Saturday, September 23, 2017

Food Affects Testing

I don't have a lot of value to add to this item, but I don't want you to miss it.

Turns out that schools that serve high-poverty populations that want to improve their test scores may want to pay closer attention to when SNAP benefits arrive. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is what we used to call "food stamps," and researchers a have determined that SNAP is just as important to your test scores as a few rounds of test prep.

Chad D. Cotti (University of Wisconsin), John Gordanier (University of South Carolina), and Orgul D. Ozturk (University of South Carolina) looked at standardized test scores plotted against the SNAP benefits cycle and discovered, lo and behold, that students who tested during the final weeks of the benefit cycle (when families have typically used up the benefits and are making do with less food)-- those students get lower scores. There's also an effect when the benefits arrive within the four days before testing, and that score-lowering effect primarily hits African-American males. The researchers suggest it's a weekend thing.

The data was from testing in South Carolina from 2000-2012. It involves some equations that I don't understand and a great deal of economist jargon. If a student's family receives benefits 26 days before testing, the researchers find the "student performs between 14 and 4.5 hundredths of a standard deviation" worse than they would have on a better day.

So if you'd like a paper that shows that 1) SNAP has positive benefits and 2) Big Standardized Tests measure factors that have nothing to do with educational achievement, here you go. Because that's where we are now-- needing actual proof that students do better when they are well fed. 


Friday, September 22, 2017

CRPE: Public Schools Should Assist Their Own Execution

The Center for Reinventing Public Education is an advocacy group intent on pushing corporate reformy agenda. They've taken shots at holding schools and teachers acountable, and they've fought for charter schools in their home state of Washington. And like many of these corporately-funded reformily-networked pseudo thinky tanks, they like to publish the occasional "report." Their newest one offers some bold and ballsy solutions to the problems of shrinking public schools.

Better Together: Ensuring Quality District Schools in Times of Charter Growth and Declining Enrollment is a masterpiece of concern-trolling self-serving For The Children with a side-order of PR spin advice for charters. And I have read it so that you don't have to.

Foreword

Robin Lake, the director at CRPE, sets a tone with the very first introductory adverb clause--

When districts go into a major period of “declining enrollment,”

So it's only so-called "declining enrollment," meaning that something else is really going on?

Whatever it is, it's happening to many districts, like Detroit. Lots of folks want to call charter schools a factor in this phenomenon, but Lake is not so sure. So she got together with the Economics Lab at Georgetown and Afton Partners, a DC consulting firm that specializes in school finances, along with some un-named various edu-leaders gathered in Houston.

Lake is not going to make us read the whole thing to get to her point:

The bottom line: public charter schools are not to blame for districts’ financial struggles, but it is in their best interest to be part of a solution moving forward.

That's the pre-concluded conclusion of this paper-- all that's left is the how's and why's. Nothing, Lake says, will change the inevitable marching onslaught of charters, and school districts are just going to have to figure out how to be more nimble and learn how to compete. And CRPE wants to "help lead that work." Because of their deep concern for public education and also, for the children.

Introduction

A quote from an unnamed "District superintendent" says that there are always transition costs and the charter movement "forgot that in the transition from the monopoly district system to individual schools" transition costs would rear their pricey heads. Man-- which district superintendent referred to traditional public schools as a "monopoly district system"? But let's move on.


Declining public school enrollment has led to the "perception" that charter expansion is coming at the cost of public schools, and that perception "even if unfounded" has led to "tensions" between charter and public schools. Yes, and the declining number of hairs on my head has led to the perception that I'm balder than I used to be.

There's a message here for charteristas from CRPE-- you can pooh-pooh these "perceptions," but you just got your ass handed to you over Question 2 in Massachusetts. But CRPE doesn't want readers to think they're simply discussing a tweakage of charter marketing-- the defeats of charter initiatives could hurt the children who are trapped in public schools that "decline in quality." So charters have got to up their PR game. For the children.

Also, the writers are concerned-- really concerned-- that public schools are not holding up well under the pressures created by declining enrollment, because that would be bad For The Children, and so CRPE would like to offer some suggestions, just to help. Because they're so concerned. About the children.

What We Know (And Don't Know) About District Transformation

Lots of districts had declining enrollment before charters showed up. But it sure does look like more recently, charters have certainly contributed to public enrollment decline. In Detroit and DC, public school enrollment dropped. In fact, in DC charter enrollment grew more than public enrollment dropped  over 18 years "implying that a significant minority (11,000) of charter students had come from private schools or outside the district." There are some interesting numbers being thrown around, though I'm kind of wondering if CRPE knows that new students can also be, you know, born.

CRPE notes that public schools are designed to grow rather than shrink, and I'm not sure I believe that, but they do manage to describe, with a handy graphic, a district financial death spiral-- cuts in money leads to cuts in service leads to drops in enrollment leads to cuts in funding etc etc etc.

But CRPE has some thoughts about what public schools need to do to better respond flexibly to the various cuts they suffer from. Let's see what they have in mind to "help" public schools.

Oh, This List Again

Eight items. All familiar.

1) Close schools and make some money selling real estate.

2) Redistricting and tweaking enrollment set ups.

3) End FILO so that you can fire the more expensive senior teachers. In discussing this CRPE barely pretends there are issues of quality here (the old "save our great young teachers and can those washed up burnouts"). No, if you fire old staff, you can keep more warm bodies.

4) Advocate for reform of long-term, fixed-cost obligations. AKA, ask your legislators to get you released from your pension commitments.

5) Ending unsustainable/unfunded salary commitments, such as automatic step-and-lane raises. You can save so much money if you don't have to pay those damn teachers jack. Also, though CRPE doesn't mention this, if public schools weren't paying teachers so much money, charters wouldn't be under pressure to keep their own salary offers competitive.

6) Create a uniform funding system that would blah blah blah "pay charters more" is where I think we're headed here.

7) Commit to long-term decision-making to help manage decline. In other words, you may just think that public schools are sick and need some treatment to get better, but we think it's time to check them into a hospice. Stop trying to save them, and start working on death with dignity.

8) Keep looking for "operational efficiencies, in part by making more costs, such as transportaion and special education, variable." Which I think is business-speak for "find ways to squeeze and screw your suppliers and subcontractors."

Notice that none of these suggestions include mitigating the outside pressures on public schools. For instance "Cap charter growth" or "Fully fund schools" did not make it onto this list.

CRPE notes that the issue can be complex. They even note that the financial crunch is often felt worst by the students who need support most. A one-size-fits-all strategy won't work, but, CRPE, "it is also important to transcend  finger-pointing." No single party is to blame and no parties are blameless. There's trouble created on many sides. On many sides. (And don't forget, charters-- though none of this may be your fault, you've still got to have a plan for managing the optics and politics of it.)

Anyway, here are some specific issues/thoughts/stuff that they came up with in their Houston meeting with all those anonymous folks.

The charter-district dynamic can no longer be thought of as a zero-sum game.

Um, no. That's exactly wrong. Under current charter laws, it is exactly a zero-sum game. Every student who attends a charter is a student who doesn't attend a public school. Every dollar sent to a charter school is a dollar that public schools no longer have. It is the very definition of a zero-sum game.

But the folks at CRPE's meeting were really talking about something else.

Participants agreed that the issue must be framed around creating better opportunities for all students, meeting their widely varying needs and learning styles, regardless of what kind of school they’re in.

In other words, if charters want to handle their PR more effectively, they've got to stop saying out loud, "Those kids still in public school aren't our problem. Screw 'em." Charters must at least pretend to care that all students are "buffered" from the effects of "disruptive change." CRPE doesn't really know what that looks like. But I am going to give them credit for at least talking about how charters affect all students in a community-- not just the ones at the charter.

Districts have a responsibility to act in the best interests of students-- existing and future

This is a cool new spin on For The Children. Basically, we have to cut costs and keep staffing cheap so that we will be viable, and when we have to cut even more, it won't hurt the children.

Note that it does not mean to go lobby hard for legislators to fully fund all schools.

Legacy Costs

More of the same. This may seem kind of hard to read about, but whenever you see "legacy costs" just think "financial promises made in the past that we find it inconvenient to live up to in the present."

The charter sector needs to have a credible answer to concerns about harm to district

Well, that is a challenge, because the public has eyes and ears and, for the most part, brains, and over the past decade or two they've been able to plainly see how charters do, in fact, harm public school districts. Not only that, but charters leave the vast majority of students in those public schools that are being harmed-- and they do so after deciding which students they feel like "saving."

The old answers don't work. "Charters are cooking up awesome game-changing innovations" has turned out to be false. "Just pay attention to the ones we're saving," is less and less effective. And nobody has ever really addressed the biggest charter lie of all, which is the notion that we can run three or six or ten parallel schools for the same money we spent to run one. If you really want to have four different school systems serving the same community, you need to fund four school systems. For some reason, nobody wants to be the one telling taxpayers, "We are going to raise your taxes to pay for schools to duplicate the work of the school's you are already paying for."

CRPE knows this, because one of their pieces of advice is "close school buildings" because operating fewer buildings is cheaper. So what do you suppose it does to overall costs in a community if we close one district school building and open four charter buildings?

Charter schools and districts alone don't own all the problems.

And by "problems," we mean "pensions." And laws about teacher tenure, and how schools are financed. Legislators need to fix some of this. Not, mind you, by using caps to manage charter growth, or by expanding financing to cover several school systems.

First Steps Toward Solutions

So how do we fix all of these things? CRPE has some thoughts.

Districts need to close schools and negotiate contracts that don't spend so much money. The closing school solution seems to run up against the "don't take on long-term debts and costs" solution, as schools frequently manage consolidation of schools by taking on construction projects.

They would like to see more partnership, but their example is "if charters find a way to give cheap retirement plans might encourage public systems to adopt similar systems." So, yeah, charters that want to pay teachers less could, I suppose, try to convince public schools not to outbid them. That's cooperation, sort of.

And there would need to be city-level strategy sessions. Which should be a hoot as long as nobody ever addresses the underlying zero-sum game that is charter vs. public schools. But that's not going to happen, since one proposed solution is that districts "publicly identify" their legacy costs in exchange for a charter funding formula that more closely resembles public per-pupil costs:

For example, charter schools might receive less per-pupil funding under such an agreement but would be able to tell the public, with confidence, that charter and district students received the same classroom funding and that charter schools weren’t contributing to a district’s impending insolvency.

Yeah, that doesn't even make sense. "Getting same classroom funding" doesn't equal "not sucking public school dry." So maybe the suggestion here is that charter's get their funding and public schools admit that they're insolvent because their buildings and pensions and teacher pay are all just way expensive. In other words, charters agree to get paid public tax dollars, and public schools agree to publicly say it's their own damn fault they're having financial problems. Why would public schools want to enter into this deal, exactly? And would the funding formula include all the "philanthropic" contributions to charters?

CRPE also suggests that public schools be given some limited extra funding to be used only as a means of down-sizing. Or if districts can prove they're shrinking as fast as possible, charters would agree to a voluntary growth slow down. Or some other grand bargain that basically involves charters conducting business as usual while public schools agree to work harder at dying, already.

CRPE also has a list of Things To Discuss and Research Further. Gather more data about how much financial vampirage charters are really committing, and how much is just, you know, other reasons for districts to lose money. More data about "fixed costs" and just generally how teachers are draining money by wanting to be paid. Figure out the greatest number of students the charters could handle, because that's the ideal, apparently--  as many students taken out of public school as possible. More power for superintendents. They don't say which power, exactly, but context suggests that old favorite-- hire, fire and set salaries without stupid rules and unions. Learning from other sectors like energy and healthcare, because they're just like schools.

Bottom Line

CRPE is correct in one thing-- we do have to look at how charters affect the whole local educational eco-system. But their belief in the inevitable supremacy of charters gets in the way of a useful conversation.

The report seems to boil down basically to "Charters and public schools should work together to make employment conditions worse for teachers. Also, they should team up to help charters thrive and to help public schools die more efficiently and without making charters look bad. For The Children."

Maybe this is supposed to be an innovative approach to the Socratic method, and public schools are just supposed to take a hemlock bath because it would make life easier for charters. But I don't imagine many takers will line up to take CRPE's offer. Not even for the children.



Thursday, September 21, 2017

Computer Limitations

I had my first encounter with computer programming in a college math class in 1978. Turing machines, if-then switches. Fun times. A year or so later, I took an actual programming course; we wrote programs in BASIC on punch cards. Really fun times.

Software and hardware have changed, but not so some of the most basic lessons I learned at the time, and one of the most important lessons about computers is this.

Computers are stupid.



They are tireless, and they are insanely fast. But they are stupid. And as we contemplate the increasing wave of edtech products that claim to have artificial intelligence baked in (though in virtually all cases what's actually baked in is a complex algorithm), we must remember one simple truth about these stupid, stupid machines.

A computer cannot do anything that a human does not know how to do.

Take for instance the many programs that now claim they can read a student's character and personality by monitoring facial expressions and answering patterns. The first question we have to ask is, are there any human beings who know how to do that?

Is there any person who can look at still pictures or video shots of a single human face and definitively analyze that person's character?

Because if there's no human who can do it, then there's no human who can program a computer to do it because (say it with me) computers are stupid.

There may well be actions that a human could not complete, because it would take a gazillion person-hours to do it, like compute Pi out to a zillion places-- but a human still knows how to do it, and so a human can tell a computer how to do it.

Can a human predict exactly what the stock market will do next? Does a human know how to predict who will win the 2020 Presidential election? Does a human know how to read personality via facial expressions (and remember-- we already debunked phrenology)? Can a human look at ten multiple choice questions and know definitively how well a student understands algebra? Can a human use only sentence length and vocabulary choice to determine whether an essay is any good or not? Does a human know how to look at one test and predict exactly how a specific student will fare on an entirely different test?

The answer to all of these is "no." And that means that a computer program can't do any of these things, either.

When someone presents you with a computer program that allegedly does something magical, the question to ask is, "How can it do that, exactly?" If no human knows the algorithm for achieving that goal, then no computer programmer knows how to tell software to achieve that goal.

Computers are not magical. They're just fast, tireless, persistent, and stupid.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

That Teacher Absenteeism Report

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute is a Washington DC based advocacy group that works the reformy side of the street. They worked hard to sell the Common Core, and they operate charter schools in Ohio while pushing hard to sell pro-charter policy across the country. They are well-connected; I can only assume that there is some federal law that requires all journalists writing a piece about education to get a quote from Fordham head Mike Petrilli.

I've crossed words with Petrilli many times (in fact, he was the first blog subject to clap back at me). He seems smart and sharp, and most reminds me of that kid in class who likes to debate and really doesn't care what side he's on. I think Fordham has some scruples; I don't think they'd try to promote bludgeoning baby seals no matter how much they were paid. They don't come across as idelogues. But at the end of the day, they strike me as a PR/lobbying firm dressed up as a thinky tank and ready to do the job they were hired to do.


All of which is the baggage I carry with me as I read about their newest research-ish hatchet job on public school teachers.

Teacher Absenteeism in Charter and Traditional Public Schools comes with a headline that writes itself (and has been doing so all day)-- public school teachers miss way more school than charter school teachers. Or as Fox News put it in, " Another reason to love charters: Their teachers actually show up for work."

The whole report really boils down to this chart:




State by state, the numbers are clear and appear damning, and Fordham is too slick and smart to hammer the point home, as in moments like this from the intro:

But compared to their counterparts in other industries and other countries, U.S. teachers seem to have poor attendance. On average, they miss about eight school days a year due to sick and personal leave (in addition to the breaks they get for school vacations and national holidays); meanwhile, the average US worker takes about three-and-a-half sick days a year.  

Can a research paper press release be passive-aggressive?

My first response this morning upon seeing this covered in EdWeek was to call it cynical bullshit, and I'll stand by that initial reaction. Not because of the data. It is what it is, with the public school figures drawn from the Office of Civil Rights, which supposedly corrects for things like maternity leave and professional days.

No, I'm going to stick with "cynical bullshit" because what the report, and the pitching of it, lacks is anything that looks like a sincere attempt to figure out what's going on here. Instead, the whole process smacks much more of someone setting out a rack of clubs next to a bunch of baby seals. "We're not saying you have to club the baby seals, but if you're so inclined, there are the seals and here are some clubs. Just sayin'"

So the bullet points from this report are immediately recognizable as ammunition for some old arguments:

* Public school teachers miss more school than charter school teachers.

* Unionized teachers miss more school than noon-unionized teachers.

* Some states sure do give teachers a lot of sick days.

* Schools with a better culture have fewer teacher absences.

And just for some context, donchaknow

* When a teacher misses more than ten days, students in her class test lower

* People in other jobs don't get so many sick days, or summers off, either.

Just sayin'

Look. Facts are facts. And just so you know where I am personally on the whole business of using sick days, I'm the guy who, after almost forty years of teaching, has accumulated enough sick days that I could be sick for two entire years. Not only that, but by the terms of our contract, when I retire, the district will reward me for all those unused sick days with a bonus of $0.00. I don't take sick days unless I absolutely have to, and I'm not a fan of teachers who stay home every time they sniffle.

But this report raises a ton of questions, and it isn't interested in any of them as long as it can point out that those lazy union public school teachers sure take a lot of time off, you know? I'm just sayin'.

Pieces of this are bogus. The old research that finds a correlation between lower test scores and teacher days missed finds just that-- a correlation. Which means that it could be proof that teachers who have low-functioning classes that do poorly on tests are more likely to want a break.

And just in case you wonder whether Fordham is using the data to build a springboard for jumping to conclusions, here's one piece of the executive summary-- emphasis is mine:

Though we cannot prove it, it’s impossible not to sense that the high chronic absenteeism rates for traditional public school teachers are linked to the generous leave policies and myriad job protections that are enshrined in state law and local collective bargaining agreements. Because they can’t easily be fired, district teachers can use all their sick and personal days (and get paid for it) without worrying about what their principal or department head will think.

Yeah, it's actually entirely possible not to sense that if you didn't arrive with a bagful of anti-union, anti-public ed bias. This leads to some "policy-makers should really keep this in mind when negotiating contracts and writing laws" but the real point here is, "Union protection makes teachers cocky and forget their place. Somebody should straighten them out. I'm just sayin'."

And while I find the gap between public and charter teachers interesting, I can think of plenty of variables I'd love to see explored. Age, for instance-- charter teachers are almost always younger, so I'm wondering what the correlation between taking sick days and age might be. And I'm wondering about state to state comparisons-- Arkansas's charter teachers take fewer sick days than their public school teacher counterparts in Arkansas, but more sick days that public school teachers in over half of all other states. What's wrong with Arkansas?  Were cyber-charters factored in? Because how do we measure teacher attendance for those? And while the report acknowledges that crappy working conditions may exacerbate absenteeism, they don't really address the well-known high-pressure 80-hour-week nature of many charters and how that fits in this big picture.

And how do employment patterns factor into this. Is charter absenteeism affected by the number of charter teachers who are regularly invited to be absent forever? And how is it we are avoiding the obvious conclusion here, which is that when you tell people they can't have sick days or they're fired, they tend to take fewer sick days. Perhaps we're avoiding that line of thought because then we'd be talking about the crappy working conditions of charter schools instead of lazy-ass public school teachers.

What about the policy discussions about sick days for teachers-- do communities have a vested interest in saying, "Sick teachers, please stay home and don't infect my kids."

And the other important policy discussion that we never have when discussing how cushy a teaching job is-- why do we think that teachers should have it as badly as others instead of arguing that others should have it as good as teachers? Yes, teachers get 12 days of sick leave on average-- why doesn't everyone else get the same?

Of course, nobody is asking these questions. EdWeek at least got quotes from Lily ("using corrupted assertions to draw misguided conclusions") and Randi ("The reality is that charter schools need better leave policies, not worse ones". But EdWeek also gave a ton oof space to Kate Freakin' Walsh of NCTQ, and while for all I know Walsh is a lovely person who's nice to her mother, NCTQ is the shoddiest generator of headline-ready faux research in the biz; NCTQ's presence in an article is a clear sign that the article is not taking a serious look at the issues. 

Meanwhile, various charter organizations and Fox news are jumping on the headline because lazy-ass union teachers, amiright? We could dig a little deeper, make sure we're really understanding what's really happening, but you know, the clubs are here and the baby seals are here. Just sayin'. I'm not going to defend excessive teacher absence, but if we're going to talk about it, let's really talk about it and not just mine the issue for a handy tool for bashing unionized public school teachers.

Automotive Century

For far too many kids, this year's first ride in the family car looks and feels a lot like last year's first ride, and the year before that, and the generation before that. And the generation before that!

Pretty much what you see on the highway today


The automobile of today has changed very little from the automobile of a century ago. Driver in the front left seat. Passenger to his right. A parallel seat behind them. A steering wheel, always circular. Wheels-- always circular, and always four of them. A roof overhead. Pedal controls located on the floor-- accelerator to the right, brakes to the left.

None of this has changed since a century ago. Whether you were driving the Jeffrey Sedan by Nash, or the Hudson Super Six, or even the good old Ford Model T, you were driving essentially the same design, the same structure that folks drive today.

You might point to a variety of features that have changed, like electric ignition, radios, air conditioning, power steering, inflatable tires, changing body styles and designs, engine efficiency, speed, gas mileage, suspension and complete redesign of the power and drive trains. Piffle, I say. Minor cosmetic differences.

Why four wheels? Why not five? Or eight? And why round-- could we not achieve greater efficiencies with oval tires? Why keep the century-old steering wheel design? Why not a computer screen that displays the road ahead and allows the driver to select a path with a mouse or touchscreen interface? And if we have the screen, why would the driver need to face forward-- why not a inward-facing circle of seats, for better conversation among the passengers?

You may say that the current design is still with us precisely because a century of testing and experience tells us that, for instance, round wheels work best. I say, unleash the power of innovation and we will sweep all of that baloney aside. Did I say oval wheels? What about-- square wheels!!


For far too many kids, this year's first day back to school looks and feels a lot like last year's first day back to school. And the year before that. And the generation before that. And the generation before that!   - Betsy DeVos


The State of the Core

Maybe you thought we were done talking about Common Core, or maybe you just hoped we were. But here comes Maria Danilova of the Associated Press checking to see how our old buddy is doing (and talking to the Usual Suspects while she does so). But Danilova gives us a pundit's eye view of the Core's current status, and while that has value, the real story of how the Core is doing can only be seen at ground level, where teachers work. You remember teachers. Those education professionals that nobody ever talks to when it's time to write a think piece about what's going on in education.

So let's take a look.



First, it's important to remember what the lofty goals of the Core were. Every state was going to adopt them, and nobody was going to mess with them except-- maybe-- to add no more than 15% to the standards. Every school in the country would be on the same page; a student would be able to move from Iowa to Florida mid-year and never miss a step. Every student in America would take one of two standards-anchored tests, meaning that every student, school, and teacher in the country could be compared directly, thereby identifying all the outposts of genius and pockets of fail, and pieces of genius would be used to fill the gaps in failureland. Within a few years, the entire US education system would be homogenized, standardized, and uplifted.

That was the goal, though Core fans will now pretend they never heard any such thing.

That goal hasn't been achieved, and it's not going to be achieved,

Every assessment of the Core has to include that simple fact-- the Core architects failed to achieve their major goals. Any discussion of the State of the Core is really a discussion of whether or not they won some consolation prizes.

So how is the battered and unloved Core doing these days? Danilova says it's actually alive and kicking, and offers a new entry in the genre of "Quick and Simplified Histories of the Common Core"

Launched in 2010 by a bipartisan group of governors and state education chiefs, Common Core sought to bring scholastic standards to the same high level nationwide. The standards quickly became controversial when the Obama administration offered states federal dollars to nudge them to adopt it. States’ rights activists cried foul, saying the effort undermined local control. Meanwhile, some teachers criticized the standards as confusing and out of synch with students’ needs, while others feared that non-fiction would crowd out the works of Shakespeare.

That's more accurate than some, though it overlooks the Bill Gates bankrolling of the Core and the fact that the standards were written by a handful of education amateurs. I do like "nudge," though, as a replacement for the old "voluntary adoption by states" baloney.

But is the Core alive and kicking? Well......

National Standards

Danilova points out that pretty much everyone who installed the standards still has them. This is true. Many states staged some elaborate theater so that they could lie to their conservative voters about getting rid of the Core, but despite some name changes, what states still have is an edited version of the Common Core standards.

This works because many of the people who complained about the Core had objections not entirely based on reality. In other words, if you were afraid that Common Core was going to turn your child into a lesbian communist vegan, well, look-- that transformation hasn't happened, so they must have gotten rid of Common Core. Hardly anyone else has been fooled.

This raises the important question, "So what?" One of the many unproven foundations of the Core is the idea that state or national standards have any effect on anything.

Effects

Danilova uses the understatement "Measuring the direct impact of Common Core is difficult." One might even say, impossible. She cites the Brookings study that suggested an initial burst of educational achievement which then tapered off, but there's a problem with virtually all studies of CCSS impact-- they depend on results of the Big Standardized Common Core Tests. That means all you're ever really proving is "We adopted a set of standards designed to teach to this test, and once we started teaching to that test, students got better results on that test."

This is the testing worm Ouroborus eating its own tail. Do better test results prove anything at all, other than the test prep is working? Does the test prep improve anything other than preparation for the test? There are still no serious answers to either of those questions, which leads me to believe that the answer to both is "No" or even "Hell, no."

Half-Baked

Mike Petrilli, who by law must be quoted in every article about education policy, says that the core  is "a much better recipe for student achievement, but the cake is still being baked, so we don’t yet know if it’s going to taste as good as we hope." While I appreciate the opportunity to call the Common Core "half-baked," in fact, the Core is fully baked, crisped, put a fork in it, it's done.

But Danilova says the Core is used widely. This is right-but-not-right. Here's why the Core is already in its mature form, and that form is a sort of shambling zombie.

Start by gutting half

The very first thing that happened to the Common Core was the Common Core tests. The standards said, "Here are all the things that matter." The tests said, "Half of those things don't matter. Just toss them out."

Schools, teachers and students were not to be judged by how well they followed the standards, but by how well they do on the BS Tests, and the BS Tests do not even pretend to assess things like cooperation, speaking and listening. The BS Tests do pretend to assess things like writing, research and critical thinking, but the pretense is transparent and obvious and nobody can seriously believe that the test assesses these things. So we're left prepping students to answer multiple choice questions on the "anchors" aka "the only standards that actually count."

Alignment is paperwork

School districts have gone through the exercise of aligning their curriculum to the standards, and what that means is completing a bunch of paperwork. You take your scope and sequence for the things you were going to teach anyway, and you search through the list of standards to find the ones that you can pin to your pre-existing plans. Voila! Alignment!!

Alignment is creative

Here's the thing about the standards-- nobody is minding the store. As soon as they finished writing the standards up, David Coleman, Jason Zimba and the rest were out the door, off to lucrative consulting gigs and running ed-flavored corporations. Incidentally, this is, for me, one of the major indictments of the Core-- the guys who wrote it weren't even interested in sticking around to make sure it was carried through properly.

So now, anybody can call anything Common Core. Book publishers slap "Common Core" on any old text. Any classroom teacher can say, "Yes, this unit is totally Common Core aligned," and there's nobody in a position of authority to say, "Hey, wait a minute." I've lost track of the number of Core cheerleaders who have declared that the Core is awesome because now they can do a unit about singing waffles on Mars and their singing waffle unit doesn't have a damn thing to do with the Core. Core apologists routinely praise the Core for elements it does not possess, sometimes because they are just deluded and sometimes because they have correctly reasoned that if the Core doesn't imply/require X, then the Core is stupid. And yet, dig through the Core, and X rarely marks any spot on the list of standards.

That includes "rigor," an ill-defined term that is not a feature of the Common Core State [sic] Standards. In fact, the best way to prepare my students for the reading test is not rigorous at all, but to simply practice reading random short excerpts of various readings followed by some BS Test style bubble test questions. No deep, critical or creative thinking needed. No tie for reflection or development of more complex ideas allowed. The Core's rigor is a mirage, and artifact of wishful thinking and pixie dust. We could ramp up "rigor" in schools more easily if the amateur-hour standards and the narrow bubble tests were not in our way.

I have asked all along for any Core-loving teacher to tell me about one unit, one teaching idea, that they couldn't do before the Core, or that they would have to stop doing if the Core were outlawed. Nobody has ever had an answer for that. The Core can be anything you want it to be, as long as you don't pay too much attention to what it actually says. The article itself presents a prime example, as a teacher argues that reading more non-fiction instead of fairy tales is better because it's more real. That is both A) baloney and B) not supported by the standards.

The Core had been assimilated

The basic proposition that the Core offered to every classroom teacher was this-- substitute these standards for your own professional judgment. That's why the Core had to be pushed out with the Big Lie that they had come from education professionals (even as Coleman was bragging that they were the result of amateurs and that's why they were awesome).

And teachers are good soldiers. So when our bosses said "Do this," we said, "Okay, we'll give it a shot." We like to do what we're Supposed To, and we generally trust that these things come down from people who at least sort of know what they're doing.

But teachers also work in our own little research lab. We try out an approach, regardless of the source, and we get immediate feedback. So when elementary teachers got new Common Core textbooks that said, "Don't teach math facts (e.g. times table)." Teachers scratched their heads, tried it, determined it didn't work, and started doing what good teachers always do-- adapting materials to fit the situation in the classroom. Those instructional shifts we were all going to be doing? Not so much.

Zombies can bite

Comon Core is an undead zombie at this point, but like a zombie, it can do real damage.  Common Core fans with other pushers of test-centered schooling can take the blame for the destruction of Kindergarten and the unjustifiable insistence on making five year olds sit at a desk for long periods of time to learn academic subjects. This damage to the littles is one of the lasting effects of the Core movement, and every person who helped push for it should be ashamed.

It is that test-centered schooling that is the most egregious, unsupportable, destructive legacy of Common Core. There is no rigor and no standards-- just desperate attempts to game the numbers.

In schools where administrators don't have the guts to value actual education over the pursuit of test scores, the poison has spread wide. Test-centered schooling doesn't just narrow the education being delivered (If it's not on the test, just give it a rest) but has also narrowed the actual delivery of education. Across the country, school administrators are using "diagnostic tests" to target students who are close enough to the line to be dragged over it. Top kids can be left alone. Bottom kids can be abandoned. Close-to-the-line kids get an extra battery of test prep in hopes that the school's numbers can be improved-- and they give up other parts of their education to make room.

Core advocates will argue that this is a problem with the test, but saying you want the Common Core standards without the Common Core testing is like asking to have the front end of the puppy but not the end that poops.The Core and the BS Tests were always welded together, and it's really not a surprise-- without an "accountability" element, the architects of this mess would have had to trust schools to actually implement the standards, and the whole point of the standards was that they didn't trust us in the first place. Put another way, without the linked testing (and related penalties), the Common Core would have had to sink or swim on its own merits which would have been much like trying to help a tyrannosaurus swim the Pacific Ocean by taping a tired pool noodle to its toe. Mind you, the linked testing isn't very well linked or very good testing, but here we are.

Winners?

In the end, almost nobody is winning. The folks who dreamed of an entire nation united in a single school district-- they didn't win. The schools and teachers who dreamed of retaining their autonomy and the freedom to exercise their professional judgment-- they didn't win. The technocrats who hoped for neatly organized stacks on stacks on stacks of data-- they didn't win. The winners would be all the people who hoped to profit from the shift, the folks who wanted test-centered schooling to make charters and vouchers look more appealing, and the folks who wanted to de-professionalize teaching so that anybody with a pulse could be handed a program and a classroom. Those folks are winning.

So, yes, Common Core is still shambling about, not alive enough to accomplish its original goals, but not dead enough to keep from doing damage wherever its broken legs carry it. It's a bad walking rorschach test that can be read as anything you like, just before it bites your face. Is "Common Core used widely"? I guess that depends on what you mean by "Common Core" or "used." Is there still continuing debate? Sure. The noise had better keep going on. The standards are dangerous bunk, and you know what happens to the person in a zombie movie who says, "I guess the coast is clear now. Let's go out."



Tuesday, September 19, 2017

AZ: Leading in Charter Profiteering

Arizona may be associated with dry desert, but it is a lush, fertile playground for reformster baloney and charter profiteeringg.

Arizona has been at this for a while. Bill McCallum, co-author of the Common Core math standards, was a professor at the University of Arizona. When the Core turned out to be conservative kryptonite, Diane Douglass ran as a Core destroyer and then, once she won, promptly slapped a thin layer of lipstick on that pig.

Meanwhile, Arizona has wrestled with a teacher shortage, but not to the point of, say, fixing their basement level pay. Wrestling has been more about things like recruiting teachers from the Philipines. Oh, and Arizona also sits at the back of the pack for per-pupil spending. Meanwhile, Arizona is the home of the legislator who said that teachers are probably working two jobs because they want a fancy boat.  And that's before we get to such atmosphere boosters like considering a teacher gag law and a ban on Mexican-American studies in school.

Open a charter; make a stack of money this tall.

But while Arizona has been doing its best to stomp public schools into the dirt, they really love them some charter schools.

Actually, those two things are closely related. Arizona has been nurturing charters for over twenty years, but Arizona is an open-enrollment state, so no child is "trapped" in a failing school just because of their zip code. So to create market pressure for their extensive choice system, Arizona's leaders set fire to public education and let it burn; parents will feel they have no choice.. It's no wonder that the Network for Public Education gave the state an F.

Why throw so much effort behind the charter industry? Certainly some of the push could be ideological, but Arizona is also the state where the dreams of cracking open the education funding egg and feasting has come true. It turns out that people are using school choice to hoover up giant chunks of public tax money.

The Grand Canyon Institute ("Arizona's Centrist Think Tank") has just released a meta-study of twenty years of Arizona charters. "Following the Money" comes to some fairly appalling conclusions that suggest that Arizona is one of America's pre-eminent charter scam factories and that taxpayers are getting hosed. Here are some of the conclusions reached by this forensic analysis.

Self-Dealing

Roughly 77% of all Arizona charter schools engage in some sort of self-dealing that steers tax dollars into the pockets of charter owners, their families, or board members. Non-competitive related-party transactions are a common vehicle for this, particularly when it comes to handling real estate and other assets. The report talks about one example (American Leadership Academy) that appears to be simply a subsidiary of a real estate development company in Utah. Primavera Technical Learning Center paid $12.2 million for software it purchased from a company owned by the school's charter holder. The report points out (just in case a reader is too ethically impaired to get it) that if a superintendent of a public school awarded a no-bid multi-million-dollar contract to a for-profit company that he owned himself, that would be all kinds of wrong and a violation of various laws. However, in Arizona, it's completely legal for a charter operator to self-deal in this manner.

Ignore the ethical shadiness for a moment-- how can that possibly end up with taxpayers getting the most bang for their buck?

High Executive Salaries

Public school superintendents in Arizona make around $130/pupil as a salary. Charters were reluctant to share salary figures for the report, but of those for whom the report had numbers, a handful paid its top person a comparable salary. $200, $300, $600 per pupil payment for administrators in some charters. And on top of that, some charters had more administrators than the public system. If you take the full administrative team and lump it together, Benchmark School Inc pays administrators $952 per pupil. Crown Charter School, Inc, pays $1,885 per pupil in administrative costs. George Gervin Prep Academy pays its top two administrators $3,312 per pupil.

Questionable Profit Distribution

The for-profit charters in Arizona apparently engage in some hinky handling of their profits. 

Reduced Classroom Spending

Well, yes. Those executive salaries and dividends have to take money from somewhere. The study found that where public schools spent about 52% of expenditures on classroom instruction, for charters it was more like 45%.

Academic Underperformance

What do taxpayers get for all their money? Not outstanding school performance. But then, the law doesn't really require them to do well. The report somewhat incredulously quotes one part of the law:

A sponsor, including members, officers and employees of the sponsor, are immune from personal liability for all acts done and actions taken in good faith within the scope of its authority.

In other words, charter operators exist in the Land of Do As You Please as long  they claim they meant well. As the report puts it in one sub-heading, "Delivery or what?" The theory of Arizona's law is that the charter operators will be checked by their sense of responsibility to provide a good education. Really. The report also wryly notes that since parents actually choose charters for many reasons, there was no sudden outflow in 2013 when many charters switched to Alternative School status reporting, a means by which charters could lower their standards and get a better grade.

The report looks hard at charter performance and finds it wanting. It also looks at the theory that the free market competition would drive schools to become more excellent-- well, that's wanting, too. Or maybe just laughable. Bottom line: doing a lousy job of educating students will not hurt your profitability in the AZ charter market.

Reconciling Inconsistent Financials

Lots of charters use creative bookkeeping. In fact, as the re[port looks at some bad examples, some charters just lie.

Arizona's charter sector has consumed a billion taxpayer dollars and in return, it has mostly just provided wealth for people who know how to work the system. And those people don't have to be very clever because the system in Arizona includes few checks or oversight; the only reason we can't say the Arizona system is full of illegal scams is that very few things are against the law. I invite you to peruse all 90 depressing pages of the report. This is what the theft of taxpayer dollars in the name of school choice looks like.












Monday, September 18, 2017

Teachers and Fame

Name ten famous teachers. No? Okay, name five. Yeah, me neither.

Jose Luis Vilson just asked the question-- what does fame mean for education? It's one of the continuing ripples spreading out from the NYT piece about the sponsored, branded teacher. 

I think we'd have to agree that teaching is generally not the pathway to fame and fortune. I mean, there are small fames of a sort. I mean, there's Nicholas Ferroni, named America's Sexiest Teacher by People magazine, which may seem like a frivolous sort of fame, but an awful lot of fame is frivolous and based on no real accomplishment of note.

So that may be one problem with education and fame-- not very many people get famous for doing the kind of work that, in the words of Mike Rowe, makes civilized life possible for the rest of us. Nurses, welders, waitpersons, pilots-- the world is filled with people who keep things moving in powerful ways that go unrecognized because of the dailiness of it.

Educational fame faces an obstacle of scale. You get to be a famous singer by singing (directly and through recordings) for millions of people. You get to be a famous you-tuber by getting millions of hits. No teacher in the course of her career is going to teach millions of students.

I have taught in the same small town for over thirty-five years (at the same high school I graduated from), so I'm known. Any time I walk into a restaurant or grocery store or church or just walk down the street, I will run into people who know me. But we're still talking hundreds of people, and just a localized sort of well-knownness. If this is fame, half the people in my town are famous.

Nor do people in general pay that much attention to the field. When you get to a bookstore, look for the "education" section. Test prep books, make your kid smart books, and maybe two or three shelves of books about the actual work, always including books by people who have no business talking about the field.

Since no teacher is going to achieve fame-scale work in the classroom, and since the students in your actual classroom need every piece of heart and soul you can pour out, being famous would have to be a second job. Most of us don't have time to be famous. To step up onto any sort of national platform, a teacher almost has to take at least one foot out of the classroom. It would be hard, I imagine, to do the job of faming while maintaining your professional balance-- I think some really gifted individuals could do it, but it would take mindful concentration. Many famous-ish teachers are too busy building their brand by making a proprietary package out of what thousands of teachers already know, and their students are just props and lab rats.

Beyond the challenge of achieving fame, for teachers there is always the challenge of accepting recognition. As a profession, we tend to be self-effacing, disinclined to stand in the spotlight. If you have a huge ego, teaching probably didn't call out to you as a way to get that ego fed. And there's a "why me" factor as well-- I consider myself a pretty decent teacher, but there isn't a thing I could be recognized for that thousands of other teachers aren't also doing in their classrooms, and some are doing it far better than I am. I've been recognized for my work once or twice, and everything I have to say on those occasions starts with this-- "There isn't a thing you can say about me that couldn't also be said about uncounted other teachers." Which is why I accept recognition when it comes my way-- because I can point out that the community of teachers, the great collection of those of us who work in a classroom-- we all deserve the recognition.

Fame requires some ego, some self-promotion. Almost nobody becomes famous because they just sat quietly doing their thing and the great fame machine just descended upon them. I know the teacher-bloggers who put each post on super-blast, pushing it out every way they know how. It's something I have a hard time doing; it makes me uncomfortable to self-promote. But on this, they are right and I'm wrong. Certainly the rich amateurs who afflict our profession, the policy wonks and thinky tank wise men-- they're all perfectly comfortable saying, "World, I have Important Things to say, and you should listen to me." We should all be doing that, and when we can't do it for ourselves, we should be amplifying our fellow teachers. It's good for all of us-- when I pick up a teacher-written book, or see that an actual honest-to-God teacher is going to be featured at a conference about education, I feel good about that.

Fame for educators has some pitfalls. Like the brand-minded teacher in the NYT article (who teaches a grand total of ten kids), it can be easy to make a bad trade-- give me recognition and a platform and I'll use it to promote not our work, but your business. If you get a platform, make sure you know what you're using it for.

The worst danger of teacher fame is the teacher fame that comes at the expense of students.

Think about it. Every Hero Teacher movie starts from the same place-- look at these horrible creatures in this classroom. Every tale of teacher awesomeness is marked not by the qualities of the teacher, but by the deficits of the students. The message is not that it takes a special, capable, devoted, excellent person to teach, but that it takes a special, capable, devoted, excellent person to teach those God-awful kids. Don't ever step up to your platform by standing on the necks of students.

Well, this turned out to be rambly. Let me try to circle back around--

Can teachers find fame? Man, I wish they could. There are teachers I know who deserve to be widely known, and who would use their platform for good and to elevate the work and the profession. It seems about as likely as a world-famous jazz tuba player. But I have one last thought--

People within a field don't often become famous at first by being elevated by people outside that field, because those people don't know what a good job looks like. Jazz cats are the first to know a good jazz tuba player when they hear one. Classroom teachers know a good classroom teacher when they encounter one. If you wait for someone from outside to elevate those people, they'll probably elevate the wrong one.

What I'm saying is if we want to see more famous teachers, we should make more people within the profession famous. We should hold each other up for accolades (and I mean, rally-- why are teachers of the year NOT selected by teachers) and attention. We should amplify names and buy the books and pass on the blog links and make the fuss. If we were a little more actively involved with the engines of fame, perhaps we could feel a little better about where they drive folks.


Sunday, September 17, 2017

DeVos Simplifies the Issues

It is easy, once you start flying down the rabbit hole of the education debates, to get wrapped up in some complex issues and arguments. If Betsy DeVos has done anything for the ed debates, it is simplifying the privatizer position.


Charter fans have layered many arguments into their pitch. Look at those terrible public school test scores-- how else can we spur excellence? Look at the terrible inequity-- how else will we bring social justice to the poor? Look at those terrible teachers and their terrible unions-- how else can we wrest control of schools away from them? Look at how backward they are-- how else can we make schools modern? Only the market can force schools to innovate and protect students and educate the poor. We must fix low standards, special ed, facility issues! Course choices! Ending religious discrimination! Better school lunches! Ipads!

Much of this variegated noise was strategic-- an attack on public education along many fronts. But it was also meant to collect allies, to build a huge coalition of various interests and line them up between privatization of public education. People using labels like conservative, progressive, Republican, Democratic, libertarian, apolitical technocrat-- ignore for the moment the question of how accurately or honestly those labels were used, they were all there in the parade.

And then Trump-DeVos happened. Could you call yourself progressive and support them? Many former allies decided (perhaps a tad hypocritically) that the answer was no. People who are serious and sincere about their ed reform ideas (yes, there are such people) had to consider their position vis-a-vis an administration that is not serious or sincere about anything. The coalition frayed, splintered.

But there is DeVos herself. While she has paid lip service to some coalition talking points, if you listen and read, the through line is pretty clear:

Public schools are a dead end, to be abandoned and cur loose. If a few survive, well, good for them. But the market must reign, and it should reign unhampered by any regulation at all. DeVos has repeatedly indicated that she can not imagine an instance in which USED would step in and say, "If you accept public tax dollars, you must stop doing that." Nor has she indicated any barriers to vendors who wish to enter the market. And there should be no institution, no system. Just parents acting as customers.

Her objective is plain. No more system of public education. Just private ed-flavored businesses. No more taxpayers who imagine that the system they pay for must work for them. Just customers-- and no customer walks into a McDonalds or Macy's and says, "You all work for me."

Progressives who think reform should be an engine of uplift? Conservatives who think tax dollars should be accounted for? Charteristas who believe the deal is trading autonomy for accountability, or that charters should be part of a public system? Yeah, none of you are really at DeVos's table, and trying to pretend that you are just hurts your cause, because DeVos can only barely bothered to pay lip service to your policy ideas.

DeVos has made it simple. There are groups out there that are calling her on it, some that have been seeing this coming for a while now. including the Network for Public Education. Listen to Diane Ravitch of NPE explain how simple it is.

ICYMI: No Particular Edition Edition (9/17)

Here's some readings for the week. I'll say it again-- not everyone has time to write about education, but you've got the five seconds it takes to pass something along on twitter or facebook. Spread the word. Build the audiences.

Pence: Black Is White

Sheila Kennedy on the Pencian habit of setting truth and reality aside in the pursuit of privatization.

Who Can Say What 20 Years of PA Charter Schools Have Taught Us?

Philly paper takes a look a twenty years of charter not-so-success in Pennsylvania.

Big Philanthropy, Small Change

The Have You Heard podcast takes a look at philanthropy in education, and its tendency to make the same dumb, destructive mistakes over and over again.

The History and Future of Learning Objects and Intelligent Machines

Nobody is better than Audrey Watters at drawing the lines between the cold, hard specifics of ed tech and the bigger ideas and issues behind them. If you only read one item on the list, make it this one.

Betsy DeVos Back to School Message Clashes with What Parents Want

Jeff Bryant looks at how DeVos's goals fail to line up with what we know parents want from schools.

Sacrificing on the Altar of Correctness

John Warner looks at one more bad ed tech product, and finds one more set of sacrifices of real education being made at the altar of correctness.

How Meeting the Needs of All Learners Can Perpetuate White Supremacy

Mr. Anders on is one more teacher disappointed by his districts start-of-year non-response to the issues raised by Charlotte.

Questions as Invitations, Not Interrogations

Speaking of the altar of correctness, Russ Walsh with a short but incisive look at the role of questions in either opening a class up or shutting students down.

Robots Replacing Teachers? Laugh at Your Own Risk

Emily Talmadge with a chilling story from California and a school without a sixth grade teacher

Standardized Tests Are So Bad I Can't Answer These Questions About MY Own Poems

This is a re-run, but as we enter the start of the first testing season, here's a reminder about how absurd these tests are. A poet discovers her own poems used on a standardized test-- and that she can't correctly answer the test questions. A classic.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Markets Smart and Free

Unlike many of my friends in the ed debates, I kind of like free market capitalism. Under the right circumstances, it can really get things done. But there are sooooo many reasons to believe that the field of public education is precisely the wrong set of circumstances.

The free market can be uber-excellent at setting a true price for goods and services-- particularly goods. But the market can only do this job well when it is smart. We've seen the market get way smarter in just the last two decades, so we have examples of the effects (and yes, some of what I'm going to talk about comes under the sexier term "asymetric information," but I am not feeling sexy today).



Take used cars. Back in the day, you would go to the Used Car Dealer and do a long and complicated dance. You weren't sure exactly what the car you wanted was worth, but you knew what you could stand to pay. The dealer knew pretty well what the car was worth, but he was not about to tell you. If you were savvy, you might have checked the Kelly Blue Book, but mostly you had to drive from lot to lot to lot to lot, comparing prices and trying to build some sense of what a fair price was, particularly if those lots were priced all over the map.

Now we have internet. On the one hand, it's a bummer because it's extremely unlikely you'll find a surprise bargain wildly out of line with the common going price. On the other hand, you probably won't get hosed, and those days of interminable negotiation while the two parties tried to keep a grip on their own secret info (car price, buyer's budget).

A smart free market sets a value for objects; that value equals "whatever people will pay for it," and thanks to sites like eBay, we know exactly what that amount is. If the last 600 widgets sold on eBay for $10, you are not going to sell yours for $50. The market is too smart for that.

Surviving in a free market has always involved companies trying to make the market dumber in several different ways. The company can make the market dumber by withholding pricing information, like the old used car lot. The health care industry has made the health care market positively brain dead; no customer has any idea what anything costs.

We can also make the market dumber by concealing the nature of the product. "This is magic snake oil," I declare, holding up a jug of water. "These pictures of magic sea monkeys, with cute little faces, totally represent the real thing," declares the ad. "This maple syrup-like product is thick and colored a kind of dark amber," declares well-shot video of a completely synthetic crappy product.

Maple syrup is, in fact, a good example. Marketeers have convinced folks that good maple syrup is thick and rich and gooey, with a sort of dull faux-sweet tone, while actual maple syrup, when heated is thinner than water and cuts through waffles and your enamel with the same sharp, sugary edge. The market has been made dumb about maple syrup.

The free market is exceptionally dumb about education, and reformers have been working hard to make it dumber.

Nobody knows what the actual costs involved in education are (though there are many people who are sure they are Way Too Much). The ed reform debates have further muddied the water, because some reformsters like to characterize the cost of public education as Exorbitantly Expensive, whereas marketing for charters generally refers to them as Free. And unlike a used car or a beanie baby, education can involve a wide range of costs based on location.

Meanwhile, the effect of reformy focus on "outcomes" is to seriously dumb down the market's understanding of the "product" which has been reduced from the nebulous idea of self-actualization and personal growth leading to a better life-- well, we've boiled all of that down to "good score on a Big Standardized Test" which is such ridiculously reductive version of the "product" that it makes the market blindingly ignorant.

And on top of that, there is also a hidden market involved, transactions so unexamined that the market is completely ignorant of what's going on. That's the data market. The product being sold is personal data, and the vendors do not even know they're in the market at all. It's as if we walked onto a used car lot and said, "For a dollar, I'll clean up your trash" and the dealer said sure, fine, and we then drive a Lexus off the lot. The free market can't even function when at least one of the parties doesn't even know they're selling something,

Many of these factors keep the market dumb, and certainly some could be overcome (though, as with ebay and internet used car sites, at considerable cost to profiteers), but probably not the issue of knowing what the "product" is so that it can be valued. Different people get different kinds of education for different purposes, and often the true value of the education is not known for years-- or decades. Reformers try to work around this by suggesting that parents are the true "consumers": of education, but that's just not true. The primary "consumer" of a year of kindergarten is the five year old sitting there, and also her future employers, friends, neighbors, fellow citizens and even future family members. None of the yet have a clue what that year of education looks like as a product, or what its value will be. The free market demands that we put a value on our goods and services right now, today-- and that's just not possible.

The free market can't handle education because it's too stupid about education. That stupidity works out well for people trying to make a buck on education, but like the pre-internet used car market, it works out poorly for the "customers." And it certainly doesn't improve education itself, which the market deliberately fails to understand.


Friday, September 15, 2017

Never Send a Bot

Even as edupreneurs pitch every eduproduct under the edusun as being enhanced with bold new Artificial Intelligence (just like real intelligence but with fewer calories), examples continue to abound that the AI world has a few bugs to work out.

You remember last years when Microsoft set up a chatbot to learn from other posters, who promptly taught it how to be a horrifying roboracist. And just last week I was talking about new human resources tech that tries to read your face, body language, and mind when hiring you. The problem? Soldifying human biases and prejudices into data algorithms. I was afraid it will be turned loose on students eventually, but many readers helpfully pointed out that it is already being used by districts to hire teachers. That, sadly, is not a new thing.

I will now unleash some scary racist shit

Just this week, we've had more news on the rogue AI front. One story centers on researchers who claim their bot can figure out whether you're gay or not. Well-- if you're white, and signed up for a dating service, and not something other than straight or gay, or-- you know what? It's possible these researchers are full of it, which would be fine except it doesn't matter whether or not their software can actually do this or not-- it only matters if they can convince someone it does, and that someone hires them and puts their AI to work. That would be some bad news.

But when it comes to AI amokitude, nobody beats Facebook, a multimillion-dollar corporation that has access to best computer wizards that money can buy-- and yet cannot successfully wrestle with any of the implications of letting Artificial Intelligence drive the bus. Remember when they decided that AI could curate the news and they'd just fire the trending team humans? That just worked super, and started us down the road to a system that could be gamed by the Russians throughout our last election. Well, "gamed" is too strong a word since all they did was just give Facebook money in exchange for pushing their baloney.

And now it turns out that Facebook will let you sell ads for just about anything, as when journalists this week discovered that the House That Zuck Built will gladly sell you ad space targeted toward people who want to burn Jews. 

All of this because a common embed  in these AIs seems to be the Silicon Valley ethic of neoliberal libertarianism, a sort of technocratic motto of "If you can do it, nobody should make you stop to ask if you should do it."

We have been worried about Skynet, about AIs becoming so smart that they would try to grab all the power and kill the humans. But what we keep forgetting is that AI is software and software enshrines the ethics and culture of the people who create it. Armed robot conquest of the Earth is what you get if your AI software was originally written by Stalin or Hitler or the IT guy from the Military-Industrial Complex. What we're ending up with is the software from somebody's marketing department. When the singularity comes, it will stand on the corner minding its own business and accepting payoffs from any human who wants to punch some other human. It will be a worldwide net of bots-driven entrepreneurs who most value non-interference with other entrepreneurs. If they send someone back to kill John Conner as a child it will be because adult John Conner was a legislator who successfully launched regulations on bot-driven industries.

In other words, the danger will not be that AI will value evil, but that it will be ethically and morally deaf.

If you want 6to read a far more intelligent look at edtech's many failed promises and cultural gaps and ethical impairments, I cannot recommend this Audrey Watters piece enough. I'm just going to focus on one particular question--

What happens when you put an AI in charge of a student's education, if it's the kind of AI that doesn't know that racist spewing is bad and opening up a market for Jew-haters is wrong? What if it's the kind of AI that doesn't know or care that it's being used to mislead an entire nation?

Back in the Day, most teacher contracts included morals clauses (many, many still do) and teachers could lose their jobs for flagrant display of moral and ethical lapses. Yes, such clauses are often subject to twists and biases and lies, but ask yourself-- if a live human showed the kind of ethical blindness that AI regularly does, would you want that live human teaching your child? If you followed a person down the street who drove over a puppy without stopping (because it's somebody else's job to keep the puppy out of the street) and who stopped to put up posters advertising a racist rally (because someone paid them to) and who walked past a child who was bedraggled and weeping (because that kid is not their problem) and who eventually walked into a school classroom, what would you think?

Look, I am no Luddite. I use edtech. I teach at a 1-to-1 school and I like it. I am hugely appreciative of the many things that modern tech tools make possible. But they are tools, and like any other tool they have to be used 1) for only the purposes they are actually good at and 2) by human beings exercising their own human judgment.

These stories are the same story, time after time after time and the moral is always the same-- never send a bot to do a live person's job. I see nothing in the current world of AI to suggest that this is not doubly true for schools.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Teachers in the Statehouse

Something extraordinary has happened this month in Pennsylvania. Jerry Oleksiak, one of 2016's scariest people and friend of this blog, has stepped down from his position as head of PSEA, the state teachers union. And he did it for the most unusual of reasons-- Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf selected Oleksiak to serve as his secretary of labor and industry.


Oleksiak was a classroom teacher for 32 years, teaching special education in the Upper Merion school district of PA. He's been a union official for several years. And now he's the Pennsylvania Secretary of Labor and Industry.

We've certainly seen teachers move up into elected office. Oklahoma just elected a retired teacher to fill the scandal-stained spot of a GOP lawmaker, and many other OK teachers are running for office. Oh, no, wait-- that was the special election back in July. The special election that just happened is this one, in which a teacher won with 60% of the vote.

But even I was surprised to see a governor of a state reach down and select a teacher for appointment.

I mean, I shouldn't be. Lord knows we've seen an unending parade of people with no education background appointed to state level positions. But it's true-- even I reflexively assume that when folks want someone to come run  an arm of government, they don't call on teachers. "This part of our state government is a mess. We'd better get a teacher to come in here and fix it," said pretty much nobody ever.

Yet we think nothing of saying let's get an economist or a banker or (God help us) a business person.

The reaction to Oleksiak's appointment, even among teachers, is a measure of the profession's lowered esteem (and self-esteem). Why would teachers be represented in capitols so much less than, say, lawyers and doctors? Why is it that "appointing a teacher" usually means some kind of cute mascot job like the Teacher Ambassadors of the USED which are a nice idea and no, wait, they are not, because it's the education department and teachers should not be invited to come hang out as honorary advisers-- they should be tagged to come run the place. And not just that department, but lots of other departments across government.

Teachers have management training with the most challenging of co-workers. We handle money, work with budgets, find creative ways to fund things (sure, it's all with the decimal point a little further to the left than in government, but still). We collaborate and compromise, and most of all, we have a broad background of knowledge across many fields combined with an intimate knowledge of how policies play out for real people on the ground. There really is no reason for anyone, including teachers, to think of government work as somehow out of our league. Certainly teachers, like other folks, may look at government work and find that it's far less appealing than their regular day job. But that's no reason not to ask, to just automatically rule teachers out.

The teachers of Oklahoma have finally gotten so sick of their legislature that they are mounting a multipronged attempt to simply take it over. God bless them. And God bless Jerry Oleksiak, for reminding us that there's no reason a governor couldn't pick up the phone and say, "I want to come serve in my cabinet."

The Well

The well had always stood in the center of the community, broad at the top and drawing from a deep spring of cool clear water that had nourished the people for generations. Any member of the public could stop by at any time and a steward of the well would draw up a cup of cool, clear water.



It wasn't magical or perfect. Occasionally leaves and branches fell into the wide mouth of the well, and the stonework, though solid and strong, needed to be regularly repaired and improved. The community didn't really want to invest a great deal in the well-- it had always been there and so they assumed it would always be there-- so the well was always in a perilous state, the stewards just barely keeping up with the repairs and improvements needed. There were other problems as well; some members of the community were allowed to draw water up with sharp, clear buckets of the best and newest materials, while other members were forced to draw water up with crusty old wooden buckets, leaky and sometimes caked with dirt and grime. There were ongoing arguments about how to address this injustice, but often those who drank from the new, clean cups often claimed that the wooden buckets were good enough for Those Kinds of People. The well had always suffered from problems of fairness and equity.

Salesmen came to town, with wagons packed full of bottled water. But the market for their wares was not great-- why buy something that's stale and packaged in wasted plastic when the public well is already right there? But the salesmen looked at the water from the well. "This isn't very blue," they said. "All the best water is blue."

So the salesmen became creative. Some offered a special deal-- if you brought them one of the wooden buckets, you could have a "free" case of bottled water. This was actually quite helpful for a few of the families, but when other families went to the well, they discovered that even the lousy buckets they had cursed in the past were gone.

Other salesmen became aggressive, and simply started dumping poison into the well.

Now the well was deep and the water was drawn from a large and powerful wellspring, but many citizens became alarmed when they discovered what was being dumped in there. "This will just give  bring the water up to standards," the salesmen claimed, "And everyone knows the best water is blue, so we are just testing it for blueness, and adding more blue coloring when necessary." But more and more members of the community said the water was starting to taste bad.

So other salesmen sold home filtering systems and other salesmen sold little pills you could drop in the water and other salesmen went to community council meetings and yelled, "Why not just let everyone take the buckets for drawing water and go get whatever they want wherever they want to?" And, of course, the salesmen sold lots of bottled water, even after it was the plastic leaked toxins into the water and even after it was discovered that a lot of the bottled water was taken straight out of the old well. There were those salesmen who got their water from a fancy purification factory and packaged it in a gold wrapper, but it turned out they would only sell their water to a select few.

Meanwhile, the elders who maintained the old well were under attack. Salesmen would strut past the well, waving golden chalices filled with water that they had paid to have carefully scrubbed clean, saying loudly, "Well, why can't the well stewards do this? You should let us manage the well."

And even the people who defended the well had to admit that the longer this dragged on, the more polluted and dirtied the well itself became. New salesman came to town with tricky devices that dispensed a sort of synthetic flavored goop. "Buy one of these," they said. "You can have any flavor you want. It's practically like water." But it wasn't much like water at all, and the salesmen always took the villagers' money first and then told them they were out of all the other flavors.

Some of the stewards were fired because their water didn't come up blue enough, and others finally quit after months of having salesmen drive by throwing stones at them. Some were replaced by strangers from out of town who didn't even know how to hold a cup. Bit by bit, generations of knowledge about how to take care of the well were lost. The people who had suffered under the dirty wooden buckets now had no access to real water at all. And the well was becoming polluted and run down.

I don't have an ending for this story. It's possible that in the end, the salesmen buy the well, fill it with cement, and sell nothing but their various products. Maybe some stewards keep part of the well alive and functioning, or maybe they strike out and build a new well. Maybe the people of the community wake up and throw the salesmen out and take back the well, clean it up, and restore it better than before. I don't honestly know. All I know for sure is that these are hard days to be a thirty citizen.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Hostile Takeover of Teacher Training

When it comes to bogus reformy crap, it is hard to beat Education Reform Now, a group of self-described progressives which serves as a mirror organization for Democrats for Education Reform, proving that you can throw the words "progressive" and "democrat" around all you want and nobody will stop you.

ERN is not a fan of public education. They want charter schools, and they'd like to eliminate teacher job protections. (With DFER, they also present the annually hilariously horrifying Camp Philos.) So when they release a "report" about how to fix teacher certification, I get that shudder of someone walking over my profession's grave.

"New Colleges of Education-- A Path for Going from Concept To Reality" is sixteen pages of existential teacher terror from David Bergeron and Michael Dannenberg. Bergeron was at the Department of Education from 2009 to 2013 under Arne Duncan, and then he graduated to the Center for American Progress, the thinky tank that was supposed to cough up the working cogs of the Hillary Clinton administration. Sorry, guys. Dannenberg was with the New America Foundation, the USED (also under Duncan), and the Education Trust before joining ERN. So we've met the first requirement for one of these education policy papers in that it involves nobody with actual education experience-- just lots of government/advocacy/lobbying/thinky tank time.

The Cover

Maybe I've had it up on my screen too long, but I love this stock photo so much, and I'm going to waste a moment of all our time to look at it. You can skip ahead if you like-- I won't be offended.

Never mind our blurry teacher who is apparently telling a hilarious joke. It's the three kids behind him. Blond Girl is looking directly into the camera with a smile that says, "I am going to raise my hand like a boss, and then blow this popsicle stand because this whole scene is just ridiculous, amiright? Also, I double dare you to tell anyone what I did just before you snapped this pic" Next to her, another child points into the corner of their eye with an expression that says, "Do you see any speck of give-a-shit in here at all?" And our last child is thoughtfully alarmed. Blond Girl is clearly the star. We will hear more from her some day.



Okay, we can move on now.

The Premise and the Problem

Teachers unions and progressives can agree, the paper says, that schools are underfunded and teacher education sucks, thereby suggesting that progressives and unions are natural enemies, which may come as news to some folks, but there you have it. Starting from those two points, they y go on to suggest that underfunding and crappy prep mean that the most needy students at under-resourced schools will have "a string" of bad teachers. And "teacher quality is the number one in-school influence on student achievement" (and student achievement will now and for the next sixteen pages mean nothing more that "test scores on a single narrow bad Big Standardized Tests") so let's not address anything in the world except teacher quality.

They will even go on to throw in the bogus "a bad teacher will reduce lifetime earnings by a quarter million dollars" baloney. 

All of this is the same old crap, a replay of Reform's Greatest Hits. But here comes a new twist:

Because political leaders have not wanted the U.S. Department of Education to determine which higher education programs, including teacher preparation programs, are of sufficient quality to warrant taxpayer support, the task of teacher preparation program quality control has been outsourced in large part to accrediting agencies. 

The weak link is not (just) crappy teacher prep programs or gummint unwillingness to spank those programs-- it's the accrediting agencies that certify these programs in the first place. They have too many rea$on$ to like the programs they are accrediting. Boo!

The Solution (Part I)

So what do we do about these lousy accreditors like the  Council for the Accreditation of Education Preparation (CAEP), child of NCATE? Or the equally-inadequate TEAC?

In our view, for teacher preparation accreditation to be effective, dependence on schools of education as guardians of teacher preparation quality must end. Because the current teacher education accreditor has shown it cannot and will not reform itself, a new type of accreditor, not dependent on schools of education and their personnel, but instead on the employers of graduates from schools of education and teacher preparation programs, should be created. State and local superintendents of schools and charter school leaders in particular should band together to form an accreditor focused on the learning gains of elementary and secondary school students taught by the graduates of teacher preparation programs seeking accreditation and the assessments of employers of whether the graduates of teacher preparation programs are adequately prepared for classroom service.

And, they add, they're pretty sure this can be done cheaply!

Let's Sneak Up On This Again

The paper backs up for a look at the history of these august organizations that have been "consecrated" (a word that crops up, oddly, more than once) to certify programs that certify teachers. The paper suggests that these agencies have leaders who have serious doubts about how well these agencies work. And they tell the story of CAEP tried to make things better by recommending, that the evaluation of teacher prep programs include a sort of feedback loop that rests on student BS Test results.

Which is what we're really yearning for here-- a system in which college teacher prep programs are judged on how well the students of the graduates of those programs do on the BS Test. In other words, Pat takes the PARCC. Pat's teacher Mrs. Sneezely gets an evaluation based on Pat's PARCC score, and so does Mrs. Sneezely's alma mater.

Education leaders from NEA President Dennis "Wrong About So Many Things" Van Roekel to Teach for America's Wendy "This Should Be Easy To Game" Kopp thought this sounded swell. The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education thought this idea was dumb. CAEP fired the Executive Director who took them down this dumb road and shifted the agency's attention back toward not-dumb things.

But that's not satisfactory. "Since CAEP cannot or will not reform itself," the writers suggest some sort of coup. Administrators and charter operators should form their own accreditation agency that will include test scores in program evaluations (and if that happens to favor charter in house faux techer prep programs that focus strictly on test prep strategies, well, then, so be it).

But how could such a thing be done? Turns out the writers have some ideas.

Three Ways To Take Over

The "report" will offer three approaches to a take over of the accreditation system, only one of which they really mean to propose. Let's take a look.

Method One: Whole New Agency

You'd have to form the agency, staff it, talk to colleges of education, develop your standards, figure out how to measure against them, and then start accrediting places. This would be time consuming and expensive. The writers, based on who-knows-what, estimate 4 years and $12 million.

Method Two: New Agency with Help

Find an agency that already does college accreditation in a general sort of way and convince them to start a teacher prep accreditation division while also convincing them to do it your way (though the writers don't seem to anticipate any problem with that part). The writers throw the dice and come up with 2 years and $5 million to do this one.

Boy, those just seem so long and expensive. Is there an option that would be swifter and cheaper?

Method Three: Hostile Takeover

This is really quite extraordinary.

The writers note that several federally-approved accreditation agencies are in financial trouble. The American Academy for Liberal Education (AALE) has been playing close to the financial edge for several years. The Distance Education Accrediting Commission has been slowly bleeding out funds. The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges has also been financially stressed. And these guys have collected some figures.

If a group composed of school districts, states, and teachers came together with sufficient resources, perhaps backed by philanthropy, to retire the outstanding debts or otherwise improve the financial health of one of these financially challenged non-profit organizations – likely just a couple of hundred thousand dollars – that operate a U.S. Department of Education approved accrediting commission, it could obtain sufficient seats on the organization’s board to take control.

Once the board was subdued and couped, the bylaws and charter could be rewritten, and the agency could be rebuilt to suit the new owners. Then this repurposed agency could draft the necessary standards-- hell, they could use the ones that ousted CAEP leaders came up with (that shortcut could be applied in all three methods, but the writers only mention it here for their recommended approach).

But really-- what a perfect neo-liberal reformy solution to a problem. If something stands in your way, just buy it, and bend it to your will. 

Enter the Golden Era

Once the New Reformster Accreditation Board was open for business, reformsters could put their stamp of approval on any number of bogus "Schools of Educaytion." In fact, the paper notes happily, ESSA opens wide the door for all manner of "alternative providers of teacher preparation" as long as they can have their results validated by a USED-recognized authority, which-- hey , we just made one of those a few paragraphs ago!! Yes, there's some pesky law from 1965, but the Secretary can waive (aka "ignore") that if she's a mind to.

The writers characterize the old system as the fox guarding the henhouse; they would like to replace the old foix with their own brand new reformy charter-loving test-driven fox. They are also fond of the same language used by choicesters to attack the public ed system-- the current teacher prep system is a "cartel" that needs to be broken up, because these new guys want to cash in, too, and it's not fair that they have to play by rules that they don't like. Let a hundred sad versions of Relay GSE bloom. Let charter operators crank out fake teachers from "fully accreditated" fake teacher factories.

And most of all, let's base the entire structure of BS Test scores, one more terrible idea that refuses to die.

It is the last building block in the grand design for a parallel school system, where schools are staffed by substandard teachers trained in only test prep, and therefor providing a substandard education, cranked out by substandard teacher prep programs set up to prove to a substandard accreditation board that they meet the substandard standards.

Look, I am one of the last people to defend the current system of teacher prep. My solution is simple-- replace every single person in the accrediting agency with a classroom teacher. My solution is certainly not to stage a coup to impose a ridiculous standard by which college programs are judged by second-hand results on a third-rate test.

In the end, I can't decide if these guys are cynical, arrogant, greedy, or dumb. I mean, it takes some balls to say, "The whole foundation of the teaching profession is wrong. We should rip it out and replace with our own unverified untested unproven results-- by force if necessary." It takes some serious greed to say, "If we just gutted and upended the system, we could redirect so many public tax dollars to private corporate pockets." It takes huge cynicism to think either, or both, and just not care about the consequences. At this point, it just takes plain old boneheadedness to think that PARCC and its ilk can be used as a measure of educational success. But then, I'm cranky today. These guys have been around several blocks, have done respectable work in other areas. I'm honestly confused-- how do people end up pushing such terrible ideas?

The only good news I see here is that this is not a plan Betsy DeVos is likely to jump on. It comes from so-called progressives, and it involves more structures and institutions and rules. While I suspect that DeVos sees the same problem ("People have to jump through all these stupid hoops to become a teacher and all these dumb rules to run a teacher prep program"), I suspect her solution is much simpler ("No more rules for anyone! You can call yourself a teacher training program, and you can call yourself a teacher training program, and you can call yourself a teacher training program, and anyone can operate a so-called school and hire anyone they want and we'll shovel money at all of them!")

So call it one more reminder that "progressive" doesn't equal "friend of public ed" as well as a reminder that there are no limits to the huge badness of some reformster ideas.