Monday, February 19, 2018

Is PA Chasing Teachers Away

The Economic Policy Institute has just released a new report, and announced it with this subheading: "Undercompensation is likely a factor in Pennsylvania’s growing teacher shortage."

Pennsylvania has been working on a teacher shortage for a while, but for years we cleverly masked it by shedding teacher jobs by the thousands. From a distance, that made it appear that our teacher supply was reasonably stable, because districts were complaining far less about a teacher "shortage" than other states were. But it was also exacerbated the problems with the teacher pipeline long term because high school and college students could look around their home districts and see that nobody new had been hired for years. "Why pay college tuition to pursue a field in which there are no jobs," was the comment I heard more times than I could count from my own students. That in turn led many universities to trim their own education programs.

EPI describes the decline this way:

Pennsylvania is in the midst of a growing teacher shortage. The rate of Pennsylvania teacher certifications has declined by two-thirds between 2010 and 2015 (Benshoff 2016). College students are shunning education majors, with reports indicating that enrollment fell by 36 percent in traditional teacher education programs at the 14 Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education colleges (Palochko 2016). In 2013, 16,631 students graduated from teacher-training programs; by 2015, that number had dropped to 6,125, a 63 percent decline, according to data from the state’s Department of Education (PDE) reported on WHYY public radio in Philadelphia (Benshoff 2016).

EPI also notes that this is found in the substitute teacher sector, and from big districts like Philadelphia all the way down to my own tiny corner of the world, the substitute shortage is pretty dire.

EPI set out to see if compensation was an issue, and they did the old "compare teacher pay to pay in fields requiring similar education and skills" research. Their findings are not particularly surprising:

We find that Pennsylvania public school teachers are undercompensated relative to other full-time workers with similar education and skills. Their weekly wages are 12.1 percent lower than the wages of comparable full-time employees in Pennsylvania, and their weekly compensation (including both wages and benefits) is 6.8 percent lower.

In addition, EPI also looked at pensions-- and here's where PA is in real trouble.

We are outstandingly underfunded, our system suffering from some epic bad choices made by the legislation over a decade ago (among other things, we bet heavily on the housing boom of 2007). The legislation has been looking for a variety of fixes:

Pension legislation passed in 2010 (Act 120) decreased PSERS benefits for teachers hired in 2011 and later, while a 2017 law (Act 5) will further cut pension benefits for teachers hired in 2019 (and beyond). Act 5 will require new teachers to participate in a pension plan that significantly shifts funding from the state and school districts onto employees. The new plan includes 401(k)-style offerings, which also shift retirement income risk onto teachers.

Which is why the pension for me with 39 years in the classroom is looking far rosier than the pension that my wife faces with her 5 years. And as EPI notes, the state still isn't done fiddling, which means that lifetime compensation for PA teachers continues to be cut, and cut, and cut. "Well, the pay may not be super, but at least you'll can rest secure in the knowledge that when you finally retire, you may or may not be financially screwed in your old age," is not a very snappy or effective recruitment slogan.

And so we're back to the same old point. There is no teacher shortage. What there is is a shortage of states and districts willing to make teaching attractive enough to draw the candidates they want. If I can't buy a Porsche for $1.95, it does not follow that there is an automobile shortage. Pennsylvania has not yet put real muscle into trying to "solve" the problem by, say, letting anyone with a pulse hold a teaching job, or by trying to bolster growth of charters that can hire without regard to actual qualifications. But the state also hasn't shown any inclination to try to make teaching more attractive as a career, either. We could do better. It remains to be seen if we'll actually try to.

Another Choice Diversion

Over at School Leader, "an education administration blog by Dr. Gary Houchens (Western Kentucky University), Houchens talks about his podcast discussion of proposed school vouchers under the name "Scholarship Tax Credits" for Kentucky.

STC are the Kentucky version of Education Savings Accounts, a particularly destructive version of voucherism. Pro-voucher folks are pushing hard, and there's been some attempt (including by Houchens) to paint these as relief for poor families, yet proposals like House Bill 162 aren't aimed at low- and middle-income families at all.

Houchens is a big choicer, and he has some pretty standard lines about school choice, none of which strike me as very solid. But he's been at this for a while, railing against "status quo" folks in a dismissive manner. But these issues matter in Kentucky, where there are some major financial challenges. 

We could at many Houchens posts, but let's focus on "Does giving parents education options "divert" money from schools? My TeachThought Podcast discussion on scholarship tax credits" because it's a nice clear question with a nice clear answer.

The answer is "Yes. Yes it does."

Now let's look at the fallacies Houchens uses to avoid arriving at that answer.

I believe in school choice because, while education is a public good, it's not a generic, one-size-fits-all public good like the fire department provides.

Since when does a fire department provide a one-size-fits-all public good? Fire departments are the very definition of the opposite-- every fire they respond to presents a unique set of circumstances, from the distance to the fire to the access to the availability of resources like water to specific configuration of the building to the placement and nature of the fire itself. If the fire department in your own is providing "generic" service, they are doing it wrong.

Every child is unique and no school, no matter how good, can meet the needs of every single student.

But that is, in fact, the gig. I will not pretend that every public school achieves that goal every single time, but here's the critical difference between a public school and a private or charter school-- a public school is legally compelled to try. If I feel that the public school is failing to meet my child's needs, I can take that school to court. If a private or charter school is failing, they can just shrug, say "Well, I guess your child isn't a good fit" and show me the door. Houchens claims that choice increases the "likelihood" that every family can find a school that fits, but that's not true. Choice increases the likelihood that hard-to-fit students, students who cannot profitably be served by choice schools, will find themselves stranded, an educational hot potato.

Houchens' podcast partner expresses a concern that tax credit encouragement of school choice "drains money from public coffers at a time when the state budget is in shortfall and schools are facing potentially large funding cuts." Houchens sympathizes and longs for a day when pension and tax reform create a different picture. "But our gloomy budget forecast is not a reason to continue denying low-income families choices in how their children are educated" (Again with the marketing talking point of "but it's for the poor kids!")

But having said all that, Houchens is going to throw it out the window, and pitch a "new paradigm"

For starters, if you accept that families should have some choices in who educates their children, then you've got to start thinking about education spending in a different way. Education dollars are a benefit for students, not for institutions.

Again, a time-honored talking point. But it's incorrect.

Education is not a service provided for families, and it is not exclusively for the benefit of the students. Public education is for the benefit of the public, the community-- not just the students, but their future neighbors, employers, fellow taxpayers, and people to whom they will provide some good or service. That is why members of the public pay taxes for schools, even if they don't have children to attend, and that is why school boards are properly elected by all taxpayers and not just parents.

But education should be treated like other highly personal public goods. Medicare and Medicaid are personal benefits for the health care of the elderly and poor. Pell grants and the GI Bill are a benefit for the education of low-income college students or veterans. Foods stamps are a food security benefit for low-income families. But in all these cases we give the beneficiary some choice in where they obtain these public goods, because the needs and preferences of individuals are so diverse and the good in these cases is so highly personal.

I will give Houchens credit at least for not comparing schools to Ubers. But there are some critical differences here in these diversionary analogies. First, none of these "benefits" provide the sole support for the providers on which they are spent. Hospitals, colleges, and supermarkets do not depend on these benefits for their existence, because none of these institutions are created for the sole use of the people who use these benefits. Second, uses of these benefits are highly regulated-- you can't spend food stamps on beer and cigarettes, your Pell grant has to go to an approved school, and Medicare won't pay for your toad-sacrificed-under-a-full-moon treatment for broken bones. Kentucky is not proposing any such accountability or oversight for the recipients of the voucher money.

And here's something I find mysterious about voucher programs and their supporters. Medicare/aid, Pell Grants, and food stamps are all program that conservatives have worked (and are still working) to roll back or kill, because "entitlements" are bad. I have always wondered-- why don't these same conservatives see vouchers as an entitlement for sending the children of Those People to a private school? I suspect the answer is, in part, because the vouchers proposed are never enough to make top schools affordable to the poor. More importantly, hospitals, colleges and supermarkets cannot refuse to serve certain customers because of race, religion and sexual orientation (well, mostly, so far) whereas nothing in a voucher program says that private and charter schools have to accept anybody they don't feel like accepting.

Health care is also a lousy comparison for Houchens' purposes because we've put the health care market in the hands of the insurance companies, and now we have one of the most expensively mediocre systems in the world. What works really well? A single payer system that more closely resembles our public education system.

But most notably, none of the programs that Houchens brings up is designed to serve all citizens of the country. In effect, these are programs designed to plug the holes in a private free market approach to goods like health care and food. Public education, on the other hand, is in place of a free market, precisely so that we can insure that all citizens are served and represented. Vouchers do not offer to plug holes in a free market system, but propose to create a free market system by dumping the public tax dollars into the free market. Vouchers don't plug holes-- they create them, by defunding the public system that will be the last resort of the educational hot potatoes who can't find a private or charter school to accept them.

Houchens wants to argue that there is no draining or diverting with a voucher system any more "than we 'drain money' from Hospital A when a Medicare patient has a procedure at Hospital B." But that is a false analogy, implying that a public school and a private school are equal entities on equal footing, like to equal competing hospitals (the analogy also fails because there are few markets left that actually have competing hospitals, but that's another discussion). They are not. The public school is a public entity fully and only funded by public tax dollars, while the private school is a private entity funded by a variety of sources (ditto the charter). Voucher fans counter that by saying that public schools are not "entitled" to those funds, but that's beside the point-- those funds were collected from the taxpayers for the purpose of funding an institution that would educate all students. What voucher fans propose is the equivalent of collecting money from everyone on the block in order to throw a barbecue for all the neighbors, then announcing that you gave half of it to the Smith's so they could cook a steak dinner for themselves. Of course the money has been diverted from its original purpose.

Later in the piece Houchens will argue that there is no financial damage to the public system because a measley 1-1.5% of the students will use the vouchers. But if that's true, why bother. If the vouchers really aren't going to help much of anyone, then why have them. Are these STCs going to rescue scads of poor students, or are they going to have a piddly effect and "rescue" hardly anyone at all. It can't be both.

Then Houchans tries to argue that ESA systems actually save money, which is simply unvarnished baloney. The theory is that you fill the accounts with money from private and corporate donors which pays for the education of certain students, and therefor the public system doesn't have to bear that cost. This is true only if Kentucky proposes to give contributors exactly zero deductions or credits for their contributions, which does not appear to be the case. So HugeCorp gives a thousand dollars to the STCs, and it doesn't pay that thousand dollars in school taxes. This is not a savings to the school, particularly in the face of fixed costs and costs of scale that do not change with the loss of a few students (the buildings stay the same size, the buses run the same, and you probably can't even get by with a smaller staff).

This doesn't save the school a cent, but it cuts the school's revenue considerably.

Houchans' conclusion sums up his many-holed argument:

I believe we need to make bigger investments in education, but whether our policy makers do that or not is not a reason to deny low-income families the dignity of a choice in who educates their children. We either believe that we should have policy mechanisms that give parents education options, or we believe that local government schools should have an exclusive franchise on education delivery for low- and middle income families.

Houchans line about "dignity" would carry a lot more weight if a choice system promised to preserve that dignity by, say, requiring all private and charter schools to accept any students who apply, and meeting their educational needs, no matter how expensive or inconvenient those needs might be. And his line about bigger investments might carry more weight if he addressed the central falsehood of choice policy, the lie that we can run multiple school systems with the same money we previously used to run just one.

Education is the only industry anywhere with folks suggesting, "Since we're having trouble financing the facilities we have, the next logical step is to open more facilities and create excess capacity."

I'll make my usual offer. If some policy maven or politician wants to stand up and say, "I believe that charter and choice systems are so important that I will call for a tax increase to properly fund them," I will applaud that person and drop some of my objections to school choice. And if they want to further add, "And I will require those choice schools to accept any and all applicants, and to have a governance model that allows all taxpayers a say, and to be required to meet accountability and oversight measures put in place by the state," I will drop most of my objections.

But as it stands, that's not what folks like Houchans are calling for. ESA/STC systems propose a world where a private school that, for example, wants to teach that black folks are genetically inferior can collect tax dollars from black taxpayers, even as they refuse to teach black children, who must then be sent back to a public system that can now offer them far less because that system is now missing the resources that were diverted to the voucher school.

A public school system is not about an "exclusive franchise on educational delivery." It's about giving the taxpayers what they paid for-- a public system that accepts and teaches every single student, is governed by elected community representatives, and serves the community as a whole, both the present and the future. Calling it anything else is simply a diversion.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

ICYMI: Bad News Week Edition (2/18)

Your reading for this week. Remember to share and amplify.

A Democracy for Those Who've Never Known It

Jose Luis Vilson takes on the tough topic of democracy in schools-- or rather, the lack thereof.

As the COT Slow-Moving Train Wreck Continues, the Republican Blame Game Begins

ECOT was given years of access to Ohio taxpayer dollars, and didn't do much with it except make one guy rich. Now the gravy train has been stopped. Plunderbund takes a look at who's being set up to take the blame.

Inside the Virtual Schools Lobby

How the talking point of parent empowerment is leveraged to keep cyber-schools going, even when there isn't a shred of evidence that they work.

Why Amerca's Teacher Shortage Is Going To Get Worse

Yeah, we already know the answer, but here's the NY Post saying something about the issue. And they don't even like teachers.

The Regret Industry

Audrey Watters takes a look at the new cottage industry in reformer revelations- "Hey, I think I might have been wrong about something!"

The Skills Trap

Have You Heard talks to Mike Rose about the problems of narrowing education to a vocational focus.

Every Day We Fail To Take Action, We Choose This Fate

There are so many good pieces being written in the aftermath of the latest school shooting, but this one from Nancy Flanagan is particularly on point.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Is Gates America's Dumbest Smart Guy?

If you glanced at EdWeek's Teacher Beat blog last week, you could be forgiven for thinking that Bill Gates had joined the growing list of tech "regrets" writers. It's a cool new writing genre in which some longtime techy reformster announces that he's had an epiphany and realized all by himself that there's something fundamentally ineffective, misguided and just plain wrong with the baloney he's been frying up lo these many years. We've gotten them from big names and small fish and they are marked by Columbus-style discover, a shitless Sherlockian highlighting of some Truth that unheeded educators have been pointing out for years.

Anyway, a cursory glance at the EdWeek piece "Teacher-Evaluation Efforts Haven't Shown Results, Say Bill and Melinda Gates" would suggest that Gates has had a similar epiphany.

He hasn't.

The EdWeek piece is referring to the Gatesian annual letter, their own little State of the Union address. This year it takes the form of answering ten "tough" questions, and among the pack we find a question about education, in which Gates reveals that he has another in the long series of Gates-style non-epiphanies.

The comments in the latter are an extension of a speech he delivered last fall, and that is an extension of his work in education so far. And when we look at Gates's history in education policy meddling, there are two things that jump out:

1) He is almost always wrong.

2) He never learns anything.

If we look at last fall's speech (both the pre-speech PR and the actual edited-down version he delivered), we can see that Gates knows he's supposed to be learning things, that a shift in direction and emphasis needs to look like a pivot based on a learning curve, and not just flailing off blindly in another direction because the previous flails didn't turn out like you hoped (against all evidence and advice) they would.

What looks on the surface like an admission of failure turns out to be an assignment of blame. Small schools, teacher evaluation, merit pay, and the ever-unloved Common Core have all been a bust, and yet somehow, their failure is never the result of a flawed design, a bad concept, or being flat-out wrong about the whole picture. What Gates invariably announces he's "learned" is that he was basically correct, but he underestimated just how unready people were to welcome his rightness, and he needs to tweak a few features.

So Tough Question #2 was "What do you have to show for the billions you’ve spent on U.S. education?" And his short answer is "A lot, but not as much as either of us would like."

This is classic Gates. "The Zune was a huge success, but we needed to tweak the matter of customers not wanting to buy them." "Mrs. Lincoln thought the play was a triumph, but we might need to tweak that last part a bit."

We made education the focus of our work in the United States because it is the key to a prosperous future, for individuals and the country. Unfortunately, although there’s been some progress over the past decade, America’s public schools are still falling short on important metrics, especially college completion.

It's a curious observation to come from America's richest college dropout. And it's a curious choice to make college completion a metric for measuring K-12 success, as if no other factors were involved in successful completion of college.

We’ve learned a lot about what works in education, but the challenge has been to replicate the successes widely

No. What you have failed to learn is that in education, what works is not using "solutions" that are intended to replicate widely. The very moment you try to a scalable solution, a one size that will fit all, you take a bold step away from what actually works. Next he addresses graduation rate (did you know that it's the Gates people who figured out how to compute the rate correctly).

To help raise those graduation rates, we supported hundreds of new secondary schools. Many of them have better achievement and graduation rates than the ones they replaced or complemented.

SMH. First, "many" is a vague and unimpressive measurement. I believe Microsoft sold "many" Zunes, and yet there they sit, on the ash heap of musical history. Second, comparisons mean nothing if you aren't certain you're comparing similar student populations. If you're getting your results by swapping out your old students for "better" ones, you've accomplished nothing. Of course, that could be why Gates writes

One thing we learned is that it’s extremely hard to transform low-performing schools; overall they didn’t perform as well as newly created schools.

The letter also includes groaners like this one:

We also helped the education sector learn more about what makes a school highly effective. Strong leadership, proven instructional practices, a healthy school culture, and high expectations are all key.

Yes, you sure helped us out there. We look forward to future studies in which Gates helps us understand that water is wet and the fire burns. Seriously-- how can he possibly think we didn't already know this?

Next, he updates us on the Gates attempt to make teachers better.

We have also worked with districts across the country to help them improve the quality of teaching. This effort helped educators understand how to observe teachers, rate their performance fairly, and give them feedback they can act on. But we haven’t seen the large impact we had hoped for.

Now, if I order miracle hair grower on line and I use it, and my hair doesn't grow back, I might be inclined to question whether or not the hair grower was as miraculous as it claimed. If I had a great system for improving teachers, and I used it, and it didn't look like it worked, I might question whether my brilliant ideas were really brilliant or not. In short, I might wonder if I weren't, you know, wrong. But not Gates. He gives us the three measures for success-- good pilot, self-sustaining system, and spreading to other locations. Then he provides the excuses for why his teacher system failed all three.

The pilot feedback systems were handled differently in each place. Some places, like Memphis, maintained the system, but others didn't (do you suppose they stopped using it because it didn't work). And districts didn't produce enough investment or systemic change. And, Gates says, you have to build consensus among a wide range of people. And at this point, Bill Gates(or some intern) hands the keyboard over to Melinda Gates. And she leaps right in with both feet.

Everything we do in education begins as an idea that educators bring to us.

Nope. Not unless you were suffering from the delusion that David Coleman was an educator when he brought you the Common Core and convinced you to foist it on the rest of us. This statement is simply untrue.

We will work with networks of middle and high schools across the country to help them develop and implement their own strategies for overcoming the obstacles that keep students from succeeding. We will help these networks with the process: using key indicators of student success like grades and attendance to drive continuous learning and improvement. But the substance of the changes they make will depend on what local leaders and the available evidence say are most likely to be effective.

So, those of us who work in education will keep doing what we've always done and you will... help us, somehow? How, exactly? Exactly what educational expertise do you bring to the table, other than several years as self-appointed redesigners of America's education system. Which you've repeatedly failed at. And learned nothing about in the process.

What the letter notably does not address is the new Gatesian plan to double down on Common Core by adding what we've always said was an implied requirement of the standards-- a curriculum, aligned to that monstrous amateur-hour beast. On the one hand, the missing curriculum piece has always been one of the Core's major flaws- the focus on skills while ignoring content is just dumb. Reading is not a skill that exists in some vacuum. On the other hand, designing curriculum is hard, and involves debates that have been raging since the creation of dirt, and anything that Gates offers to the debate will be colored by the fact that, well, he doesn't know what he's talking about. If he hires someone like Pearson to do it for him, then we're into the issue of having a fox design the henhouse. And creating curriculum is generally a local thing-- why exactly do we need someone coming in to tell us how to do our jobs? The icing on top is that none of these issues will be aided by the sales line "Brought to you by the same people who brought you the Common Core."

It doesn't matter. Gates just plugs on, sure that he's right, and even when he's wrong, he's right and somebody else just messed things up.

Bill Gates is not part of the tech regrets wave. He's not a guy who is looking back at the reform techy ideas that he's pushed and suddenly realized that they are a house built on a foundation of sand with a frame carved out of baloney. He is not a guy thinking that maybe it's time for a major course correction rather than just tweaking some cosmetics while pursuing the same old line of bogus unicorns and empty fairy dust.

But he should be.

Tactics of Reduction (Act V)

One more thing about the Gun Problem, and then I'll get back to other things. Probably.

When guys like Marco Rubio say, "There's no point in doing any sort of regulation because these guys will still do their evil things," they are being what we could generously call "disingenuous." If we are feeling less generous we can call it "lying."

They know how this works.

Obstacles, even small ones, placed in the path of certain behavior can make that behavior far less likely. Locking the front door stop a moderately determined burglar, but it still makes burglary far less likely.

But as I sad, they know how this works. We know they know, because they have used the tactics of reduction themselves.

Look at voting. The GOP knows that it cannot entirely eliminate voting by blacks or college students (groups that traditionally skew Democrat), but they also know that if they can just put a few obstacles in the path of that vote, it will make a difference. Close some polls so that lines are long at others, or so that college students must take a buss cross town, or add ID requirements that are harder for some folks to meet. It won't end voting by your opponents, but it will reduce it.

Likewise, look at the work of anti-abortion activists. When they lost on the issue of flat-out outlawing abortion, they switched to the tactics of reduction. Just keep putting small obstacles in the path of pregnant women, and at least some of them would not have an abortion. Make it a little harder to open a clinic so that it would be a little bit harder to get to a clinic. Add a waiting period. Make the woman look at pictures and videos and ultrasounds.

Nobody added these obstacles to getting an abortion sayin, "Oh, yeah-- this will totally end all abortions forever." What they said was, "This will keep some abortions from happening, and if we stop even a few, that'll be worth it."

So when someone like Rubio makes the claim that lefties just ant to ban all guns because those lefties think a gun ban will end all school shootings forever, he knows he's full of baloney. That's not what folks are proposing, and that's not what they expect will happen.

We made assault rifles illegal for a decade; it helped. We won't make school shootings impossible, but we can use the tactics of reduction to make them harder, and if that saves even a few children, well, that seems like a good thing. And GOP politicians know it's true.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Thoughts and Prayers and Dollars and Sense

A response in four acts.

ACT I : Conversations of which I am tired, and a request.

I am tired of reading (and allowing myself to be drawn into) versions of this conversation.


Everyone else: Do you suppose we could talk about some reasonable regulations that might help lessen the number of deaths by gunfire.


Everyone else: Can you agree in principle that crazy people and children probably shouldn't have access to weapons whose only purpose is to kill other people?


Everyone else: Surely there's a way to change things so that our gun death rate isn't so dramatically huger than the rest of the world's. I don't want to take away your guns, and I'd love to hear your ideas about reasonable limits and regulations that might make our country a bit safer.


Everybody else: Well, can we at least agree that it's sad when children are killed?


I blame this inability to have an actual conversation absolutely on the NRA, which has pushed the position that nothing at all about regulating guns in any way shape or form can ever be discussed, because any restriction, no matter how sensible, is just a slippery slope only one step away from having jackbooted thugs  take everyone's guns away. I also blame the NRA not just for throwing money at legislators, but handing them a script and a strategy guide and using them as anti-gun-legislation puppets. Please, my friends-- please stop giving the NRA money. I know they don't need it (they get all they need from the gun industry), but at least it would send a message.

I am also tired of hearing from the armed guys who think that if they'd been there, they would have whipped out their piece and saved the day. I believe it's possible guys who can do that exist-- but they understand the complexity of such a situation too well to make such boastful claims. The only people claiming they would have saved the day with their own gun are people whose armed experience mostly involves a playstation. Having a good run on Call of Duty does not make you an action hero-- just sit down and shut up.

ACT II : Solving problems

After 9/11, we created an entire new security industry and protocol, banning a wide variety of objects from air travel We also re-engineered the cockpits of planes to make them harder to get into.

When one guy got caught with a shoe bomb, we started making everyone take off their shoes in airport security.

When a guy blew up a building with a fertilizer bomb, we made it harder to buy that fertilizer.

Because some people have latched onto the unfounded idea that immigrants are more dangerous than folks who were born here, we are watching immigration rolled back. We've dispatched an entire federal police force devoted just to rounding up immigrants who have cleverly hidden their lack of paperwork by becoming pillars of their communities.

We require people to pass tests and, in some states, buy insurance before they can operate a car. If they screw up, we take their right to operate the vehicle away.

Because some folks have some racist paranoia about Mexicans, we continue to seriously consider building a giant wall along the border, regardless of what we are told about the cost and the effectiveness of such a move.

We tamperproof medicine containers because someone poisoned some pills, once and killed seven people.

We make customers jump through hoops for certain medications because those same medications can be used to make meth.

We have made a whole class of people mandatory reporters, which means that if I see or hear anything to indicate the abuse of one of my students, I must tell the authorities.

Point being, we're Americans and we like to solve problems. Sometimes we like to solve problems that don't really exist, and sometimes we like to employ solutions that don't really solve anything. But it's really, really unlike us to look at something and say, "Yeah, well, there's just nothing you can do. Price of freedom and all that." Why does this particular issue require us to pretend to be helpless in a way we don't feign helplessness for any other issue? I will not pretend that this is even remotely a simple problem to resolve-- it's complicated and requires us to balance many of our constitutional rights. But "it's hard and complicated" is not an acceptable excuse for refusing to do anything at all.

ACT III : That fake equivalency argument

The pro-gun side of this covers a wide range of arguments, from things I can understand to plain old bullshit. We are, after all, a country where some folks say everyone should be carrying a gun-- but if you see a black man carrying a gun, you should probably shoot him right away. Really, is it not odd that the NRA is not there to stand up for the right of black men and boys to carry a gun (or even just seem to be carrying a gun) without facing hostility from some police?

But then there's the non-sensical fake equivalency argument.

It goes like this: "It doesn't matter if we even outlaw guns because it's people who are the problem. People kill people. If that kid had access to a bucket of gasoline  or a rock or a pointy stick, he'd be just as deadly."

This argument is usually offered by someone who owns a gun.

Someone who bought a gun.

Someone who went to buy a weapon and did NOT buy a bucket of gasoline or rock or pointy stick.

Someone who does not say, "It doesn't matter what I buy for my defense, because guns don't defend people from attackers-- people defend people."

In other words, they know damned well that guns possess uniquely dangerous qualities, qualities that make them more dangerous than rocks or sticks. Gun fans buy guns precisely for those qualities. So to turn around and pretend that a gun has no special qualities is, simply, a lie. It has them, and you know it does. That's exactly why you own one.

ACT IV : The Depressing Finale

We've already had this conversation, many times. At the point our leaders and their financers decided that twenty small children were a level of violent death they could live with, the conversation was pretty much over. Watch our politicians today-- the basic playbook is to just offer thoughts and prayers and stall with blowsy hot air issuing from the mouth-hole of a sad-face mask, and keep that up until the next shiny thing happens, because history at this point tells them that public outrage doesn't have legs, won't last, doesn't represent a real political threat to any of them.

Pieces like this aren't about changing anything. They're about venting and dealing with the anger and fear that comes from seeing one more workplace like mine, students like mine, teachers like me, torn into bloodied victims by the intersection of many, many problems. It matters what all those problems are, and it's important to track each one back and follow the path it made and ask, could we have stopped this somewhere.  But the fact remains that at this end of that spider web of paths, we find all those problems converging at the end of a gun.

They say the devil has many tools, but a lie is the handle that fits them all. Well, in America, we have many unresolved issues, but a gun is the tool that makes them all worse. Racism, mental health, poverty, crime, isolation, bullying-- every issue is real in and of itself, and every issue gets worse when easy access to a gun is thrown into the mix.

I always imagined that if I became a single-issue voter, the issue would be education. I now doubt that. A politician's position of guns has become a measure of his or her character, a display of just how craven he or she is, an indicator of how far he or she is willing to put personal and party concerns ahead of the actual lives of constituents. If these scenes of carnage, the real-time tweeted terror of youths and children, the senseless loss of life-- if none of that prompts you to tears and a determination to do something, then you are not someone I want representing me at the state or federal level.

This is not okay. None of this is okay.

Also, one more thought (Act V)

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Failed Engineering Model of Personalized [sic] Learning

This is a remarkable thing-- someone has expressed clearly in a few paragraphs what I have tried to say over the course of multiple posts. The subject-- personalized [sic] learning-- is not remarkable, but the source -- Larry Berger, CEO of Amplify-- is. The following is excerpted from a note that Berger sent to Rick Hess (AEI) which Hess just posted in his EdWeek blog.

Until a few years ago, I was a great believer in what might be called the "engineering" model of personalized learning, which is still what most people mean by personalized learning. The model works as follows:

You start with a map of all the things that kids need to learn.

Then you measure the kids so that you can place each kid on the map in just the spot where they know everything behind them, and in front of them is what they should learn next.

Then you assemble a vast library of learning objects and ask an algorithm to sort through it to find the optimal learning object for each kid at that particular moment.

Then you make each kid use the learning object.

Then you measure the kids again. If they have learned what you wanted them to learn, you move them to the next place on the map. If they didn't learn it, you try something simpler.

Here's the problem: The map doesn't exist, the measurement is impossible, and we have, collectively, built only 5% of the library.


Berger gets into the specifics of the problems with the map, the measurement and the library, and he further notes that even if all those parts worked, you'd still have to deal with what the live human child actually wanted to learn next.

This failed model for personalized learning grows out of a failed model of learning, the idea that there is a train that runs from Ignoranceville straight to downtown Smartland, and everyone needs to ride a train along those same tracks. In this model, "personalized" just means that we'll let people get on the train at different stations.

True personalized learning is a whole bunch of territory, and everyone sets their own destination and everyone starts from a different place and everyone has their own particular means of transportation. That's why you need a human teacher-- someone who functions as native guide who knows the whole territory, can find people where they are, and can help them navigate whatever sorts of challenges they face on their particular journey.

So why does the engineering model persist? Partly because of the flawed notion of what education is, but also because the engineering model can produce a good ROI at scale. You describe the ideal set-up of map, measure and library, and then, like a designer hawking a ready-to-wear knockoff of a Fashion Week hit, you sell folks the scaled down version. The engineering model may not be achievable, ever, but it is definitely marketable and, until folks catch on, profitable.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Hess: The Promise and New Rhetoric of School Choice

Regular readers know that I have a measure of respect for Rich Hess (AEI) among the reformsters, and today he has published a defense of school choice in US News. It's articulate and thoughtful.

But he's still wrong.

He opens with a concern that we might be arguing too much about outcomes. This is ironic, since the choice movement was launched primarily on the promise of better outcomes, coupled with the assertion that public school outcomes were terrible. Choice was necessary, we were told, to rescue students from failing public schools. But the rhetoric of the choice movement has shifted, and in Hess's piece, we can see the shift before our very eyes. Hess worries that "amidst these energetic debates" about outcomes, evidence, and cost, a larger point is being lost.

While choice advocates tend to talk mechanistically about the results of "randomized control trials" or the failures of "bureaucratic monopolies," the real promise of school choice is its humane, empowering and organic vision of educational improvement.

Choice is not an "intervention" or a "pill."

If we're being honest, the promise of school choice is not that, tomorrow, schools will magically be "better." The promise is that, over the long haul, things like charter schooling, voucher programs and educational savings accounts will create room for individuals to innovate, problem-solve and build. They can empower educators and families to create and choose better schools.

Remember when charter/choice advocates declared that students couldn't wait one more day for public schools to get better. Now that charter/choice schools have discovered they can't make magic overnight (well, except for that one trick where they make a whole school vanish overnight), the urgency has been dialed back.

But central to the new sales pitch is the story of parent empowerment. The new pitch is that if we just put the power in parent hands, the educational world will be better. That's an arguable point-- some parents are awesome, but every teacher has stories of students who would have been better off raised by wolves (my true stories include the father who spent the utility money on beer and the mother who tried to run over her daughter with a car). But let's agree that parents are by and large responsible and concerned.

The problem remains-- choice systems, particularly voucher and ESA super-voucher systems do not empower parents.

More precisely, they only empower parents of Highly Desirable Children. Students with high ability, great test scores, and engaged parents are able to pick and choose the school they want (provided, in some cases, that they also attend the right church, follow a traditional gender orientation, and are born the correct ethnicity). But parents of Less Desirable Children do not get to choose a school to attend, because ultimately in a choice system, it is the schools that get to choose.

Consider what this means, for instance, to a parent of a child with special needs. It is true that public schools often are reluctant to properly meet those needs, and parents end up in court-- but parents end up in court precisely because the law does not give public schools a choice-- they MUST meet the needs of those students. Yes, it stinks that the parents have to go to court, but at least they have the leverage of the law. Any private school can simply show them the door-- if you don't think we're meeting your child's needs, your option is to vote with your feet. Charter and private schools can make their position clear right up front-- "You're welcome to apply, of course, but we don't hire any staff with the expertise to run a program to help your child."

Or consider the article today by Anya Kamanetz, showing how charters have learned to repeat the mantra "I trust parents," but use and manipulate those parents as political tools.

This is not parent empowerment.

When the school has the final say over whether a child can attend, or continue to attend that school, that is not parent empowerment.

A choice system also disempowers taxpayers without children. That means employers, neighbors, fellow citizens, grandparents-- it is the very definition of taxation without representation. Under a choice system, you can be a black citizen paying taxes to support a school that teaches you would be better off as a slave, and there's no place for you to complain about it. Do public schools include some horrifying pockets of inexcusable racism? Absolutely-- but taxpayers have a recourse in those cases. In a choice system, they have none. That is not empowerment.

But Hess is interested in empowering some other folks as well.

The logic becomes easier to grasp if you spend much time talking school improvement with principals or district leaders. Conversations are peppered with phrases like, "I'd like to do this but the contract requires..." or "I'd like to pay them more but HR says..." and "I'd love to move those dollars but we're not allowed." Educators wrestle with inherited rules, regulations and contract provisions that may no longer make sense but which can be extraordinarily difficult to change. Even when formally allowed to act, school and system leaders are hamstrung by ingrained customs and culture.

This is old school charter/choice rhetoric, linked to the Visionary CEO school of school management-- the CEO should be free to do whatever he wants to do. But the absence of rules does not always lead to vitality (ask the other Koch brother William, who discovered that his charter was a financial and organizational mess). There's no doubt that many schools suffer from government mandates that make life difficult for the school-- but then, as some charter/choice fans like to point out, the school isn't supposed to be organized for the convenience of the adults. See above example of parents taking schools to court over failure to meet requirements of state and federal law.

Laws can be changed for public schools as easily as they can be dropped for charter/choice schools-- unless, of course, it turns out that the laws provide important protections for students. The reference to contracts is a red herring-- nobody is operating under a teacher contract longer than a couple of years, meaning opportunities to renegotiate appear often. "Custom and culture" often exist for good reasons (though sometimes for terrible ones).

Few older organizations, in any sector, are good at managing change. Organizations grow rigid with time, which makes it difficult to take advantage of new technology or address changing needs. When we tell educators that the only path to reimagining schools or schooling is to "fix" aged systems or schools, we can put them in a nearly impossible position.

Well, when you talk about anything as the "only" path to better schools, we get suspicious, and certainly no less so when you are not actually educators yourselves. But generally speaking, those of us who work in public education eat impossible for breakfast. It's private and charter school operators who are more likely to say, "This is impossible. Therefor, we are closing up shop."

It's not like school districts never change. They change all the time. But the changes tend to be cosmetic and inch-deep, precisely because bigger changes create discomfort and require painful modifications to existing rules, contracts and routines. This can make it prohibitive to launch a new school or reconfigure an old one.

At least Hess doesn't embrace the ridiculous "schools haven't changed in 100 years" line. But I think he's skipping over something important-- schools are conservative about change because we are working with real live young humans. Ultimately I haven't been railing against the Common Core and the Big Standardized Test because those reforms inconvenienced me or made me uncomfortable or damaged my routine, but because they have been bad for the education of the young humans for whom I have accepted responsibility. "First, do no harm" is an implied portion of my teacherly oath, and these policies have been harmful. Too many days I have been "uncomfortable" because I feel like a surgeon told that the new protocol for heart surgery is to make incisions with a rusty shovel.

Before they can even get started, educators seeking transformative change have to exhaust themselves just battling for permission to act.

I don't disagree with this, and schools often err on the side of timidity. But I'd argue that's not a bad thing. Another way to say "I'd like to radically transform how we do this" in schools is to say "I'd like to experiment on your children." That's not a request to be treated lightly.

School choice makes it far easier to start new schools, which can settle on a clear and coherent purpose from the outset. New schools can adopt the kinds of instructional programs, calendars and staffing models they want without having to unwind what's already there or negotiate with skeptical stakeholders.

School choice also makes it far easier to launch new forms of educational malpractice without anyone in place to say, "Now hold on." And they can settle on a clear and coherent purpose-- or they can not. And as practiced in most states, they can allow any fraud or scam artist to bilk the taxpayers at the expense of students who can never get the wasted years back. And while doing that, they can also strip resources away from the students who are still in public schools (the same students that the charter/choice operators manage not to choose for their schools).

But because school choice is an opportunity and not a solution, its success rests on having the ecosystem in place to cultivate and support good new schools. Since they first entered the picture more than a quarter-century ago, charter schooling and school voucher programs have enjoyed real success, but far less than advocates anticipated. I suspect this is partly because many advocates spent so much energy insisting that choice "works" that they spent less time than they should have focusing on what it takes to make it likely that choice will work.

I sort of agree with this (except maybe the "real success" part), though I would add that in most cases, advocates know exactly what it takes to make charter success more likely-- they just don't like it. They have valued autonomy over accountability. They have placed business concerns over educational concerns. They have put dollars over children. Or they have refused to discuss the true cost of operating multiple school systems. Or they have placed more value on amateur-hour "transformative" ideas over the experience and knowledge of education professionals. Or they have put the entrepreneurial dream ($600 billion dollars just sitting there, ripe for the taking!!) over the public education dream of getting a decent education for every single child.

In the end, the right way to think about choice is not as Dr. Pendergrast's Miracle Salve but as an opportunity to empower educators, entrepreneurs and parents.

The problem is that at this point, only one of the three groups has been consistently empowered by the modern charter/choice movement. The language of empowerment is certainly a better sell than the old language of salvation and rescue, but as charter/choice stands right now, it is no more accurate.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Breaking News: Software Still Can't Write

Chances are you've seen the ads for Grammarly, a service that, at least in the ads, seems to offer the same mediocre writing advice that you can get from the red and green squiggly lines in Word. Can we expect to see Clippy offering to run your HR department soon?

In one ad, it helps a student spot passive voice and a comma splice and a plagiarized section, and so she gets an A+ and the professor writes "wonderful use of words." It's true-- my favorite student papers are the ones that use words! And that damned thing has been viewed almost seven million times. In another, Grammarly helps a man write a come-on text, saving him from using the wrong "its" and the wrong "write." And the one I often get, for the guy who wants to write a message to his new work team, spelling mistakes and thesaurus and all. All in all, it looks like the program could be as useful as hiring a smart seventh grader to look over your stuff.

But this guy (self-publishing Dale) thinks it's swell, as do the commenters on his video, and if you can't trust youtube commenters, who can you trust? He explains that Grammarly offers word choice suggestions, context improvement (yeah, I don't know what that is), grammar correction (presumably it means usage correction-- a common error) and plagiarism detection, which-- well, I mean, if you plagiarized, you already know that, don't you. Either that tool is meant for editors of other peoples' work (and if you're an editor, why do you need the rest of these features) or the tool is to help you see if you've camouflaged your plagiarism well enough to avoid detection. Either way, shame on you.

Scanning through youtube, I also sense that Grammarly has fans among folks whose first language is not English.

So once again, we have the claim that some software can evaluate writing effectively. This claim has always been bunk in the past-- has Grammarly cracked the code?


Jacob Brogan at Slate has been playing with, and as a bonus with his article about Grammarly's security issues, he noted some other issues as well. Grammarly has some lousy ideas about how to "fix" the construction "really important," the software seems relatively easy to stump.

Even Grammarly’s most basic suggestions can still lead users astray. Take this sentence from an article I recently published in Slate: “No matter what he’s wearing, he almost always opts for long sleeves—here in an Apple Store uniform (just one of the team!), there in a plain sport shirt.” Grammarly identifies three possible problems. First, seemingly thrown by syntactical complexity, it suggests that I should replace “there in a” with “there is a,” a change that would be ungrammatical, but that still leaves me questioning my own stylistic choices. Second, it proposes substituting “sports shirt” for “sport shirt,” an acceptable, if uncalled for, alternative. Third, and worst of all, it declares, “The word "plain " doesn’t seem to fit in this context,” and informs me that I should change it to “plaid.” While switching things up might be good for your sartorial style, it’s only going to make your prose more baffling. This is an instance of what I’m tempted to call the algorithmic uncanny valley, that point at which a program is astute enough to recognize that humans often pair "shirt" with "plaid" but not enough to understand that they also do so with "plain."

So no, the key to software that can handle language like a human is still undiscovered. Let's just hope that Grammarly doesn't try to market itself as school assessment software and-- oh, hell. Too late.

Yep. Grammarly@EDU promises "better students, happier teachers" and also says it "fuels academic success." It's trusted by 600 universities, including the University of Phoenix, so you know it's only the best schools that partner up (the full 600 are not listed, meaning that somebody thought that, out of that list, University of Phoenix would be a good one to highlight).

Ask for a quote today. Because while the search for software that can handle human language is not yielding much in the way of results, the search for software that can use baseless promises to generate revenue is never-ending, and often lucrative.

PA: GOP Endorses Wannabe Trumper for Governor

The Pennsylvania GOP has given its endorsement to Senator Scott Wagner to carry the GOP banner against incumbent Tom Wolf.

In many ways, this is extraordinary. Wagner is a one-term Senator who was boxed out of his race-- and then won by write-in vote by an al most 2-to-1 margin. He is Tea Party flavored and much in the Trump style, with some ties to Scott Walker, and he shares Walkers love of unions in particular and the whole democratic process in general. The GOP chose him over House Speaker Mike Turzai and a couple of other also-rans. But it says something about the shift of Pennsylvania's GOP that they are backing for Governor-- over an established pol-- a guy they tried to deny any shot at his current job just four years ago.

Wagner's campaign is founded on the same negativity as Trump's-- his campaign website announces that Pennsylvania is broke and broken:

A dysfunctional political system ruled by entrenched special interests and career politicians has saddled us with enormous debt, high taxes, a weak economy, underperforming schools, and embarrassing scandals. That’s why Pennsylvanians in droves have voted with their feet by moving to prosperous, well-run states.

Wagner claimed an "emboldened" moment after spending time on a plane with Steve Bannon, and he has called Trump a "visionary." But the conservative Washington Times questions whether Wagner is Pennsylvania's real answer to Trump, or whether Wagner is just Trump in his own mind.

In his two state Senate years, he has accomplished nothing headline-worthy that is remotely Trumpian. He did go after a fellow Republican in leadership who he said was blocking anything that betrayed a whiff of conservatism.

In fact, Wagner has spent a lot of time taking shots at his own party's leadership (they weren't confrontational enough with Governor Wolf, he says). His website includes the goal of fixing the bloated PA political system (we have one of the biggest, most expensive legislatures in the country). He wants to slash the money available to legislators and end the revolving lobbyist door, which will be great for wealthy businessmen like Scott Wagner, and a bit more challenging for citizen legislators. Mostly it will pit the governor against a legislature controlled by his own party, though I suppose the PA GOP may turn out to be just a spineless and malleable as the national party.

Wagner has been noted for some bold ideas, like the notion that global warming is the product of more body heat and a planet moving closer to the sun. And he has been outspoken about the cause of poverty-- the laziness of poor people.

But for those of us who care about public education, Wagner is a potential disaster. He is all in for backpacks full of cash following the children wherever their families send them. He is savvy enough to couple this with a call for accountability for all schools that receive public funds, but I call bullshit on this because Pennsylvania has been staring straight at a variety of indicators that our thriving cyber-school sector is a money-wasting scam, and yet the legislature has continued to defend cyber-funding.

Wagner is from the "don't throw money at schools" camp, but that's a hard argument to make stick in a state with one of the worst funding systems in the country. With the state kicking in only a small portion of school funding, our school districts depend primarily on local funding, which means poor communities have underfunded schools. Wagner doesn't have a plan for that.

What Wagner has a plan for is getting rid of teacher unions, ending job protections, and making it legal to fire teachers based on how expensive they are. He also likes merit pay, which in education is always equal to paying teachers less. And he keeps talking about unfunded mandates, but he never talks about exactly which ones he'd like to get rid of.

Oh, and get rid of those pensions, too.

Pennsylvania's political landscape is a wonky one. We have a huge spread between wealthy and poor, and what may be an even huger spread between rural and urban. This is a state that includes Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and my own county with just over 50K citizens and Forest County with fewer than 8,000 people. We're loaded with old folks, and we're currently sort of trying to kind of fix the court-condemned gerrymandering that has given us a legislative majority for the GOP even though we have more Democratic voters. And like every other state, we are not exactly overwhelming with voter turnout (Wagner's write-in victory came with 14% of voters showing up).

So it's never easy to predict what will happen come election time. But I can tell you this-- rural Tea Party Republicans hate hate HATE Tom Wolf, and a drain-the-swamp guy like Scott Wagner will motivate that part of the base. If Dems sit back and assume this guy can't possibly win, Pennsylvania public education will be in a world of hurt come 2019.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

ICYMI: The No Particular Edition Edition (2/11)

Time for the weekly round up of things to read, absorb and pass along. I always remind you to share what speaks to you, but I want to remind you to share some things with people outside of your usual assortment of public education fans. I never ceased to be amazed at how people outside the bubble have very little idea what's going on. Make it your goal to educate someone this week. Now here we go.

Co-opted Language

Not fresh this week, but I was reminded of this post recently-- a good quick guide to the language that is being appropriated by the fans of the digital privatized ed reformster camp.

This Teacher of the Year Just Showed Me How Important DACA Is

Just in case you needed more convincing.

Timmy's Cell Phone Plan (Adventures in Standardized Testing)

Yet another clear, concrete example of why, exactly, the Big Standardized Test sucks.

Teacher Response to Cheating Scandal

A FOIA request gets us a look at what the cheating scandal at prestigious Watchung Hills Regional High School looks like from the inside. (Spoiler alert: It looks like teachers being hung out to dry by administration)

Families for Excellent Schools Collapse

The indispensable Mercedes Schneider wrote two pieces this week on the occasion of the FES demise. This piece and this piece remind us just how awful they were (the "families" were 40 individuals).

One Year In: Reflections on the DeVos Agenda

The Have You Heard podcast takes a look back the first year of the DeVosian era. I'm not much of a fan of arbitrary anniversary retrospectives, but this is worth our while.

Is No Excuses Narrowing the Curriculum

This fourth entry in Jersey Jazzman's series on Newark schools is, as always, filled with hard data made clear and accessible and a little depressing. Take a look.

Video: Personalized Learning’s Plan to Replace Teachers?

Travel back to a 2011 Tom Vander Ark speech extolling a glorious future when staffs are cut and computers are the school. There's more than a video here-- lots of explanation and sources.

What Is "Quality" Curriculum?

Nancy Flanagan on Bill Gates' latest silver bullet to fix education.

Denver Schools Are a Dystopian Nightmare

Thomas Ultican with a well-sourced explanation of how Denver (and many other) school district went at wrong.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Too Much Learning

Everyone who has taught for more than ten minutes had heard this question-- why are we studying this stuff?

The question has several siblings-- what's the point of this, when am I ever going to use this, or this is stupid.

In fact, the question is implied by many modern ed reformsters who keep trying to reframe education as job training, so that the only acceptable answer to the question is "because someday someone will be willing to pay you for having this skill," which is a tiny, meager, small-brained conception of education.

As a classroom teacher, you should always be able to answer this question in the specific. If you don't know why you're teaching something, or you don't have a better answer than "because someone told me to," you shouldn't be teaching that unit at all. I warn my own students to think twice about asking The Question because if they ask me, I will answer them. So if they really just want to complain, they should just complain.

But behind the specific answers about specific questions about specific content (quadratic equations, Spanish Inquisition, identifying gerund phrases, etc), there are some larger questions and answers that we should also be able to answer, because they are why we are in a classroom teaching at all. These broad answers speak to our fundamental values as educators in a broad yet personal way. Here's how I respond. It may not be your response, and that's cool, but it is mine.

First, nobody has ever been hurt by knowing too much. I've talked to hundreds of former students and thousands of grown humans, and I have never heard anyone say, "Damn, I wish I hadn't learned so much in school, because knowing a bunch of stuff has really messed up my life." Yes, in fifty years, I have used the quadratic equation very close to never. Yet learning it didn't hurt me a bit, and undoubtedly helped.

How? Well, consider this. Our football players spend a lot of time in the off season working out and lifting weights. Yet they will never play a football game in which play action stops while team members have a leg lift competition mid field. So why spend time on a skill that they'll never use in a game? Because, of course, they're developing muscles that they will use during in a game.

Math builds the muscles that see connections and relationships. Physical activities, whether phys ed or shop or home ec, help us better understand our own physical shells. The Arts help build the muscles of expression and understanding. The Sciences help us better understand how the world actually works (and, in the best programs, how to "know" something). History is our most fundamental human activity whether applied to the American Revolution or Pat and Chris's big fight at the dance-- what happened, why did it happen, what caused it to happen, what will it change about what happens next, and how do the people involved fit in? And English builds the muscles used to understand and communicate all our understanding. None of these are a waste of anyone's time.

There are folks who will suggest that some of this is unnecessary. The whole premise of the test-centered education concept launched by No Child Left Behind is that nobody really needs to learn anything except rudimentary reading and math. Sometimes it's about economics-- some folks just don't want to pay for a bunch of unnecessary frills for Those Peoples' Children. In the case of the corporate wing of ed reform, they would prefer that their meat widgets get any "extra" education because it might give them ideas-- just teach them enough to make them vocationally useful and reasonably compliant.

But if our educational mission (indeed, our human mission) is to understand what it means and how best to be fully human in the world, then what could possibly be "extra" or "unnecessary" learning? It's an educational mission that takes a lifetime-- at best we can hope that K-12 helps set the stage and teach the habits of mind necessary for the long haul.

Frederick Douglass tells the story of Mrs. Auld, a slave owner how at first taught him the alphabet and the beginnings of reading, but then had to learn from her husband that too much education for slaves was a dangerous and undesirable thing. His striking insight is not just that this was an attempt to diminish him, but that in denying him this human growth and connection, Mrs. Auld diminished her own humanity.

Treating any learning as "too much" is always diminishing, and while we can all see examples of people whose lives (and the lives of people around them) suffer because of their own ignorance, there is nothing more striking than seeing a man who deliberately cloaks himself in ignorance, who acquires great riches and rises to one of the highest positions in the world, and yet who is clearly miserable, overflowing with toxicity, because he does not understand himself or the world or how to be fully human in it. Yes, he's dangerous, but he's also a giant object lesson.

Yes, our time is finite and therefor to be spent thoughtfully, with an eye on what return we get from the spending. But do not tell me that there is learning which is simply a waste, useless, or too much. Everything is a piece of the world and human experience, and therefor everything is a piece of the puzzle, and every puzzle piece is worth acquiring. Why are we studying this stuff? Because understanding this stuff-- the world, our humanity, the business of making our way through it-- is everything.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Education Savings Accounts for Dummies

Education Savings Accounts are beginning to crop up all across the country as a new policy tool for education (recently news came that Iowa's GOP was pushing them). If they are turning up in a legislature near you, what do you need to know about them? If you are late to this particular party, here's the "for dummies" version of an ESA explainer:

The Basics

ESAs are vouchers on steroids.

In a voucher system, you might register your child Pat at Flat Earth Academy, after which you or FEA notifies the state that Pat is a student there, and the state shoots your voucher allowance to the school.

But with an ESA, the state gives you an stack of money, perhaps in an actual bank account or maybe on a special debit card, and you go spend that on whatever education thing you like. You could spend it like a voucher to help offset the cost of private school tuition (as with vouchers, nobody is proposing ESAs in amounts that would give poor families a free ride to Snooty Upscale Academy). But you could also spend your ESA money on unbundled education-- a math class from an online vendor, a software based reading program, etc. Maybe you'll spend your ESA on books and a computer for homeschooling.

The specifics vary by implementation and proposal. ESAs are being floated in various legislatures with a variety of different features attached. Think of ESAs as a vehicle that can come with lots of options-- and you want to be paying attention to which options your local version includes. The questions to ask.

Who can contribute?

In some versions, the ESA is "funded" by some version of the per pupil cost in the student's district, and it is just the state that does the funding. But in other versions of ESA, private individuals and even corporations can contribute to the ESA kitty. In the most aggressive versions, this is treated as a tax deduction-- folks can fund an ESA instead of paying their taxes to the state-- this version of the ESA is not only a sneaky way to fund vouchers, but it's also a sneaky way to defund public schools.

Who is really helped?

ESAs are often sold like vouchers-- as a means to give poor students the same choices that wealthy students have. And the problem is the same-- giving students a $3000 ESA will not help them get into a private school with $20,000 annual tuition. It will not help them get into a private school that can reject them for any reason from wrong skin color to wrong academic background to wrong religion.

Is it grandfathered in?

This feature can also be devastating to public schools and local taxpayers. In this version of ESAs, everyone gets an ESA even if they were never enrolled in public schools in the first place.

In other words, if ESA became the law on Monday, on Tuesday hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars would immediately leave the public system and move to private and parochial schools. Public school systems could lose millions of dollars in revenue without actually losing a single student. Even for some ESA fans that's a bridge too far, and some ESA proposals include rules that say the student must have been enrolled in public school at some point. But even then, you can end up with silly rules that basically require students to check in with a public school for six months before cashing out with their ESA.

Is there any oversight at all?

ESAs come with some of the same problems as vouchers-- are tax dollars being used to support a school that teaches that the earth is flat, that the Holocaust never happened, and that slavery was good for black people because they're genetically inferior?

But ESAs up the ante. Can I spend my ESA on single courses? Can I hire a tutor with no actual qualifications? How about a youtube subscription so I can watch Kahn Academy videos more easily? Can I take an "educational" trip to Europe? What if I buy an Xbox so I can play "educational" games? How about buying a car so that I can drive myself to the library? A cruise? Nice clothes so I feel smarter? Are there any limits to how I can spend my ESA? Is there any oversight at all?

This, incidentally, should bother conservatives. ESAs generally come with zero-to-no accountability, meaning that taxpayer dollars are simply collected and handed over to families to do nobody-knows-what with. I don't believe that taxation without accountability is a conservative value.

Does the state shed all educational responsibility?

This is not discussed nearly enough. Pat's family takes the ESA and enrolls Pat in some classes at a charter school, sets up some online studies, and hires a tutor. The charter school goes out of business, the online courses turn out to be frauds, and the tutor skips out after being paid. At this point, does the state just shrug and say, "Look, we gave you your ESA. If you blew it and didn't caveat emptor hard enough, then it sucks to be you. When we gave you the ESA, we had done our part. You're on your own now."

ESAs imply a policy shift-- that the state is no longer responsible for making sure that very child gets a decent education. That's a problem.

Trying to stay caught up

In March of 2015, I wrote a piece suggesting that if we were going to take "the money follows the child" we'd have to accept that the money could be spent on trips or play stations or parties or clothes and food. I was making my point with hilarious hyperbole, but now reality is catching up with me. So I'll quote my own conclusion. Maybe we can just let students have to use or waste on whatever, I said.

Unless of course you'd like to suggest that the taxpayers who handed over that money and the community that collected it have an interest in making sure that it's spent well and responsibly in a way that serves the community's greater good. In which case we can go back to discussing how those needs of the stakeholders--ALL the stakeholders-- are best served by an all-inclusive community-based taxpayer-controlled educational system, and stop saying silly things like, "The money belongs to the student."

ESAs are a terrible idea unless your goal is to further cripple public education, to subsidize the wealthy (with tax dollars collected from everyone else), or to dump the taxpayer's dollars into a deep, dark hole. But they are one of the current ed reform legislative policy darlings, so keep your eyes peeled, ask the right questions, and oppose them when they roll into your state capital.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

What Test-Driven Schools Won't Do

The Network for Public Education has released the latest of its series of videos in support of public education. This particular video features Jesse Hagopian, a Seattle teacher and activist. 

It's a short but stark reminder that corporate test-driven schools push out the needs of students by silencing the people best positioned to respond to those needs within the school setting-- teachers. He sets the stage with a stark story from early in his career to contrast with a system that requires "teaching to the test rather than teaching to the student" and turn schools into "assembly line production."

It's good to be reminded. There have been so many issues raised in the education debates, and so much of the focus these days is on issues like the growth of charter schools and the increasing reliance on computers to deliver an education-flavored product that this issue can fade into the background. But it has been a problem since the first days of No Child Left Behind-- a devaluing of the teacher role and a focus on "teacher-proof" teaching with just one goal-- to raise scores on a single standardized test.

The result, as Hagopian points out, is schools where "some company somewhere has more say over what's happening in the classroom than the educator standing before the students." But by sacrificing teacher autonomy and the freedom for educators to use their best professional judgment, we ultimately make schools less responsive to the students. Test-centered schools are upside down schools, where the students exist to provide data and test results for some corporate agenda, rather than rightly occupying center stage in the school.

The video is just two minutes long. Watch it. It is worth your time.

CAP Still Plugging Takeovers and Turnarounds

The Center for American Progress was, under John Podesta, a holding tank for Clinton politicians and bureaucrats who were biding their time, cooking up policy advocacy, while waiting for Hillary to take her rightful place in DC. As you may have heard, that didn't quite work out.

CAP often took point for the Democratic support of ed reform policies, and like DFER, they were often indistinguishable from conservative GOP ed reform groups. They were particularly relentless in their love of the Common Core (here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, to name a few). But now that nobody's going to land a government job any time soon, nd CAP is run by Neera Tanden and its board is chaired by....really?-- lobbyist and tax dodger Tom Daschle, they've been a bit more quiet about the Core. Are there other reform items they'd like to plug?

Well, they've joined the cottage industry of ESSA plan backseat drivers, and in a recent post, argued for a particular strategy for fixing schools. Which one? Here's a clue-- it's a strategy that has already been tested and failed.

A previous report by the Center for American Progress identified the ability for districts and states to intervene in low-performing schools as a critical school turnaround policy. States should initially provide flexibility for districts to replace staff, reallocate resources, or make changes to instructional time. If schools continue to struggle, states have the authority to take more rigorous action under ESSA. One approach states are considering is to implement alternative governance structures that change the turnaround agents or systems responsible for school operations and leading the path forward.

That "report " was not any sort of research- or evidence-based paper, but was the result of a "conversation" involving several federal, state , and local leaders "with expertise in school turnaround" gathered to talk about how best to do it. So this belief in state intervention was not a result of evidence, but the premise of a discussion among people who are professionally invested in this approach.

And what example do folks who support takeovers and turnarounds like to cite? Of course, it's New Orleans. Do we really have to get into all the ways that the privatization of the New Orleans school system is less than a resounding success? Or let's discus the Tennessee experiment in a recovery school district, in which the state promised to turn the bottom five percent into the top schools in the state, and they utterly failed. As in, the guy charged with making it happened gave up and admitted that it was way harder than he thought it would be, failed.

The whole premise of a state takeover is that somebody in the state capital somehow knows more about how to make a school work than the people who work there (or, in most cases, can hire some guy who knows because he graduated from an ivy league school and spent two years in a classroom once). The takeover model still holds onto a premise that many reformsters, to their credit, have moved past:  that trained professional educators who have devoted their adult lives to working in schools-- those people are the whole problem. It's insulting, it's stupid, and it's a great way to let some folks off the hook, like, say, the policy makers who consistently underfund some schools.

Most importantly, at this point, there isn't a lick of evidence that it works.

We have the results of the School Improvement Grants used by the Obama administration to "fix" schools, and the results were that SIG didn't accomplish anything (other than, I suppose, keeping a bunch of consultants well-paid). SIG also did damage because it allowed the current administration and their ilk to say, "See? Throwing money at schools doesn't help." But the real lesson of SIG, which came with very specific Fix Your School instructions attached, was that when the state or federal government try to tell a local school district exactly how things should be fixed, instead of listening to the people who live and work there, nothing gets better. That same fundamental flaw is part of the DNA of the takeover/turnaround approach.

But CAP is excited about ESSA because some states have included this model in their plan. So, yay.

They acknowledge limitations to the approach, including pushback from district and community members, noting that Georgia voted down the attempt at a recovery school district (call and "opportunity" district in an attempt to avoid the damage done to the brand). The state just went ahead and created a turnaround chief anyway, and CAP doesn't ask why pushback occurred. CAP's advice is to engage the community and get buy-in from stakeholders, but they don't really suggest how (pro tip: it involves listening).

CAP also says that it is "critical that states set the right parameters for measuring student progress" which would be a great thing to say if it were followed by the observation that the Big Standardized Test results soaked in VAM sauce are a lousy measure of school effectiveness, but they don't. Instead they just mean, "make sure everyone understands what the cut score is," which is actually better than the old favorite "bottom five percent" measure (a boon to charter developers, since there will always be a bottom five percent).

CAP does NOT note the problem with takeover/turnarounds that involve silencing local voice entirely and removing the duly-elected school board from power to be replaced, in some cases, by charter operators who are unaccountable to local stakeholders.

But CAP is happy about this trend because they think this "lever for change" is "promising." I think CAP continues to kid itself. Here's the last sentence of the article:

States that use this authority must do so strategically and with clear guidelines to work with the communities they serve, as well as capitalize on lessons learned from other states doing similar work.

The link is to a lousy new paper from Chiefs for Change, another part of the reform axis, which is unfortunate, because the lessons learned about state takeover of "failing" (aka "schools with low scores on a single poorly-written, narrowly focused standardized test") is that it rarely works, and often does more harm than good. But never let it be said that the folks at CAP let the little people who actually work in education distract them from the big picture of grand reform ideas.