Saturday, June 24, 2017

Making Cybereducation Creepier

Do you think that cyber-education is just kind of creepy, with students sitting alone in the glow of a computer screen, navigating hundreds of little standardized quizlets and activities, their every keystroke and answer compiled in an undying data file that will follow those students around forever.

Do you find it hard to imagine how it could be worse? Well, a company called LCA Learning has found a way. They've come up with a program called Nestor which adds a whole new feature to online learning-- while you're watching the course, the course is watching you:

The idea, according to LCA founder Marcel Saucet, is to use the data that Nestor collects to improve the performance of both students and professors. The software uses students’ webcams to analyze eye movements and facial expressions and determine whether students are paying attention to a video lecture. It then formulates quizzes based on the content covered during moments of inattentiveness. Professors would also be able to identify moments when students’ attention waned, which could help to improve their teaching, Saucet says.

First, the software will not "formulate" quizzes-- it will pull quiz questions out of a bank of questions according to an algorithm. Let's just stop talking about algorithms tied to question banks as if they're artificial intelligence. They aren't any kind of intelligence.

But lets think about the rest of this picture. You have to keep your face in place, and mimic whatever the computer thinks an "interested" face looks like (and as anyone who has taught for more than two years can tell you, if you think students can't learn to fake an "interested" face, you are dreaming). Feedback to professors will encourage them to make certain parts of their lectures more "interesting," though I can imagine a quick solution would be to insert random explosions in the lecture.

This software has the potential to collect a whole new data set about each student, a super-creepy data set. And it can also help professors realize that they are no longer experts presenting information about a topic, but video producers trying to create an entertaining info-clip.

Here's a quick video clip of how this is supposed to work:

Notice that in the "good" example, the robot arm of the computer still rules the student-- it's just nicer about it.

And notice the five great benefits listed at the end:

* Students are more attentive
* Fewer physical classrooms
* Personalized coach for thousands of students
* Machine learning can use data from social networks
* Can register missing students from class

Only the last is legit. The magical attentiveness feature is the kind of thing technocrats envision because they don't spend enough time in the meat world. Fewer physical classrooms (and fewer meat teachers) is only a bonus if you're intent on making a healthy profit on all this. If you are coaching a thousand students, it's not personalized. You cannot have personalized education without persons.

But the fourth bullet is perhaps the creepiest-- your cybereducation program will also sweep up the rest of your online activity. Big Brother is always watching.

This is all even creepier when you look at LCA Learning itself. Here's how they describe themselves:

Our specialties are Street Marketing ™ and Alternative Marketing, Innovation, Brand Psychoanalysis, Active Web Listening and Experiential Marketing.

Or this self-description::

LCA Learning is an academic laboratory on "New Concepts of Marketing" in partnership with the University of San Diego, California

And on their home page, under the heading of "Shades of Learning," they list Street Marketing, Stealth Marketing, Facebook& Twitter, Undercover Marketing, and Ambush Marketing.

The company's creator is Marcel Saucet, whose background is in marketing and business. You can reach him in Paris, San Diego, or Dubai. Meanwhile, the website includes some subheadings that turn out to be bad links, and another spot where you can "get more informations"

A few news outlets(Engadget, Digital Trends) have picked up the story about Nestor, running more or less the same info (from, one would assume, the same press release), hung on the hook that Nestor is being used in two courses in Paris.

But as near as I can tell, nobody has yet run the explanation of how a marketing company suddenly is a champion of artificial intelligence-driven education. The most likely explanation seems to be that it's a great piece of stealth marketing and a great way to extend Big Brother's cyber-arm and add a marketing spin to whatever online courses you're trying to peddle (LCA has a big list). What's remarkable at this point is how few people seem to be asking LCA, "Exactly what is your expertise in education, and why should we buy education software from a marketing company?" Or other useful questions like, "How much data will this program hoover up and offer for people who want more informations about their future customers in order to more effectively stealth market whatever they have tom sell.

Friday, June 23, 2017

What Choice Won't Do

When it comes to the advocates of school choice, there are many points with which I disagree. I disagree with many of their assessments of the public school situation ("a dead end for which we spend more money than God and get results lower than dirt"). I disagree with many of their policy goals (why exactly should parents-- and no other taxpayers-- have a say about how tax dollars are spent).

These are disagreements about policy and systems that can be debated and argued (when people on both sides of the discussion are speaking in good faith). But what I find frustrating in the choice debates is the pro-choice arguments that simply aren't so.

There are some things that school choice simply won't do.

Choice Will Not Save Money

Multiple duplicate school systems must cost more than one single system. When businesses want to save money, they consolidate operations. They don't open more branches and raise their costs.

School Choice Will Not Unleash Competition That Will Spur Excellence

This will not (and has not) happen. For one thing, it's a zero-sum system in which losing means having less of what's needed to compete. It's a race in which the laggards must take off their shoes and give them to the leaders. But the very nature of the competition is problematic anyway.

It's Greene's Law of the Free Market: The free market does not foster superior quality; the free market fosters superior marketing.

Betamax was better than VHS, but VHS made better marketing choices. McDonald's does not dominate its market by producing top-notch gourmet food. Pepsi and Coke do not dominate their market by producing artificially flavored carbonated water that is significantly superior to other artificially flavored carbonated water.

Sure, product quality can be useful as a marketing tool. But it is often expensive, and more companies than we can count have decided they would rather save some money on production and get the product sold with marketing. And in a world jam packed with shiny spinny marketing, even quality is not enough to break through. On the other hand, a huge number of mediocre products that have ridden to success on the back of fancy, expensive marketing.

School choice will unleash marketing, schools promising any number of things they can't deliver. Worse, the drive to market affects the product. If, for instance, we push out all the students who aren't high-achieving, we'll be able to promote ourselves as a school where 100% of the seniors go to college (because everyone who isn't likely to go to college doesn't get to be a senior).

Schools in a free market choice system will not be asking, "How can we become better schools?" They will be asking "How can we convince more students to enroll here?" There will be many answers to that question, from flashier marketing to celebrity spokesperson to-- well, every sort of marketing approach used to sell breakfast cereal or beer. And as long as school attendance is mandatory, there will also be a market for people who choose schools for entirely non-educational reasons. We've already seen this, from basketball academies that minimize academics so students can shoot hoops all day, to the segregation academies where families can keep their children away from black kids.

Choice Will Not Put The Power in Parents' Hands

Choice advocates talk about how choice gives all the power to parents. It does not.

Parents, like any other customers in a free market system, will get exactly the choices that businesses choose to give them. Businesses get to choose the location at which they open. Businesses get to chose their pricing structure. In the case of education-flavored businesses, they get to choose what the requirements of admission are. And charter school businesses routinely set limits on when a student may enroll-- only at particular grade levels and almost never during the school year.

So to start, the only choices available will be the ones that businesses choose for the parents of a community. And choice schools will be highly motivated to choose which students they prefer to take on (see also above marketing section). The schools get to choose-- not the parents. This will work great if your child is a highly desirable recruit, not so much if your child belongs to the other 98%.

But then, there's also the question of how parents will exercise whatever limited choices are available, because the information available to them for making such choices is going to be limited, if not just plain packed with a bunch of noise. Marketing-- choosing a school will be like trying to choose a new car based strictly on car advertisements. It will be in the interests of many choice schools-- particularly the not-so-great ones-- to flood the decision space with inaccurate, misleading, and (depending on their ethics) false information.

Finally, once in a selected choice school, parents may well have no avenue for talking to school management. No monthly board meeting to attend, no local elected board members to call, no central office that has to respond to customer complaints. And schools don't need to keep customers happy, because those customers will be moving on shortly anyway. Who cares if these parents are unhappy-- we were already busy recruiting their replacements anyway?

For high-powered high-information high-clout parents with high-achieving students in wealthy markets, there will be some power in choice. For everyone else, there will not. Not unlike choosing a college-- you can "pick" Harvard, but Harvard will have the final say. There will be big winners, but most customers will be powerless before, during and after the choosing.

There Are Other Goals

There are plenty of bad ideas wrapped up in the school choice movement. There are things we shouldn't want to do, but these are things that choice will not do. There may be reasons to have a serious, honest conversation about choice, but these arguments for choice do not belong in that conversation.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

NY: Competition, Shmompetition

Eva Moscowitz has some kind of magical power. Maybe it's money or pheremones or some sort of magical aura, but her record in getting New York leaders to roll over and play fetch for her is impressive.

At the beginning of the month, NY court declared that her Success Academy is not accountable to the taxpayers when it comes to her Pre-K program; the city can not hold her to any sort of performance requirement. That flies directly in the face of the old ideal that a charter works by promising the taxpayer certain results and then is held to those results. Not for Moscowitz-- she remains free to do as she pleases.

Lawmakers in Albany handed her another win. Buried amidst new legislation dealing with mayoral control of schools, there is reportedly this nugget:

The SUNY Charter Institute, the regulations read, “acknowledges that many schools and education corporations it oversees that have demonstrated strong student performance have had difficulty hiring teachers certified in accordance with the requirements of the regulations of the commissioner of education.” SUNY is now planning to create “an alternative teacher certification pathway to charter schools.” 

So New York joins the roster of states where anyone with a pulse and a degree can be certified a teacher.

There are many reasons to be annoyed by this. It degrades the teaching profession, codifying that it is a job that literally anybody could do. It thumbs its nose at all the teachers who went to the trouble and expense to get real certification. And it underlines how charter backers often support ideas for charters that they would never accept in the schools attended by their own children.

But I'm also wondering-- what about the competition?

Charters, particularly in markets like NYC, were supposed to spark competition, as each school worked hard to become the very best, to chart new courses to the Land of Excellence. But isn't that supposed to work like a high jump competition? You know-- we keep setting the bar higher and higher and the jumpers improve their skills-- literally up their game-- to meet the new requirements.

This is the opposite. This is "We can't clear the bar at that height, so we'd like the legislature to lower the bar for us." This is "We'll settle for what the leaders of the best schools and the parents who send children to them would never settle for. We will deliberately not live up to that standard."

Competition is allegedly supposed to weed out those who can't cut it. If you can't manage to adequately staff your school, you aren't cutting it.

Rural Life vs. Free Market

I live in a small town and rural county in northwest Pennsylvania. Our population is a little over 50,000. The median value of a home is a little over $80K. Per capita income is a little over $23K, and our official poverty rate is 13.5%. As of 2010, we had about 81 persons per square mile. Our biggest city contains maybe 7,000 people, though our towns are surrounded by stretches of villages, farmland, and boroughs.

My town. My house is an inch or two beyond the right edge

We are not gut-wrenchingly poor. We are not Montana-style sparse. We are not Kentucky hollow rural. We are just on the northern tip of Appalachia, and most residents would deny we live in that region. We have major cities (Pittsburgh, Cleveland) within a couple hours' drive. I'd call us a typical, if not extreme, example of a rural/small town area.

We have one mall. It has a Sears for an anchor store. We have a couple of McDonalds (first one arrived about forty-five years ago), a Wendy's, a Burger King. We have one Wal-Mart. We have no Chipotle, no Red Lobster, no higher-end retail chains. We have one movie theater. We have a couple of regional family restaurants, but no national chains like Perkins or Denny's, and if you want to go out to eat after 10 PM on any night of the week, well, you can't (well, you can get food at a bar or at Sheetz, a regional-- and far superiors-- version of 7-11). There are chunks of the county where FedEx and UPS do not deliver (they just hand the package off to USPS).

We are fortunate for regions of our sort because we do have a hospital. It's a branch of UPMC, and it's here because of a long convoluted story involving lawyers, angry doctors, mergers, and court orders, and while it provides plenty of decent care, like most rural residents, if we want any kind of more advanced treatment or procedures, we have to go to Pittsburgh or Erie. In surrounding counties, hospital health care is always a long drive away.

This is how the free market works. Businesses go where the customers and the money are, and if the local market can't sustain a particular business, the business will either avoid that market or fold after it opens.

The free market does not like rural areas. The people there are too spread out and they don't have all that much money. Some retailers have learned how to work around that. Wal-Mart is the most notable example of a company that has figured out how to make money from spread out rural non-wealthy folks (hint: it doesn't involve providing them with outstanding, excellent products). There are also variations of remainder stores-- businesses that buy up inventory that big retailers couldn't sell and then sell those at discount prices. We have several of those.

Bottom line. When you say that you want rural areas to depend on the free market for goods and services, you're saying that rural areas will just have to make do with less. When we're talking about burgers or clothing or movies or late-night dining, that's not so big a deal. But when we start talking about health care and roads and education, it's not so okay.

In some ways, rural communities can be at a disadvantage compared to high-poverty urban areas. Urban poverty is generally dense-- if the government offers businesses a ten-cent-per-person profit for providing services or goods, the business has a chance to make money by dealing in bulk. Rural communities offer no such opportunity.

The free market says that what you deserve is what you can afford, and when we talk about services that are provided to the community as a whole-- like roads and health care and education-- what rural communities can afford is not much. Every call to privatize such services is a call to rural communities saying, "You deserve less."

Privatizers slip around this point a couple of ways, most notably by erasing the idea of services to a community and replacing it with the idea of commodities sold to individuals. So a school is not an institution that provides a backbone of the community, but just a business that sells education to individual students (and has nothing to do with everyone else).

Rural communities are also ripe for internet-based businesses. Can't get it locally? Just order it on line. That's definitely a blessing in many instances, but it comes at a price. Our local hospital branch is happy to offer distance doctoring, where you can do your consulting with a far-away physician on a screen, which is not exactly a big boon at a moment when you're facing all the fear and uncertainty that comes with illness or injury. Better than nothing? That may be true, but I bet nobody who can actually get a face-to-face flesh-and-blood doctor is saying, "Never mind-- I'd rather just talk to her on a computer screen."

And internet-based businesses suck at customer service. Cyber schools have descended on some rural areas and sucked up buckets of money, seriously damaging the tax base for the local community school. At the same time, they leave students with little human interaction or parents with any recourse when things aren't quite working out. And they leave local taxpayers who aren't actual customers of the business (but whose taxes pay the bills) absolutely no recourse for complaint at all.

Rural schools are branching out beyond straight-up cyber school to "course choice," a means of saying, "Why sure, we offer Chinese language studies here" and then plunking the student down in front of software driven cyber school. My own school offered Chinese language courses at one point. A few students tried them and found them boring, lacking any human touch, isolating, and boring. Internet-based course choice in many cases seems to be nothing more than a computerized version of handing a student a textbook and saying, "Go teach yourself this subject."

Better than nothing? Probably. But when your argument for a business is "We're better than nothing!" you're not exactly raising the flag for excellence.

Abandoning rural areas to a free market education system is deciding that rural communities deserve less, should get less, will have to settle for something whose greatest virtue is "Better than nothing." As with much of ed reform, it would be easier to have a conversation about all of this if folks would say, "Look, we don't want to spend money on Those Children in Those Communities. We think they should just settle for less because that's what their socio-economic level entitles them to." That would be hard to defend, but at least it would be honest.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

How To Sell Personalized Learning

Competency based education, one of the major flavors of personalized learning, has a great number of problems. It's beloved by our Silicon Valley tech overlords, but it has a lousy history (if you a4e of a certain age, you may recall Outcome Based Education, CBE's older failed sibling).

CBE reduces education to a series of simple standardized tasks, the complexity and depth of rigorous intellectual study reduced to a checklist of items to be tagged "done." Tech overlords love it because the whole business can be reduced to software running on computers (with little or no dependency on actual meat-based teachers). Actual live students, however, aren't that impressed. Turns out sitting in a cubicle and running through exercises on a screen is not all that compelling. And that's before we get to the Big Brothery issues of a system that records and attempts to analyze every last student key stroke. If you want to dig at greater length, you can read at Emily Talmage's Save Maine Schools.

Talmage has spent time on CBE because CBE has been spending time on Maine. Proponents, investors and other folks hoping to make it big with CBE have been using Maine as a testing ground to work out the bugs.

And one of the bugs remains how to get people to actually want CBE/PL.

Here's one version of the marketing pitch, courtesy of Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, chair of the Legislature’s Education Committee and Rep. Brian Hubbell, D-Bar Harbor, also on the Education Committee. It ran in the Bangor Daily News today [correction- I misread the BDN masthead-- this piece actually ran in February of 2016], but it's a pitch we can expect to hear many times. As often is the reform case, it involves connecting things that have nothing to do with each other.

We start with a statement of the challenge:

Maine’s future depends on educating students who can think for themselves, write and speak clearly, and work together to solve complex problems...We can no longer treat students like widgets moving through an assembly line as though they simply are amalgams of common academic content. Today’s students demand and deserve more customization.

What's the solution?

...we need better mapping of student achievement and clearly understood benchmarks — not just for schools but also for students, parents and our communities.

The Ed Committee plans to propose "broader credentials" and a "more meaningful transcript." As a side benefit, this system will also provide a more detailed accounting of what the school has taught, so accountability. And the new records will accommodate micro-credentials while allowing for students to meet academic requirements outside of school.

Under this model, student transcripts will show employers and college admission offices the subjects students have mastered. Schools will be required to give all students the opportunity via different pathways to become proficient in all subject areas described in state standards, not just the ones required for graduation.

Additionally, "schools also will certify each student’s college and career readiness by objective measures." Those objective measures will apparently be delivered by a squad of yeti riding on winged unicorns, because no such objective measures exist.

But Langley and Hubbell, or whoever wrote this for them, are aiming at transcripts instead of diplomas, a detailed inventory of micro-credentials, badges, and other competencies gathered from any place. Schools don't really factor into this system. What these guys are proposing is to end public school as we know it and replace it with a batch of online software and a detailed data portrait of untested and unsubstantiated standardized results that will follow students around forever. The article is loaded with gobbledeegook that sounds fancy--

More detailed credentials will allow students to distinguish themselves through their individual achievements. Transcripts benchmarked against learning results will allow students, parents, colleges and employers to understand with more certainty each student’s knowledge, skills and preparation for postsecondary education and careers.

Also, standards!!

With support from four governors and a dozen legislatures, Maine has led the nation in implementing learning standards, which encompass a core of knowledge and skills essential to prepare our students for college, citizenship and fulfilling careers.

But it's for a good purpose!

Requiring schools transparently to report on these credentials will allow Maine to ensure equity of opportunity. Without a big-picture perspective of what is going on in education, we can’t know what’s working and where we need to improve.

That's the sales pitch, and it's remarkable how much this pitch hasn't really changed since the first days of Common Core-- We will set some super-duper standards, and then we will deliver lots of standardized measuring instruments which will collect lots and lots of data, which will make students smarter and schools better. We will get a really good set of scales and we will measure that pig every five minutes every day and that will make the pig grow big and fat-- or tall, or whatever way we want the pig to grow this week. And it will all be managed by computer, so you know it will be awesome.

There are only a few problems with this plan. We don't know exactly how to measure college and career readiness. It's not possible to reduce complex thinking, writing, problem solving, or any other higher order operations to a simple series of standardized tasks and measures. We don't have a set of agreed-upon or proven standards on which we can base such a system. We have no answers for the kinds of privacy concerns created by putting a ten-year-old in front of a computer program and making the results follow that child around forever. We don't know how to truly personalize a standardized system. And then there's the question of who will profit from selling and running all these privatized school-replacing pieces.

Those are just for starters. This is the same old pig with a new shade of lipstick, which is unsurprising-- if you thought a pig could make you a gazillion dollars, you'd be happy to invest some up front money in many shades of lipstick. Shame on Langley and Hubbell and whoever wrote this piece of advertising copy for them.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Finn Backs Accountability-- Hard

The Great Divide in the reform world continues to be right along the lines of accountability, with DeVos and her DeVotees being pretty much against it in any meaningful sense. Just let the marketplace sort it out, they say, and Jeanne Allen, of the Center for Education Reform (a hard core charter-backing group), put together a whole book to help argue the point.

It can happen
Several folks have taken a shot at reviewing that tome. I'm not one of them (because I have two week old twins at my house), but here's a good look at parts of the work by Mercedes Schneider. And here's a review by Chester Finn, head honcho emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a reliable backer of education reform, and a guy I generally disagree with (just search his name on this blog).

So let me mark this occasion on which I not only agree with part of what Finn has written, but would gladly written it myself. Finn first sums up the notion that "the market will provide all the quality control that’s necessary. Quality is in the eye of the beholder, i.e., the parent—and the school operator. The heck with school outcomes." And then he unloads this paragraph:

This is idiocy. It’s also entirely unrealistic in the ESSA era. It arises from the view—long since dismissed by every respectable economist—that education is a private good and the public has no interest in an educated citizenry. Once you conclude that education is also a public good—one whose results bear powerfully on our prosperity, our safety, our culture, our governance, and our civic life—you have to recognize that voters and taxpayers have a compelling interest in whether kids are learning what they should, at least in schools that call themselves “public.”

Mind you, Checker is still a charter fan, and he still imagines that modern Big Standardized Tests are not terrible. But at least he's figured out that unregulated charters aren't really working:

Are these folks really prepared to just hand out charters after a cursory screening? And just trust unproven people with our taxpayer dollars and our kids—after all that we've seen in Ohio and elsewhere, despite all that we know about greedy and sometimes criminal behavior in the charter space, despite mounting evidence of for-profit operators opting for shareholders over schoolchildren?

Granted, all of this was just about as surprising as the rising of the sun, but still, he's seeing it.

So Finn and I still disagree on a big pile of stuff, including what accountability should look like. But at least he supports the increasingly-unpopular idea of actually holding schools accountable for how they use taxpayer dollars instead of chiming in with "The money belongs to the students so just shut up.". But if Allen's goal was to wrap the charter movement in a big re-unitey kum-bah-yah-- well, that's not happening today.

Digital Native Naivete

The cliché is a fifty-year-old asking some ten year old student for help in making the computer work. Having trouble making working with your device or your software? Just grab one of those digital natives to handle it for you!

Well, not so fast. Here's Jenny Abamu at Edsurge saying what I've been arguing for over a decade-- our digital natives are hugely naïve about technology.

With the adoption of any new technology, there's a curve. In the 1910s, if you owned an automobile, you were also a reasonably savvy mechanic who knew how to work on his own machine. But in the century since, cars have become advanced in a way that has led to fewer and fewer car owners who could actually repair their own vehicle.

It's a simple fact of marketing-- early adopters may be willing to know the nuts and bolts of the tech, but to expand my market, I have to be able to say to non-savvy buyer, "Don't worry-- the tech will take care of everything for you." I have to make the tech user-friendly, and the friendlier it is, the less my customers need to know. The goal is to move from a product that only an aficionado can handle to a product that any dope can use. We are well into Any Dope territory with computer tech (spoiler alert: Linux is not the PC wave of the future).

Fifteen to twenty years ago, I could count on a few students in each class who could code. I used student helpers to build the school website from scratch. But nowadays I have to explain to my students how to save a photo the like on line, or how to use a Google doc. And students at the New Media Consortium Summer Conference echo that:

“Something you can do to prep your students for college is to have one day where you host a workshop on using Google Docs,” suggested Alejandra Cervantes, a junior at UCLA, in response to a question from an educator about the best way to support high school students heading to college. “Something simple like that can be pretty instrumental in helping them succeed in classes in the future.”

And yes-- that quote and the article its from raise its own set of issues. Because Google is working hard to inject themselves into the ed world, and they're not doing it just to be great humanitarians, so pieces like the Edsurge piece are meant to keep banging the drum that your student must know how to use Brand X Software or she'll fail at life.

And yet there is all this cool stuff to use, and my students don't have a clue. They know Snapchat, Instagram, a little twitter, and whatever the hot app of the week is (developers who think they can come up with an educational app that students will use enthusiastically for a year, starting months from now-- those developers have a naivete problem of their own). There are pieces of software that let them collaborate on projects-- they don't know how to use any of them. There are tools for including art and images and videos in one project and they don't know how to use any of them. And why do we keep reading stories about somebody who lost a job or a college spot because they posted something stupid on line? Because the vast majority of my students have no idea how the interwebs actually work.

In some cases it is tunnel vision-- they just use what they use, which is what they picked up from friends or the pre-loaded software on their device. In many cases, it's lack of access. A Pew Research Report from 2015 says that 17.5% of households with children have no internet access. That does not seem out of line with my own student population (though virtually all of my students have their own smartphones).

I have beaten my head against this cyberwall for years. I was hugely excited about the possibilities of web-based projects in which students could take 15 or 20 different works of literature and show a web of relationships between them-- far more complex stuff than could be managed in a traditional paper. But when I gave them the assignment, what I got was a traditional linear paper with each paragraph on its own page, linked so that the reader could go forward or back a paragraph.

I am not a thoughtless technophile, and I never implement tech just to do it. If it's not useful, I don't care. Where it is useful (I have replaced the traditional English teacher keep-em-writing practice of a paper journal with mandatory blogging for my students), I embrace it. But I have had to train and explore and learn myself first, because my digital natives are like people who have grown up in a big metropolitan city but only know their way around their own two-block neighborhood and don't even know the actual names of the streets there.

If you want to get your students into the technofuture, you are going to have to lead them there, just like you have to with Shakespeare and critical realism and new vocabulary words. That's the implication of this kind of article for teachers. The implications for people who think giving standardized tests on over-the-net software-- well, that's another discussion (spoiler alert: it's a bad idea).

Monday, June 19, 2017

PA: Islamophobes, Real Estate, and Scam Artists

I'll tell you right up front that this story raises more questions than it answers, but many of them are questions about just what comes through the door when you invite privatization in, and others are questions about how people react when they discover what an open door actually means.

The New Castle Youth Development Center was set up in about 1967 as a facility for dealing with "felonious youth." It was on almost 150 acres in rural Shenango Township, and it didn't attract a lot of attention (except for that time, back in the 1987-1988 season when its high school won the Western PA basketball championship).

In 2013, the state announced that the facility was closing. There were reasons given, but the math was pretty obvious. 210 employees. 100 beds. $19.4 million annual budget. 31 youths being held there. The end came quickly and local folks kicked, but the state-- which owned the facility-- was unmoved.

The state's intent was to sell the facility, but like many starry-eyed investment-minded homeowners, the state didn't read the market for fifty-year-old juvenile justice facilities in the middle of nowhere very well. They set an asking price of four million. Absolutely nobody bid. The property sat there, presumably getting no more attractive, the state's aspirations decreasing. A local coalition looked at buying the place with an eye to some sort of private-public partnership develop thing. That didn't happen, either.

Finally, this year, three bids came in. The top bid was $400,000, and the state said, "Sold!!"

And then local folks found out who the buyers were.

The top bid came from Hira Educational Services of North America, a New Jersey educational consulting group. That specializes in consulting work with Islamic schools. They look like a typical private school consulting group, the kind of group that has sprung up all over to help amateur hour school launchers navigate all the paperwork and finances of running an actual school.

Since the establishment of HESNA, over 200+ Islamic institutions and organizations throughout the United States have received counsel in the areas of strategic planning, board development, capital campaigns, recruitment searches, and executive coaching.

Reaction to the news has been... well, let's go with "not always representing the most egalitarian inclusive spirit of American diversity." Looking through the comments sections of local newspaper articles about this news is not for the faint-hearted; "horrible racist blather" covers much of it. Local authorities, like the county commissioners, were concerned that they knew nothing about their new neighbors-- including what those neighbors intend to do with the property. The story has also sent ripples out into the national wing-nut blogosphere (for example, this offensive racist post from a site called the Powdered Wig society; the Daily Caller has also picked up the story).

At this point in the story, we can stop to say, "I told you so." It was fairly predictable that the same folks who call for choice and vouchers and freedom from "government schools" (like, say, the Daily Caller) and who want to see tax dollars support religious schools were going to be shocked and upset when it turned out that "religious school" didn't automatically mean "Christian school." So, yeah-- if you want your tax dollars to "follow the child," some of your tax dollars are going to follow the child straight into an Islamic school, or a Buddhist school, or a satanic school, or (I'm just waiting) a Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster school. Bottom line-- intolerant racist folk are not going to like some of the side effects of a choice policy.

But the story isn't quite that simple, because like many of these school consulting groups, HESNA looks kind of hinky.

For a group that has helped "200+" institutions, HESNA has a very tiny online footprint. Their LinkedIn page says nothing. Bizpedia indicates HESNA was founded in 2011. Asif Kunwar is listed as the founder and president of HESNA, but he's also left few footprints on line (though there is an Asif Kunwar who was a student at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in 2010-2011). And the New Castle News learned that while Kunwar didn't sign the HESNA bid, one of the other two bids was a personal bid submitted under his name. The News also tried to track phone numbers for the group and found contradictory messes.The name is not helpful-- HIRA turns up in the name of many organizations, likely as a reference to the Cave of Hira, where Muslims believe the Quran was first revealed.

The website. Well. Links don't really go where you'd expect them to-- like subheadings that all lead to the same page. The subscription link for their e-newsletter is dead, is the link for viewing the latest edition of that newsletter. The facebook and twitter links just loop back to the HENSA page. Misspelled words. On one screen they declare "We arrange the occassionals events for the students to perform and watch show." They have a whole slide about "discriminition." A vision that doesn't seem tightly connected to reality--

To become top educational services consultant in North America.

The only thing the site gets remotely specific about is E-Rate, a grant program buried about five bureaucratic layers down in the FCC which gets tech stuff to schools and libraries. Your school may well be involved-- the program throws around about $2.5 billion annually. And just in case you're wondering about the criteria for E-Rate, HENSA's got your back: "The eligibility criteria or pre-requisites to acquire E-Rate discounts are well-defined and the recipients of the discount(s) must meet the required conditions." Hope that clears it up for you.

This guy may not have a clue what he's talking about. He may be one of the many groups that have sprung up to cash in by offering "consulting help" to private school entrepreneurs, and going Islamic is just his market niche. On the other hand, the infamous Gulen chain of charters appears to be a giant scam to use US tax dollars to fund a Turkish rebel government in exile. One thing that seems clear-- this is not a seasoned professional who knows his way around the private school world.

So like many groups we've seen spring up to get their hands on some of those sweet, sweet privatized education dollars, what we've got here is probably either some small time amateur bumbling around or some mid-level scam artist. But add a bunch of Islamophobic reaction,  and Pennsylvania may well blow this whole bad real estate deal up into some sort of ugly mess (it may also come to crashing halt when his first check bounces).  This is the awesome power of the private sector and the free market teaming up with state government, religion, real estate deals, and education. It could all be legit, it could be something shady, or it could be twelve types of baloney. Bottom line is that right now, nobody really knows.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

ICYMI:Father's Day Edition (6/18)

It's a day for Dads, a holiday that somehow doesn't clog restaurants and bolster the greeting card industry. But in the meantime, here are some readings from the week. Remember to share!

The acquittal in Philando Castile’s killing makes clear that black lives still do not matter

Not strictly about education, but important none the less, particularly for its pointed observations about the second amendment. This acquittal was the worst news of the week.

Help Kids Mind Their Own Business

Eleven handy sayings (and one kind of dumb one) to make the anti-tattling case to your students. No policy implications.

No Clean Hands

A guest poster at Have You Heard makes some powerful points in the whole "Whose fault is Betsy DeVos" debate.

Students Sat in Cubicles; It Wasn't Popular 

Carpe Diem is yet another charter that turns up on reformster lists of charter awesomeness. Turns out it hasn't been so awesome.

Suppressing Free Speech in Schools Does Not Make America Greater

An editorial looking at two student free speech cases. Close to home for us in the yearbook and school newspaper biz

The Church of Choice

Daniel Katz takes a look at Betsy DeVos's belief in the magical powers of choice

Pearson Botches Mississippi Testing [Again]; Mississippi Immediately Severs Contract

While we're arguing about bigger policy issues, implementation is still its own problem. Pearson just blew it in Mississippi

Here's an Idea: Let's Guarantee Each Child an Excellent Education

Steven Singer argues for public, not privatized, education.

Betsy DeVos Doesn't Get It

Jan Ressenger looks at how DeVos's Libertarian beliefs do not serve the public good.

The War on Teachers and the End of Public Education

Nancy Flanagan reads the writing on the wall and issues a call to arms.

Building the Life We Want

Annie Tan doesn't post often, but when she does, she makes it count. Read this to draw power for what's ahead.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

PA: Testing Non-Reform

In Pennsylvania, our Big Standardized Test for high school students is the Keystone Exam. Its history is a sad study in BS Testing. Its future is cloudy. Unfortunately, while the Keystones may be on the way out, there's no reason to believe they won't be replaced with something worse.

Back in the (pre-Common Core) day, PA used the PSSA tests to measure student achievement of some sort for reasons of some sort. Our elementary schools still use the PSSA tests on the elementary level. But by the Fall of 2010 we were all being hyped up for the New! Improved! Keystone exams (I'm looking at some of the handouts from the era which were still tucked in a corner of my desk).

For those of you who don't know what a keystone is, actually

Keystone plans were ambitious. Pennsylvania would offer "end-of-course assessments designed to assess proficiency in various subject areas." The list was extensive-- Algebra I, Algebra II, Biology, Chemistry, Civics and Government, Geometry, English Composition, Literature, U.S.History, and World History. Note-- these were not just supposed to be Big Standardized Stand-alone Tests, but the actual final exam for these courses.

The graduating class of 2016 was going to take the first four-- Algebra I, Biology, Literature, and English Composition. And those tests were going to account for one third of their final course grade. Other tests were going to be field tested and rolled out in 2011, 2012 and 2015.

Mostly that didn't happen.

It's 2017, and only three of the tests have been completed. The Literature, Biology and Mathy Keystones have been with us for a few years (brought to us by the folks at Data Recognition Corporation, a company already contracted for piles of money and many years,  and SAS, the same group that owns and operates the VAAS flavor of VAM sauce). This is the part where I incriminate myself and say that despite our super-secret pledge as teachers to remains ignorant of the test content-- well, I peeked, anyway. The Literature test is junk. But that's a discussion for another day.

What's important at the moment is that Pennsylvania was going to make those three tests graduation requirements, but it keeps blinking. Perhaps the legislature keeps postponing the use of the Keystones as graduation requirements because these are normed tests, aka tests that are graded on a curve, guaranteeing that some percentage of students must always fail. Legislators seem reluctant to tell a big bunch of PA high school seniors that even though their grades are good, the state says they can't have a diploma.

So the three Keystone exams continue, a graduation requirement now, maybe, in 2019. They are not (yet) a state requirement for graduation, though many school districts use them as a local requirement so that we'll be ready when the state makes up its mind. Oh, and even though the Keystone exam has absolutely no consequences at all for students, the Keystone exam results are still used to evaluate schools and teachers. So that's awesome.

Now Senator Andrew E. Dinniman and Sen. John H. Eichelberger, Jr. have introduced a bill to do something other than kick the can further down the road. Senate Bill 756 proposes to eliminate the Keystone exams entirely. Unfortunately, the bill proposes a few other bad ideas in their place.

After leading with the whole Keystone-destruction thing, the bill says that as far as the federal requirement for a Big Standardized Test goes, just use the SAT or the ACT or the ASVAB or a proper vocational test or the GED. All of these are terrible ideas for an exit exam for high school seniors because none of these were designed for that purpose. "We don't want you to use a hammer to drive those woodscrews-- use this glue gun instead."

Third, the bill says that the test must take less than two instructional days and it must be scored and returned to the school within thirty days. These requirements are dumb. The first is frequently pushed by politicians, some of them well-meaning, but it shows a complete lack of understanding of how tests screw with school. Let's say that the parents of your school football players complain that football season takes up too much of their children's lives; the useful response is not to say, "Okay, all games must be played in at least two hours." The Big Standardized Test is just game day; the test prep season eats far more year and does far more damage than the test. The thirty-day return policy? Nice idea, but it rules out all of the alternative suggestions the bill already made, so that may be a problem.

Fourth--  "accountability results shall be used as part of a comprehensive plan for a multi-faceted, wholistic, and rigorous approach to determine teacher evaluation and school performance" is, I suppose, a nice caveat about the limits of the test, but it imagines a system that doesn't yet exist. The whole multi-faceted wholistic rigorous thing is a lovely idea that nobody has actually designed. So this point boils down to, "Don't worry about being judged by these scores, because we will cover them with the dust of baby unicorn horns."

Fifth-- the bill requires that parents be informed of their rights to opt out of the BS Test, which won't officially exist any more after this bill is passed? Or they can opt out of whatever inappropriate substitute test is being offered? Or is this just the state reprinting the part of the ESSA that already says that parents have opt out rights?

So Pennsylvania struggles with the various practical challenges of implementing a bad policy. Meanwhile, those of us in the classroom continue to go from year to year wondering which version of the policy we'll be dealing with this year as we await our evaluations based largely on the results of tests that mean nothing to the students who take them.

Friday, June 16, 2017

FL: Death To Public Education

Florida has long struggled to take the lead in the State Most Hostile To Public Education contest, with North Carolina, Wisconsin and Nevada giving some real competition. But this week, Florida's legislature and governor took a decisive leap forward.

Let there be no doubt-- no state is more hostile to the very idea of public education than Florida.

Just a quick search through this blog will remind you of the many ways that Florida has spat on public education in the past. They tried to undermine the teaching of science. They have remained studiously devoted to the idea of the Big Standardized Test, even though they can't seem to get one right (and even to the point of cancelling actual education and requiring students to pledge allegiance to the test). But their devotion to the BS Test is so great that they hounded the mother of a dying child and went to court to keep children out of fourth grade who had demonstrated mastery of reading-- but not on the BS Test. They have committed to a merit pay plan (well, with every kind of commitment except funding) that is one of the dumbest and most insulting versions of the oft-disproven concept of merit pay ever seen. They have turned recess into a political football. They have stood in a courtroom and declared that teacher-given grades are meaningless.  They implement bad retail management practices in their education system. They serve as the home base for FEE, the astro-turf edu-group that was supposed to help propel Jeb! Bush to the White House (as well as other failed astro-turf for the Common Core failures). In the face of a teacher shortage, they got rid of tenure and have since used it make the shortage worse by purging teachers who speak up about abuses they see. They host some of the research in How To Replace Teachers (and Students) With CGI Avatars, as well as some disastrously failed Gates "research" about teaching. They are pioneers in the destructive and not-remotely-useful A-F school grading system. And while they have pursued these new horizons in the destruction of public schools and the teaching profession, they've also kept the door open so that good old-fashioned racist underfunding of public schools can continue unimpeded.

But then, letting terrible crap happen without standing in its way (well, unless it's those third graders trying to avoid passing the Big Standardized Test) is what Florida does best. They have left the field for charter schools wide open, while doing their best to hamper public schools so that charters would look by comparison. Which is a challenge, because in Florida we have so many awesome charters to choose from. How about the charter that fired an English teacher for assigning actual reading?  How about a charter organization making money for a former model, but not actually educating anyone? Or a charter that's run only to enrich a family, but which fires its whole staff. Or a charter that abruptly closes mid-yearHere's an entire report that captures pages of Florida charter frauds and scams, because none of these examples is unique within the state. 

And Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos regularly holds Florida up as an exemplar.

But for some of Florida's education-- well, "leaders" isn't exactly the word, so let's call them Buckaneers, after the brave pirates who used to raid Florida in days of old, and yes, I spelled it with a K on purpose-- anyway, those guys didn't see enough destruction happening fast enough, and so, HB 7069.

Florida HB 7069 is everything there is to hate about the legislative process. The Miami Herald figures there are pieces of 55 old bills stapled together in this ugly dog.Cobbled together in some collection of dark back rooms, it offers a giant poop sandwich with a pickle on top, in hopes that people who like pickles will buy it.

Except that, in the end, the Florida GOP didn't make any real effort to sell it to anyone, though some of the charters that stood to profit from it assigned letter-writing duties to their parents. And some newspapers played along-- the Orlando Sentinel, in a truly amazing display of journalistic malpractice, covered the story as a bill "to scale back testing." The whole business came down to an 11th-hour hope that if enough opposition could be mustered to the bill, Gov. Rick Scott would accidentally follow his naked self-interested into doing the right thing and veto this unholy bastard of a bill.

That did not happen. In fact, because simply signing the bill wasn't enough of a big fat "F@#! You!" to all supporters of public education, Scott signed the bill in a Catholic School, like the faithless jerk who cheats on you with some loose sleazebag, and then brings the sleazebag to the family picnic, just to rub it in your face.

The bill includes hundreds of pages, but opponents and supporters agree on what it does-- the bill shifts millions of taxpayer dollars from public education to the charter industry. Senator Linda Stewart summed it up pretty well here in her comments:

The legislation you signed today gives to the charter school industry a free hand and promises them a bountiful reward. It allows corporations with no track record of success, no obligation to struggling students, and no mandated standards of accountability to flourish, with the sole obligation to their shareholders. Not the public. Not to well-intentioned parents desperate to see their children succeed – but to a group of investors who have made a business decision to add these companies to their portfolios because they are interested in making money.

Opposition to the bill was widespread, and the cause for its support was not hard to figure out. Check out some of the leaders of the initiative. There's House Speaker Richard Corcoran, whose wife runs a charter school in Pasco County. (He's also the guy who reportedly insisted on the "poop sandwich withy pickle" political strategy for creating the bill). There's Rep Manny Diaz, who runs a pretend college that lets charter students pretend they are taking college course. There's bill co-sponsor Rep. Erik Fresen, who works as a $150,000-a-year consultant for Civica, an architectural firm that specializes in charter school buildings. Diaz and Fresen also work for Academica, a big time Florida charter chain. And the legislators did consult some folks as well, according to Gary Fineout, an AP reporter who has covered many Florida crazy-pants education stories:

Rep. Michael Bileca, a Miami Republican and chairman of the House Education Committee, said legislators met with charter school operators and asked what it would take for them to set up schools in the neighborhoods now served by traditional public schools. He said one answer was that they needed help paying for new buildings to house the school.

Voila! HB 7069 gives charters the ability to just go ahead and suck up tax dollars for purposes like buying or building facilities.

The bill also provides the cynically-named "Schools of Hope," which is an unbridled license for charter schools to expand in markets where the public school has been sufficiently weakened-- and no requirement to accept the students from that community. The state's voucher program has been expanded. And a charter no longer needs the permission of a local district to expand-- just its money.

There are yet more amazing features (after all, it's almost 300 pages). Charter schools get to "grade" districts (but not, of course, vice versa). Title I funds are up for redistribution. New charters may ignore local zoning laws. Charters may of course hire any warm body they like, regardless of qualifications. And in a particularly baldfaced unsupportable move, HB 7069 says that if Chris does a lousy job as a student at Gotrox Charter Academy, then goes back to public school, the public school has to count all of Chris's failure in their public school grade.

It is true that HB 7069 does stop short of, say, allowing charter operators to take the food from in front of students in public school cafeterias. Nor does it allow charter operators to attack public school buildings with tanks or bazookas. But charter advocates are peeing themselves with glee. It is absolutely open season on public education in Florida, with the traditional system to be replaced with a corporate marketplace with a single purpose-- to make a bunch of money while pretending to sort of educate a select few students, kind of.  Students will be at the mercy of whatever the market wants to offer them, while the children of the rich will head off to private schools. What happens when the state burns down your public school and no reputable or competent charter wants you? Some Floridians are about to find out.

There is no pretending this will serve students. Florida's education system has already been failing masses of students by gutting public schools and replacing them with unregulated, unqualified, unscrupulous charter operators, and this bill openly and deliberately accelerates that process. North Carolina has been trying hard to show us what one-party rule with no regard for democracy or the rights of citizens looks like, but it turns out they are just wanna-be's compared to the money-hungry back-room operators of the Florida GOP. I have seen on the twitterverse that some legislators may have voted for this abomination thinking that Scott would veto it (which-- really? Have you met your governor) and that other folks failed to speak out because they really like pickles and didn't believe the poop would be that hard to choke down. Shame on all of them. I know there are still good schools and good teachers left in Florida, but after this week's action, I wouldn't send my worst enemy to teach in Florida, nor their children to go to school there.

And do not forget--

This is what Betsy DeVos thinks is an example for us all. This is what she thinks the whole country should look like.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

5 Causes of Ed Reform Fails

Robyn Schulman is a Forbes contributor covering "the intersection of education and entrepreneurship." She the senior editor of thought-leadership for 51talk, "a leading education startup in China." So she's not necessarily the kind of person I'd be inclined to pay attention to. But her new Forbes piece is a worthwhile read.

The Top 5 Reasons EdTech Startups Fail And How To Avoid Them lists five problems that most classroom teachers will recognize. Only they aren't confined to ed tech start-ups. Or even ed tech, which is just one brand of ed reform-- and ed reform shares many of these fatal flaws.

1) Lack of understanding the education ecosystem.

Just because you went to school back in the day does not mean you know how schools and education  work today. This leads ed tech folks to develop programs that don't actually fit the needs of people in the field. In the ed reform biz, this leads to repeated calls to reform practices that stopped being the norm decades ago. Teachers have not been told to make their students do rote memorization for years, and most of us are entirely familiar with computers.

If you don't know what our challenges and problems are, there's no way you can help us deal; with them.

2)  Edtech startups lack critical teacher input and transparency.

Indeed. You would think that people who want to influence the world of education would talk to the people who devote their entire professional lives to the classroom. But no-- some folk remain convinced that not only do they not need to talk to teachers, but they should actively avoid it. Many an edtech promoter has taken the position that their program would work great if not for those damn teachers. The ed reform movement has mellowed a bit since the days when teachers were painted as the source of everything wrong with education-- but they still mostly don't trust us and virtually never listen to us. That manifests in a real lack of transparency-- if we don't let teachers see what we're doing, they can't tell us mean, hard truths about our ideas.

That means that people with bright ideas repeatedly trip over obstacles that we could easily have warned them about, had they just asked. Test-based accountability leads to a narrowing of the curriculum??!! What a surprise!

3) Approaching educators and administrators in an arrogant tone

Yeah, all week, every day. Time has actually softened this one a bit, as some of us on either side have found ways to talk to each other. But mostly edtech folks come to pitch their ware like we teachers are idiots who don't know anything about our jobs, and ed reformers have far too often takenm exactly the same tone.

They get to thinking they don't need our help or even willing cooperation. That turns out to be wrong every time.

4)  Harassing teachers and administrators

What she means is that edtech entrepreneurs make the mistake of cold calling and emailing teachers instead of building relationships. This has always been a critical shortcoming of the ed reform movement; they have never taken an interest in building relationships with the education world, but have focused on slamming home their agenda through brute force and political power.

Then they are shocked and surprised (and deeply offended by tone) when the people they've tried to roll over stand up and fight back.

5)  Lack of understanding the bottom line

Edtech folks, Shulman suggests, get focused on their own kind of bottom line and forget that teachers and educators have a different bottom line--  "The bottom line for teachers, parents and schools: the product must benefit students, promote growth, and be safe."

Ed reformers have learned to adopt this kind of language, but their bottom line remains different from that of those who devote our lives to public education. We have some disagreements in the ed debates because we disagree about methods, but in many cases we have different goals. Ed reformers have a different bottom line, and that creates its own set of priorities. Whether those can co-exist peacefully with the bottom line of public education is one of the great unanswered questions (and frankly, I believe in many cases the answer is "no"). But this difference in bottom line is what underlies all the problems already listed.

These aren't the only five mistakes made by edtech entrepreneurs and ed reformers, but they make a pretty good list.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

DeVos Doctrine Reaches Out To Charter Fans

The rise of Betsy DeVos opened up some schisms in the education reformster world, including, notably, voucher fans versus charter fans. Charter fans have been distrustful, even openly resistant to DeVos and whatever agenda she is drifting toward. Charter schools and voucher schools are natural competitors, with vouchers having a distinct edge with the private religious school market. But I think it may be more important that they compete in different ways.

To grossly oversimplify, the charter model is to attach itself to the public school system, coopting the public system's financial systems but redirecting public monies to private schools. The voucher model is to keep the public funding from ever entering the public system at all. Charters want to slip the money out of the bank, but vouchers want to grab the armored cars delivering it. Charters flirt with the lottery winner so he'll buy them a nice dinner, and vouchers mug him before he ever gets to the restaurant. Charters fake their family ties so they can wrangle an invite to Thanksgiving

So it represents a significant shift that DeVos has delivered a speech loaded with a giant olive branch to charter supporters.

DeVos was speaking to the National Alliance for Public [sic] Charter Schools. We'll be looking at the official copy of her prepared remarks. She opens with a nice clear warm hug:

It's great to be here with so many pioneers and champions who are fighting to give our nation's families more quality options in their children's education.

And then, in the guise of telling her own story, she gets straight to the point:

Defenders of the status quo like to paint me as a "voucher-only proponent", but the truth is I've long-supported public charter schools as a quality option for students. ...Whatever your own journey looks like, we're here because we came to the same conclusion that, as a nation, we are simply not doing a good enough job educating our kids.

"Defenders of the status quo" is reformster boilerplate, appropriate for DeVos, who like many others is determined to tear schools away from a model that hasn't actually existed for decades. But the DeVos doctrine is clear-- public school sucks, and parents should decide where the money goes.

Not that she has anything against "great teachers," who she also paints as victims of the old system (and asks those in the audience to stand and be recognized).

But she has two cautionary tales to tell, about the inadequacy of "assigned" schools. "Assigned" seems poised to replace "government" as the critical adjective favored by reformsters. It's an effective way of conveying that public education is an indignity inflicted on children, and not a way for communities to work together to educate their children.

But DeVos must still rail against the educational system of 1962:

How can we be ok with an education structure that is so inflexible and so unaccommodating? Education is foundational to everything else in life, yet the process of acquiring it is based on a family's income or neighborhood.

This conflates two issues. The first is the notion that the educational structure is inflexible and unaccommodating. Not as true as she thinks it is, but if it is, why not demand a system that is flexible and accommodating rather than demand a choice system that provides a range of schools that are inflexible and unaccommodating in many different ways? And second, if we feel that school funding is too closely tied to neighborhood income, then why not cut those ties? Why not demand a system that fully funds each school?

But DeVos is here to praise charters, not to bury them. After a quick recap of charter history in which she suggests that charters were spearheaded by parents looking for choices and not Freedman-following free marketeers looking for access to that sweet sweet public money.

She wants us to know that "charter schools are here to stay" but that they aren't exactly the right fit for every child. "For many children, neither a traditional nor a charter public [sic] school works for them." Just so her audience knows that while she loves charters, voucher schools are still part of her picture.

Then she says the one smart thing in the whole speech:

Charters are not the one cure-all to the ills that beset education. Let's be honest: there's no such thing as a cure-all in education.

This is a clear rejection of another old reformster theory of action-- find a great school with great teachers and just scale it up for everyone everywhere. It has always been a dumb idea, and I'll give DeVos a gold star for recognizing that. Then I will take five stars away for this next piece:

I suggest we focus less on what word comes before "school"—whether it be traditional, charter, virtual, magnet, home, parochial, private or any approach yet to be developed—and focus instead on the individuals they are intended to serve. We need to get away from our orientation around buildings or systems or schools and shift our focus to individual students.

This is the subtle but hugely important heart of the DeVos doctrine-- the dismissal and destruction of institutions. It is what makes her a perfect fit for the Trump administration. Institutions can be hidebound, stiff and rut-bound, but they also serve as advocates for people who are not rich and powerful. If a public education system is broken down and replaced with a disconnected unregulated mass of education-flavored businesses, then parents and communities will have no real power to fight the system. If democratically-elected school boards are replaced by private corporate boards answerable to nobody, taxpayers and  community members have no voice in education at all. The death of institutions means the ascension of the rich and powerful. Without institutions, might makes right.

DeVos can say that we are focused on individual students, but if those students are lied to by profiteers, abused and cast aside by powerful private interests, and given only the choices that the powerful want to offer them, what does that focus mean? It means that profiteers have managed to base their system on the weakest, most vulnerable elements of the educational system.

I don't know how DeVos arrived at this doctrine-- I can guess, but I would only be guessing. Perhaps, having never held a job outside the family business, and having been fabulously wealthy her whole life, she simply finds the idea of being accountable foreign and disturbing, like landing in a country where the natives eat dog. Perhaps her conservative religious faith tells her that God doles out power and wealth to those who deserve it, and to thwart those so chosen is to interfere with the will of God Himself. Maybe she believes that government is an unnecessary evil, and she dreams of a country in which the church (the correct church) holds dominion over society (and outsiders to that faith have no voice).

Or maybe she's just tired of spending money on Those People. Or maybe her understanding of the purposes and processes of education are just narrow, shallow, and ignorant. That would explain trotting out, yet again, the idea that we spend a lot of money on education  but don't have the best PISA scores in the world.

DeVos holds up Florida as an example of robust choice and its awesome results. Including Pitbull's school. Florida, land charter scam artists and blatantly racist school policy and slavish devotion to the Big Standardized Test and public schools deliberately gutted in order to make choice look good. Florida is the DeVosian model. It may not do much for actual education, but at least people are free to make money.

The final chorus of this hymn to privatization is to declare that "education is not a zero-sum game." But of course as currently conceived, it is exactly that. Among the issues that DeVos doesn't address is the costliness of running multiple parallel school systems with the same (often inadequate) funds you previously used to run a single system. As long as every taxpayer dollar spent to send a student to a private charter or voucher school is a dollar taken away from the public system, then a zero-sum game is exactly what we have.

And it's what we're meant to have. DeVos believes that competition creates excellence, and competition only creates excellence by sorting the players into winners and losers. Competition is either a zero-sum game or a track meet where everyone gets a gold medal. DeVos and other free market fans absolutely believe that this must be a zero-sum game. But perhaps what DeVos means here is, "There's enough booty to go around for both vouchers and charters."

The DeVos Doctrine presented here includes several of her emerging greatest hits, such as the idea that parents choosing a school is a pure exercise of democracy. It is not. There is nothing democratic about requiring the taxpaying public to foot the bill for your personal private choice.

There is the DeVosian aversion to accountability. She responded to Rick Hess's call not to become "the man" with bureaucratic barriers to "innovation." It is a fair point that magical paperwork doesn't necessarily do any good, but avoiding bureaucracy is an approach that depends on context, and when the context is a Secretary of Education who has been unable to imagine any circumstances under which the government would step in and tell a school, "That is not right. Stop it now!"-- well, excessive oversight certainly hasn't looked like a major threat in this administration.

There's a salute to the entrepreneurial spirit. There's an assurance that the Trump budget mayhave its problems, but there's a huge expansion for charter school funding and an additional billion for school choice-- in other words, plenty of money for everyone. Though how this is different from the Obama/Duncan attempt to influence state education policy with big stacks of bribes money--n well, I don't see how this is different, exactly.

It wouldn't be a DeVos speech without a bad analogy. Previous failures have included Uber and cell phones. What have we got this time?

It's time to put down the permanent marker and straight edge, and instead pick up your brush and palette and paint. Paint in bright, bold colors and continue to add to the colorful collage that was started twenty-six years ago.

So public education is a stale straight line, but charter and voucher schools are pretty and free. You know-- like No Excuses schools, where students must keep their hands folded and speak only when given permission.

And at the core of the DeVos Doctrine, the contradiction.

DeVos argues for opportunities for all students, but the choice system she favors provides only the opportunities that charter school operators offer, schools with no local control, no mechanism for adequate funding, and most of all, no protections for the students she declares to be at the center of educational issues. She calls for charter operators to stand up "for Angie... for Denisha... for Dan... for Sandy." But nowhere has she addressed what happens if Angie is rejected or abused by a school that doesn't want students of her race, or what will happen to Dan if he has special needs that the choice school doesn't care to meet, or what will happen to Sandy if Sandy's school believes that gay students must be straightened out, or to a Muslim student whose only choices are private schools that demand allegiance to Jesus Christ. Nowhere does she address what will happen to students who, rejected, must return to a public system that has been gutted so that charter and voucher schools can  thrive.

All students can have choice in DeVos's world-- but only the choices that our Betters believe should be offer. And those choices will be stripped of democratic control, free from any accountability, and offered at great cost to a foundational democratic institution in our country.

As has been the case with DeVos (as was true with Arne Duncan before her), I don't really know if she's a cynical huckster or if she simply doesn't know enough to understand hat she's really proposing. Maybe she means well. But if nothing else, she seems to lack the interest in reflecting on how her various policies might really play out in the field (again, like Duncan).

But those were not the main issues on the table. DeVos is here to deliver a simple message-- there is room enough, money enough for charter and voucher advocates to sit at the tableside by side, a big beautiful banquet table where all manner of privatizers can gather together to carve up public education.

Monday, June 12, 2017

NEA Whiffs Again

Back in the day, NEA leadership should have picked up a clue that they'd backed the wrong horse when they published this article in 2013. "10 Things You Should Know About the Common Core" included such notable observations as "Most NEA Members Support the Common Core," and while you might get a chuckle out of the rest of the list, the real harbinger is in the long, blistering comments section. The average NEA Today article does not exactly draw large or lively response, but this piece drew 325 rather angry comments asking what, exactly, that author was smoking. NEA was either ignorant of or deliberately trying to rope in the large number of anti-Core members.

The author was Tim Walker, and last week he offered a look at personalized learning, and once again NEA either doesn't get it or is trying to stick it to members.

As with NEA support for the Core, Walker starts the article by implicitly accepting that current schools (you know-- the ones where NEA members work) pretty much suck. Too many students sitting in regimented rows memorizing things and listening to teacher lecture. It's a simplistic and reality-impaired view of what's actually going on in classrooms, and it raises more questions than it addresses (e.g. If the classrooms are too full, why aren't we calling for smaller classrooms? Also, if Common Core was going to fix exactly these problems, why aren't they fixed?) He visits a happy personalizing school at East Pennsboro Area Middle School in Enola, PA.

Best of all, the lifeless classroom setups are gone, and learning spaces have been reconfigured with moveable furniture and walls so that when classroom subjects overlap, teachers can combine lessons. Students rotate through these areas, which fosters a more collaborative learning space.

Because only with personalized learning could you accomplish these things? Somehow?

Walker does give a quick look at the dark side, visiting teacher Paul Barnwell, whose Language Arts class now gets their reading instruction from the canned ReadingPlus program:

His students begin each class period by logging onto the program. They remain there for 20 minutes while Barnwell makes himself available for any questions or troubleshooting. But usually he finds himself—at least during this part of the class—feeling slightly marginalized. On one hand, ReadingPlus seems to be working—some struggling students are catching up to grade level. Still, Barnwell can’t shake the one nagging question that is likely on the minds of many educators minds: What comes next?

Walker's point is that "personalized learning" has a lot of different meanings, but if you think he's going to look at what those different meanings tell us about the huge corporate money-seeking drivers behind the rise of personalized learning-- well, not so much. He notes that PL is a rejection of the notion of fixed seat time, which is a fair characterization, then shifts unannounced to the idea that it is student-directed learning, which is not a fair characterization at all. But Walker quotes the National Education Technology Plan issued in 2010 which says that PL puts “students at the center and empowers them to take control of their own learning by providing flexibility on several dimensions.” This manner of framing personalized learning is a bit of a red flag because this "student-centered" (and institution degrading) model is a rhetorical favorite of Betsy DeVos.

Walker lets us know that there are big forces behind personalized learning, Zuckerberg-sized forces, though Walker offers a Zuckerberg quote that is reminiscent of Bill Gates in his Common Core salad days:

“We think personalized learning makes sense,” Zuckerberg told Education Week shortly after the announcement. “ We don’t know for certain that it’s going to work."

And Walker shows us a bad case scenario with Carpe Diem Collegiate High School and Middle School, a charter school in Yuma, AZ that uses the corporate cubicle model. But as he does throughout the piece, Walker shows the contrary side only so he can reassure us that things aren't really that bad.

Carpe Diem isn’t a typical model...

And then Walker ends the piece by circling back to the folks at East Pennsboro, using the last third of the article to talk about how awesome their experience has been, putting heavy emphasis on how their model is teacher-led, student-centered, and without so much as mentioning a software vendor benefiting. Nor mentioning any drawbacks or issues.

There's a way to construct an article so that it looks fair and balanced. Let's consider the controversial issue of cheese-straightening. Here's my pitch outline:

1) Open with vignette about successful, happy cheese-straighteners, then after creating the happy picture, note that some have misgivings.

2) Here are some concerns (though they could be nothing). Here's a critic (though his concerns are with little solid basis).

3) Here are some of the powerful drivers behind cheese-straightening (hard to resist).

4) Here's a bad example-- but it's an anomaly.

5) Let's go back to that happy picture and all the magical-- really, just magical-- details that go with it.

Missing from the piece- any substantive and detailed critique of the policy. In this case, Walker doesn't talk about any of the corporate connections to personalized learning or any of ways in which it fits in with and advances the privatization agenda. Walker barely acknowledges the ways in which personalized learning reduces teachers to computer program overseers.

Missing most of all-- the question of whether or not we should even be doing this. It is again reminiscent of NEA's Common Core stance under Dennis Van Roekel, which was "What is the alternative? What do you want?" In other words, "Of course we have to do this. That's a given, because we have terrible problems and this is a solution."

The several moments of Common Core nostalgia fit. I have the same sour feeling reading this piece that I had back when DVR and Tim Walker were telling us that Common Core was super duper. What I want from my union, from my professional association, is someone who will stand up for me, for my professional brethren and sistern and call threats to public education by their name. There are important, serious, even critical conversations to be had about personalized learning, and US teachers ought to be involved in those discussions. This piece, unfortunately, shows NEA trying to postpone and avoid the conversation instead of leading it. Feel free to stop by the website and add to another robust comments section.