our tax dollars on poor people. We don't want to help the poor and unfortunate and downtrodden. We want to keep our money for ourselves, and we want to just let the less fortunate rot."

If you don't want to spend money on schools for non-white, non-wealthy children, just say so. If you would really be perfectly happy if school systems who serve poor minority students just collapsed, just say so. If your goal is to make sure that not one cent of your tax money ends up in neighborhoods filled with Those People.

Honestly, it would help in a lot of ways. For one thing, we could more easily sort of education reformers who are actually sincere or well-intentioned (yes, I believe there are such people) from those who are just trying to burn the system down. For another thing, we could be having a national discussion about the real issues in front of us instead of pretending that we are trying to fix a system that we are really trying to trash. Just be honest. Just say it.

It all takes me back to one of Stephen Colbert's greatest quotes:

If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it. 

Why aren't folks just honest about these issues?

Of course, there's the "PC" complaint-- "If I just go ahead and say that poor black kids should starve because they deserve to, the PC police will pick on me!" Some folks have apparently been stewing for years that they don't have a safe space where they can be free to demonstrate how much they lack empathy, understanding, or basic decency. Many of these folks have found the strength since the rise of Herr Trump to go ahead and be honest about who they are, and voila!-- as a nation we get to have a conversation about all these issues that we've pretending we'd solved ("What!!? There are still racists in America!!??!!")

But other folks are still holding their tongues and using their dog whistles. Why is that?

It could be a nod to PR realities-- if we are going to sell this, we need something that's widely acceptable. So instead of saying "We need to replace the public school system for everyone with a private education system for Christians" we say "Parents should have school vouchers and the freedom to choose." Because that tests better with focus groups. Of course, if what you have to do is sneak past the sensibilities of the larger culture, you might ask yourself what part of society you are subverting and whether you're right for doing so.

Which brings us to another possible reason that nobody wants to sit on Fox and Friends and say, "Poor people should just be cut off from all government support and left to survive or not on their own"-- because you know you're just wrong. Because the thought of hearing those words come out of your mouth makes you cringe, like imagining yourself calling your spouse the most terrible names, or imagining yourself bashing in the skull of a tiny fluffy bunny-- just the very thought makes your conscience wake up screaming.

This, incidentally, is one of the problems with our increasingly awful political discourse-- it normalizes the awful. After you've heard the unspeakable spoken enough times, it stops seeming so unspeakable.

But back to the point-- if you know, on some level, that you're wrong, why keep being wrong? On purpose? Because let me tell you-- I went through a period of being Wrong On Purpose in my life, and that is some exhausting shit. The mental twisting and warping and just the sheer energy expended making the Wrong seem like Okay is tiresome, and it screws your head all up. But this is one more reason to speak honestly-- because calling the Wrong Thing by its actual name is part of what will set you free and force you to deal with reality. Life is too short. Just say it.

And if you're afraid to say what you really want because people will call you on it-- well, then, I guess you don't want it all that much. Stop trying to weasel your way to it.

Free the allies who aren't really your allies. Stand up to your opponents openly and honestly. Live your life with enough integrity to speak your actual truth, even if it is vile and ugly and, yes, wrong. The first step in getting to a better place is to admit where you are.

Just say it.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Dear Doug1943

A commenter at Diane Ravitch's asked a question which I think, if nothing else, probably represents the thinking of a lot of folks out there. Ravitch who is "taking a break" (which generally means she's only posting a dozen times a day instead of a hundred) asked for replies, so here's mine.


First, Doug1943's question:


I think the problem is this: the people opposing allowing people to escape from bad public schools don’t seem to want to acknowledge that there is such a thing as bad public schools. Or, at most, they seem to believe that if we just raised taxes and put more money into these schools, they’d be better. Or, that there is nothing the schools can do, it’s general poverty that is the problem.


Of course, if any or all these views are correct, then you must carry on doing what you’re doing (which seems to me, as an ‘outsider’, is just talking to yourselves, which is the norm for American forums on both Left and Right).

However, I think you ought to give some thought to trying to address the issues that proponents of vouchers, charters, etc. claim are real: that at least some public schools are unreformably bad, and parents who have some ambition for their children should be allowed to escape from them. In other words, should have the same opportunities that the Clinton and Obama children had.

Or, if you agree that some public schools are bad, but not unreformably so, how can they be reformed?

It’s this that — again as an outsider — strikes me as your great weakness: you don’t seem to admit that there is a problem at all. Thus your quotes around “better” in your reply: you seem to dismiss good exam results that some charters get. Now, maybe you’re right about these results– I certainly have huge reservations about multiple-choice standardized tests. But you ought to make the case.

By the way, I personally would prefer there to be a system of state schools that had high standards, and educated all children to the limits of their inherent capabilities, so that the issue of ‘charter schools’ and vouchers wouldn’t even arise.. I assume that such a system would cost substantially more than the current system, but that it would be well worth it. But we don’t seem to be allowed to have that choice.

When it comes to believing in the badness of schools, I think you'll find a full spectrum, with people on one end believing that all "government schools" are bad and should be abolished, and people on the other end believing that public education must be preserved and never displaced or challenged. As with most spectra, this one contains few people at the ends and most in the middle, with folks from all sides interspersed on all sides of each other. Likewise, we will find a continuum running from "Poverty means nothing at all and anyone with some gumption and good teaching can overcome it" all the way to "Poverty is an inescapable blight that can't be overcome ever." Policy makers have come pretty close to the former position, making it easy to characterize anyone who brings up the problems of poverty at all as someone who has given up because of poverty, but I don't think that's the case. Poverty matters. It's not destiny, but it can't simply be ignored, either.

Most public ed advocates that I know and interact with would agree that, particularly in some large urban districts, there are some schools with serious problems. I would never tell you that all public schools are flawless and there are no huge problems. There are, from serious underfunding to long-standing institutional racism to a lack of any sort of vision from leaders. There are absolutely some serious issues, but it does not appear to me that choice-charter-voucher advocates are proposing anything that will actually solve any of the problems.

They call to mind lying with a broken leg on the sidewalk, and someone runs up with a chain saw and says, "Hey, I'm going to take off your arms" and I ask what help that will be and are they even a doctor and they reply, "Well, no-- but we have to do something!" No, thanks.

Do charters generally do a better job? There's no clear evidence that they do-- often they get the same results with the same kids (as far as we can tell, given that we have no good way in place to measure school success-- your reservations about standardized tests are on point) and a little too often they do worse. Do charters solve poverty? No. Do charters and choice spur competition that leads to greatness? There's zero evidence that they do. Do they allow children to "escape" bad schools? Maybe-- but here's the big problem as charters are currently handled: the escape comes at the cost of making a bad school worse by stripping it of resources. And as I frequently point out, the free market can't handle this problem. The free market survives by picking winners and losers and dropping the losers out-- there is not one single business or business sector in this country that serves every single citizen, but serving 100% of US students is exactly the education gig.

So in short, yes, there are problems and no, the charter-choice-voucher idea doesn't solve any of them.

So what are my alternative suggestions? Let me first note that the guy who wants to treat my broken leg by chainsawing off my arms is the person carrying the burden of proof. But as someone who is invested in public education, and who has already noticed most of the issues that charter fans holler about in their marketing materials. In the interests of not writing an entire book, let me offer just a quick list of some major steps that, I believe, would help.

1) Fair, full, equitable funding for all schools. No, we don't have the national will to fund every school to Lexus level, but right now we're letting states and districts run some Lexus schools just across the tracks from Used Kia schools. That's not okay. You can even have charters-- but you have to pay for them. You cannot run ten homes for the cost of one.

2) Dramatically reduce unfunded mandates.

3) Get rid of test-centered accountability, which has created test-centered schools. Yes, we need accountability, but the current method is truly, deeply useless. I have some thoughts, but this is not a book.

4) Let teachers teach.

5) Let communities have control of their own schools.

6) Rebuild the teaching profession and undo the damage of the last fifteen years. Put the profession under the control of professionals. Too much damage has been done by politicians and other amateurs who think that since they once went to school, they should set policy for the nation.

I don't believe that some schools are unreformable* because a school is not a building-- it is the total of the teachers, staff, leaders, families and students that some together in that school. To believe that a school is unreformable I would have to believe that a neighborhood or community is unredeemable, and I'm not prepared to believe that about any group of human beings. But to reform you have to have resources, leadership, and a strong relationship with the community being served. It is not clear to me how, in East Egg or West Egg or even Rotten Egg, you could do that with a charter but somehow not with the public school you already have, and it seems that the charter solution is to swap out the students or the families or the local connection.

I agree that we haven't been given the choice of really funding public education as if we meant it, and charters in many markets seem like a way to say, "Well, we'll just spend the money on the students who deserve it," which is not, to my mind, the American education gig, either. It is deciding to rescue only some children from a burning building without making any attempt to put the fire out. That, to me, is not okay.


*I originally mistyped this as "reformable"

Summit- Zuckerberg's Bad CBE Idea

Mark Zuckerberg was still stinging from his experience wasting $100 million on Newark's bad reform ideas, but three years ago he decided to throw some more money at education-- only this time he would supposedly pick something that was already working. So for three years, Zuckerberg has been using his mountain of money to pump up Summit Public [sic] Schools [sic].

When Zuckerberg toured the Bay-area charter in 2014, he must have had many thoughts. One may have been, "Gosh, here's a great idea for education." Another might have been, "Here's a perfect platform for investing in a development laboratory for computer-based personalized learning that will finally let me expand my tentacles into a whole new sector."



Okay, so I'm just speculating here. Summit founder Diane Tavenner had been trying to do personalized learning the old low-tech way, with close teacher supervision and a whole bunch of worksheets and project activities. What Zuckerberg brought her was not just a pile of money, but a massive infusion of technology.

“Mark said to me, ‘Can I meet your engineering team?’ And I said ‘Oh, sure, here’s Sam,’ and he said, ‘Just one?’ ” Tavenner recalls. “And he said, ‘What you’re doing is really important, and I’d love to help you. What Facebook does well is engineering, so how about we give you some engineering support so you can make this better?’ ”

"Personalized Learning" seems to be emerging as the more market-friendly name for competency-based-education, and Summit is one of the companies out in front of the wave. With Facebook's help, Summit has developed a web-based personalized learning platform that is available to any school in the country. Currently the Summit program is available for free, which sets off all sorts of alarms-- remember, when it comes to on-line services, if you're not paying for it, you're the product. And if there is anyone who knows about data mining for fun and profit, it's the folks at facebook.

But what about the Summit program? Is it any good? Is it very scary? Well, let's take a look at Summit's own explanation of the requirements for implementing their program.

The Summit Learning Platform comes with a cognitive skills rubric that covers Grade 4 through pre-professional and "helps students not only understand how they’re doing, but also understand that they can transfer these valuable skills from subject to subject, and achieve mastery day-by-day, year-by-year as they work toward college and career readiness." Press the right button, earn a cookie or food pellet or mini-credential or badge. That, and a rubric that can be used for grades 4-16, for all areas, because it's so awesome that one size truly fits all. Sigh.

The Summit Learning Platform will implement a competency-based education program. Students will get a playlist, which is "essentially content arranged in a certain order. Content includes videos, articles, and other information" and students can decide how they want to interact with that list. When they think they're ready to take the Content Assessment, they take it (with a proctor)-- that allows them either to move on to the new playlist or they have to go do the old one over again. Summit assures us that Content Assessments are different each time, though they cover the same content. "Different" is a fuzzy word-- it could mean all new questions, or it could mean the same questions with the multiple-choice answers flipped in different orders. I know which approach would be more cost-effective.

Putting students in the driver’s seat in this way enables teachers to move away from a lecture-oriented classroom environment, and spend more time as a mentor and facilitator, creating small groups to support struggling students, for example, but also letting them be the primary decision-makers in their own learning.

The material is not entirely clear on how much driving the student gets to do. The promotional materials suggest that students are entirely self-directing, but for some students that would almost certainly be disastrous and in fact one student interviewed for a story about Summit said, "I was falling behind, and it wasn’t really anyone’s fault but mine.” That quote may be designed to show a student taking responsibility, but if the student is in the driver's seat, then who determines that she's "behind"?

Summit's math stuff sounds just awesome--  "The units consist of a collection of backwards-planned, carefully-crafted, cognitively-rigorous rich math tasks."

Summit also uses "mentors," who are... I don't know. But Summit says one strength of its program is that its students are "deeply known," and the mentor sees them every day, with at least one ten minute one-on-one meeting a week. These mentors are supposed to know the students "as whole people: academically, socially and emotionally."

Summit's grading policy is one of its worst ideas. Their policy requires 70% cognitive skills, and 30% content knowledge. This is codified Common Core approach, where we imagine that math and reading and writing are all content-free "skills" that exist independent of any actual knowledge. This emphasis on "cognitive skills" would be enough to disqualify as this as a program I'd put my own child in, but there's another mystery. Remember-- students wrapped up playlists with a content assessment, so where did the assessment of the cognitive skills happen? The software apparently scores the students' skills "based on their performance throughout the year" so... the SLP is all testing, all the time? That would be consistent with the CBE approach.

Summit wants you to implement this as a full grade level, with at least the four core subject teachers signed on for a full year of this. The school should revamp its schedule to accommodate projects, CBE time, and mentoring. Oh-- and you have to buy the NWEA MAP test set-up and administer that three times a year.

For technical requirements, a Summit school must have a computer in every students' hand and the software to share all that data with the Summit Central Brain (my term).

For legal requirements, your school has to sign off on the Summit privacy agreement. Here's what Summit promises:

Summit will only use student data to maintain and improve the platform, and provide information to teachers, students, parents and other authorized users. Summit will not use personally identifiable information from students’ education records for targeted advertising.

"Other authorized users" is a hole big enough to drive a cyber-truck through. "Targeted advertising" is likewise an empty limiter for personal information use. Remember-- facebook engineers helped build this machine.

Supposedly 100 schools have signed on to join this Brave New World and transform their schools into wonderful personalized creches. We'll see how much they love it.

The problems here are the usual problems with personalized learning-- they are, in fact, many of the same problems that have surfaced every time some version of this has been tried.

Self-pacing is rough on some students-- in fact, it's roughest on students who have the hardest time with the material. If I'm lousy at reading, I do not get up in the morning thinking, "Man, I just can't wait to hunker down and do more reading assignments on my computer today." If you think a student will be more engaged and excited because the work is on a computer, you need to get out and meet more digital natives.


It reduces education to a checklist; rip through the checklist and you can call yourself educated. That's a highly reductive and not-very-useful interpretation of what an education is. It's a great way to train mice to run mazes or operate switches, but it's not much of a way to educate human beings. And plenty of people inside Summit have confirmed that picture.

It promises that we can reduce or eliminate teachers lecturing in a classroom, but if our replacement for teachers teaching is for some sort-of-teachers to write up a piece of software that students access on a computer, have we really taken a step up. That software is only as smart and adaptable as the humans who wrote it, and there's no reason to believe that it's better at the job than Mrs. McLivehuman. What makes us think that a computer is a better teacher than a teacher?

The other mystery here is the future. The current business model is unsustainable. Summit-Facebook's enterprise cannot keep working as a free give-away, which means at some point the whole thing has to start generating some revenue. Maybe the plan is to start charging for it, and these free implementations are just like an introductory hit of crack, but Facebook itself has never started charging. They don't have to, because they are sitting on a quidzillion pieces of data, and that's a very valuable, marketable mountain.

Bottom line-- Summit is some scary Big Brother creeping, low-quality training-instead-of-education stuff. But it has powerful friends and a pile of money that smells a future of more money. But keep your eyes peeled, because it could be coming to a school near you.



Understanding or Winning?

You've had that student in class. You're going over the answers to some simple quiz, and the hand goes up, and you hear something like, "But what could have happened is that Della actually hit her head and had temporary amnesia, so she didn't know that she was a girl and she got her hair cut short because she thought she was a man and she actually bought the watch strap for herself because she thought she had a watch of her own and she wasn't even thinking of Jim at all because she didn't even remember him..."

This is not the student who is confused. This is not the student who is trying to be funny. This is not the student who has trouble understanding. This is the student for whom understanding is not the goal.

Instead, this student wants to win. This student, either from boredom or combativeness or just-doesn't-like-you-ness, wants to come up with a way to look at things that makes them right.

I will confess-- this student can make me a little bit nuts. I have patience with many things, but my supply is extremely limited for people who deliberately, purposefully work to NOT understand something.

This is why I often lose patience with political arguing and spinning, which absolutely feeds on valuing winning over understanding. Somebody makes a statement, issues a release, writes a piece, takes an interview, and people from the Other Side don't sit down and say, "What are they trying to say here?" Instead they say, "What meaning, spin, interpretation can we put on this to make this guy look wrong?"

The Obama "You didn't build that" line was a classic example (so classic it has its own wikipedia page). Everyone knew exactly what he meant and it was, in fact, a sentiment that plenty of conservatives have expressed-- you get the benefits of operating in an orderly and rules-based society and therefor you owe the social fabric something. But opponents of the President saw an opportunity to spin his words, to deliberately and purposefully misunderstand them, and so they took it.

Particularly in the world of politics, we see understanding and winning as mutually exclusive. In the most heated debates, we find an absolutely intractable refusal to admit that anything the other side is saying makes any kind of sense at all. Some opponents of Trump have been adamant that they will not try to empathize, not try to hear, not try to understand where Trump's people are thinking, as if that will somehow keep them from getting one more drop of success or victory.

But understanding is not about yielding or losing or giving up ground. It's true that I view understanding as something that is valuable in and of itself-- for me, understanding is always best. But if you want to talk tactical issues, then let me offer this.

You cannot defeat what you don't understand.

Sure, you can win occasional holding actions with brute force, like "treating" cancer by cutting off the affected body parts. And yes-- when someone is coming at you with a hatchet, understanding may need to wait until you have knocked them down and taken their hatchet away.

But without understanding, there is no real victory.

The most classic mistake that people make in heated debate is to believe that their opponents are some combination of evil and stupid. Proponents of Common Core went down to defeat exactly this way-- they believed (or acted as if they believed) that opponents of Common Core were either ignorant peasants who just didn't understand or else tools of the evil unions up to no good. Yes, there were reformsters who kept trying to tell their allies differently, but by the time the message that good and reasonable people had rational and comprehensible reasons for opposing Common Core, it was too late. Now while the name may be spoken in some dark corners in hushed tones, and some shadowy remnant of the Core still stalks the land, the grand dreams and plans for one nation, under common standards measured by a common test-- that dream is toast. CCSS boosters refused to understand, and it has cost them.

When you don't understand your opponents-- when you don't understand their goals, their fears, their motivations, their basic ideas about how the world works-- you will fail to predict their next move, and you will fail to see how you can change their direction. Think of the sixty gazillion articles in the template of "Now that Trump has said this thing and we have published it, his campaign will be trashed."

Empathy and understanding make us better people, and they don't cost us a thing. Yes, sometimes when we understand others, we may realize that we share some goals or ideas or beliefs. But understanding someone doesn't mean we have to give an inch in whatever fight we're engaged in. Understanding who someone is and why they are pursuing particular goals doesn't necessarily make those goals one tiny bit less wrong.

In the heat of political battle, it's easy to think that understanding and empathy will interfere with victory, but I don't see how you achieve victory without them.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Read These Writers

There are a lot of good people in the edublogosphere, and if you've made it to this blog, you probably know many of them already. But for those of you just getting into the business, here's a quick reference list of some of my favorites with a capsule over-simplified explanation. Do sample and read and share-- amplifying voices is one way to make your point in the world.


I could try to organize these by geography or by how fiery or how funny or how progressive or some other issues play out, but ultimately this will take me a while to type out anyway, so let's go with the alphabet.

There's no doubt I've missed some folks (there are over 200 bloggers in the Education Bloggers Network alone), and that's before we even get to people like Wendy Lecker and Alan Singer and John Thompson who all are worth reading but who don't have a "home' I can link to. If you have other suggestions, feel free to add them to the comments. In the meantime, sample. It's vacation. You've got the time. Do some reading.

A View from the Edge

Rob Miller (@edgeblogger) is an Oklahoma educator who has done all-- marine, teacher, administrator. He brings a light sense of humor to national and Oklahoma stories.

Accountabaloney

I'm a sucker for a good name, but this Florida blogging duo includes a graphic designer, so it looks good, too. The good fight in Florida is a barometer for reformy messes elsewhere, and these folks have a good eye for malarkey.

Alfie Kohn

Kohn doesn't post often, but when he does, you don't want to miss it. This is what actual education reform ideas look like.

Andrea Gabor

Gabor is a journalist and author (The Capitalist Philosophers, Einstein's Wife) who is frequently doing exceptional work looking at charter schools.

Answer Sheet

Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post is the only big media journalist doing regular, daily coverage of education. Get national news, a public ed perspective, and answers from the kind of people who will ignore bloggers like me, but answer the phone when it says "Someone from the Washington Post is calling."

Automated Teaching Machine

Adam Bessie is a cartoonist who works the education beat. For those of you who like visuals.

Badass Teachers Association

The activist group, best known through their facebook page, also has a blog featuring an assortment of voices.

Big Education Ape 

One of the best aggregators of edublogging out there. If you only have time to make a couple of stops, BEA will get you up to speed. And as a bonus, you get some fairly hilarious paste-up illustrations.

BustED Pencils

BustED Pencils is a webcast (I've been a guest and it was fun), and it is also the host to regular blogging from Morna McDermott, Peggy Robertson, and others, as well as regular features like What Would Matt Damon's Mom Say. It is unabashedly progressive and activist.

Blue Cereal Education

Another Oklahoma blogger focusing on national issues. "Everything I say is so wise even I can hardly believe it. Feel free to concur."

Bob Braun's Ledger

Long-time New Jersey reporter who has covered politics and education for decades. Regional and national stories with a hard-eyed reporter's view.

Bright Lights Small City

Sarah Lahm covers Minneapolis schools, policy and politics. As with many of the regional bloggers, her writing gives a good look at how the bigger issues play out on a smaller, specific stage.

Charter School Watchdog

Longstanding clearing house for news of charter school shenanigans.

Chicago Public Fools

Julie Vassilatos blogs in and about Chicago, but watches national stories as well.

Class Size Matters

Leonie Haimson and Class Size Matters are among the heroes in the defense of public education. They thwarted a big data incursion into NY, and they continue to have a sharp eye on what threatens public education in this country.

Clemsy's Corner

For a more militant take on the education debates and national policy, read Michael Lambert, who posts mostly when he's cranked up.

Cloaking Inequality

Julian Vasquez Heilig has been a visible and vocal part of the pro-public ed movement, covering a wide range of national topics.

Dad Gone Wild

A father in Tennessee who has educated himself in the issues and done some activist work as well. Another regional blogger with national lessons for all of us to learn.

Daniel Katz

Katz is the head of the Department of Education Studies at Seton Hall and a former HS English teacher. He presents a well-researched, thoughtful take on what's going on nationally.

DCulberhouse

Generally Really Big Picture thoughts about transformation, leadership, and how it relates to organizations like schools.

Deustch29

I don't call her the indispensable Mercedes Schneider for nothing. Schneider blogs almost daily, generally on topics for which she has done research and digging-- she comes up with the facts about the reformsters and their organizations that nobody else had discovered.

Diane Ravitch's Blog

The chances that you read me and don't know about Ravitch are zero-to-none. But this list would look odd without her on it. This blog is like the pro-public education town square where everyone passes through at some point.

Eclectablog

The primo source for progressive coverage of all things Michigan. And they've now got Mitchell Robinson blogging about education for them. Essential regional read if you want to understand the state that spawned DeVos.

Education in the Age of Globalization

The website of Yong Zhao, an international writer and thinker about education. The best man to put China's educational "achievements" in perspective.

Education Opportunity Network

One of the places to find the work of education writer Jeff Bryant. Always well-sourced and thorough, a grown-up voice for public education.

Educolor

Educolor is a movement, a network, a hashtag, and a voice for equity in education. This is a place where you can start to get activated.

Edushyster

Funny and informative, the humor content here often overshadows the actual journalism. Jennifer Berkshire goes places, and talks to people, and we all get to find out how things look on the ground.

Finding Common Ground

One of the family of EdWeek blogs. Peter DeWitt is a former principal and a bridge-builder who is almost always entirely reasonable and thoughtful when discussing issues of policy or managing a school.

Fourth Generation Teacher

Claudia Swisher is yet another Oklahoma blogger and advocate who provides a good look at what advocacy looks like on the ground out west.

Fred Klonsky

Progressive union-loving activist with a clear direct tell-it-like-it-is style, writing in Chicago.

Gadfly on the Wall

Steven Singer blogs about national issues from a fiery progressive perspective.

Gary Rubinstein

Former TFA-er who keeps the pressure on that organization as well as other reformsters in New York.

Gene Glass

A senior researcher at the National Education Policy Center and co-author of 50 Myths & Lies that Threaten America's Public Schools. Smart man with a wide grasp of the actual research behind policy debates.

Jersey Jazzman

There's no better place for plain-language explanations of the wonky data behind policy debates. I've learned a ton reading this blog.

Keystone State Education Coalition

A great roundup of links to news and commentary regarding Pennsylvania education.

Living in Dialogue

Anthony Cody, a co-founder of the Network for Public Education, has long been one of the steady progressive blogging voices in education. This site continues his own blogging work along with contributions from other strong voices for public education.

Marie Corfield

The teacher who got yelled at by Chris Christie in that video. Now she's a strong voice for public ed activism in New Jersey.

Mitchell Robinson

Heads music education for Michigan State University, as well as being a long-time policy wonk. Great lively writing about national issues.

Momma Bears

If you're going to talk about public education activism in Tennessee, you have to talk about the Momma Bears, digging deep and laying bare the tools of the reformsters.

Mother Crusader

New Jersey mom who became a powerhouse public education advocate.

Mr. Anderson Reads and Writes

Reading, writing and policy, digging deep for details, from a classroom teacher.

My Two Cents

Mary J. Holden was an English who left the classroom and became an education activist. Located in Nashville, she's busy in one of the flagship states of reforminess, so there's lots for us to learn from her.

Nancy Bailey's Education Website

Former special ed teacher with a Ph.D. in educational leadership, Bailey tackles national issues with both fists.

Politics K-12

Alyson Klein and Andrew Ujifusa cover the political side of education at EdWeek and are a reliable source of what's happening in the halls of power.

The Progressive-- Public School Shakedown

The Progressive magazine is about the only news magazine with an actual commitment to public education, and that is shown through this ongoing project featuring eleven outstanding national writers (plus me).

Russ on Reading

Russ Walsh focuses on reading instruction, but sees the connections to larger education issues. Incidentally, Walsh has published the definitive layperson's guide to what's going on in ed reform.

Save Maine Schools

Emily Talmage is based in Maine, but she has been one of the voices out front in spotting and opposing the personalized competency based computerized learning trend.

School Finance 101

Bruce Baker manages to make sense out of the twisted labyrinth that is school financing. More interesting and important than you may imagine.

Schooling in the Ownership Society

A blog focusing on the moves to privatize public education with corporate reform.

Schools Matter

A roster of writers that includes Doug Martin, who wrote the book on Indiana Ed Corruption, and Jim Horn, who takes no prisoners and makes no compromises, but he knows his stuff. An aggressively anti-reform site.

Seattle Education

Another regional blog with a national take on ed reform, filtered through the unique perspective that comes from living in the shadow of Bill Gates' money.

Susan Ohanian

Ohanian had started to figure out what the hell was going wrong long before some of us had even started to wake up. Do not be put off by the design of her site, which can be... well, challenging. Trust me that it's worth it to dig in.

Teacher in a Strange Land

If you are unpaid viewer at EdWeek with only so many views per month, make Nancy Flanagan's blog your first priority. She's not as obviously combative, sparkly or full of fireworks as some blogs on this list, but she is smart and funny and honest and always worth the read.

Teacher Tom

Tom teaches at a pre-school co-op in Seattle, and his perspective (and that of his students) is always a welcome breath of cool air.

The Becoming Radical

Paul Thomas is a college professor comfortable blending references to ed research, race issues, poetry and comic books. A good pair of eyes for seeing beneath the surface of many issues in the ed realm.

The Jose Vilson

A consistently decent, human, humane, and personal perspective on teaching and race. Pretty sure this is one of the major teaching voices of a generation.

The Merrow Report

John Merrow was a top reporter for decades. He's retired, but he hasn't stopped finding and commenting on some of the important stories in education.

Troy LaRaviere's Blog

LaRaviere was a principal in Chicago, and refused to buckle even when the school system and Rahm Emanuel came after him. He's still paying close attention.

Tultican

Thomas Tultican keeps an eye on national stories and the bloggers who cover them.

Wait What?

Connecticut blogger Jon Pelto has been fighting corporate control in politics and education.

What Is Common Core

These ladies in Utah are from the conservative wing of The Resistance; they pay close attention and do their homework, and they've been doing it for over four years, making them oldsters in this game.







Vouchers-- The Religious School Windfall

School vouchers are one of the great zombie ideas of education, a shambling mess that simply won't die. Some attempts have even been ruled unconstitutional (see the privatizing heaven of Florida and North Carolina, America's Armpit), but that does not stop some folks from dreaming of more voucher programs, and we should probably pay attention, because one of those folks is Education Secretary-in-Waiting Betsy DeVos.


Vouchers are the dream of money in a backpack, strapped onto every wandering student. They have been sold as an engine of equality (they work more like, well, the exact opposite) as well as the same old baloney about choice leading to competition leading to excellence. But these are the public arguments for vouchers; the private arguments are less inspiring.

We can get a look at how these things really work by looking at Indiana, another state where GOP legislators have been diligently working to dismantle public education and sell off the pieces to entrepreneurs. But while a choice-charter system opens the door to let all sorts of folks get into the education-flavored-business game, voucher systems are a huge benefit for another group of people-- people who are already running private schools, specifically religious private schools.

Mark Weber (Jersey Jazzman) has crunched the numbers for Indiana vouchers and the numbers say that religious schools are sucking up public tax dollars like crazy. Greater than 97% of the voucher schools in Indiana are some sort of Christian-affiliated religious private school. A whopping 42% are Catholic schools. (You should read the full piece for all the details)

Emma Brown and Mandy McLaren also recently took a look at Indiana's voucher history. That history began in 2011 under then-Gov Mitch Daniels. But that program had a cap and pretended to be aimed at students in poverty. Daniels was replaced by Mike Pence, who wanted to set the program loose:

“There’s nothing that ails our schools that can’t be fixed by giving parents more choices and teachers more freedom to teach,” Pence said during his inaugural address in 2013.

And he definitely set out to accomplish one of those things (unless "freedom to teach" actually means "freedom to work without job protections"), raising the income limits and participation numbers. Oh, and voucher participants no longer had to have been previously enrolled in public school. If you had always sent your child to a private religious school, you could keep on doing it-- but now with your fellow taxpayers giving you a nice rebate check.

And indeed, Brown and McLaren found that in 2016, 52% of Indiana students using vouchers had never set foot in a public school. 300 Indiana schools accepted voucher students-- 44 of those schools had 75% or more students using vouchers.

In fact, Weber finds no signs that new schools are springing up to take advantage of voucher proliferation-- just the same old private schools now able to augment their revenue stream with public tax dollars.

There are all sorts of problems with this. As courts in other states have ruled, there's the whole issue of government using public dollars to fund private religious schools. Additionally, these private schools are free to discriminate in any way shape or form when it comes to admitting students. Think about that-- your own child could be turned away from a private school for any reason right down to your family's religion, and then your own tax dollars can be used as voucher funds to send your neighbor's kid to that same school that your own child isn't "good enough" to attend.

The financial impact on public schools is also an issue. Remember, the majority of voucher students never attended public school in the first place, which means that a bunch of money leaves a public school that is still serving the exact same number of students as before. Voucherizing private schools is done at the direct expense of public schools.

And while vouchers may defray private school costs, they are rarely enough to cover the costs entirely. While Brown and McLaren found at least one parent who claimed she would not otherwise have been able to send her kids to private school, that was a "middle class" family. No poor kids are getting to attend $40K/year private schools with their "up-to-$4,800" voucher. And while I haven't found any figures or studies addressing the question, I have to wonder if vouchers will create the kind of effect that loans and grants for post-secondary education has seen, with tuition costs swelling to match the most that families can pay.

None of this is unique to Indiana. Weber looked at Louisiana, Milwaukee and DC and found the same pattern. In Milwaukee, about 90% of voucher students are at Christian schools (42% Catholic). In DC, about 75% of vouchers go to private Christian schools (53% Catholic). And in Louisiana, a little over 95% of vouchers go to private Christian schools, with a whopping 75% going to Catholic schools. It is no surprise that where you find supporters for voucher programs, you will find the Catholic Church, which uses voucher programs to keep its schools healthy.

It is one of those odd discontinuities in the debate that vouchers are also beloved by the GOP. The same folks who condemned Bernie Sanders' "free college" like vouchers just fine. So, it's bad to use public money to send people to a private college, but an entitlement for K-12 students to attend a private school at public expense is okay.

It's hard to say at this point what DeVos could do to foster her beloved voucher programs at the federal level, but if she finds a way, it will mark a new day in channeling public tax dollars to private religious organizations.


Monday, December 26, 2016

Is Common Core Gaining Ground with Teachers?

In October, a bit over 500 registered readers of the EdWeek website took a survey about the Core. The results from these elementary, middle and high school teachers are not earth-shattering, but we might tease a few conclusions out.

You want me to do what??!!
First, it's worth noting that using EdWeek registered readers means a certain amount of self-selected bias. While I'm not particularly put off by the magazine's history and backing, many are-- EdWeek gets plenty of money from the reformy industry and, like every publication out there, occasionally blurs the line between "real" content and content-flavored advertising. But I worked for EdWeek for a year and found them to be nothing but supportive, including giving me a nice chunk of Bill Gates money to pay me for a piece attacking the Core. They never told me what I couldn't say. They were also long-time hosts of Anthony Cody's work, and they continue to host Nancy Flanagan, one of the most important pro-public ed bloggers out there.

So I don't think they are corporate shills in the back pocket of the enemy. At the same time, they are a business that knows which side their bread is buttered on, and there is a certain corporate air to it (as well as an actual paywall), so its readership does not necessarily represent the full spectrum of teacheriness. And this article, which consults only Core boosters are expert opinions, is trying had to spin positive for the Core.

But I digress. What did the survey say?

Prepared?

39% of teachers report that they feel "well-prepared" to teach the standards. That's almost double the 20% reported in 2012, but it's not very impressive. If I found that only 39% of my students felt well-prepared to take a unit test, I would figure my teaching needs some work. That figure drops considerably when the survey asks about ELL, special needs, or just plain at risk students. So, I don't know-- 39% feel very prepared if they're just going to be teaching those kids who learn whatever you put in front of them?

And student preparation? Only 10% said their students were ready to master the standards, which is still double four years ago, but still way less than a lot. On this I have to agree with quoted reformster Morgan Polikoff, who blames the word "master," a word that sets the bar mighty high.

Resources?

Only 18% of respondents felt that classroom resources are well-aligned (double the 2012 response). Teachers who think their professional development is swell come in at about the same number, which seems... high. One of the Great White Whales of education is a school district that does professional development well. In some cases, the state has hamstrung everyone by declaring that all PD must involve some specific list of features, guaranteeing that PD will be useless for everyone except the vendors making money by providing PD.

The popular solution is to go to sharing websites (Teachers Pay Teachers is a popular solution) to get ideas and materials from other teachers.

Do we even know what we're talking about?

Those two areas raise some questions. For instance, when 39% report that they are prepped and ready to implement the Core, do they even know what they're talking about?

When asked to explain how they know if something is Common Core aligned, 51% teachers said, "Well, I got it from a repository of supposedly-aligned stuff." If that repository is, say, a state operated website, or a publisher's bin labeled "Common Core Ready We Swear" then that's only slightly more accurate than a ouija board. Other methods included using expert rubrics and asking either peers or supervisors of some sort at your district.

So if we're asking, "Is there are any reason to believe that all these Common Core-aligned claimants are actually Common Core-aligned?" the answer is, "No, no there isn't."

This is no surprise. One part of the hash that was the Common Core roll-out was that we were supposed to change nothing at all about the Core (and only add 15% to it) but then people pushed back and the Powers That Be said, "Well, okay, do what you want," and so the Core was distributed through a loose network of folks who all added their own interpretations and publishers who just slapped CCSS on anything, and all of this happened against the backdrop of Common Core creators who unleashed their creation and then left the building before anyone could ask questions. Do you want someone authoritative to ask the question, "Is this really Common Core aligned?" Too bad-- there is no such authoritative voice anywhere to be found. So everyone is reduced to just making shit up (which is only fair, since that's basically the research basis for the Core in the first place).

The CEO of Achieve, a big CCSS clearinghouse and advocacy, had a chance to respond. "It's good that they're thinking about alignment," was the best she could come up with. Meanwhile, teachers are logging onto websites and telling each other, "Yeah, I can make this fit with those standards-aligned waste-of-time lesson plans we have to do. Is it really Common Core? Who knows? Who cares?"

PD woes

This may be my favorite finding from the survey. A large number (the actual data in this article is frustrating, as is the lack of a link to the actual findings) of teachers agreed that they have "had some training and do not want more." Similar findings have been reported with ten-year-olds regarding spinach.

And another interesting result-- most teachers feel they are more knowledgeable than their administrators.

Politics and the Standards That Do Not Speak Their Name

Less than half the teachers use the term "Common Core" freely and without restraint. Most are guarded when talking to students or parents. That may be because only 7% report getting positive feedback from parents about the Core.

So what have we learned?

The Common Core are not exactly a giant snowballed, barrelling down the mountain and gaining strength and speed as it comes. More like a hamster trying to drag a rusted Studebaker up the mountain. More teachers are used to the hamster, recognize the hamster, and know how to walk up the mountain without letting the hamster get in their way. But hardly anyone is stopping to help the hamster, and the chances that the hamster is going to get to the mountaintop before it drops dead of exhaustion or old age-- well, it's not looking good. And I don't think encouraging press is going to help. 

Privatized Freedom

Joseph Natoli has a piece at Truth-Out has a piece that's well worth reading, but for all the explication and coverage of the deliberate destruction of Detroit school "The Great Unwinding of Public Education: Detroit and DeVos" has some keen insights into the underlying pathologies fueling the privatization movement. Here's the line that reached out and whacked me right between the eyes:

We have internalized the mantra that all human endeavors that are placed in the hands of private enterprise succeed, whereas those run by the government not only do poorly but also rob freedom-loving people in the US of their freedom.

Well, yes.

I can feel the tension between the two poles. I know that when it comes to education reform, I'm most easily lumped in with a progressive crowd, but my distrust of government is large and deep. In the long run, centralized power has a bunch of built-in problems. To work, it has to attract people who are pretty good at figuring out (or recognizing) solutions all or most of the time, and that describes basically .02% of the human race-- any kind of government that focuses on finding the One Right Answer for everyone is guaranteed to make a hash of things.

But the pitfalls of government are worse than that. Libertarian comedy writer P. J. O'Rourke describes politics as "the business of getting power and privilege without possessing merit." And in the long run, the more power and privilege a government possesses, the more it will attract people who simply want the power and the privilege. We are living through the demonstration of that principle right now, with a Congress that devotes half its workday to working for re-election, a whole raft of elected officials who have no interest in really governing effectively, and a Presidency captured by a dim-witted mass of yawping ego who wants the office for the same reason that he wants shiny things and hot women-- somewhere in the yawning gulf that is where his heart should be, there's a tiny voice that tells him that if he Gets Stuff it will prove he's actually awesome.

And this is doubly scary because over the decades, we have allowed, even encouraged, more power to drift to DC. Each new President gets to play with new toys left lying around by the last one.

In short, I have a great deal of sympathy for the notion that government is very bad at doing very many things, and that often government's ideas about the One Right Answer we should all be choosing do, in fact, strip a little more of our liberty away from us.

But-- and this is a huge but-- that doesn't mean that private enterprise offers any kind of solution.

In fact, one of the ironies of this whole debate is that very often when government is busy stripping us of liberties and freedom, that government is actually serving as a mask for private enterprise.

This is not new. The Boston Tea Party that we so like to sort-of half-remember? Patriots didn't pick the East India Company's shipment of tea at random-- the tax they were protesting had been passed, in large part, to help the East India Company overcome its own financial struggles. The first Tea Party was thrown just as much to fight a corporation as a crown.

The examples are endless, from regulations about asbestos in school passed to benefit asbestos removal companies, all the way up to mobilizing the US Army to crush striking unions. Sometimes we are seeing the result of an ideological alignment, but sometimes it's simple math-- to keep their office, an elected official needs the kind of money that only a friendly, happy corporation can provide.

Are corporations better at getting things done? Sure-- some things. Corporations are good at building things, selling things, and making money from the process. But they have always-- always-- depended on government to maintain the playing field and they have always lobbied for that field to be tilted in a way that benefits them. The very notion of a Free Market is a fiction-- there is no such thing and there never has been. Instead, we have at best a free-ish market maintained by a government and its set of rules, and because those rules are chosen and maintained they are always open to debate, and corporations will always want to debate them, to game whatever system is in place. Because what corporations are best at is looking out for themselves, their own profits, their own power, their own benefits.

That means that the common good, the benefits, safety, freedom and liberty of citizens is never top of the corporate list. We have a fun fiction where we argue that we can make citizens look as if they are top of the list by linking profits to citizen well-being, but the important thing to remember is that even in such situations, the corporation is still looking out for itself, and the best way to do that is to try to get a favorable tilt on the field. Fewer rules to follow. More permission to pick and choose only profitable customers. The profiteers have every reason to stay close-- very close-- to the rule makers, because that relationship is far more profitable than the relationship with citizens.

In fact, the biggest lie in the mantra that Natoli cites is not that private enterprise does better work than the government-- the biggest lie is that there is some big difference between private enterprise and government, that they are not a collection of connected people moving back and forth within many private and public goals, always serving the same corporate power complex.

I don't have an answer to any of this. Well, the answer is to have people in power with some sort of moral and ethical sense and guidance, but I don't know how we get there from here. The answer is also to have a government that actually represents the citizens of the country; not sure how we get there, either. Elected officials are, at least, elected.

Maybe it starts with educating people to scenarios like the one in Detroit, to lifting the curtain so that a few more people every day can see the greedy, grasping, rapacious men behind the curtain, one wearing the mask of government and the other the mask of free enterprise, both liars, both working the levers of power for no cause but their own. Maybe if enough people see that enough times, it will make a difference. I truly don't know.