Friday, July 20, 2018

Fixing Education Journalism

I'm not going to attempt the entire fix in just one post. But Amanda Ripley wrote a thought-provoking piece about "Complicating the Narratives" in which she discusses how journalists need to apply the lessons about human psychology in conflict to how they cover issues (Ripley often covers education). Alexander Russo wrote an ed-centric piece in response to her piece, interviewing her for a bit more clarification. I'm just going to add my two further down the food chain. I'm going to cut some corners here because both of those pieces are pretty hefty; if you want a fuller picture, follow those links (I also recommend Paul Thomas's blog, where these issues are regularly discussed).
Hey! Look what isn't mentioned!

Ripley offers six steps to improve education journalism:

1. Amplify contradiction
2. Widen the lens
3. Ask questions that get to people's motivations
4. Listen more, and better
5. Expose people to the other tribe
6. Counter confirmation bias (carefully)

And that list isn't bad, though I don't think it's complete. But Russo gets my ears to perk up with this observation:

Those of us who write about education may think of ourselves as objective seekers of the truth, but we choose and frame and report our stories in ways that aren’t always as self-reflective as may be necessary. In the process, we may be allowing ourselves to be used by polarizing forces that want us to take up their causes, playing the role of the kids goading classmates to fight rather than the role of translators we aim to be.

Well, yes. Russo quotes Ripley suggesting part of a solution:

Education journalists tend to hover around a conflict, throwing gasoline on it every 20 minutes or so but never asking…’What’s driving people to have these very predictable positions?'

And yes, there is the usual journalistic focus on conflict, coupled with the addiction to false equivalencies (e.g. creationism and science are just two equally valid points of view, which-- no, they aren't). Focusing on motivations would, indeed, be helpful-- exactly why is this person pushing a particular point of view? Exactly why is this other person disagreeing?

But for me, this all nibbles around the edges of some critical issues in education coverage.

If I could add to Ripley's list, I would add this:


Maybe I'd underline it, too.

One of the things that drives me absolutely bonkers is the widespread, absolutely unquestioned use of terms such as "student achievement" and "teacher effectiveness" in placer of the more accurate "standardized test scores." This is no more sensible than referring to pro-choice activists as "anti-baby" or using alcohol consumption figures as an "American happiness index." But by using the terminology, journalists helped cement the unsupported notion that standardized test results are a good proxy for educational achievement just as surely as writers of an earlier era sold a particular point of view by always preceding the word "Communist" with "godless." Seriously-- I cannot overstate how much this bugs me. Most of the architecture of ed reform is built on the assumption that these tests are valid, are being used for their correct purpose, and generate hard data. And ed journalists just keep pushing those assumptions without ever examining whether they are valid. Examine those assumptions.

Too many ed journalists also amplify and repeat the notion that the ed debates involve just two sides. It doesn't really matter what you identify as the two "sides"-- as soon as you've decided there are only two, you are in trouble. You're ignoring some important parts of the debate. Examine those assumptions.

Ripley and Russo like the idea of talking to actual students, and talking to actual teachers would be great, too. But journalists always need to question who selected the people they're talking to. Teachers who have been awarded certain honors have been chosen to reflect the values of whoever is awarding those honors, and students are often hand-picked so that only the "good" ones are shown to the public.

To Ripley's list I would also add this:

8. All sides are not equal.

Yes, if journalists pay attention to Ripley's six suggestions, they should sort of stumble into this. But the education debates are unique in how mismatched the players are.

Pushing various forms of ed reform are organizations with vast resources, huge piles of money to throw at the issues. There are people out there being paid handsomely to do nothing but write and talk about how awesome various ed reform ideas would be. There are entire organizations that have been set up to do nothing except push an ed reform policy. And when billionaires like Bill Gates place a call to Important People to explain why, say, Common Core should be a thing, their calls are answered.

There is nothing similar on the pro-public ed side. Ed reform advocates like to point to the unions as equally as powerful as the various billionaires and corporations, but the union positions are a bit more complicated, and not always solidly on the side of public ed  (e.g. the leadership support for Common Core over rank and file objections). The rest of the pro-public ed side is made up of people like me-- folks who are advocating, in their spare time, for free. Folks who don't have great media connections and who, because they have a real day job, are not easily available for a quick quote or timely interview. Education continues to be one of the few journalism areas where actual practicing experts in the field are rarely consulted.

Education journalists have been really really really really REALLY slow to recognize that much of the education "news" coming across their desks is actually PR from people with vested business interests in whatever piece of "news" is being sold. And most of them have not developed the contacts in the teacher world that would allow them to say, "Hey, could you look at this and tell me if it smells funny?" Journalists repeatedly fail to ask the critical questions because they lack the expertise (which is not a failure on their part) and they lack contacts with the needed expertise (which is). So dozens of journalists write pieces about charter schools that send all their graduates to college without ever asking how many students in the original ninth grade cohort were washed out before they could become graduates. Or they get suckered into promoting the non-existent DC miracle.

That pushing is coming primarily from the folks with the money. Guys like me do not have an available mechanism for pushing our story ideas to mainstream ed journalists. I mean, I suppose I could, but as it is I'm trying to finish this post before my babies wake up from their nap.)

There are some people out there doing good work in the world of education journalism, and it's great that conversations like the one Ripley kicked off are going on. It's a much more complicated field to cover than it was twenty-five years ago, and many editors have not caught on to that ("Hey, Freshface McNewby-- why don't you go get your feet wet by covering education! Who's your team? Why, that would be you!").

Ed journalism can be better-- much better-- and Ripley has opened up a worthwhile conversation. Let's hope it actually helps.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

How To Build a Teacher

Now that we're talking about teacher residencies again, let me trot out my own teacher training, because I think it's a model for how teachers can be created. Then I'll tell you why it's probably not going to happen.


I attended Allegheny College, a small liberal arts college that, at the time, had a bit of a personality disorder (on paper, a liberal arts school and in practice, a pre-med, pre-law school). The school is located in northwest Pennsylvania. My graduating class had about 400 people in it. The education program was tiny (there were about eleven of us in my graduating class), but it was unusual.

Undergrad Prep

My Bachelors degree is in English, not education. The first principle of the program was that I should be an expert in my content area. I took about two education courses before I student taught. I was required to do some volunteer field work, including some sort of activity in a local school (I taught King Arthur to a high school class and Beowulf to a handful of gifted third graders) plus some sort of work with students in any setting (I helped out with the youth group at a local church). So we needed to have some acquaintance with the species of human students, and we had to be well-versed in the subject area we planned to teach.

This was definitely better than the student teachers I have received from local colleges, many of whom had basically no more than a high school education in the subject matter-- meaning they literally knew very little more than my students in class. This is a recipe for Bad Things. Classroom Management Rule #1: Know what the heck you're talking about.

Student Teaching

Student teaching for Allegheny folks happened in Cleveland. Before I student taught, Allegheny placed teachers in Cleveland City Schools, but it was the 1970s and the taxpayers kept voting down referendums which meant the schools kept closing in October when they ran out of money for that calendar year, and that was a bit too unstable for the college's tastes. So I taught in Cleveland Heights (Wiley Jr. High).

While student teaching, we all lived in apartments in a building at the corner of E9th and Superior (it's a hotel now). The college also rented several conference rooms, and most nights of the week we took education classes there, including methods for our specific disciplines as well as general ed classes.

I cannot begin to tell you how powerful it is to sit in a methods class and , instead of discussing what might happen some day in some hypothetical classroom, to talk about what happened to me today in my classroom, or what I am planning for that classroom tomorrow. Several of the classes were taught by working teachers-- not college professors.


That model of taking education classes just hints at the support the program provided. One of the classes was taught by the same professor who visited us in our classrooms. And unlike the typical twice-a-semester drive-bys that many student teachers get, my supervisor saw my usually once a week, for a couple of hours. So that once again, in his methods class, we could talk about very specific issues and very specific solutions while still looking at the larger picture. We could talk about issues specific to my own style in the classroom.

The Graduate Program

By the time all this was happening, we had to be accepted to the colleges Masters of Arts in Education program. That meant we went straight from graduation to summer school, where we took more high-level education courses and had the opportunity to take elective courses in areas where we thought we could use a boost.


The most nerve-wracking part of the program came next-- we needed a teaching job within forty miles of down town Cleveland. That's because our employers would view us a first-year teachers, but the college viewed us as interns. We had to be near Cleveland because a couple times a month we would drive in to that field office for classes, and the same professor who supervised us in student teaching now supervised us in our first year of teaching. Not as often by any means-- but that extra support through the first year is invaluable (particularly if, like me, you started your first year with a six week strike).

Some additional coursework over the next few years, and we were done, with a degree and teaching credentials for both Ohio and Pennsylvania.


Just one big one-- the huge cost. If you were paying attention to the numbers, you noticed two professors (one elementary, one secondary) based in Cleveland, a couple of rooms rented for a field office, and some part time faculty for those courses, all for just eleven students. The college ultimately decided that it couldn't afford to keep the program, and so they axed it.

In connection with a residency discussion, someone brought up the question of who pays the cost, and that remains a problem in teaching. Too many schools are trying to stay solvent by doing mass business in teacher preparation, but you can't mass-produce good teachers any more than you can mass-produce good doctors or nurses. It takes some personal mentoring and support. Allegheny's model co-opted the school district for my first year/internship, because I was a paid staffer. But nobody was paying the college extra to run a department with the highest prof-student ratio on campus.

Training teachers better than we do now means spending more than we do now, and where will that money come from? School districts that pay for a first teacher draft pick, sight unseen, a few years from now? More money from the government that won't adequately support education now? Do colleges make the education department more expensive to get into? None of these seem likely.

Finding a way to involve active or retired classroom teachers seems promising-- after all, we have a huge workforce of practicing experts in this field. But how that works out practically I do not know.

What I do know is the list of elements needed for a good teacher prep program-- strong foundation in content, strong support during student teaching, and strong support on into the first year or two in the field. Plus, in some states, a way to get potential co-operating teachers past the question, "Do I dare take a student teacher when my own career depends on these kids' test scores?"

It can be done, but it won't be cheap. Which is why it probably won't be done. But if a few more programs could even inch a bit in the right direction, it would help.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Where Are The Robot Teachers?

This week Neil Selwyn (Monash University) turned up on the website of the British Educational Research Association with "Robots in the Classroom? Preparing for the automation of teaching,"
a title which poses a question and then skips over the really long discussion that question ought to prompt. 

Fifty years after Stanley Kubrick introduced cinemagoers to HAL9000, the prospect of a robot-infused world still feels more science fiction than social fact. Yet robots are steadily beginning to impact on the nature of contemporary work. Industries such as circuit-board manufacturing and underground mining now rely on automated, mechanised robots. Elsewhere, intelligent systems are prompting forecasts of the ‘end of the professions’ and declining need for human doctors, lawyers and accountants. High-tech automation is now a real proposition across many sectors of work and employment.

One notable exception to this trend is education. 

Selwyn notes that "it is generally assumed" that teaching is going to be done by humans. But that assumption, he suggests, is tied to the "continued dominance of mass schooling." But advances in artificial intelligence, robotics and machine learning should change that. Why are people pushing classroom robots. Well...

There is clearly growing corporate impatience to reform what are perceived as outdated and inefficient school systems. Calls for the automation of classroom teaching are often driven by desires to ‘reboot’ 20th century school systems that business interests suspect are no longer fit for purpose.

Without discussing exactly which "purpose" we're talking about, Selwyn connects this push to "growing political disgruntlement" with the teaching profession. Robot teachers would help disrupt unions and the profession as a whole.

He notes the wide range AI products out there, and the ability to "capture over a million data-points per user," without questioning if that might also be a motivator for business as well as a huge threat to the privacy of the children themselves.

But it's the non-response of the profession that seems to bother him. Why, given the momentum of the robot onslaught, is there not "greater consternation throughout education." Why is education as a sector not spending more time preparing for the arrival of our robot overlords.

There are plenty of reasons not to get excited about the robots. For one, the industry itself is questioning the AI developers themselves. A recent sciencemag.coim piece focuses on Ali Rahimi, a Google researcher who got a huge ovation at an AI conference for charging that machine learning algorithms have become a form of "alchemy." Researchers can't reproduce results and many developers do not seem to know which parts of the programs are actually doing the work.

Despite this lack of ability to actually produce Chief Instructor Robot, many school leaders are moving from a bunch of algorithm-driven learning software to even more of it. In Clearwater County, Idaho, for example, parents are complaining that the Summit software has moved from being a curriculum supplement to the actual curriculum. In response, the school board president touted the promise of Personalized [sic] Learning, which leans even more heavily on an algorithm-driven mass instruction software set up.

There are many reasons to resist the Robo-Teachers-- the lack of data privacy, the biases embedded into any software by the programmers, the lack of actual education expertise in the programmers, the lack of human contact and interaction for students. But there are problems even more simple than that.

I've just returned from a visit to my daughter and her family in Seattle. They have a Google Home system (similar to the Alexa) and it sort of works, except when it doesn't. I watched my grandchildren and there parents ask for the same song many times over the course of the visit, and there was no predicting what Google would actually do in return (on the plus side, I've know heard the German version of the Gummi Bear song). My wife and I used the GPS programs in our phones, which as usual worked well except when they didn't (first it couldn't find the grocery store, then it couldn't find us). And I'll just refer you to the story of my ex-wife's mail.

In other words, on top of the philosophical objections to robot teachers, we have to also consider whether or not they could actually do the job well. All the empirical evidence says no. Like the sort-of mostly self-driving kind of cars, most of our computer-based algorithm-powered tech works as long as there's a human buffer between the tech and the world-- because the tech doesn't work well enough on its own to be trusted. And that means it doesn't work well enough to be entrusted with the running of a classroom occupied by tiny humans-- or even a single tiny human.

But here-- since Selwyn opened with a Kubrickian HAL9000 reference, it seems only appropriate to end with this:

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Why Protest Betsy

This Monday, Betsy DeVos will be touring a public school in Erie, Pennsylvania (it's an ironic choice, considering how badly Erie's schools have suffered from "choice" and other nifty reform policies). This means that lots of pro-public education folks are mobilizing to make a strong, vocal, public protest in her immediate vicinity. And a lot of other people will be asking the question, "Why bother?'

It's a valid question. And look-- here are some of the things that are not going to happen as a result of this or any other protest:

DeVos is not going to say, "Dang! Look at all; these protestors! All right! You win! I'm going to change the policies I've previously supported because you guys just talked me into it."

DeVos is not going to go home and think, "You know, one of the things I heard shouted at me, or one of the posters I saw, made me rethink some of the philosophical premises on which I've based my entire lifetime of anti-public ed activism. I think I shall change my ways."

Neither DeVos nor any other member of this administration is going to think, "This is just awful. I'm so ashamed. I'm going to quit."

DeVos is not going to stop and think, "You know-- I really should just sit down and listen to these people. They might have a valid point."

And no DeVos nor Trump supporter will feel one iota less supportive at the end of the day than at the beginning.

So why bother?

DeVos will dismiss the protestors as protectors of the status quo, opponents of Good Change, and generally awful people. She will connect education protests to one of the over-arching narratives of this administration, that only some people are the Real America, and Those Other People are not. That only Real Americans deserve to receive the blessings of this nation, and that the others should stay in their proper place, silent and compliant.

So why bother?

I can offer several reasons.

First, because the alternative is a small or non-existent protest, which allows the administration to push the story that they already try to make live as a lie-- there just aren't that many people who care, aren't that many people who oppose Trump and DeVos and the rest. The opposition is weak and tiny and can safely be ignored or mocked. If nobody shows up to protest, then the feds get to share photos of empty streets and the rest of America shrugs and says, "Well, yeah-- I guess there really isn't anyone who's all that upset with the current trends."

Second, because cognitive dissonance is taxing. Many have noted the DeVosian smirk. It's a smirk that says, "I don't really have to listen to any of this. I'm above this. None of it matters. None of it is real." It's the look of someone who must filter out the evidence of her own eyes and ears in order to maintain her own view of what is happening. This is the work of dampening cognitive dissonance, and as someone who has played that game before, it is tiring. Filtering out all the protestors is tiring. Maintaining the fiction that you are on a mission from God and wise people recognize it and are grateful to you for stooping to better their sad lives-- that's tiring. I don't believe we can get DeVos to change to another track, but I believe we can make it cost to her to hold to the one she's on. When voices get really really loud, you can only block them out by stuffing so much cotton in your ears that it hurts.

Third, if there's one thing I've learned writing this blog, it's that pro-public ed folks, people who have invested their hearts and souls in one of the US's greatest and most important institutions, feel isolated. When you are constantly told that up is down and white is black and that standardized tests are the best measure of children and teachers, you start to doubt yourself. When something is not right, it's important for people to stand together and say, "This is not right." It's important for them to be able to look around and see that they are not alone, that they are surrounded by thousands of people who see what they see. And all the people who can't be there, but watch from elsewhere get that same benefit. Teachers from all across the country can look at pictures of a protest and think, "Wow. It's not just me."

Fourth-- collateral leverage. DeVos's visit is being handled by Mike Kelly, a GOP Representative who is in a tight race and deserves to be defeated for so many reasons. If he's hoping that a visit from a high-ranking DC secretary will help him out, he deserves to learn otherwise.

Henry David Thoreau in his essay "Civil Disobedience" encouraged us to be friction in the machine, like sand dropped into gears. We may not make the machine stop today. We may not end its movement right now. But we make harder to keep grinding away, and that wears it down and brings about its eventual collapse. I believe as an absolute rule in life that you are always either getting better or getting worse, making things better or helping them fall apart. There is no standing still.

My wife and I can't be there Monday (we are visiting family in Seattle-- no doubt DeVos deliberately waited till we were going to be out of town), but if you're anywhere near Erie, you should go. Yes, it will be hard to park, and crowded and messy, and somebody may even stand up and say something stupid that you disagree with. But it's important to be there, to be visible, to be heard. Years from now you don't want to be explaining to someone, "Yeah, I knew it was wrong, but I stayed home and didn't speak up." Public education has been under attack for too long in this country, and people have been too quiet about it. The time to stand up and speak up is now. No, it's not going to suddenly make everything better if you stand up and speak up, but the alternative is to step back and watch it get worse.

Speak out and rally begins at 1:00 on Monday, July 16, outside Pfeiffer-Burleigh Elementary School, 235 East 11th Street in Erie PA.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Something For You To Watch

This short film features an old teaching and theater friend of mine, and it addresses an issue that matters to many readers of this blog. It'll just take about nine minutes of your time.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Too Personalized

Personalized learning is the hot new idea in education reform, but some versions could get a little too personal.
While personalized learning is a broad and ill-defined field these days, many folks want to harness computer power to match students up with perfectly suited educational materials. This involves some sort of algorithm that collects and crunches data, then spits out a result, not unlike the way Facebook or Netflix collect data with users in order to match them up with the right products, or at least the best marketing for those products. As we've seen with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, there are some real privacy issues with data mining on this scale, but that has not stopped developers from digging deeper and deeper.
Personalized learning can be as simple as an exercise management system. Pat completes Widget Studies Worksheet 457A/rq, and because Pat missed questions 6, 9, and 11, the algorithm says Pat should next complete Worksheet 457B/sg, and so on until Pat completes Unit Test 1123-VZ and is declared a master of widgetry. This may sound like a boring mass work worksheet, but instead of paper worksheets, the modern system puts all the worksheets on a computer and students complete them on a computer screen, so it's like super-exciting.
Data mining academics is central to many personalized systems. AltSchool, the Silicon Valley Wunderschool (now a business marketing wunderschool-in-a-box) touted its massive data mining, with teachers recording every significant learning moment and turning it over to a data team in order to create a program of perfectly personalized instruction for each student.
But many personalized learning developers are certain that data mining the academics is not enough. Social and emotional learning is another growth sector in education programming, and also, many folks have suggested that the young people are not automatically entranced by dull work just because it's on a computer screen.
So we're seeing attempts to mine other sorts of data. NWEA, the company that brought us the MAP test, now offers a feature that tells you whether or not the student taking the computer test is engaged or not. They believe that by analyzing the speed with which a student is answering questions, they can determine whether or not said student is trying. During test time, the teacher dashboard will toss up a little warning icon beside the name of any not-trying-hard-enough student so that the teacher can "redirect" the student.
That is more redundant than creepy; many teachers perform a similar analysis and intervention with a technique called "looking with their eyes." But the personalization can get creepier.

There are several companies like LCA and its Nestor program. The program uses the students' computer webcam to track and analyze facial expressions in order to determine if the instructional program is working. Monitoring programs like Nestor (there are several out there) claim they can read the student's face for different emotional reactions the better to personalize the educational program being delivered. The beauty of these systems, of course, is that if we have students taking computerized courses that read their every response, we don't really need teachers or school. Anywhere there is a computer and a webcam, school is in session and the program is collecting data about the students.
Does that seem excessive? Check out Cognition Builders, a company that offers to help you deal with your problem child by monitoring that child 24/7.
There are huge issues with all of these. From the educational standpoint, we have to question if anyone can really develop an algorithm or a necessarily massive library of materials that will actually work better than a trained human. From a privacy standpoint, the data collection is troubling. It's concerning enough to create a system that allows employers to "search" for someone who is strong in math and moderately strong in written language based simply on algorithm-driven worksheet programs. It's even more concerning when the program promises that it can also screen out future workers who are flagged as "Uncooperative" because of behavior patterns marked by a computer program in third grade.
And we still haven't found the final frontier of creepitude.
Meet the field of educational genomics. The dream here is to use genetic information  to create "precision education," which much like "precision medicine," "precision agriculture" and "precision electioneering" would use huge levels of data down to the genetic level to design a perfect program.  The MIT Technology Review this spring profiled $50 DNA tests for IQ.
Imagine a future in which doctors perform a DNA test on an embryo and by the time that child is born, an entire personalized education program is laid out for her. The constant computer monitoring collects her performance and behavior data, so that by the time she's ten years old, her digital record already makes a complete profile of her available, with an algorithm judging her on academic abilities as well as judging whether she's a good person.
There are a thousand reasons to question whether or not we could do any of this well or accurately. But before we try to see if we can enter this impersonally personalized brave new world, we really need to talk about whether or not we should.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

What Kind of Teachers Applaud Janus?

I told you they existed, and here's one example, writing out the argument that I've heard before:

Some may call me a freeloader, because the union negotiates my salary each year despite receiving no money from me, but I feel that whatever benefit I receive from this service is outweighed by the fact that the union’s collective bargaining with the district puts me in a position to be unable to ask for extra income for stellar work.

The article, posted at the super-conservative Federalist, is entitled "I'm A Teacher. Here's Why I'm Cheering My New Freedom From Unions." The writer is Sarah Mindlin. Mindlin just finished her first year as a teacher in Las Cruces, New Mexico. She graduated from New Mexico State University in 2014 with a Bachelor in Individualized Studies that included coursework in Kinesiology, Exercise Science, and Elementary Education. She then earned a Master of Arts in Teaching at Western Governors University, an on-line school. Her LinkedIn profile says that she's "knowledgeable and excited about cutting-edge educational technology and self-paced learning."

It's not that she hasn't been tempted to join the union:

Our students’ lives include single mothers, numerous siblings, incarcerated fathers, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, custody battles, and a rotating cast of stepfathers. The risk of a wild allegation from a parent or family member informs every decision we make, and the union’s assurance of legal and financial support is tempting, even for someone like me who disapproves of the political activities my dues would be supporting.

It's an unfortunate paragraph, suggesting as it does that she considers the need for legal protection given that she has to work with Those People. I'd like to assume that this paragraph is the result of infelicitous composition and not problematic attitudes about the public that she serves.

But like many teacher supporters of the Janus decision, Mindlin lives in an imaginary world.

I don’t think it occurred to me until hearing commentary on the recent Supreme Court case that without the union, I could actually negotiate my own salary with my employer.

Pro-union folks often scoff at Janus supporters as being only too happy to accept the benefits that the union has won for them, but that argument misses the mark, because many of these folks, like, apparently, Mindlin, see the union contract as holding them back.

... I feel that whatever benefit I receive from this service is outweighed by the fact that the union’s collective bargaining with the district puts me in a position to be unable to ask for extra income for stellar work.

Without the union holding her back, she could march into... well, somewhere, and demand a big fat bonus for her outstanding work. Now she can negotiate her own contract, and it's going to be awesome.

I'm not sure what scenario she imagines. She walks into the district office and asks for a bonus and the administration says, "Yes, wow! We'll get you a couple of extra thousand by cutting the pay of Mrs. Chalkdust who teaches next door to you. I'm sure she won't mind and this won't cause any problems at all." Or maybe they'll tell her, "Yes, you have been so tremendous that we are going to ask the taxpayers to accept a tax hike to finance your bonus."

She should probably take a trip to some right-to-work state and check out the many teachers who are now driving Lexuses (Lexi?) and eating caviar because they have been able to negotiate contracts far more lucrative than the union ever did. Or maybe visit Wisconsin where union-busting was simply the opening move in a deliberate program to lower teacher pay.

Fans of bonus pay in education always ignore one important factor. In the corporate world, bonuses are paid because we had a good year, and because we had a good year, we have a pile of "extra" money, and from that pile, we can pay bonuses. But public schools don't turn a profit, no matter how great a year they have, which means that the money for bonuses must come from somewhere else. An easy and common way to manage that problem is to make everyone's base pay lower; that way we can call this bunch of money that used to be part of your salary a "bonus."

Mindlin is also at a disadvantage because she doesn't seem to know how negotiating works:

Most teachers I know and with whom I work go above and beyond their job descriptions on a daily basis, despite knowing they will take home the same paycheck regardless of their efforts. Still, imagine the improvements that could be made to education if teachers were incentivized to go the extra mile and work at their highest capacity in return for more than just a warm fuzzy feeling inside.

Do you see the problem? If in fact most teachers will go the extra mile for a warm fuzzy feeling, why would any employer feel the need to give them money? If you're negotiating stance is "I'm going to do great work for you no matter what, but you should give me more money just because I think I deserve it," then guess how much bonus you're going to get? $0.00.

If Mindlin is serious about this, then what she should be announcing is that from this moment forward, she is not going to lift a finger outside of school hours, not going to take a single paper home, not going to take a single extra duty, not going to go an extra foot, let alone a mile, until her bosses give her a nice hike in pay.

But Mindlin, like many others, imagines that she has some sort of negotiating power as an individual when in fact she has none. Heck, the very technology-based self-paced learning that she's such a fan of makes her easily replaceable with someone even less qualified. She's a "proud freeloader" because she thinks the union is depriving her of awesome bonuses and performance-based raises that she (who has exactly one year in the classroom) is certain she would be raking in. Oh, honey. You're so cute. Check back in a year or two and let us know how that self-negotiated contract thing is working out. I'm sure that in New Mexico, where teacher retention because of low pay is already a problem, districts will be falling all over themselves to shell out big bonuses for educators. And in ten years, when you're still making what you made this year, we can talk some more about the days when that mean old union forced you into a salary schedule.

People like Mindlin exist, and they're going to be leaving the unions in droves. It may be that nothing except an unpleasant collision with reality will bring them back, or they may never come back at all. But it will certainly take more than a pushy email or phone call from the union to bring them into the fold.

In the meantime, here's a fable. Once upon a time, there was a beautiful carousel horse. She had flowing hair, a beautiful saddle, and lovely shining decorations. When a child climbed up on her back and the music played, she would glide up and down, up and down, racing forward, the wind running through her mane. But the carousel horse was discontented. "If only," she thought, "I didn't have this big pole running through my belly. I feel that it's holding me back, and if I could get free of it... My mane is so beautiful and my saddle is so shiny, I just know that I could run so much faster than all these other horses." One day a man came and liberated the carousel horse, removing her from the post and leaned her up against a shed beside the carousel. At first she was very happy, excited about her new freedom. But then the next day the carousel started up, and the children climbed onto the horses and the music began to play and the carousel horse didn't move at all. The carousel spun past her, but she didn't move up and down, and no wind blew through her mane, and no children came to ride on her. She had failed to realize that what she thought was holding her back was actually carrying her forward.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Personalizing the Pitch

You may have heard that a judge just approved AT&T's acquisition of Time-Warner. I'm sure that the end of net neutrality won't figure into this at all and, for instance, your AT&T phone will not in any way give an advantage to the streaming of Time-Warner content.

But that's a conversation for another day. I was reading this piece at the AV Club's news site. Erik Adams is particularly concerned about the fate of HBO; AT&T seems to have plans for the premium channel that are very different from its historical "prestige" character. Instead, AT&T seems to be leaning toward a Netflix-style carpet-bombing approach, where customers have a giant smorgasbord to choose from.

Incidentally, Netflix has had yet another instructive episode. Its newest breakout hit is a romantic-comedy called the Kissing Booth, and chances are you've never heard of it. Critics hate it. But its a certifiable Netflix hit, created and marketed in the Netflix style. If you haven't heard about it, that's because Netflix's algorithm doesn't think you want to.

Netflix's use of data is an important lesson in data mining. It's not just that its recommendation engine targets you based on what you've previously watched. It figures out how to market to you based on what you've watched. So for instance, we find Netflix coming up with a video edit to pitch Lost in Space to Canadians who like comedy. Really.

In other words, when we think of personalization, we think of creating a product to meet your particular tastes. But personalization in marketing is about taking the product you already have and finding ways to convince people they want it. You don't create a product to meet their needs and tastes-- you take the same old product you were going to have anyway, and you personalize the marketing.

This, in fact, is exactly what the Facebook-Trump-Cambridge Analytica scandal was about. Trump didn't change who he was-- but detailed data scraped from millions of Facebook profiles informed the campaign. They were never going to "personalize" the candidate for the market, but they could, and evidently did, "personalize" the packaging for Trump-- based on a mountain of data.

So keep that in mind as we get back to the AT&T merger. Leaked audio from a "town hall" meeting included this quote from newly minted CEO of Warner Media John Stankey explaining why the Netflix model is a good idea for HBO:

I want more hours of engagement. Why are more hours of engagement important? Because you get more data and information about a customer that then allows you to do things like monetize through alternate models of advertising as well as subscriptions, which I think is very important to play in tomorrow’s world.

More engagement means more data, and data is the oil of the new world.

So when you hear reformsters pitching the Great New Idea of Personalized [sic] Learning by way of  algorithm-directed mass materials, what we're really talking about is extended engagement. Of course these guys agree that the Big Standardized Test at year's end is a bad idea-- it provides limited engagement and limited opportunity to collect data. But hook that student up to a computer every single day, taking quizzes, writing essays, answering questions, and the opportunity to collect data is huge. This is data that can be used not just to sort young meat widgets for their future employers, but data that allows marketers to sell them more movies, more cleaning products, more political candidates. Orwell predicted that Big Brother would be watching; what he didn't predict was that Big Brother would be busy trying to sell us stuff with a personalized pitch.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

ICYMI: Getting Read for Travel Edition (7/8)

We'll be flying off to visit family later this week, and there will probably not be an edition next weekend. But here's some things to read from this week. Remember to share.

How Education Philanthropy Can Accidentally Promote Groupthink

Rick Hess takes a look at how philanthropists silence dissent (even if they don't mean to, which is a generous interpretation, but this is still worth a look).

More States Opting To Robo-grade Essays By Computer

I responded to this over at Forbes this week, but this really stupid trend just won't die.

10 Tech Tools That Will Make You a Super Teacher

Ha. Not really. You might have sailed past this one because of the title, but take a look.

ISTE, Data Tracking, and the Myth of Personalized Learning

Michael Crowley went to ISTE and came back with a few things to complain about.

A Guide to the Corporations That Are Defunding Public Education and Opposing Striking Teachers

A handy guide to some of the major players.

FSC Researcher Documents Teachers Impact Not Standardized Test Results

Someone in Florida is trying to do the right thing. Intriguing project.

Coordinated Uniqueness Comes for the Minneapolis Public Schools

Also, a consultant named Cheesebrow. Nobody captures the absurdity of Minneapolis education like Sarah Lahm.

What the Sordid Saga of a Silicon Valley Start-Up Tells Us About #EdReform 

Have You Heard with Jennifer Berkshire and guest co-host John Warner takes a look at a giant tech start-up scam, and what it tells us about education disruptors.

Gates’s Blunders Destroy Teachers and Public Schools!

Many writers parsed out the Rand report showing that Bill Gates just wasted a ton of money, but Nancy Bailey's take is not to be missed.

Slow Down Before You Support Trump Ending Obama-Era School Guidance

Finally, here's Neal McClusky of the libertarian Cato Institute arguing in favor of affirmative action. Really.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Jack Weil Is a Dope

I don't want to be too subtle about this, because some things require a not-subtle response.

Jack H. Weil was appointed an assistant chief immigration judge in 2009, after many years in the immigration court biz. His current post calls for him to oversee the training of immigration judges. Which is why his comments in a recent deposition are jaw-dropping.

The deposition came in a case in which the American Civil Liberties Union and immigrant rights groups are seeking "to require the government to provide appointed counsel for every indigent child who cannot afford a lawyer in immigration court proceedings." In other words, as we continue to shuttle unaccompanied children into court, wouldn't it be the decentish thing to provide them with a lawyer (the decent thing would not be to drag them in there in the first place). The Justice Department says no; let them represent themselves, no matter how young they are.

The situation is portrayed in this video. You should know that A) the video is a dramatization and B) it is based on court transcripts. So is this video of the actual awfulness? No. Do we have every reason to believe that the reality is just this awful? Yes.

So back to Jack Weil. He was offered up as a witness for the DOJ in the case, and in the course of his deposition, he made the following point, not once, but twice:

“I’ve taught immigration law literally to 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds,” Weil said. “It takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of patience. They get it. It’s not the most efficient, but it can be done.”

He repeated his claim twice in the deposition, also saying, “I’ve told you I have trained 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds in immigration law,” according to a transcript. “You can do a fair hearing. It’s going to take you a lot of time.”

Weil later claimed in an email that his comments "were taken out of context." Technically correct. But I'm trying to imagine in what context this doesn't sound like jaw-dropping baloney. "I'm now going to say some ridiculous stuff just to test the recording equipment"? Maybe "Here's what I'd say if I were an awful person"?

No, I can't imagine any way in which Weil's comments could be contextualized into some thing not-dopey.

So here we are, on one more Kafkaesque page of our current history, having to actually explain, out loud, to grown-up officials, that sending a three year old into a court of law to represent himself in a case in a foreign country where he doesn't speak the language and he only has the reasoning skills and understanding of a three year old child-- we actually have to explain to somebody that this idea is not only stupid, but cruel and unkind.

This makes no sense in any context other than the ongoing program to re-brand the United States as a country so hostile, so unwelcoming, so deliberately awful and just plain mean, that brown people will decide they're better off staying in their miserable homes. This is a level of hostility toward children and ignorance about what they are capable of that boggles the mind. Maybe we were better than this, maybe we were never better than this-- I don't want to host that debate now because one thing I do know is that, whatever our past, right now, in the present, we know better than this. We can do better than this. Call your congressman.

Play Is Not For Children

Here we go again.

There's a certain kind of adult in the world, a kind of adult who looks at a bunch of children running around a yard laughing and playing and thinks, "Man, somebody needs to get those kids organized."

Hell, if you don't feel qualified to supervise children playing, there's an entire recess consulting firm that you can hire (called Playworks because, I don't know, they've found the secret of turning play into work).

Somebody needs to put some lines on that field.
And now there's a research-based rubric for evaluating and optimizing your children's playground experience. Edutopia has written a breathless puff piece about it noting that it's important because "while there's little doubt that children get exercise on the playground" it's also true that "schools often underestimate the social, emotional, and academic potential of playtime and fail to design recess to optimize those benefits." Do schools underestimate it? Maybe, or maybe they've allowed themselves to be conned out of it by the army of Reformsters claiming that children need to be learning academically as soon as they emerge from the womb. But you'd have to be living in a cave top miss the mountain of pro-recess research-based pushback over the last few years (try here, here, here, here, here and here).

Edutopia boils it down to three tips.

Tip 1: Don't overlook the power of recess to boost social, emotional, and academic skills. Also, don't forget that water is wet and the sun will probably rise in the East tomorrow.

Edutopia goers on to note that the experiences of a playground are "life in miniature," which raises the question of whether or not a micro-managing adult with a checklist really fits. Edutopia suggests a battery of questions that address child engagement and empowerment, and I won't argue that those aren't important.

Tip 2: Use adults to model positive behaviors.

Edutopia means mostly that adults need to monitor to squash bullying and make sure that all are included. On the one hand, I see value in this. On the other hand, I'm not sure it's "life in miniature" to model that a Greater Authority will always step in to make sure that things are fair. If there's no space for children to work these issues out on their own, I'm not sure what we're learning.

Tip 3: Safe environments promote healthy, active play.

Well, sure. Also, people don't get hurt so much. The equipment on the playground should be well-maintained.

Much of this is unobjectionable, but moderation and balance is key. Here's Edutopia's "takeaway":

Recess isn’t a break from learning—if structured appropriately, it’s a valuable opportunity for students to grow socially, emotionally, cognitively, and physically.

Yikes. If you are worried about structuring your students' recess properly, you are too involved. The proper structure is for adults to keep a watchful eye so that students are sure to be safe. The other role for adults is to leave the children alone.

But, hey-- maybe Edutopia just projected too much of their own stuff into this and the actual report is-- yikes!  The actual report's title is "Development of the great recess framework-observational tool to measure contextual and behavioral components of elementary school recess." The report is found on Biomed Central Group, an outfit that belongs to Springer Nature, a publishing conglomerate of sorts.

The Great Recess Framework-Observation Tool (GRF-OT) is a seventeen-item rubric accompanied complete with "item factor loadings" and "inter-rate reliability" scales that let you score your playground. There are five categories broken into some subcategories.

Safety and Structure (five scale items): For a top score (4/4) the play area should have no danger areas. Play spaces and game boundaries are well marked. Fixed an unfixed equipment supports multiple games. A variety of organized games are available. Equipment is used as intended and in a safe manner.

Adult engagement and Supervision (four scale items): For top score, adult to student ratio is less than 35:1. Adults model positive culture. Adults are strategically positioned. Almost all adults are engaged and playing games with students.

Student behaviors (five scale items): Games initiated by students. No physical altercations between students. All communication between students is positive. No disagreements about rules between students that were disruptive to play. Students have no conflict, or manage conflict without adult intervention.

Transitions (two scale items): Transitions between classroom and playground are smooth.

Physical activity (one scale item): Almost all students are physically active.

Look, I get that this is well-intended, mostly. And some of it is sensible and fine. But some is self-defeating (how much conflict resolution will children even get to start working on if their teacher is right there playing the game with them). If children are only expressing positive communication, what does that do to good-natured trash talk, and what message does it send about whether or not children are allowed to have bad feelings? How much time will we spend enforcing things like the properly defined boundaries for certain activities, and why? Who decides on what acceptable structure and organization must be (can children play Calvinball on this playground)? And while I can see occasions when adult game participation can be useful (like, kickball pitcher for first graders), mostly, the appropriate location for adults is off to the side.

So much structure and order and adult micro-management-- how is this recess any different from an actual phys ed class?

There's an underlying assumption here that if we can carefully manage every aspect of the child's experience, we will get that child to become exactly the person we want. That's foolish. We don't know, and we can't know, and our desire to keep our children free from every sharp edge, every bitter disappointment, every unpleasant conflict-- all of that understandable desire invariably leads us to the same place, and that's the place where we strip the children of any freedom. Oh, it's for their safety. It's for their own good. But there's nothing good about minimizing a child's freedom.

No, I'm not advocating you give your eight-year-old an apartment next to the Rusty Heap Junkyard and only check in on her once a month. But we really have to let go of this notion that if adults just organized and structured children's play, we could optimize it for social and emotional growth. We aren't God, and our children aren't house plants. What tiny humans need is the chance to roam freely in a safe space and, even for a little part of each day, make their own choices.

Put your clipboard down and let the children play.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Gates and Opportunity Costs

I have had a hard time absorbing the news that Bill Gates blew over a half a billion dollars on his latest experiment on live humans.

Half a billion. $575 million, by most accounts. Not all of that was his own money, and honestly, I don't know if that makes me feel better or worse.

This guy
Gates' big experiment in test-based teacher evaluation was itself evaluated by the Rand folks, who took over 500 pages (so, like, a million dollars a page) to conclude that it probably failed, although maybe not. Because if there's one thing that Gates never, ever does, it's say the words "I was wrong. This didn't work." The closest he comes is some version of "This may not have worked, but if it didn't, it wasn't our fault." And Rand comes through this time as well:

Unfortunately, the evaluation cannot identify the reasons the IP initiative did not achieve its student outcome goals by 2014-2015. It is possible that the reforms are working but we failed to detect their effects because insufficient time has passed for effects to appear. It is also possible that the other schools in the same states we use for comparison purposes adopted similar reforms, limiting our ability to detect effects. However, if the findings of no effect are valid, the results might reflect a lack of successful models on which sites could draw in implementing the levers, problems in making use of teacher-evaluation measures to inform key HR decisions, the influence of state and local context, or insufficient attention to factors other than teacher quality.

So, student test scores didn't go up [insert, for the gazillionth time, my rant about how Big Standardized Test scores are terrible proxies for student achievement] but maybe our ideas were working, just not enough so we could tell yet. Or maybe they are working but everyone else was imitating them so our studied schools didn't stand out from the pack because the pack was already following us, even though there's no evidence we were actually correct. (I will refer you here to my thoughts about "levers").

But weasel-wording aside, by their own measures, by their own standards, the Gates project failed. Which is not really a shocker-- name a single Gates-backed education-game-changing initiative that was a notable success. Fail fail faily fail fail.

For over a half a billion dollars.

When I look at a mess like this, I'm most struck by the opportunity cost.

You know about opportunity cost. When you decide to do A, you give up the chance to do B. Your cost is not just what you paid for A-- it is also the cost of not having done B.

Even when we don't use the words, we know all about opportunity cost in education. We have tightly limited resources, so everything has an opportunity cost. If I decide to spend ten more minutes on dependent clauses, then I will spend ten fewer minutes on something else (goodbye, river-related symbolism in Huck Finn). And of course, every dollar spent in a tight school budget represents an opportunity cost.

There are many ways to think about computing opportunity cost. I like this one: if you're about to spend ten dollars on a super-duper deal, ask yourself what you would do if someone handed you ten dollars.

In this case, we ask-- if someone handed you half a billion dollars to spend on making US schools better, what would you spend it on. Make a list. And then check the list-- is "try to pilot an unproven system of teacher evaluation based on scores from narrow, unproven standardized tests" on your list. Is that the best thing you can think of to spend $575 million education dollars on? Because everything else on your list-- more teachers, more resources for poor schools, better buildings, more materials, broader class offerings, smaller class sizes-- is part of the cost of Bill Gates' little experiment.

And it's not just the money. Ask yourself-- if the school year were suddenly lengthened by forty days, what would you do with the extra time. I'll be you have lots of ideas, and I'll bet the top of the list is not "Give a Big Standardized Test and spend a bunch of days getting ready for it." Everything else on the list-- all the units you could have taught, all the time you could have spent working with students, all the greater depth you could have achieved-- is part of the opportunity cost of the Gates experiment.

And that's before we even get to other costs, like the cost of convincing a bunch of teachers that they're lousy teachers because their students didn't get awesome scores on the BS Tests.

So it's really not enough to say that the Gates experiment was a waste of time and money, because that assumes that we had a bunch of time and money to just throw away. We didn't. We don't. This Gates experiment, just like every other Gates experiment, carried a huge opportunity cost. So many things that we could have done, so much education that we could have accomplished, and we spent all that opportunity on one more pile of Gatesian baloney.

There's opportunity cost in the excuses and weasel-wording that inevitably comes with post-experiment Gatesian summing up. Because there's a chance for Gates to have real insight, to say, "Man, we were just wrong on this, and we were so sure we were right even when people were trying to warn us. So I'm thinking that in the future, I'd better not just barrel ahead fueled by nothing but self-confidence. Maybe before I appoint myself the tsar of education, I should listen to some professionals and be more careful about what I do." But that opportunity is also squandered time after time. Somewhere down the road, we'll find ourselves wasting opportunities yet again.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

That Damned Question

There's one kid in every class, the one who asks that damned question.

How many paragraphs do we have to have in this essay? How long does it have to be? How many pages do I have to write for this? How many notes do we have to have in the split journal for that chapter? And on and on.

The specifics don't really matter-- they are all a variation on one simple question:

What the absolute least I can get away with doing for this assignment?

It's a terrible question. For one thing, it has prompted too many teachers to make too many dumb rules ("a paragraph must have three sentences" is a dumb rule, for example). It also makes a statement about the student that they probably shouldn't be making out loud.

Don't ask that question, I would tell my students. For one thing, they knew by October what my answer would be. "Long enough to do a good job," I'd say. Or maybe, "Impress me." More importantly, the question reflects poorly on the person who asks it. If the person you're dating asks, "So what's the absolute least amount of time I can spend with you and still keep this relationship alive," your first thought is not, "Oh, this one is a keeper." If you're in a job interview and the person across the desk asks, "What's the absolute least we can get away with paying you," you are not excited about landing that job.

I hear echoes of That Damned Question every time I read something like the Center for American Progress report decrying that high school requirements are not exactly aligned with exactly what students need exactly to get into college.

Part of the problem with these sorts of reports and policy arguments is that they demand exactitude where it cannot be found, as if "college ready" is a single definable state with set criteria that are exactly the same for every student at every high school considering every major at every college. This is foolishness of a high order, like saying that we have a checklist that will show if someone is ready to get married tomorrow.

Human behavior is loaded with many "fuzzy" qualities. What does it mean to be "mature" or "wise" or "funny." and does it mean exactly the same thing for every single human being?

But it's also a variation on That Damned Question, because intentional or not, the question "am I college ready" sets a minimum bar for college readiness. What's the absolute least this kid has to do, we're asking, to be certified college material?

That's a terrible goal. Shooting for the bare minimum is a terrible goal.

The correct answer is "You're going to need to do as much as you can the very best that you can, and then we'll cross our fingers that it's enough to get into the school you want." (Which, of course, also depends on who else is applying to your school and how much they've accomplished-- truly, the closer you look at the idea of telling students that they've done enough to be college ready , the dumber an idea it appears to be.)

The correct answer is "Pursue your strengths and interests just as hard and far as you can. "

Not, "Okay, well, accomplish A, B and C, and then you can knock it off for the rest of the year."

I know that many Reformsters have a fondness for efficiency, but the thing is, that doesn't apply here. No effort to gather more education is inefficient or wasted. I have never in my life met someone who said, "Yeah, boy, I wish I just hadn't gotten so much education. Learning all that extra stuff has really held me back in life."

Nobody was ever harmed by getting too much education.

There are some things in life for which knowing the bare minimum requirement is foolish. Love. Kindness. Decency. And education.

Do the most, the best, that you can. And don't ever ask That Damned Question.