Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Arne Duncan's Newe$t Gig

Seems safe to say that Arne Duncan is far busier in his post-government life than he ever was a Secretary of Education. His latest gig is working with "mission-aligned private capital"at something called the Rise Fund.

"I can't believe it either. People just keep throwing money at me."

The Rise Fund is "a global impact fund led by private equity firm TPG in collaboration with a group of renowned stakeholders." TPG (which stands for Texas Pacific Group) is one of the biggest damn private equity investment firms in the world. Found in 1992, they have about $50 billion kicking around at this point. There's a long list of various businesses they have glommed up or invested in, from J. Crew to PetCo. Oh, and in 2002 they teamed up with Bain and Goldman Sachs to perform the leveraged buyout of Burger King, which I can respect because a Whopper Junior with Cheese is my guilty pleasure. Later on they also snagged all or some of Neiman Marcus, Univision, Sabre, Alltel, Midwest Air Group, etc etc-- you get the idea.

Anyway, they whipped up the Rise Fund in December of 2016 Bill McGlashan, founder and managing partner of TPG, and Bono, lead singer of That Band You're Supposed To Like and an always-useful prop for capitalists who want to look socially conscious, and also and Jeff Skoll, a global entrepreneur, film producer, and impact investor-- also the first president of ebay. Skoll's film company had a piece of An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for Superman, and Spotlight. Presumably Bono and Skoll are among the "renowned stakeholders," a list which also includes Richard Branson and Laurene Powell Jobs.

The Rise Fund has seven areas targeted for their global impact fund (spoiler alert:  plain English is not one of them)-- Agriculture, Finance, Information, Healthcare, Infrastructure, Energy, and Education. And that's where one of their hot new hires comes in.

Arne Duncan is one of three new bright lights, along with John Rogers and Rick Levin. Rogers was a founding partner with Bridges Ventures US Sustainable Growth Fund, which in turn worked on social impact investment as well as Springboard Education, a provider of "extended learning programs" for "public and charter" schools (every time someone tacitly admits that charter schools are not public schools, I get a little bit of a warm glow inside). Levin is CEO of Coursera, the big name in online courses for the university crowd. Oh, and he used to be president of Yale.

Duncan's bio is properly puffed, pumped full of hot air, and shows what qualifications TPG was looking for:

During his tenure, Duncan created the $4 billion Race to the Top program to invest in reform and innovation and worked with Congress to secure additional investments in early learning programs and interventions to raise standards at lower-performing schools. Prior to his role as Secretary of Education, Duncan served for eight years as the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, where he boosted test scores and built consensus across the district’s many stakeholders.

He handled a lot of money, made his numbers and got stakeholders on board and-- hey, wait a minute. Duncan "boosted test scores" in Chicago? All by himself!? Do you mean to tell me all those years Duncan knew the secret of boosting test scores, even had the magical power to do it himself, and he let all of America's teachers twist in the wind?!

"A quality education" is the secret of success for everyone, said the man whose success has pretty much been built on being basketball buddies with an up-and-coming future President. “Creating quality takes innovation, partnership – from teachers, students, officials, and business stakeholders alike – and a strong commitment to building better outcomes. I’m eager to help and support The Rise Fund as it works to drive impact across the education sector." Man, driving impact across a whole sector is hard, like some kind of corporate high impact Iditarod.

The Education Sector team is the first of the seven to be formed, but you can be sure the other six will be along to help achieve "measureable, positive social and environmental outcomes alongside competitive financial returns — what we call 'complete returns'.” So "complete" means you make the world a better place while getting filthy rich. There's a moral conundrum buried in all this somewhere, but it's hard to make it out among the "evidence-based impact investing" and whatever rig one uses to "harness the power of the market to drive sustainable social and environmental change, which means that profits are not only possible, they are necessary to fulfil the mission." Yes, you actually can't do good works without turning an big profit. I believe both Jesus and Buddha both taught that.

Garbled blather used to dress up a pretense of social awareness and good works all in the service of wealth and wealth and gathering more wealth. Seems like a perfect fit for Duncan.

NC: The Company School

North Carolina (Motto: "We won't let Florida beat us to the bottom of the barrel") is considering some cool new charter school bills.

Some are the usual charter-flavored pork, like the bill that will raise the unregulated cap on charter enrollment growth from 20% to 30%. That is, any charter, including ones that demonstrably suck, can grow enrollment by 30% without having to ask anyone's permission. This is in keeping with North Carolina's rich history of making charter operators historically rich. Previous laws have also removed any accountability or oversight for charters that want to add grades.

Charter enrollment in North Carolina has doubled over the last five years. Charter fans might say, "See! That huge demand for charters tells you how awesome they are." I might respond that it could also be a sign that the legislature has systematically driven its public school system into a corner and made it increasingly unattractive. But that's a discussion for another day.

But the special new innovation is the concept of reserved charter seats for donors.

That's right! If your company donates land or buildings or equipment to a charter school, up to half of the seats in that charter could be reserved for the children of the company's parents. Employees of your company could also sit on the charter board of directors. Hand over a chunk of ground or a building, and your corporation can have its own school-- and be in charge of running it.

Rep. John R. Bradford III (R-Mecklenburg) says this is an "economic development tool" with companies locating in rural areas offering a perk to employees, pretty much like paying for employee meals. "This creates a vehicle where a company can create an employee benefit," he says.

Sure. A benefit. The first thing I'm thinking of is an employer saying, "Y'all come to work at our Podunksburg plant and we promise your kids won't have to go to school with, you know, Those People's Kids."

But hey-- haven't we had a system like this before, with companies providing schools and housing and stores?

Or the old coke town of Shoaf. Charming place.

Maybe I'm too quick in thinking of a company town with a company store and company school that is run by the company and which helps to fully control the fate of its employees.

Maybe what North Carolina has in mind is a elite private school that is available to select corporate elite, answerable to nobody in particular, and not only outside the realm of public education, but actually in the side the realm of corporate control. Maybe this is simply flat-out privatization, a means for corporate chieftains to both enrich themselves and protect their offspring from contact with Those People's Children.

Or maybe, having pushed the frontiers on charter schools and already started down the voucher path, North Carolina is trying to break new ground by presenting the fully-privatized in-house corporate charter school.

It's not a law yet, but congratulations, North Carolina, on finding bold new ways to assault public education. Your move, Florida!

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Betsy DeVos Is Not Entirely Wrong about This

Hey, it had to happen. Even a blind shooter occasionally hits something. And on Fox News America's Newsroom, she said this:

...there really isn’t any Common Core anymore

Breitbart reported on this as a means of whipping up some conservative high dudgeon about the Core, and correctly note that her observation that the Core is no longer out there in classrooms stands "in sharp contrast" to Trump's assertion "Common Core very bad, and although I have no idea what the hell it is, I think we should kill it with fire because many people not like bad thing end it good somehow whatever it is have you seen my ratings."

Now, yes-- DeVos is wrong in the sense that Common Core in some form or other is in many classrooms. In some states it's no longer called Common Core, but it's still out there, sort of.

The "sort of" is important, because as I've noted numerous times, the original vision of the Common Core is absolutely, completely dead.

Remember? The idea was that every state in the union would operate under exactly the same standards, and that while everyone was free to add a measly 15%, the heart of the Core could not be touched. We would all study the same stuff, using our Common Core aligned materials, and a student who moved from Iowa to Georgia could do so without missing a beat. And we would all take one of two assessments, so that every teacher and student in the country could be compared to every other teacher and student.

That did not happen.

The Core-aligned materials turn out to be a hodge-podge of textbooks aligned more to publisher's desires than Common Core Standards. Huge chunks of the standards have always been ignored because they aren't on the test (anybody seen a Common Core Speaking Unit lately?). And the Big Standardized Tests (the actual drivers of reformy curriculum)-- way more than two of them and not much beloved by anyone-- are themselves only loosely aligned to the Core.

Of course, as Valerie Strauss points out, what DeVos probably meant by "Common Core" was not the actual content of the standards, but the idea that the federal Department of Education [insert evil music cue here-- dun dun dunnnnnnn] can impose its control on state and local school districts. This remains a complicated point because the feds never directly imposed the Core; they just extorted states into adopting it of their own free will. ESSA now removes many of the department's extortion tools, though some of the mouth-frothing quotes at Breitbart note that ESSA is still filled with the language of "college and career ready," which is what we're saying instead of "common core" these days.

The feds couldn't impose the standards before, and they can't impose them or un-impose them now. It is up to states to decide what to do, and many have already made decisions about that issue.

The standards do have inertia on their side, as some form of the Core is the status quo in most states. But nobody particularly cares. In high-accountability states, schools aren't following the standards-- they're following the BS Tests. And classroom teachers, after an initial period of trying to be good soldiers, have long since "adapted" the standards to match their own best practices, even as administrators around the country created their own personal version of the standards (and some rebels even mostly ignored the whole business and went back to worrying about actual education).

But the original vision of an entire nation united behind one cramped and narrow vision of what education should be, with one unified set of standards enforced from sea to shining sea-- that didn't happen. What has happened is that the US education system is now clogged with the various fragments, mutant chunks, and toxic detritus of the Core. David Coleman and his buddies meant to build a beautiful, sleek silver spear, but what we have now is a disintegrated, splintered, corroded mess of pieces parts. Instead of one large spear stuck into the body of education, that body is riddled with Common Core shrapnel and buckshot, and instead of a quick and direct extraction, we're faced with a complicated and messy operation to improve our educational health. And ESSA says that the feds, who were already trying to perform surgery with mittens on, now must be handcuffed to the floor.

I'm not sure that Betsy DeVos understands any of that. But when she says there isn't any Common Core any more, she's not entirely wrong-- even if she doesn't understand why.

Monday, April 24, 2017

NEA Takes on Charters

The National Education Association has not always been swift to respond well to the currents of reformsterdom; lots of us still have a bad taste in our mouths from NEA's embrace of Common Core. And when NEA does take a position, it often does so with the lukewarm tap dance of a politician, and not an advocate for education (e.g. its resounding, "Perhaps Arne Duncan might try a bit harder to do a somewhat better job as secretary")

But NEA formed a task force on a proposed charter school statement, and it actually displays a bit of spine.  It has issued findings this month, and thanks to Fred Klonsky, there's a copy available on line. I've read it so that you don't have to, but if you're an NEA member, you probably should take a look.

Charter schools were started by educators who dreamed of schools in which they would be free to innovate, unfettered by bureaucratic obstacles.

So begins the introduction as it dips into the history of charter schools, reminding us that there is, at the heart of the movement, the germ of a not-so-bad idea. This well-sourced paper collects many factoids that you may half-remember, but-- damn-- the Waltons have provided seed money for one out of every four charter schools??!! Half the charters founded between 2006 and 2014 were funded by the federal government. And not a factoid, but a useful quote-- "The result of these efforts has been a massive and burgeoning sector of charter schools that are not subject to the same basic safeguards and standards as public schools." True that.

Key Background

The first section of the paper looks at what the charter school sector actually looks like. Graphs show raw charter numbers as well as number and percent of student population-- as of 2014, charter students were 5.7% of all US students, and charter school numbers have been growing steadily since 2000. However...

Beneath the growth, however, lies a churn. Charter schools open quickly but close quickly too. Among charter schools that opened in the year 2000, 5% closed within the first year; 21% closed within the first five years; and fully 33% closed within the first ten years. In some cases the closure happens mid-year, leaving students, parents and teachers in limbo. Many of the disrupted students then enroll in traditional public schools which must accommodate the transfers without new resources. 

In fact, nearly half of the students dumped by a charter mid-year between 2000-2012 were African American.

The report also shows who runs the schools, with the majority of authorizers being either local school boards or state boards of education.

The report also works down the list of rules that charters don't have to follow. While some states require open meetings, many of the heavy hitters like California do not. Only five states forbid for-profit charters, but virtually none provide regulations that stop any of the profiteering workarounds developed in the charter sector-- in fact, a third of charter states don't even hold charters to the prevailing ethics laws. I've said it before-- most of the time, a non-profit charter is just a for-profit with a good money-laundering system.

Charters do have to follow civil rights laws-- if someone enforces them. Labor laws don't work quite the same in charter land, nor do rules about professional requirements. Only eighteen states require charter teachers to meet the same qualification requirements as public school teachers.

The report concludes that the push for charters has resulted in separate and unequal systems, with charters being largely under-regulated and not locally accountable. And Trump-DeVos looks to make it only more so. If you want a quick rundown of the facts and figures of the effects of DeVosian reform on Michigan schools. Sample: From 2003 to 2015, Michigan dropped from 28th to 41st in Fourth Grade reading. Another sample: Michigan is spending about $1 billion-with-a-B annually on charter schools, 80% of which are for-profits.

The Failed Competitive Model of Charters

First, eighty studies worth of research show that charters, once you correct for demographics and other factors, get test-score results that "are not meaningfully better or worse" than public school results.

However, the impact on finances and community, as laid out in the report, is negative. Charters, under current law, drain resources from public schools, and disrupt community schools, both for the students and for the other community members. And as noted in many reports, charters increase segregation.

And all of that is before we get to the enormous and widespread fraud and waste of charter schools. The report sites several specific instances, like the Ohio charter with 50% phantom student enrollment  or the New York charter that borrowed $5.1 million to buy and renovate a building for which the actual purchase and renovation costs were $1.4 million.

Finally, there are virtual schools, the cyber charters that even a study CREDO, a charter-friendly group, found were a waste of time and money. Cyber charters have been shown pretty conclusively to be failures, and yet states like Pennsylvania continue to shovel money into their fund-sucking maw.

Competition has had more than ample opportunity to spur both charter and public schools to greatness. It hasn't happened. It's time to admit that charter operators do not know any special secret of educating students.

Charters as Incubators of Innovation within a School District

NEA here acknowledges that this much-hyped charter feature can actually happen, and gives some examples like Avalon Charter School in St. Paul, MN. But they lay out two requirements necessary for such success--

1) Local school boards are the only proper authorizers of charter schools, and

2) That board must create the criteria and requirements under which the charter will operate.

The NEA Statement on Charters

So what is the official NEA taskforce position on charter schools?

NEA supports public charter schools that are authorized and held accountable by public school districts.

To be a public charter, you have to be accountable to the public, and that means the elected officials who run the school district. 

NEA opposes as a failed and damaging experiment unaccountable privately managed charters.

Privately owned or managed charters damage the communities they enter. In general, they don't work, providing no real benefit at huge cost. And cyber charters are especially bad.

NEA stands for our students wherever they are educated. Relegating students and communities to unaccountable privately managed schools that do not comply with the basic safeguards and standards detailed above has created separate systems of charters that are inherently unequal. To counter the threat to public education of such charters, NEA supports both communities organizing for quality public education and educators working together to improve charter schools. 

Other facts from the appendices

The top five charter states-- California, Texas, Florida, Arizona, and Michigan-- contain over 50% of all charter school students in the nation. If you throw in the next five-- Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Colorado, and Georgia-- you account for 71% of all charter students.

If you rank states by the percentage of their students who are in charters, the top by a huge margin is DC itself, with 42%. Next, in order, are Arizona, Colorado, Louisiana, Utah, Michigan, Florida, and Delaware, all of which have more than 9% of their students in charters.

Here's some other rankings by way of growth:

And there's also some rankings by individual districts. Los Angeles was out in front as of 2014, but that seems like ages ago.

Big Frickin' Deal

I suppose folks may dismiss the report and the stances because they figure NEA will automatically be anti-charter. That is not so obvious to me-- after all, if the nefarious union goal is to create lots of teachers so they can organize lots of unions so they can rake in dues money as part of their evil plan to conquer the country (because so many of our national public officials are such union fans)-- anyway, if NEA wanted to grow its potential membership base, charter schools would be the perfect way to do it, and NEA would be cheering charters on while quietly trying to organize them all and spread the union influence.

On top of that, charters are beloved by many politicians who are and have been union sort-of-allies. It's possible that this report is coming out at this point because now that it's Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos pushing charters instead of Arne Duncan and Barack Obama, it's okay for NEA to oppose them. Maybe, but the country is still full of powerful charter-backing Democrats.

In other words, I don't think it's a given that NEA would be tough on charters. And yet here they are, with a report saying pretty unequivocally that privately run charters are bad news for public education (with footnotes and non-alternative facts and actual data and everything).

So I'm glad to see this report and hoping that NEA is going to be pushing it a bit harder in the months ahead. Let's hope it represents a trend.



Sunday, April 23, 2017

HYH: Edvertising

If I've said it once, I've said it a gazillion times:

The free market does not foster superior quality; the free market fosters superior marketing. 

Annnnd here it comes. The marketing.

The latest episode of Have You Heard with Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider takes a look at educational marketing (it also posits the heretofore unknown product "Extruda," which... just makes me uncomfortable).

There are soooo many issues with school marketing, and not that marketing a school is "unseemly." For instance, as the cast points out, most marketing is aimed at selling a private good, while education is a public good. There is also the issue of customer evaluation-- New Coke had the weight of the advertising world behind it, but that could not overcome all the people who actually drank some and said, loudly, "Yuck!" With a charter school, you may not figure out that you were scammed for quite some time.

But most striking is just the cost. Sarah Butler Jessen is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Bowdoin College who studies school marketing and makes a guest appearance on the show. She holds up Eva Moskowitz's Success Academies as one of the leading examples of charter marketing, and she unloads two stunning factoids-- SA has spent about $1,000 per student on marketing, and marketing is the second-biggest expenditure for the charter chain.

$1,000 per student on marketing. Imagine what you could do if you had another $1,000 to spend on actually educating each student.

This is part of the problem of edu-marketing-- even if your marketing is Honest and Pure and True, you have just spent a ton of money on something other than educating students.

Jessen also talks about how charter management groups and chains are far ahead of the marketing war, particularly with their branding and I was surprised (though on reflection I shouldn't have been) that, for instance, KIPP has a whole Brand Guideline Video. Like any other brand leader, KIPP's identity and marketing face is about much more than education. And this is a sobering part of Jessen's research-- while we've all been debating and arguing and thrashing about charters and charter policy and all the rest of it, KIPP and the others have been slowly building the brand perception that charter schools are like private schools in their general awesomeness and desirability.

Marketing also circles back to one of the signature issues of  charters, which is regulation. The average civilian approaches advertising with an attitude of "Well, they couldn't just say that if it was a flat out lie." That, of course, is not actually true. When terms like "organic" (or "common core") are unregulated, advertisers can slap them on anything. And when charters and their marketing are unregulated, they can make any promise they like, whether they plan to keep it or not. I am reminded of a local private school that used to be infamous for promising parents anything ("You're looking for a left-handed lacrosse program that's tied to Latin studies and underwater basket weaving classes? Oh, we totally have that.") and never delivering on it. When it comes to low-information customers, charter schools naturally benefit from a steady supply of new parents who have no previous experience in the marketplace.

This is yet another valuable and important (and, believe it or not, entertaining) episode of this podcast. Check it out right now--

ICYMI: Day After Earth Edition (4/23)

Your list of worthwhile reads from the week. Enjoy, and pass them on.

Looking for the Living Among the Dead

A beautiful Easter meditation from Jose Luis Vilson

The Privateer Legislators

A family friend passed this along from Florida. An articulate argument for not privatizing education in Florida, or anywhere else, from Roger Williams.

Chester Finn Jr. Calls for an End to Teacher Tenure

I assume that if you read here, you also follow Diane Ravitch, but it's easy to lose pieces in the midst of the Ravitchian avalanche of posts, and here's one you really don't want to miss, as the education historian points out what's wrong about so many arguments against teacher tenure.

Call This The Empty Chair 

One more panel about teaching without a single teacher in sight.

Where Did All the Black Teachers Go?

A personal essay about one of the most under-addressed issues in education-- why can't schools hold onto teachers of color?

School Choice: The Faustian Bargain

Russ Walsh looks at what choicers require folks to give up in order to get choice.

Mr Staples, Here's What Happened To Black Teachers

A solid response to that NYT piece from the Schools Matter blog.

Homework Is Wrecking Our Kids

This piece is actually over a year old, but it's still the truth, and still well-worth a read and a share.

Largest Charter Chain in LA Raises Millions To Fight Unionization

Facing a unionizing teacher staff? Charters could take any number of responses, but in LA, the largest charter chains went with "Collect $2.2 from various anonymous friends to keep unions from happening."

As It Always Should Be

Everyone with a little needs a Teacher Tom in their life. Here he is discovering one more beautiufl and joyous thing about his kids.

These Are a  Few of My Favorite Green Things

For Earth Day, another post from my daughter about the small sustainable things we can all do to help.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Checker Still Doesn't Understand Tenure

Chester "Checker" Finn, Grand Poobah Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, is the reformster most likely to unleash his higher dudgeon over Kids These Days and Those Darn Teachers, and he has done so again on the Fordham Flypaper blog. "Will Teacher Tenure Die?" appears to have been edited down from an original title, "Will Teacher Tenure Ever Die, Please?"

Some of his complaint is simply incorrect. As his old colleague Diane Ravitch points out, his notion that K-12 trickled down from colleges and universities is ahistoric-- K-12 tenure was a response to too many teachers losing jobs to school board members' nieces and failing to register with the correct political party, among other abuses.

After cheering on the slow death of tenure at the college and university level (because I'm sure having a cadre of part-time underpaid instructors is going to make college education super), Finn goes on to bemoan the continued existence of tenure in the K-12 world (even, in some cases, by contract in right to work states). And teachers can get tenure after only a few years and some "satisfactory" ratings, which strikes Finn as evidence. This is an old reformy trope, and I'm not sure what to make of it-- instead of saying, "Hey, teachers are mostly well-rated, so the profession must be in good shape," reformsters say, "Hey, teachers are mostly well-rated, so the evaluation system must be broken, because we just know that a huge number of teachers suck." So, data is good, unless it conflicts with your pre-conceived biases, in which case, just throw the data out.

Finn also persist in calling tenure "life time employment," which is simply flat out wrong. I can rattle off a list of teachers in my area who have lost their jobs despite tenure. Any teacher who's been around a while can. And while there are some large districts where the process is long, convoluted and prohibitively difficult, mostly "We can't fire her because if tenure" is administrator-speak for "I could fire her, but it would take a lot of time and I'd have to, you know, work really hard, and then I would have to find a replacement and you know how hard that would be and I'm already backed up on meetings this week and now some kid just threw up in the hall, so how about I just blame her on the union and tenure and get back to my own work." Where burdensome dismissal procedures exist, they have been negotiated into contracts. Fixing those contracts by outlawing tenure is like fixing the electoral college by installing a dictatorship-- little bit of overkill.

Finn likes the idea of trading tenure for money, and he's not the first. He's correct in noting that job security is a feature that makes low pay palatable (or at least choke-downable) for many teachers, but he misses the flip side of this-- due process protections are something school districts can offer to make their jobs appealing, and they don't cost the district a cent. Finn imagines asking teachers, "Would you give up job protections in exchange for another $25K?" But the real challenges is asking districts, "Which would you rather do-- promise teachers not to fire them for stupid reasons, or pay them each another twenty-five grand?" Which choice do you think boards would prefer? (Hint: only one option increases the budget by a few million dollars>)

Finn recognizes that tenure has value as a bulwark against favoritism and discrimination, but then dismisses it because "the codification in constitutions and statutes of innumerable due process and anti-discrimination protections radically shrinks the rationale"-- in other words, we have laws about that stuff that people mostly follow, mostly. The thing is, absent any sort of reliable or valid teacher evaluation system (which is where we are right now), any administrator can game the system and mask her discriminatory and biased behavior behind any sort of "clean" rationale. And laws do not cover things like running a teacher out of the classroom because she won't let a school board members child start on the softball team or play the lead in the school play.

Finn ticks off "academic freedom" as a legitimate concern, except that the First Amendment argument doesn't have as much "oomph" for him because so many professors are using their First Amendment rights to indoctrinate pupils. In other words, freedom of speech is only necessary for people who are saying the right things. He also correctly notes that so many court cases have taken so many chunks out of the First Amendment for teachers that it's fair "to ask just how much difference does “academic freedom” make to a fourth grade teacher."

He skips completely over the issue of teacher advocacy-- the situation where a teacher has to advocate for a student against the school administration itself.

But Finn has some other ideas, and they start with this humongous whopper:

It’s no secret that the HR practices of private and charter schools—neither of which typically practices tenure—work far better than those of district schools from the standpoint of both school leaders and their students.

As it turns out, it is absolutely a secret. Or, more accurately, it's a thing that is not known to be true.

What Finn means, because he is a fan of the CEO model of charter schools, is that the school leaders are free to hire and fire and shuffle around teachers at will. Nobody should have job security, because job security interferes with the visionary boss's freedom to indulge his vision as he sees fit. Like a 19th century robber baron, he will sit atop his kingdom and only his judgment will be needed to determine What Is Best for all of the Little People. The Little People should be grateful to receive such largesse, and should show their gratitude by staying in their rightful place and keeping their mouths shut. Think I'm overstating the case? Here's the rest of the paragraph that was kicked off by that last sentence:

That’s because the leadership team can generally employ (and deploy) the instructors they deem best suited to their pupils and they’re not obligated to retain any who don’t do a satisfactory job. They can be nimble in regrouping, restaffing, and redirecting their schools—and everyone who works there knows that’s how it goes. Nobody has a right to continued employment untethered to their own performance and the school’s needs. The employer has the right to change the shape, nature, and size of the organization, to redeploy human resources, to substitute capital for labor, to replace elbow grease and sitzfleisch with technology, and to hire and fire according to shifting pupil needs and organizational priorities.

Emphasis mine. 19th century robber baron attitude, his. In a Proper School, teachers are drones and widgets, coming and going and moving about at the pleasure of their CEO, who will decide what needs to be done, how it needs to be done, and even if the organization needs to be changed in some fundamental way. Pupils will consume whatever is put before them at the bidding of their Betters. Organizational priorities, as defined by the Gifted CEO, rule all. In this world, the CEO is the sun, and those damned planets better not even think of unionizing or demanding tenure.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Charters and Commitment

It happened again. This time in Milwaukee. Students at the  Universal Academy for the College Bound Webster Campus returned to find themselves in a completely different school, because a charter management company had decided they'd rather move on than finish out their contract for the year.

Universal Companies took with them their books and their technology. Milwaukee Public Schools filled in the gaps and the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association-- you know, that damn union that only worries about adult interests-- stepped in to help the staff.

It could have been worse. In other places it has been worse. The company gave MPS a warning ahead of time-- almost a full month's notice. And they handed the school back to MPS rather than simply locking the door.

And if you're thinking, "Well, of course they did that-- what sort of monster would close a building with no notice," then you haven't been following charter schools much. Charters don't have to explain themselves when they close, like these two closures in Indiana-- parents demanded an explanation and were ignored. Or this similar story from Philly. And these schools at least finished the year-- here's a charter that closed up shop in September. Here's a story about a charter in North Carolina that had to close mid-year mostly because they got caught lying about enrollment in order to get double the money they were entitled to; parents were informed less than 48 hours before the school closed its doors. Here's a Florida school that closed suddenly and without explanation in May of a school year. Or this Ohio charter that closed mid-year without warning. Just google "charter school closes unexpectedly" and watch the stories pile up.

But those are anecdotes. If you want to see the big picture, look at this reporting from the Center for Media and Democracy's Mediawatch that took some simple available data from NCES to show how many charters had closed between 2000 and 2013. There's an interactive map that lets you drill down, but the grand total is in the neighborhood of 2,500. 2,500 charter schools closed-- and that's not counting the schools from the past several years. That includes schools that closed during the school year, or schools that folded at the end of the year.

Or the recent report on charter schools from NEA, which shows what percentage of charters have closed as a function of how many years they've been open-- after one year, 5% of charters have been closed. At ten years, it's 33%. When we get to thirteen years, 40% of charters have shut their doors. In other words, a third of charter schools close their doors before they are a decade old.

This seems to be a feature of charter schooling that comes as a shock and surprise to parents. I suspect that's because one of the most basic things we expect from a school, particularly one that tries to bill itself as a public school as many charters do, is that it will be around basically forever. We expect to be able to go back to the schools we attended; if we can't, that's considered a notable loss, a sign that Something Bad happened to that school or community. It is one of the things we expect from a school that we rarely name--


But modern charters are not public schools, and they do not make a public school commitment to stay and do the work over the long haul. They are businesses, and they make a business person's commitment to stick around as long as it makes business sense to do so. That does not make them evil, but it does make them something other than a public school. And it underlines another truth-- students are not their number one priority.

Some modern charter operators claim that  these school closures are a feature, not a bug. The system is working; the invisible hand is weeding the garden. But that ignores the real disruption and confusion and damage done to children and families that must search from school to school. Instead of the excitement and joy of going back to school to see friends and favorite teachers, students face the uncertainty of not knowing which school they'll attend, how long they'll attend it, learning their way around, even as they wonder when this will all happen again. If school is a sort of second family, charter schools can be an unstable family that moves every six months with parents always on the verge of divorce.

Some charters are born to be train wrecks-- not only do educational amateurs get involved in charter schools, but business amateurs do as well. But very few are born with the intention of lasting for generation after generation, which is exactly what we expect of public schools. When Betsy DeVos says that she values families and choice over institutions, this is exactly what she is rejecting-- a commitment to stand by those families and communities for generations, to be an institution that brings stability and continuity to a community. More importantly, an institution that says, "When you need us, we will be right here. You can count on us, because we are committed."

Commitment matters in all relationships. It matters in schools. Parents and students and community members and taxpayers have a right to expect commitment from their schools. If charters want to pretend to be public schools, they should step up and make a commitment greater than, "We'll be right here as long as it suits us. On the day it doesn't suit us anymore, we'll be gone. Good luck to you."

Leaders, Character, and Policy

Many of us spend huge amounts of time discussing and debating education policy. But where the synthetic rubber meets the recycled asphalt, policy is not the most important thing. In every school, in every district, what really matters is the character of the leadership.

In the same way that workers do not quit workplaces so much as they quit a boss, teachers are influenced by the administrators in their building. District administrators are influential primarily in how they affect building administrators. Policy decisions on the state and federal level are most influential to the extent that they influence the behavior of actual educators in actual leadership positions.

Put another way, a sudden implementation of actual good education policies by state and federal governments (boy, what a dream that is) would not suddenly transform a bad building principal who makes staff miserable into a great principal with a happy staff.

In fact, a good principal, given the chance by her superintendent, can seriously blunt the impact of bad policy choices. In Florida, a state that is a champion producer of bad education policy, there are schools where principals actually find reasonable, humane, decent solutions to problems created by stupid policies.

A good manager in any business or institution really has just one job-- to create conditions in which her people can do their best work. If it's raining, a good manager is out there holding an umbrella over the front-line worker; not yelling at that worker for being wet.

It's important to have an administrator who has classroom experience, who knows the regulations, who has a broad understanding of education, and all the other things search committees look for. But one of the most critical issues is character.

At this point in my career, I've worked for many administrators, and I don't remember the various policy decisions and implementations nearly as well as I remember whether they were decent people or not.

A principal might not be the brightest bulb in the chandelier, might not be on the cutting edge of education, might not even have a clear picture of what's going on in the classroom, but if he's a decent person who treats his teachers with respect, listens to what they have to say, and puts the needs of the students first, I can be happy working for him. Even if he wants to implement or support policies I disagree with, we can work things out. I can advocate for my students without having to watch my back. On the other hand, if he is mean, vindictive, selfish, distrustful, and spiteful, it doesn't matter what policies he supports-- every day is going to be miserable, and I am going to use up a chunk of my energy just deciding which battles to fight and how to fight them and what to do when I lose.

Of course a leader-staff relationship is a two-way street, and teachers can make things better or worse by their own choices. But administrators decide what rules we'll play by and will ultimately decide whether to share power or grab onto it with both hands. Administrators have a huge hand in setting the tone, in creating an atmosphere for their schools.

I write all this to remind myself-- I read and read about schools where things really suck, and often the administration is an invisible hand in that picture-- because I'm privileged to work for a principal who's a decent guy, and while he's not perfect and we don't always agree and I've worked for some pretty not-good examples of the breed in my career, it is easy to forget just how grindingly rough it is to work in some school buildings in this country. It's easy to forget how hard it is to work for a powerful jerk every day when you aren't living it.

Bad policy certainly arms and enables bad administrators, but one of the great undiscussed questions of both ed reform and resistance to it is the question of how to get good people in those front offices. Certainly some reformsters have some cool ideas about how to make a buck putting any warm body in there, as long as it shares their same bad values (looking at you, Relay GSE and Broad Academy), but all of us need to remember that without a decent person in the administrator's seat, it's really hard to drive the education bus anywhere productive and useful. And while we're talking about all the big picture issues, all across this country there are schools whose Number One issue is that they've got a dysfunctional jerk behind the steering wheel.

Can this be addressed on the policy level? Sure-- some. Being a principal and superintendent kind of sucks these days, in that you have all the responsibility for everything short of the weather, and very little power to control any of the outcomes you're responsible for. We talk about the teacher shortage, but mostly smart and capable people in education know better than to get into administration, and so a vast pool of people who could be good at it avoid it like the plague because what ethical decent educator wants to be responsible for implementing state and federal mandated malpractice? So we end up with a handful of good, decent folks, some others who figured they'd like a raise, another handful who just don't understand what the job is, and a bunch of peripatetic egos wandering the country collecting big bucks before they end their three-year local dance.

In the meantime, it takes local action to find local solutions for the problems of bad administrators. It is perhaps a conversation that more people should get involved in.

The Attack on Charter Schools

Nashville Charter School parents complain that they are under attack and disrespected. Charter advocates have long panel discussions about how to fight back against the attacks on charters and choice. Every 9-12 months, a new website is launched because reformy fans of charter and choice believe that they are under attack and need to get their story Out There.

Even the newly-minted teacher of the year, who works at a charter school, is concerned that public and charter schools are seen as "in conflict."

So why do charter schools feel so attacked and put upon?

Part of it may be an illusion of privilege. When you are an rich old white guy who has always gotten his way, it can be shocking and destabilizing when people say "No" to you. If you are a money-soaked hedge-funder surrounded by compliant underlings, it may be upsetting when people who should know their place start getting uppity. When you live soaked in privilege, any denial of your God-given right to get your own way might well feel like an attack. But that doesn't describe everyone who has thrown their support behind charters and choice.

Some of it is certainly karma, history coming around. Many charter choice fans seem to have forgotten that they spent years pitching charters and choice by chicken littling about Failing Public Schools and how much the public schools suck and how trained educators were awful, better replaced by lightly trained best-and-brightests from some ivy-covered hall.They are like the bully who, having finally pushed the kid with the glasses too far so that he takes boxing lessons and starts to punch back at their bullying but, says, "What are you doing! You're supposed to be too nice to fight back!" But that doesn't cover all the possibilities, either.

No, the necessity of a public vs. charter cage match is baked right into the charter laws of most states, courtesy of one of the central lies of the modern charter movement.

The Big Lie of modern charters is that we can have multiple parallel school systems for the same money we spent on one. Sure. When you're having trouble with your family budget and maintaining one home, the solution is to move half your family into a hotel. If it's hard to pay the bills for one car, buy a second or third or fourth one.

Charter choice fans sell us charters as free private school. It won't cost a penny more. And this lie guarantees conflict.

Because pubic schools and charters are trapped by that lie in a zero sum game. Every taxpayer dollar that goes to a charter school doesn't go to a pubic school. Every taxpayer dollar that a public school hangs onto is a dollar that charters don't get. For one to survive, the other must get beaten up. Even a well-meaning mild-mannered friendly charter school cannot avoid attacking public schools. Under current charter laws, it is impossible for charter and public schools NOT to be in a state of constant conflict.

It doesn't have to be this way. Charter choice supporters in the legislatures could say, "We think the idea of free access to private school for some students is a good idea, and so we are going to raise taxes and allocate the money it will take to do this right. We will fully fund public schools and we will fully fund charter schools and they will be able to work together for the benefit of the larger community because they will no longer be battling to the death for an inadequately small pool of funding."

Of course, charter choice supporters do not want to talk about charter choice systems as a new entitlement to free private school, and they do not want to talk about raising taxes. And so where charter choice is the Way To Go, we have multiple parallel school systems, mostly underfunded except for those that are able to draw extra funding from well-to-do parents or friendly philanthropists.

And, of course, we have those choice supporters for whom a fight to the death is the point. Their hope is that charter schools will finish off public systems, leaving only privatized schools that function "properly," aka "through market forces." Meanwhile, the "government schools" that run on the tax dollars stolen from hard-working rich folks and used to educate Those People can be properly starved to death.

And so charter schools and their fans, even the well-meaning decently parental ones, must live with the feeling of being under attack, because the system is currently constructed so that charter schools must be a threat to the health and continued existence of public schools, and public school supporters can either fight back or lie down and die.

It doesn't have to be this way. It would probably be better for everyone if it wasn't. But until we address the Big Lie at the heart of current charter choice policy, this is how it will stay.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Are Charters a Rural Solution

In a piece that has circulated a bit, Karen Eppley, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction at Pennsylvania State University suggests that charter schools might be the solution to many rural education problems.

While the article is not as gung-ho about charters as the title suggests (I know-- writers rarely get to pick their own headline), it still misses some critical points.

According to this 2013-2014 report from the Rural School and Community Trust, about a third of our schools are rural, and about one in five students attend a rural school. So this is worth discussing. Eppley wryly notes that Betsy DeVos brought attention to rural education with her observation about bear protection in Wapiti, Wyoming, but her policy goals might have a more far-reaching effect. Fair enough.

Eppley touts her rural bona fides and notes that rural education has been an important part of rural American life. She's got that right-- my own children attended little Utica Elementary, a school that, along with the volunteer fire department hall, served as a community center. On the night that the school held its talent show, art show, and ice cream social, everyone in the village would be there, whether they had a child in the school or not.

Despite the positive impacts of schools on rural communities, 150,000 rural schools have been eliminated through closure or consolidation since 1930. Rural schools are closed primarily in response to budget cuts and low enrollment.

Eppley's correct, though by going back to 1930 she oversells her case. As she should already know, numerous rural schools were eliminated in Pennsylvania in the 1960s. Previously, every township in PA had a school district, but the state did some serious arm-twisting to encourage consolidation. My current school district is the result of combining the city school district with several surrounding small districts, including Utica, which originally had its own tiny high school. The 1960s consolidations were not about money or enrollment so much as a policy change about what a school district should look like (and the emergence of dependable transportation options.)

Eppley then moves to a capsule history of the charter school movement, offering her own theory about what is happening right now--

The increasingly charter-friendly environment can be traced to an ideological shift: While public education was once seen as a key to democracy, it is increasingly seen as a tool of efficiency and economic competitiveness. This change has created prime conditions for the school choice movement — and for the creation and expansion of charter schools.

But rural charters are a different animal. Eppley notes that while urban charters are often chain operations (eg KIPP), rural charters are more likely to be community-based mom-and-pop operations, sometimes as a delaying action against the loss of a local school. I have seen this as well-- just up the road a community's elementary school was closed; a community group formed to resurrect it as a charter. The idea here is to resist consolidation and keep those community ties alive and thriving. And so far I'm with her. But I think she's missing a couple of points.

First, while it's true that school closings are often driven by financial issues, budget issues are themselves often driven by charter funding. Charter chains-- with one exception-- are not descending on rural areas because that's not where the money is. But the exception is huge-- in Pennsylvania, cyber charters are draining rural districts of hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars.

My own district is a fine example. A few years ago, we closed two elementary schools in hopes of saving about $800K. Our cyber charter bill that year? About $800K. The huge loss of public tax dollars to profiteering cyber schools is doubly galling because these cybers can't even do the job. Study after study has concluded that cyber schools fail to educate their students, many of whom return to us in the public schools, or simply never graduate at all.

Eppley correctly notes that rural charters will not unleash the power of free market competition because there is no competition there-- there are few choices for rural schools. And she makes the observation that unlike the case with urban charters, rural charters can actually be a tool for establishing local parental control. For that reason, they are often inefficient and can be dogged by financial problems if for no other reason than they are being run by amateurs.

But then there's this:

Until educational, social and economic policies are implemented with rural communities in mind, rural citizens should continue to work to break down barriers for more socially just rural schools and communities — in the same way that urban citizens have.

Given the amount of research that shows urban charters fostering more segregation, I'm not sure exactly what she's talking about. Nor is it clear what barriers need to broken down in rural schools where, precisely because there are few choices, all students are squooshed together into the same facility.

Eppley does early in the article note the "emerging research suggesting that charter schools may have lower academic performance and negatively affect the finances of the home district." But then she moves on, arriving somehow at the notion that rural schools can be helped by charters. However, the negative effects, particularly the financial ones, are strongly felt in rural areas. One of the great central inefficiencies, the foundational lie of modern charter systems-- that we can somehow fund two or three or more parallel education systems with the same money that barely supported one system-- is magnified in rural settings where money and resources and student populations are already stretched thin.

A couple of years ago, Utica's elementary school joined the other two in being closed down by my district. In  less than a decade, we have gone from six elementary schools to three, partly due to declining enrollment, and in a larger part due to financial pressures. Now small communities have been hollowed out a bit more, and we are still struggling to stay ahead of the financial squeeze. It is hard to imagine how having to stretch taxpayer dollars to run a few more schools in the district would be helpful in any way, particularly when sending tax dollars to charter operators is one of the reasons we're under this pressure in the first place. There's a reason that financially strapped school districts close schools rather than open more-- you don't save money by paying for more schools. Charter schools are not a solution-- they are a huge part of the problem.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Personalization and the Outliers

Henry Ford was an early proponent of personalization. "Any customer can have a car pained any color that he wants," said Ford in 1909, "so long as it is black."

There have always been limits to personalization. I like to wear hats, but my head is some sort of extra-large melon, so while hat manufacturers may offer choices to fit the personal size preferences of many customers, I'm an outlier. Many times I'm just SOL on a particular hat.

Imagine that all your potential customers are like a big bell curve. Aim too narrow, meeting the personal preferences of the fat part at the peak, and you will not capture as much of the market as you'd like. Or if you're up for it, imagine a line plot-- the sweet spot is in covering the cluster at the center while ignoring the outliers who are off in their own little corner. You can predict what the majority of your customers probably want-- to be sure of hitting the outliers, you would have to cover the entire charter, including areas that were completely empty. Spread out to offer every option that every customer on the diagram wants, and on the thin ends you'll be losing money. Burger King could offer pineapple and bananas as burger toppings, and somebody might even order it, but they would never sell enough to cover the cost of stocking those ingredients. Maybe nobody would ever choose banana at all, and BK would be out the money. They could advertise they were offering perfectly personalized burgers, but they'd be losing money to do it.

Personalization as a marketing strategy has to aim for the sweet spot where you are hitting maximum customers for minimum. You can only do that by recognizing that some customers have personal preferences that it will cost you too much to meet, and so those outliers must be cut loose. The only choice they get is "Buy what we offer, or do without."

Any system, any product that is going to marketed to any kind of scale, is going to have this built-in limitation.

And that includes personalized education.

Putting together banks of questions and drills and instructional activities is expensive for companies-- remember how aggressively the major test manufacturers guard their question, because it would be prohibitively expensive to have to replace a set of 50 or 70 questions. So creating the giant bank of possible modules for personalized learning programs would presumably be hugely expensive. Therefor, the module manufacturers will need to control costs and maximize return by ignoring the outliers.

There's no money to be made in creating a module bank that meets every conceivable educational need that could appear, particularly if we are talking about a program meant to serve hundreds of thousands of students.

Likewise, the artificial intelligence that is allegedly sorting out the students based on their performance cannot afford to be too precise in its sorting. If it analyzes student achievement and ability based on dozens of factors, then it will need to sort the students into hundreds of separate "bins," each with its own set of instructional modules, each of which will in turn sort students into another hundred separate bins. This system would be complicated and, more importantly, expensive as hell.

Instead, it would be easier and cheaper to collect only a couple of data points and sort the students into a half-dozen large bins that encompass a broad spectrum of students. Details of their personal educational needs will be discarded, and outliers will just be jammed into whatever bin they come "close enough" to matching.

In short, a profitable system will be no more personalized than giving all students a ten-question pre-test, then sorting-- students who get an A or B move on to Worksheet #1, students who get a C move on to Worksheet #2, and Ds and Fs move on to Worksheet #3.

And this is before we even start to work in other factors like the student's interests (a critical factor in choosing reading assignments) or the style of exercise they work best with (picture-based? long story problems? puzzles?).

To be marketable, personalized education systems have to promise that they will provide an educational program perfectly suited to each and every child. But to be manageable and profitable, they have to provide a system that discards outliers among students and just jams them in with everyone else.

You know what's good at personalized learning for outliers? Carbon based life-forms animated with non-artificial intelligence, with professional training and experience in the education of young humans. Collect a bunch of those, give them several individual small humans to instruct, and you can have all the personalized instruction you want-- and it won't even create a permanent data file. Best of all-- these carbon-based life forms can even provide personalized instruction for the outliers.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

PA: Let's Arm Teachers?

Apparently it's education crazy season in Harrisburg, with one ill-advised ed bill after another. But fear not-- at least one PA legislator wants some of us to start packing heat in school.

Senate Bill 383 intends to amend the school code, with the intent of "providing for protection and defense of pupils.

Sponsor Donald C White, who was an insurance salesman back before his 2001 election, explains the reasoning here:

In the aftermath of a number of tragic school shootings, the debate continues across the country on how we can better protect our children. While most of this discussion surrounds whether or not more gun control measures are needed, I believe we must look at all options when it comes to improving the safety and security of our children, teachers and school staff....

My bill would allow school personnel to have access to firearms in school safety zones if they receive authorization from the school board of directors, are licensed to carry a concealed firearm and have met certain training requirements in the use and handling of firearms (as outlined in my proposal)...

As we weigh our options, I believe we need to consider providing school employees with more choices than just locking a door, hiding in a closet or diving in front of bullets to protect students. With the legal authority, licensing and proper training, I believe allowing school administrators, teachers or other staff to carry firearms on the school premises is an option worth exploring. 

No. No, it's not. Here's why I don't think it's an idea worth considering.

1) The window of opportunity is tiny. 

From start to finish, active shooter events are short, short things. Chances are mighty slim that a teacher will have a chance to do a thing. An FBI study of active shooter incidents found the vast majority were over in less than five minutes.

2) Shooting in high stress situations is hard.

Military personnel and police train with their firearms a lot. A lot. Because when you are all of a sudden in a life or death situation and you have to pull out your gun and use it, there are many problems. Your hands are shaking. Your perceptions are flooded in adrenaline. You have to make a split-second critical decision when you were teaching verbs thirty seconds ago. Shooting a gun at a target when you have time to prep and aim and think is plenty hard enough. Under "combat" conditions, it's infinitely harder, unless you are a highly-trained individual.

Using a gun requires a professional. Amateurs with guns are bad news.

3) Collateral damage.

You may think that picking off the shooter while children are running past you in screaming chaos will be just like picking off bad guy bosses in Call of Duty, in which case you are exactly the person I don't want to be packing in my building. You're an amateur with a gun. There's one shooter and a hundred children; I figure the odds that a child is going to be hit by friendly fire are somewhere between "unacceptable" and "horrifying."

4) Confusion on the scene.

Let's say that law enforcement manages to arrive before the scene has played out. They walk in the door and see four people wielding guns. What do you think they should do at that moment? Last summer in Dallas, when a sniper was picking off police officers, a crowd full of Rambo wannabe's just created more confusion for law enforcement. If you were a shooter, you could not concoct a better scenario to give yourself cover than to have a bunch of civilians with guns running around while police were trying to find you.

5) Guns in schools. Where there are also children.

Here's a fun story. A third grade teacher at a private school in Chambersburg,, PA went to the bathroom, took off her holstered and loaded sidearm to do her business, and left it there on top of the toilet tank in the same restroom that the students used. For at least three hours. It was, in fact, children who brought the event to the authorities' attention.

There are so many nightmare scenarios that come from trying to keep a firearm secure in a building filled with children-- particularly when the firearm is being kept secure by someone whose main business every day is a hundred things other than keeping a firearm secure.

For the vast majority of schools, an active shooter event is something that will never, ever happen. But we're going to start putting firearms inside those buildings, watched over and operated by sort-of-kind-of-trained amateurs? Reasonable people can disagree about gun control (though unreasonable people often dominate the conversation), but this is just a bad idea. This is not how to make my students safer.

If you're in Pennsylvania, contact your Senator and tell him to vote no on SB 383.

Monday, April 17, 2017

EdTech To Teachers: Who Needs You?

If you want to see a fully-refined expression of edtech disdain for actual teachers, check out this article by Dr. Karen Beerer, "Greatest Lesson: Teacher Buy-in Is Overrated."

Beerer is VP of Professional Development for Discovery Education. She's held that job since 2012-- before that she was Asst. Super at Boyertown School District  for seven years, and before that an "educator" at Quakertown Community School District for twenty years (that apparently breaks down to stints as principal and teacher). She was hired by Discovery to handle things like their Common Core Academies. Presumably their mission statement was not "Learn from professional development or don't-- we couldn't care less."

And yet, here she is to explain how implementing ed tech can be done via a big bus that just drives over your professional staff.

The stock photo for the piece is a woman at a desk, eyes closed, hand to forehead. One must assume it's a superintendent thinking, "OMFG those damn teachers." The subhead notes that while collaboration is nice and all, waiting for teacher buy-in can be "paralyzing to innovation." And we are off and running.

Almost immediately, Beerer hedges her bets and adds a "sometimes" because, she says, there is a time and place for it.

She notes that teachers have a right to feel innovation fatigue as fads like Madeline Hunter come and go (but she would like you to know, parenthetically, that she still loves Hunter-- are you getting a picture of Beerer now?). But as she travels the country as a sales rep with a fancy title VP of Learning and Development for Discovery Education, she gets a lot of pushback on the transition from actual books to digital content, from "we're not ready" to "we can't afford it" to "students don't need any more tech in their lives." Apparently she hasn't talked to anyone who says things like "your digital content isn't very good" or "we're already using another product."

Never mind. Here are three reasons that administrators should ignore those pesky teachers when it comes to launching technological innovation.

1. The Real World Isn’t Dependent on Teacher Buy-In

The teachers may have legit concerns, but hey-- teachers don't live in the real world, and the real world is totally digital. So get with it, students. There's no need to get teachers into that "real world"-- just send students on ahead with no guidance at all. What could possibly go wrong?

2. Students Are Ready, Whether or Not Teachers Are Ready

No matter our concerns, we need to recognize that our students are ready—they want to engage with textbooks that are replete with immersive and interactive experiences. 

I wish. As I've noted in the past, I'm a fairly tech forward teacher. As a literature teacher, it's easy for me to assign almost any text simply by pushing out the link to it. And do you know what the majority of my students do first when they get such an assignment? That's right-- they print it out, so they can read it on paper and not on a screen.  

My students are ready to use instagram and snapchat and whatever game is cool this week. Expecting them to be inspired by a screen and software is like expecting students of my generation to be inspired by a pencil. Yes, some are, but mostly they take their tech tools for granted and are no more inspired by them than they are inspired by air.

This is a typical arc of technology. When automobiles first arrived, everyone who owned one was a well-versed mechanic who could work on every part and function. But growing the market requires reducing the amount of tech knowledge required, and now the vast majority of car-owners can't do anything more than change a tire. Fifteen years ago, I always had students around who could code. Today, I have none.

Part of my job is to show them what they can do with the tech, to try to light a spark, to give them a push, even if it''s just toward doing a presentation with slides that aren't totally boring. I don't just have to buy in-- I have to sell, too.

3. Digital will be Used By Students Daily and the Classroom Won’t Change That

Beerer says she hears worries about the impact of technology, and I get that such feelings are out there. I'm more worried about the impact of tech's capacity for data mining and surveillance all the flippin' time, and the great lengths that tech companies go to smother those concerns instead of having serious conversations about them. And-- surprise-- Beerer isn't going to address that here.

But her actual point is not clear. Students are going to get sucked in anyway, so just go ahead and buy in, Gramps?

In fact all three seem a little bit like arguments for why teachers should buy in and not why their buy-in just isn't necessary. But she is now going to outline briefly how to just go ahead and do it anyway.

Enhance the instructional experience by integrating digital strategies and content with “traditional” teaching strategies.

Add a dollop of digital to whatever you're doing. Here's a super example: "ask students to write a five-paragraph essay, and then have them summarize their work Twitter-style in 140 characters or less." Because....? Does this have any value other than incorporating the digital element for the digital element's sake? She says this will be a catalyst for increasing student engagement, but if that's the case, she's already in trouble because my students think that Twitter is for people my age. And although Beerer was an elementary teacher, she doesn't address whether she thinks this is a great strategy for second graders.

Let the content support differentiation.

Digital resources make it easy to differentiate, like assigning reading by lexile levels (if you think lexiles aren't junk which-- spoiler alert-- I do). She says digital resources can help "scale" our "good instructional practices" somehow. Digital magic?

Use technology to teach students how to learn.

Because there's like Siri and virtual reality and new apps and those new apps might help them learn, somehow.  So, you know, explore that.

Hey, wait a minute

Yeah, those are not actual ways to implement digital resources so much as they are the broad outlines of pitches that a sales rep would use to push digital products out to the superintendents and business managers and IT directors who will never actually use them.

And here's how she brings it home.

The key is for all teachers who have not yet begun making the digital transition to get started on making that shift today.


Even if you don’t fully buy-in, as one of my colleagues says, at least “be” in.

In other words, district leaders, buy this stuff, stick it in the classroom and tell your teachers, "Use the damn stuff. I don't care if you have any use for it-- use it anyway. Explore and let the digital inspiration sweep you away because, God help me, I let that woman from the company convince me to drop a couple hundred thou on this stuff and now it's up to you to find a way to make it work."

I like tech, and some of her thinking mirrors some of the reasons I use it. But the utter disregard for teachers here is staggering. The notion that teachers don't need to be active or willing participants in the programs used in their classrooms is the same sort of teacher contempt that got us winning ideas like Common Core. It is one more version of the corporate sales mindset that gives us "teacher proof" programs in a box with a promise that it doesn't matter who you hire-- just hand them this and students will do super great.

Part of our function is as gatekeepers, charged with making sure that our students aren't bombarded with a lot of damn fool nonsense. Our gatekeeping capabilities have been sorely tested for the past decade and, sadly, many colleges and pretend teacher programs are cranking out grads who have been deliberately led to believe that gatekeeping is not their job at all, that there are somewhere wiser minds who will take care of that.

This is one of the great drivers of teacher de-professionalization. The desire for sales and the desire to circumvent teacher professional judgment. Never mind what they think. What do they know? Their buy-in and cooperation and professional agreement that this program or tool has value-- completely unnecessary. Ignore them and buy today!

Why the Attack on Sarah Chambers Matters

Every day, from all over the country, we hear stories of teachers whose jobs are, for one reason or another, are on the line. Sometimes we hang back, correctly assuming that we don't have the whole story, that there are local issues that we don't know about. But sometimes these local stories deserve all the attention we can give them because they are an early warning of kinds of problems we could all face. So that's why I think you should keep reading when I tell you--

Sarah Chambers is under attack.

Chambers is a special ed teacher in the Chicago Public School system, serving students at the Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy for the last eight years. She has been rated "distinguished" by six different principals. And as recent events have shown, she is much-beloved by her students and their parents, not because she's all warm and fluffy, but because she is a fierce advocate for those students.

CPS just suspended Chambers, and has served notice that they want to take her job.

Here's why we should all care.

Testing before teachers.

According to Chambers, the stated reason for her suspension was that she was accused of encouraging students to opt out of taking the PARCC (a charge that she denies).

Let that sink in-- of all the possible kinds of professional misconduct that a teacher could be guilty of, the one that the district was willing to move quickly and forcefully on was not a matter that touched on student rights or mistreatment, not even allegations of pedagogical misconduct. No, the thing that would cause CPS to spring into action, the one line they absolutely won't tolerate being crossed is failing to support the Big Standardized Test.

Mind you, Chambers has been on CPS radar over testing before. In her chapter of More Than a Score
(which you can read here, but you should really get a copy of the book), Chambers talks about how the school's teachers organized a successful boycott of the old Illinois Standards Achievement Test. The full staff voted not to administer the test at all, and CPR pushed back with threats of disciplinatry action, firing, and even stripping of licenses. Some of this was aimed at Chambers herself:

The interrogators tried to scare teachers into naming other teachers leading the opt-out movement. They asked one of my colleagues, “Was this led by a Ms. Lambers [meaning Ms. Chambers, my name]?” They used this strategy to get teachers to correct the absurd name they created, and say that “Ms. Chambers” led the campaign. 

Many staff members ultimately folded under the pressure, but Chambers had clearly made a name for herself in some offices.

Silencing Teacher Voices

Is this really all about protecting the sacred test? Doubtful. What seems far more likely is that CPS has decided to silence a strong and committed activist. Here's what fellow Chicago teacher-acitivist Michelle Gunderson thinks is behind the whole business:


Fear of the truth Sarah tells. Fear of the power of her leadership. And fear of the crumbling of the neo-liberal design for schools: underfund the schools, watch them starve, and blame the failure of the schools on the children, teachers, and the communities. Once our schools are deemed unfit they are ripe for privatization by our mayor, Rahm Emanuel, and his friends. Sarah’s work interrupts these plans.

Chambers had been part of a bunch of noise that thwarted a CPS to cut programs at Saucedo. She has been absolutely fierce in speaking out for her students, whose special needs make them special targets. Remember, we're talking Chicago, home of Arne Duncan and his idea that all students with special needs require nothing more but teachers with high expectations.

Gunderson lays out just a few of the other times that Chambers has been a leader in resisting decisions that were bad for students, bad for schools. CPS has been slashing support and programs like Michael Myers on speed, and Chambers has repeatedly stepped up and spoken out. And Chicago where, remember, the school system is run out of the mayor's office, is particularly sensitive to uppity educatorss-- only a brain rumor kept union president Karen Lewis from handing Rahm Emanuel a huge political thwacking, and principal Troy Laraviere had to be run out of his job before he drew too large a crowd.

And Chicago stands as an example for the rest of us, out there consistently in the forefront of standing up for student rights, for equity, for quality education, and for the rights of teachers.

Even if you are not a big unionist, you must recognize that teachers must be free to speak out and stand up for students, and that means that we have to be free to disagree, strongly, when the folks in charge make decisions we believe are wrong. If we can't speak up without losing our jobs, or the fear of losing our jobs, how are we to do our jobs in the first place? Teachers have to be a voice in an effective education system. Sometimes a union is an important part of establishing and protecting that voice, sometimes not-- but the notion that a teacher should lose her job for disagreeing with her bosses, even if her bosses include major political figures with national aspirations.

P.S. Tenure

I can't talk about this story without noting it's the umpty-millionth example of why we need tenure. Without any sort of job protections, Chambers could have been quietly fired over Easter and it would have all been done before anyone could even draw a complaining breath.

Bottom Line?

You may not have ever used the advice, but you've surely heard it-- if you have a class that's exceptionally unruly, pick out one of the worst kids and make an example of him. Stomp on him so thoroughly that the rest of the class will be afraid to breathe.

That sure looks like what we've got here. Pick out a teacher who's more vocal, more uppity, more annoying, and squash her both to end her particular irritations, and as a message to all her little friends to think twice before they step out of place and start messing with the big boys.

I could have reached out to Chambers like a real journalist, but first, I'm pretty sure she's got her hands full at the moment and second, I don't need to know about her background or her educational philosophy or whether or not I find her likeable to know that what CPS is trying to do to her is wrong. It's wrong. The official cover reason for trying to can her is wrong, and the unofficial apparent reason for wanting to can her is wrong-- especially because there seems to be widespread agreement that she is good at her job, who has been called a "tireless advocate for children.".

Chambers' hearing has not yet been scheduled. Meanwhile, Saucedo already has two openings in special ed. There is still plenty of time to make noise. The point of this business is to make teachers be silent. Don't be silent.

There's a petition here you can sign. You can spread the word (I recommend this piece by Gunderson). And pay attention, because this case is a message to us all.