Friday, February 24, 2017


One of my regular reads is Blue Cereal Education, a blog that regularly makes me say, "Gee, I wish I'd written that." Just this week, the post "It's Not About Them (It's About Us)" gave me both that feeling and a wave of flashbacks to when my children were young.

The point is deceptively simple-- we should treat people based on our understanding of the right way to treat people, not based on what we think they've earned. We oppose, for instance, cruel and unusual punishment not based on what considerations the felon in question has earned, but because we'd rather not be the kind of people who use cruel punishment on others.

How we treat others is not about who they are, but about who we are-- or at least about who we want to be.

It's a good piece. You should really go read it. Go ahead. I'll wait right here.

It takes me back twenty years because this was how the children's mother and I would short-circuit all protests about why somebody really needed to be hit or "you just don't understand the awfulness of Person X"-- you don't hit people because you don't hit people. That's not how you treat other people.

As a moral principle, it really is a great simplifier, which is probably why the basic principle has been around for so long (including that Jesus guy with his "do unto others' and "let he who is without sin" and "judge not" or "the least of these" stuff). We are to extend loving, caring behavior to others because of who we aspire to be-- not because of who they are.

There are always some concerns with this approach. Surely we're not meant to extend decent, caring attention to people to people who lie to us, attack us, try to hurt us (What's that? "Turn the other cheek?" Ssshhhhh!). But there is nothing about living a principled life that means we have to be stupid or self-destructive.

As human beings, we have created lots of loopholes. One is otherize people and provide them with a label that makes it clear they aren't really people at all, as in "Well, of course, I strive to treat all people decently, but that Mugwump over there is a whole other matter."

Mostly we like the judging. We insist on including a clause that adds "who deserve it" to all "this is how we treat people" statements.

But when we start talking about "deserving" people, we invariably end up de-serving people.

In other words, talking about "deserving" is usually an excuse to select people that we can legitimately refuse to treat with love or caring or consideration or decency or kindness or whatever we're figuring out an excuse to withhold. When we talk about who deserves to be in this country, we're really highlighting the people that it's "okay" to throw out. When we talk about good pay for deserving teachers, it's really a conversation about how we can pick out the teachers who will be paid poorly. When we make convoluted arguments and assumptions that poor people "deserve" to be poor, we are justifying a callous, careless, neglectful approach to poverty and the poor.

Teachers already understand much of this. Most of us understand that the gig does not include deciding which students deserve our assistance and compassion and instruction and support-- we are supposed to treat them all well not because of who they are, but because we are teachers, and that's how teachers are supposed to behave. The principled teacher does her best for her students-- regardless of their race, their background, their gifts, their talents, their willingness, their inclination to work, their personality-- because that's what she is supposed to do.

As BCE notes, this principled approach is hardwired into our nation, that this is a place where how we treat each new arrival is based on who we want to be as a nation, not on who you are as a person. There's absolutely no doubt that we have usually failed to fully live up to that ideal, to that principle-- but it has been the business of steering toward that principle that has helped us at best get better and at least acknowledge that some things are just not right. And sometimes, we lose sight of it entirely. These are not our best moments as a nation.

When I say that public schools are foundational to our country, that's part of what I mean-- we are an institution that is supposed to be dedicated to doing the best for each child, regardless of who that child is.

But that's been suffering a toxic erosion for a while now. The modern reform era has been all about sorting and deserving-- who are the deserving schools, who are the deserving teachers. Never mind how schools are treating and serving their students-- what outcomes can they show, what test results have they generated, that prove these schools and teachers are deserving. Obama-Duncan waiver-palooza codified that further by saying that rather than honoring a commitment to support and fund education across all fifty states because that's the kind of administration they wanted to be-- instead of that, they raised a bunch of funding for schools and said, "We are only going to give this money to the states that deserve it, and all other states will be de-served."

No child that enters my classroom should ever have to prove that he or she deserves my attention, my help, my best effort. But reformsters have, for over a decade, made the central tenet of public education not "we will serve all students without asking if the deserve it" to "at all levels, everyone must always be ready to prove what they deserve."

And now in the Trump era, it becomes even worse. Because now a simple statement such as "all human beings of all races, genders and background should be treated with love and support" is viewed as a political statement. A school in Maryland required teachers to take down the series of "we the people" posters because they were seen as anti-Trump. Because that's where we are-- stating that you value human beings of all types means that you are a political opponent of the President of the United States of America.

Use every man after his desert, and who should ’scape whipping? Use them after your own honor and dignity. (Hamlet, Act 2, Scene ii)

Shakespeare reminds us that nobody deserves anything but punishment, and therefor nobody deserves to be the one who judges and punishes. The choices we make about how to treat others reveals much about our character and the principles that drive it.

In the end, how we treat others says a lot more about us than about them. The Trump administration's treatment of its many others tells us much about the administration. The refornsters treatment of teachers and schools, as well as the kind of treatment that they have pressured us to pass down the line, all the way to the students. It is a challenge to stay focused on principle in unprincipled times, but that is, these days, the gig, just as it remains the gig to treat students (and others) well, whether they deserve it or not. Not because of who they are, but because of who we hope, strive, wish to be.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

DeVos Folds

It was pretty much zero surprise that the Trump administration chose to undo the Obama protections for transgender students (despite his vociferous campaign assertion that he would be a far better friend to LGBT folks than Clinton).

Yeah, that's a real Trump tweet.

Only a tiny bit of my soul died this week. Hardly hurts at all.

But no-- the actual surprise was that according to several published reports (because, apparently, DC leaks like a buckshot-blasted colander) Betsy DeVos balked at this move. Rescinding the protections required two departments to sign off, and DeVos reportedly did not want to do it. She expressed her concern that transgender students could be more vulnerable to harm without the rue, according to "three Republicans with direct knowledge of the internal discussions." Attorney General Jess Sessions escalated to Defcon Five. Per the New York Times:

Mr. Sessions, who has opposed expanding gay, lesbian and transgender rights, pushed Ms. DeVos to relent. After getting nowhere, he took his objections to the White House because he could not go forward without her consent. Mr. Trump sided with his attorney general, the Republicans said, and told Ms. DeVos in a meeting in the Oval Office on Tuesday that he wanted her to drop her opposition. And Ms. DeVos, faced with the alternative of resigning or defying the president, agreed to go along.

Soon after, DeVos was toeing the party line and issuing a statement that boiled down to "vulnerable students are vulnerable, and somebody really should look out for them, but it won't be the federal government."

The actual policy doesn't tell us anything about this administration that we didn't already know. But the way it happened tell us-- and perhaps DeVos-- a bit about her role in this administration.

First, I was actually a little surprised that DeVos rolled over so easily. I thought she was tougher than this. I thought she was a policy pit bull. But she is also a DC newbie. GQ has called her, more than once, a rube. Now Lord knows, when it comes to the DC political world, I am worse than a rube. But I can't help thinking this would have been a time for DeVos to read the national room and say, "Do you really want to fire a cabinet official one month in over where transgender kids can pee? Is that the story you want on Saturday Night Live this week?" Still, I'm certain that it's pretty hard to face down a US President, particularly one who is well-known for gutting enemies and holding long grudges (an approach that DeVos knows something about). Bottom line-- she had her first test, and she folded like a cheap lawn chair.

Second, while this was a protection of huge importance to trans kids and anyone who cares about them, and while this makes a huge statement about our compassion or lack thereof for vulnerable students, it was still relatively small potatoes to the Trump administration. It's not repealing Obamacare or building a wall or any of the marquee promises on which Trump built his brand. And yet he was willing to take DeVos to the wall on this.

Which raises the question-- just how much autonomy will DeVos have as Secretary? Will Trump and his boys micromanage her on every single issue? And yes, it's worth noting in this administration that along with a lack of administrative experience and management background and any time at all working in government, the other thing that Betsy DeVos lacks is a penis, which in any administration should make zero difference-- but in a Trump administration? I have to wonder if DeVos went home yesterday and sat thinking, "Why the hell did I even take this job? Have I made a huge mistake?"

Third, I told you so. And not just me. Regardless of how you feel about her actual preferred education policies, DeVos was always unqualified by her sheer lack of any experience that would have prepared to run a cabinet-level department while going head to head with other major players in the federal government.

It's possible we've been worrying too much about DeVos's beliefs and policy goals because her voice simply isn't going to matter in this administration. Maybe she'll find herself a crash course in How To Be An Effective Cabinet Secretary, or maybe she'll just sit in her office, holding a rubber stamp and waiting for Fearless Leader to tell her what policy she's supporting this week. We'll just have to wait and see if the story, or DeVos, will unfold.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Decline of Accountability

It was just a few years ago that outcomes were all the rage with the reform crowd. The problem with public schools, they said, was that we focus too much on inputs. Outfits like the Rand Corporation produced big reports on giving more weight to outputs. Or here's a paper by Mike Petrilli (Fordham Foundation) telling the state of Wisconsin how to look at those all-important outputs for quality control. The basic sales pitch for charters, repeated again and again, was that charters traded greater autonomy for greater acountability.

But there's a new breeze a-blowin', the same breeze that brought Betsy DeVos, Poppins-like, into town. As has been noted repeatedly, DeVos was never really on board with that accountability thing. Her faith is in God, the free market, rich corporate leaders, and parental choice (well, as much as the first three allow for)-- and that's all we need. In her spate of early interviews, she allowed as how there's not really any issue on which the feds need to intervene. The invisible hand will fix everything.

We don't need accountability. The only part that matters is choice. That is the output that matters.

You can see this new attitude sneaking into the reformsters themselves.

Every year the Fordham Foundation holds a wonkathon, in which they solicit policy ideas and proposals. Last year they also held a design competition in which they solicited ideas for accountability systems under ESSA (I entered that one but, shockingly, did not win). Last year's wonkathon was about looking for a choicy silver lining in the ESSA. 

This year?

This year the Fordham is looking for ideas about how to spend the Trump $20 billion in voucher money. There are three requirements that the submission must meet:

  • It promotes the expansion of parental choice in education
  • It could reasonably be included in a tax reform bill and passed via reconciliation (since, as Politico is reporting, that appears to be the vehicle the Administration and leaders in Congress will try to use)  
  • It includes the number “$20 billion” (though of course it need not start there and might not grow to there)

Notice what's not here? No accountability requirement. No component to make sure that the $20 billion is not spent on fraud or waste or Jesus school or Sharia Law academy or White Kids Only High School or a school run by some guy who knows nothing about schools except how to make money at setting up pretend ones.

I mean, I have my entry ready right now. There are (very) roughly 50 million K-12 students out there. Divide up the $20 billion and write each student a $400 check, which their parents can then choose to spend on whatever they think would be educational-- textbooks, trip to the zoo, Playstation. Get the $20 billion by cutting the defense budget.

That's $20 billion in taxpayer money, to be spent on a new set of entitlements. Why would any plan not include some means of accountability, some way for taxpayers to know that their money had not been flushed away by unaccountable schools run by unelected businesses?

Mind you, the way we've been doing accountability is terrible. The Big Standardized Tests do not provide anything remotely like a measure of student achievement or school success. But after listening to years of reformy cheerleaders say, "Yeah, you teachers hate BS Tests because you don't want to be held accountable," it seems more than a little ironic that reformsters themselves are now ready to jettison accountability as a leg of school reform. This is not a new position for me-- I've always welcomed accountability as long as it actually gives a true measure of an actual thing that matters. But it does seem like a bit of a shift for them.

Accountability matters. We'll just have to see how completely reformsters will stop caring about it now that they are sitting in the driver's seat as the new status quo.

The Lessons of Fordlandia

This week in the New York Times, Simon Romero took a fascinating visit (with photos) to one of Henry Ford's most monumental failures. It's reminder that billionaires who want to remake the world in their own preferred image are nothing new-- and their failures frequently come back to the same old lessons.

In the 1920s, Fordlandia was going to be Ford's solution to several problems. It would help break the British near-monopoly on rubber production, and it would allow Ford to set up his ideal American town. Even if it was going to be in the Amazonian forests of Brazil. It was a high aspiration, and it was doomed to failure.

Henry "History is bunk" Ford made no attempt to tap the expertise of people who knew about life in the Amazon. He dismissed the expertise of people who knew about how to cultivate and grow rubber trees. He made a series of rookie mistakes when it came to establishing his cash crop.

Ford also seriously overestimated his power to shape the lives of his workers (who were to live in made-in-Michigan bungalows). It was his growing belief that to fix the world, he would have to expand his horizons, creating not just factories, but entire cities and cultures in his image, all managed by an overseer who managed the city like a plant manager would manage a manufacturing floor.

Beyond producing rubber, Ford, an avowed teetotaler, anti-Semite and skeptic of the Jazz Age, clearly wanted life in the jungle to be more transformative. His American managers forbade consumption of alcohol, while promoting gardening, square dancing and readings of the poetry of Emerson and Longfellow.

But his workers just left town and procured alcohol anyway. And his vision of a world where workers knew their proper place and became good, compliant citizens ran into trouble as well.

Just when things appeared to be settling down in Fordlandia, violence broke out again on 20 December 1930. At the workers’ cafe, in which skilled workers were separated from manual labourers, an argument between supervisor Kaj Ostenfeld and Manuel Caetano, a brick mason working at the city, quickly escalated. Workers rallied behind Caetano, vandalising the city, destroying generators, manufacturing equipment, and even their own homes. 

Greg Grandin has written the definitive history of Fordlandia; published in 2010, the book lays out the still-important lessons of what happens when guys get rich and think their money means they can ignore the experts and bend the whole world to their vision

With a surety of purpose and incuriosity about the world that seems all too familiar, Ford deliberately rejected expert advice and set out to turn the Amazon into the Midwest of his imagination,” Mr. Grandin, the historian, wrote in his account of the the town. 

Today Fordlandia is a sparsely populated town, its factories empty, and some of its major buildings, like the hospital, long-since stripped of any valuable pieces. It lives on in a couple of pieces of music, and is sometimes cited as the template for new London in Brave New World. The city was never a success-- not as a rubber producer and not as a social experiment, and all of those failures can be traced straight to Ford's doorstep. Unwilling to heed experts and absolutely certain that he was right to inflict his vision of community on his lessers, Ford sowed the seeds of Fordlandia's collapse from Day One.

One can only hope that copies of the book find their way to men like Bill Gates and Michael Barber and Eli Broad and Betsy DeVos and all the other reformsters who have confused wealth with wisdom and believe they have the right to inflict their uninformed, unelected vision on the education world. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Free Market vs. The Poor

Some people just aren't worth the trouble and expense.

That's the underlying message that comes through repeatedly as GOP legislators across the country line up to cut the foundations out from under public education and the ACA.

Sometimes they're pretty transparent about it. Pat Toomey just compared sick people to burned out houses to make the point that it's just unfair to ask insurers to cover them when they are already, I guess, a lost cause. And in Pennsylvania, the chair of the State Senate Education Committee argued in an interview that we should stop wasting time trying to get minority inner-city kids ready for college and just put them in some vocational training.

But how can this be? I thought the free market approach would liberate everyone, provide students and families with the same choices available to the rich and so unjustly denied them in our current system?

That's the pitch we hear over and over-- the free market will liberate students from failing schools (as well as liberate health care and our pension funds).

It's a lie.

The free market (or, at any rate, the free-ish market we've occasionally enjoyed in this country) has never been about getting top quality products and services in the hands of all citizens. That's because of a simple reason-- the free market does not like poor people.

The free market has never said, "Let's find a way to get the very best product in the hands of every consumer, no matter how much they can pay for it." Instead, the free market is set to reward you with a product commensurate with the amount of money you have to offer. You get what you deserve, and what you deserve is determined by how much money you have to spend.

It is, in fact, the free market that helped us establish the unequal system that we have now. We tied school finance to real estate, and real estate is a free market world-- you get what you can afford (this free market system has occasionally been disrupted by cities that decreed that black folks could only live in certain neighborhoods e.g. Chicago). So we get a system in which poor people in poor people housing get underfunded schools, and rich folks live in rich folks housing near a rich folks school. Rich folks have choices that poor folks don't.

So, how can the free market possibly fix that?

There are two problems: 1) in a free(-ish) market, poor people get fewer choices (or none) because they cannot pay for more, better choices and 2) in a free market system (and most others as well) you cannot take choices away from rich people. I don't mean you shouldn't or it's wrong-- I mean you can't do it.

Consider abortion. If you remember the bad old days before Roe v. Wade, you know one simple thing-- it has always been possible for rich women to get safe, clean abortions. It will always be possible. No amount of law-passing will stop it from happening.

Likewise integration. Busing was going to fix inequity by sending poor kids to rich schools and rich kids to poor schools. But you can't take the choices away from rich families, who just enrolled their kids in private and charter schools. Inequity remained.

The problem remains that poor people cannot, on their own, "buy" rich schools. So the next solution is for the government to buy it for them. But so far, charter-choice systems propose to do that with the same inadequate pot of money that made poor schools so underfunded in the first place. It's like telling someone who was about to buy a used Kia, "I'll give you what you were going to spend on the Kia in a voucher, and send you right over to the Lexus dealer." Turning inadequate funding into a voucher does not make it adequate. Instead, poor folks will get the choices that the businesses choose to give them, the choices that make good business sense, not-a-Lexus sense. In the freemarket, you get the choices you can demand, and poor folks are not equipped to demand much.

No matter how you turn it, free market solutions for education will always result in inequity, with poor folks in poor schools. To give poor folks the "purchasing power" to allow them to go to better-funded, well-supported schools would require us to pump a bunch of money into the system over and above what we're spending now. You can say we're moving away from government schools-- but we're still funding everything with government money. And if we were going to pump a bunch more money into the system, why wouldn't we just use it to pump up the schools we already have? And don't forget-- if you don't make those poor schools appealing enough, rich folks will always have the option to make other choices that your government-sponsored can't match.

The free market reserves its best, most high-quality products for its most attractive, most wealthy customers. Poor folks are the least attractive customers in a free market system. There is absolutely no reason to believe that unleashing the power of the free market would lead to better schools for our poorest, our most vulnerable, our least market-attractive students. And I think on some level the acolytes of free market know that-- as someone who argues by analogy a great deal, I can't help noticing that no free market school fan has ever explained, "Of course it would work. It would be just like [insert business sector here]." There is no sector of the free market in which this trick has worked, because the free market always hates poor folks.

But I don't think leaders in this DeVosian age really care about the outcomes for students in a charter-choice system. It's not that I think they're evil and unconcerned, exactly-- but for this crowd, the free market is a Higher Moral Value in and of itself. When Betsy DeVos remakes Michigan in her preferred image, or praises Florida as a great model for the nation, she isn't concerned about how well students from across the range of backgrounds are being served by the system-- I am coming to believe that she thinks that a free market system that serves poor students poorly is better than a government managed system that erases inequity across the nation and provides each student, no matter what zip code, with a great education (not just "access") to one in their own neighborhood-- I am coming to believe that she feels that implementing the free market has a higher moral value than providing each child with an excellent school, that choice, or the illusion of it, combined with an unfettered opportunity for businesses to compete for tax dollars-- that is more important than actual education.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Barber: Let It All Burn

On Valentine's Day, Sir Michael Barber (the head education honcho at Pearson) took to the74 to offer a rather odd and ultimately confused metaphor for education reform by walking us through the story of St. Paul's Cathedral. It's the test from his speech at the 2016 Global Google Education Symposium. Yikes.

The problem, he asserts, began with the construction of the original St. Paul's, a classic Gothic construction whose spire had been shattered by a lightning strike in the 1560s, a mess that was never repaired. A century later, royal surveyors recommended patch and repair, but fortunately, just a few years later, the Great Fire of London leveled the city, St. Paul's included. Christopher Wren got to build a new cathedral.

Does this historic example of disaster-based opportunity remind you of Katrina-socked New Orleans? Well, it does Barber. And it represents for him a choice that he will repeat throughout the piece--- patch and mend, or transformation?

He proceeds with a litany of ills-- blacks men sent to prison, poor students not admitted to Oxford, Greece's huge levels of youth unemployment, illiterate Ugandan teachers, jobs at risk for automation.

Patch and mend, or transformation?

He's talking now about the education system. And he will now call out the reasons he think transformation isn't happening.

Cost-- it's easy to let short term concerns "override long-term aspirations." Kind of like poor people could save money over time by buying a Tesla with the $80,000 they don't have.

Entrenched status quovians-- Oh, those damn teachers' unions. They advocate for crazy things like smaller classes. Barber also accuses us of advocating for less accountability, which is simply a lie.

Psychological barrier-- This is clever. The many botched ed reforms of the past are not to blame for, you know, failing, but rather their failure has created a psychological resistance. Sort of like your psychological resistance to having your hair permed by a six year old, or your psychological resistance to taking your car back to the mechanic who botched your car repairs the last ten times you gave him a chance.

Barber then presents his chart of "false dichotomies" as part of the psychological barrier problem.

His point here is that we can actually have both/and of each of these.  Some of these are straw men-- has anybody ever said that we have to choose between best practices and innovation? Others are just glossing over some serious questions, like universal standards vs. personalization. And all of them skip over the question of the content of the ideas considered-- it's not a strategy vs. implementation issue if the strategy is junk to begin with and no implementation in the world will de-junkify it

Lack of imagination-- "We cannot build what we cannot imagine" is a facile observation, and not really applicable here. First, Wren's imagination was firmly rooted in a deep and thorough understanding of architecture and building. He did not imagine a cathedral floating on clouds, or with a roof unsupported by functional structure. Second, we're not talking about building a big stone structure; we're talking about an organization grounded in a complex web of human relationships. I can imagine that Angelina Jolie will fall madly in love with me the moment she sees me. I can imagine that I can staff a factory with a thousand obedient, compliant, happy meat widgets who will put loyalty to the corporation ahead of their own concerns. But imagination does not make it so.

But Barber believes that some systems and system leaders have made it happen, including Paul Pastorak and Paul Vallas in New Orleans, which is a bit of a stretch. Tony Blain and Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore) get nods as well. He allows as none is perfect, but all have "dramatically improved student outcomes within three to five years," a claim that is only true insofar as those "leaders" were able to swap out bad test taking students for meat widgets that did better on bubble tests.

Barber is attached to the romantic vision of the Hero CEO, the "courageous leader" who can transform an entire system, using the transformative elements of deliverology,a management consultant cathedral of bunk.

Barber wants to spend the rest of his life transforming the living daylights out of education, comparing that goal to Wren's forty-year work on the Cathedral. He wants to get transforming right away, and the big finish of his speech is a question--

Why do we have to wait for the fire?

So, I guess, step one is to burn it all down now. Disaster capitalism should never have to wait for a disaster to present itself.

But here's the really curious thing about Barber's speech. I have saved the first for last.

Barber opens this speech by introducing St. Paul's Cathedral via the famous WWII photo showing its dome rising above the rubble of a shell-shocked London.

This was the view my mother saw each morning as she crossed Southwark Bridge on her walk to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, where she was training to be a doctor. She found the sight of St. Paul’s rising majestically above the city very inspiring. Millions of Londoners felt the same way. St. Paul’s was still standing. Britain had endured.

So there was never a question about transforming this St. Paul's, never an issue of wanting to destroy it and replace it, in fact a celebration and gratitude that it survived the fire, held on through the disaster, and stayed standing. Barber's mother never encountered someone staring at the dome while waiting for the fire to come and ruin it so that replacement was the only option.

The monument that Barber seeks to honor maintains its status as an important monument precisely because the fire didn't take it, and nobody wanted it to, not even the madman in Europe whose imagination, whose vision was of a London completely destroyed-- even St. Paul's cathedral.

Barber answered his own question before he even asked it. Not all visions are worth pursuing, not all systems are waiting for the fire, and not everyone who wants to watch the world burn deserves the power to bring their imagination to life.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Toomey Doesn't Get It

Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey's office was one that was bombarded with phone calls, faxes, texts, tweets, emails, and messages strapped to the backs of delivery hamsters during the run up to the Betsy DeVos confirmation. At one point he was targeted as one of the GOP senators who might change his mind, which struck me as odd because I've met Toomey and heard him talk about school choice and I don't think he'll be abandoning that drum any time soon. That's okay-- it couldn't have hurt for him (or at least some member of his staff) to hear from actual constituents.

That may be why Toomey (or at least some member of his staff) took the time to write a Betsy DeVos mash note that appeared at PennLive this week. It doesn't make his support of DeVos any more palatable, but it does at least show in brief, painful detail why Toomey is not a supporter of public education.

Toomey opens with what is one of my least favorite pro-charter-choice lines:

No child should be forced to stay in a failing school.

Can anybody, anywhere, find me the person who wants to force a child to stay in a failing school? Nobody anywhere disagrees with this statement. There's considerable disagreement about the definition of a failing school, but let's let that slide for a moment and accept that pretty much everyone believes that there are some schools failing to get the job done. The disagreement starts immediately after that period at the end of this statement.

For modern charter-choice advocates, the next sentence is "That's why we're going to allow maybe five percent of those students to leave that school for some other school that may or may not be any better, and we're going to provide less funding for the school to try to help the remaining 95%."

That is not a solution.

No, the next sentence ought to be, "That's why we're going to marshal the resources, the finances, the support, and the same exercise will that this country brings to other major efforts, to improving that school so that every child within its walls is getting the very best education." The next sentence ought to be about making all schools better for all students.

That's never the next sentence. And it's not the next sentence here, either.

Toomey says that Betsy DeVos wants poor children to have the same kinds of choices that rich and middle class students have, and if you think that means she's a big fan of improved housing in urban areas, well, no. She means something more like her Detroit schools, where students who are forcibly "liberated" from their neighborhood schools are presented with an assortment of upscale schools that will not admit them.

Toomey (or one the members of his staff) works in all the reformy wiggle-words. Thanks to DeVos's hard work and use of her personal fortune, thousands of those poor "trapped" students "have been able to access a quality education." Oh, that word "access." Everyone on the Titanic had "access" to a lifeboat; just not everybody actually got to an actual seat.

"DeVos refuses to give up on any child," says Toomey, which makes me wonder how many children she has actually met. To read Toomey's Hymn to Betsy, you would think that she has been using her billion-dollar personal fortune to pay private school and college tuition for thousands of Michigan children instead of spending millions and millions of dollars to swing elections and earn the well-purchased loyalty of politicians.

Toomey also touts the success of Detroit charters, which are okay schools as long as you don't compare them to schools anywhere else in the country. Detroit public schools are a mess. Detroit charter schools are a mess. Michigan's school system is a mess, one of the failingest in the country. DeVos owns some of that mess, but she has yet to acknowledge it, has actively opposed regulating it, and told the Senate HELP committee that she could not think of any lesson she had learned from any of it.

But Toomey is not interested in exploring any of that because here's what he knows:

School choice works. 

You might expect that such a bold assertion might be followed with evidence. You would be wrong. Toomey follows up with anecdotes. A family that scrimped and saved and sent kids to private schools. And his own story-- the fortunate 8th grader who won a philanthropist's scholarship to a top Catholic school. Toomey and DeVos want a world in which all students can have that good luck, without it being luck. And yet, DeVos's work in Michigan has been all about solidifying the divide between what the rich and the poor can have for an education.

Toomey (or some member of his staff) will continue to run the usual talking points here.

Critics assert that DeVos has no experience in public education, even though she has spent decades aiding charter schools--which are public schools. 

She has spent decades as a high-powered lobbyist, which is "aiding" only if you think the most important part of operating a charter school is the getting money without oversight part. And no, Pat-- charter schools are not public schools.

Or they call Betsy DeVos "unqualified" because she is not proficient in D.C. jargon and does not fit the mold of previous Education Secretaries.

Nope. They call her unqualified because she is unqualified. Even in this piece, Toomey cannot list any qualifications for her other than her concern, her lobbying experience, and her money.

But where have these previous Education Secretaries left us? 

It's true. We've had a string of education secretaries who were also spectacularly unqualified and who did a lousy job. Toomey stops just short of declaring, "So what we need is someone with even fewer qualifications than John King or Arne Duncan!"

What Toomey does want to do is trot out the old "We've been spending more and more money on education and yet our standardized test scores haven't gone up," He's going to go deep twisty spin on this point, by listing points like "Our SAT scores were really low in 2012" or "according to NAEP some big number of students aren't ready for college.' Both of these stats are baloney, the kind of thing you cherry pick when you want to buttress a bad point, not when you're really trying to understand what's going on. (Pro tip: SAT averages depend on who's taking the test, and NAEP scores are highly suspect as predictors of success).

Toomey finishes up by saying that sure there are many swell public schools and they have nothing to fear from choice, and also, the money should follow the child.

"Money should follow the child" is wrong in many ways, but it signals that Toomey, like DeVos, would like to go full voucher. (Pro tip: parents are not the only stakeholders in public education. See also: separation of church and state).

It's also wrong because it signals that Toomey would like to run multiple parallel school systems for the same money we currently spend on one system. That is simply impossible. I'd respect Toomey and other choice advocates a bit more if they just said so-- "We really believe in choice, and to make it work we'll have to raise school taxes, but we think it will really be worth it." Oddly enough, they never say that.

As I mentioned, I met Toomey once at a local meet-and-greet with voters. He seems like a nice guy, was sweet with his kids, and looks far less scowly-librarian than all of his official photos. But he's not a friend of public education, at all. He's also a member of the new "I'd rather not meet my constituents face to face in a real town hall" club, so if you want to explain a few things to him, you'll have to stick with phone calls, faxes, emails, tweets, and the occasional hamstergram. Good luck to all of us in Pennsylvania.

ICYMI: Extra Homework Edition (2/19)

It's a big list this week. As always, remember to share, pass on, and amplify what speaks to you and provide that writer with a wider audience. 

Betsy DeVos Broke the Ed Reform Coalition-- For Now

Daniel Katz with a good historical overview of how we ended up where we are in the ed debates, and what a DeVos ed department means to reformsters.

Stop Learning To Read

From Blue Cereal Education, a reflection on the innate stupidity of certain Lear To Read Or Else policies.

Massachusetts Students Are Increasingly Diverse, but Their Teacher Are Not

Remember when just everyone was concerned about this issue for about five minutes? Here's a reminder from the Boston Globe that it has not gone away, with some actual facts and some acknowledgement that bashing teachers (as the Globe often does) is not helpful.

Detroit Parents Steered To Better Schools That Don't Actually Take Detroit Kids

Detroit continues to be on the forefront of screwing over poor children and their families. Here's how the whole "Once we close your school, you can go to a better one" plan actually works.

They Ruined It

Teacher Tom in Seattle, on the vagueries of playground design.

How I Was Schooled at The NAACP Charter Hearings

Karen Wolfe went to one of the NAACP hearings on charter schools. What she hears, said, and learned there.

DeVos's Stumbles at the Start Are Nothing To Laugh About

Jeff Bryant looks at Betsy DeVos's initial blunders and reminds us that we have no reason to just sit back and laugh

Investigation: Charter school leaders, founders linked to controversial Turkish cleric

This piece looks at New Jersey, but it's a good explanation of how the Turkish-linked Gulen schools, and why they remain one of the very worst abuses of charter school laws in the US

5 Ways Teachers Are Fighting Fake News

There are plenty of these "fake news" stories for classroom teachers, with plenty of minilessons and tips. This is just one.

Online Charter Legislation for This Year

A look at what's up in some states this year as far as regulating the failing cyber charter industry. Plus, a handy chart showing just how much money one of the major players is spending to lobby in state legislatures.

Saturday, February 18, 2017


This work is Romantic because the author used lots of Romantic ideas, and the characters behave in a Romantic way that captures just how very extremely Romantic the work really is. The author has really infused Romanticism into the whole writing in a way that makes in undeniably Romantic.

Welcome to my world. While this is not a direct quote of an actual student essay, it's of a type that English teachers often see. Call it support via assertion, or argument by modifiers (the more adjectives and adverbs you throw in, the more absolutely very clearly definitively true your argument is).

It is one of the few things that the Common Core actually gets right-- if you are going to make a case for a point, you need to provide evidence.

Evidence can take many forms, but it needs to be specific. It needs to be true.

Repetition is not evidence. Here's another archetypical essay paragraph.

Good parents need to be patient, because you need patience to be a good parent. A good parent is able to be patient. If you can't be patient, then you will not be a good parent. Every day, good parents must display patience, because if you are not patient, you cannot be a good parent.

It's hard to say exactly where students pick up the technique of un-supported ideas. Certainly we can reinforce it in school without meaning to. Tests where the student just has to mention a key idea or fact without backing it up help 0push the notion that we just want you to say the right thing. And of course our young humans come with plenty of pre-packaged ideas from home-- it must be true because it's what I learned from my folks, what do you mean I have to back it up with something.

And of course, it is tried and true in our culture that evidence is not really necessary. Yes, I can make the easy point that our current President and his administration are huge on the whole Just Repeat It Till People Believe It approach. Biggest inauguration crowd ever. Huge margin of victory. Millions of illegal voters. Urban hell holes. Just keep saying it and insisting that anyone who contradicts you is a liar, a faker, a Bad Person, even as you offer not one shred of evidence of the truth of what you say.

Yes, I could point at Herr Trump and say, "See! Our President does it. How am I supposed to teach children to do better, to use evidence?" But that would be the low-hanging fruit, and it would treat us all to the soothing notion that Trump somehow emerged out of the ether, full-blown flush with his lies and his fact-free anti-evidence zone.

But that would be going to easy on our culture. It's no coincidence that the Trumpistan flag was first planted on television, where citizens are bombarded with a constant stream of thirty-second playlets built on spin, deception, half-truths, and plain old bullshit. We soak in lies all the time, soak in them so that we can be softened up to be happy consumers of things we don't need that offer magic that doesn't work in order to solve problems that we don't have. We watch longer dramas that tell us lies about how people think, how the world works, what makes human beings click and work and become their best.

Where in our culture would students find examples of the notion that an idea should be grounded in truth, built out of evidence, supported by substance. What do we have in our culture that works that way?

The best I can do is present the practical notion that you have to do some sort of work in order to convince people to agree with you. The idea of pursuing the truth as a value in and of itself is a far bridge indeed. Evidence? That's a hard sell. We can all do better.

Friday, February 17, 2017

PA Senate Ed Chair Wants To Trash Education

John Eichelberger has been a Pennsylvania state senator for over a decade, and during those years, he has been no friend to public schools or the teachers who work in them.

Seriously-- this is District 30.

Eichelberger is a Republican upstart who was swept into office on the wave of voter anger over the infamous late-night pay raise of 2005. He was supported by an assortment of conservatives including Pat Toomey. He had previously worked in the insurance biz and as a Blair County Commissioner.He represents Pennsylvania Senate District 30, just one of the many completely gerrymandered districts in Pennsylvania.

In 2011, when Betsy and Richard DeVos were looking to finance a push for vouchers in Pennsylvania, Eichelberger was just the man to take point. Taking point included pushing the narrative that Pennsylvania's schools were a terrible, failing mess. (It's also worth noting that the DeVos push for vouchers included allies who were explicitly in favor of shutting down "government schools" entirely.)

When it comes to the pension problems of Pennsylvania, Eichelberger has argued for fixed contribution pensions-- you get a fixed amount of money chipped in and go play the market with your retirement fund. Good luck to you.

And most recently, Eichelberger has surfaced as the sponsor of the SB 229, a bill recycled from previous sessions and aimed at making sick days a locally-negotiated part of teacher contracts. In other words, putting them on the table as one more thing that can be stripped from a contract. He's also the legislator behind SB 166, the bill that would end paycheck deductions for paying union dues. Is he one of those backseat grandstanding hacks whose bills have no chance of success. Well, no. He's the chairman of the Education Committee.

Some pretty feisty language has been thrown around in response to Eichelberger's bill. Are we perhaps misjudging Eichelberger? Is he actually a friend of education who means well? Does he sincerely think he's looking out for teachers' and students' best interests?

Well, no, it doesn't look like it.

Yesterday Zack Hoopes at The Sentinel reported on a town hall meeting in which Eichelberger made it clear that he would like to stick it to teachers, with fire and barbecue sauce.

This guy. This frickin' guy.

One critic noted that the sick day policy seemed like a tax on employees, not something that would actually help students. Eichelberger doesn't much care. He wants to penalize teachers and union members because they're taking advantage of the system.

So what about that payroll deduction bill? Did Eichelberger have any elegant explanation of why that bill was necessary? Not according to Hoopes.

In response to a question, Eichelberger described SB 166 as “a lead-in to Right to Work,” meaning legislation mandating that employees be allowed to opt out of union membership while still receiving union benefits, obviating the existence of unions themselves.

And when discussing the sick leave bill, Eichelberger at first stuck to the script. School boards asked for this. It gives them more flexibility in negotiating (aka one more thing they can use to leverage giving teachers less and less). But later in the evening, he described the purpose a little more honestly.

But later in Monday’s meeting, Eichelberger indicated that his interest was not in easier bargaining, but in taking away benefits he didn’t feel teachers deserved.

“We’re talking about sick days for people who only work 8½ months. It’s ridiculous,” Eichelberger said, a comment that received an audible, collective groan from audience members.

Yes, if teachers really cared about their work, they would schedule illnesses for themselves and their families during the summer. Because what every parent wants is for their child to be greeted by a coughing, sneezing, germ-laden teacher who can't take the day off.

Eichelberger also revealed that he would like to look at getting rid of some state universities, with Clarion and Cheney likely targets for "the chopping block." Why does he think they are unnecessary? Because now we have lots of community colleges, and those should be good enough. Besides, enrollments down. When asked if he saw any correlation between lowered enrollment, slashed state support for the university system, and increased tuition to make up the difference, he said no, that didn't look like a meaningful connection to him.

Oh, but it gets even better,

Eichelberger also took the occasion to complain about "inner city" education programs that were trying to get minority students into colleges where they just failed anyway, so let's just put them in a nice vocational program instead and be done with it. Yes, that's right. In 2017 an elected state senator is suggesting that there's no point in trying to get black and brown kids to succeed in college, because you know how Those People are.

Like all good reformsters, Eichelberger also wants to effectively destroy tenure and allow school districts to get rid of teachers for purely economic reasons. You know, when schools don't have the revenue any more, just shut them down because it's "a sound business decision." One audience member disagreed:

The mentality is that we need to save money regardless of student demand. It seems like you’re just coming up with new reasons for districts to eliminate positions without taking students into account.

It surely did. And he wasn't done. He also wanted to stump for the new bill ending property tax in Pennsylvania, shifting the burden of school finances from property owners, including and especially business owners, to consumers. Rich folks get a tax break, corporations get a huge tax break, and poor folks get hammered. Seems perfectly fair, and like it will work really, really well and not, say, leave school districts with collapsing financial support.

Did I mention that this guy is now the chair of the senate Education Committee? Start calling your representatives-- the fight for education in Pennsylvania is only going to get worse.

PA: How Much Does Your District Pay in Charter Costs

An extremely handy spread sheet has been circulating lately, and if nothing else, I want to put a link here so that I can more easily find it. If you're in Pennsylvania, you'll want to look at this, too.

Yes, 502 districts is a lot.

The document covers every school year from 2009-2010 through 2014-2015 for every single one of our 502 pubic school districts (yes, that is a high number, but that's another conversation).  It shows how much money left the district to go to charters, broken down by nonspecial education students and special education students (the pay rate is different). I recommend that you browse on your own, but let me hit just a couple of points.

First of all, a bunch of my civilian friends looked at this and said, "How can our district be paying that much in charter costs when we don't have any charter schools here?" The answer is that all Pennsylvania students have access to cyber-charters. Not everybody gets that a cyber school is just another kind of charter-- a highly profitable one in Pennsylvania, where the pay rate for the charter has noting to do with the actual charter costs. Put another way, your district pays the same to send a child to a bricks-and-mortar charter with a real building and heat and light and live teachers in classrooms as it spends to send a child to a cyber school with a computer, an internet hookup, and remote teachers who handle hundreds of students at once.

You can use the data to see how PA charter costs have mushroomed. In 2009-2010, the total charter tuition bill was $805,621,738.88 (I'm dying to know what the 88 cents bought). But five years later, state school districts were shelling out a grand total of $1,486,434,770.88. The 88 cents, at least, hadn't budged.

Where you find districts in financial trouble, you find huge charter payments. This is a sort of chicken-egg death spiral. A district is financially strapped, so charters move in and students move out, taking a bunch of money with them, so that the district is even more strapped and has to cut more services and programs, which makes more students want to leave, which creates more financial strain. I know this contradicts the fairy tale that districts facing charter competition would pull up their bootstraps and get better better better, but it turns out that even bootstraps cost money.

So there's Erie City Schools, a school district so strapped that they seriously considered closing all their high schools, forking over $20 million to charters. Allentown is losing $26 million. And York School District, threatened with complete takeover, lost $22 million. And nobody beats Philadelphia, where the school district handed over $715 million dollars to charter operators.

Meanwhile, well-heeled districts like Mount Lebanon were only losing $381,424.77 to charter operators.

There's a lot of useful local data to be dug out of this spreadsheet built out of PA Department of Education data. Use it to enliven the conversation with people who don't understand the fuss about charters, or those other people who are certain that the local district is in financial trouble because the money's being wasted by administration.

And if you're wondering what keeps all this money flowing, check out this piece about charter lobbying at EdWeek, noting specifically this chart. Hooray, Pennsylvania! We're number one!!:

DeVos: No Real Role for Feds

At Axios (the new "media company" from two former Politico honchos), Johnathan Swan (formerly of The Hill) has a quick moment with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. She uses the opportunity for a bit of a do-over on her confirmation hearing, but it's her thoughts on the federal role in education that are most striking.

Among the things that "Betsy DeVos wishes she had said at her confirmation hearing"

* She would have come up with a better illustration than a grizzly bear. "It was a valid illustration<' she says. But it probably "wasn't the best illustration I could have given."

* Everybody should have to follow the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Totally. She has "so much compassion for families that have to avail themselves of that law."

* She's apparently okay with her none-answers on equal accountability for all schools that receive federal funding, because that's a concept "with which she'll never agree."

Some other nuggets from the interview include her surprise at getting the call (actually an e-mail from someone with whom she's "worked for a number of years."-- my money is still on Mike Pence). Trump got her excited about the job. She'll consider the department successful if they can get ESSA successfully implemented. She looks to "slim down the department."

What changes does she expect in her tenure? No surprise here-- more charter schools, more private schools, more virtual schools, more schools of "any kind that haven't been invented yet." Left unsaid but clearly implied-- fewer public schools.

The big question comes in big bold letters:

In her ideal world, the federal government has any a role in education?

The answer gets even bigger bolder print, because somebody understands that it's key:

It would be fine with me to have myself worked out of a job, but I'm not sure that — I'm not sure that there will be a champion movement in Congress to do that.

The elaboration is where it gets interesting-- She sees that the feds have had a useful role at certain "important inflection points" in the past, like "when we had segregated schools and when we had a time when, you know, girls weren't allowed to have the same kind of sports teams."  But then the question-- "are there any remaining issues like that where the federal government should intervene?"

I can't think of any now.

So there you have it. Racial and gender bias are completely under control, totally solved, no longer need any sort of federal oversight. There are no states or districts that are trying to maintain any sort of systemic inequity. Nothing to see here. Go home.

In another interview published yesterday at Townhall, she does allow for a slightly more expansive view of federal responsibility. Sort of.

I do think there are some federal roles around ensuring children with special needs and then the anti-discrimination issues at the level they were originally intended. Those are areas in which I think there is a federal role, but I also think there is an opportunity to streamline and simplify a lot of the engagement and involvement the department has had around some of these issues, issues that have continued to mushroom and grow well beyond the core focus of those two important functions and protections.

This is, of course, in keeping with the philosophy that says we no longer need to enforce the Voting Rights Act because all racism has been removed from the management of elections. We don't need affirmative action because that's all fixed, too. I suppose that we can be grateful that DeVos did not suggest there's a federal role for the department in protecting the white boys who are America's new most-oppressed minority.

It is hard to know if she is being disingenuous or off in the billionaire's bubble, all issues of race and gender seem fixed. Either way, this is a clear signal to states that want to pursue policies that allow them to (continue to) underfund schools for Those People will not get any interference from the feds.

Go read the whole piece. Much of it is not news-- we knew DeVos was intent on replacing public school with privatized education, and that she would be happy to see the department go away on her watch. The idea that there are no pressing issues requiring federal oversight  is a new expression of an old DeVosian idea-- there's no need for any sort of accountability in education, leas of all on the federal level. One more sign that things are going to get ugly and advocates of public education, equity, and civil rights had better get activated and organized on the state level.

IOWA: Gutting Unions

The Iowa House and Senate have voted to gut the public service unions of their state.

Under the new bill, Iowa's public service unions (that, of course, includes teachers) may not negotiate anything but wages. Health care, evaluation procedures, and other language items may not be part of contract negotiations. And should those wage negotiations stall, the arbitrator must consider management's ability to pay and may not raise wages beyond either a 3% cap or the cost of living index-- whichever is lower. Which means, of course, that local school boards and other management groups don't actually have to negotiate at all.

The bill also kills the automatic deduction for union dues and requires the union to be recertified before every new contract negotiation.

In short, this bill is aimed directly at busting unions in the state.

The bill was supported only by the GOP (a handful of GOP reps defected to vote against it), and it appeared magically from behind closed doors, like Venus rising from a lily pad, just ten days ago. GOP lawmakers didn't run on a promise to bust unions, there were no big public demonstrations or even spirited calls from friendly astro-turf groups. The GOP won't even identify supporters or sponsors of the bill. The GOP just decided to bust them some unions. Opponents have asserted that this is an ALEC bill, and the whole process certainly smells like ALEC at work, but truthfully, at this point there's no smoking gun-- just assertions. Still, if it walks like an ALEC fat cat, and talks like an ALEC fat cat, it's hard not to conclude it's another ALEC fat cat.

The justifications have been spectacularly lame:

“This bill, I believe heart and soul, is a win for all Iowans and the delivery of a promise from Republicans that we would reform governments to make it more efficient for the people for Iowa,” said Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison and the bill’s floor manager in the House. “Smaller, smarter, innovative government is in this bill.”

Nope. As opponents (like the editorial board at the Des Moines Register) have noted, this will drive down wages, create economic damage especially in rural areas, and expand government bureaucracy. In addition, as laid out in this report from the Iowa Policy Project, it will increase income inequality while eroding pay in the private sector. Most notably, it will make it that much harder for Iowa to convince teachers and health care workers to pursue a career in a state whose legislature is openly hostile to them.

So what's the upside of this for GOP legislators? Not this bullshit that Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix is slinging about:

For years we have been working for fiscal responsibility and pushing for more local control. This bill does that exactly. ... It empowers local school boards. It empowers local officials. It will increase efficiency and innovation at every level of government, giving the taxpayers better services at a lower cost.

Nope. It makes public services cheaper by stiffing the people who provide them, and then reduces the quality of those services by insuring that it will be harder to fill the professions that provide them.

This is not a problem for rich folks, who can always get the best service by simply paying for it out of pocket. But it does keep them from having to shell out good tax dollars to help Those People. Goodness! If they wanted better education, health care, and wages, Those People should have thought of that before they decided to be poor.

Union busting isn't just about destroying the union's ability to stand up for working people. It's also about busting their ability to be a source of money and support for the Democratic Party. As we've seen in many states (and may yet see at the federal level), if you want to establish one party GOP rule, you have to kick out any of the legs on which the Democratic Party stands.

When the bill passed, the gallery was full of Iowans yelling, "Shame," at their legislators, but apparently shame is something that Iowa's GOP is beyond. Sure, all of Iowa may suffer for it, but at least the GOP will hold onto power, so if some rural kids can't get the best health care or education, well, that's a small price to know that guys like Bill Dix can have a cushy job for life, protecting the fat cats of Iowa.

In the meantime, condolences to the teachers of Iowa. So sorry your state Republicans decided to screw you over.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Performance Pay Bombs Across the Pond

I don't know if this will make you feel better or make you feel worse, but our nation is not the only one caught in the throes of bad education reform.

The UK has a performance pay system in which teachers get an increase of pay based on their job performance. Well, if there's money to pay for a raise. Well, if the raise is within the cap of 1% (aka "not enough to keep up with inflation").

The UK put this system in place four years ago, incorporating many reformy favorites wrapped in a thick helping of baloney. Said education secretary, Michael Gove:

"I am clear that these changes will give schools greater freedom to develop pay policies that are tailored to their school's needs and circumstances and to reward their teachers in line with their performance." There was, he added, "further work to be done" in deciding the best way to implement the recommendations.

Other supporters laud the system's "flexibility," which as usual appears to mean "the freedom to avoid paying teachers very much money."

Recently a joint survey of 13,000 teachers by the National Union of Teachers and Association of Teachers and Lecturers has suggested that mostly the system just beats teachers down. The UK includes its fair share of members of the Cult of Testing (after all, we're talking about the home of Pearson), but the system also seems to include a healthy slice of bias-- your school's "head teacher" can give you a raise based on whatever they feel like basing it on. It could be worse-- Catholic schools in the UK will also judge their teachers on their spiritual performance. Yikes.

In 2016, according to the survey, one in five teachers received no raise (the Brits actually call it a rise). The system has created a great emphasis on more time-wasting paperwork (because you can't get your raise without a multi-page hoop to jump through). And lots of folks can't get a raise because they have topped out on the scale (I feel you, British teacher brethren and sistern).

As is the case here in the colonies, there is no evidence that this approach actually brings a better education to students in the classroom. There's no reason to believe that teachers are actually holding back their best efforts, just waiting to be bribed sufficiently to wake up and actually try to teach. Nor has there been any attempt to address the Really God District performance pay problem-- if every teacher in my school is really, really good, does somebody go out and collect more money from the taxpayers, or do those great teachers just get a smaller slice of a zero-sum fixed-capacity pie? And if so, doesn't that mean that I have to root for the failure of my teaching colleague, because their success will diminish my performance pay? And wouldn't that the number of excellent teachers I find in my school has less to do with how many teachers are great and more to do with how much money I have available for rewarding those teachers ("Budget's tight this year, so we can only afford for one of you to be great!").

Nor is there any reason to believe that performance pay makes a positive difference where it matters-- in the classroom. Do teachers really think, "Well, I was going to just nap through my job, but since I might get a 1% raise out of this, I guess I'll really try hard."

The teachers in the survey and a UK union leader didn't think so:

Mary Bousted, who leads the ATL, warned that school leaders and teachers are “having to spend far too much valuable teaching and learning time on paperwork and admin to decide pay awards”.

“Performance related pay is threatening collegiate working in schools, demoralising teachers who feel they have been unfairly treated and undermining the valuable contribution that performance appraisal can, and should, make to improving teaching – and pupils will lose out as a result.”

In fact, the UK system is not so much about rewarding excellence as it is about having a system that denies raises. Having a default that nobody gets a raise unless the Right Person decides you need a (very small) one-- well, that certainly can't be helping with the UK's growing teacher shortage crisis. Certainly it's not a legitimate free market approach ("When you can't purchase goods or service for a particular price, then you should just.... refuse to budge?")

Performance pay doesn't work. Never has, most likely never will. And that turns out to be true no matter what country you're in.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

I Am Not Hostile To Change

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos spoke today to a gathering of Magnet School folks, and opened up by suggesting that "some people" are "hostile" to change.

I just want to be clear. I am not hostile to change. In fact, there are some changes that I would love to see.

I would love to see a change in the rhetoric about failing schools. Instead of declaring that we will "rescue" students from failing schools and offering lifeboats for a handful of students, I'd like to change to a declaration that where we find struggling and failing schools, we will get them the support and resources that they need to become great.

I would love to see a change in how we approach the communities where those schools are located. Instead of pushing local leaders aside so that outsiders who "know what's best" for them can swoop in and impose decisions for them instead of letting them have control of their own community.

I would love to see a change in how teachers are treated. Instead of trying to bust their unions, smother their pay, ignore their voices , and treat them as easily-replaced widgets, I would like to see teacher voices elevated, listened to, respected, and given the support and resources that would lift them up. I would like to see them treated as part of the solution instead of the source of all problems.

I would love to see a change in how we discuss race and poverty, treating them as neither destiny nor unimportant nothings.

I would love to see a change in how we treat public education. I would love to see public education treated like a sacred trust and not a business opportunity. I would love to see us pursue a promise to educate all children-- not just the few that we deem worthy or profitable or best reached by a sensible business plan. Every child.

I would love to see a change in the status quo. Because at this point, the status quo is a public education system that is being smothered and dismantled by people who lack expertise in education and belief in the promise of public education. The education "establishment" has been pushed out and replaced by well-meaning amateurs, profiteers, scam artists, and people who have no desire to maintain the institution that has been the foundation of a robust and vibrant democracy. Reformsters are the status quo, and that is a status quo I would love to change, because they have had their shot, and all of their promises have proven to be at best empty and at worst toxic.

I would love to see us change from test-centered schools, data-centered schools, and revenue-centered schools to schools that are student-centered, that steer by the children at their center.

And all of that is because I welcome the change that I have always welcomed, built for, worked for-- which is the change of young humans into grown, fully-realized, awesome, grown, valuable, living, breathing, completely individual and fully capable adults, the change of each child from an unsure rough draft into the version of their own best self.

No, Secretary. I am not hostile to change at all. I embrace it, welcome it, hope for it and work for it every day. There are many of us out here, and if you imagine we are hostile to change, that is one more thing about public education that you do not understand.

The Proper Use of Mockery

Jimmie Fallon has done it again, and not, I'm afraid, in a good way.

Fallon has now twice included a Betsy DeVos sketch. His show's version of DeVos is bumbling and clueless, the kind of hapless twit who says, in response to questions about her fitness for the job, replies "I am totally got this."

As regular readers of this blog are well aware, I am not above or beyond mockery of certain subjects (I still kind of miss Arne Duncan). I believe that some well-aimed mockery, some pointed satire, can be just the thing for dealing with difficult individuals, offices, or policies.

But mockery, improperly done, can be dangerous.The dangers are twofold.

First, mockery of little piddly things can take our eyes off the ball. the big, ugly, spikey, dangerous ball that we're not paying attention because we're making fun of someone for tying her shoes badly.

The Trump regime has provided more than ample examples. Quick-- name all the bad policies that came closer to fruition while we were making fun of the Trumpinator's insistence that his crowd was the biggest of them all.

Mind you, little things can matter. I've burned up a lot of internet on little things, because little things are often the key details that tell you what someone really thinks, what they really see, what they're really up to. I have parsed the living daylights out of single sentences because words matter and the ones that people choose matter. But attention to detail is only useful when it helps us see the big picture-- not when it takes our mind off the big picture. For instance, did the fumbling of historic/historical tell us anything important about DeVos (or one of her aides)? I don't think so, nor do I think it was mistake that revealed some unusual confusion; it's a mistake that lots of folks make.

The repeated mistakes with spelling and usage constitute a pattern, showing a carelessness about details or exactitude that is not encouraging. But I'd rather pay close attention to what she has in mind for education policy in this country.

Second, and more importantly, misplaced mockery can make the dangerous seem safe.

This is my complaint about the Fallon DeVos-- she's so hilariously incompetent, unable to form sentences or express an intelligent thought, stupid about the ways of math and words. This mockery can be anchored in her fumbled tweets and her lackluster hearing appearance, but it puts a soft fuzzy gloss on the damage she did to Michigan.

Melissa McCarthy's Sean Spicer is a good piece of mockery because, like the Baldwin version of Trump, it bares the ridiculous qualities of its target without ignoring the aggressive, sharp edges. Baldwin's Trump and McCarthy's Spicer are fools, but they are not harmless.

Fallon's DeVos, and SNL's too, though to a lesser extent, is silly and ignorant, but none of her real power for harm makes it into the portrayal. There's no hint of the billionaire heiress who has run roughshod over the Michigan GOP, who has made elected officials fold out of fear of her opposition, who has taken the position that the public schools of Detroit should just be closed (Damn the poor black kids, full steam ahead).

And really-- we already know better. Fallon and SNL both gave Trump airtime in which he could be presented as a clown, but a harmless one. Pre-election night mockery of Trump focused almost exclusively on his most ridiculous qualities in a message that was one part "Isn't he silly" and one part "There's nothing to fear here." Fallon's patting of Trump's famous hair is like a policeman going before a group of school children to stick his head in a stuffed bear's mouth and say, "See how funny this is? I bet you could do the same thing with a real one."

So as much as I love some mockery, I can't really get excited about or amused by mockery that ignores the real claws and teeth of the bear. Sure, DeVos has earned some mockery from defenders of public education, but it really serves her purposes to be portrayed as a bumbling dope who is so clueless she must be harmless. She is not harmless, and seeing that message put out there is not harmless, either.

FL: Merit Pay (Still) Doesn't Work

Yes, and in other news, the sun is expected to rise in the East tomorrow.

So, Florida has a merit pay system. In fact, Florida has tried to implement merit pay for quite a while. Of course, there are issues:

The design and implementation of merit pay faces several key challenges. First, student outcomes are difficult to define and measure. Second, the contributions of individual teachers to student outcomes are difficult to disentangle from student background and prior achievement. The analysis shows serious deficiencies in several measures of teacher performance. Policy makers should be wary of adapting any measure without careful analysis of its properties and a plan to monitor how it is performing. 

That's from a RAND Corporation study of Florida merit pay published in 2007.

Florida: Why drain the swamp when you can sell swampland?

So maybe that system wasn't so great. Florida's leaders maintained their childlike faith in competitive test-based merit pay, and by 2011, they were ready with a great new law to enshrine it. Flanked by students brought in to serve as props, Governor Rick Scott signed the bill into law. It tied teacher pay directly to test results. In fact, it tied teacher job security directly to test results for all new teachers. Because the bill was suppose to help with recruiting. Because lots of new teachers say, "You know, I'd go work in Florida, but I hate the idea of having job security. I want a job where I know I can be fired every single year." Not only does the system rest on the widely-debunked VAM scores, but the majority of teachers get to be judged based on subject areas they don't even teach ("Don't like your pay check, Mr. Phys ED teacher? Then get these kids to read better!") Of course, some folks thought it was great stuff:

It was quickly praised as "breakthrough legislation" and a "model of bold reform" by the foundations run by education reformer Michelle Rhee and former Gov. Jeb Bush, respectively.

That was 2011. It's now 2017, and Orange County schools, based on their own internal study, are ready to call the whole thing a bust. 

“Performance pay systems are not an effective way to increase student achievement,” the report concluded.

The system requires teacher evaluation to be tied to test scores without local district input. It continues to evaluate teachers with test scores for subjects they don't teach. Merit pay has lowered morale without consistently raising test scores (which, as always, is the only "achievement" we're talking about). Some go up, some go down, and nothing in the study suggests that merit pay is helping in any way, shape or form. But because the accountability system is part of state law, there is no escaping it.

And absolutely none of this is a surprise. We've known all along that teacher merit pay does not work. Here's a synopsis of the arguments and some pertinent research from ASCD, published in January of 2017. We know this doesn't work, but Florida is intent on trying to be the nation's leading laboratory for bad education policy.  And I would mock this foolishness some more, but M.S. from the Economist got there first-- in March of 2010.

HEY THERE, talented recent university graduate! I'd like to offer you a job in an extremely challenging and rewarding field. The pay is based almost entirely on performance metrics—you know, what they used to call "commission" in the old days. The better you do, the more you earn! Of course the worse you do, the less you earn, but don't focus on that—you're a winner, you'll do great. We can offer you a five-year contract to start. By "contract" I mean we'll let you work for us, if things work out, but we can of course fire you at any time. And after that you'll have solid contracts! Each contract lasts one year, and we can decide to let you go at the end if you're not performing up to our standards. And by that time, you'll be earning...well, actually, you'll be paid at exactly the same rate as when you started out. We're prohibited by law from paying you more just because you've worked for us longer. If, however, you want to go get qualified in some new technical field or obtain an advanced degree, then...we can't raise your pay either. We basically just pay you a flat standardized commission depending on how well you perform on the mission.

The mission is to train 18 to 25 children to correctly fill out the answers on a series of standardized tests. You have no control over which children will be assigned to you, and unlike other commission-based workers (door-to-door salesmen, say), you will be stuck with the ones you're handed for the whole year. Average salary is $45,000 a year, but if you work your butt off and get lucky with the kids who are assigned to you, you could push it to, oh, $60,000.

And that is why Florida remains a state of last resort for people looking for a teaching career (not that North Carolina isn't trying hard, too). Because it's the Florida way-- we were told this doesn't work, there's proof this doesn't work, and we've collected our own evidence that this isn't working, but by gum, we're just going to keep doing it anyway.