Sunday, March 26, 2017

ICYMI: Babymoon Edition (3/26)

My wife and I are in DC, contemplating the cherry blossoms and coming creative disruption of our lives by two currently-fetal offspring. But I've still collected some reading for you, set to auto-post at the usual Sunday AM time. Read, enjoy and share.

In the Name of Love

A little push back from a Christian about "Christian" legislators

In the America First Budget, Schools Come Last

Andre Perry with an on-point critique of the Trump budget

Are You a Big Fat Idiot

I am happy to welcome back one of my favorite blog titles-- "I Love You But You're Going To Hell," a blog that focuses on interpreting conservative Christian thought for those not of that tribe (and which treats both sides with fairness). It's not always education-related, but this time it has something to say about the teaching of science.

Words That Hurt Our Public Schools, And Ones That Help

We're doubling up on Jeff Bryant this week. First up, a look at how rhetoric shapes the education debates.

Hillbilly Elitist

Nancy Flanagan takes a look a Vance's widely-touted book, and she's not entirely impressed.

What the Dickens Is Going On

John Merrow takes us inside the mess that is the current ed department, and finds a silver lining stuffed inside a neglected closet.

The Big Lie Behind Trump's Education Budget

Jeff Bryant with another well-sourced breakdown of where exactly the problems lie in Trumps edu-budget.

Are School Leaders Becoming Too Enabled?

Peter DeWitt takes an insightful look at school leadership and using the right drivers to empower, not enable.

Privatizing Recess: Micromanaging Children's Play for Profit

Nancy Bailey looks at one of those scourges that will not die-- the professional recess managers

"We Teach English" Revisited

Paul Thomas looks at Lou LaBrant and the parts of teaching English that never change.

If You Teach and Noone Learns, Do You Really Teach

Jose Luis Vilson Reflects on parent-teacher conferences and the lenses through which we view our classrooms

Friday, March 24, 2017

How Not To Teach Writing

Imagine how crazy it would be.

An English teacher stands in front of a class and explains, "For every thought you have about the prompt, there is only one correct sentence that can use to express that thought. I'll be grading your essays based on how many of the correct sentences you use."

Nobody teaches writing that way. Nobody says, "Okay, if you have an insight about Jake's injury in The Sun Also Rises, there is on correct sentence for expressing that thought" or "On today's essay about parenting, I'll be looking for seven particular correct sentences that should be used to express these thoughts."

Certainly nobody approaches the use of words in real life in this way. Nobody says, "No, you can't be serious about this job because you didn't even try to say the right sentence," or "No, if you really loved me, you would have said the correct sentence for expressing it."

No, the entire history of human expression, human literature, human song-- it's about finding new and interesting and surprising ways to say what we have to say. It's about finding ways to express a thought that are perfectly suited to that particular person and time and place and circumstances. We are moved, touched, excited, and enlightened by those who can string words together in completely different and yet completely appropriate ways.

Certainly some of these verbal inventions are better than others. Shakespeare's plays are echoes and imitations of other versions of the same stories, and yet four centuries later his Hamlet and his Romero and Juliet endure because, although he was saying what many other playwrights were saying, he said it better. We admire (at least we should) Shakespeare not just for what he did with the language, but for his rip-roaring robust rearrangement of the language, his willingness to take his tools and hammer them into new shapes that served his needs perfectly. Shakespeare did not get to be Shakespeare by imitating everyone else. He found his own way, and found things that were so much better.

But there is a huge difference between "better" and "the one right way." Shrimp salad with a light dressing is better-- healthier-- than a thick steak with french fries. But it does not follow that I should eat shrimp salad for every single meal. We should not all be wearing exactly the same clothes, driving in exactly the same car, and living in houses with exactly the same floor plans while we listen to bands that sound the same play identical recordings of just a few songs.

This is all obvious-- as obvious as not teaching students to write by demanding they spit out the One Correct Sentence for whatever thought they're having.

And yet  much of writing instruction and assessment assumes a One Correct Sentence model. Error-centered instruction, where we focus instruction on all the mistakes we're supposed to root out and avoid, seems to assume that if we slice away all the Bad Things, we'll be left with the perfect sentence for our thought, and not just some sad, filleted dishrag of a sentence.

And standardized testing at times comes so very close to sending exactly the wrong message-- there's one correct answer and there's one correct sentence for expressing that answer. Just select it.

This is why, frankly, so many teachers either avoid teaching writing or just do it badly-- it cannot be reduced to a formula and it does not involve a single correct answer for each problem, so it's hard to teach and hard to assess. Even the giants of literature cannot agree on what would be a good way to express a particular thought. Mark Twain loathed James Fenimore Cooper's classic American novels, Faulkner thought Twain a hack, and some of the greatest literary insults have been delivered author-on-author:

On Jack Kerouac: “His rhythms are erratic, his sense of character is nil, and he is as pretentious as a rich whore, sentimental as a lollypop.” — Norman Mailer

On Mark Twain: “[A] hack writer who would not have been considered fourth rate in Europe, who tricked out a few of the old proven ‘sure fire’ literary skeletons with sufficient local color to intrigue the superficial and the lazy.” — William Faulkner

On Hemmingway: “I read him for the first time in the early Forties, something about bells, balls and bulls, and loathed it.” — Vladimir Nabokov

On Jane Austen: “I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate, which seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in their wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and narrow. The one problem in the mind of the writer … is marriageableness.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

More than necessary to make my point, but as a genre, author-on-author insults are kind of fun.

The giants of the writing field cannot agree on with any narrow clarity what constitutes good writing. The closer we get to nailing that elusive beast down in one single, specific spot, the more likely we are to kill it dead. Pinning down writing to one specific answer is like deciding that dogs look best in one pose, so you have yours stuffed and mounted in just like that. What you have is not a loving, living animal, but a dead thing trapped in a sad, inadequate simulation of life.

There is no one right pose for your dog. There is no one right way to write.

What we have are choices. In seeing choices, we are often victims of success, because a well-written sentence or essay or story or even just a phrase leaves the reader feeling, "Well, of course. I can't imagine any other way to say it." But there were and are other ways to say it, and some of them, in other circumstances or in the hands of another writer or even just in place of what we see-- those could have been great choices too.

There are always choices.What we need to teach our students is how to see the choices, and then how to decide which choice best serves her purposes, which choice best fits her own voice, what choice best achieves her goals. Instead of looking for the One Right Answer, she needs to look for Her Right Answer, and we need to help her learn to be comfortable with the fact that there are many Perfectly Good Answers available (and she may need to stop stressing about trying to find the One). She needs to find her own voice, her own path, her own way. And there's just no way to standardized that, nor any value in trying.


Thursday, March 23, 2017

MS: Paving Way for Vouchers

Mississippi has long been considered America's Armpit of Education.

Educational lists? You name it, they've consistently ranked near the bottom. It qualified as news when Nevada beat them for dead last in EdWeek's Quality Counts list in 2016, because that was their first step up in years(and it can be argued that they didn't so much improve as Nevada just became even worse.)

Sharing another excellent investment opportunity

They've tried any number of dumb ideas, from jumping on the bandwagon for failing third graders who don't pass the Big Standardized Test in reading, to fining schools for not observing the Pledge of Allegiance. Plus the occasional attempt to force teachers to be silent on any education related issues at all.

What they haven't tried is actually funding their school system. Mississippi ranks close to the bottom there as well, with a per pupil outlay in the $7K area. Back in 1997, the legislature attempted to address this by passing the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (because when you're working on education, "adequate" is plenty good enough). MAEP laid out a funding formula that the state then promptly ignored. The legislature has only voted four times to fund schools as the MAEP says they should-- and two of those times they took it back mid-year. Last year some folks tried to add some actual teeth to the law, and the legislature promptly buried the referendum in a flurry of bloviating baloney.

But Mississippi's educational finances were not going to be ignored. Instead, the GOP called upon EdBuild and their CEO, our old friend Rebecca Sibilia.

You may remember her as the woman who gleefully observed that bankrupcy is a great way to blow up a district, which is no problem for kids, but a great opportunity for charter operators. Arielle Dreher, who has been doing a bang-up job covering all this for the Jackson Free Press, does a nice job of recapping the EdBuild story--

EdBuild is in its infancy as a company (it started in 2014), and Sibilia came from an education-policy background, first working in the Washington, D.C., education department and then moving to the nonprofit Students First, run by Michelle Rhee. The former chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools, Rhee was a controversial figure, after firing over 200 teachers in D.C., mainly due to poor performance, she said then.

EdBuild's board of directors includes Derrell Bradford (NYCAN), Angelia Dickens(general counsel for StudentsFirst), Michael Hassi (Exponent Partners), Josh McGee (Manhattan Institute, Arnold Foundation), Henry Moseley (CFO, Washington Convention Center), Hari Sevugan (270 Strategies, former DNC press secretary, and just helped a "national, non-profit education reform group get off the ground), and Stephanie Khunrana (Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation). EdBuild's website hammers away at the notion that "current funding systems are outdated, arbitrary and segregating."

Sibilia's background is soaked in reformy swellness. If that doesn't give you a hint where EdBuild's "study" for educational financing in Mississippi is headed, note also that the quarter-million dollar study was half paid for by the legislature, and the other half with "private funding from unnamed EdBuild donors." Those donors? The Broad, Draper Richards Kaplan, Bill and Melinda Gates, CityBridge, Walton Family, and the Center for American Progress.

Mississippi reached out for help from these giants of education investment because Mississippi is, on the whole, in financial trouble. The GOP and Governor Phil Bryant last year pushed through a huge tax cut, and now state revenues are way down. Go figure.

Against that backdrop, EdBuild and GOP legislators met behind closed doors to rewrite the state's funding formula while pretty much everyone else complained about being left out of the whole process. EdBuild has produced a nifty report  full of fun recommendations, and while we could plow through the whole eighty pages, there are basically only eleven recommendations, and those recommendations boil down to one Big Idea:

Student-centered funding.

Don't fund schools. Base your formula on cost-per-student.Because that makes it way easier to implement a full-on voucher system (and in the long run, I'll predict, it makes it easier to deny budget increases).

There are other details in the recommendations. Recommendation 1 is about giving an extra bump for students who qualify as poor. And while you're doing that, redefine what "poor" means; in Georgia, these kind of shenanigans resulted in many, many people being redefined right out of poverty, even though they had no more money than ever. Recommendation 2 calls for extra support for ELL students, and #3 adds a per-pupil bump for students with special needs, depending on how special their needs are. #4-- same for gifted. #5-- extra money to schools for college-and-career-ready programs, and #6 looks after rural and "sparse" schools.

Recommendation #7 is novel-- fund schools based on enrollment rather than attendance, which strikes me as an idea that would really help charters in general and cyberschools in particular. #8 is to eliminate the 27% rule, a rule that essentially says that the state must shoulder 73% of the funding burden. #9 is about financial transparency.

#10 says, Let's look at all the rules, regulations and accreditation standards that cost money and see if they are "critical to student success"-- presumably so we can get rid of them. Oh, and create a system of "earned autonomy," where schools with good test scores earn a Get Out Of Following the Rules card.

#11 says to phase all this in, and Sibilia agrees, noting that some schools will get more money and some less, so go easy.

One other bizarre feature of this big financial plan is that it includes no dollar amounts or projections at all.

Sibilia said the dollar amount is up to lawmakers, and told the Jackson Free Press that figures used in the 80-page report are "examples only," not base figures for legislators to use.

Will this save the state money? The legislature has kept the grand total for MEAP level, but they've also fully funded the system twice in twenty years. Can you reform a system you've never actually used in the first place? Should you evaluate a new system based on the assumption that it won't be correctly funded when implemented? We have no answers. Would it help you to hear from one more reliable reformy spokesperson?

As a concept, weighted student funding aims for equity, focusing on funding the highest student needs. Dr. Eric Hanushek, the Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow at Stanford University, analyzes the economics of educational issues. Weighted student funding, Hanushek says is a sensible idea, especially since the goal in most cases is to put money towards school districts that have disadvantaged kids or those that need special education. Weights, however, are the political part of the process, he says.

If we aren't adding any money to the pot, but just shifting the old money around with a new formula, how does that save money or improve education? Well, maybe that's another political question, but I suspect the answer is, "It opens the door to increased and easier voucher/charter/choice programs." Just slap a backpack full of cash on each student and let the mad scramble begin. There's not an ounce of evidence that it will serve the students well, but plenty of evidence that it will help privateers and profiteers open the otherwise closed education market and really expand their own share.

And why target Mississippi for such a program? Well, the one thing that really helps boost a voucher/charter/choice program is a public school system that has been broken down, starved, and beaten into a highly unattractive condition-- Mississippi's public schools are already halfway there. EdBuild is just there to take advantage of that failure, because the collapse of public schools is a great investment opportunity for investors and privatizers, much like the collapse of the weakest antelopes at the watering hole is a great opportunity for lions and hyenas.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Which Choice Would You Choose?

If you were (or are) a parent, which one of the following options would you prefer?


Your neighborhood is served by a single public school.

That school is well-staffed with a range of young and experienced professional educators, well-trained and committed to the needs of their students, and they are well-managed and well-paid so that they stay on as the foundation of a stable school community. The school is a well-maintained facility, clean and safe. It offers a wide variety of quality programs under one roof, with the flexibility for students to explore different educational paths and even change their minds (because young folks sometimes do that), as well as allowing them to enrich one path with samplings from others (in other words, your future biologist won't have to give up band). The school is fully funded and has a full range of up-to-date quality resources.

The school is transparently managed and controlled by an elected board of local community members who meet in public and are available to be contacted by any resident or taxpayer in the district. The management of the school is nimble, flexible, and open to input from all stakeholders.


In this option, your neighborhood is served by many schools, and you have plenty of choices that you may be able to access by using your voucher or some other sort of choice mechanism.

Choice #1: Never mind. This elite private school is out of your price range, even with your state-issued modest voucher.

Choice #2: This Christ-centered private school will gladly accept your child, as long as that child behaves properly, which includes a properly worshipful attitude in daily devotions and Bible readings. And don't worry-- we won't be teaching your child any of that foolish evolution-filled "science" stuff.

Choice #3: Our experts have determined that this is the kind of school People Like You need for their children. Strict, no excuses, speak only when spoken to regimentation. It certainly wouldn't fly over in East Egg, but it's just what the children of You People need to take your proper place in the world.

Choice #3A: If you're in the South, there's also this school, but you can only send your kid here if you're white. Because Those People need to be kept on their own side of town.

Choice #4: We will provide a program much like a regular public school, except we don't have any adaptations for students with special needs or English language learners. You're certainly welcome to send your child with special needs, or who is five years behind in English language acquisition, but understand that we aren't going to do anything special for them.

Choice #5: We decided to launch a special math-centered school. We make room in the budget for super-math stuff by cutting music, art, sports and history. All students attend the same English class which meets every other day in the auditorium. But our math program is definitely more than adequate.

Choice #6: This school was started by some Very Nice People who thought, "How hard can it be to run a school?" It looks like a nice enough place, but none of the teachers have been paid for a month and it will probably close before Easter.

Choice #7: Big National Chain Charter School. The program is already packaged and all our brand-new staff members need to do (it's always brand new because no staff stays here for more than a year or two, which is okay because we don't need to hire actual certified teachers anyway, so they're easy to replace) is open the binder and follow the program. If you would like to talk about changes to the program, feel free to contact our corporate headquarters, which are not actually in your state.

Choice #8: What do you want? Look at our glossy advertisements! We will promise you all sorts of stuff. We will never deliver any of it, but by the time you figure that out it will be too late-- we'll have your money and you'll have to decide how badly you want to disrupt your child's school year in the middle.

Choice #9: Your public school. It still exists, but the other eight schools have drained so much money from it that it is now a sad, limping, underfunded shadow of a real school.

With the exception of Choice #9, none of these schools are managed or operated publicly. You can't attend the meetings, you can't see the books, and you can't contact the board members easily, if at all. You don't get a voice-- the only stakeholders who matter are the people who own and operate the school, and they'll give you the choice they feel like giving you.


Voucher advocates-- particularly the ones who advocate for "parental choice" or "parent rights"-- seem to insist that Option 2 is the better one. Their argument is that Option 1 is a choice that only wealthier families get to exercise by virtue of their ability to buy a house in that school's neighborhood. And they aren't wrong-- linking school funding to the power of the real estate market means that schools in richer neighborhoods get better funding. That is a problem worth addressing.

And yet, Option 2 does not address it. The school in Option 1 is still not available to less wealthy parents. They are presented with only the choices that other choosers choose for them, and in the process, they lose even a limited ability to influence what those choices are going to be. So they lose a shot at improving their public school, and get little-to-nothing in return.

Parent choice advocates might argue that Option 2 is still a better option because choice is such a great value, in and of itself, that providing choice to parents is more important than anything else-- including making sure that the available choices are actually any good.

But I keep coming back to the same idea-- if we want all students to be able to choose the school in Option A, why not do what it takes to transform every public school into Option A? Option A actually offers more choice, more flexibility, but most of all, more of the things that families actually want. Once upon a time reformsters made noises about charters developing great ideas to create great schools, but we already have a plethora of model public schools-- why not use them as a template? Why not muster the sort of "War on Poverty" or "Get To The Moon" or "Endless Battles in Other Countries" willpower we've mustered before and direct it toward making all schools great schools?

If I were a cynic, I might conclude that it's because no private operators can make a bundle under that plan.

Choicers will argue that I've stacked the deck, that these aren't the real options. Real World Option A, they'll say, is one lousy school, and while that may be true in some communities, how is multiple lousy choices better than one lousy choice-- and if you only had so much money, would you rather try to fix up one house or a whole bunch of houses with that money? Real World Option B, they'll say, has more awesomely wonderful choices than I represent here, and you know, there was a time I believed that might be theoretically possible, but reality seems to be stubborn in this regard. It's almost as if running a school is hard, and doubly hard if you're trying to make a business out of it.

But seriously-- what parent would choose Option B over Option A? It's really no choice at all.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017 and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Ad

The folks at put out this advertisement.

I've never established a Hall of Fame here, but if I did, this letter would go into it:

After watching your ad several times I am moved to do something I've never done before- write a company to complain of the image they are portraying of my profession. As a 15 year veteran teacher, I can assure you that my stress does NOT come from the students in my classroom. My stress comes from endless meetings forcing me to enact tactics that do not help my students learn and achieve; my stress comes from not getting a cost of living raise in 10 years; my stress comes from national figures who know nothing of public education working to destabilize our system in favor of private, religious, and for-profit charter schools that are free to discriminate against differently-abled children with no penalties. 

Isn't there enough teacher bashing without you adding to the myth of the inattentive, non-caring, child-hating teacher? 

If you want to show a teacher needing a vacation, how about showing one burnt out on caring too much? Giving of her own time and money to her kids while an uncaring administration makes ridiculous demands on her? That would be relatable and not turn off the 3.1 million public school teachers in the US. 

Thank you,

That letter is from Alana Milich, God bless her.

Because, yes, it's absolutely hilarious how this teacher is apparently incapable of doing her job is not very interested in trying, because children are awful wild malevolent creatures and teachers would certainly be doing anything else if they possibly could.

"There's nothing more important to me than my vacation"??!! Really? I'm pretty sure that teachers have a long list of things that are far more important to them than their vacation. "Now I can start relaxing before the vacation begins." Sure-- that's what teachers want to do. Anything except our jobs.

Do not tell me that it's "just a joke" and I shouldn't take it so seriously. Passive-aggressive attacks masquerading as humor are never funny. "Hey, honey-- move your fat ass! Oh, don't give me that look-- I'm just kidding." Hi-larious.

I'm not sure what makes this okay. If this were a bored, incompetent, slack-eyed housewife dreaming of getting away from her kids, or a husband dreaming of getting away from the wife he hates, or a doctor standing over an open patient on the table while the doctor absently severs organs and dreams of getting away from stupid sick people or a minister who can't stand his congregation or a national elected politician who can't stand his job and dreams of going golfing every weekend-- well, you get the idea. I know as Americans we get yuks out of people who hate their jobs or their lives or the people around them, but damn-- do we really need one more suggestion that teachers really just suck? And if someone were telling you that's how they see your children, would that be okay with you? sent Milich (and apparently a few other complainants) a tepidly generic response:

Thanks for your feedback.

We’ll be sure to pass it on to those relevant. At we value all professions, including teachers, and this ad was only intended as a light-hearted bit of fun. We are passionate about connecting our customers with great stays, empowering them to experience the world in the easiest, most seamless ways possible, which this advert aimed to convey.

Kind regards,

Those relevant what, exactly? "Light-hearted" doesn't really fit, I'm afraid, unless you're the kind of person who considers Ann Coulter books a wacky romp. "We were just teasing" is, unfortunately, a whole long distance away from "We are sorry. We respect teachers and should not have treated them so insultingly."

If you'd like to add to the chorus of unamused audience members, here are some places to try. has a Facebook page. Their twitter handle is You may also be interested to know that they are part of the Priceline group, along with Kayak, Agoda, and Open Table. And while none of the categories is exactly "Complain about our insulting advert," you can find many customer service contact options here-- why not use, well, many?

Join the many folks already complaining. While this is certainly not on the order of, say, threats to gut public education and destroy the teaching profession, these folks deserve to be part of a flap-- maybe even a kerfuffle. It would be nice if advert-makers would think two seconds before they used shots at teachers for cheap punchlines. Do better,

MD: University Privatization

The University of Maryland University College is pioneering a new business model, and not everyone thinks it's a very good idea.

George Kroner is a UMUC graduate and a former employee who worked on the tech side of things as UMUC developed a variety of on-line education and analytics programs (he is also, I should note, a former student of mine). But in the nine months since Kroner has left UMUC, he has noticed some disturbing trends.

For one thing, there has been a large administrative turn over-- and not just of personnel as some old school positions like "VP of Academic Affairs" are replaced with new-fangled jobs like "VP, Strategic Partnerships." These business-sounding titles seem to be in keeping with a new model being followed by the university:

As of the time that I left, my impression is that the university was beginning to struggle with finding a balance between its core mission focused on academics and the business aspects of focusing on future innovation. The noted shifts in the Cabinet membership seem to reflect these changes in priority and focus.  As much respect as I have for the university President, he seemed quite enamored with finding ways to use public resources to found private educational technology startup companies – instead of with the core academic mission of the university. The thinking was that the university might use excess income from these startups, or the proceeds from selling them off, to fund scholarships. This is a noble goal, but the business of edtech is extremely risky at best and can result in losing hundreds of millions of dollars for even the largest and most successful educational technology companies.

Inside Higher Ed writes about the "unbundling" university. UMUC has been a pioneer in distance and on-line learning (Kroner himself earned an advanced degree while still being able to hold down a regular job thanks to evening and online classes at UMUC). The university did big business with students attached to the military, including those on active duty.

But times are a-changin' and UMUC was looking for a way to be more sustainable. President Javier Miyares (who left Cuba after his father was taken prisoner in the Bay of Pigs invasion-- so there's another person for your immigration list) took over the office in 2012 with no intent to instigate drastic changes.

Now Miyares thinks its time to pare UMUC down to its "core mission" and part of that has turned out to be "spinning off" departments into private businesses. So the Office of Analytics became the company HelioCampus. This joined other spun-off units under a UMUC non-profit umbrella holding company. UMUC used various departments to raise money two ways-- either outright selling them off, or spinning them into private businesses. And the hiring them to do what they used to do-- so spinning off and outsourcing, all at once.

Either way, say critics, it's a dubious use of public money and the products of that public money. Eyebrows wet up when the university decided to spin off/outsource its entire IT department under the UMUC ventures brand. But outsourcing without a bidding process because they're hiring a business that they are still sort of attached to. That's a lot of spin.

Supporters say it can grow the endowment for the university. Critics point out that it puts UMUC in the business of being in business. That may be why Miyares has been making a bunch of noises that translate to, "No, really-- we're most concerned with the whole academics and teaching and students thing." But there's no getting around it-- the taxpayers of Maryland are now financing both a university and a large-scale business enterprise. And the university and the business now do business with each other:

“For the regents, it was important that there was a really clear line of control,” Miyares said. “We are very satisfied that what we are getting from [HelioCampus] in terms of analytics services is what we were getting before, but that involved very well-crafted service-level agreements. The same thing will have to be done with IT … to make sure we continue to get what we need. At the end of the day, if we don’t, well, I can appoint new directors at any time.”

Which is a bizarre conversation to have. "Let's make sure that these people who used to work for us directly still give us the service they would have given us as a matter of course if they were still working for us." It's like a divorcee saying to their ex as they leave divorce court, "But we'll still get together and the sex will be just as good as ever, right?"

The ins and outs of public-private university partnerships are always a complicated web, whether you're talking health care research or might-as-well-be-pro sports. But UMUC seems determined to push right up to the edge of the question, "When does a public university stop being a public university?" And that question lives right next door to, "If a public university is really a private business, should it be paid with public tax dollars?"

Netflix and the Myth of Personalization

Today Slate has an analysis of how Netflix began the process of personalizing marketing, of using "algorithms to micromanage distribution, not production" in particular in the multi-pronged marketing of House of Cards by creating multiple trailers to appeal to particular slices of the Netflix customer pool, based on their "likes."

In the middle of the article, we find this paragraph:

House of Cards thus embodies one of the most seductive myths of the algorithmic age: the ideal of personalization, of bespoke content assembled especially for each one of us. In fact, the content, or at least the costly, aesthetically rich content we care about, like Fincher’s show, is still fairly limited. There is only one House of Cards, but there are as many ways to market the show as there are to target Netflix viewers. This is what information theorist Christian Sandvig calls “corrupt personalization”: the ways that algorithmic culture blurs the lines between our genuine interests and a set of commodities that may or may not be genuinely relevant, such as products “liked” by our friends on Facebook even if they did not knowingly endorse them.

The piece on corrupt personalization is worth the side trip, but it's a bit much to squeeze in here. But let me toss out three context-free quotes that may ring bells.

It’s as if on Facebook, people were using the yellow pages but they thought they were using the white pages. 

In sum this is again a scheme that does not serve your goals, it serves Facebook’s goals at your expense.

Money is used as a proxy for “best” and it does not work. That is, those with the most money to spend can prevail over those with the most useful information. The creation of a salable audience takes priority over your authentic interests.

And I will bring back Greene's Law-- the free market does not foster superior quality; the free market fosters superior marketing.

Personalized learning, whether we're talking about a tailored-for-you learning program on your computer screen or a choose the school you'd like to go to with your voucher, is not about actual personalization. It's about another path for marketing, a way of personalizing the marketing of the product, the edu-commodity that someone is already trying to make money from.

We're being sold (and in many cases are arguing against) an AI that spits out just the digitized worksheet that Student 12-5452 needs to continue studies, but that's not where we're headed. Look, for instance, at the new, improved PSAT that returns both a score and some recommendations. "Looks like you need to log in to Khan Academy's lesson series for calculus." Or "You would really benefit from the AP Calculus course-- talk to your guidance counselor today."

That's the personalized learning dream-- students with vouchers paying for education one course or micro-credential at a time, and each exercise on the "parent" program ends with, "Good job! You should probably sign up for Edubizwang Corp's Intro to Pre-Pre-Calculus next-- just enter your edu-voucher account number." Marketing that can be directed with laser-like precision at each individual consumer. Marketing that can tell the consumer, "Yeah, this-- this is what you really want."

It's not a personalized product, but the personalized marketing will make you think it's just what you want. Netflix is just the beginning. 

Monday, March 20, 2017

IN: Vouchers and Changing the System

Indy Ed is a website devoted to exploring one idea-- "There are so many changes swirling around our schools that it’s hard to get straight answers." Their focus is Indianapolis, one more urban center suffering from a plethora of education problems, not the lest of which is a government that doesn't want to spend too many tax dollars on Those People. But Indy Ed seems to prefer focusing on that most magical of solutions-- vouchers and choice.

There's no big scam or fraud or misbehavior here. But in one simple piece, Indy Ed gives us a picture of many of the ways that vouchers open up the market and let profiteers and religious ed folks get past the system that has stood in their way for so long.

"Vouchers May Not Be a Panacea But They Are Really Working for Some Families" is the headline for this piece highlighting Oaks Academy, an example of vouchers working for some people.

So before we read the piece, what do we know about Oaks Academy? Well, here's the pitch at the top of their website:

The Oaks Academy is a Christ-centered school that exists to provide a rich, classical education to children of diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, preparing them to succeed in a rigorous secondary educational program and to demonstrate spiritual, social and emotional maturity.

Indy Ed tells us that the student population of Indianapolis is three-quarters black and brown, but the header photo for OA (which Indy Ed also uses for its piece)shows a group of students who are two-thirds white.

OA has a whole page devoted to Teacher Support which highlights such great features as their outstanding professional development (so much better than public schools). One might think they are really working at recruiting and retaining teachers (you can also do Americorps or VISTA work there). Their student profile shows a blend of socio-economic backgrounds and a racial breakdown closer to 50-50 than 25-75 (Britt actually cites a 30% black population in the school, which is smaller than what the school's own graph shows). But they do great on that ISTEP (Indiana's version of the Big Standardized Test). And they've been thriving-- in the 1998-1999 year they opened with 53 students enrolled. This year they have 732 (pre-K through 8). The material is quiet about students with special needs, but that would seem to be one more area in which The Oaks does not resemble the Indianapolis student population. Reader ocg in the comments below offered this background:

The IDOE's Compass website tracks demographics, test scores, etc. for every school corporation in the Indiana, public or private. Their data shows that all three Oaks Academy campuses have far fewer rates of students on free or reduced lunch (ranging from 23.6% to 34.4%) as compared to both Indianapolis Public Schools (68.3%) and the state as a whole (45.7%).
Although lunch status is a very rough way of looking at whether a population is “low income” or not, those numbers do make me scratch my head.
Their racial demographics are also not reflective of Indianapolis schools. All three Oaks Academy campuses are about 50-55% white, 30% black, and 15-20% Asian/Hispanic/multiracial. Indianapolis Public Schools have slightly different demographics.

And then there's special ed numbers. The Oaks Academy with the highest rate of special ed students is their Fall Creek campus, at 8.1%. The other two campuses have special ed rates of 4.1% and 4.7%. The entire state has a rate of 14.5%. IPS's rate is 17%. Hmm.**

But back to our Indy Ed profile. The writer, Baratto Britt, wants to argue that vouchers are actually a "liberal, almost socialist" thing with the mission of providing poor families with the same choices that rich families enjoy. About half of the students at Oaks are voucher students. 83% get some sort of tuition assistance (the toll is $10,300-- so now I'm a little confused because Indiana vouchers only provide about $5K). Board policy reportedly says that 50% of the student body must be from poor families.  But Britt also says that the school attracts hefty philanthropy ("juggernaut" is the word he uses); their website promises "an unmatched philanthropic experience." Almost 40% of the budget comes from donations; voucher money provides about 20%. Also, Oaks "acquired" a public middle school that had been "underutilized".

The school was profiled by Ebony last fall as an example of diversity in action as an educational tool, and while The Oaks is diverse, it is far whiter than the Indianapolis public system. According to school CEO Andrew Hart, that takes some deliberate work:

We want to be diligent about maintaining this tricky balance. It’s something so unique to this place but very fragile. “The admissions pool is dominated by white families, who are moving back into the neighborhoods,” Hart added. “It would totally relieve our philanthropic burden, which would be great, but we want to make sure this unique proposition that Oaks is maintained over time

Hart graduated from UNC at Chapel Hill with an MBA, put in four years at Eli Lilly, then came to The Oaks.

Britt wants to suggest that Oaks does not cream or pick only the most-likely-to-be-successful students, but on top of the whole Christ-centered approach (about which the school is not shy, nor should they be) the school also has another requirement that Britt lays out

Additionally, parental involvement is not optional for all Oaks Families, but mandatory as a caring, committed adult must participate in various activities during the admissions cycle and school year to ensure all stakeholders have skin in the game.  

So, Jesus, plus a supportive family both willing and able to contribute work to the school, which is itself supported by extra funding from philanthropists. Is there any school, public or private, that could not achieve success with those advantages?

The Oaks is a private Christian school that self-selects for families with a commitment to their children's education, all of which is perfectly fine-- for a private school. But under Indiana's system, public tax dollars are being sent to this religious private school (and some of the taxpayers' buildings as well).

I decided to write about this precisely because The Oaks shows no signs of fraud or scandal or the kinds of egregious abuse of the system that we often see with vouchers. Except, of course, that the vouchers are completely flouting the separation of church and state by sending public dollars to a private Christian school, and that school has shown us nothing about education that we didn't already know. With a different student body than the parent district, supportive families, free labor, and extra funding you can get good results?! Do tell!

The Oaks' own history page and several press accounts note that the school was started by neighbors and concerned citizens who wanted an urban alternative, and their first school was in a less-than-stellar neighborhood. Voucher supporters can and do point to The Oaks as the sort of school that can save students. They seem like Very Nice People, and not crooks at all-- and yet, they have completely changed the rules of public education, to the point that it's not public education at all.

But at some point we have to decide if saving only some students (and only those we consider deserving) is good enough. A nationwide voucher system will not be about providing choices for poor families, but about changing the entire purpose of education in this country. Vouchers will shift us from a system whose mission is to do its best for all students-- ALL students, no matter what-- to a system whose mission is to save some students, the right students, the students with the right kind of families, who belong to the correct faith. Like it or not, it's a huge mission shift for the country, and the end of public education as we know it. We should be talking about that.

** I'm copying the rest of the reader comments here to preserve the links (which blogger does not do-- man, if I had had any idea what this blog was going to be lieke when it grew up, I would have picked a different platform). Here you go::

Finally, their claim that 85% of their students receive tuition assistance is pretty worthless in this state. Another choice school in Indiana, Delaware Christian Academy (godawful website, I know - somehow this school stays open), could not even open its doors in a timely manner last year, and yet they claim that 95% of their students got full scholarships. Either they're lying, or getting tuition assistance to attend a choice school in this state is, um, extremely easy.

Anyway, the choice climate here in Indiana has very clearly hobbled certain school corporations (like IPS, and especially Gary, whose enrollment has gone from ~16,000 students to ~6,000 students in 12 years). It has also led to some very interesting data sets, like this choice school's graduate rate trend (look at the bar graph). Wonder what happened there.

The Map of the World

Boston Public Schools just caused a stir by adopting a new map of the world.

"Boston public schools map switch aims to amend 500 years of distortion"reads the headline in the The Guardian, and "amend" is a good choice of words, because BPS decided to replace one set of distortions with another.

Boston had been using the Mercator Projection (1569), a version that we're all pretty familiar with.

Mercator distorts by spreading out the world as it approaches the poles, so that by the time we get to Greenland or Alaska, the land masses are looking much larger than they actually are. Mercator was mostly trying to help with navigation, and this map was fine for that. And since his audience/customers were mostly starting from Europe, his map reinforces the idea that Europe is the center of the world. And it makes Africa and South America look relatively smaller.

This is many people's mental map of the world, complete with its built-in distortions.

BPS decided to switch to the Gall-Peters projection (1855/1967) a map that sets out to render each land mass equally, so that the relative sizes of the land masses are accurate.

But because the projection is still onto a rectangle, Gall-Peters combats one distortion with another distortion. The Marcator inflates land area by stretching it out at the bottom and the top; Gall-Peters fixes that by squishing the map in at the top and the bottom until the land areas are comparable and "correct."

This version is not necessarily very useful for navigation, but in the late 20th century it stirred up a bit of a mess. Arno Peters was actually duplicating the 100-year-old work of James Gall, and he promoted it as a more just and socially aware map than the Mercator, annoying the crap out of the cartographic community, which had been trying to downplay, improve upon, and replace Mercator for a couple of centuries. But Peters managed to build a cottage industry around his map (and even eventually acknowledged that Gall had gotten there a century earlier). The Brits use the map, and UNESCO has based some of its mappery on it, the argument in favor of it being that it shows nations in their proper relative size, even if shapes and distances are distorted.

Are there other options? You bet there are.

Try, for instance, the Cassini projection (1745), which keeps its distances somewhat standard and lets you see the poles.

Or how about the various Eckert projections (1906) that avoid lots of distortion by not trying to fit the surface of the globe on a rectangle.

And once we've chucked the whole rectangular map thing, we can get the equal-area maps right and show every land mass in proper proportion to the others. Here's the Goode homolosine projection (1923).

And cartographers haven't stopped playing. This Bottomley (that's the guy's name) equal-area projection from 2003:

We'll stop now, but there are even freakier versions of the earth in existence. There are many, many maps of the world out there-- some good for navigation, some good for figuring distances, some for showing proper relationships between land masses, some focused on ocean shaped and depths. But here's one thing we know about all of them--

They are all wrong. They are all incomplete. They are all distorted in some fairly major way.

This is to be expected. When you take something that is huge and complex and multidimensional and try to render it onto a small two-dimensional surface, you must sacrifice some major chunks of the truth. For that reason, you have to be fairly deliberate about and conscious of what parts of the truth you are sacrificing for whatever specific utility you wish to get from your map. And you have to keep trying, because every solution you come up with will be inadequate in some major way. And you must always remember that your map is inadequate in some major ways and not mistake the two-dimensional rendering for the real thing.

That's the lesson here, or rather the reminder, because we already knew all this but certain people prefer to pretend they don't, is that whenever you try to render, describe, display, or create a measured model of something complicated (like a school or a teacher or a student's mind or learning) you will absolutely fail in some major ways. Furthermore, if you get to thinking your map of that world is perfect, you will make terrible mistakes.

It is hard to make a map of the world. You will always fail, and if your goal is to achieve perfection, you are doomed to lose in a fool's game. If, on the other hand, you do the best you can, keep trying, and remain aware of your shortcomings so that you don't bet the farm or attach huge stakes to a map that's not True-- well, you might have a chance. If you think your Big Standardized Tests and data sets based on them and numbers kicked out by your fancy formulae are a perfect guide to what's going on in schools, you are doomed to be lost. And it would be really nice if you didn't drag the rest of us with you on your doomed journey.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

ICYMI: Quiet Sunday Edition (3/19)

Here's some reading for your lazy Sunday. Remember to pass on what you find useful!

Did Betsy DeVos Just Ask States To Ignore Part of Federal Law?

Nobody did a better job this week of explaining the problem with DeVos's comments on just who gets included in ESSA work than Valerie Strauss

Damning a Student's Future with Old Data

Nancy Bailey looks at one of the big problems with the work of our Data Overlords

Joel Klein Reflects in His Legacy as NYC Schools Chancellor

Well, that's something that could use some reflecting. As you might imagine, Klein has a bit more insight about some reflections than about others.

NJ Charter School Fools Gold Rush

Jersey Jazzman has been taking a look at charters cashing in in New Jersey

Dumping ESSA Regs Is Not a Big Deal But...

Leonie Haimson takes a look at what the dumping of Obama's ESSA regs really means-- and what it doesn't.

Charter School with 38% High School Completion Rate Brags About 88% College Completion Rate

Many of us were passing around a USA Today article seemingly critical of charters. Gary Rubinstein took the time to drill down a little further down to get the evene worse parts that USA Today skipped.

To The Parents of Children Who Stare at My Disabled Daughter

You might not always read Daniel Willingham because he's not often on our side of issues, but this piece-- personal and heartfelt-- deserves your attention.

The Reclusive Hedge-Fund Tycoon Behind the Trump Presidency

Not strictly about education, but if you want to get a better sense of the ideology moving some of the people who helped push Trump on us, this profile of Robert Mercer by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker is an important read.

Albert Camus's Letter

From the indispensable blog Brain Pickings, a piece about Camus's letter of gratitude to his teacher

Rest in Peace, EVAAS Developer William Sanders

At VAMboozled, an obituary for and recap of the developer of EVAAS, one of the widely used VAM models. If you want the incredible story of where this thing came from, here it is (with links, for advanced students). 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Lost Years

After years of hearing how kindergarten has been turned into the new first grade, you'd think at the other end of the K-12 pipeline we would find highly advanced students. And yet-- not so much.

I am not going to report a ton of research on this, because the available research is bogus and part of the actual test-centric problem. What I can tell you is what I, as an actual real live classroom teacher who knows actual real live classroom teachers, see and hear.

This is the result of accelerated early instruction done primarily in the service of test-centric schooling ("We have to get them started early-- otherwise how will they be ready for the Big Standardized Test??")

It is lost years.

By the time these same start-em-early push-em-hard students arrive at high school classrooms, they are behind compared to the students that we saw twenty-five or fifteen or even ten years ago. They know fewer things, have fewer skills, and express lower academic aspirations.

Why? I can offer a couple of theories.

They have learned to hate reading.

They have learned that reading is this thing you do with short, disconnected, context-free selections, and when you read, you are not looking for something that sparks interest or enjoyment or curiosity or wonder or the pleasure of feeling your brain expanded and grown. You read so that, in a moment, you'll be able to answer the questions that someone else wrote-- and by "answer" we mean from the potions given the one answer that someone else has decided is "correct." There will be no expression of your own personal insights, and never the possibility that there's more than one way to understand the text. It is a stilted, cramped way to approach reading, and it means that students grow up with a stilted, cramped notion of what reading even is, or why human beings actually do it.

With some luck, some students will still discover the joy and, yes, utility of reading-- but they will discover outside of school, and they will not expect that the kind of reading that they love has anything to do with the test-centered "reading": they are required to do in school. That higher level course has additional "reading"? Then I surely don't want to sign up for that. And since the real task here, the real point of the whole exercise is not the reading, but the answering of questions about the reading-- well, I bet I can find a time-saving way to cut that corner. Because after enough years of this, many students conclude that "reading" is something to actively avoid.

There's no pleasure there, no discovery, no ideas to mull and discuss, no characters who help us pick apart the thorny questions of how to be human in the world. Just clues for answering the BS Test questions.

Their years are shorter.

The school year is now shorter. It is shorter by the number of days involved in the BS Test. It is shorter by the number of days spent on pre-testing and practice testing. It is shorter by the number of days spent on instruction that is only being implemented because it will help get them ready for the test.

By the time we've subtracted all those days, the school year is a few weeks, a month, maybe even more than a month shorter. It was only 180 days to begin with. The test-centric school has amped up a feature of education that has always frustrated teachers-- the 180 day year is a zero sum game, a bathtub full to the absolute rim with water. You cannot add something without removing something else. A really feisty or frustrated teacher might turn to an administrator who just said "Add this to your class" and say, "Fine-- what exactly do you want me to stop teaching?" But mostly we're expected to just make do, to perform some sort of miracle by which we stuff ten more rabbits into the hat.

It doesn't work. Every year students get less actual instruction than they used to, which means their teacher next year finds them a little bit behind, so the school year that used to start on Day One now starts on Day Thirty after the students are caught up-- and then it ends on Day 160 because, you know, testing. So the following year those students are that much more behind. And so on, and so on, and so on.

In the end, kindergarten may be the new first grade, but for many students, twelfth grade is the new eleventh grade.

There are certainly students who escape this effect, and there are certainly clever teachers who mitigate it. But mostly the injection of toxic testing into the bloodstream of US education has had the predictable effect-- it has weakened and damaged the entire body.

Mind you, that wasn't what we were promised. The injection of test-based accountability was going to transform the Steve Rogers of US schooling into a mighty Captain America of education. Those tests, linked to The Standards That Dare Not Speak Their Name (but which have never quite gone away, either), were going to lead to a surge in new and successful college students. Test scores would rocket upward, and we would get to be the Belle of the Ball at the next PISA Prom. We were going to have success out the wazoo.

And yet, none of that is happened. Mind you, I don't think the BS Test scores mean jack, and they have never been and will never be my measure of success. But reformsters chose the game, set the rules, picked the measurement they wanted (BS Test scores) and they STILL lost the game. We have wasted over fifteen years of education; some students have seen their entire schooling consumed by test-centric baloney.

Yet we keep plowing on, keep committing to Testing Uber Alles. We are losing students, losing education opportunities, losing the chance to awaken some young humans to what they could be and could become-- instead, we are still trying to mash their spirits flat under the heavy testing hand. We are losing years that we cannot get back, cannot give back, and this is not okay.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Food Is Overrated

Well, we've all seen it by now:

There is no evidence that food helps raise test scores.

One more snowflake wants to eat.

Mind you, this is from the administration that wants us to believe that three million votes were cast illegally, that Obama wiretappppped Trump Towers, that microwaves can be used to spy on us-- all this and more, without a shred of evidence. But children doing better in school because they have gotten food to eat-- that is some wildass crazypants conspiracy nutbaggery. You think being able to eat food helps children do better in school?? Woah-- just let me check you for your tin foil hat.

Reformsters, this is at least partly on you. This is the logical extension of the idea that only hard "evidence" matters, and only if it is evidence that test scores go up. We've dumped play, understanding of child development, and a whole bunch of not-reading-and-math classes because nobody can prove they help raise test scores to the satisfaction of various reformsters. It was only a matter of time until some literal-minded shallow-thinking functionary decided that there was no clear linkage between food and test scores.

Or anything else, actually, since another program that Mulvaney singled out for its unproven worth was Meals on Wheels. This is another impressive piece of brain-twistery since there is, in fact, plenty of proof about the effectiveness for Meals on Wheels.

But biggest crowd ever for inauguration. Illegal voters. Wiretappping. Oh yeah-- and school vouchers. The need for evidence is, I guess, a selective thing.

Meanwhile, I suppose we could conduct a study that establishes that students who have actually starved to death get lower results on standardized tests. And then we could work out the increments for exactly how much food is useful for getting test results. It may be that just some bread and water are all that's necessary (crusts only). Maybe just one bowl of gruel a day.

Lord knows we don't want to waste money feeding hungry children if we're not going to get decent test scores in return. You are never too young to start understanding that if you choose to be poor, you'll have to earn whatever scraps your betters decide you deserve.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Basic Unit of Writing

If you are of a Certain Age, this how you were taught writing--

1) Learn the parts of speech, sentence parts, and the rest of grammar.
2) Learn how to construct a sentence.
3) Learn how to write several sentences to make a paragraph.
4) Learn how to write several paragraphs to make an essay.

That's how we were taught to write. Mind you, it is not how anybody actually learned to write-- okay, I can't say nobody learned that way because the first rule of actual writing is that everybody uses their own methods and one person's Functional Approach To Writing is another person's Unspeakably Awful Idea. But the number of people who actually learned to write by the above traditional method is tiny, like the number of people who learned how to play jazz trombone by watching Led Zeppelin videos.

The persistence of traditional grammar instruction in the English teaching world is an ongoing mystery, like the number of people who think vouchers would improve education. Some teachers do it because well, of course, that's what English teachers do. Some teachers do it because it's easier than taking calls from parents that include the phrase, "Well, back in my day..."

Grammar instruction has its place. It's a lot easier to fix things, and a lot a lot easier to talk about fixing things, if you can call those things something other than "things." It's hard to talk about the nuts and bolts of improving a piece of writing if we don't have the words "nuts" or "bolts."

But we know-- have known for years-- that simple instruction of grammar with grammar exercises and grammar drills and all the traditional things does not improve writing. You can read a good recap of the research here, and while I'm highly dubious about any research that claims it has measured the quality of student writing, the fancy big-time research matches what I've learned in my own class-sized laboratory over the past may decades. Drilling students all day on nouns and verbs and participials and dependent adverb clauses will not make them better writer, and bombarding their writing with the Red Pen of Doom deployed over every grammatical misstep (not to mention all the usage "mistakes" which are not grammatical issues at all no matter how many people insist on conflating the two
) will probably make them worse writers. Not that I'm an advocate for the loose anything-goes technique of just letting any kind of mess hit the page-- but if your basic foundation for writing is a bunch of grammar rules, your students are probably not getting any better at writing.
This truth is sometimes masked by volume. The best way to get better at writing is to write, and if you have your students writing regularly, that will help-- maybe even if you give them lousy feedback. God save us all from the "We only do writing for three weeks in April" approach.

But the basic unit of any piece of writing is not a word or a sentence or a paragraph or a rhetorical technique. The basic unit of writing is an idea.

The vast majority of writing problems are actually thinking problems. If you don't know what you want to say, you will have a hard time saying it. And in the modern test-centered education era, we have compounded the problem by teaching students that their central question should be "What am I supposed to write for this?"

Not "what do I want to say" or even "what idea could I construct a good essay out of" but "what am I supposed to write."

That question shifts the foundation of writing to a new skill set-- psychic powers. Can you discern what the teacher or the test manufacturer wants you to say? Try to say that. In this model of writing, what should be central to the writing process-- the ideas in the student's head-- actually becomes an obstacle-- in your search for the essay you're supposed to write, don't be distracted by your own individual ideas.

Messing up that first question of writing automatically interfered with the second question-- after you know what you want to say, you must next figure out how to say it. But test-centered standardized writing has a required set of "how" before you even get to what. In real writing, however, the "how" flows directly out of the "what." For emerging writers, we may provide a pre-fab "how," (looking at you, five paragraph essay) so that they can focus on their "what" and not freak out about how to express it. But once the "how" is coming before the "what," we're in trouble, because now we're not asking "what do I want to say," but "what could I say to fill in these five paragraphs."

There is another level to this problem with assigned student writing-- finding an answer for the student whose answer to "what do I want to say" is "I want to say that I don't care about this topic and have nothing to say about it." That is where a teacher's heavy lifting comes in, with discussion and conversation and maybe research and sometimes a song and dance. It can be a hard bridge to build, but that doesn't change the writing fundamentals-

The center of every piece of writing should be the what, the idea, the thing that the writer wants to say. Any other foundation results in a building that is shaky and unstable, a house in which nothing useful can live.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Littles-- More Than a Score (A Film You Should See)

Of all the issues swirling around education, this is the one that keeps me up nights.

What about the littles?

There are plenty of terrible things happening in the world of education, but nothing is more heartbreaking than the transformation of kindergarten into first grade, the sudden "need" for four year olds to start learning letters and numbers and colors because now these children "need" to get ready for kindergarten. The sitting. The studying. The homework. The standardized testing for small children who should be playing and socializing and learning about the wonder and joy of being in the world. It all seems designed to crush the most vulnerable spirits we are entrusted with.

Marie Amoruso has been a teacher, an author and adjunct professor at Teachers College Columbia University, and Manhattanville College. She runs a consulting agency, and she has created a short film about this very subject. Yes, "More Than a Test Score" is not exactly a groundbreaking title, and yes, her delivery is at times a little over-fraught and yes, she kind of muddies Common Core in with other issues. But when she turns her camera on the classrooms of young children, she cuts right to the heart of what is so deeply wrong with the test-centered school movement. In seventeen minutes, with the help of several interview subjects, she addresses what children need and what they aren't getting, and she takes us right into the classrooms to see the effects.

Teachers know what to do-- the issue, as she lays it out, is getting the freedom to let them do it. In the absence of that, students learn to hate school.

I'm not sure how we can save the public school system if this is the way it starts. And my concerns are not just professional, but also personal-- I have twin sons on the way in just a few months, which means that my wife and I have about four or five years to figure out whether or not the local pubic school can be trusted to treat our children well.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Alternative Pathways

You will not find me among the staunch defenders of traditional teacher education programs.

I'm not the product of one myself (you can read more about that here), but I have sent many students into such programs, as well as hosting a bevy of student teachers from such places. There can be no doubt-- some teacher preparation programs should be completely overhauled. Slavish attention to unimportant details, theory too divorced from actual practice, lack of support for fledgling teachers and, nowadays, far too much emphasis on standards-tilted and test-centered education.

And yet, the only alternatives tossed out there in recent years are worse. Teach for America's theory that an ivy league degree and five weeks of "training" are all you need to stand in a classroom? Nope. Shortage-suffering states that lower the bar to "You must have a pulse to ride this teacher desk"? Double nope. And where do we turn for help on the subject-- to the ridiculous National Council on Teacher Quality and their bogus "research"? Nopity nope nope.

I can think of better ways (just waiting for the phone to ring so I can start my lucrative consulting biz), though I think the most basic problem is that unlike doctors, nurses or physical therapists, teachers are not allowed to be in charge of our own profession. If college programs needed the certification of a board of actual working teachers in order to run their programs, we'd see a new world within just a couple of years.

But of all the things about teacher training that need to be fixed, the biggest gap may be the matter of alternative pathways for late bloomers.

Read this story from a guest poster at Dad Gone Wild. This is the tale of Mary Jo Cramb, a teacher who entered the profession later in life, entering through the back door of TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project). TNTP is a quieter sibling of TFA, built on the idea of giving somewhat riper individuals an alternative pathway to the teaching profession. While I have some bones to pick with some of TNTP's emphasis on data and testing and other reformy nonsense, I agree with their basic concept. There should be a pathway for grown-ass men and women who decide they want to leave their old profession and enter teaching.

There are such programs here and there. In PA, we allow "guest teachers" to become substitute teachers, and by "allow" I mean we grab them happily, give them about five minutes of training, and drop them into a classroom. This goes about as well as you might expect. Some are surprised that a whole day of teaching is a lot like work. There are the ex-executives or ex-military who are shocked to discover that they actually can't automatically command a room full of teenagers as easily as a room full of underlings. And there are some who show a real knack for it. But most guest teachers evaporate quickly (sometimes by the end of their first day).

What are adults who want to go into teaching supposed to do?

Going back to college for years of undergraduate work is insanely not doable. And some grown ups who have worked in the Real World are extremely likely to look at the content of college education classes and think (or say) "This is a bunch of baloney."Nor do I think it's useful to look at somebody in her thirties or forties or beyond who really wants to get into teaching and say, "Well, you'll have to just hop in your time machine and go back to change your college major."

Grown up late-entry proto-teachers need different education than the young'uns. A grown adult who has held down a job for years probably won't need the parts of the training that are basically there to help the new proto-teacher look and act like a professional. And while student teaching is just one more semester of school for a college student, for an adult it's fifteen weeks of work without pay, and what person with adult responsibilities can easily manage that? On the other hand, a fresh proto-teacher who only left a classroom behind a few years ago may be less prone to shock and surprise and disorientation than someone who hasn't set foot in school in a decade. But with the exception of some city-based programs, nobody is really looking at how to create an alternative pathway that will actually serve both the aspiring teacher and the school system. And while TNTP may be wrong about what such a program should look like, they are not wrong about the need for that alternative path.

Can such a thing be designed to be both accessible and thorough? It wouldn't be easy-- after all, it's not easy to become a real nurse or real lawyer in your forties. But it is possible (I have friends who have done it-- the lawyer and nurse part). There's no reason it couldn't become possible for teachers as well-- provided it's set up as a way to provide the new teacher with all the professional background and training they need, and not set up as a way for someone to slap a fresh, warm body into a classroom ASAP. As Cramb writes:

TFA is a poor answer to these problems, but progressive education advocates have not yet proposed their own solution either. I wish I’d been able to join the teaching profession without associating with a group steeped in an ideology I now oppose, but I’ll always be grateful they gave me an opportunity that only they were able to provide.

There's a need not being met. We can do better.

Monday, March 13, 2017

MI: A Blueprint for Education?

First announced in Governor Rick Snyder's January 2016 State of the State address, the 21st Century Commission has been working diligently at an educational blueprint for Michigan. The final report on charting the edu-journey for Betsy Devos's home state is a hefty 146 pages. I've read it so that you don't have to. Buckle up, boys and girls.

Who Created This Thing?

The commission was headed up by Dr. Thomas Haas, President of Grand Valley University. Members included some folks from industry and business, some school superintendents (including the Grand Rapids super), some charter school folks, some state board of education members, representatives from AFT Michigan and the Michigan Education Association, and some assorted bureaucrats. Oh, and one lone classroom teacher (Matt Oney from Escanaba Area Public Schools).

Part of the process was, apparently, a listening tour. The breakdown of that is not encouraging; the thank you section mentions thirteen hosts from Northern Michigan, six hosts from the Upper Peninsula, eleven hosts from West Michigan, and from Southeast Michigan, a single stop on the "tour"-- a virtual visit to Voyageur Academy, a charter school in Detroit. (That visit was virtual, says the notes, "due to weather, so I guess Detroit has been socked in for the last year).

Introduction and Call To Action

The introduction hits several familiar notes. The economy has changed (and now it's hard to get work). Education improves opportunity (education and employment correlate, and we'll lazily accept causation there). Education is a public good (Michigan would probably work better with educated citizens). We need to act now (we have just noticed that Michigan is at the bottom of the national education barrel-- oops!).

So let's rebuild the system. Let's address K-12 performance. Let's get the graduation rate up. Let's transform, not tinker. Let's set some big goals (Michigan will be a top-ten state on NAEP, and beat Ontario on PISA-- really, I'm not making these up).

And let's do all of this without questioning any assumptions about testing, education, or poverty. Let's grossly oversimplify everything and fail to consider anything beyond surface fixes. Okay-- this last paragraph is me, not the commission.

More assumptions about lessons learned

We'll also talk about what we've learned from other states and nations-- well, not so much what we've actually learned about education, but what we've learned about marketing oversimplified amateur-hour education reformy baloney. So let's tick off some superficial, vague, obvious, and in some cases unsubstantiated ideas that we've strung together. Oh, and let's claim all of these ideas come from "high-performing systems" without ever identifying those supposed systems.

Let's build a comprehensive, aligned strategy. Let's have a shared vision of the future and shared strategies, because fixing a system by using central planning has never gone wrong before. Let's develop excellent educators, even though we don't really know what "excellent educator" actually means. Let's set rigorous academic standards for students-- in fact, let's call them "internationally benchmarked" even though no such thing exists. Create multiple pathways, aka let's put back some vocational training. Invest early; start intruding on children's lives at, or even before, birth. Recognize and fight inequity-- well, not actually either, because we'll talk about how poor kids don't get put in high-level classes and they get worse teachers and they get suspended a lot, but we will not consider any systemic issues involved. In other words, we 'll deal with poor kids by treating them as if they aren't poor. Let's set clear goals and measure what matters; let's collect lots of data and take lots of tests.

Essential Cultural Elements

I'm not sure that we didn't just take a right turn into the vaguely racist notion that non-wealthy non-white kids do poorly because they are culturally impaired. But here's what values the commission says we need to install:

Value postsecondary education. So let's get everyone excited about more school. Be honest about current performance; the old reformster standard that schools and teachers are just lying liars who lie about student performance. Do not accept excuses. Seriously-- the commission is putting "No excuses" right here in their plan. "We cannot tolerate excuses for poor performance." Stop whining about your poverty, you little snowflake. And, of course, persevere. I thought maybe they were going to say that students needed more grit, but by persevere they mean that for state leaders, this will be a marathon, not a sprint, and they had better plan on a long haul.

And now that we have all of that out of the way, it's time for the main event.

Nine Principles of World-Class Education

This is the frame work the commission is going to work with, with the nine principles that we have gleaned from, well, somewhere, organized into three main thrusts-- focus on learning, create a strong culture of success and build a coherent, connected education system from prenatal to career. And here we go.

Principle 1: Elevate the profession

Michigan needs to develop, recruit and retain top teaching talent. The commission sees four ways to accomplish this goal. Spoiler alert: none of these involve improving teacher pay or job security. But we are pushing out new teachers and only half of new principals last more than three years. And teacher education programs are down a third over just seven years ago. Whatever could it be? How shall we fix the causes we won't identify?

First, let's make it harder to become a teacher by raising requirements for college programs, including a year-long residency and "evidence of skills in their subject matter, social-emotional intelligence, and pedagogy." Yes, that would seem to mean, essentially a maturity test for proto-teachers. Also, let's "look for strategic opportunities to attract diverse candidates."

Second, let's create new career pathways so that we can reward teachers for achieving new "ranks" of awesomeness (and withhold rewards from less-awesome teachers, and also avoid giving teachers more pay just for seniority, because years dedicated to teaching should not be rewarded with either job security or pay-- do you feel strategically attracted to teaching in Michigan yet?)

Third, professional development should be individualized in reaction to teacher evaluations. And PLCs-- we hear those are cool.

Fourth, "to improve student outcomes, Michigan should implement a performance-based leadership development system that will ensure that building-level leaders are invested in student outcomes." In other words, any advancement up the career ladder should be tied to student test scores. Because the only measure of teaching that matters is student test scores (good luck to those of you who don't teach reading or math).

Principle 2: Build Capacity To Do What Works

The state should decide what good teaching means and disseminate those principles throughout the state.

The commission does allow that the state should provide the funding to match its mandates, but the commission would also like to see the state "amplify evidence-based practices and coordinate efforts to deploy them." Because nothing elevates the profession like having bureaucrats tell you how to teach. As with many of these strategies, one of our measurements for success is "Are student outcomes [aka test scores] improving?" Because one of the unstated recommendations here is that Michigan's entire school system be test-centered.

Principle 3: Invest in an Efficient and Effective System of Public Funding

We need to actually fund the system. That includes recognizing that some students need additional funds.

Okay, actually, this part is nuts, borrowed directly from efficiency experts and time-study work in industry. The commission would like the state first to make sure they've gotten rid of all the wasteful slack in education spending by having the governor and legislature (educational spending experts all) decide what money is being wasted.

Then they should figure out "base funding" built on "a transparent calculation of what it costs to meet performance standards." In other words, the state should be able to say, "It should cost $5,000 to get a fifth grader to score 255 on the Big Standardized Reading test, and if we want an additional 25 points on that score, it should cost us an additional $500." Then figure out how much extra it costs for students with "greater educational needs" (like, you know, figuring out the cost of cup holders and seat warmers in a new car). Add in some "foundational allowances" for other school costs, and figuring out funding is just a simple math problem. Piece of cake.

Principle 4: Increase Access to Postsecondary Education

Everybody needs one, so how do we make one available to everybody?

First, figure out the "proper funding level" for higher education. Then consider some strategies like direct funding and performance-based funding "as well as other methods to incent best practices, tuition restraint, and spending efficiency." Colleges can also earn more money by coining and copyrighting new words like "incent."

Next-- and this is novel-- turn P-12 systems into P-14 systems. Provide universal access to community college. It sure looks like the commission is recommending free community college for all, but it avoids any word remotely resembling "free."

Also, let's award merit scholarships to four-year schools. And let's put good guidance counselors in every high school.

Principle 5: Partner with Parents

"Our system must clearly recognize that parents are children’s first and most important teachers."

Embed human services in schools as well as connecting them to homes. "Nurture" parent-educator collaboration-- "Michigan must be more intentional about nurturing parent engagement."

Annnnd create user-friendly online tools with which to "navigate educational options." Like, alllll the choices, from preschool providers to postsecondary job training. Also, somebody should be overseeing this to make sure it's not passing along marketing baloney instead of facts. This all actually seems kind of noble, but practically speaking it seems like a very high mountain to climb and maintain.

The rest of our principles are related to the cradle-to-career pipeline building.

Principle 6: Enhance Accountability

Michigan's assessment system should be enhanced to better align and measure 21st century learning skills known to prepare our students in becoming both career and college ready and should also disseminate useful data that informs instructional practice in the classroom and measures the performance of our schools for the general public and policymakers.

Emphasis mine, because there are no such skills. Also, college and career ready. But this one gets worse.

Hold the right people accountable-- find out who's to blame for a low score and hunt them down. "All actors in the system, from pre-K providers to teacher preparation institutes, should be held accountable for student achievement outcomes." Notice who's not on that list? How about "legislators who failed to properly fund the school."

"Michigan must collect, analyze, and share quality data to hold all stakeholders accountable for performance outcomes." Everybody is supposed to be making "data-driven decisions," based on crappy BS Test scores. But wait-- could we come up with something worse? Sure we could:

Over the next decade, Michigan should move its P–20 education system toward a competency-based learning model, an approach that focuses on the student’s demonstration of desired learning outcomes as central to the learning process. The focus of learning should be shifted toward a student’s progression through curriculum at their own pace, depth, etc. As competencies are proven, students will advance academically.

Yes, the commission wants to go full CBE, the current Big Mack Daddy of unproven bad ideas. Also, note the P-20-- the commission repeatedly assumes that's the way to go. Cradle to career, baby-- all the way.

Principle 7: Ensure Access To High-Quality Learning Environments

That means, of course, loaded with tech. And as we noted with the CBE love above, a learning environment doesn't really need to be a school. Because with CBE, all you'll need is a comfy spot to curl up with your computer screen.

The commission shares a fun fact-- Michigan is one of 11 states that provides no support to local districts for capital outlay. Hmmm-- I'll bet that makes it really hard for poor districts to get nice buildings. The commission bets that, too. Does that seem generous? Here's the other shoe-- the state should also help pay for Public School Academies (aka charter schools). In other words, let's spend public tax dollars to buy buildings for private education businesses.

Principle 8: Invest Early

The commission would like to see universal preschool for four-year-olds, because the little slackers are just sitting at home and playing and generally acting like children. But if Michigan is going to get top-quality teachers for such a program, then it will have to start paying them better, so the commission would like to see some financial help thrown that direction.

Alas, this support for early childhood development comes with a goal to "enhance early learning outcome measurement and tracking." So we need to tag each child early on and start gathering child-specific data and outcome stuff. Not, the commission assures us, standardized tests. Just, you know, observational tools. That will be attached to your child's data backpack and stay there forever. Your potty habits as a four year old will follow you into your job application when you're twenty. Is that cool, or what?

Principle 9: K-12 Governance

Do you remember when the GOP was the party of small government and local control? Boy, those were some good times, huh. This set of recommendations definitely makes me nostalgic. The commission wants to develop "a coherent P–20 governance structure that ensures the public education and higher education marketplace produces high levels of learner outcomes, equity, efficiency, innovation, and collaboration." Doesn't that sound swell. Just watch.

First, we "reform" the state board of education. Specifically, we "reform" it by giving the governor more control over it. Currently members are elected by voters for eight year terms. The commission suggests that three options be brought to a constitution-amending vote. 1) Let the government appoint all the board members. 2) Let the governor appoint the state superintendent and then abolish the board entirely. 3) Make the board bigger by adding governor-appointed members. Any one of these will help by keeping those damn voters from sending people to the capitol that the governor just doesn't want to work with.

Next, we "enhance" the Michigan Department of Education. We will make them more helpy because we will "situate education functions that are currently performed by a range of state agencies within the department." This is not all foolishness-- some of those agency functions exist because governors created them to get certain functions away from the department. But combined with the previous recommendation, this puts everything back under governor control, which is good because reasons. Or because education works best when controlled by venal politicians.

Then, we "reconceptualize the structure and function" of the intermediate school districts. Yikes. We should also "support" local efforts to consolidate school districts. We might even incent it.

Finally, we must make sure all students have access to high quality options, whether those options are public or charter or voucher-choicey or charter or online charters or, you know, charters. In other words, we should expand choice a whole lot. And yes, this recommendation comes under the same heading as "we need to combine school districts because we have too many empty seats." The rationale is that Michigan has too many empty seats, but not enough quality seat. Also, Michigan's "expansion of school has improved outcomes for some students," which is yet another assertion for which I'd love to see some evidence.

Invest in the Future

We're getting close to the end, so I'll make this simple-- doing all these things would be really, really expensive.

Where to start

This is a thirty year plan. The commission offers a chart putting all these ideas in order. CBE and district consolidation is long term. Everything else is medium or short term.

What do we have here?

This is a plan that enshrines testing. It promotes charters, choice, CBE, and other methods preferred by privatizers and profiteers. It offers a system that keeps teacher pay and job-security low and tries to mask these as great benefits. It consolidates the governor's power over the school system and takes it away from voters. It extends the government's grubby data-sniffing nose from cradle to grave. It even holds onto those Common Core dog-whistle-words "college- and career-ready."

It is, in short, a plan that doubles down on every lousy reformer idea of the past fifteen years. The only good news is that is expensive, and if Michigan's leaders were willing to actually spend money on education, they wouldn't need a commission to spend a year telling them how to dig themselves out of the hole they put themselves in (and offer up the answer "dig harder").

If anyone imagined there would be something in the report that would actually offer support or assistance to beleaguered Michigan public education, they can let go of that faint hope. This is the same old reformsters Bible, writ long and large. Betsy DeVos must be happy to know she left her home state in good hands.

The best we can say about this report is that it's has some honest parts about how bad a hole Michigan has dug for its education system. Unfortunately, it doesn't have a clue about how to get out of that hole.