Wednesday, January 18, 2017

DeVos Song and Dance

I am grateful that work kept me from experiencing the DeVos hearing in one long take, like a thousand fingernails being dragged down a twenty-mile chalkboard. So just as I experienced a disjointed hearing, I will share my disjointed thoughts.

The Reviews Are In

Wait! I'm now famous because why..? And who wants to shoot me...?

One of the reasons I'm not doing an in-depth review of the hearing is that I don't need to-- every major news outlet covered it, in some cases tweeting it in real time. Many major news outlets had one or more stories up by 11:00 last night. This may seem obvious, but what was the last education story that got this kind of blanket coverage? Maybe the Scopes Trial?

And the coverage was pretty honest, ignoring for the most part the shmoozing snoozefest that was the GOP massage of the candidate. NBC went with the headline "Education Pick Betsy DeVos Will Not Rule Out Defunding Public Schools" which is both shocking and true. USA Today says "More Questions Than Answers." This morning, millions of Americans can easily find accounts of the hearings or watch the clips. After all these years, an education story is getting broad play.

Missing the Wait Time

The bizarre choice by Lamar Alexander to protect DeVos by limiting question time didn't just save her from having to answer more questions. It took away all wait time.

Imagine, for instance, if that moment in which DeVos is ignorant of the fundamental argument about proficiency vs. growth-- imagine if Franken had had the time to let her just sit there in stammer-punctuated silence, searching for some string of words. Imagine if her vain hunt for the meaning of IDEA had been allowed to stretch into a long painful twist in the wind.

The GOP senators lived up to every cent the DeVos family spent on them, but none so much as Alexander, who protected DeVos from protracted displays of her ignorance.

Oh, That Smile

Somewhere a bunch of dictionary editors are pasting screen captures from last night in to the entry for "smug." That was the look of a woman who knew that this was just a silly little display of theater that would in no way change the outcome, who was vaguely amused by all these little people who acted so earnest, like what they said or did would actually matter. This was the smile of a woman who didn't lose her cool with the Senate grilling for the same reason you don't get angry when your five-year-old wants to show you a picture of a butterfly that she's drawn.

This was the smile of a woman who knew that absolutely nothing was riding on that hearing.

A River in Egypt

You may have been wondering how DeVos would manage to go mainstream with a portfolio of far-right causes at her back like, say, support for conversion therapy for gays and lesbians. The answer, it turns out, comes straight from the Donald Trump playbook-- when called on something you said and did in the past that is now inconvenient to acknowledge, just lie about it.

DeVos tried to pretend that somehow she'd been funneling giant stacks of money to groups whose mission she doesn't really support, or that she doesn't really give money to, or just argle bargle it wasn't me. It's a bold choice because none of this advocacy work is exactly secretive, nor are the groups shy about lauding her for her support. And Guidestar (if you have an account) tells us that the "clerical error" that made DeVos an officer of her mother's group went on for years and years.

Likewise, we are clearly going to be treated to the History of Detroit Schools from an alternate dimension.


Best answer ever. It's the kind of inconsequential fumble that launches a million memes and will most certainly be blown out of proportion (and I will probably help). But it's funny. I need to be armed to protect myself from bears in my classroom. How about very large wild dogs? Rabid rabbits? What about if I want to hunt in my classroom for food? Bears.

What Has She Learned?

It hasn't gotten the kind of play that the exchanges with Sanders, Warren or Kaine got, but I think Betsy's response to Michael Bennet was the most telling, the most important, the most scary response of the hearing. Bennet asked what she had learned about schools and charters from the experiences of Detroit. She could not answer.

The closest thing the woman has to educational experience is being the political muscle behind the Detroit Experiment. The DeVos's are perhaps the only people who are in touch with every major player in that charter revolution, and they've been on top of it for decades. She has served as a self-appointed official of the state of Michigan with education at the top of her portfolio. It is the one card she had to play against the "inexperienced" charge-- and she totally blew it. She has learned nothing. From the destruction of a city's school system, the gutting of educational opportunities for Detroit's poor, she has learned nothing. She felt expert enough to call for the dissolution of Detroit Public School system, but she has learned nothing.

This is one of the big problems with zealots and True Believers-- they do not learn and grow because they already Know The Truth, so no new learning is necessary.

DeVos is ignorant-- and she will stay that way.

Won't Rule Out Defunding Public Schools?

Yeah, we already knew that.

She's Not a Banker

Honestly, there's a very tiny pool of candidates who could answer yes to Warren's "Have you ever overseen a trillion-dollar loan program?" But the fact that DeVos has never dealt with the college loan industry is just one more reminder that this is a woman who has been picked to oversee a part of the country that she has not one piece of experience in. This is not selecting a non-lawyer as a Supreme Court justice-- this is selecting someone who has never seen the inside of a courtroom or ever talked to a lawyer as a Supreme.

I Think She Knows What IDEA Is Just Fine

Folks are talking about how DeVos seemed not to understand what IDEA is, especially the significance that it's a federal law that you can't just "leave up to the states."

I don't think that's what DeVos told us.

I think DeVos told us that she subscribes to this administration's concept of law, which is that it's a set of rules that you may or may not have to actually follow. I think the principle of "It's a federal law but the states can decide whether they're going to follow it or not" is exactly what she meant and exactly what she believes. She knows it's a federal law-- she just doesn't care, or intend to enforce it.

Bad News, Accountability Hawks

The reform coalition that has tried to keep left and right working together for charters and all the rest-- that coalition has been trying to make space around the issue of accountability. To plug that gap, DeVos supporters have insisted that the stories about Betsy's anto-accountability stance for charters is baloney, and she totally wants charter accountability. Well, now there's this:

Kaine: “If confirmed will you insist upon equal accountability in any K-12 school or educational program that receives taxpayer funding whether public, public charter or private?”
DeVos: “I support accountability.”
Kaine: “Equal accountability?”
DeVos: “I support accountability.”
Kaine: “Is that a yes or a no?”
DeVos: “I support accountability.”
Kaine: “Do you not want to answer my question?”
DeVos: “I support accountability.”
Kaine: “Let me ask you this. I think all schools that receive taxpayer funding should be equally accountable. Do you agree?”
DeVos: “Well they don’t, they are not today.”
Kaine: “Well, I think they should. Do you agree with me?
DeVos: “Well no . . . ”
Kaine, interrupting her, said: “You don’t agree with me.”

So that's a hard pass on accountability for charters.

P.S. Screw You, Joe Lieberman

"Best qualification to run education is to know nothing about education" my Aunt Fanny. Yes, and when you are sick or injured, you go looking for someone with no medical experience. And if you need to be defended in court, you look for some guy who's completely ignorant of the law. Remind me to never, ever take this guy seriously again.

Does Your Phone Still Work?

God only knows when the actual vote will be taken, and the handwriting is pretty much on the wall. But that doesn't mean that the DeVos appointment should be a free walk in the park for anyone involved. Call senators. Tell them what a spectacularly lousy choice she is.

And while you're at it, tell your friends and neighbors. Alexander did do us one favor-- by limiting senators to five-minute question periods, he stage-managed a hearing that is available in easy-to-watch short clips. People who would never sit through a four hour video of congressional yammering can totally catch the point from DeVos's five minutes of stammering in front of Sanders or stunned ignorance in front of Franken or bad stonewalling of Kaine. Share.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017


It has been one of those days. Not bad, but about sixteen hours long, and so I have followed the DeVos hearing via occasional peeks at Twitter, and I'll catch up over the hours ahead in short burst so that my blood pressure does not shoot the nails off the ends of my fingers.

But I will confess that as strongly as I believe we should tell our senators repeatedly and loudly about Betsy's severe, extreme, total lack of qualifications for the post, and as strongly as I believe that we should fight her appointment to the office, I also believe that at some point, maybe after the political theater is over or maybe after her ethics paperwork has finally cleared or maybe once the senate thinks we're not paying such close attention-- at some point, Betsy DeVos will become our new Secretary of Education. And we will fight and stomp and kick about her policies and choices and attempts to trash US public education as we did with her predecessors.

But meanwhile....

Meanwhile, there are other issues to pay attention to, other tables at which education debates are still raging, other threats to the future of this bedrock democratic institution.

Charter Baloney

There are places in this country where no federal intervention is needed to help charter schools make a hash out of the education system. Michigan has the DeVos family, but Ohio and Florida are also a miserable wild west mess of charterdom, and North Carolina aspires to be just as ineffective and wasteful. Jeanne Allen of the charter-loving Center for Education Reform says that over thirty states have charter-friendly folks in charge. And even if you aren't one of those states, I'll bet you dollars to donuts that your legislature contains at least one lawmaker who is chomping at the bit to liberate some tax dollars for the betterment of charter operations.

As always, I'll note that charters can be a useful and valuable part of an educational ecosphere. But the modern charter operator too often dreams of a system of no oversight, little accountability, and easy access to those sweet, sweet tax dollars.

Life in Trumpistan may well include increased support for charter-style privatization, but it's already going on, and you don't have to cast your eyes all the way to DC to see it happening. Pay attention, and contact your state elected leaders. Often.

High Stakes Testing

A lot of folks just kind of stood down on this one once ESSA was passed, but test-driven accountability and the test-centered schools that it fosters are still with us. In fact, ESSA empowers states to double down on their commitment to this brutal and destructive practice, and many states are led by people who belong to the Cult of the Test.

It's foolish and a little insane because there is nothing in education reform so transparently foolish than the Big Standardized Tests. Parents and taxpayers see them, experience them, and immediately recognize that this instrument could not possibly measure all the things it purports to measure. Kepp spreading the word.

Big Brother's Personalized Data Grab

For many reformsters, everything we're used to railing against in the ed debates is old, old news. The next exciting thing for them is Personalized Competency Based Education Learning-- let's dispense education via computer, and use the process to collect data about each students, to both measure and mold the student into the kind of person the corporation wants them to be, while creating a data backpack for the student that will allow future employers and the government to determine what place the student should take in society.

This policy takes a variety of approaches, some of them rather stealthy, some of them masquerading as anti-reform positions (let's get rid of the Big Standardized Test by replacing it with software that will gather standardized data every day). Watching out for this requires a great deal of attention and alertness.

Threats to the Profession

The teacher pipeline is drying up, and much of what is coming through has been trained to believe their main job is test prep. The growing teacher shortage is being used as one more excuse to let anyone with a pulse become certified to stand in a classroom and teach. This suits some folks because if you deprofessionalize teaching, you can burn and churn cheap content delivery specialists whose main job is to unpack and present the texts or programs or software that has been lovingly sold to the district. At the same time school managers can cut costs. And for some, there's a bonus because the death of teaching as a profession would also be one more way to kill the teachers union, ending them as any sort of political force as well as removing one more management obstacle.


If we spend too much time looking just at education, we will miss the larger picture-- that the attempt to gut public education is part of a larger effort to replace democratic processes and institutions across the board. The DeVos family hasn't just tried to kill public education in Michigan-- they've tried to turn Michigan into a one-party state with themselves at the head of that party. The same process has been unfolding in North Carolina. We are swimming in plutocrats and oligarchs and bettercrats who believe that the country should be run by the Better Sort of People and democracy just gives to much power to the rabble who, really, ought to just be happy knowing their collective places.

As large as the DeVos nomination looms, and as infuriating as it is to see in videos That Face that Betsy makes, like she knows if she just sits through one more boring story from the maid, she will get everything she wants (and fire the maid later for boring her), and as scary as it is to contemplate the USED in the hands of someone who openly and actively roots for public education to fail-- as big as all that seems, it is just one piece of the larger picture, of a multi-front debate that continues to rage around us even during the few hours of Betsy smugly being granted safe passage through a political dumb show.

Don't give her a free pass, but save your strength for the bigger struggles ahead.

Monday, January 16, 2017

MLK & Another Christmas

Every year around December 25, a whole bunch of people who aren't actually Christians get all misty about a watered-down version of the original faith, make some generic noise about peace and good will while ignoring all the parts of the message that might be, well, more uncomfortable ("But wouldn't the moneylenders get upset if we threw them out of the temple? That just seems so rude and uncomfortable. Maybe we should do something less confrontational."), and follow it up with some noise about how, really, we should make every day Christmas.

Then on December 26th, they just scrub all of it out of their memory hole and go back to their usual lives.

Martin Luther King Jr Day has become kind of Christmassy. A whole bunch of people who aren't ordinarily black or much concerned about social justice and all the rest of it spend some time conjuring up some warm and misty images of a man who was called a troublemaker, who criticized liberals and moderates for their uninvolved silence, and who did not give his life, but had it stolen by some angry white guy with a gun.

We'll have posts and tweets about how great a man he was, how folks of all colors should just get along, illustrated with photos of King looking noble and stock photos of ethnically diverse hand clutching.  And then on January 17th, we'll go back to arguing that Colin Kaepernick should protest injustice in some less destructive and disruptive manner than kneeling during the anthem.

Perhaps this is marginally better than trying to erase the day entirely so that King's name isn't even spoken, or is tied to a name like Robert E. Lee.

But I know this-- talk is cheap (and stock photos are free). And all this talk about King and the Civil Rights movement as if it was just a bunch of African-Americans sitting politely and lovingly waiting to be recognized so that America would be slightly less rude-- this is fake history, which is even worse than fake news. My students have grown up in a mostly rural, mostly white corner of the world as part of a generation that as grown up to think that the blatant injustice, prejudice and mistreatment of blacks is inconceivable-- and so most of them cannot conceive of it, can't imagine that things were all that bad, really. 

The soft fuzzy view of King fosters a soft fuzzy view of the ongoing struggles around race and injustice. The soft fuzzy King also fosters an unrealistic view of him as a man, a person, which in turns allows us to let ourselves off the hook ("I could never do anything important like that. I'm just a regular person, and I will just sit here quietly until the next Superman comes along to show us the way")

But if we look at King as a person, and our nation as a society that struggles to do the right thing, that struggle turning on the actions of ordinary human beings, many of them, far more than just one-- well, then, there's no excuse to let ourselves off the hook.

We do our students no service by giving them one more dusty figure in the pantheon of Extraordinary Humans Who Are Responsible for Who We Are As a Country. Nor do we serve them by reinforcing the notion that this is a nation that somehow drifts toward Right by some mystical, non-human agency for which none of us are really responsible.

There will be lots of posts and tweets and stories pulled up from the archives today, and many of them will be a corrective to the fuzzy holiday picture. Do not read them today, or share them with your students tomorrow. Bookmark them. Keep them handy, and pull them up and read them over the weeks and months ahead. Share them with your students on days that are NOT specifically set aside for Reflecting on the Dream or Contemplating the Issues of Race. The concerns we raise on this day really should be everyday and every day concerns. We have no excuse to stop paying attention just because the calendar turns over to the 17th.

MOOCs and the Failure of Innovators

Today at IEEE Spectrum, Robert Ubell has a rough and telling explanation of "How the Pioneers of the MOOC Got It Wrong." It includes some important lessons for many of the "innovators" in the education world today.

Massive Open Online Courses took off five years ago, when Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig decided to stream the computer lectures from Stanford out across the internet to the world. It seemed like such a winner of an idea that Thrun co-founded Udacity, one of the leading providers of interwebbified education. Thrun was so sure of this idea that he predicted in a 2012 interview at Wired that in fifty years, only ten higher education institutions would still be standing. He and other MOOC launchers were certain that they "had inspired a revolution."

They did not know what the hell they were talking about.

In the beginning, MOOC completion rate was a whopping 7%. Nowadays that has inched up to almost 13% average. These are not impressive numbers. Nor are MOOCs putting universities out of business. As Ubell reports, research shows that people just graze or glance or bounce in for a minute. Those "who did finish a MOOC were accomplished learners, many with advanced degrees." In other words, people who are more than capable of teaching themselves from whatever resource, whether it be a MOOC or, say, a book.

What happened? A common reformster problem-- MOOC-ophiles were trying to disrupt practices that were no longer the norm in education. They figured that a MOOC would be more engaging than a traditional lecture (even if early MOOCs were just lectures on line, because computer technology!); they didn't realize that educators were already ditching and replacing lectures.

The three principal MOOC providers—Coursera, Udacity, and edX—wandered into a territory they thought was uninhabited. Yet it was a place that was already well occupied by accomplished practitioners who had thought deeply and productively over the last couple of decades about how students learn online. Like poor, baffled Columbus, MOOC makers believed they had “discovered” a new world. 

How many times have we seen this played out in ed reform circles. Edbiz McSellsalot comes running up, hollering, "Quick! I have just chiseled this circle out of stone. I call it a 'wheel,' and if you will all start using it, your transportation will be revolutionized." Experienced educators, riding on automobiles mounted on inflatable tires and sophisticated suspension systems, fail to respond with the proper level of awe and wonder. Unfortunately, too often the next step is for Edbiz to run off and convince some policy-makers to mandate the use of the "new" stone wheel.

And so vendors tell us that a multiple choice test (the kind of test that forty years ago we figured out is a poor assessment tool) will be totally awesome if we administer it on a computer. Charter operators announce proudly that they've discovered that personalized attention in a resource-rich environment will help students learn, particularly if you make sure that only the right students are in the room. Occasionally reformsters will grudgingly admit that some innovation doesn't actually work, just as we told them it wouldn't years ago. Who knew that having high stakes testing would warp and narrow instruction in schools? Every single teacher in the country-- but nobody would listen to us.

One of the assumptions of reformsterism (carried over from the business world) is that you don't need to be a trained experienced educator to be a great education leader. That assumption is disproven on a regular basis. That is why the teacher reaction to a reformster idea isn't always "You have got to be kidding me"-- sometimes it,s "No shit, Sherlock."

Sometimes outsiders see bold new angles because they're outsiders, but sometimes outsiders just don't know what they're talking about. Not every reformster is tripped up by ignorance of the territory or the arrogant belief that they don't even need to look at a map. But MOOC creators are not the only befuddled Columbi on the scene. If folks can't learn from the actual MOOCs, they can at least learn the lesson from MOOC creators.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

First 100 Reformy Days

Did Jeanne Allen ever oppose Trump? Long ago she may have expressed some misgivings, but she has since been swept up in the Great Migration of from Anti-Trump Land to downtown We Want To Be The Winner's Friend. So now Allen and her group, the Center for Education Reform, a reformy group that is friends with all the best charter school boosters (and even has a seat on the gates Gravy Train)-- now these folks have some thoughts about how to make the First 100 Days of Trumpistan a great festival of chartery goodness. And bold. There will be much call for boldness.

The position paper? flier? PR release? from CER opens by bringing up FDR's legendary 100 day Flurry O'Stuff and then declares boldly, "It's our turn again." It is not clear where the "again" comes from, but it's certainly bold to suggest that Herr Trump represents the return of, well, anything to the White House.

But this time we are bullish that what we have advanced and supported for 23 years may actually come to be. We have made recommendations to incoming administrations since CER was founded in 1993, and each time those ideas have fallen prey to a bevy of special interests, political moderation, or worse, downright dismissal.

Allen and CER suffer from a variety of problems, not the least of which is a serious lack of self-awareness (Allen, among other things, has a tendency to couple calls from better, more respectful dialogue with attacks on the entire teaching profession-- a sort of "let's talk nicely, you big evil dope!") If you've been doing the same song and dance for 23 years and still not drawing an appreciative crowd, it's possible0-- just possible-- that the problem is not the stage, the audience, evil people keeping the crowds away, or some dark fix by shadowy powers. It's just possible that the problem is you and your song and your dance.

In other words, you might want to consider that your recommendations have "fallen prey" to being lousy recommendations.

But hey-- let's give it a shot anyway.

Allen is optimistic that a Trump-Pence administration will be in tune with the things CER believes. Those beliefs include things like the idea that poverty can be ignored, because if people get a great education, they will escape poverty. CER also believes that tax dollars should be freed up so that various ed-flavorerd businesses can be free to snap those dollars right up.

If we really want an exceptional America we must have exceptional education, without conventional barriers to learning at one’s own pace, in an environment that best suits the learner. 

Because the adult workplace is all about working at your own pace in an environment that suits you. Well, we want an environment that suits somebody, anyway-

It’s time to be bold and think about what’s possible when you take control over a nearly $70 billion agency, and have entered a nation where 37 of 50 states are governed by education reform friendly lawmakers. It’s not just about a school choice program, or increased charter school funding, or little innovation grants. It’s about tearing up the very top-down mandates and arcane characterizations of schools that created the need for such microschools, innovative charters,competency-based programs and online higher education offerings in the first place.

This, I guess, is how Allen and CER found a common connection to Trump-- they, too, would like to watch the world burn. Why privatize education piecemeal when we can just burn down the whole institution of public education, sweep away the ashes, and privatize the space that's left behind? We don't even need coherent education policy-- just a big market free-for-all, in which all the various approaches can battle it out for their slice of the pie.  (I am intrigued, however, at the 37 reform-friendly states figure).

So we're five pages in and it's still all bold unicorns and bold rainbows and bold seeping statements. Is there some policy in here? Glad you asked-- let's move on to the more carefully targeted ideas.


Federal spending needs to be redirected, repackaged, and re-permissioned across traditional program lines. To conduct a serious, publicly transparent review in a finite amount of time as to how every federal dollar can better meet the needs of schools and students, the Administration should establish a Commission, like the Reagan-era National Commission on Excellence in Education.

Yes-- a government commission. Allen even has a name ready-- Make Education Great Again for Students Commission (MEGAS). The USED Secretary would be in charge, and they would identify "every barrier to opportunity." That's not opportunity for humans to get an education, but opportunity for money to flow freely. So MEGAS would not be boldly addressing poverty or systemic racism or failure to fully fund education; it would be looking at every chokepoint where someone could be making money from an education product but some damn regulation got in their way.  We are talking about more opportunities for businesses and entrepreneur-- not for students.

There are all sorts of education regulations, and we should look at all of those because "these regulations often discourage credible providers of instructional services." And we hate to see privatizers and profiteers get discouraged.

Specifically, Allen calls for the government to "conduct a thorough review of all regulatory limitations imposed on spending in education regulations," as well as any money that gets to schools from other departments, because, gee, all of that money should be liberated so that it can flow freely to people who want to give it a nice new home. Why should they be discouraged just because some dumb regulation says that money must be spent providing schools or education or programs to students?

Where the government can help is in gathering and packaging data so that parents have better information for making choices. The government has all that data-- it should be packaged for better marketing purposes.


Solve the crisis in teaching, the shortage of individuals able to but precluded from teaching due to flawed certification mandates, by encouraging opening up of the profession to experienced subject matter experts, thought leaders and international experts.

Yes, the crisis in teaching is that we are requiring people to become trained and certified, when what we really need is to open it up to anybody who feels like doing it. The impending teacher shortage is "misunderstood"-- it's not that the profession has been devalued or deprofessionalized, but that it hasn't been deprofessionalized enough. Allen's plan, seriously, is to tap all those folks who have been thrown out of work by the downturn in manufacturing and industry jobs and are now underemployed-- we just need to pout all those folks in classrooms, and we're all set to go! The only thing slowing us down is silly "bureaucratic standards." (Pro tip: if you really want to be a teacher, you could always go to teacher school.)

Also, there's technology, so why don't we just use "off-site" teaching and just, you know, skype teachers into classrooms. Because while Allen does subscribe to the "teacher is the most important factor" theory, she also has a deep and profound, even bold, lack of understanding of what teaching is or what it requires. In her world, teacher training and certification is some big scam, a con game run by bureaucrats who are colluding with the teachers union which is just trying to operate an entire school system so that they can collect dues and run the world.

So let some guys who used to have a manufacturing job in there. They would provide the needed education rooted less on theory and more on hands-on experiential" learning.

Higher Education

Recast the federal role in higher education to create more opportunities for both the private and public sectors to serve the needs of students seeking a higher education at every level.

Once again, you'll note that the "opportunities' are for people in the business, not the students. Allen is certain-- boldly certain-- that the only reason any students don't finish college is because "they want more opportunities in higher education than were available, or desired, by many who are long past those days." The market is failing to provide them what they want. Allen even says, explicitly, that it's not a cost problem (because there's always cheap community college available). It's not poverty or struggling with the college environment or personal issues or anything except a market failure and if we would just let the feds give money to anyone who wanted to enter the post-high school training biz, so many more people could make a bundle in the college ed biz.

The obstacle to the free flow of money remains the "higher ed cartel" who set up obstacles on "all sorts of contrived bases." For instance, Allen asserts that there's been an unfair emphasis on the difference between non-profit and for-profit colleges. I'd suggest that this is because the vast majority of for-profits are turning out to be predatory scammers, but Allen is sure that both sectors have "laggards." This is simply not true. Predatory scams like the Corinthian College chain aren't "laggards"-- they are outright frauds, using vulnerable students as a means of grabbing up money that was meant to help students (including US soldiers) get a decent education. There is nothing like it anywhere in the non-profit college world.

Educational Choice

The federal government should recognize whatever it is that states do to provide opportunities for students beyond the traditional public schools. Such programs–private school vouchers, tax credits, charter schools and the like–did not exist prior to 1990 in an substantial way and as a result, the federal government has continued to view them as anathema to the original definition of public education.

Oh, if only.  The feds have been pretty aggressively friendly to charter schools in this country, but not enough to suit Allen, who is occupying some other alternate dimension.

The birth of federal education programs occurred before there was any concrete evidence that despite billions spent nationally the Nation was at risk, and that traditional education governance simply was not working for most students. Meanwhile, other nations with far fewer freedoms were beating us at just about everything.

It's technically true that fed ed programs were birthed before there was evidence of any of these things for the simple reason that there still isn't any evidence of these things. But one of Allen's trademarks is a hopped-up insistence that education in this country is a complete and utter failure (which makes Betsy DeVos a fine ed sec for CER). I am curious at which "just about everything" we are being beaten at, and by whom. I'm wondering if on that list she includes things like providing maternity leave or universal health care or sheltering children from the effects of poverty, because we are getting our asses kicked in those areas, but I don't think education reform is the most direct path to addressing them.

Allen is certain the its federal prejudice that keeps students from being to have all the money allotted to their education, because that money is certainly not taxpayer money that belongs to the public. Again, it comes down to those damn federal rules and regulations. The feds should just hand the state a giant bale of money and let the state spend it however it wishes. Choice should be a big open wild west of macro and micro options, and regulations should be minimal or non-existent. Whether or not children get actual educations is not the issue-- the ability of edubusinesses to thrive is the concern here. The system that currently serves 90% of the students in the country should be trashed so that businesses can get to businessing without the feds looking over their shoulders answering annoying questions like "Are you actually educating these students" or "Did you just spend a bunch of public money on a yacht" or "Are all students-- even the poor, unprofitable ones-- being served" or even "Do you have the faintest clue what you're doing?"

Activist Agenda

Allen proposes to push all this by lobbying educating the hell out of the public and the state legislatures. It's regulation that is forcing charters to operate like traditional schools (not or course, any evidence or expertise that suggests that traditional schools largely know the best ways to do this educating thing) and more importantly, keeping charters and other ed-flavored enterprises from just cutting out things that aren't cost-effective. This, of course, remains the central problem of running a school: you can't bring in more revenue-- you can only cut costs. And there are the feds, telling you about a bunch of costs you aren't allowed to cut. How's a businessman supposed to get rich??

CER's agenda is the same one it's had for decades-- kill public ed and sell off the pieces. I suspect they will find much to love about life with Herr Trump and the Red Queen, but I have to believe that the less they get what they want, the better it will be for American school students and the future of our country.

ICYMI: Last Sunday Before Trumpistan Edition (1/15)

This week I'll start you off with a short video from the folks at Brave New Films about the DeVos nomination. Something to share with your friends who would rather watch than read.

Sears in Death Spiral

I wrote about this article earlier in the week, but if you missed that, you should still read this. Nothing to do with education, but everything to do with how terrible mis-management makes a hash out of a beloved US institution.

How Democrats Killed Their Populist Soul

Again, not actually about education, but a long, thoughtful look at the history of the modern Democratic party and how they lost their way.

Betsy DeVos Accountability Problem

Devos supporters have been swearing up and down that she actually supported a law calling for more accountability in Michigan charters. Allie Gross went and looked at the actual law and reports what's really in it (spoiler alert: not a bunch of charter accountability).

Difference Between Equity and Equality

A brief piece from Lara David with a great activity for showing students what the difference is.

Why the Racist History of School Vouchers Matters Today

Casey Quinlan provides another important history lesson.

The Red Queen

Jennifer Berkshire (Edushyster) spent nine days in Michigan interviewing over forty different people. She came back not only with the definitive DeVos nickname, but how the Education Secretary nominee looks to the people who have lived under her shadow. This week's must-read.

Time To Eliminate Third Grade Retention

One of the stupidest, most destructive, just plain meanest policies to come out of reformsterdom is the automatic third grade retention rule-- no passing score on the Big Standardized Test and no fourth grade for you, you little eight year old slacker! Here's another great explanation of just how wrong the policy (which, yes, does exist in several states) is.

Jeb Bush May Have Won Something in the Election After All

Valerie Strauss connects the dots between Jeb Bush and the new Department of Education. If you voted against Jeb because of his education policy positions, the joke is one you.

AZ: Fake-Dumping the Core

When Diane Douglas ran for the post of Chief Education Honcho of Arizona, she ran and won on a basic platform-- kill the Common Core. As it turns out, that was kind of a lie.

Douglas was a bit of a dark horse candidate; her previous professional experience was as "a financial expert for many private firms," and her previous educational experience was a whopping two terms on the Peoria Unified School District board. Peoria is a district of 34,000 students, centered in Glendale, Arizona.

Arizona, under Tea Party fave and former Cold Stone Creamery CEO Governor Ducey, set out to replace those dirty rotten Common Core standards. Now, after two years, the new standards have been adopted, confirming what many observers have been claiming all along-- this is the same old pig with lipstick and a nice wig.

Common Core foes in Arizona have been to this rodeo before-- previous Gov. Jan Brewer and former ed boss John Huppenthal had renamed the pig without changing much of anything. Angry conservative Core opponents backed Douglas to get the job really done. And they are now plenty pissed, because the job has been done, and it has been done to them.

"Oh, those whiny conservative anti-Core moms," you are saying. "Are they just complaining over nothing? Have they taken some uninformed clown's word for it that the standards haven't changed at all?" Well, thanks to the magic of the interwebs, we can see for ourselves. The Arizona standards draft is right here, and the CCSS are still camped out at their usual interhome. So you can play this game on your own, if you'd like. Let me just share a few examples gleaned by looking at the Anchor Standards from each. I am going to stick to the ELA stuff because that's my field of expertise. Let's look.

The CCSS anchor standards for reading come under four sub-headings. Those sub-headings are:

Key Ideas and Details
Craft and Structure
Integration of Knowledge and Ideas
Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity

The sub-headings for the Arizona ELA standards are:

Key Ideas and Details
Craft and Structure
Integration of Knowledge and Ideas
Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity

In both sets of standards, the reading portion is broken into ten anchor standards. In CCSS, standard R.4, the first under Craft and Structure, says:

Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

In the Arizona standards, the first standard under Craft and Structure is R.4, which says:

Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

There's a lot of this, although-- hey, standard R.1 is different in each set. The CCSS R.1 says;

Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

Meanwhile, the Arizona R.1 says:

Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it.

So, you know. Totally different. So maybe the differences were incorporated where the anchor standards are broken down to grade-specific standards. Let me check the grade I teach (11th) and see--oh, look. Arizona also has 11-12 grade standards combined. So anyway, standard RL.11-12.1 says

Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.

But in the other set of standards it says:

Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.

Did I forget to say which is which? It doesn't matter. And we could play this game all day.

There is a red-line version of the standards that highlights exactly what was changed and, man, they must just be hoping that nobody who opposes the Core would bother to read this. Changes include things like changing "closely" to "carefully" (so that people don't get the idea we're pushing "close reading") or taking a two-part substandard and repunctuating it to be two separate substandards.

Dr. Stotsky offered a comment about how context clues are always listed as the first strategy for figuring out the meaning of an unfamiliar word, so they've moved it to last on the list instead of first. Dr. Abercrombie noted that asking second graders to make connections between "a series of historical events, scientific ideas or concepts, or steps in a technical procedure" might be developmentally inappropriate, so the new standards add the phrase "with prompting and support."

Arizona also fiddle-farted around with the glossary of terms, again doing little of consequence other than a fairly large wrangling of "text complexity," based largely on the feedback of Dr. Stotsky, Elizabeth Pope, and Achieve (yes, the Common Core BFFs of Achieve were in on this party). There's a great deal more clarification about text complexity and how to determine it. That qualifies as an actual change. Oh-- and they added the beloved schwa was added to the list of vowel phonemes.

Just looking at the standards makes it clear that this is the laziest snow job ever attempted, and that when Douglas says things like the new standards "reflect the thoughts and recommendations of thousands of Arizona citizens" or claims they were "reviewed by several nationally recognized technical experts including prominent anti-common-core authorities" she is really close to flat out bald-faced lying.

Okay-- the new standards do include standards for cursive writing, which is not a Common Core thing. And it's possible that the math standards are-- no, actually I just looked, and while math is not my field, I can tell when two strings of words are, in fact, the same (they covered that in English teacher school) and there seems to be an awful lot of that going on. There isn't much red in these redline versions either.

Clearly by no stretch of the imagination did Arizona build its own set of standards from the ground up. This is the same old pig with a different shade of lipstick. If Douglas is planning to run for re-election on the slogan, "She Got Us Out of Common Core," she might want to rethink her plan. The only possible argument in favor of this non-rewrite is that it certainly won't be very disruptive-- districts won't need to replace textbooks and teachers won't have to rewrite lesson plans and all can go on as before. just without speaking the dreaded words "Common Core."

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Investors Warned Off Pearson

Today The Daily Telegraph, in its Questor business section, warned investors to stay away from Pearson stock.

Writer James Ashton notes that one need not "monitor Donald Trump’s late-night Twitter feed" to get some sense of his opinion about education, specifically that Herr Trump does not think that education needs a giant injection of money. And that's not good news for the publishing behemoth (not like the announcement of No Child Left Behind, which Ashton, in one of my favorite British journalism lines ever, says had then-head of Pearson Dame Marjorie Scardino "coak-a-hoop").

Pearson depends on the US for 63% of its sales, and that slipped by 9% in the first nine months of 2016. Ashton attributes Pearson's problems to several factors.

An education boom (is that what it looks like we're having from over there!?) generally goes with a downturn in education spending. 

And despite Michael Barber's thoughts about the digital ocean and the many plans he has for draining, bottling and selling that ocean, Ashton had this pointed observation:

For all talk of digital enlightenment, Pearson is still in the dead trees business, with print accounting for about a third of its activities.

Analysts think that the book-buying business is giving way, particularly on college campuses, to the book-renting business (if you want to get a sense of what's happening, just run a search on "renting college textbooks"-- there's a bunch of folks making a mint not selling books). 

Analysts like Morgan Stanley are calling on Pearson to cut costs, and they've been going at it, with the ironic result that some holdings they dumped (like Financial Times) are actually doing better now. But Pearson Honcho John Fallon must still "tighten the portfolio."

Pearson stock has been hovering around 9-ish for months now, having plummeted back in October of 2015 over a call that education earnings would not produce nearly as well as originally expected. Pearson's stock took a 16% dive then, rebounded just a bit, and then bumped down some more in October of 2016.

Here's a snapshot from right now. You can check your local ticker to dig out the details.

Bottom line: Questor says avoid. Pearson has some issues, and analysts don't see it bouncing back any time soon.

Unmoored (tl;dr)

The signs are everywhere. Herr trump says he doesn't need to divest business interest or release taxes because the public doesn't care and isn't interested, and the counter-argument is to cite statistics that yes, the public does care.That's swell-- but isn't the point that we have rules and laws and even Presidents are supposed to follow them?

Our discourse about ourselves as a country has come unmoored, detached from any side of dock or shore or anchor; we're blown about by the winds of personal impulse, tied to nothing but our similarly unmoored tribes.

The continuing Russian hacking-blackmail-influence dustup finally broke my brain. If you are anti-Russian, but pro-CIA and do believe that the hack actually happened, that means you belong to... which tribe, again? Can you guess which tribe would be saying things like "You can't trust the agencies that told us about WMDs" or "We should embrace friendship with Russia" or "It's unpatriotic to dis the FBI"? I'm not sure I can anymore, and many people have lost their bearings trying to keep up-- and that's before we even get to the business of sorting out which facts your side believes are facts today.

That's because most sides of the argument (and I'm not even sure how many there are any more) have stopped trying to understand what is actually happening and, as with most hot topics in the US today, have dug in on whatever side they are on. There are no rules, no guiding principles, no ties to anything except whatever the people running your particular movement have decided is your position.

This is (one of) my problems with Movements-- too often things descend into an argument about which people are pure enough, right enough, aligned enough, to deserve our loyalty or fealty. The Reformsters have had their ongoing sturm and drang about maintaining the coalition between left and right. On the public school side, there are frequent arguments about whether or not certain figures desrve the respect they have, or should be cast out into the darkness because they haven't taken the right position on A or X.

I have never understood these arguments, these quests for purity. First of all, you know who sees the world exactly the same way I do? Nobody. Second, you know who in this world I give my unquestioning fealty and allegiance, whose word I will absolutely accept and follow, no questions asked? Nobody. You know who I expect to follow me without question and agree with whatever I have to say without debate? Also nobody. You see the pattern.

Let me talk about some things I believe.

You cannot use other human beings as your moral compass. That includes yourself. Your moral compass comes from your principles, your values, your beliefs, your understanding, your vantage point, your empathy and apprehension and comprehension, and all of these things must be tuned and retuned and examined on a daily basis. You make your decisions based on your principles, your compass, and not on how you feel about other people who are arguing for A or B or Q or X.

Anyway. How did we become so unmoored that we talk about the laws governing the highest office in the land as if they are just a matter of debate and preference? How are we so unmoored that facts no longer matter? How did we become so unmoored that a whole raftful of Americans now have the political position, "I don't care what he says. Whatever he says, even if it's contradicted by established fact, even if it's exactly what I decried in someone else not so long ago, I agree with it." How did we get to a place where we no longer believe in the rule of law or the lawfulness of rules?

I blame my generation (okay, it's possible that this business goes all the way back to Thoreau, but I'll stick to proximate causes). As long as we've been able to shoot off our mouths, we Boomers have been guided by the idea that you must Do The Right Thing even if it means breaking the rules, and we  meant to be guided by principle, but we too often slid into believing that if we were good and righteous people, well, then, whatever we wanted to do must be okay. I've always been struck how Bill Clinton and Junior Bush both operated without shame, even when caught misbehaving, certain that they were good and righteous people and therefor they couldn't be screwing up. No Nixonian hiding behind the Office ("If the President does it, it's not illegal").

This has become Normal. watch any tv show from NCIS to Grey's Anatomy and watch people in positions of power and authority just shred rules like tissue paper. I've always maintained that Americans were largely unalarmed by finding out that the government collected and sifted through phone records because they watch it done all the time on shows like NCIS-- but, you know, it's good guys violating your rights, so it's okay.

This self-guided dismissal of the rules (I don't need to follow the rules as long as I follow my conscience") has, ironically, led to an explosion of rules. Because, personally, I don't need a lot of rules because i am guided by my conscience-- but Those People over there? I'm pretty sure they're going to screw things up unless we slap some stronger rules on them. And instead of building those rules on principles, we build them on personal preferences, like a harbor tie-off that is just  a free-floating buoy that is not tied to anything itself.

That explosion of Unprincipled Rules for Those People in turn feeds the decay of rule-following, because when someone slaps you with a stupid rule, you're just that much more inclined to dismiss not only the importance of following that rule, but of following any and all rules. So, more rules, and more rule ignoring.

But trying to live by trotting out your principles and values and then analyzing the situation for every single situation-- well, that gets tiring, and lots of folks are in situations where having to choose is hard because no choices look good (like, say, the last election cycle). So instead of tying their ship to something stable and solid and anchored in the earth's crust, they just look for someone to hook onto, so they can just follow along and not have to navigate for themselves any more. And the more everything else in the harbor looks like the chaos of a million unmoored crafts, the more appealing it is to tie off to someone who declares, "Follow me. Let me steer you. I will keep you safe and on course." And that just leads to a bunch of arguments about which such boat is the best one for everyone to hook up to, instead of talking about how we should all just find our own moorings.

For teachers this has been particularly challenging. We are by nature fans of rules. We like them. We expect our students to follow them, and we are inclined to follow them ourselves. But the rules have been turning ugly and capricious for a while, rules that are unmoored and unattached to any principles of education, any facts about educating humans. We've been coming to understand that we must either navigate for ourselves or hook our craft to a loose buoy that will drag us right over the falls.

Rules that are not anchored in principle are just expressions of personal power. And that challenges one of the foundations of our society. We were a country built on rules anchored to principles, explicitly rejecting the idea of rules based on personal power, and now we are beginning to realize that we have been inching toward autocracy for a while, and we're, maybe, just about there.

As a classroom teacher, I deal with this by making sure that I'm operating out of principle, and that I examine all of my assumptions and ideas regularly, including what input I gather by reading, listening, paying attention.

As a person, I've been doing this work for years, not because I'm some sort of highly-principled virtuous person, but because I'm not. I've done stupid things, hurtful things, terrible things, and I would rather not do any more, and I have learned the hard way that autopilot is not my friend.

There are people I trust a great deal, people whose judgment I value and whose point of view I consider worth examining. Not all of these people would agree with each other, and there isn't one of them whose judgment I would follow blindly (though a few come pretty close-- hi, honey!) I don't think I will ever reach a point in my life when I can say, "All right then-- I know everything I need to know about that." I work hard to be keep myself connected to principles and values that I can trust, and I like to think that my moral compass is pretty well-tuned, even as I am fully aware that every person who ever did a terrible thing was sure their compass pointed to true north.

In some ways, I see all of this as the central huge challenge of teaching today-- how do we help bring students up to be able to find their way in a society that has become unmoored. "Just follow the rules" or "Just do the right thing" or "Always trust the authorities" were once standard childhood advice; now they seem ridiculous. How do we help young humans find their way when we can barely find our own? How do we help young humans find a way without telling them which way they are supposed to find?

Is it too hokey to say that love, empathy, kindness, and unselfishness are a help? I don't think so, though clearly those are not values in ascendance in Trumpistan. I don't know if we ever get back to a place where our ships are safely moored, anchored to something solid and true. Maybe the best we can hope for are reliable compasses, and if that's true, then I think we could find worse metaphorical compass points than love, empathy, kindness and unselfishness. That's my hope, anyway.

Friday, January 13, 2017

More Baloney in Support of DeVos

This week, it's often looking as if the postponement of Betsy DeVos's confirmation hearing was so that she could round up a few more supporters.

So here comes former Michigan Governor John Engler, the guy who helped start the process of busting up public education in Michigan.

Engler opens with a nifty observation:

America doesn't need any more fights around education.

Yeah, I'm looking better every day, amiright?

By which I can only assume that he means, "Y'all need to shut up, sit down, and do as your told. Fall in line and stop stirring up trouble." What other reason can the need for less fighting lead one to conclude that a good choice for Educhief is someone who has dealt with disagreement by threatening and stomping on those who disagree with her? But then, Engler's current job as president of the Business Roundtable gives him a particular perspective on these issues:

Business leaders are intently focused on promoting creative approaches that will raise the performance of our K-12 students — making them and the entire U.S. economy more competitive for decades to come. 

Baloney. Business leaders have often been spectacularly dim about the purpose of public education (spoiler alert: it is not to manufacture a deep pool of meat widgets to serve corporate needs or desires).

Thankfully, as a businesswoman and entrepreneur, Ms. DeVos has been singularly focused on accountability and results — exactly what our education system needs.

When has Betsy DeVos ever been a businesswoman? Her father was a businessman. Her brother was an entrepreneur. Her father-in-law was a businessman, of sorts. But what business has Betsy ever run? Entrepreneur? What new business has she ever started? What new business idea  did she launch? DeVos is a billionaire heiress who married a billionaire heir, and together they have leveraged their fortune into political clout by setting up lobbying groups and buying (and threatening) legislators. (For a detailed and disturbing account of all of this, read this hot-off-the-internet piece from Jennifer Berkshire, and see what a family of rich folk can do to turn an entire state into a one-party fiefdom.)

Engler has other slabs of baloney to share. The false assertion that Detroit's charters have been successful. The odd notion that DeVos, who spent millions defeating accountability measures, is somehow an accountability hawk. And Engler is going to repeat that DeVos is out to serve all students without providing any actual evidence.

Jeb! Bush wants to speak up for her as well. Unsurprising, because they are also old reformy buddies, fans both of privatizing schools for fun and profit as well as trying to crush teachers unions the better to cripple the Democratic party in their state.

Bush wants us to know that DeVos is a "champion of families, not instistutions." He feels that DeVos is a victim of two "false narratives" about school choice.

Bush says that one falsehood is that charters are hostile to pubic schools, but that's not so. Which is... fanciful indeed. Rather "the choice movement seeks flexibility for putting children m the right learning environment, embracing all high-quality providers." So our new marketing slogan is that charters provide flexibility, not a "rescue" from the "failing public schools"? Bush may want to clue some of his chartery brethren in to this so they can stop reading from the old marketing script.

The other alleged falsehood is that charters weaken public school, but hey-- in Florida, public schools have gotten way more awesome since charters started opening up-- an absolutely insupportable assertion since any number of factors could explain the 'improvement" in Florida schools. And really-- why talk about Florida when we can talk about Michigan, the state where DeVos mostly got her way and disaster ensued?

But if you don't believe Jeb, well, here's his mom. Yes, Barbara Bush has also come out in support of DeVos.

Bush is a big fan of literacy, and she wants to toss out that old correlation about third grade reading and later success, only like most everyone who trots that out, she doesn't get the difference between correlation and causation, so she's going to praise DeVos for Michigan's stupid third grade reading retention law which says that students can't advance to fourth grade until they pass the Big Standardized reading test.

Betsy DeVos has helped pass reforms to drive gains in literacy.  

Sure. Call it that. I call it bullying eight year olds. Also note that we're applauding a private citizen for getting legislation through a state government, as if that's a good thing. And Grandma Bush tosses out this old chestnut:

I also believe Mrs. DeVos has the right priorities on important issues such as school choice, early childhood development and accountability in education. I have worked with Mrs. DeVos’ advocacy organizations for years and I know that her commitment to children runs deep. She believes passionately that children should have access to high performing schools regardless of their race, income or zip code. That is why she has fought valiantly to give parents of at-risk children the right to send their kids to charter and private schools when the public school system is letting them down.

All children should NOT have "access" to high performing schools. Every passenger on the Titanic had "access" to a lifeboat, but only a few got to ride in one (or on a door). All children should have a good school. All children should be in a good school. Why the hell is the formulation always, "We think this school si failing, and that's unfair to the students in it, so we're going to rescue 5% of those children and do nothing to help the rest, including doing nothing to improve the school we're leaving them in." How is that a solution??!!

There are no, says Ma Bush, quick easy one-size-fits all solutions to school issues (except, I guess, charters and choice, which fix everything magically). But DeVos will send stacks of money out to the states where magical advances will be made, somehow. And then dear, sweet, steely-eyed, grey-haired Ma Bush let's go with this line--

I believe Mrs. DeVos is an educator at heart. 

No. No, she is not. Not at all. Do you know how I know? Because people who are educators at heart go out and become actual educators! They get the training and then they become actual teachers, in actual schools. That's what people who are educators at heart do. But hey-- if I tell you that I'm really a doctor at heart, will you let me operate on you or become surgeon general?

Bush wraps up with some vague nonsense about the "powerful forces resistant to change" and go back and read Berkshire's piece again if you want to see what powerful forces resistant to change  look like,  because mostly they look like unelected billionaires who buy up all the machineryu of government and stomp on anyone who tries to change the path that those plutocrats laid out for the entire state.

I suppose over the next few days we'll get more of this. It's odd because, truthfully, I don't think there's much chance that DeVos won't be confirmed. Mind you, she is spectacularly unqualified in every conceivable way, from her lack of organizational and administrative experience to her complete ignorance of public education to her spirited embrace of an armful of failed and foolish policies. Really, nobody deserves to be Secretary of Education less than Betsy DeVos. But this is Trumpistan, and the Senate hardly ever chases away cabinet nominees, and Being Unqualified is the new black, so I expect she'll be accepted. I just don't want it to be cheap or easy.

So by all means, DeVos supporters-- keep popping up to say foolish things, because a DeVos USED will cost US education tremendously for the foreseeable future, and you might as well be on the record when the bill comes due.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Petrilli: Reconsider Vouchers

It's kind of curious. So many people are suddenly talking about vouchers again, and the only real reason that we are is because we're looking at the possibility of a Secretary of Education who just loves them and we're all trying to figure out what could come of that (Spoiler alert: nothing good). Wise researchers like Jersey Jazzman are reminding us where the voucher money ends up (Spoiler alert: in religious schools) and even some charter fans are expressing reservations.

Into this conversation leaps (strolls? glides? saunters? scampers?) Mike Petrilli (Fordham Institute) to say, "Hey, maybe you need to take another look at cool, modern voucher systems!" Okay, what he actually says is "Vouchers have changed. Maybe your position should change, too" at the Flypaper, Fordham's blog.

Petrilli starts by roping in a reference to his earlier piece in which he argued that reformsters are still one big happy family, and can they please not get all split apart all over the place just because Herr Trump has nominated the DeVonator to USED? Because if you haven't noticed, reformsters are kind of worried about holding their coalition together in the Age of Trump.

We all support giving parents the power to choose schools other than those assigned to children by their local district; the question is how wide their range of choices should be.

Which is one of those reformy statements that triggers me to ask why nobody ever talks about the choices available in a public school. Anyway, he plays the Not Really Splitting Apart card so that he can point out that, hey, everybody wants to give parents choices-- there's just a little disagreement about what the mechanism should be, and before you go throwing out the vouchers with the bathwater, Petrilli wants you to know that nowadays we aren't talking about the kind of vouchers systems that were all the rage one or two years ago.

Vouchers, he admits, have a reputation for coming with no actual oversight or accountability, and, well, yeah, he admits that was pretty much true in places like Cleveland and Milwaukee. But nowadays, in places like Louisiana and Indiana now just ooze accountability out of their very pores, to the point that they are held almost as accountable as charter schools-- which is of course the point Petrilli has to make here for those charter fans who fear that voucher schools will undercut them by not having to follow any rules at all. Because the free market jungle is awesome unless you are the prey and not the predator. Petrilli's point is not, "Yes, voucher schools will be made awesome" so much as it is "Don't worry charter fans-- voucher schools will have to play by the same rules you do without any special advantages."

By "accountability," Petrilli mostly just means that these schools must administer the same Big Standardized Test as regular old public schools, which may be soothing to accountability hawks, but ought to scare hard-core voucher fans because, as some conservative critics have noted, where government money goes, government strings and rules and regulations follow. (It's an issue we have some history with in my area.)

By "accountability," Petrilli apparently doesn't mean "must conduct all business in public and keep financial records transparent to the public, too." Nor is it apparently related to how the schools treat teachers or students. "Accountability" just means "must give students the BS Tests and be rated by the state."

But maybe, Petrilli continues, you object to vouchers because the private schools can maintain their usual exclusive standards. Well, um, that's right. They don't. In fact, Fordham's own research tells that plenty of private schools won't open themselves up to voucher programs unless they can control their admissions. Many, of course, can also keep the riff-raff out unofficially by virtue of having tuition costs far in excess of the voucher amounts.

Well, so what, says Petrilli. We have some selective admissions schools already and colleges, heck, they selectively admit all the time already. And while he doesn't quite go there, we know that Petrilli believes that charter systems can be a good way to select out the Strivers and rescue them from having to be in school with Those Other Kids. Selectivity in private and charter schools? That's a feature, not a bug.

Petrilli knows some people are squeamish about the whole mixing church and state thing, but he says we might as well be consistent and we let churches house Head Start and use Pell Grants to send students to religious colleges, so what's the big deal? I would note that Head Start does not include a religious training component, even if they're in a church basement. College is a slightly different kettle of fish because it's not mandatory, like K-12 education, but he may have a point about consistency-- I vote we stop using Pell Grants to pay for religious college education. I could lay out all the religious separation arguments, again, for my conservative friends, but it might be simpler to point out that under such a system, your conservative tax dollars could be going to support a school based on Sharia law, or that teaches classes only in Spanish. I believe that if conservatives imagine such a system, they will quickly figure out the problems of mixing church and state all by themselves.

But Petrilli wants you to know that, for instance, Catholic schools are awesome and their students do really well and even stay out of typical teen trouble more than public school kids. Petrilli speculates that Catholic schools put the fear of God into kids; I'm going to speculate that everyone should learn more about the difference between correlation and causation, because the kinds of families that round up extra money to put their kids in a Catholic school might well be the kinds of families that raise kids who are more likely to stay out of trouble. Or maybe it's that Catholic schools can, as Petrilli notes, get rid of any and all students who don't behave.

And that's pretty much Petrilli's argument.

He does miss a few points. For instance, in his discussion of voucher-based systems, he somehow neglects to mention the voucher system of Wisconsin (a voucher mess), nor does he get into the everything but actual vouchering system of Michigan -- the one that can tell us the most about DeVos's ideas and goals with vouchers, choice, unions, and also the one that shows so clearly that DeVos's ideas and goals yield an ugly and dysfunctional mess that not only fails to produce choice schools with any quality, but also drags down the public school at the same time.

Petrilli suggests we spend some time before the rescheduled hearing looking over vouchery stuff. I recomend we spend some time looking at the fruits by which DeVos can be known. Try this article, or this one. Or this. Or this one. And another. And still another. And you can follow it up by reading about how hard DeVos has fought against accountability in Michigan.

Petrilli has mounted a pretty weak argument here-- vouchers are really okay because voucher students in some places have to take tests, the separation of church and state is just silly, and creaming the best students is cool and appropriate. But then, that has been the problems with vouchers all along-- the arguments for them are weak, so weak that the only successful path for installing a voucher system is to buy or rent enough legislators to write it into law. Where voters get a say, they say no. Nor have they changed all that much, ever. So we can look at them again, and again, and again, but, spoiler alert-- they will still look like a bad idea.

Tofu Schools

The repeated claim is that charters and choice are necessary in order for students to have options and to be able to select from many different educational programs, which makes me wonder-- are public schools made out of tofu or some other featureless, uniform substance. When you slice a public school, do you uncover the same bland surface, the same unvaried material, no matter which way you slice? Is it true that the only way to find variety, choice, or selections is to set up charter schools?

I teach in a relatively rural high school, so we're not loaded with resources or money, and yet a student at my school can choose to emphasize music or the arts or attend our vocational technical school to learn welding or home health care. You can take a yearbook class to learn photography and design, or theater, or public speaking, or business technology. If you're interested in 3D printing or working in a basic-but-fun mass media lab, we can hook you up. In my department alone, we have a variety of pedagogical and personal styles; a student who passes through our building is bound to find one teacher in our department that she really clicks with.

We are most definitely built our of tofu.

In fact, I would think that our school, like most public schools, actually provides better access to variety and choice than a so-called choice system, because to switch gears ("I think I'd like to stop playing trumpet and start learning auto body repair!") doesn't require a student to withdraw, then enroll in a whole new school and start over again. Want to switch your emphasis? Go see your guidance counselor. You can keep your friends and your locker and your lunch table-- you just get some different classes.

Sometimes the choices have to do with the community, and sometimes with a singular vision of one individual in the system (just up the road is a school that for years had an awesome steel drum band because they had a teacher who was knowledgeable and interested in steel drum bands). The particular constellation of choices under one roof will vary from roof to roof-- that's what gives a school its distinctive flavor (and one more reason it's a lousy idea to try to make all schools taste like Common Core Test Prep). But you don't have to move out from under that roof to find different choices. 

I would suspect that in the larger urban districts schools become more "specialized" in a number of ways, like specializing in the arts or specializing in technology or specializing in making do with far fewer resources than they ought to have. But I will still bet you that nowhere in this country will you find a public school made of tofu.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Bad Management

I have a theory that one of the major problems in America today is just plain bad management. I have watched it trash companies on the smaller, more local scale here, and periodically we get to watch large American corporations go down in flames.

For instance, consider retail giant Sears. Business Insider has published a blistering look inside the ongoing death spiral of the venerable retail giant. Hayley Peterson's reporting is thorough, brutal, and depressing, and it provides a striking look at how bad management can sink a business because in the case of Sears, the problems are neither complicated nor complex-- one terrible CEO is managing to torch the entire place.

CEO Eddie Lambert is the very model of a modern major management disaster. He has no background in retail, and yet, somehow, he is running a giant retail corporation. What's his actual background? Running hedge funds. Making money from investments. This is one of the precepts of modern management-- anybody can manage any business as long as they have previously managed some other business. And if they have previous experience shuffling investment money, then so much the better.

Lambert has tried a variety of stupid bad management ideas. In 2013, Business Insider took a look at his bright idea to split the company into divisions and pit them against each other, because (as you may have heard) competition fosters excellence. It didn't. It fostered a huge lack of cooperation that in turn led to decisions that were bad for the enterprise as a whole. (You can read more about this special kind of management stupid in action here at Bruce Baker's blog post at the time).

Lambert tries to manage at a great distance, by screen. This is also a bit of modern management brilliance-- keep yourself in an insulated bubble far away from the people you manage, because if you get close and get involved and have to look them in the eye, your human considerations might get in the way of your business calculations.

Lambert is a mean, screaming, punishing SOB. As painted by Peterson, he is a manager who demands that his subordinates tell him what he wants to hear and do not disturb him with information that contradicts his "vision" for the enterprise. Like many of these guys, he believes that he is a visionary and that nothing must be allowed to distract from his vision.

Lambert is wrong. Virtually every one of his genius ideas has failed to improve Sears' situation. That includes selling off valuable parts of the company to get a few bucks now to keep things afloat. But every one of his ideas has wrought more destruction than growth. And because he doesn't know a damn thing about retail, his ideas fail to address the most basic central mission (get customers to come into stores, and then sell them stuff they want), his ideas are useless, even destructive as they sap energy and attention from the main thing.

Lambert has covered his own ass. Peterson explains how Lambert has created a web of funds and loans and investments that insure, no matter what happens to Sears (and all the people who work there), Eddie :Lambert will be fully insulated and not hurting financially. Not hurting at all. "He's moving money from one pocket to the other pocket, and he's protected himself on both sides," said one of the many, many former executives from Sears.

I follow stories like this almost as often as I follow education stories, and the same question always comes to mind-- is THIS what reformsters mean when they insist that schools be run like a business? Because if we are going to talk about running schools like a business, perhaps we should get a bit more specific, because an astonishing, frightening number of American businesses are actually run pretty badly.

I've said for decades that education is where bad management ideas go to die, but the really unfortunate thing is that some of the worst ideas shambling about the management landscape like clumsy, destructive beasts-- some of these cause huge amounts of damage before they can finally collapse. I don't even want to think about happens when they take root in the White House. We must at least continue to do our best to keep them from making a mess out of our schools.

Charter Fans Challenge DeVos

The Massachusetts Charter Public [sic] School Association has joined the discussion of Betsy DeVos-- and they've joined it by asking Senator Elizabeth Warren to grill DeVos a little more thoroughly.

Don't worry. Confirmation hearings have to end some time.

MCPSA has had a rough few months. In November, Massachusetts voters resounding rejected a proposal to lift the charter cap and let charters roam free, feasting on public tax dollars. But on January 9th, they sent a letter to Warren that opened with this paragraph:

As the Association representing the 70 Massachusetts commonwealth charter public schools, we are writing to express our concerns over the nomination of Elisabeth DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education. We do not express these reservations lightly, but we believe it is important to raise certain issues that should be addressed by the nominee.

So what's the problem? MCPSA assures the senator that they are "hopeful" that Trump-DeVos will continue "the bipartisan efforts of the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations" to keep promoting charter schools. But they have concerns.

They are concerned about reports about DeVos voucher support and charter proliferation in Michigan "that has been widely criticized for lax oversight and poor academic performance, and appears to be dominated by for-profit interests." They even cite a Detroit Free Press piece on the subject.

MCPSA wants to remind their senator that they are super-duper, and the Massachusetts charters are just the best ever (a hugely arguable point, but let's not get sidetracked today). And they believe that oversight and accountability are a big part of their success. And they are concerned that DeVos has a history of opposing oversight and accountability, and somebody had better ask her about that and just, you know, make sure that she is going to support rules and accountability and oversight and demands for quality.

Meanwhile, the New York Times editorial board, which has never met a charter school scheme it didn't like, also came out to express "big worries" about DeVos. The nominee

also faces a big challenge in explaining the damage she’s done to public education in her home state, Michigan. She has poured money into charter schools advocacy, winning legislative changes that have reduced oversight and accountability. About 80 percent of the charter schools in Michigan are operated by for-profit companies, far higher than anywhere else. She has also argued for shutting down Detroit public schools, with the system turned over to charters or taxpayer money given out as vouchers for private schools. In that city, charter schools often perform no better than traditional schools, and sometimes worse.

Goodness, New York Times! Are you ready to join the rest of us defenders of public education? That would be... unexpected. So what's going on? Why would stalwart charter fans be concerned about a DeVos USED? I can think of four reasons.

1) Protecting the brand.

If you let any kind of riff-raff set up a charter school, and they do a lousy job of it, you hurt the brand. "Charter school" becomes synonymous with "crappy school" instead of "cool private school you can send your kids to for free." Worst case scenario, your lousy practitioners of the charter arts screw up so badly that the public starts calling for really tight regulation and oversight. Nightmare scenario-- some lunkhead messes up so badly that charters end up with more scrutiny and regulation that regular old public schools. And then the fun times are over for everyone. You let one bad apple in, and before you know it, none of us can have nice things.

2) Protecting the coalition.

As suggested by MCPSA's bipartisan President supporter list, reformsters in general and charter fans in particular have built a bipartisan coalition. Conservatives get a free market, highly profitable system of education-flavored school-like businesses, and lefties get a system that supposedly uplifts the poor and restores social equity. The rise of Trump has been a real threat to this coalition, and while some of the pretend progressive groups like Democrats [sic] for Education Reform have mapped out a sort of two step (don't work IN her department, but totally work WITH her department) the fact remains that it is going to be hard to rally progressives and justice warriors behind a Trump administration. But the newly formed Democratic Education Caucus may be just what they fear. Some figure far, far more conciliatory than Betsy DeVos will be needed to bridge that gap.

3) It's that voucher thing.

Not all charter fans love the idea of vouchers. Vouchers, among other things, take a whole bunch of money off the table because the same day that vouchers go into effect, a whole bunch of Catholic and other pre-existing private schools get a windfall. Vouchers mean that charter schools have to compete not just with public schools, but with all the parochial and private schools already out there. Vouchers do not necessarily work out well for charter operators.

4) The threat of the Way-Too-Free Market.

Imagine that you are in the jewelry business and you are creating 14 carat gold. What a pain would it be for someone to enter your market selling rings that are labeled 14 carat gold but which are actually made out of brass, and discover that there are no regulations that forbid them from lying about their product and nobody with the authority to make them stop.

In states like Massachusetts, where there is at least a light smattering of regulation, charter school operators compete on a level-ish playing field because they have to provide an entity that bears at least a passing resemblance to an actual school. But when we get into states like Ohio and Florida and, yes, Michigan, we find people entering the charter school game by providing something that barely resembles a school, pumped up with advertising full of lie-soaked baloney (here's a Florida example). How is a charter school that actually wants to be a school-- how is that supposed to compete with some charter scam artist?

Or look at it this way. Free market competition, particularly between businesses that can't really increase their revenue streams, is not about pursuing quality, but about cutting costs. Regulations essentially establish a financial floor beneath which the business may not sink, established by costs that may not be cut (e.g. auto makers cannot cut costs by removing seat belts). Ideally, that floor is also set by the business person's ethics, but the invisible hand can exert a pretty powerful force, and there will always be people who are far more interested in making a buck than doing the right thing. So charter school accountability and oversight help establish a level beneath which operators may not stoop, and some operators will always want to make sure that their less ethical brethren are restrained from-- well, I would call it cheating, but then, it's not cheating if there's no rule against it. If the rules say you can establish a charter where attendance is not mandatory and you only have to have one teacher for every 200 students, it's not cheating to do so-- but it sure gives you an advantage over competitors.

Put one last way-- charter operators are happy to have ways to undercut public schools, but they would rather not have other charter operators undercut them.

It will be interesting to see if opposition to DeVos continues to appear on her reformy flank. Our first few months in Trumpistan will undoubtedly give rise to much political shifting and re-alignment; only time will tell how that will shake out in the education biz.