Wednesday, August 23, 2017

OH: Grifters Keep on Grfiting

Haters gotta hate. Players gotta play. And ECOT gotta keep finding ways to latch itself onto public tax dollars for fun and profit.

You may recall that ECOT has been working hard to win the Worst Cyber School In The World medal, which is no small achievement in a very crowded field. The Columbus Dispatch has been following these guys for over a decade (you can find the bulk of their coverage collected here). If we go back to 2006, we find folks questioning the then-fledgling school's reporting of its enrollment and the quality of its program. The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow was, according the Newark superintendent, “failing to meet even minimum standards of operation.”

Caption courtesy of Plunderbund. I see no reason to disgaree

The continued lodging of those complaints was not a small story-- ECOT became the tenth largest school district in the state. And ECOT's owner, William Lager was ready to deliver a master class on how to use charter schools to line your own pockets. ECOT, owned by William Lager, bought its curriculum from IQ Innovations, a company owned by William Lager. The day-to-day management of ECOT was farmed out to Altair Learning Management, a company owned by William Lager.

Not that Lager was keeping all that money for himself. In the years 2011-2015 (the only ones made available to researchers), Lager wrote 121 checks totaling $984,302 to various friendly Ohio politicians. Plunderbund tracked Lager's giving back to 2000 (ECOT's origin) and discovered a staggering total over $2 million! Lager is also a member of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s Digital Learning Now, another reformy advocacy group that quietly folded its tents in 2015

That may help explain the continued survival of a school the New York Times called out for having the highest dropout rate in the nation. ECOT has been nothing if not feisty in its responses; in 2016, when the state demanded the chance to audit actual attendance at the cyber school, ECOT counter-sued, arguing that its 2003 deal with the state only required them to offer 920 hours of education-- not make sure that anyone was actually attending the 920 hours.

Its protests were in vain. The state determined that in 2015-2016, the school billed the state for 15,000 students, pocketing $106 million. The state of Ohio determined that only 6,300 students were active participants in the on line "school." ECOT owed the state $60 million.

Lager fought back hard. He has appealed the rulings all the way to Ohio's Supreme Court; they were not helpful. . He made sad noises about how he'd have to lay people off, and that paying back the money he stole from the state would threaten the viability of his fake business (I'm paraphrasing). Critics pointed out that Lager's huge profit margins could take it, and the Plain Dealer found the school had $17 million in cash reserves against the $21 million annual payment to Lager's companies. In perhaps the ballsiest move of all, ECOT bought tv time for an ad to raise public support for non-repayment. That's right-- Lager spent taxpayer money to try to avoid giving back taxpayer money.The Oho State Auditor told him to knock it off.

With no friends in the legal system, it might seem that Lager and ECOT were finally doomed.

But no.

According to yesterday's Dispatch, Lager has a new plan:

ECOT, the online charter giant one study found produced more dropouts than any other school in the nation, is moving into a new line of business — “dropout recovery.”

 Dropout recovery schools face looser reporting standards. Changing status might get ECOT some space from the heavy hand of state inquiry, and not for nothing, it will also open up a whole new market for the embattled cyber school. Certainly it puts the school in the company of other schools with an execrable graduation rate. In 2014, the Akron Beacon Journal reported that Ohio's dropout recovery schools were doing such a bad job that they gave Ohio the only worsening dropout rate in the country. If that is still the case, ECOT may have finally found a field in which it will not stand out as being the absolute worst.

Last year, State Auditor Dave Yost found attendance rates at the state’s dropout-recovery charters were horrible: only a third of students showed up, according to a surprise headcount. Auditors also found between 0 to 50 percent of students had showed up for class at the 14 dropout-recovery schools visited, for an average of 34 percent. 

ECOT has been running about 36%. So, winning?

Most importantly, of course, this will allow Lager to keep the gravy train running by scamming the taxpayers of Ohio. Tell me that one again about how the invisible hand of the free market will clear away the bad charter schools?

A Good Bad Writing Resource

I have a fun-- and free-- recommendation for everyone interested in the teaching of writing.

Published by the Digital Publishing Institute at WVU Libraries and in part by Inside Higher Ed, and absolutely free for the download, Bad Ideas About Writing is a compendium of essays by a wide assortment of teachers and scholars about the many terrible myths of writing instruction. Growing out of a project about the sciences (These Ideas Must Die), this book is aimed at a broad audience, as explained by editors Cheryl Ball and Drew Loewe:

This project is necessary because while scholars in writing studies (just as in any academic field) argue to and against one another in scholarly journals, books, and conference talks, those forms
of knowledge-making don’t consistently find their way into the public’s understanding of writing. Yet “the public” in all its manifestations—teachers, students, parents, administrators, lawmakers, news media—are important to how writing is conceptualized and taught. These publics deserve clearly articulated and well-researched arguments about what is not working, what must die, and what is blocking progress in current understandings of writing.

The book is organized around several broad topic headings:

Bad Ideas about What Good Writing Is
Bad Ideas about Who Good Writers Are
Bad Ideas about Style, Usage and Grammar
Bad Ideas about Writing Techniques
Bad Ideas about Genres
Bad Ideas about Assessing Writing
Bad Ideas about Writing and Digital Technology
Bad Ideas about Writing Teachers

Packed under those headings are sixty-two separate articles, each under the heading of a beloved Bad Idea. Here are just some of the Bad Ideas addressed:

America is facing a literacy crisis
Writing knowledge transfers easily
Writers are mythical, magical, and damaged
Some people are just born good writers
Writers block just happens to people
Good writers always follow my rules
Teaching grammar improves writing
Excellent academic writing must be serious
Creative writing is a unique category
The five-paragraph essay is rhetorically sound
The five-paragraph theme teaches "beyond the test"
Research starts with a thesis statement
Grading has always made writing better
When responding to student writing, more is better
SAT scores are useful for placing students in writing courses
Gamification makes writing fun
Digital natives and digital immigrants
You're going to need this for college
Anyone can teach writing

The pieces cover a wide spectrum from "I don't believe anyone still thinks this" to "Hey! That's how I teach writing." Each is a discussion of positive steps-- of fixes and ideas-- rather than  just taking pot shots at a particular Bad Idea. There are lots of "instead of that, try this--" elements here. And yes, some chapters kind of contradict each other-- that's okay, too.

Each essay is grounded in research and comes with "for further reading" suggestions at the end. The writing is accessible enough that I am already considering a couple of these for handouts to my own students. The essays are short and to the point, and while you may not agree with all of them, they still provide a starting point for some reflection on practice.

I have not finished poring through this book, but I'm kind of excited about it, and I recommend it to all my writing teacher friends. Thanks to my own former student Dr. John Raucci (Associate Professor of English at Frostburg State in Maryland) for bringing the book to my attention.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Bribing for PARCC

Since the days that No Child Left Untested Behind first mandated the Big Standardized Test, teachers and administrators who work in actual schools have recognized the problems inherent in trying to get useful data out of a test that students don't care about.

When they're still in elementary school, students can still be nudged along by school pride and a desire to make their teacher proud. A few pep rallies, maybe a super-cool video on youtube, and they'll plunge bravely ahead just because their school wants them to.

But by middle school, aka the years in which tweens discover that everything in life sucks, students have figured it out. The BS Test is boring and stupid and doesn't actually matter and  neither does stupid old Mrs. Ipswitch who is so absolutely not the boss of me. In other words, I think there's a reason that many schools report a dip in eighth grade BS Test scores, and I don't think it has anything to do with the actual quality of education.

Schools, however, depending on the state, need students to produce those scores. This is one of the huge problems of test-centered "accountability"-- it flips a school upside down, and instead of the school existing to provide students with an education, the students now exist to provide the school with good scores.

And what better way to formalize this new relationship then to really double down on treating the students like employees-- and pay them for their work.

Here's Mesa Alta Junior High School in New Mexico doing just that-- students who scored high on the PARCC for MAJ were paid $100 for their efforts on behalf of the school.

The local paper reported on this as if it was a heartwarming tale of general swellness, and not, say, a fairly blatant admission that the tests do not actually have any intrinsic value for students. And if you want to tell me that obviously these students are not being treated like school employees, well, then, there's only one other thing to call the $100 payment.

A bribe.

I don't offer you $100 to kiss your loved ones or feed your children or wash your hair in the morning or eat food. I don't do it because these things have intrinsic value; they matter on their own, and come with their own rewards packed inside. Bribes are for when we need to nudge someone to perform a task that has otherwise has no value to them.

Worse, if you bribe me to kiss my spouse, I may wonder why I'm not being paid to kiss my kids. If my focus is on external rewards, I may never even see the intrinsic rewards that crop up in my path daily.

This is where we are with the BS Tests. We've thrown up our hands and admitted there's no reason to try to do well on them unless someone offers you cold, hard cash. We've tried (and continue trying) to game the system with all sorts of test prep, so why not fall back on the oldest system gaming technique of all-- bribery. Other than, of course, having to face the Kafkaesque slow death of the soul that comes with realizing that we are perpetuating and feeding a system that serves nobody. Well, except for some middle school kids who get some extra spending money.

Monday, August 21, 2017

AZ: Choice's Lie

Arizona has always been on the forefront of school privatization. Right now, things are heating up as they follow the path of promoting vouchers through any means necessary. In their case this has involved starting small with who-could-object students (special needs, native Americans) used to pilot a program that legislators now want to expand. At the moment, voucher opponents may have won a chance to stop vouchers via ballot initiative, but it won't be easy. Arizona is an ALEC-friendly state, and the Goldwater Institute has stage-managed the growth of charters and the rise of vouchers from right within the state.

Arizona is worth paying attention to because it has served as a little policy laboratory for conservative politicians and corporate interests. Harper's Magazine just ran a profile of the state's assault on public education, and you can recognize some of the techniques in play. Here's Sydney Hay, from Betsy DeVos's American Federation for Children:

When Hay started working on school choice reform, “It was a free-market argument, which of course pits Republicans versus Democrats,” she told me. She and her cohort have since found success by approaching vouchers as a social justice concern, she said. “In the beginning, it was, ‘Oh no, these are going to be the death of public school education.’ That opposition is pretty much over.

Sound familiar? Arizona has been a booming state for charters and wants to blossom its charter crop as well. And pay extra attention, because they did it without one of the favorite reformster talking points.

Arizona has public school open enrollment.

That means that no child in Arizona is "trapped" in failing schools just because of her zip code. And yet they have still sold choice as a rescue operation. True, schools are allowed to cap their open enrollment at capacity, but still, in the midst of everything else out there, it's an impressive feat to sell charters as an escape to folks who aren't even trapped in the first place.

Tweaking Charter Marketing

The recent poll showing a jump-off-a-cliff drop in public support for charter schools, which comes on top of wrestling with the splits in the community, has prompted a bit of soul-searching in the charter/choice community. Unfortunately, some of that soul-searching has focused on the question of how to better market their product.

Nobody reframes a sales pitch like Peter Cunningham. Cunningham has a BA in Philosophy from Duke and Masters of Journalism from Columbia. He worked in and around Chicago, including a stint as Mayor Richard M. Daley's head speechwriter. His Chicago connections took him to Arne Duncan's Department of Education, where as Assistant Secretary for Communications and Outreach, he was "responsible for communications strategy and message development for the U.S. Department of Education." He's a PR guy, and he's good at what he does, so when Eli Broad and some other Very Wealthy Friends (including, behind that curtain over there, Laurene Jobs) were looking for someone to run a war-room style messaging operation for education reform, they tapped Cunningham to run Education Post (and perhaps another side project or two).

I've had many online conversations with Cunningham and met him face to face when he attended the Network for Public Education conference last year. Like most reformsters, he has neither horns nor a pointy red tail. Seems like a nice enough guy. But he's well-paid to do a particular job, and he works hard to do it well. And that's what he seems to be doing in his latest spin-heavy piece at Education Post (I don't often link to EdPost, but if I'm going to write about the piece, it's only fair that there be a link to check my work. [Correction: Cunningham's piece is at the74, the Campbell Brown pro-reform website. Absolutely my error there]

The news that support for public charter schools has
dropped from 51 percent to 39 percent is a wake-up call for the school choice movement. We can continue to play defense and lose, or we can reframe the conversation around the issues that matter most: the rights of parents and the best interests of children.

There are choices beyond the two that Cunningham offers, like, for instance "ask ourselves what aspects of charters are unappealing to the public" or even "question whether or not we're backing the right horse." But Cunningham sticks with A) play defense and lose or B) improve our marketing focus.

School choice is a response to a bureaucratic and ineffective education system that is not evolving to meet the needs of America’s racially and economically diverse student population.

Even some of Cunningham's fellow reformsters don't agree with him. For DeVosian choicers, school choice is a response to a government monopoly of the education marketplace. Meeting the needs of racially and economically diverse populations is not really their intent, and the fact that they're becoming more open about it is precisely the split that is stressing the reformster world. 

Cunningham's framing here is also very adept because it sidesteps everyone else's responsibility for public school failures. He does not, for instance, talk about responding to government's unwillingness to properly fund education. He knows that's an issue, but the solution to that issue is not school choice-- the solution is to properly fund those schools.

Next it's time for the traditional Litany of Kids These Days Failures:

Troublingly, 1 in 6 students don’t graduate from high school. Only about 1 in 3 who do graduate are ready for college. Few of the remaining students have marketable work skills upon graduation, while employers are hungry for workers who can think, communicate, analyze, and show up on time.

The 1 in 6 figure comes from I'm-not-sure-where, but is in line with what many authorities say--though that figure usually is based on students entering ninth grade and graduating four years later, and if we're basing graduation rates on what percentage of a ninth grade cohort graduates from the school four years later, then charters look terrible by comparison to public schools.

The 1 in 3 figure is oft-repeated baloney. It means that 1 in 3 students hit a cut score on a single Big Standardized Test. Is there anything to suggest that the cut score and the test correspond to college readiness? Of course not, because "college readiness" is an undefined (and probably undefinable) term. The worker "shortage" is a discussion too large for this space, but if there really is a concern about people willing and able to do certain jobs, there are two clear responses. You can respond as some states have to teachers shortages by lowering standards, or you could follow the wisdom of the free market and offer better work conditions and pay. If nobody will sell you a Porsche for $1.98, that does not mean there's an automobile shortage. I won't argue that employers don't want workers with all those qualities, but I will question how school choice would create more people who have them.

And it's worse for poor kids:

Less than 1 in 10 low-income kids earn a four-year college degree. About 30 percent don’t even finish high school, and those who do have few career choices. It’s no wonder low-income parents are desperate for better options. 

A bicycle, because a vest has no sleeves. What do the problems of poverty have to do with school choice? Why would we not instead conclude that schools in these communities need more money, support, and attention, instead of the opposite-- to drain money and resources away from these schools in the hopes that a charter might have the ability to save just a few of them.

The choice movement has grown steadily over the past 25 years by offering new and innovative approaches to teaching and learning.

Really? Name two. What the few "successful" charters have offered is a carefully selected student body, strong financial support, and plenty of resources. None of these are new or innovative.

Cunningham follows this with unsupported praise of charters, with more college students, increased teacher diversity, eliminating achievement gaps, and "using technology in new and better ways to personalize learning and empower teachers to meet students where they are and enable them to learn at their own pace." Yes, let's pitch "personalized" computer-based in there, too. Let's just say that there's a lot of room for debate about all of these claims and move on to the problems of the embattled choicers. Oh, and the choice system "is significantly better than the system it is replacing." So I guess we're done talking about blending the systems together-- close up public education and replace it with the privatized version.

Not surprisingly, the system has struck back by shifting the conversation away from student outcomes and parent rights. Instead, officials focus on money, governance, selectivity, testing, segregation, discipline, management, jobs, and any other topic they can use to change the subject.

 Has it? Because there's been plenty of discussion of student achievement among choice critics with voucher studies showing definite weakness. And the rest of the list-- is Cunningham suggesting these topics are irrelevant and immaterial, that choice as a tool of segregation, for instance, is unimportant? Or is he simply arguing that these points are marketing losers, and folks trying to sell choice should move on to better marketing tactics? Because I don't see anything on his list that doesn't have a strong and influential impact on students and their learning.

The poll results suggest that more and more people are starting to question the motives and merits of school choice. And, in truth, the choice movement has allowed enough bad actors into the space to validate their concerns.

Well, yes. I appreciate his willingness to admit it. Over the past decade, nobody has made choice look worse than charter operators themselves. And the bad news for choicers is that Empress DeVos (her brother wants to be a Viceroy of War, so why can't she be the Empress of Education) has made it clear that she sees no need for any oversight beyond parental choice, so the Bad Actors problem is not going to get better any time soon. Cunningham says cleaning house is a regular, daily chore, but DeVos has already sold her dustpan and broom because, hey, the parents that pass through will probably keep everything clean on their own. In other words, this hasn't been working so far, but let's do it more.

Cunningham says voucher opposition is softening. Urban parents are jealous of those cool Catholic schools. And there's more:

Black and Hispanic parents see high teacher turnover in their public schools and wonder why so few teachers are people of color.

Well, yes. But what does that have to do with charter schools, which also skew white in their staffing and often have considerable staff churn and burn, by design. Not to mention the many charters that just close completely, sometimes in the middle of the year. So, yes-- real problem. But what reason is there to think that charters and choice are a solution?

They see increasingly militant teachers unions threatening strikes and anti-tax politicians unwilling to fund schools adequately, and they want to remove these uncertainties from their lives.  

Increasingly militant? I'd like to see a basis for that assessment. Over the past few decades, states have taken many steps to make teacher strikes untenable. It's true that in Chicago, the teachers union kicks ass and takes names-- but more than in the past? And compared to unions across the country? And yes-- buried in here is the admission that underfunding schools is a political problem, but how will choice help that? Will anti-tax politicians suddenly be willing to raise taxes if the money is going to charters? 

But here comes his Big Point.

No one can dispute the right of parents to choose their child’s school. Every day, privileged parents are making that choice by moving into a community with good schools, by choosing private schools, or by jockeying within the existing system to find the best fit for their kid. Poor parents deserve the same opportunity to choose.

Okay. First, choice is not as important as quality. I've made this argument before-- poor parents don't want choices. What they want is their child in a good school. And we could do that. But it would cost money, and while nobody in this country would dispute a parents' right to have a good education for their child, what folks are disputing-- as with health care and food and decent housing-- is having taxpayers pay for it. There is only one thing standing between building a school in a poor neighborhood that is every bit as good as the school in a wealthy neighborhood, and that is money. People want great educations for their own kids. Those Other People? Don't care so much. And if I have to listen to one more "Why should I pay school taxes when I don't have kids" argument, I raise my blood pressure so high that I'll blow the remaining hair off the top of my head. 

So we want good education, but we don't want to pay for it. We particularly don't want to pay for it for Other Peoples' Children. This is a real problem-- one of the root problems of the entire education system. AND CHARTERS AND CHOICE DO NOT SOLVE THIS PROBLEM. What do you think the "but I don't have kids" taxpayer crowd will have to say about paying taxes because families are now "entitled" to send their kids to private school at public expense. PLUS charters and choice, by virtue of duplicate services and excess capacity, must be an even more expensive system.

Now the marketing advice:

Parents should be the face of the school choice movement. We spend a lot of time glorifying the innovative educators creating charter schools, but we should spend more time honoring the parents with the courage to buck the system.

Fundamentally, school choice is about freedom — one of America’s core values. No one should be trapped in a system that isn’t working for their kids.

Fundamentally, school choice is about opening markets to vendors so they can get their hands on that sweet, sweet tax money. As with any other market, the customers will have the "freedom" to choose whatever options the corporations offer to them. And with government pushed aside, those parents will have nobody to advocate for them and their rights. And taxpayers will have no voice at all.

With a new school year upon us, and a political climate that rewards bluster and blame over truth and common understanding, we need to bring the education conversation back to core principles. It begins with parent rights and it ends with student outcomes, and most of the other topics are secondary or irrelevant. 

 Education does not begin with parent rights, nor are they a core principle of education. It serves the narrative of privatizers to talk about education as if it were a commodity sold to parents, like diapers or Aeropestale hoodies, but it is not, and it never has been. Education is a public trust, a system that serves, yes, parents but also future employers, neighbors, fellow voters, and most of all, the students themselves. A school system serves many interests and a broad web of stakeholders, which makes it really hard to get into the market. But if we could cut all of those other stakeholders out of the equation, and let ed-flavored businesses pitch just to parents (just like we pitch Diet Coke and new cars), the market would be so much more permeable.

Making the parents central to the whole edu-business makes it easier for companies to sell tehir product. It's a useful step in privatization, not so useful for getting underserved populations the kind of education they deserve. "Parent choice" is a red herring, a distraction. Unrestricted, companies will offer poor parents lousy choices-- but hey, you got a choice, so it's awesome, right?

As is the case with many reformsters, I actually agree with Cunningham when it comes to many of the problems facing education. I just don't see choice, vouchers, or charters providing real solutions to any of them.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

On Forced Class Participation: Dear WhateverHerNameIs

Dear WHNI:

I read with interest your posting on the BAT blog. I teach high school students, but I both know and remember the issues you speak of.

You write very thoughtfully about the challenge of being a shy and quiet student in a classroom where participation is demanded of you, and let just say that it can really suck. Shy, quiet and introverted humans (the three groups overlap, but aren't necessarily identical) too often have to deal with folks who don't get it, who have never had those feelings, who think that these are traits to be "fixed" or "overcome." It is a big fat pain in the butt to deal with someone who thinks there is only one right way to share or express feelings and ideas. I have at various times in my life wondered how those outgoing, verbally expansive, participate-till-they-drop folks would like to be stuck in a class where students were expected to never participate, even when they wanted to. A hundred years ago, students like you were the star pupils-- quiet, respectful, never speaking up, always attentive and on task.

I appreciate you get how much teachers want-- and in some professional sense need-- to know what's going on in a student's head. But on this point you are absolutely correct:

Because you cannot change a person yourself. The second you start trying to is the second things go from normal to wrong, and the second my school day gets a little bit longer and a lot more unbearable. The class with the random participation clogs my thoughts and even when I’m happy, I’m anxious. Even after you called on me and my heart started pounding, I’m thinking about it. And it sucks.

Indeed. One of the very worst thing a teacher (or parent) can do is look at a young human and think "Boy, this would go really well if you could just be someone else. That's all I need-- just for you to fundamentally change how you go about being in the world." And while you say it's okay to have this kind of thought, as long as it's just a thought, I'm going to go one further-- it's not useful to even have that thought, because it's impossible to have that thought without having it color your action and behavior.

And it's big principle to grasp, because historically, we have screwed this one up over and over-- left-handed students, non-white students, students with various disabilities-- we have approached them both as an institution and as individuals with an attitude of, "First, we need you to change who you are." This is, in fact, one of my issues with modern charters-- far too many of them will only teach you if you are in the world the way they want you to be, and all others can just leave.

Our mission should be to find ways to teach students as the people they are. We teachers do have the job of figuring out what's going on in your studenty craniums, but it's a lazy cheat to say, "You have to show us that the one and only way we prefer." (One more reason using standardized tests to measure all of education is a crock.)

It's a never a wise teacher move to try to force students to do anything-- because we can't. When you were littler, we could trick you into thinking you didn't have a choice. Now you're old enough to know better. So I assume I can't "make" my students do anything-- but I can certainly try to nudge them in particular directions.

Having cheered you on for most of your piece, I will disagree with you on one point. You write

And I can almost guarantee that you have a handful of students (or peers, if you’re not a teacher) in your mind that match that same description. The kids who mind their business, take their notes, and leave. We don’t cause trouble. More often than not, we’re probably good students. 

I'd hope that students in my classroom set their sights a little higher than just coming in, doing the basic of what's expected, keeping their head down, and leaving. Students who are merely compliant, who just show up and do what they're told-- those are not my idea of good students. That's a low bar to clear. I hope you set a higher bar for yourself in the future.

That said, as teacher, it's my job to make it possible and at least a little more comfortable for my students to do that. I provide a lot of different avenues for "participating," and I do my best to maintain an atmosphere that is safe and non-threatening, where students can do their thing without having to feel anxious. I don't claim to be perfect, and I'm not sure I want to be-- the biggest enemy of growth is comfort. But if you were sitting in my classroom this fall, my hope is that you would be less anxious and able to challenge yourself without having to feel forced to act like someone you are not.

Finally, I will meet my students for this year in about ten days, and I want you to know that I'll be thinking about your words as I work with them in the months ahead. I hope your school year is great.

ICYMI: Almost There Edition (8/20)

School's beginning is getting close in my neck of the woods. But keep reading, and keep paying attention!

Chris Cerf Is Better Than You-- Just Ask Him

Jersey Jazzman, as usual, looks at New Jersey but sees conditions that teachers all across the country face

Facing Our Confederate Past

Is this the year we start to truly address some of the dark corners of US history? Here's some more thoughts about how.

How Can We Improve the Performance and Accountability of Pennsylvania Cyber Charters

I'm not sure I agree with every one of the recommendations, but this is a brutal, thorough, and well-sourced look at just how bad PA's cyber charters are. 

Headline Says Don't Protect Worst Teachers

Thomas Ultican responds to one more attack in one more media outlet/

The Heartbreak of Being a Teacher in Texas

But some media outlets run pieces like this one-- a tough look at the teaching life from a Texas educator.

Kennedy Learns From Middle Schoolers

Here's a novelty-- a legislator who works two or three days a year as a "substitute teacher" On the one hand, that's not very much. On the other hand, it's far more than the average legislator. And he has gleaned big insights from his "work," like "teaching is hard."

Pediatricians say Florida Hurt Children in order to Make Rich Richer

CNN takes a look at exactly how badly Florida's attempt to undercut Obamacare is hurting actual live children.

How Preschools Are Actually harming Your Children

Yahoo joins the list of media outlets that have figured out that academically oriented school for littles is a bad, damaging idea.

Dunce's App

Audrey Watters looks at how behaviorism has entered classrooms via silicon valley.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

The Public Eye

It is one of the oddest volunteer gigs I have ever taken on, but today, as I have for about eighteen years, I walked up to the park a half-block from my house, and served as a judge for our annual stone skipping competition. I am not kidding. Every once in a while some media outlet comes to watch-- here's a piece from Bill Geist of CBS Sunday Morning from several years ago:

You can find me somewhere in the background, wearing a garish Hawaiian shirt, because that's what I always wear for this event.

Today we had competitors from Philly, South Carolina, Canada, and other not-nearby spots. We have regulars who come, including the two guys included in the clip. Russ Byers is in the middle of a battle with esophageal cancer, and Kurt Steiner has since set a world record with 88 skips (there's video on youtube if you want to see it.

Some of the competitors and crowd today

I do it because it's fun, because it's super-conveniently located, and because it pouts me, a teacher, out in a public event. I did not, frankly, get asked because I'm a teacher, but because I'm a local newspaper columnist and sometimes folks invite me to get involved in things in hopes I'll write some nice words.

And you should know this about me-- I am hugely introverted. Being in anything like a public eye is supremely awkward for me (my wife shares this trait-- at our baby shower, we were fully prepared to curl up and disappear). I've made a certain amount of peace with it-- I love to play music and audiences tend to be involved-- but I'm never super comfortable seeking out an audience and saying, "Hey, pay attention to me."

But greater than that is my belief that teachers have got to get out there in the public eye. We cannot be seen only in school. We must be seen in our communities, preferably contributing to them in whatever ay suits our particular talents and opportunities.

We owe it to the communities that pay our wages. It matters when they see us out there spending that same money to support local businesses and community activities.

It strengthens our position as teachers. When our students see us a real people who live in the real world, and not some kind of wind-up maniquens who only exist within the school walls-- well, that increases the possibility that they will believe that what we say and do in the classroom has some connection to their lives. There is nothing like the shock and surprise of students who meet you in the grocery store (You eat food!!??) or out wearing regular non-work clothes (You wear jeans??!!), and it always changes the way they see us in the classroom.

It also earns us the traction to advocate for ourselves and our work. People have been saying terrible things about us for years. We can say, "That's not true," but it's never as effective as when the people who have met us, spent non-school time with us, seen us in the world, speak up to say, "I know her, and she's not like that."

Some of us are too shy or retiring to get our lights out from under those bushels. That is no longer good enough. We are the experts. We are the professionals. And we are the friends and neighbors in the community. We can't afford not to be vocal and visible about all that; there are too many people out there willing to say that we are just money-grubbing lazy grifters.

And while I know not everyone can live where she teaches, for reasons of money, family, and circumstances, I also know that I have met teachers who swear they would never, ever live where they might run into their students outside of school, and I this day and age, that attitude is indefensible. If you are unwilling to meet your students outside of school, you probably shouldn't be meting them inside school, either.  This is one of my objections to Teach for America style programs-- no community needs drive-by do-gooders who stick around barely long enough to learn a couple of street names.

I'm a small town guy, and that undoubtedly colors my perspective on this issue-- I know it's far more complex in large urban systems. But I don't believe that you can be the most effective teacher you're capable of being without being an active, visible part of your school's community. Even if it just means singing in a church choir or volunteering with a local organization or being sure to eat in a community restaurant at least once a week, or being part of the staff of a stone skipping competition.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Those Damn Five Year Old Anarchists

Someone brought this classroom poster to my attention today:

That's from a classroom for five year olds. A classroom. For five year olds.

There are so many problems here. Equating considerate, compliant and conforms is just bizarre, like saying that bananas and baseballs make for equally good meals because both start with "b." And bossing is somehow a lower level, as if bossy people can be expected to grow into compliant people (who then become democratic people)? And the idea of some five year old child coming home from school today to despondently tell her parents, "Today I was an anarchist." Because when you run down the hall, you're not just breaking a rule or letting your five-year-old feelings carry you away-- you are challenging the very order of the universe itself.

The source of this system is, as is often the case, a guy with a dream and a consulting firm. Marvin "Marv" Marshall has written some books and booked a bunch of speaking gigs, so you know he's an expert in the field of stress reduction. In particular he focuses on reducing stress by exercising authority without coercion. Note, that's still essentially an authoritarian approach. Just a smiley one.  He's been a college lecturer, operated a charity to spread his ideas, and taught school (though I can't find anything about where or how long). Along with various other degrees, he scored a Doctorate in Education from University of Southern California in 1968. He's been an author and presenter since 1992.

There is a Marvin Marshall Preschool and Children's Center in Carmichael, CA, presumably without any nests of anarchists in it (GreatSchools reports enrollment of 2 students, both white). There are youtube videos, including a long one that explains, among other things, that the method was developed "to meet the needs of today's diverse students" which certainly matches the impression is a system about "criminalizing" non-compliant behavior. In another he credits his system as a "take-off" on Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development and it is, in the sense that tofu is a take-off on meat.  And you can watch Marshall himself in action; I will warn you that he has a bit of a smarm issue (which is fine-- after all, I have a bit of a jerk issue).

In short, I'm not so sure how much we can trust the expertise behind this system. And Nancy Bailey does an excellent job of putting this in a larger context of school discipline.And while this system drew attention because it popped up in Pasco County, Florida, you should know that it's spread far and wide-- here's a slide show presentation about it from a school in California.

But the bottom line here is, do we want to teach five year olds that being an anarchist is a bad thing and being compliant is a good thing? What if we renamed Marshall's stages-- what if students were labeled "freedom fighters" or "soldiers of the patriarchy" or "weasely collaborator." Heck, we could assign students to one of the four houses of Hogwarts every day. Or we could come up with a schema based on chaos and order muppets. I rather like the image or a small child coming home to announce, "Hey, I'm still a Swedish Chef today!!" And if you like your Muppet universe a little more complex, then there's this chart:

Here's the thing to remember about discipline systems at school-- every one of them codifies somebody's value system, sets in rules and regulations judgments like "being compliant is good" or "a good student is one who questions authority." When a system codifies love of compliance (and can't distinguish between compliance and cooperation) and negative labeling of any sort of age-appropriate behavior (five year olds running! zounds!!), my eyebrows go up. Frankly, I'd much rather see a system that codifies fuzzy Muppets.

UPDATE: After the social media flap and Nancy Bailey's piece, the superintendent decided maybe they'd just better slow that anarchy train down a bit.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Chester Finn Is Right

Yup. I'm going to direct your attention to a piece from reformster Chester "Checker" Finn (Fordham Institute Emeritus) because I agree with huge chunks of it.

This new piece-- "Betsy DeVos is wrong about accountability for schools of choice"-- does not come out of nowhere. Earlier this summer Finn came out swinging hard for accountability more deliberate and defined than a simple, childlike faith in a parent-wielded invisible hand. But now he's doubling down and explaining why-- and damned if we don't agree on much of this.

He starts by noting that DeVos, in her recent interview with the AP, once again indicated that parent choice is pretty much all we need to hold schools accountable in a choice/voucher system. Also, authorizers matter, and here Finn notices a bit of an issue:

When it comes to charter schools, the Secretary acknowledged that authorizers play a role alongside parents, though she picked the dubious case of Michigan, her home state, to illustrate the point. The Wolverine State certainly has some top-notch authorizers, and they have indeed closed down some failing charter schools, yet the overall track record of Michigan charters is too spotty—at least in the eyes of those who value academic achievement and fiscal probity—to warrant citing it as a stellar example of quality control via authorizing.

Indeed. Consider Bay Mills Community College, a tiny upper peninsula Michigan college that gets the lion's share of its funding by authorizing charter schools hundreds of miles away in Detroit. "Spotty" is a kind term for the charter record in DeVos's home state.

Then he notes this about parents as the first line of defense:

Parents as first line of defense, sure, although she appears to trust the schools themselves to equip the parents with the information they need to make competent decisions. There’s no sign of any sort of impartial data source.

Indeed. What we've seen is that charters are far more interested in marketing than informing, that they are no more committed to getting fair, full, impartial information to their customers than any other company with a product to sell.

And the second line of defense? DeVos doesn't mention any such line at all. Again, this is not a surprise-- everyone who knew told us that DeVos had been strongly anti-accountability as a choice activist.

That's not okay with Finn, who rattles off many of the accountability measures that the Fordham has touted over the years. They're all Big Standardized Test based and therefor junk as far as accountability goes, but I'm going to step past that for today. What's most important, and what I agree hardest with, and what I have often said is wrong with parent-centered choice-- well, Finn lays right into that. He notes that several studies have suggested that voucher systems get lousy or at least not-good academic results.Then:

Sobering, yes, and if we were single-mindedly dedicated—as perhaps Secretary DeVos is—to expanding and extending access to such programs, we might back off from results-linked accountability. In the long run, however, it’s better for choice, for kids, for taxpayers, and for the country’s economic vitality and social mobility that we continue to insist: No school, public or private, is a good school unless its students are learning what they should. And where public policy and public funding are concerned, what kids should learn is a matter of public interest and so are the results that their schools are—or aren’t—producing. It would be wonderful if the parent marketplace were a sure-fire mechanism for gauging and producing those results. Sadly, it simply isn’t. Which is to say, again sadly, Secretary DeVos has this one wrong.

Yeah, we're still going to disagree about what students "should" learn and how we'll know they're learning it. But we are in agreement that public education is not simply a service provided to parents, as if there are no other stakeholders. In fact, taxpayers and society as a whole have a huge stake in good schools. My take-- DeVos and other free market purists want to get all those other stakeholders out of the room so that private schools can pitch as they like to individual parents without some nosy gummint poking its head in to say, "Actually, this school kind of sucks" and queering the whole sales pitch.

But hey-- these are contentious times lately, so I'm just going to enjoy this harmonious moment with someone with whom I generally disagree a great deal.

Oh-- and before someone pipes up with, "But you public ed defenders hate accountability," let me just say for the sixty gazillionth time, no, we don't. That's a story that reformsters tell themselves to explain why we've been so resistant to so many terrible accountability ideas. We are actually big fans of accountability; what we are not fans of are crappy measures based on imaginary data and fried baloney equations and counter-factual assumptions and just generally crap no more valid than bouncing a seven-sided die off the warts on the back of a one-legged horny toad under a full moon. Come up with something real, and we'll be fans.

Happy Curmudgabirthday

Today marks the four-year anniversary of the first post on this blog. I wish I could say it shows early signs of promise, but it took a while to hit any kind of stride here. It also took the help of readers to root out a million typos as well as reconsidering some bold design choices (when this blog premiered, it was white font on black background).

There are more people than I can safely name to thank for supporting the blog (which is rapidly approaching the five million reads mark). I have taken a great deal of inspiration from other writers, and I owe all my readership to the people who found it worthwhile to pass on what they read here. Diane Ravitch, the Badass Teachers, Anthony Cody, Nancy Flanagan, Jennifer Berkshire, Jose Luis Vilson and a whole bunch of early followers who (probably knowingly) nudged me forward on this path. It helped me turn this from a place where I just vent spleen to a place where I could. hopefully, help clarify some issues and make some more sense of the ongoing public education debate. It has also been my great privilege to pass along other voices that deserve to be heard, just as others passed me along.

The most frequent question I get is "How do you write so much?" I still don't have a good answer beyond "low standards." It also turns out to be like the answer to "Twins! How do you do it?" You just do, because you have to. There's a lot that needs to be said. I'm going to keep trying to say as much of it as I can.

I'm grateful for this opportunity, and humbled that  folks are still reading. Thank you-- and keep standing up for public education.

Waiting for my book deal.

Netflix, Disney and Choice

Netflix subscribers may have already heard the news-- Disney is going to pull their content from the online media empire, and start a streaming subscription service of their own.

Take one last look, honey, before we blow this popsicle stand

This is nothing new, but just a further trend that has been steadily developing ever since online streaming library business showed promise. If you want to watch HBO stuff, you need an Amazon Prime subscription. Other stuff is available only through Hulu, and some networks have their own proprietary set-up (Bravo, for instance, figures they should be able to get their upscale viewers to pay big for classics like Top Chef).

My question is this-- does the proliferation of different streaming services represent an increase or decrease in choice?

If one streaming service has most of the available content accessible through one interface and paid for through one subscription, that would seem to be a choice ideal. Everything I want available under one roof for the single efficient price. But increasingly, it looks like folks will need to subscribe to multiple services (so much for saving money by ditching cable) and then hop back and forth between several locations to get what they need. Greater cost, less actual choice under any single roof.

This is the choice solution proposed by voucher and charter fans.

The mission of a public school was to put all the choices under one roof. It's particularly efficient because as students shift their focus (Chris wanted be a trombone-playing astronaut, but is now leaning more toward a dentist who writes mystery novels) they can do so without withdrawing from one school and enrolling in another.

Since her confirmation hearing, DeVos has talked about how public schools are swell and all, but one might not be "a good fit" for a student. That construction, favored by many choicers, is never very clear. Not a good fit how, exactly. In some cases, "not a good fit" seems to mean "filled with too many poor/black/brown children," but I want to believe that's a minority opinion. But if we're talking about academics-- well, that makes no sense. A public school is not a single one-size-only suit. It is an institution built of educational tofu. A variety of teachers serve a variety of students in a variety of ways. A variety of programs and approaches are all there, readily accessible, in one building. If your school is too hidebound to do that, you don't need a different school-- you need to replace your administration..

But even if that is the case, how is choice better? Charters are focused on a particular mission or a particular target student. They are by nature and design more narrow and restrictive. In a choice system, Chris must enroll at Astronaut STEM High (which may not even have a music program) and when Chris's focus shifts, Chris must drop out and enroll at Dentist Academy (which may not have any kind of writing program at all). Meanwhile, the whole system is more expensive; at a minimum taxpayers are paying more to replace the money charters drain from a public system, but overall it's simple math-- operating 10 schools costs more than operating 1 school.

So exercising choice is more restrictively difficult, and the whole system is more expensive. How is this choice? How is this a good idea?

Of course, Disney isn't selling their Netflexit as a way to give consumers more choice. It's a way for Disney to make more money. Choice can be highly profitable-- if you control the access and supply of your particular choice and don't just give it away willy-nilly to the public. I mean, if we really wanted to enhance video choice, we'd somehow put everything on some single site for some single price. And if we really wanted to expand academic choices for students, we'd put those choices under the same public roof without trying to profit from them,

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

PA: Baby Steps on Testing

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf announced this week that schools in PA would be devoting less time to the Big Standardized Test (our version is the PSSA for elementary and middle school students, with the Keystone exams our test for high school juniors). Currently the BS Test sucks up about three weeks total in testing time; the new proposal is to reduce that time by at least 20%.

That's not a bad thing, but it's a baby step at best. This is positive news, but here's why I'm not doing a happy dance just yet.

Test Validity

Fewer test items means less actual measuring of whatever we're pretending to measure. State officials can either decide to pretend to measure fewer standards, or they can measure the same set of standards with even fewer test items, meaning that the measurement will be even less valid than it is now. I confess to not being super-agitated about this because the current PSSA and Keystone tests measure language skills only slightly more effectively than having students throw darts at a target while blindfolded.

None of that would be super-problematic except

High Stakes

These tests have no real stakes for students, but Pennsylvania still uses them to evaluate teachers and schools. The Keystones were supposed to be graduation exams, a la New York's regents, but they still aren't because the legislature still keeps deciding they're not yet ready to deny a bunch of otherwise graduation-ready seniors a diploma on the basis of a BS Test. So every spring at the high school level, we get to tell teenagers they have to take a long, boring standardized test that will not have any effect on them or their futures at all-- but which will determine whether we teachers and our school are any good, or not.

And mind you, this is in a state where some legislators are still determined to replace tenure with test-based job ranking.

Which is why

Test Prep Will Still Rule

Again, I absolutely applaud reducing the actual test-taking time by 20%. The testing days are absolutely intrusive and disruptive to the work of educating children. But they are not the only way in which the BS Tests have interrupted education. In fact, one could argue they aren't even the most time consuming.

As in many states, Pennsylvania has seen its classrooms infected by test prep. Let's do a few hundred practice exercises to get students thinking like the test manufacturers want them to think. Let's practice reading short, boring excerpts and then answers tricksy multiple choice questions about them. Let's spend day after day after day getting used to the kinds of things the test will ask us to do.

Does anybody think that this test prep practice will also be reduced by 20%? With the school and teachers' professional standing riding on the test-- the test that now has fewer questions carrying that same large weight?

No, I don't think so either.

As long as the BS Tests are high stakes, as long as they are a major instrument used to measure teacher and school effectiveness, they will remain a toxic time-sucking impetus for educational malpractice. Pennsylvania has taken a positive step, but they haven't solved the problem.

I suppose, as they say, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. So that's one baby step down, only 5,279,999.5 feet to go.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Whose Children Are These?

Saturday and Sunday we were working our way back from Maine to Western PA (drive-- feed babies-- drive- curse Mass turnpike-- drive-- etc etc). That meant that unlike other folks who watched events in Charlottesville unspool in real time, we got them in every-many-hours blasts. It was heartbreaking and horrifying and completely predictable, yet far more awful in reality than in anticipation. There are lots of thins to be said about events (though I think we're also operating in Onionesque headline "White People Once Again Surprised To Discover That Racism Exists" territory), but I want to talk about what jumped out at me from the disjointed blasts of news.

Twenty years old.

The white supremacist who murdered one woman with his car (while trying to murder others)-- twenty years old. The torch guy who was later shocked that his picture, face pulled back in open raw hatred, was identified and shared far and wide-- twenty years old.

Twenty years old.

So these racists are not grown men, battered and beaten by the long, hard haul of trying to make a living, trying to raise and support a family, trying to make their way in a world that beat them up so badly that they have finally retreated in a huddled posture of hatred. These are not that particular caricature of a nazi, a white supremacist, a fascist racist.

These are boys. These are nearly children.

Their lives have not been long and difficult. They haven't lived long enough to lose big or lose hard. Their life experience is short. Their life experience is not years of rattling around in the big, wide world. We cannot blame the hard edges of the world for making them this way.

Their life experience is school.

They are barely high school graduates. They walked through some teachers' classrooms, across a stage, grabbed a diploma, strode into the heart of this evil movement.

And that means that those of us who teach in those classrooms cannot escape our responsibility in all this.

Teenage boys can be jerks. Some love Ayn Rand's call to selfishness, to abuse of the weak, because it fits so nicely with their inclinations. Some have been soaked in the stew of toxic manhood, told since infancy that the only manly feelings are anger and violence. And some like to say things like "Hitler was really a great guy" not because they have any coherent belief system, but because it shocks their elders in the same satisfying way that "F@#! the government-- I'm burning my draft card" once set aged hackles up.

And those of us who see them in our classrooms are often the last people to get a shot at getting them to understand you can't go moving through the world like that.

So as I face the return to school in a few weeks, I have to ask the question-- what can I do to change that trajectory? How do I convince students who are that way inclined that there are better ways to be in the world?

There are resources out there. Xian Franzinger Barret offers a good set of recommendations on Alternet. There are several good reading lists out there-- this is just one. And Audrey Watters echoes what I have always pursued in the classroom-- teach history. The white supremacist stance feeds on hate and anger, but its foundation is ignorance. And as authorities, knowledgeable in history, it's part of our job to say "This happened. That did not."

As an 11th grade English teacher, I teach a lot of history, and I teach to it overwhelmingly white classes. I suppose it's easy for us who teach in similar situations to focus on the "white" parts of our history because that's "our" culture. But the truth has always been that while the face of American history has often been presented as white, the blood and guts and heart has always been black and brown and red and every damn shade. White students need to learn slave narratives, because that is "our" history, too. They need to know it all. And in times like these, they need to know that just because they would never have walked with those racists in Charlottesville, never said the awful things they said there-- well, racism doesn't always have such an obvious face, no matter how comforting it is to think so.

But I digress, probably because I have no good, clear answer to this. I know we can't always make an impression on our students.I know that you don't make evil go away by refusing to let students say it out loud, and I know you can't deal with uncomfortable things if you aren't willing to have uncomfortable conversations, and that means somehow making a classroom a safe place for everyone, even as you put the pressure on to stand against evil. I know that any company suggesting that we might use a battery of standardized tests to both evaluate and address such issues is a ludicrous scam. I know this is not easily faced or changed.

But twenty years old.

Maybe a mere two years from graduation-- maybe less. Meaning that the only non-related adults who may have ever had a chance to push these children in a better direction were their school teachers. I know none of us want to hear about one more thing we're responsible for, a God knows we cannot work miracles on the hardened skulls of white teenaged boys. We are certainly not the last line or only line of defense.

But the truth is inescapable. There are more of these children out there, waiting to become  raging face of anger or even a murderer, and this fall, they are sitting in our classrooms, and we will have to deal with that mindfully and purposefully. And I also know that it needs most of all to come from grown-ass white men like me, that we are the ones best positioned to talk about the choices a grown-ass white man makes about how to be in the world as either a force for good or for evil. And I know most of all that in this time and place, we cannot be silent about it.

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Squishiness of Writing Instruction

For whatever reason, Judith Hochman's name has been bouncing around the interwebs lately. Most likely it was kicked off by her appearance in a recent Kids These Days article by Dana Goldstein at the New York Times. In it, Hochman lets loose with the sort of pronouncement that guarantees I will disagree with her (which Goldstein underlines by placing it all by itself in a single-sentence paragraph):

“It all starts with a sentence,” Dr. Hochman said.

Hochman has a long education pedigree. She taught in New York starting in 1957 (the year I was born) through 1974. In 1978 she turned up at the Windward School (in New York, not the tony LA private school) where she took on teacher training and leading the whole school.  She still runs their teacher training institute, but since 2014 she has also headed up an organization called the Writing Revolution, where they push The Hochman Method of writing instruction. The claims she makes for her method are not small:

Across the country, students are being held to higher, more rigorous standards. These standards provide a set of goals, but rarely provide a map showing teachers how to reach those goals. The Hochman Method is that map.

The Method boils down to six main principles:

*   Students need explicit instruction in writing, beginning in the early elementary grades.
  • Sentences are the building blocks of all writing.

  • When embedded in the content of the curriculum, writing instruction is a powerful teaching tool.

  • The content of the curriculum drives the rigor of the writing activities.

  • Grammar is best taught in the context of student writing.

  • The two most important phases of the writing process are planning and revising.

  • If you are of a Certain Age, none of this may seem familiar, what you might call How Most of MY Teachers Taught Me (this was pretty much Jack Ferrang at my high school). And that's fine-- I have a certain respect for teachers who pick up techniques that have been lying around loose, put a little spin on them, and use them to launch a consulting career. Hochman's is certainly not the worst that's out there (that would be Collins Writing

    And I get why so many schools and teachers like the idea of a system that provides a detailed map, a solid set of instructions for the teaching of writing. It's an understandable impulse. It's just not a very good way to teach writing.

    The problem with writing is that it's squishy, probably squishier than anything else we teach.

    There is no solid metric for measuring how "good" a writer. Can you quantify how Hemmingway, Steinbeck, Chaucer, Kate Chopin, Carl Sagan, P.J.O'Rourke, Mark Twain, James Thurber, and S. E. Hinton stack up each other by measuring how "good" they are? Of course not-- even the attempt would be absurd. Ditto for trying to give students a cold hard solid empirical writing rating.

    Not only can we not objectively measure good writing, but we cannot describe a single path for producing it. Each writer has their own path (which, yes, means that somewhere out there are probably writers who work well with the Hochman method). Trying to teach the One Correct Method for writing is like teaching One Correct Method for kissing. Teaching a student that they must eschew the method that works for them in order to employ the "correct" method is pedagogical malpractice.

    To make matters worse, many teachers of writing do not write. If you want to be an effective band director, you need to play an instrument. If you want to teach a foreign language, you must speak that foreign language. And if you want to teach writing, you must write. I'm sorry, but there it is-- getting writing instruction from someone whom doesn't write is like getting lesson in making love from a eunuch. And if I've hurt  your feelings, I'm sorry-- but this is the easiest problem in the world to fix.

    All of this is so squishy and messy, and we live in world where we have to turn in cold hard grades.

    In desperation, many teachers turn to something-- anything-- that can give them cold, hard objective measures. For generations teachers used to just count up mechanical errors and base the grade on those. Nowadays, teachers look for a rubric or a guide or a system that allows them to assign a grade, somehow, based on something, and there are actually some decent systems out there (I'm a modified six traits guy myself). You can also focus on one particular idea for an assignment ("I'll be looking at X, not Y, on this one"). I can give you exact instructions that will allow almost anyone, step by step, to locate the parts of a sentence. I can't do that for an essay. You have to make your compromises with the system (then subvert it as best you can).

    But we live in the Golden Age of Bad Writing Instruction, driven by the toxic Big Standardized Test movement, which fosters some word-based abomination that pretends to be writing, but is simply sentence-based test-taking.

    Hochman gets some thing right. Despite the fact that folks think students should learn grammar and diagramming (and, God help us, Latin) like We By-God Did Back in the Day, the research is pretty clear that knowing where to hang that adjective clause doesn't do a thing to improve writing. Grammar knowledge is a useful tool-- in the context of writing, just like a basketball is only really useful on a basketball court.

    And her content basis portion leads me to believe that she is not so much teaching writing as laying out how to use writing as an assessment tool, a "full sentence answer" approach. In other words, she's not really teaching writing there-- just sentence-based testing.

    But if we want to actually teach writing, you'll never convince me that "it all starts with a sentence."

    It starts with an idea. It starts with something that you want to say. Bad and mediocre writing starts with the same bad question-- "What can I write to fill in this sentence/paragraph shaped blank that will fulfill the assignment" also known as "What does the teacher want me to say." This is  exactly backwards. So backwards that it often requires the student to set aside what they want to say in order to produce the "correct" response. I did not start this post with a sentence; I started with something I wanted to say.

    A looked at Hochman techniques embedded in classrooms in a mixed bag. As a high school teacher, I would love it if nobody below sixth grade ever taught gramnmar or parts of speech ever again. Just have the students write once a day, minimum, and answer every "How can I...?" question that comes up. The clip that promises to use subordinate conjunction activity to assess Romeo and Juliet comprehension...? No, just no. Assess one thing at a time, please. But workshopping topic sentences for essays that have already been written...? Yes, please. As long as you make sure that students are involved and that you are looking at a variety of alternative solutions, and not One Correct Answer.

    Every piece of writing has to succeed or fail on its own terms. Every writer has to find their own path and their own voice. Some students demand explicit instructions so they know exactly how to get their A. It's all very squishy-- and that's before we even factor in the widlly varying levels of skills your students bring to the table. Sure, you can reduce it to some hard-edged squishless piece of machinery, but you will lose what makes writing worthwhile in the first place, like reducing a kiss to "Step One: Mash your lips together."

    Tuesday, August 8, 2017

    NWEA Thought Police

    Here's an astonishing piece of news from the "You're in the Wrong Line of Work" file.

    NWEA, purveyors of a whole raft of standardized computerized testing, has managed to score a grant, specifically the first annual Social-Emotional Assessment Design Challenge, a competition for assessments that measure social-emotional learning, or SEL.

    I will tell you just how they scored this prize in a minute, but first, a quiz--

    A student, confronted with a standardized computerized test, rips through it quickly with little regard for carefully answering the questions. The student does this because:

    A) The student is bored out of their skull with this stuff and tired of taking stupid tests

    B) The student knows that the test has exactly zero stakes for them

    C) The student is far more concerned about problems at home, a decaying relationship, etc

    D) The student wants to take a nap

    E) The student always fails these stoopid tests so what's the use of wasting time trying

    F) The student has not been sufficiently motivated to create good, rich data sets to benefit government bureaucrats and researchers who depend on these data to shape super-duper policy ideas

    Turns out that, according to NWEA's crack research team, it's none of the above. Here's the line of reasoning, which starts off well enough, and the veers wildly into the weeds:

    Rapid guessing behavior is defined as responding to assessment items too quickly to comprehend the question. Extensive research, conducted by NWEA senior research fellow Steve Wise, links rapid guessing behavior to a lack of student engagement on an assessment. Based on this research, Soland and Jensen studied rapid guessing behavior on NWEA’s MAP Growth assessment and found that it directly correlates to the social-emotional constructs of self-management and self-regulation. Students who demonstrated a pattern of rapid guessing also demonstrated a lower ability to self-manage and self-regulate in school.

    (Emphasis mine). Yes, zipping through a standardized basically shows that you're immature. The test company doesn't have to ask question to police your thoughts-- they can check your brain innards just by how you click the answers.

    This is a classic problem in the testing industry-- these folks are so devoted to and invested in the Big Standardized Tests that they cannot imagine any intelligent response, any display of responsible agency except to take the test slowly, carefully and seriously. If this is the research that won, I cannot even imagine the research that lost. 

    Jacksonian Opportunity

    So here's what much of our vacation looks like from my vantage point:

    You can't see the tiny human sleeping on my chest, but he's there. The book is Take the Cannoli, previously the only Sarah Vowell book I hadn't read. I've corrected that now.

    The book is a collection of short Vowell pieces, including one in which Vowell and her twin sister (who are part Cherokee), take a journey tracing the path and history of the Trail of Tears.

    That, of course, involves confronting the figure of Andrew Jackson himself, who is both the guy who ended the idea of the President as a job belonging to only a Certain Class of American aristocrat, and also the guy who may be one of the most racist, genocidal asshats to ever occupy the office.

    As they contemplate Jackson's grave, Vowell pulls out a letter he wrote about the "relocation" of the Native Americans, giving a glimpse of how he sell such an awful thing to both his people and to himself:

    Doubtless it will be painful to leave the graves of their fathers, but what do they more than our ancestors did nor than our children are doing? To better their condition in an unknown land our forefathers left all that was dear in earthly objects. Our children by thousands yearly leave the lands of their birth to seek new homes in distant regions... Can it be cruel in the government, when, by events which it cannot control, the Indian is made discontent in his ancient home to purchase his lands, to pay the expense of his removal, and support him a year in his new abode. How many thousands of our own people would gladly embrace the opportunity of removing to the West on such conditions?

    The Trail of Tears was, of course, a forced march over thousands of miles to a harsh land not of their choosing, with uncounted dead left along the way (including, Vowell points out, chiefs who had previously been Jackson's allies in battle).

    But Jackson (and others) sold it as falsely equivalent to the voluntary immigration to American from foreign lands. He sold it as something that, you know, the Native Americans really wanted. And he sold it as an opportunity.

    Through human history, this has always been the way when one group of people wants to profit by taking something away from another group. It's really just the samed as this other good thing. Besides, these folks really want us to do it, really want the benefits of this. And in the end, this is a great opportunity for them-- golly, I bet any one of Our People would give his eyeteeth to have this same opportunity (and yet nobody ever does).

    It remains the same today. When someone wants to offer this kind of Jacksonian opportunity, watch your back and keep your hands on your valuables.