Friday, June 22, 2018

The Most Pro-Privatization States

The Network for Public Education, a grass roots organization that advocates for public education in this country (and of which-- full disclosure-- I am a member) has just released a report that is both useful and painful. It's a state by state look at privatization, completed in partnership with the Schott Foundation, and the results are illuminating. I'm just going to hit the highlights here-- you can read the whole report yourself without feeling as if you've enrolled in grad school (it's all under thirty pages and it's in plain English).

The report worked up a score for each state based on its resistance to the trends in privatization of public education. The five categories that the researchers looked at:

Types and extent of privatization- Just how far has the disease progressed?

Civil rights protection- Because privatization tends to go hand in hand with attacks on civil rights of students, families and communities

Accountability, regulations and oversights- Is anyone actually keeping an eye on the results of privatization, or is your state the land of Do As You Please?

Transparency- Does privatization and the private schools it empower all operate within a dark box inside which nobody is allowed to peek?

Other factors (charter schools)- Some states have come up with their own special wrinkles in charter law as a tool for privatizing education.

After analyzing the information and crunching the numbers, researchers assigned a numerical score, then converted that to a letter grade.

Top Ten States

The highest ranking states for resisting privatization were:

North Dakota
West Virginia
South Dakota

It's not an entirely encouraging list-- the last few states only received a C+.

Bottom Ten States

The worst states in the US for privatization?

New Hampshire
North Carolina

The spread is pretty wide. Nebraska secured its first place finish with a score of 99.5, while Arizona is worst in the nation with a 31.25.

Some Other Alarming Findings

* 28 states do not require charter schools to hire teachers with the same certification required for public schools.

* 38 states and DC have no required transparency provisions for charter school use of funds.

* 22 states do not require failed or closing charters to return their assets to the taxpayers who paid for them (It's the Producers all over again-- you could turn a profit by opening a failing charter school)

* Only one state (Iowa) requires that English Language Learners must receive language instruction until they're fluent.

* 23 states do not specifically protect students against religious discrimination.

* 18 states do not mandate services for students with special needs.

* Only four states allow for-profit charter schools, but virtually all allow non-profit charters to be run by for-profit management companies.

* 27 states don't require charters to provide transportation for students.

* 12 states and DC allow students to receive vouchers even if they have never attended public school, the most extreme example of money leaving the public district even though expenses have been lowered $0.00.

There's a great amount of detail and specifics in this report, but taken together, it forms a larger picture of the major problem with privatizing education-- the system bends toward directing money away from students and towards the profiteers. Instead, the emphasis is on allowing privatizers ways to cut costs and maximize profit. And while this happens, the states build (or re-build) a two-tiered system, with quality education for those who can afford it and 'just barely good enough" education for everyone else.

The report offers some recommendations at the end, including a moratorium on charter expansion. But in about the only point on which reformsters might take heart, they do not call for closure of charters or cold-turkey cut off of voucher programs because that would create disruption and instability for students currently using those programs. Instead, phase vouchers out carefully, and rather than close charters, let them be absorbed into the public system.

Read the report. See how your state scored, and look at some of the specific policy choices that NPE/Schott have targeted. Then contact your elected representatives and show them this report. Tell them about the specific policies that are creating trouble for education in your state. And keep doing it.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Government Reorganization and The Narrowing of Education

After a few days of hot rumors, today the Trump administration re-organization plan dropped. It's not a short thing, including as it does plenty of history and rationalization for this attempt to reduce the footprint of government.

In the education world, the buzz has been about the mash-up of the Education and Labor departments.

There's nothing to be surprised about-- the GOP has wanted to cut the education department off at the knees since the very day it was born. But I don't think this is necessarily about killed the ed department or even shuffling Betsy DeVos out of DC; I think the goal here is something worse.

Among the different tribes of reformsters, one clan has always been clear about how they think education is supposed to work. For instance, back in 2013 I pilloried this sentence written by Allan Golston for the Gates Foundation website:

Businesses are the primary consumers of the output of our schools, so it’s a natural alliance.

Or there's this gem from Rex Tillerson, back when he was an oleaginous Exxon executive and not a failed Trump administration stooge:

I’m not sure public schools understand that we’re their customer—that we, the business community, are your customer. What they don’t understand is they are producing a product at the end of that high school graduation. Now is that product in a form that we, the customer, can use it? Or is it defective, and we’re not interested? American schools have got to step up the performance level—or they’re basically turning out defective products that have no future. Unfortunately, the defective products are human beings. So it’s really serious. It’s tragic. But that’s where we find ourselves today.

For many of the business crowd, this has always been the point of education reform-- for schools to crank out workers who can be more useful meat widgets for the captains of industry. Data mining appeals to them because it would be great if Human Resources could just access a data base to order up meat widgets to spec ("I'd like ten that are strong math, are fair in written communication, show no family history of expensive illness, and have a history of being compliant with authority figures"). Competency-Based Education appeals to them because meat widgets can be trained quickly and specifically in just those competencies that employers care about. And a narrower education keeps the meat widgets from being exposed to anything that might give them ideas or make them, you know, all uppity about what they expect from an employer in wages and working conditions.

For this brand of reformster (which, I should be clear, is not all reformsters) education is really just vocational training for the Lessers. Liberal education, with broader purpose and scope-- it's fine if that's offered at private schools for people who can afford it. But public education should be focused on the basics-- math, reading, work skills, compliance. It's an added bonus that cutting back to the basics also makes public education cheaper.

For these folks, the merger of Education and Labor makes perfect sense-- the public schools of today are where the laborers of tomorrow go to be made useful for their future bosses.

Fig. 1
This is also signaled in the new name of the merged department-- the Department of Education and the Workforce. Gone is "labor" with all its history as a term for a sector of the economy deserving respect and support and protection. Gone is that word that so often used to appear side by side with the hated word "union." Gone, I suspect, will be the notion that this department should in any way champion the rights of labor in this country.

We'll see if anyone in the GOP wants to call out the significance of a department set up to handle students and workers, because this merger is perfectly in keeping with the vision of a cradle-to-career pipeline that goes back at least to Mark Tucker's infamous letter to Hillary Clinton, laying out how through data mining, careful education management, and a whole bunch of what we could call surveillance, we could start with new-born infants and build them to order, made to emerge from school ready to take (and accept) their proper meat widget assignment in the world.

The merger of the two departments is only #1 on a list of 32 different proposed improvements, including folding the FDA into the USDA; fixing USAID so it helps make other countries more self-sufficient instead of, I guess, helping them; reorganizing the census bureau; making the postal service more profitable (suck it, Bezos) or just privatizing it; some argle bargle that looks suspiciously like pushing social impact bonds; and making the federal government paperless by 2022. Plus monkeying around with student loans.

Betsy DeVos has released a statement saying that she thinks this is super plusgood.

Will such a consolidation have an actual effect on classroom teachers?

It's hard to predict what's going to emerge as actual policy from the department (or who will actually be in charge of it). The past two decades have already been marked by a federal emphasis on education as vocational training (for the Lessers, of course-- their Betters still send their children to private schools with rich, broad educational programs, because nobody is sending their kid to Philips Exeter Academy just to make them a more employable cog in a corporate wheel). The repeated mantra of "college and career ready" standards (where college is just a source of higher-level vocational training) has already pushed schools away from liberal arts programs and towards strictly vocational, nose-to-the-grindstone education. This is probably just another step on the road we've been traveling for a while.

So I don't think, should Congress approve this, the day after merger classroom teachers will suddenly have new programs and policies to implement.

Instead, I think we'll continue to suffer from the slow and steady narrowing of our educational goals and purpose, our very definition of what getting an education means. School should be, has been (and for the wealthy, will continue to be) about building an understanding of how the world works, building an understanding of our best selves, of how we can best be fully human in the world while we pursue our goals and aspirations. School should be about finding a place in the world, and while it serves students, it also serves the entire community as well-- friends, neighbors, family members, fellow citizens, fellow voters-- and not just future employers.* The push for twenty years has been to redefine school as a place where you get ready to pass a test that proves you have certain skills so that you can get a job by proving to someone with more power and money than you that you can serve as a useful tool for them. Yes, we'll occasionally let someone prove they can jump up to the Betters education, but allowing for the occasional transfer between tiers in a two-tier system is not the same as providing a top-notch universal education system for all. Meanwhile, teaching becomes less like lighting a fire and lifting up students and more like dronesick drudgery.

Or, to put it more simply, the classic view of the US public education system was a system meant to serve the needs of students. What we're pushing now is a system where students are meant to understand that their place in the world is to serve the needs of others. This is not a new dichotomy-- in the past, where we have failed to meet the ideal of the classic view, it has been because of people pushing hard for the idea that only certain students deserved to be served, and all others must learn to serve.

It's a sad, narrow, meagre vision of education we've been building, and a merger of departments simply puts one more nail into one more sad two-by-four. I don't think a merger represents a sudden sharp turn toward disaster (though it could unleash all manner of chaos and destruction-- never underestimate this administration), but it surely isn't good news, either. We'll see if anyone in Congress wants to stand up and oppose it (see Fig. 1)

*A sentence to this effect was somehow lost from the original draft, and I just put it back. Apologies to the first few hundred people who read the incomplete version.

Testing Blind

Imagine you are the head coach for a football team. You work with the team, prepare the team, and then game day arrives. For game day, you are not allowed to scout the other team. In fact, you are not allowed to watch the game, listen to play-by-play, read about it, talk to the players about it, or ever learn anything at all about the game except the final score.
This is the current state of testing in U.S. schools.

Since the advent of No Child Left Behind, every public school in the U.S. has been required to give a Big Standardized Test at the end of the year. Your state may give the PARCC, the SBA, or state-selected test like Pennsylvania's Keystone exams. The test is supposed to help pinpoint problem areas and, among other things, "inform instruction."
But for the classroom teacher, the Big Standardized Test is a black box.
In Pennsylvania, for example, the official "Ethical Standards of Test Administration" note that teachers should never "copy or otherwise reproduce any part" of the test. Teachers take a pre-test training (some Powerpoint slides followed by a quiz) that indicates that teachers should avoid even looking at the test, and if they do see the test, they must never discuss what they've seen.
Several states require students to sign a non-disclosure agreement pledging that they will never discuss the contents of the test with anyone, ever.
In 2016, a college professor leaked some PARCC questions, and the copyright infringement team at PARCC went after not just people who reprinted the questions or even general descriptions of the questions, but even those who published links to the material.
All of this means that the classroom teacher never sees anything except a student's final score. What exactly did the student do wrong? Where exactly are her weaknesses? What sorts of questions or content tend to throw her off? Teachers, who are supposed to modify their instruction to fix the problems, are never allowed to know exactly what the problems are.
Why test blindly? The explanation depends on your level of cynicism.
Maybe it really is test security. If the questions get out before the next wave takes them, the test results are compromised.
Maybe it's to avoid further embarrassment to testing manufacturers, like the infamous talking pineapple fiasco of 2012 or this article by a poet who discovered she couldn't answer test questions about her own work. Since nobody sees the questions (except students), nobody can criticize them.
Maybe it's simple cost savings. Once the test items are known, they are "used up" and creating new test items is costly. The less often the manufacturer has to create new items, the cheaper it is to produce the test.
What all these explanations have in common is that they consider the needs of the multibillion-dollar testing industry ahead of the needs of classroom teachers. This is not the best way to use a Big Standardized Test to let teachers know how the students are doing, because without seeing the test, teachers don't even know what the students are doing.
And there's one more wrinkle. Since the tests are given in the spring and the results come back even later, teachers will see the scores for students they no longer teach, or they will see the scores for students they have not yet taught and do not know. In other words, if we go back to your coaching job, after you find out the score from the last game, you now start coaching for the next game with an entirely different team.
We've been doing this testing regimen for almost two decades, and it has produced no remarkable improvements in public schools. There are many explanations for that lack of improvement, and many steps we could take to make things better. But a good first step would be to let teachers take off their blindfolds.
Originally posted at, where you can now find me writing about education issues for a slightly different audience. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Really Rethinking Standardized Test Scores

Corey DeAngelis, fellow at Cato, turned up at Centre for Education Economics Ltd (CfEE) with an article (since reprinted at Cato's own site) that gets on the Dump Standardized Testing Train. And while I welcome "Rethinking Standardised Test Scores," it suffers from some of the same problems as other reassessments of test-centered education.

DeAngelis, it should be noted, is no friend of public education-- we last met him on this blog when he was arguing that schools should be owned by corporations-- and his background runs from Heartland Institute policy advisor to Risk Management Operations Coordinator for Kohl's. And while his reassessment of testing is welcome, he's going to miss some critical points in the discussion.

He signals one of his omissions in the very first sentence:

Standardised test scores have long been treated as the end-all-be-all of education.

Oh, passive voice, friend of the prevaricator and weasel word aficionado. Who, exactly, has treated test scores as the be-all and end-all? Because such treatment is neither universal nor mysterious and organic, without discernable cause. He does finger "researchers" and "the public at large," but does not acknowledge the many choices made by policy makers and test manufacturing lobbyists and various other powerful education amateurs to place the Big Standardized Test scores at the center of modern education.

Because-- and here's the thing-- you know who didn't want to make test scores the be-all and end-all, who argued against making them the be-all and end-all, who fought and still fight against making test scores the be-all and end-all?

Teachers. Actual professional educators.

DeAngelis is going to take us to a study published by the American Enterprise Institute in March with the title "Do Impacts on Test Scores Even Matter?" This meta-study comes from an interesting angle-- why is it that school choice hasn't caused giant leaps forward in achievement? The answer-- because choice based on the premise that people would choose the best school, but "best school" would be defined by "best test scores" and what happens if that's actually not a great measure of a good school?

The study, by Michael McShane and Patrick Wolf, is pretty plainspeaking. For twenty years "almost every major education reform has rested on a common assumption: standardized test scores are an accurate and appropriate measure of success and failure." Such scores are "convenient," "easier and cheaper" to collect and use. And there was that cool Raj Chetty research that everyone likes to cite even though there are good reasons to believe it's all bunk. McShane and Wolf don't call Chetty bunk, but they do refer to the "supposed truth" in it.

McShane and Wolf also discover that teacher impacts on test scores don't seem to correlate with much of anything, and maybe they aren't very good tools for policy when it comes to teacher pay, retention, etc. So much for the days when reformsters would bemoan how few schools were using VAM data for personnel decisions. But it's the relationship between students and test scores that really bears examining:

For research on test scores to actually be meaningful, the following should be true: The impacts that schools have on math and reading skills will change the trajectories of children’s lives. Otherwise, why would policymakers and researchers put such emphasis on “student achievement” and “student growth”—measures that are based on test scores

This assumption seems uncontroversial. 

Does it seem uncontroversial? Because it seems to me that for twenty years, one group of people has been trying to point out that test scores are NOT a good measure of student achievement, and that test scores correlate with later achievement because test scores correlate with socio-economic status, and so does life achievement. One group has said repeatedly that it is, well, not so much controversial, as just wrong.

Teachers. Actual professional educators.

The AEI report reaches a useful conclusion:

Policymakers need to be much more humble in what they believe that test scores tell them about the performance of schools of choice.

DeAngelis wants to make the additional point that character education is more important than test scores for life achievement. Hard work and respect-- that sort of thing.

He also nods to the work of Jay Greene (University of Arkansas, where DeAngelis has also done some brainwork) who has been way out in front of other reformsters in noting that test scores aren't very useful tools for changing students' futures.

It is a great thing that more and more people are catching on to the fact that the BS Test is not useful, not valid, not measuring much of anything worth knowing, and most definitely not a reliable proxy for student educational achievement.

But there are other important lessons to be learned here, and I don't see any hints that people are even close to learning them.

1) How Did We Get Here?

In all the debunking of test scores, I don't see anyone saying, "We did this."

This goes back to the days when Arne Duncan would say, "Boy, you guys are spending too much time on testing. Where'd you get the idea that testing was such a big deal, anyway?" As if he hadn't personally pushed test centric policies.

To hear reformed reformsters talk, one would assume that tests simply wandered into schools and took over without any help from policymakers, lobbyists, politicians, and rich private self-appointed school-fixers.

It's not that I want to assign blame. It's that I want these education movers and shakers to think about how they got us here so they don't keep doing it. As Daniel Koretz says about Common Core in The Testing Charade:

It's not just the Common Core that has been dropped into schools wholesale before we gathered any evidence about impact; this has been true of almost the entire edifice of test-based reform, time and time again. I'll argue later that putting a stop to this disdain for evidence-- this arrogant assumption that we know so much that we don't have to bother evaluating our ideas before imposing them on teachers and students-- is one of the most important changes we have to make.

Reformsters need some humility. They need to stop assuming that their ideas are so awesome that they don't need to be tested or even, in some cases, explained-- just implemented, quickly and without time for discussion (remember "our children can't afford to wait for us to change things"). And the number one thing that reformsters have aggressively refused to do...?

2) Listen To Teachers, Dammit

There isn't a thing that reformsters are figuring out today that professional educators haven't been saying for twenty years. But reformsters have remained steadfast in their belief that they have nothing to learn by listening to classroom teachers. David Coleman was just one of many reformsters who believed that his lack of teaching and education background made him more qualified than professionals who had devoted their adult lives to education.

As reformster after reformster has written a "Hey, I just figured out this policy doesn't work" piece, I've written over and over some variation of "also, water is wet" or "no shit, Sherlock" or "we've been trying to tell you this for years."

Yet this lesson-- listen to teachers-- hasn't penetrated much at all.

Those Who Don't Learn From the Past...

Just watch. So many reformsters are lined up behind some version of Personalized [sic] Learning, even though it has no basis in real research, has produced no positive results where tried, and has a chorus of teachers hollering "this is a really bad idea." But instead of saying, "Hey, you know, the last time the stars lined up like this, it didn't work out for us," reformsters are saying, "Oh, shut up. We've totally got this."

It's great that we're learning that the BS Test scores are bunk. It would be greater if folks pursued undoing these policies with the same zeal with which they pursued installing them (one more reason that accepting responsibility would be nice). But still, baby steps in the right direction.

It would also be greater if reformsters learned some of the other lessons that come with failed reform strategies. Just go sit the corner for a few minutes and think about what you've done before you head out to do something else.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Sandy Kress Is Sad (Plus, A Smoking Gun)

Sandy Kress is one of the founding fathers of modern ed reform, and he wears his reformster  medals with pride. His LinkedIn bio tells the story of how reformed his way right up through the ranks of Texas ed reform, which earned him the post of senior education adviser in the George W. Bush White House. In that capacity he became one of the architects of No Child Left Behind.

This guy.
Kress's LinkedIn account does not mention his lucrative career as an education lobbyist. In 2011, he pulled in a cool half a million just for his work in Texas. Favorite clients include Teach for America and Pearson, the testing and education giant that made a pile of money in Texas. But by the mid teens, anger about Pearson and the Texas testing regimen was growing into a fire that apparently even Kress's lobbying skills could not extinguish. In 2014, Pearson was caught using its non-profit left hand to help its right-hand business. And when the curtain was peeled back on the testing, it was just ugly. In 2015, Texas ended its three-decade relationship with Pearson.

Kress has been pretty relentless in defending his NCLB work, though he often hides behind the facade of a simple Austin lawyer.

These days, Kress is in Texas serving as a living reminder that you can't have disaster capitalism without a disaster; therefor, nobody must be allowed to think that any problems have been solved or revealed to be hoaxes. You must stand there in the sun, hollering loudly that the storm is raging all around you.

Hence his latest post in Education News, "Pretending We're in Fantasyland Doesn't Solve Texas' Serious Education Problems."

There's plenty of subtext in Kress's post:

Although Texas made substantial gains educationally in the 1990s and the 2000s [when everyone was still listening to me], especially on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), we have slipped badly in the 2010s [after people didn't listen to me enough any more].

Kress thinks that Texas legislators lack the proper sense of crisis, and to illustrate his point he will now pick apart a "list of points that purport to show how great things are" circulated by an unnamed State Representative. Here's the point by point breakdown, with an adjudication of which party-- Kress or the legislator-- wins the point.

NAEP Scores and Accountability Systems and the Texas Miracle

Spoiler alert: neither Kress nor the Unnamed Representative is on solid ground here, because the correct response to NAEP scores is "who cares."

USR wants to tout the great NAEP gains between 1990 and 2011, which show great gains in Texas and puts Texas students on a footing with entire nations.

Kress wants to point out that there's a reason USR skips post-2011 scores-- they suck. And he wants to take credit for the great gains of the 90s made "because we implemented one of the best accountability systems in the nation." Kress is super-proud of his accountability system and often refers to it. You may remember it under the name "Texas Miracle."

Google "Texas Miracle" and you find that there are several; apparently Texas cranks out a miracle of some sort every few years. But the Texas Education Miracle refers to the huge gains made in test scores in Texas, a miracle so miraculous that Congress couldn't wait to scale it up nationally into NCLB's test-and-punish regimen.  Except that it was a miracle spelled M-I-R-A-G-E. There was no miracle; in fact, what there was was some clever cheating. One of the best tricks was to set up a system that tested tenth graders; then identify students who would do poorly on such a test (particularly the brown and black ones) and retain them in ninth grade, then after their second year in ninth grade, promote them to eleventh grade so that they're never tested at all. Voila! Miracle!

NCLB won the prize as one of the most hated and least successful federal programs in US history. It wasted billions of dollars on testing and effectively transferred control of local public schools to the feds. And with its innumerate and unachievable-- yet legally mandated-- goals, it set the stage for all the additional excesses of Race to the Top, Common Core, and legislation-by-regulation of the Obama-Duncan era. Who could have predicted that a conservative GOP administration could be so instrumental in crushing local and state control.

It's impressive that Kress still touts his test-and-punish system, which was thoroughly debunked in Texas and has, in its scaled-up national version, proven to be absolutely unsuccessful. Oh, and let's not forget-- the Texas accountability system is based on one of the earliest versions of VAM and it was just struck down by the court

We'll call this one a tie.

Fiscal Responsibility and a Jaw-Dropping Quote

USR says that almost every district in Texas has met the standards for financial responsibility and a whopping 95% achieved the states "met standards" in the educational accountability system.

And then Kress says this:

It strains the credulity of any reasonable observer to be told that everyone meets any real standard, and, even more, at the highest level.

Let that sink in. The guy who helped set up NCLB, a system that demanded that 100% of all students score above a certain level on the Big Standardized Test-- that guy says a reasonable person would never expect everyone, or even nearly everyone, to meet a particular standard. From which I can only conclude that Kress has always understood that NCLB and the rest of modern ed reform are designed to insure that a bunch of schools, teachers, and students will fail. That in fact, by design, by the expectation of any reasonable people, some students were going to be left behind. Every one of us who felt certain that the whole system was setting us up to fail-- we were right, and Kress knows it.

I'm going to give this one to Kress just because he waved the smoking gun at us.

College Readiness

USR says that Texas has early college campuses, early college high school programs, and big passing scores for Texas' terrible STAAR test.

Kress says there's no data to support the assertion that more students are college-ready, and he's correct because nobody yet knows how to measure such a thing-- including Kress. He says having a bunch of early college classes doesn't count because, hey, maybe they're all stinky. And exit exams don't count because Texas doesn't have enough of them any more, because if there's anything that measures college readiness, it's a standardized test. Oh no, wait-- there is something that predicts college readiness and that is high school grades.

We'll call this a draw-- both Kress and the USR are full of it on this point.

Graduation Rate

Graduation rates are up nationally and in Texas, too, says USR.

Well, sure, says Kress, the numbers look good, but the claims are "exaggerated and dubious" because, you know, "knowledgeable observers" have some "serious questions" about whether those grad numbers are legit. He offers seven links to skeptical articles. He does not take a moment to consider what role punitive programs like NCLB have had in incentivizing fakery and gaming the system. Like all the great reformsters (looking at you, David Coleman), Kress never stops bitching long enough to reflect on how his own policies and ideas might have contributed to the problems he's complaining about. He's just a cranky old fart who has blocked off the sidewalk in front of his house and now wants to rail at those damn kids to get off his lawn.

Kress loses this one by virtue of lacking self-knowledge

PISA Rankings

USR points out that when you compare PISA apples to apples-- in other words, US students of particular socio-economic status to other students of a similar status, we come out Number One! USA! USA!

Kress considers this a "doozy" instead of, say, a reasonable way to break down PISA data. Instead, he wants to chicken little the same old point-- the US is average.

Now, there are many reasons for the US to do poorly on PISA exams, including the obvious-- US students don't care about the test. It is also important to note that US PISA scores have never been great. And that changes in the test make current comparisons suspect. But the most important question to ask about PISA results is this one--

So what?

Kress points out that once again we've been smoked by Estonia and Poland, and he points it out like it should be a call to action. But why? Do PISA scores correlate to anything important, like economic strength or political standing or family cohesion or the happiness of a nation's citizens? If we raise our PISA scores, then what benefit will the USA garner other than the chance to instruct the US ambassador to Estonia to go tell Estonians, "In your face, bitches!" As reform-friendly Jay Greene has pointed out at length, test results don't have any predictive power when it comes to life outcomes. So why do we even care about raising the PISA scores. And more importantly, what other educational work would Kress have us abandon in order to make room for more test preparation?

Bottom Line

Sandy Kress got it wrong in Texas, and he got it wrong with No Child Left Behind, a program that virtually nobody holds up as an example of a great government program that achieved great things. And unlike some reformsters who have shown a willingness to say, "Okay, some of this just isn't working," Kress keeps on insisting that we are on the brink of educational disaster and people have to use his great ideas right now!

We've been field testing test-centered accountability for almost twenty years-- long enough that entire generation of children have been educated while soaking in the stuff-- and we have nothing to show for it but corporate profits, people abandoning the teaching profession, and educational results that show the gaps created when schools dropped actual education in order to prep for the Big Standardized Test. We have tried Kress's ideas. They have failed.

I'm not going to argue that the Texas legislature has the answers. But they are not going to find the answers by listening to Sandy Kress.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Inexcusable

Yes, everybody is talking about the detention of immigrant children by US authorities. I'm going to talk about it, too, because this is federally-mandated child abuse, and it's not okay. If you're a little fuzzy on exactly what happened to create these new abuses (child detention) in a long-standing situation (immigration with varying degrees of legality) this short excerpt from Slate's explainer handles it pretty well:

First is the new policy that any migrant family entering the U.S. without a border inspection will be prosecuted for this minor misdemeanor. The parents get incarcerated and that leaves children to be warehoused. The parents then typically plead guilty to the misdemeanor and are given a sentence of the few days they served waiting for trial. But then when the parents try to reunite with their children, they are given the runaround—and possibly even deported, alone. The children are left in HHS custody, often without family.

Second is a new and apparently unwritten policy that even when the family presents themselves at a border-entry location, seeking asylum—that is, even when the family is complying in all respects with immigration law—the government is snatching the children away from their parents. Here, the government’s excuse seems to be that they want to keep the parents in jaillike immigration detention for a long time, while their asylum cases are adjudicated. The long-standing civil rights case known as Flores dictates that they aren’t allowed to keep kids in that kind of detention, so the Trump administration says they have to break up the families. They do not have to break up families—it is the government’s new choice to jail people with credible asylum claims who haven’t violated any laws that is leading to the heartbreaking separations you’ve been reading about. 

Here are some other articles about the how and why of immigration policy involved:

From an ACLU attorney. From the Bipartisan Policy Center. From Vox (so, plain English).

If you want to share with friends and neighbors and strangers on line some specific pictures of just how bad it is, here are a couple of articles for that:

From the Associated Press, a tour of one detention center.

Coverage from Texas that shows just how crazy the whole thing is (the "legal" path to crossing is actually locked).

From The Hill. And here's a piece about how some get to enjoy a mural of Beloved Leader.

Here are things I don't want to argue about:

How this is typically American and we have done terrible unjust things to people before. This is true. It is all the more reason not to let it go on now. This is happening now. We can do something now.

The parents caused this by bringing their children here. No. Just no. This is the same bullshit as an abuser who punches their victim and then says, "Look what you made me do." This is on us, our government, the party in power.

Their parents broke the law. So what. First of all, as noted above, mostly we're talking misdemeanors which means this is not the same as what happens to someone who was convicted of murder-- it's like taking the kids away from someone who was caught jay-walking.

The bullshit claims that the feds had to do this because evildoers were pouring across the border, because every brownskinned person is a member of an evil gang and a rapist and murder and we must get rid of them all. This is just racist bullshit with no foundation in reality (just like all racist bullshit).

The Bible. A complete non-starter, and the fact that it has even come up is a sign of how far removed from any serious religious or spiritual thought this administration is. Do we really have to point out that the Bible justified the Inquisition, slavery and a lot of other bad stuff. But if you want a religious take on it, here's what the United Methodist Church (the one that Jeff Sessions nominally belongs to) has to say in condemnation. And here's a Twitter thread listing the many religious condemnations of this.

This shameful policy is part of a larger initiative-- to cut back the number of brown people coming to this country by making this country so unwelcoming, so cruel, so much worse than what they're trying to escape that coming to America will be unattractive. That's now our policy, our new unofficial motto-- "If you aren't white, it sucks to be here and you might as well not come." That's as stark a betrayal of our national ideals as we've ever seen in our long history of not living up to those ideals. And every gutless member of Congress who can't find the spine to say so needs to face trouble at the polls come the fall. And really, when this is done, all of us who are worked up about it need to ask if there aren't perhaps other equally huge but less visceral injustices being perpetrated that we should be throwing our energies against.

But that's the big picture.

Right now, the US is sticking children in detention. I don't care for the emphasis on "in cages," which suggests this would somehow be better if cages weren't involved. It wouldn't be. This is not okay and it needs to stop now. Call your representative in DC.

The Slate article has a great list of groups who are doing the work and who can use support. Help them.

This is not okay. This. Is. Not. Okay.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Teacher Brain

"Well, your retirement doesn't really start until September- you're just on summer vacation now."

I've heard this one often since my retirement officially began fourteen days ago, and to some extent I agree that retirement does not hit now with the same force that it will when the school buses are running and I'm not walking the school doors at 7 AM.

But still.

Every summer in my career, I had a big fat To Do List. Usually it involved re-reading works of literature from my course curriculum. The list also included designing and developing unit ideas, or tweaking and re-configuring materials I already had. I've never taught exactly the same stuff the same way in any two years, and a big part of keeping fresh and refreshed and on top of my game was that summer prep. To be certain, these past several years a lot of the planning has centered on how to do more with less, which corners to cut to accommodate the most recent cuts in the year and the day. But there was always a stack of things I had to do for the fall; like most teachers, I had summer vacations that were not entirely vacations at all.

So yes, my retirement has started as witnessed by the fact that a week or so ago, I was finishing up Lego Batman II story mode and not rereading Light in August. A god working teacher's summer vacation is not entirely vacation.

But even I have been surprised to notice that it's even more than that. I hadn't really appreciated how much of my summer has always been taken up with teacher brain.

Teacher brain is the part of a teacher's brain that never turns off, and it is relentless. It's the part of your brain that is always alert to learning aspects of your students' world. Maybe I'll sample this podcast that my students were talking about all year. I think I'll try to use my snapchat account for a week so that I get my students' references to that app. I have watched The Hill and read Twilight because at the time, my students talked about these things incessantly, and I couldn't put them in context without knowing what they were.

It is also the part of your brain that looks at every single experience from a classroom point of view. In summers when I work a part time job, I didn't just work the job-- I made mental notes of what the job was like and what the work involved and consider that as part of the bigger questions of what I should be teaching these days, or even being able to convincingly and accurately complete the sentence, "You know, when some of you guys get a job, you may well find...." Watching a movie? I'd be thinking about how it might be connected to some of the themes and works I usually teach. Read a book? Every book is not just read, but considered as a possible a recommendation to students. I scanned constantly for real-live examples of various writing and usage issues that come up in the year.

Every fall I would go back with my box full of tools, and all year, but especially in the summer while I had the time, I considered every bit of the world I encountered as a possible tool. My Uncle Frank, a history teacher for 50 years in Connecticut, traveled all over creating in his "vacation" time-- and he brought back photographs he took of all the places he went to use in his classroom (and for several years to line the halls of his school). Even when teachers vacation, they don't really vacation. The teacher brain is hard to get to rest. (Are there teachers who don't experience teacher brain? Sure-- the lack of teacher brain is a distinguishing characteristic of most bad and many mediocre teachers.)

I knew I did this, but I didn't appreciate just how much I did it. I bring it up not to convince civilians that honest teachers really do work hard in the summer, because honestly, people either believe teachers spend the summer eating bon-bons while they play the slots in Vegas, or they understand that teachers still work, and I'm not sure minds can be changed.

No, I send this observation out to teachers themselves. Note to you-- you work way harder in the summer than you even realize. More than that, you don't stop viewing the world like a teacher rather than a civilian. Your teacher brain is always running, and your so used to it permeating your entire life that you don't even realize it's happening. Yes, teacher summer vacation is far cushier than what many other folks get, but at the same time, there are so many jobs that do not permeate someone's life 24/7/365. Give yourself credit for that, and maybe figure out how to turn it off now and then before you retire.

ICYMI: Fruit Salad Edition (6/17)

It's the time of year when there's just nothing as good as a good fruit salad. So fill a bowl while you read and share these goodies from the week.

What Predicts College Completion

Here's one more piece of research showing that high school GPA is a better predictor of future success than the SAT. Let's just keep saying this.

Rebirth of the Teaching Machine

Another great look at the history of teaching machines leading up to personalized (sic) learning.

Slaves, Dinosaurs and White Jesus

A look at the scientifically illiteracy being taught through some religion-based texts, Your tax dollars at work.

Why iReady Is Dangerous

For those of us who are more about words than numbers, a clear explanation of why algorithm-driven computer-based math instruction is a Really Bad Idea.

Marco Polo History

How history's stories are told. With orgies.  

Friday, June 15, 2018

MI: When Legislators Don't Understand Testing

Michigan, having gutted its public school system and repeatedly mistreated its teachers, is reaping the consequences in the form of a teacher shortage, which is of course not an actual teacher shortage, but rather a failure of the system to make the job attractive enough to draw people to it.

One legislator had a bright idea about how to fix this-- get rid of one particular requirement:

The bill, approved unanimously by the House Education Reform Committee, eliminates the requirement that new teachers pass a basic skills examination - currently the SAT - before earning a teaching certificate.

There a couple of things to unpack here. One is the notion that the SAT can somehow be used as a "basic skills examination." How does the SAT in any way shape or form resemble such a thing? It's moments like this when I wish the College Board was run by people who were so ethical that they said things like, "No, you can't use the SAT for an exit exam or a basic skills examination because it was never designed for such things. Therefor, we won't give you permission to do it." Instead, we've got the College Board of this world which says things more along the lines of, "Super! Just make the check out to 'College Board' and you can use the SAT to test first grade reading comprehension if you want to!"

But what also jumps out of the coverage of the bill is one particular piece of language:

Sen. Marty Knollenberg, who sponsored the legislation, said requiring prospective teachers to pass the SAT is a burdensome requirement. 

Pass the SAT? What does that even mean? The SAT gives you a score, which as I told my students every year, is neither "good" nor "bad" until the college you're applying to says so. I talk to someone on line with ties to the testing and data biz and she absolutely hates it when people talk about passing or failing test. And yet, here we are, demonstrating once again that civilians (even elected ones) don't understand that tests are produced for very specific purposes and can't just be swapped to whatever purpose you like as if all tests are fundamentally the same. And instead of seeing some rich source of nuanced data that can be carefully decoded for a wealth of information, these citizens just see a thing that you either pass or fail. No more nuance or richness than a light switch.

And these are the people who legislate how tests must be used and what rewards and punishments will be doled out because of them. Yes, one of the biggest problems with modern ed reform is that it's amateur hour in education. Knowing what the heck you're talking about-- that's the test that people in power keep failing.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

NY: Tireless Charter Servant

In 1986, John Flanagan was a 25-year-old second year law student when his father died of a heart attack and NY GOP leaders recruited him to take over the family business. Then in 2015, Senate Leader Dean Skelos was nabbed for Naughty Behavior, and Flanagan was moving up in the world again.

Not great news for education in New York.

Flanagan is a legislator who has bobbed and weaved on the Common Core.  

This damn guy
To make parents more comfortable with what is happening in their children’s classrooms and by extension their kids as well, Senate Republicans will pass legislation to improve the provisions that were enacted in the state budget to ensure that tests are age-appropriate for children and the curriculum is consistent with higher learning standards, among other things,

In other words, he promised to try to do things with the stuff and spray lots of smoke and mirrors at the Core. But nothing that means anything. I'm sure they didn't use that kind of vague non-promise in rehab.        

He was a vocal supporter of Betsy DeVos as candidate for secretary of education.

Her support for an all-of-the-above approach to K-12 education – from charter schools, to public, private and online education – defines the school choice movement that has helped countless children across many of our states. By advancing these innovative solutions from the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos will put children first and empower not only states to lead the way in making critical education decisions, but also empower parents to choose what type of education is best for their children.

It will comes as no surprise that Flanagan has been a great charter booster. He's been vocal in criticism of NYC mayor Bill DeBlasio for not being nice enough to charters. He's been involved in Albany rallies for charter schools.

But now he's created some new leverage.

He has proposed a bill to address New York's broken (and kind of stupid) teacher evaluation system. And he'll finally back some relief for teachers-- if he can have a higher cap for charters. Fixing the teacher evaluation system is really important-- if he can have more charters.

In some ways, Flanagan's proposal is oddly honest. It tacitly admits that Flanagan is a dealmaker, that he has no interest in any of the ideas or principles-- just what he can trade for. No need to talk to Flanagan about the merits of any of this-- just tell him what points he can make on any given deal. Flanagan's play also tacitly admits that charter and teacher interests are innately opposed to each other, that charter schools are bad for teachers and it's reasonable to expect teachers to oppose them..

Is there any reason to tie better teacher evaluations to charter caps? No more than tying teacher evals to dog registration costs or global warming studies or the cost of seats for a Yankees game? No, none at all. If Flanagan wanted to propose a fix for teacher evaluations, he could just propose it. But Flanagan doesn't want to fix teacher evaluations-- he just wants to make a deal so that more charters can bloom  in New York. This is no way to run a state.

Monday, June 11, 2018

In Praise of Vagueness

This video (passed along by an administrator to staff) has some valid points, but on the whole, it represents a point of view that I think is hugely over-valued by some folks in education these day-- the view of education as a hyper-engineered all-on-the-same-page objective-dominated process. The speaker is Mike Mattos (who I sometimes find inspirational and sometimes-- well, sometimes he invokes Marzano's name like he's someone we should pay attention to) and the topic is getting "insanely specific about learning outcomes and learning objectives." I'm not a fan.

You probably know some of the hallmarks of this general approach--
  * every teacher in the department or grade level must agree on exactly the same outcomes and objectives and maybe even use the same assessments
  * post the objectives on the wall and drill the students in them
  * translate the objectives into clear, precise language so everyone is working toward exactly the same goal
  * decide what essential parts of the course every single student must master
  * set an agreed-upon measure of what proficient looks like

Before I launch into my counter-point, let me acknowledge two things:

I am opposed to national or state standards. I recognize that in this I am a bit out there, and I recognize that reasonable people can believe that state and federal standards would be a good idea. I just don't agree.

However, I am not an advocate of completely unstructured wandering classrooms. You should know why you're teaching what you're teaching; you should have goals and objectives in teaching that material. So, no-- I'm not lobbying for the Classroom of Do As You Please.

Also, feel free to insert "in my opinion" in front of all the following.

That said...

The kind of laser-sharp focus advocated by some educational folks gives me the creeps.

Sitting a department down to say, "We're going to figure out how we can all teach exactly the same things for exactly the same purposes aimed at exactly the same outcomes," diminishes the professionalism of the people in the room and does not serve the education of their students.

Laser-sharp focus on a single objective is a bad idea, a stultifying limiting idea. I say this not just as an education viewpoint, but a life viewpoint. People who focus on one single objective are the people who throw away gold because they were focused, laser-like, on digging up diamonds. Yes, some of them find diamond mines, but mostly they barrel through a lot of other human beings and riches of another kind because of their laser-like focus.

Laser-like focus also encourages you to view every deviation from the path as a crisis, a sign of impending disaster, instead of an opportunity. Laser-like focus fosters high-strung panic instead of sparkling improvisation.

To take that kind of focus into a classroom means to define a set single acceptable path to a single acceptable success, which means that some students in your classroom will inevitably be seen as disruptive non-compliant path-jumpers. If you are going to post the approved outcomes on your wall, you might as well also put up a poster of all the things that won't be valued or pursued in your classroom, and let your problem students know where they stand from day one.

It's no exaggeration to say that my life has not turned out anything like what I imagined at various points in my past, but it is also no exaggeration to say that, on the whole, if I had been free to design my life with laser-like precision, I would not have done as well as I have. The same is true for my life in the classroom. Students have surprised me; students will always surprise you. What you have to decide is whether you will treat those surprises as beautiful fire that illuminates and delights, or whether you will treat those surprises as disastrous fire that must be stomped out and extinguished.

I'm not an advocate for anarchy. To play a good jazz solo, it helps to have set known chords underneath. To teach a good unit, you need to know the territory well enough to know where the best views are for most people.

But for me, the prospect of a journey in which every step, every stop, every move is predetermined with laser-like precision is a boring, dull, soul-sucking prospect. Yes, I will set out with a direction and a purpose, but those are always subject to revision and they are always kind of, well, vague. More pudding-shaped than laser-like. And if during my career, you had dragged me into a meeting in which we were directed to develop a unified, all-on-the-same page laser-like focused set of outcomes and objectives, I would have been a pain in the ass every step of the way, and when it was done, I would have put up the poster on the inside of the cupboard door and the very first time something interesting came up in class that was not on the outcomes list, I would never have said, "Sorry, but it's Tuesday and we have to focus on reviewing the objectives for tomorrows common formative assessment."

Yes, different teachers may teach different things. So what? Different students will learn different things, care about different things, grow up to become different types of people in different types of jobs. I'm not saying dump reading lessons for macramé projects. I'm just saying that vagueness is not so bad. In fact, if you study the shapes of chaos and chaos theory, you find that vagueness is kind of beautiful.

A laser works taking all the different paths of light and forcing them into one, single, one-colored directed beam. But of course that's not how light usually works. Usually it bends and bounces and spreads and warps and filters in a million different ways and directions, giving us colors, shading, and everything pleasing to the eye. Sure, the laser has some useful functions in the world. But it is not how the world works. You keep your laser-like focus. I will continue to stay vague.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Success Academy: Much Ado About Almost Nothing

Richard Whitmire, a reliable booster for all things charter, is over at The 74, reliable reformy news-ish outlet, to celebrate news from Success Academy:

America’s most controversial — and possibly most successful — charter network leader, Eva Moskowitz, notched a major win Thursday, overseeing her first high school graduation ceremony at Success Academy, the class of 2022.

Class of 2022 is a coy way of referring to the year that these sixteen students will presumably graduate from college.

Yes, I said sixteen.

Anyway, Whitmire addresses the question suggested by that 2022. Will they actually make it to the finish line?

Impossible to say with certainty, of course, but based on my research of low-income, minority students going off to college, the odds of these 16 graduating seniors earning degrees are very high.

Sure. His argument is they've gotten into very selective schools with high graduation rates. He could be right.

But he also wants us to know that this is a huge deal, a big giant triumph for this poor little rich girl struggling against her critics:

Moskowitz is rarely one to resist settling scores with her many critics, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who once famously vowed to staunch her access to unused school buildings, or the union leaders who have thrown every weapon imaginable at her over the past dozen years. She appears to be achieving what they hold is impossible: successfully educating low-income minority children without first solving the ills of poverty. And she’s doing it at scale, not just with these 16 graduates. Her 46 schools enroll 15,500 students.

And that is as close as Whitmire comes to the facts that make this not quite so triumphant. Because Moskowitz isn't doing this at anything remotely resembling scale.

It's swell that her schools enroll 15,500 students. Twelve years ago, she was enrolling just 157 students in two grades. By 2016, those 157 students had become 52 tenth and eleventh graders. And now they have become 16 graduates (Gary Rubinstein breaks down the stunning attrition numbers more exactly here).

Success Academy has two secrets, and neither of them are important new developments in the field of education. Also, neither of them can be scaled up.

First, as indicated above, is the secret power of attrition. Get students to leave-- you might even make a got-to-go list of students that you want to push out. Never fill any empty seats after the first couple of years, so that over time you can whittle student body down to just a few who are able to work the way you want them to.

Second, be well-connected so that movers and shakers in NYC help get you what you need (including lots of contributions at fund-raisers). Use your customers as free muscle in the state capital to help get more political leverage.

Without these secrets of her success, Moskowitz is nothing special. Enroll 15,500 students? Super-- when all 15,500 graduate from your schools, then you'll have done something remarkable. And if you can do it without extra favors and extra money-- just with the same resources that any public school would have-- then you'll have done something extraordinary.

I would not for a second want to diminish what this accomplishment means to those sixteen students. This was a great thing for them, and I hope that the years ahead bring them nothing but continued success.

But do not pretend this accomplishment is magical or scalable or offers any lessons other schools could learn from. Any school with a mountain of extra money, friends in high places, and the ability to teach only the students that suit it-- any school could do the same under those conditions. If government were willing to mobilize these kind of resources for every school and every school, it would be a great thing. But in the meantime, don't tell me that Moskowitz has accomplished something great and special here. It's a great day for those sixteen students, but as a lesson in how to operate a school system, it's a big fat nothingburger.

ICYMI: First Retired Weekend Edition (6/10)

Yes, retirement is slowly sinking in. But in the meantime, here are some pieces from the week worthy of your attention. Remember, if you think it's important, tweet it, share it, even go old school an e-mail it. That's how people's voices get out into the world.

The Fallout of School Takeover Laws

What does the takeover of public schools have to do with taking a knee? Wendy Lecker looks at a new book by Domingo Morel that answers that question.

Everything You Know Is Wrong

Paul Thomas looks at some of those things that everybody knows and discovers that everybody might be wrong.

A Why Have Republicans Declared War on Public Education

Lawrence Feinberg is talking about Pennsylvania, but the anti-public ed story is familiar to many other states.

All the State Chiefs of Education in a Nutshell

Nancy Bailey performs a public service and lists every state-level ed honcho, with links to their bios and notes about what educational experience they have-- if any.

We Need an Education Commission to Take a Critical Look at Private Schools

It's becoming increasingly clear that some voucher money is being directed to private schools that are not exactly academically rigorous-- or even scientifically correct. Andre Perry lays out what needs to be done.

Social Impact Bonds Readings

A good list of resources about these critical but not widely understood financial instruments that lurk behind many reformy ideas.

Teaching Machines  

Have You Heard's new episode brings together Jennifer Berkshire, Jack Schneider, and Audrey Watters to talk about the history of teaching machines. Check it out.