Friday, September 21, 2018

Field Guide To Bad Education Research

Folks in education are often  criticized for not using enough research based stuff. But here's the ting about education research-- there's so much of it, and so much of it is bad. Very bad. Terrible in the extreme. That's understandable-- experimenting on live young humans is not a popular idea, so unless you're a really rich person with the financial ability to bribe entire school districts, you'll have to find some clever ways to work your research.

The badness of education research omes in a variety of flavors, but if you're going to play in the education sandbox, it's useful to know what kinds of turds are buried there.

The Narrow Sampling

This is the research that provides sometimes shocking results-- "Humans Learn Better While Drinking Beer." But when you look more closely, you discover the sample size lacks a little breadth-- say, fifteen Advanced Psychology male college juniors at the University of Berlin. These may be experimental subjects of convenience; the above researcher may have been a U of B grad student who worked as a TA for the Advanced Psychology course.

Generally these narrow projects yield results that are not terribly useful, but if you're out shopping for research to back whatever you're selling, these can often provide the "research base" that you wouldn't otherwise find.

The Meta Study

Meta research involves taking a whole bunch of other studies and studying the studies in your study. The idea is to find patterns or conclusions that emerge from a broad field of related research. Met research is not automatically bad research. But if the meta researcher has gone shopping for studies that lean in his preferred direction, then the pattern that emerges is-- ta-da-- the conclusion he went fishing for.

This is a hard thing to check. If you know the literature really well, you might look for which studies are not included. But otherwise just keep a wary eyeball out.

The Not Actually A Study

These are cranked out pretty regularly by various thinky tanks and other advocacy groups. They come in nice slicky-packaged graphics, and they are not actual research at all. They're position papers or policy PR or just a really nicely illustrated blog post. There are many sleight of hand tricks the use to create the illusion of research-- here are just two.

Trick One: "Because there are at least ten badgers in our attic, many of the neighbors took to drinking pure grain alcohol." There will be a reference for this sentence, and it will provide a source for the number of badgers in the attic. Nothing else, including the implied cause and effect, will be supported with evidence.

Trick Two: "Excessive use of alcohol can lead to debilitating liver disease. The solution is to sell all alcoholic beverages in plastic containers." References will shore up the problem portion of the proposal, establishing clearly that the problem is real. Then the writers' preferred solution will be offered, with no evidence to support the notion that it's a real solution.

The Not Really A Study is also given away by the list of works cited, which tend to be other non-studies from other advocacy groups (or, in the case of ballsy writers, a bunch of other non-studies from the same group). No real academic peer-reviewed research will be included, except a couple of pieces that shore up unimportant details in the "study."

The Thousand Butterfly Study

Like studies of other human-related Stuff (think health-related studies), education studies can involve a constellation of causes. When researchers study data from the real world, they may be studying students over a period of time in which the teaching staff changed, new standards were implemented. administration changed, new standardized tests were deployed, new textbooks were purchased, the cafeteria changed milk suppliers, a factory closed in town, a new video game craze took off, major national events affected people, and any number of imponderables occurred in student homes. The researcher will now try to make a case for which one of those butterflies flapped the wings that changed the weather.

Some butterfly researchers will try to create a compelling reason to believe they've picked the correct butterfly, or what is more likely, they will try to make a case that the butterfly in which they have a vested interest is the one with the power wings. This case can never not be shaky; this is a good time to follow the money as well as the researcher's line of reasoning.

The worst of these will simply pretend that the other butterflies don't exist. The classic example would be everyone who says that the country has gone to hell since they took prayer out of school; crime rates and drug use and teen pregnancy, the argument goes, have all skyrocketing as a result of the Supreme's decision-- as if nothing else of importance happened in 1962 and 1963.

The Bad Proxy Study

Education research is tied to all sorts of things that are really hard, even impossible to actually measure. And so researchers are constantly trying to create proxies. We can't measure self-esteem, so let's count how many times the student smiles at the mirror.

Currently the King of All Bad Proxies is the use of standardized test scores as a proxy for student achievement or teacher effectiveness. It's a terrible proxy, but what makes matters worse is the number of researchers, and journalists covering research, who use "student achievement" and "test scores" interchangeably as if they are synonyms. They aren't, but "study shows humus may lead to higher test scores" is less sexy than "humus makes students smarter."

Always pay attention to what is being used as a proxy, and how it's being collected, measured, and evaluated.

The Correlation Study

God help us, even fancy pants ivy league researchers can't avoid this one. Correlation is not causation. The fact that high test scores and wealth later in life go together doesn't mean that test scores cause wealth (wealth later in life and high test scores are both a function of growing up wealthy). The best thing we can say about bad correlations is that it has given rise to the website and book Spurious Correlations.

Just keep saying it over and over-- correlation is not causation.

The Badly Reasoned Study and The Convenient Omission Study

For the sake of completeness, these old classics need to be included. Sometimes the researchers just follow some lousy reasoning to reach their conclusions. Sometimes they leave out data or research that would interfere with the conclusion they are trying to reach. Why would they possibly do that? Time to follow the money again; the unfortunate truth of education research is that an awful lot of it is done because someone with an ax to grind or a product to sell is paying for it.

The Badly Reported Study

Sometimes researchers are responsible and nuanced and careful not to overstate their case. And then some reporter comes along and throws all that out the window in search of a grabby headline. It's not always the researcher's fault that they appear to be presenting dubious science. When in doubt, read the article carefully and try to get back to the actual research. It may not be as awful as it seems.

Keep your wits about you and pay close attention. Just because it looks like a legitimate study and is packaged as a legitimate study and seems to come from fancy scientists or a snazzy university-- well, none of that guarantees that it's not crap. When it comes to education research, the emptor needs to caveat real hard.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Digital Dictatorship Has Arrived

Here's a rarity-- I don't have a lot to add to this article, but you really need to see it. This is what the triumph of the data overlords looks like.

What may sound like a dystopian vision of the future is already happening in China. And it’s making and breaking lives.

The Communist Party calls it “social credit” and says it will be fully operational by 2020.

Within years, an official Party outline claims, it will “allow the trustworthy to roam freely under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step”.

A social credit score. Constant video monitoring of all citizens, complete with facial recognition. All behavior, choices, actions recorded and mined for data as part of your personal record, boiled down to a simple score. Smartphone and online actions monitored and recorded. Your shopping habits tracked. And of course your school, medical and employment records included as well. As the article puts it, "no dark corner in which to hide." All included in your social credit score, which will determine how you get to live your life.

Oh, and the scores of the people you associate with-- that will factor in as well.

Possibly scariest part? The woman who is profiled in the article is cool with all of this. It makes her feel safe. And, truth be told, she expects to be a winner in this game-- the old "only people who are doing bad things worry about surveillance and law enforcement"-- which only works if you think the people running the system share your values and priorities. But someone has to decide what characteristics are displayed by a Good Citizen.

Read this. If you don't read anything else today, read this. Big Brother was a slacker.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Non-wealthy People and Choice

When it comes to school, the poor, the argument goes, should have the same choices that wealthier folks have. The ability to choose a neighborhood gives wealthier folks the ability to choose a school, so even folks who attend public school are making use of school choice, the argument goes.

Let's skip over the usually-ignored part of that argument, which suggests that the problems of school selection could be addressed via zoning. Break up the last bastions of redlining, and put low cost housing in every neighborhood, including the ritzy ones and voila! everyone can exercise real estate based choice. I wonder why we never talk about that solution.

Instead, the preferred solution is to set loose the power of the free market to provide the non-wealthy with all sorts of choicey alternatives, a rich buffet of options. Reformsters used to say that choicey competition would create excellence as well, but that's no longer part of the pitch. Choice need not promote excellence; it's enough for reformsters that choice promotes choice.

It doesn't matter; any way you frame it, you run up against the same problem-- choice will not accomplish what its fans say it will accomplish.

The problem is that the free market is not a friend of poor people.

Oh, it likes them when it comes to marketing. Note-- the unwealthy are not stupid and they are not lazy, but they are busy just trying to hold things together between jobs and families and too few resources. Just the mechanics of being a family with two or three jobs but just one car can make for a very busy week, People who are spending all their energy just to tread water don't have a lot of time to extensively research advertising and PR claims.

Add to that Greene's Law: The free market does not foster superior quality; the free market fosters superior marketing. The market has a vested interest in making sure that consumers don't make informed choices, or at the very least, choices that are informed the way the marketeers want them to be informed.

So well-informed carefully-researched decisions uninfluenced by spin and puffery are not a very common thing in the marketplace.

But the free market is also not a friend of the non-wealthy because, well, they don't have much money. And that is important because of another True Thing about the market--

The market does not provide consumers with choices because it thinks those would be nice choices to have; the market provides the choices that businesses think they can make money providing.

My town has long needed some kind of youth facility, whether it be a youth-focused dance club or a specialized recreational facility. People have been saying it as long as I've lived here. We still don't have one. This is not because of any government regulations or state-sponsored monopoly or other market impediment. It's because no business thinks they can make money, as demonstrated by the two or three who have attempted it and then closed up shop because they couldn't make money doing it. We could talk about why they don't make money, but my point is that as much as we want it, as much as we would benefit from it, the free market is not providing it.

The free market is not Santa Claus. It does not provide goods and services because people need them or even deserve them.

Combine that truth with the lack of money in poorer communities, and you have a problem with the choice theory of action.

Can you name one kind of business that is providing poor communities with a rich buffet of choices. Maybe the fast food industry, but that encompasses a range of choices that go from A to B-- upscale restaurants are not in there tryin to enrich the choice list. Not supermarkets or other food providers; their absence from poor communities is why there's such a thing as a food desert. Auto dealers? Computer hardware stores? Dress shops?

Whatever the sector, what you find are a range of downscale choices with a business plan of catering to people without a lot of money.

There are businesses that specifically target such communities-- Walmart, and now Dollar General (five years ago there were none in my area-- now there's a DG roughly every ten miles on local roads) aim for the non-wealthy crowd, and again, that crowd is offered what Walmart execs figure they can pay for. Do wealthy people go shopping at Walmart in pursuit of top quality. Does Louis Vutton open shops in poor areas because those folks also deserve a chance to check out overpriced luxury luggage? No, because that's not how the free market works.

A school choice system will claim to circumnavigate this by using government money to pay for the schooling, thereby artificially inflating the wealth level of the families involved. It's almost like choice creates a new entitlement to send students to private school at public expense, but you'll never hear choice fans describe it that way because they are mostly conservatives and the "entitle--" word is verboten.

At any rate, that doesn't really help because in many states, the per pupil spending for education is already too little to really support a school, and then, anyone who's operating a free market business expects to keep some of that revenue as salaries or profit or, if they're part5icularly shady, fun vacations and a generally cushy lifestyle. So now there's really not a lot of money left to spend on the choice school. Some of the charters deal with this by hitting up parents and wealthy donors for some more cash. The vast majority of voucher schools are church related, so the church can help chip in. But a less wealthy community is limited in the ways it can help the charter business stay solvent.

Choice schools will make decisions based on business concerns. For instance, enrolling students who have special needs-- but special needs that are not expensive to deal with. Student performance is part of the marketing, so it becomes important to push out students whose performance will mess up the PR.

All of these considerations affect how charters approach doing business in not-so-wealthy communities. Advocates will point to some charters in those communities and say, "See? Charters are providing the same options as wealthy families have." And I could run on at greater length about why that's not true, but it's quicker to ask just how many wealthy families consider these charters as good a choice as any other they've considered and decide to send their children there. (And the answer is that occasionally that does happen-- and it's Step One in gentrifying a neighborhood by pushing the locals out.) Nobody is pulling their kids out of Phillips Exeter in order to enroll the child in Success Academy.

So what you end up with is many top educators or schools or just plain entrepreneurs saying, "Well, I'm not going to try to make money running a school in that neighborhood" and a few, maybe just one, saying, "Yeah, I think I can do this cheaply enough to make a buck at it." And some students will get a small choice, but not the choice they imagine, just the choice that "make a buck" company wants to offer. And choice fans will say, "Yes, but we got a better education to some of those students," and I will say, "By leaving everyone in a system that wastes a bunch of money that could have been used to educate folks."

The public education system is riddled with inequities as it stands. A choice system doesn't propose fixing that problem; it just promises to let a few more kids get in on the high side of the inequity, while making the low side worse off. In the meantime, choice turns out to mean "give businesses the choice of cashing in on the education racket" while providing little in the way of actual, legitimate choices for the non-wealthy.

Covering The Education Horse Race

This. This right here is the kind of education policy coverage that makes me cranky. (Okay, crankier.)

I'm looking at a piece by Matt Barnum at Chalkbeat, and before I lapse into spleen ventage, let me say that Barnum often does excellent education policy journalism that avoids everything I'm about to bitch about. The following is definitely NOT meant to be a "Matt Barnum sucks" piece. But this particular article tripped many of my triggers.

"What’s next for the Laurene Powell Jobs-funded effort to rethink American high schools" has many of my least favorite features of ed reform journalism.

First, it exists. Imagine how odd it would be to open up a website and read the piece "What the guy who fixed my muffler thinks should be done about US education" or "Ed reform policy promoted by hairdresser is Pahrump." Or even, "What Mrs. McTeachalot in  Room 123 at PS 15 thinks should be done about ed policy."Laurene Powell-Jobs has no expertise in education; what she has is a giant pile of money that allows her to try to buy influence and control of a piece of the system. I get that, because she was able to buy an hour of tv packed with stars and because she was able to get schools to dance to her tune in exchange for a pile of money, she is newsworthy. But I don't have to like it, and I don't. Nor do I like that she is covered uncritically, as if her wealth is an actual qualification to try to set education policy.

Second, we get all the usual suspects in quotes. Some Maine parent gets an anonymous quote, but when you need an ed policy quote toot de suite, call Mike Petrilli or Rick Hess. In this case, Hess got the call. Skeptical voices from outside the ed reform community are not included [Update: Barnm correctly points out that Warren Simmons, who's quoted as an Annenberg guy, is now with NEPC. So this article is partially absolved.]

But mostly what trips my trigger is the horse race coverage. We talk about this during every election cycle-- it's the kind of coverage that looks at whether or not a candidate's proposed policy is gaining traction, polling well or poorly, and just generally helping or hurting. In other words, we get coverage of how the policy is affecting the race, but nothing about whether it's actually an effective policy or not. Horse race coverage tells us all about who's winning, but nothing about who we might want to actually root for.

Barnum's piece discusses Powell-Jobs's education ideas, but all the discussion is like this

Simmons said one challenge of the approach is that simply creating a handful of successful schools doesn’t mean their approaches will catch on. “That viral theory of action has failed time and time again,” he said.

When the article talks about XQ schools being "successful," it doesn't mean "successful at educating students." It means "successful at winning the horse race and giving Powell-Jobs more traction in the ed reform world." By the end of the article, the average reader has no idea whether XQ schools are on to something really great for students, or if they're just full of expensive hooey. We have a better sense of whether or not Powell-Jobs is becoming influential, but no idea at all if she should be.

This is horse race coverage-- looking at how well a policy or the policy's patron is doing, but not at whether that policy is valid, effective, or able to deliver what it promises. Horse race coverage of pharmaceuticals would cover sales figures, but not talk about whether the drug actually worked or not (unless the reporter thought that was affecting the sales).

It's doubly frustrating because, as with political races, education policy horse races have real consequences for real people. When a President makes policy choices about health care or welfare, it's not just important because it influences his poll numbers-- it's important because people are going to die if he chooses badly. When some rich person decides they wan to appoint themselves a national education tsar, their fiddling around and privatizing in search of influence doesn't just affect their personal standing-- it screws with the actual education of live human students.

When I'm emperor of the world, nobody will be allowed to write horse race coverage without including a critical evaluation of the policies being discussed and a look at the effects of those policies on real people. And if that makes the piece too long, the horse race stuff is the first thin to get cut.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

DeVos, Truth, Free Speech, the Constitution, and Cognitive Dissonance

The National Constitution Center is an interesting place. The "nonprofit, nonpartisan institution devoted to the United States Constitution" was signed into existence by Ronald Reagan and the groundbreaking was attended by Bill Clinton. Located in Philadelphia, it houses the Annenberg Center for Education and Outreach; it also includes the Richard and Helen DeVos Exhibition Hall. Monday, it hosted Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos for a speech that reads like one of the more honest-- and seriously conflicted-- speeches she has delivered in office.

The coverage has focused on DeVos's call for freedom of speech, in particular, focusing on the ways that college campuses have restricted such speech, from bureaucratic regulations to crowds of students who exercise the "heckler's veto" (which is a pretty good little phrase). But there are several moments that, if nothing else, may help crystalize where fundamental disagreements with her may lie.

The Founders discussed and debated and proposed "to the states a national government that would restrain itself by empowering its people." Well, the white penis-endowed ones, anyway. But there is that article of faith that the feds were never supposed to have real power.

The freedom to express ourselves-- through our faith, through our speech, through the press, through assembly or petition-- defines much of what it means to be human.

This freedom, preserved in our Declaration of Independence, comes from the truth that our rights are endowed by our Creator, not by any man-made government.

If you've been waiting for DeVos to let her God flag fly, this speech has it waving at the top of the pole. I have mixed feelings about her definition of Being Human. Yes, expression is important. But does that define humanity? And here's her definition of the mission of education:

The fundamental mission of formal learning is to provide a forum for students to discover who they are, why they’re here and where they want to go in life.

It's the word "discover" that bothers me here. More about that in a bit.

Next is the portion of the speech where she decries, with anecdotes, the loss of free expression on campus, with everything from authorities who regulate what may be said to activists who heckle speakers into silence. Even the requirement to pay for security when you're hosting a controversial speaker comes under fire, as do "free speech zones."

I'm not going to disagree with everything she says on this topic, but I will point out that she's staked out an interesting position for a member of this administration. She calls out a university on a hollow promise that students have free expression "without fear of censorship or retaliation." She criticizes the idea of free speech zones that limit such speech to particular areas. One wonders how she squares this with a boss whose assault on a free press has been relentless, who has called for protestors to be beaten, who restricts the press to a special pen at his rallies, and who very much believes in retaliation against anyone who opposes him.

She goes on to point out that students don't know enough about the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, and she turns that into a criticism of schools, After she runs the sad stats, she says, "Just think about the real-world consequences" of those statistics. Well, yes. The consequences include a too-large chunk of the electorate that favors a thuggish authoritarian over the practice of democracy.

When students don’t learn civics or how to think critically, should anyone be surprised by the results of a recent Brookings Institution poll? It found that over half of students surveyed think views different from their own aren’t protected by the Constitution. Is it any wonder a growing number of students also say it’s OK to shout someone down when they disagree? And is it any wonder too many students even think that violence is acceptable if you disagree with someone?

The problems she's describing are real, but she might as well ask, "How do we counter these beliefs when they are all modeled, amplified and praised by the President of the United States?" She calls the problem on campuses a "civic sickness" that cannot be solved by federal intervention or government muscle. She notes that tribalization and social media have made things worse. But she points elsewhere to the heart of the problem.

The issue is that we have abandoned truth.

Learning is nothing if not a pursuit of truth. Truth – and the freedom to pursue it – is for everyone, everywhere. Regardless of where you were born, who your parents are or your economic situation, truth can be pursued and it can be known. Yet, students are often told there is no such thing.

This, then, is the problem. A "relativistic culture" that leads to symptom like this:

I think of the teacher who blithely wears a shirt that reads: “Find your truth.” Poor advice that is plastered on the walls of the classroom for her unsuspecting young students to absorb, as well.

Oddly enough, I think of a man who calls everything he disagrees with "fake news" and who has told more baldfaced lies in office than perhaps any other major political leader in our history. And I point this out not to say, "Neener neener, you're a big hypocrite," but merely to observe that DeVos can be just as relativistic as the rest of us.

Her office didn't print "truth" with a capital T, but they should have. DeVos is a believer in Truth, that there is Just One Right Answer in any situation. She's certainly not alone in this, but it creates a host of problems in the business of integrating one's belief's as well as dealing with people whose Truth is different from yours.

But if you believe there is just one Truth, then education is about receiving and retaining that Truth. As DeVos puts it, "if ultimately there are no facts-- if there is no objective truth-- then there is no real learning."

But she is conflating facts and truth, much like conflating knowledge and wisdom. She wants a world built on "objective truth," in which we can identify "objective good and objective evil." It's morally simplistic and ethically shallow. And it's extremely brittle. This is the kind of thinking that requires you to throw people like Galileo in jail-- because there is just one Truth and we already know it.

DeVos extols critical thinking and reasoned argument, but if her premise is that all critical thinking and reasoned argument must inevitably lead to One True Answer, then I'm not sure those words mean what she thinks they mean. Again-- DeVos is not all alone here. Most of us have worked with that teacher who says on one hand, "I want my students to think" and on the other hand "The proof that they're thinking well is that they get the answer I believe is correct." And that itself gets complicated. Some things fit in this framework-- two plus two always equals four-- but others don't-- the causes of World War I can never be finally determined.

Within this framework, the freedom of expression takes on different meaning. Debate, discussion, shared opinions-- if all of that exists only to guide us to the One True Answer, then not all voices matter. If, for instance, Christianity is the One True Religion, freedom for Muslim expression isn't all that important because critical thinking will lead us to conclude that Islam is a failed, wrong answer.

This also explains the other huge disconnect in DeVos's speech. She calls for engagement with those who disagree with you, and yet she doesn't appear to do so. Ever. She has studiously avoided the press, carefully avoided her detractors and critics, and even when dragged before Congress, never really engaged with their questions or engaged in dialogue with them. And my friends in Michigan say this has all been typical behavior.

But then, DeVos need not engage because there is only One True Answer and she already knows it, so what is she going to get out of engaging with people who are wrong? When she calls for freedom of speech, for dialogue, for engagement, what she means is that people who are wrong need to open themselves up to conversation with people who are right, so that the wrong people can continue their journey to the One True Answer. After all-- if she was not favored by God, if she was not right in tune with His Greater Truth, then why would He have made her so rich?

The final stretch of her speech is remarkably like the home stretch of a sermon. Get out from behind your twitter id and recognize you are talking to real, live human beings. We aren't all saints. DeVos actually admits to having had some bad ideas. She (or someone in her office) turns some nice phrases, like a call for meeting with "open words and open dialogue, not with closed fists or closed minds." And she calls to embrace a "Golden rule of free speech: seeking to understand as to be understood."

There is so much cognitive dissonance to process here. DeVos works for a man who exemplifies the opposite of everything she is saying. And there is very little one can point to in her own conduct, her own filling of the USED office, to show her stated beliefs in action. What exactly has DeVos done to understand the public education system and the people who are committed to what she once called a "dead end." What has she done to understand the teachers who work in public schools? What has she done to understand any of her critics since she took office? Or, after all these years, is she comfortable in the belief that she knows everything she needs to know about all those things.

I've known a hundred people of faith like Betsy DeVos. They master the language of humility and open-mindedness, but it just isn't in them.

A responsible use of free speech, in this sense, is a desire to prove why your ideas are better for your neighbor because you love your neighbor, not because you only want to prove him or her wrong.

Not to see if you can come to a better understanding yourself. Of course we all try to advocate for the ideas that we believe in. But it takes a higher level of patronizing confidence to approach it as , "You poor dear. Can't you just realize your life will be better when you see things my way?"

True freedom is ultimately ordered toward virtue and responsibility. Freedom detached from truth and disconnected from virtue isn’t freedom at all.

This is translated religious language-- "you can't be free if you are in bondage to sin." But her statement only makes sense if you are confident that you know what virtue, responsibility and truth are. This is a moebius strip of a concept-- you can only be free to choose many things if you exercise your freedom by only choosing the one correct thing.

You have to be free only so that you can choose the One True Path. We must have freedom of speech so that we can all say the One True Thing. And implied in all of this is a static reality-- one objective and unchanging Truth.

All of this means that Betsy DeVos and I have fundamentally different ideas about what it means to grow, to advance, to become more fully yourself, to learn how to be fully human in the world. And, following from all that, what an education system should take as its purpose. In the DeVosian model, we tell children that they are there to learn what is right, which is a thing we already know, and they may talk about it, but only as a tool to getting them to where their conception of what is right matches our own. We can talk about personalization, but what it means is that each child has different obstacles keeping her from seeing the One True Answer. We do not create, explore or build meaning and understanding-- we discover it, because all of it already exists. You have some purpose-- maybe to be a rich person who organizes the world, or maybe to be a laborer who works for the rich person-- but that purpose is to be found, not to be made or chosen. Everything is already written; you just have to learn to read it, and your "journey," such as it is, is about your learning to read and accept what has already been written about your life and your world-- and that hasn't really changed just because the world has. Sure, you may be different, and there may be strife around that. That's only because you have not yet learned to accept the Truth about yourself and your proper place in the world.

You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

There's more, of course. American exceptionalism. Ronald Reagan quote. You can't have both truth and harmony.

How do I think DeVos tolerates working for Trump? I suspect to her he is a buzzing background noise, a necessary irritant as she goes about the work that God and Money have set her to do.

It's a lot to absorb, and if you've never been around this particular world view, it can be hard to grasp. But I will tell you one last thing-- if you're a teacher, somewhere in your building are people who think just like DeVos does.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Why Teachers Join The Union

The past year has brought a renewed focus on teachers unions. This was the year that saw a wave of state-wide teacher strikes, a wave that continues right now in Washington state. It was also the year that brought the Janus decision which threatens to extend the effects of Right-To-Work to states that have not yet seen that law come to their state capitol. And conservative groups have been poised to launch a campaign of encouraging teachers and other public employees to quit their unions, even as unions have hunkered down to work at holding on to members.

It seems like a good time to ask the question: Why do teachers join the union at all?

For some people, the teachers union is a nest of crazy leftists, people who don't care about students but are just in the education biz for the money. But union members represent a far more complex group. Remember, one in five AFT members and one in three NEA members voted for Donald Trump. Union leadership itself, when trying to exercise some political clout, has reason to promote the idea that the unions are a monolithic whole, a unified army ready to be unleashed. But that's not true for all issues. Many of the same criticisms lobbed from outside the unions are also leveled from inside it.

So what unifies teacher union members? It's this statement:

I want to be a teacher, and--

I want to be a teacher, and I need to provide my family with a decent standard of living.

I want to be a teacher, and I can't do it well when I have to constantly watch my back because I could be fired at any minute for any reason.

I want to be a teacher, and I want to work alongside people who didn't settle for my district as an employer of last resort.

I want to be a teacher, and I don't want to be forced to sacrifice my entire life every time my employer decides to have me give extra time for free.

I want to be a teacher, and I don't want to risk my family's livelihood every time I stand up against injustice or stand up for my students.

I want to be a teacher, and I want to work for someone who provides the support or resources to help me do the job.

I want to be a teacher, and I want to be treated fairly, professionally and respectfully.

I want to be a teacher, and because I cannot negotiate any of these conditions successfully as just one person, I'm joining a union so that we can work for these conditions for all of us, together.

Every classroom teacher has great responsibility and very little power. The past several decades have foisted more responsibilities on them even as they have been given less and less power to decide how best to meet the demands set for them (get those test scores up, lift your students out of poverty, make sure you're following the newest set of standards that were just handed down, etc...). Meanwhile, states and school districts have steadily stiffed teachers financially, not just in the form of teacher pay, but in the money that is spent on supplies, support, and classrooms. The wave of strikes this year is just one measure of the discontent that conditions have stirred up among teachers. After all, a strike may be stressful and difficult, but those teachers plan to come back. The spreading slow-motion walkout that folks keep euphemistically calling a national teacher shortage is more problematic because those are people who have decided to walk away from the classroom for good. States like Wisconsin, which stripped its unions of power with Act 10, are feeling the shortage acutely.
Being, or even just becoming, a teacher comes with obstacles that can make a teaching career seem unsustainable. In a well-run district in a well-run state, good administrators and good policy makers can tackle those obstacles. But those folks just pass through for a few years while a teacher hopes for a lifetime in the classroom. What are the odds that she will always be working for good obstacle-tacklers? I suppose we could trust all the bosses to benevolently tackle those obstacles, but history does not give us optimism on that score; in fact, it's the bosses who created some of the obstacles in the first place.

Some union foes see the unions as an unnecessary buffet of caviar and gold-encrusted lobster, but for those who want to teach, the union is like the oxygen supply in a submarine--critical to completing the mission (even if they haven't actually joined). It's a system that doesn't always work well, but the alternative is millions of teachers struggling to survive on their own, with hundreds of thousands deciding they just can't do it.

Teachers do not join the union because they want to get rich or get out of work or decide elections. They join the union because they want to teach. If we could just remember that, conversations about the union might be a little more productive.

Originally posted at Forbes.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Life in the Immediate Feedback Loop

I was not more than two minutes into the lesson before I realized it just wasn't going to work. It had seemed like a good idea in the planning stage, but now, live and in the classroom, I could see that I was losing my students, that they were zoned out, confused, disengaged, and that I was not connecting them to the material. I would try it again later in the day, but I could already tell the lesson was fatally flawed and it would flop again (it did). I would go back to the drawing board and give it another try.

My only consolation was that every classroom teacher has a similar story.

People in the education thought leader business and thinky tanks and edubureaucracy and ed tech marketeers and manufacturers of edu-programming-- the whole crew of them worry about a programs effectiveness. How will we know if these lessons are any good? How will we know if these materials really work? What kind of extra assessments can we create to find out how well this initiative connected with students? They talk about this kind of thing as if it's deeply mysterious. This is one more reason that all of those folks should spend time in a classroom.

Classroom teachers live inside an instantaneous feedback loop every working day of their lives.

Teachers make a million little education choices every day, and they get feedback on each of those choices right away. Is the lesson boring? Is it confusing? Is the explanation of the material hard to follow? Is the teacher's delivery flat and uninspiring? Is her approach to questioning and interaction bringing the students closer to her? Students will answer all of those questions right away, sometimes indirectly and sometimes clearly and directly ("Hey, Mr. Greene-- I hate this.")

I've always argued that bad teachers are fewer than Reformsters allege, and likely to leave before you get around to throwing them out, because if you do a lousy job in the classroom, the students will punish you for it every day. Every. Day. You may be in denial about your role in the ongoing failure; you may blame it on those damned kids. But you'll still find the job punishing every day, and you'll soon reach the conclusion that you're ready to get out.

Any teacher who is reasonably alert can tell when a lesson is clicking. The students are hopping, excited, engaged. They make that face-- the "I am learning a cool thing" face is unlike any other face humans make. They're energized. You're energized. You feel like you're the cable and a million volts of electricity are flowing right through you.

Likewise, you know when it's not clicking. Even if your relationship with the students is so good that they will humor you out of sheer affection, you can recognize that face, too-- the "You're a great person, but right now this is the pits" face. Or that moment when you are trying to get a discussion started and everything you toss out thuds to the floor like lumps of elephant poop.

You don't need to wait for the end of the semester or the end of the year. And if you bombed, you will likely go home tonight and reconfigure, rewrite, replan, because you really don't want to go through more of that disaster. Heck, the really good teachers can react to their feedback immediately and retool the lesson on the spot.

Teaching a lesson badly comes with its own punishment attached, and that punishment will be doled out immediately-- not in the spring after VAM-soaked test scores come back or during some post-observation scary meeting. Immediately. The classroom is an immediate feedback loop

This is what happened to many if not most of the Common Core aligned teaching materials-- teachers tried them, got their rapid response feedback, and started rewriting the materials. Not just out of a desire to pursue effective pedagogy, but because it sucks to fail in a classroom, because you have to suffer the consequences immediately.

Ed policy folks seriously underestimate the power of the feedback loop, both to motivate teacher behavior and to evaluate how well something in the classroom is working, and so we end up with policies and approaches that are the equivalent of sitting in a windowless room and trying to decide if it's raining outside using every method except asking someone who is standing outside. Want to know if your materials or your program are any good? Give them to a teacher and ask her after about two weeks. Want to find out what is and is not working for a teacher, what she might need help with? Ask her (in an atmosphere that does not make her weaknesses cause for punishment or humiliation).

Are there teachers who are unaffected by the loop? Sure. They blame the students or make themselves numb to the bad feedback, but here's a thing to remember-- they're not going to do any better with feedback from other sources.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of teachers don't need your data because they are collecting mountains of data every day. They don't need your special assessment to measure what's working (or not) in their classroom because they get regular feedback on that subject every day-- from the small humans who are in the classroom watching it all happen.

Of course, this immediate feedback loop can't really be monetized, and the data isn't collected in a form useful for privatizers. But none of that changes the fact that there is a powerful tool being used in schools every single day, and everyone except classroom teachers is ignoring it.

ICYMI: My Wife's Birthday Weekend Edition (9/16)

It's my wife's birthday weekend, so the Board of Directors and I have been busy celebrating. But I still have a few things you need to read from the last week. Remember-- you can amplify voices that need to be heard, just by passing them along via  the book of face, twitter, or even old-fashioned e-mail.

A Measure of This Teacher

Jose Luis Vilson never writes anything not worth reading at least twice. Catch his latest piece about evaluation, among other things.

Is Reading Plus Worth It

Hey, look! It's an actual student perspective on an education program and policy. It confirms what you already suspected about Reading Plus.

Whose Opinions Matter Most   

Nancy Flanagan takes a look at whose voice gets to be heard in education.

Meet the Test Before the Test

Steven Singer accurately  and painfully captures just one aspect of test prep in Pennsylvania (and a few other states as well) where students take tests in preparation for taking tests.

Wealthy People Are Destroying Public Schools, One Donation At A Time

Jeff Bryant on the latest wave of educational fauxlanthropy, and why it's nothing to be pleased about.

Discriminatory School Discipline Policy Is A Crisis

School discipline is targeting black and brown students, and things are not getting better.

My Pay My Say   

Another response to the ongoing post-Janus attempts to bust unions.

Montessori Inc  

A deep dive look behind the curtain of the Bezos pre-k story.

Friday, September 14, 2018

WTF, Bezos

Yes, all the hot takes on this news are written, but sometimes you just have to do your part to swell the crowd of people who are pointing out that something is stupid.

Jeff Bezos (and his wife) starting pre-K schools is stupid. Let me count the ways (in no particular order).

This damn guy

It's a stupid small pledge on his part. Yes, $2 billion is a chunk of money (aka more money than any teacher will ever make in their lifetime), but it's chump change to Bezos. As this piece points out, it's about 1% of his wealth. It's considerably less than some of his fellow billionaire dabblers have donated. This is the exact opposite of a "we'll spend whatever it takes to do this right" pledge.

His concept is stupid, as witnessed by the oft-quoted "the child will be the customer." This is, in its own way, as stupid as the many rich amateur education "experts" who insist that the child is the product. In our current hyper-commercial environment, as exemplified by the cutthroat capitalism of, the customer is a business's adversary, the mark from whom pennies must be shaken loose by any means necessary, in return for which, the vendor will provide the absolute minimum they can get away with. How is this a good model for schools? A business has no relationship with a customer (though it may serve the business well to dupe the customer into thinking there's a relationship there). The interactions are purely transactional-- you give me some money, I give you whatever goods or services the money was supposed to pay for. The rest of the customer's life and concerns are immaterial. How is this a good model for schools? Schools should help create educated citizens, help students become their best selves, create the public for a country; none of this is the same as creating customers. And customers, it should be noted, have to earn the right to be served by showing that they can plunk down the money.

The stupid keeps getting deeper because we already know about Bezos's treatment of people with whom he has a transactional relationship-- he screws them mercilessly. Amazon workers are notoriously poorly treated so that Bezos can make more money. Bezos has made cities dance and scrape and bow for the privilege of having him gift them with another amazon hq. A school should take care of the students it serves. When has Jeff Bezos ever taken care of anybody?

It's stupid because of the blinding hypocrisy. I know this has been said, but it deserves endless repetition-- Bezos wants to give money to the homeless, even as his corporation helped kill a tax bill in Seattle designed to help the homeless. But this isn't just hypocrisy-- it's a blatant example of modern fauxlanthropic privatization. It's about doing an end run around democratic-style government and insisting on commandeering the project yourself, in the same way that avoiding taxes is not just greedy, but is the Bezos way of saying that he will spend his money on his own terms, and if he's going to spend money on something, then he will by God own it himself.

It's stupid because of the sheer oligarchical privatizing balls displayed. If Bezos wants some of his money to go to improving schools, there's a mechanism in place for that; it's called "paying your taxes." If Bezos wants a say in how schools are operated, there's a mechanism in place for that; it's called "running for school board." The country is not served by having vital institutions dependent on the largesse of the wealthy. We are not served by falling back into a system in which cities get their schools or water supplies by convincing some rich patron to take care of them.

It's stupid because the poor Montessori people are once again having their "brand" co-opted by somebody who doesn't even get it. Bezos's schools will apparently be sort of Montessori-flavored, whatever the hell that is supposed to mean.

It's stupid because it is soaked in tech-giant arrogance. Note that Bezos says nothing along the lines of, "I will bring in the top education experts to don this right." Experts, shmexperts. Bezos will just "use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon. Most important among those will be genuine, intense customer obsession." In other words, running a school or a giant internet-based mail order business is pretty much the same thing, so I already know everything I need to know. Even if Amazon weren't built on a mountain of worker abuse aimed at working the customers over, this would still be an arrogant, stupid thing to say.

God only knows why Bezos is doing this. You can say he just wants to improve his image by doing something For The Children, but does Bezos even have to care about what his image is? Perhaps he's just decided that on top of Amazon and the Washington Post he'd like to own some schools.

I saw someone suggest that at least our leading Very Rich Guy was putting his money in a good place. To which I say, no. Education does not need one more self-important rich guy mucking around and playing with children's lives because it makes him feel all warm inside. If there's a huge fire in an apartment building, the fire department does not need a sidewalk clogged with a bunch of amateurs with their homemade fire fighting modified super-soakers. You don't get top elbow your way into an operating room in the middle of critical surgery hollering, "Out of my way. I'm really rich and I have some ideas about how to do this surgery that I came up with while fishing on my yacht." If you want to be helpful, ask the people who are doing the work what they need. Pay your taxes. Do your part to make your corner of the world more equitable and just. Take good care of the people who work for you. And stop imagining that because you once went to a school and you've run a successful business, you are somehow qualified to be in charge of education.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Twisty Path of Top-Down Policy

From Outcome Based Education (remember the 90s?) to Common Core to ESSA to a hundred policy initiatives on the state level, the story is usually the same: Policymakers create a policy for K-12 education, it rolls out into the real world, and before too long those same policymakers are declaring, "That's not what we meant at all." Explanations generally include "You're doing it wrong" or "Maybe we should have put a bigger PR push behind it" or "The teachers union thwarted us." Common Core fans still claim that all Common Core problems are because of trouble with the implementation.

Somehow policymakers never land on another possibility-- that the policy they created was lousy. But good or bad, education policy follows a twisty path from the Halls of Power where it's created to Actual Classrooms where teachers have to live with it. Here are all the twists that can lead to trouble.

Good luck with this
It begins with the policy generators, who might be legislators, or they might be thinky tank lobby policy wonkists who have an idea they want to push. The important detail is that the policy starts with just a handful of people who actually understand it. But the policy's first obstacle is a larger group of legislators, some of whom have absolutely no idea what we're talking about, and worse yet, some who don't even know what they don't know, but have some thoughts about how the policy could be tweaked. Let's say for our example that the group doesn't fiddle too much, and we end up with a simple policy:

Students will learn about how to produce excellence in widgets.

"Excellence" is one of those words that legislators use to get past the fact that they can't agree on what an excellent widget is. But to implement the policy, teachers will have to know what the expectation is, so the Department of Education next has to "interpret" what the regulation means.
(John King and Lamar Alexander had some spirited disagreements about ESSA on just this point).

If we're talking about federal regulations, they'll pass through both federal and state departments of education. Reports, notes, letters, and other guidance tools will be issued by state bureaucrats who have some ideas about what widget excellence should look like and some other ideas about what the policy goals really are here.

Meanwhile, school districts are scrambling to figure out what, exactly, the new policy will mean to them. This creates a cottage industry of consultants. Those will usually include university professors, each of whom has their own ideas about widget excellence and who will therefor staple some of those ideas onto the policy. "This new widget policy provides the perfect opportunity for schools to implement the two-flange widget approach that my hopefully-soon-to-be-published research will detail." There will also be a flood of consultants from the textbook and ed tech industries, who have been sitting back at the corporate offices trying to answer the question, "How do we make a case that the product which we already have ready for market will be an excellent tool for meeting the new widget standards?" (This would be the part where, during the Common Core walkup, textbook publishers slapped "Common Core Ready" stickers on their materials.)

School district superintendents start to wade through these materials, but those administrators will come in several different varieties including 1) hates the new widget rules, 2) has always felt passionate about widgets, and 3) resigned to having to make the state happy somehow. The superintendent may be interested in minimum compliance requirements, or how to game the paperwork (just look like they're complying), or tossing a few ideas of their own into the mix. They will hand the policy off to building principals, who come in the same varieties.

And at every level, many people will look at what has been handed to them and think, "That can't be right" and "fix" the flaws they see in the policy. This process is tough on good policy, but it absolutely chews up policies that were no good in the first place.

After all these levels of pass the policy games, we finally arrive at the classroom teacher. The teacher is exposed to some professional development, which will provide a view of the policy from the perspective of one of the bureaucrats, professors, or vendors mentioned above. The more professional development sessions the teacher attends, the less certain she will be about what the policy requires, because no two presenters will say exactly the same thing.

But eventually, the teacher will take the policy into the classroom. She'll use a book published by a company with one set of ideas about widget excellence to try to implement the bureaucrat's or professor's ideas in a manner that is satisfactory to both of her immediate superiors. She may think, "I'll be a good soldier and do as I'm told" or she may think, "What I was told never did make sense, so I'll just interpret it as best I can," or, after a few lessons, she may think, "This is not working for these students at all-- I'm going to scrap all of this and design my own approach."

You can think of policy implementation as a giant Plinko board with a million slots at the bottom. The policymakers can drop the chip, and not only will it not go exactly where they want, but if they drop a hundred chips at once, they will all end up in a different place. Education policy isn't just a game of telephone-- it's a game of telephone in which each player whispers to ten other players, until a million people have completely different messages.

This is what some folks are talking about when they demand vociferously that policies and materials be implanted "with fidelity," which means roughly "do what I tell you and stop thinking for yourself." But the critical problem is that actual classroom teachers are not involved until the final step. If government insists on a top-down model of education policy, they are never going to get what they think they're asking for.

Originally posted at Forbes

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

How To Buy a School System

For many Reformsters, education is just too valuable to be left to democratically-elected citizens.

When Washington state voters rejected charter schools three times, charter backer Nick Hanauer put a call out to his billionaires, and a great wave of money washed the 2012 charter bill over the finish line-- because when the voters have spoken, it's important to get enough money to speak louder. Reed Hastings (Netflix) famously believes that democratically-elected school boards need to be pushed aside, and has said that part of "the importance of the charter school movement is to evolve America from a system where governance is constantly changing and you can’t do long term planning to a system of large non-profits."

We're at a place where a small group of Very Rich Individuals are intent on commandeering many parts of society-- including education.

In Newark, charter advocates tried to buy a mayoral election so that charter-friendly policies would stay in place.

In Los Angeles, charter advocates threw money at school board elections and packed half the seats of the board with their own buddies.

In New York, hedge fundies spent huge dollars to earn the charter loyalty of the governor.

Even tiny Perth Amboy saw huge outside spending on a local board race.

Occasionally the curtain is pulled back. Families for Excellent Schools joined other rich funders in a losing battle to advance the charter cause in Massachusetts. Then, in an additional defeat, the group was forced to pay a huge fine and in the process had to reveal its donors.

Often these stories are revealed one small piece at a time, or stretched over the interminable length of a modern political campaign. But now the Network for Public Education has done the homework, gathered the information, completed the research, and released a report that tells the stories of elections swamped in billionaires' money. The new report, "Hijacked by Billionaires," is available on line at the excellent cost of Free.

At over 100 pages, the report is rich with well-sourced details, including nine case studies, each showing what happens when Reformsters decide they'd rather just spend money to take control of schools systems.

There's a lot to chew on. There's a list of the billionaires who appear in more than three of the nine stories, and just scanning that list creates a picture of people who are dropping millions of dollars into political races-- school board races!-- hundreds of miles away. Reed Hastings has spent over nine and a half million dollars just to disrupt and attempt to control the outcome of elections. There are eighteen entries on the list, including full families like the Walton and the Bloomberg family (yes, of course Bill Gates is on the list). The sheer volume of money involved is staggering.

Each of the nine stories is striking in its own way. Remember when Shaver Jeffries, now head of DFER, ran for mayor of Newark against Ras Baraka? There was sooooooooo much money spent on that race to back Jeffries, much of it raised by Whitney Tilson and DFER.

The contributions are laid out in charts-- sometimes very long charts-- along with well-researched tales of the campaigns themselves. There's a lot to take in, and the report is a little depressing to read all in one sitting. But it is well worth seeing what's behind these rich folks who like to complain about union influence in elections, or how badly picked on they are by independent bloggers. This is just one more tentacle of the privatization octopus, and as distasteful as it is to see, we can't afford to look away. Read this report.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The 100th Day

I have been counting my days of retirement on Facebook.

I started innocently enough, marking Day One and Day Two. My brother thought this was entertaining and challenged me to keep it up. The posts have been short and sweet (one day I made my first smoothie) and I've embraced it as part of my social media chill-the-eff-out regimen (I'm not allowed to post in the morning until I post a music video, which keeps me from spending the night brooding about how I want to tell someone off first thing when I wake up-- then at the end of the day, I have to post some simple statement about my day. It helps keep my relationship with social media marginally more healthy). Oddly enough, folks seem to like them.

When I hit ninety days of retirement, someone commented that they were looking forward to what I would do for 100. I was not, because I had already figured out that Day 100 of my retirement would be today, September 11.

The confluence of these two things brings a couple of thoughts to mind.

One is the different special days that we humans like to observe. We love making up special occasions. We just sailed past the first day of school. We like to make up holidays, or make up dates to observe holidays and pretend things like Jesus was born on December 25th. We get excited about particular birthdays that end in 0, and we freak the hell out over changing into a new decade, century or millennium.

Most of what sets these days off is completely made up. "It's the first day of your fiftieth year," someone will say. "You should make the most of it, because this day only comes once." Well, yeah. The third Tuesday of your second month of being married only comes once. The 133rd day of this year's school year only comes once. Every day only comes once.

There are days that have weight and significance because do our human best to staple weight and significance to them. And there are days that carry weight and significance because history freights them with it.

And even the weight of history fades, lessens, erodes with time. None of the students in school this year have any memory of the attack on the towers. To them it's just one more piece of history, albeit one that they may have connections to through other humans. The Challenger explosion. John F. Kennedy's assassination. The Vietnam war. Korea. World War II. When we live through these moments, we imagine that the weight will never come off those days. But we're humans. We pass and our memories pass with us, and the ability to understand and grasp and really feel history is a rare one. We're fortunate to be born in a literate age, when the weight of days can be transferred to paper, to screen, raising the possibility of other humans not yet born will be able to feel the weight of these days across the years.

This is, in part, why it is such an awful thing to be cavalier with the truth, to just make shit up for no reason other than to acquire power or erase evil or just because it gives you a little thrill of power. There are few things more immoral than a lie, and to lie for the record, to deny the weight of days is to lie to a million fellow humans not yet born.

Writing matters. Honesty matters. The truth, as best as we can grasp it in our clumsy human hands, matters.

We give days weight they may not have truly earned because playing with the heft of days is a human pursuit, a way of practicing and building mental muscle for the days that really matter. And because it's important not to give our attention only to those days weighed down with huge and almost unbearable cargo. But it's also good to know the difference.

So this is Day 100 of my retirement, a day that has no more real significance than Day 67 or Day 109, except that we like round numbers. It arrives on the anniversary of a day so weighted down that in just seventeen years we have, many of us, mostly forgotten what it really felt like when it arrived, just as a growing number of us have no idea at all and never did. Every day comes only once, and then it fades like a call across a vast valley or a speck in a hall of mirrors. That is why we should pay attention, do better than yesterday, and not just screw around, purposefully trying not to see what is in front of us, deliberately twisting reality to suit some other purpose, as if there were any higher purpose than being true and present.

This day, every day, will come just come once. Try not to screw it up.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Stop Calling It Philanthropy

Last week, Matt Barnum and Sarah Darville ran a piece about "Chan Zuckerberg's $300 million push to reshape schools." The piece qualifies as newsy because they had an actual number for how much Mark Zuckerberg and his wife had pumped through their initiative (CZI); Barnum and Darville were almost able to report on where about a third of that money went.

"Yeah, I don't know much about education, either."
This comes on the heels of the Gates announcement of a "new direction" fueled by a new pile of money. This new push comes packaged differently for different markets. In California it was about some major non-profit grants, while in other markets the emphasis was on lifting up poor schools,
and other coverage focused on a "local school" emphasis. This is of course roughly the forty-third time Gates has set out to redesign US education.

And don't forget-- here's Politico boosting again the Laurene Jobs XQ school reinvention competition, because if you wave enough money at some people, they'll let you experiment on them.

It's good to cover all this stuff, but I have a request-- can we please stop calling it philanthropy.

Let's say I'm a rich guy, and by some bizarre quirk of fate, I'm living next to a lower-middle class family. They have a couple of kids, a beat-up old car, both work, and clearly struggle to make ends meet. I can see through the window that their meals are meager, their clothes are worn, and their furniture is a little beat up. Let me propose two scenarios.

In Scenario 1, I visit the family. I say, "Here's a wheelbarrow full of money. Make yourselves a better life. I'll be over on Saturdays to mow your lawn and make sure that everyone's doing okay."

In Scenario 2, I visit the family. I say, "Hi. I can see you could use some help, so here's my offer. I see you could use some help with your food budget. As it happens, I have it in my head that a diet entirely of squid and scallops would be really healthy for people, so I'll pay for all your food if you'll eat nothing but squid and scallops. I can see that your car is on its last legs-- I'll give you $50K to spend on a car if you buy it off the lot at a dealership a buddy of mine owns. Also, you look a little run down. I've designed an exercise program-- no, I don't have any medical or health care background-- and I'll give you guys a couple of hundred a week as long as you keep doing these exercises. And I'll double that if you spend an afternoon or two every week passing out fliers and telling people who awesome the program is. Also, I have some thoughts about fireplaces, so I'llk give you a few thousand dollars to build a fire in the middle of your hardwood living room floor, because that should be interesting. Oh, and one more thing-- the Mrs. is very attractive, but she wears such frumpy clothes. I have some much more attractive stuff designed that I would like to see her in. I'll cover your clothing budget if she'll wear my clothes and pose on the back porch every morning."

Scenario 1 is philanthropy. Scenario 2 is something else. Something intrusive and creepy.

Modern fauxlanthropy is not about helping people; it's about buying control, about hiring people to promote your own program and ideas. It's about doing an end run around the entire democratic process, even creating positions that never existed, like Curriculum Director of the United States, and then using sheer force of money to appoint yourself to that position. It's about buying compliance.

It is privatization. It is about taking a section of the public sector and buying control of it so that you can run it as if it was your own personal possession.

Yes, philanthropy has always been at least a little bit about using money to impose your values on others. Andrew Carnegie paid for over 2500 libraries, and that certainly reflected his values, but he didn't dictate what books could be included, nor did he create fake civic groups to promote them, and he didn't personally try to manage them. Philanthropic money has always come with some strings attached ("I'll buy the university a new science hall if you put my name on it"). But what we're seeing nowadays is different.

Gates is not saying, "Find people who are doing good work in education and fund them." He's saying "Find people who are doing the work I want to see done. In fact, encourage people to form new groups to do the work I want to see done, and fund them." That's not philanthropy-- that's just hiring someone to work for you.

It is somehow not so obvious because most of these projects do not directly profit the fauxlanthropists involved, but they are still essentially business transactions. Hire some people to promote Common Core. Find a school system that will let us pay them to implement our will in place of their judgment. Find a school system that is willing to accept money in return for letting us use their students as lab rats.

How is this any different than hiring somebody to paint the house or mow the lawn or do the accounting for us? The difference is supposed to be that the work fauxlanthropists are hiring for will somehow benefit society rather than benefitting themselves. But modern philanthropists don't do their homework well enough to know whether they'll doing any good or not (e.g Bill Gates and "we'll have to wait ten years to see if this stuff works"). And of course they do benefit-- they get to feel like philosopher kings and queens without having to do any of the hard parts. And they get to avoid the part where someone of lower stature says, "Your ideas are bad and destructive and dangerous." It lets them have control without responsibility or consequences for their bad choices.

So let's find something else to call this. I don't really like "fauxlanthropy" because there is real money involved, and "paying to impose their personal will on society" is a little wordy. For the time being I'll go with "allegedly benign privatization," but the floor is still open for suggestions. As long as we stop calling it philanthropy.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

ICYMI: Rainy Fall Sunday Edition (9/9)

In much of country, the weather is grumpy today. Perfect chance to sit inside and read some good stuff that you may have missed. Remember to share what speaks to you-- you too can help amplify important voices in the debate.

Education Jargon Generator

As the new year starts, you'll want to be to spice up your professional reports, lesson plans, and professional development conversation with outstanding education jargon. Go ahead. Embrace evidenced-based functionalities. Synergize performance-based manipulatives. Do it yourself or use the site's jargon sentence generator. And follow the link to EduBabble Bingo.

The Education of Betsy DeVos

Why can't she get much done? Could it be a lack of experience or people skills? Take a look.

Who Allowed ECOT To Scam Taxpayers for Seventeen Years

Jan Resseger looks at some of the details of Ohio's biggest charter scandal-- and how it could affect the election.

How I Survive

The Guardian offers a photo essay on teachers and their second jobs. So many people are so much tougher than I ever was.

Class Action Problems for College Board

The latest testing screwup could land David Coleman's College Board in court. It couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

Lawmakers Must Pass Charter School Reforms

From Arizona, where charter fraud and waste has gotten so bad the some folks want something done about it.

Are Early Childhood Assessments Necessary for Good Instruction or Irreparably Harmed by Toxic Test Based Accountability?

Defending the Early Years with a fair look at an important question.

10 Tips for New Teachers

Nancy Flanagan is so damned good, but this is even better than usual. Ten real tips for new teachers, including the one I needed to hear 40 years ago-- "Stuff is not teaching."

Life on the Ledger  

We've talked about the actual Ledger here in the past, but Wrench in Gears has created a video that helps explain why a blockchain-based permanent record is a big deal. And if you'd rather read than watch, here's where you can find links to slide version or a pdf of the script.

A Layman's Guide to the Destroy Public Education Movement 

Thomas Ultican with a measured but thorough look at who's behind the push to take over public education.


Still Pushing the PARCC

These days Laura Slover is the Big Cheese at CenterPoint Education, a nonprofit organization that's pushing its own brand of ed reform. Not getting too deeply into this outfit at the moment, but it includes team members like Tony Bennett, who lost his education job in Florida over his misbehavior at his previous reform job in Indiana; and Emily Alvarez, one of several folks who migrated here from PARCC where she was working after leaving lobbyist work. The head of the board is Paul Pastorak, formerly reformy boss of Louisiana and now an ed reform "transformation" consultant. Advisors include folks from Teach Plus and KIPP, plus admittedly some actual teachers. And they are generously supported by the reform-friendly William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Look! It's a river in Egypt!

But up until last year, Slover was the CEO at PARCC, and as evidenced by her piece at FutureEd (and reprinted at Education Next), she is still pushing for the Big Standardized Test that the Common Core tried to launch. Her co-author, Lesley Muldoon, is a former PARCC founder who also migrated to CenterPoint. And their article reads mostly like ad copy for the PARCC, with so many details spun and stretched that the article begins to resemble a big sticky ball of cotton candy. Like Arne Duncan, Slover and Muldoon want to try rewriting history. Let's see how they did.

When the U.S. Department of Education awarded $350 million to two consortia of states in September 2010 to develop new assessments measuring performance of the Common Core State Standards, state commissioners of education called it a milestone in American education.

That is true for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the government spent $350 million on a product and then allowed a private company to take ownership of it and profit from it.

"By working together, states can make greater—and faster—progress than we can if we go it alone," said Mitchell Chester...

Chester was the Massachusetts ed commissioner who headed up the PARCC board from 2010 to 2015. Slover once called him the "Johnny Appleseed of US education policy," a comparison she probably wouldn't have made if she'd known more about Johnny Appleseed (he was a Swedenborgian who believed that he would have a brace of virgins waiting for him in heaven-- in my town, we know our Johnny Appleseed lore).

I'll give Slover and Muldoon one thing-- they don't flinch from some facts. They note participation in the two state consortia dropped from 44 to 16. "The reasons for leaving vary," they write, "but the decrease in participation makes it easy for some to declare the program a failure." Well, yes. That's true. It's easy to declare the program a failure because it has failed. Its goal was to make all states (and schools within them) comparable because  they would all be measure by the same instrument. That goal has not been achieved.

But in ed reform, as in all political endeavors, when you've failed, there's only one thing to do-- admit failure, listen to your critics, examine the cold hard facts of how you failed, reflect on what you've done, admit your mistakes, and do better next time. Ha! No, just kidding. The only thing to do is move the goalposts, and Slover and Muldoon have their backhoe all revved up and ready to go.

A closer look, however, suggests that Commissioner Chester’s optimism was not misplaced. Indeed, the testing landscape today is much improved. In many states, assessments have advanced considerably over the previous generation of assessments, which were generally regarded as narrowly focused, unengaging for students, and pegged at low levels of rigor that drove some educators to lower expectations for students.

This then is our new story. Common Core and the testing regimen that was attached to it have made the testing world better, an analysis that is rather like the flip side of the repeated promise over the last decade that a new generation of Really Great Tests was just around the corner.

So much baloney is needed to sell this story. Previous tests had "low levels of rigor that drove some educators to lower expectations for students"? First of all, I'm not going to attempt to count the number of qualifiers-- many, some-- that hedge every statement Slover and Muldoon make. Second, I dare you to find me five classroom teachers in the entire country who ever, ever said, "This single Big Standardized Test that they give at the end of the year isn't very rigorous, so I'm just going to slack off." I'm not surprised that Slover and Muldoon suggest otherwise-- part of the point of the BS Test has always been to create leverage so that the judgment of test manufacturers could override the judgment of classroom teachers, and the excuse for doing so was always that classroom teachers had lousy judgment and weren't trying very hard. "But if we hit them with this big, hard test at the end of the year, they'll have to do a good job of teaching what we want them to teach." The PARCC and SBA were always an insult to classroom teachers.

Today, many state assessments measure more ambitious content like critical thinking and writing...

No. No, they don't. They really, truly don't. Standardized tests, which by their very nature block out divergent and deep thinking, are incapable of measuring critical thinking. Heck, the mere fact that students must come up with an answer RIGHT NOW without chance to reflect, research, and just plain think, guarantees that they cannot "measure" critical thinking. Nor has a standardized test yet been invented that can do a decent job of assessing writing. We have taught our students to beat the writing test, and the tricks are-- restate the prompt, write a lot (even if it's repetitious), use some big words (even if you use them incorrectly), and never ever worry whether your content is correct or not.

But now these women who deeply believe in the PARCC's success, but who have gotten out of Dodge themselves, will give reflections on how the PARCC and SBA changed the testing landscape. Spoiler alert: they will not mention that the landscape has been changed by the billions of dollars now spent on BS Tests across the country.

One of the most important features of state tests today is their focus on college and career readiness. Unlike in the past, tests now measure a broad range of knowledge and skills that are essential to readiness and report students’ progress toward that goal. Tests of old, like the standards undergirding them, often fell short of measuring the most important knowledge and skills that are critical for being prepared for college and for work.

Three sentences, and only one is correct. Tests of old did fall short. Tests of new are not any better. First, we still have no idea what qualities are needed for college and career readiness. Nobody anywhere has a proven checklist of those qualities, particularly not a checklist that covers qualities common to every single major at every single college plus every single career option. And since we don't know what the qualities are, we certainly don't know how to test for them on a BS Test. So the first sentence in the above paragraph is false.

Second, the current BS Tests do not measure a "broad range of knowledge and skills." They cover reading and math. And not only do they cover a narrow range of disciplines, but they are deliberately designed not to cover knowledge. Reading tests are based on the (false) assumption that reading is a set of skills that exist independent of any prior knowledge. Despite claims to the contrary, test manufacturers still include questions that are essentially vocabulary questions. But are any of these tests covering knowledge of any content, like the plot of Hamlet or the invention of algebra or how to balance a checkbook? And once again, we have no clear idea of what knowledge and skills are "critical for being prepared for college and for work," so there's no way to include them on a test.

PARCC and Smarter Balanced set these advances in motion by establishing common performance levels for the assessments across the states in their consortia...

Do they? Because in practice it seems that states set their own performance levels-- in fact, that was one of the reasons many left the consortium. Slover and Muldoon cite several pieces of "research" throughout, but since they frequently turn to the Fordham Institute, and Fordham is well paid to promote Common Core and testing, I'm prepared to be unmoved by those citations.\

The fact that these common performance levels are shared by multiple states means that for the first time at this scale, states are able to compare individual student results. 

But, they aren't. 34 states aren't using consortium tests, so we're still comparing apples and oranges and mangos and hamburgers. They toss out an NCES study that shows... something? States have raised cut scores compared to the NAEP, which proves... what?

Taken together, this research is clear that the consortia assessments, particularly PARCC, set a higher standard for student proficiency and that most other states—whether administering a consortium test or not—raised the bar as well. These new, shared expectations of what students should know and be able to do reflect the expectations of the world of college and the workforce much more fully than did their predecessors.

And so, after almost a decade of this, where's the payoff. If these new expectations do reflect college and workforce preparation (and we should believe they do based on what, exactly-- what research helped you know and measure the unknowable and unmeasurable) then where's the payoff. Where are the mobs of high school graduates now sailing through college because they are so ready? Where are the colleges saying, "We've just stopped offering remedial classes for freshmen because nobody needs them"? Where are the businessmen saying, "We're thriving because today's high school grads are so totally ready for us?" Even reformer Jay Greene has been pointing out that raising BS Test scores doesn't appear to reflect any reality in the actual world.

For many years, large-scale assessments have been a black box for educators, providing limited opportunities for them to participate in test development and little information on what's assessed, how it will be scored, and what to do with the results. While many states have historically had a representative set of teachers review test items, the consortia were able to foster a depth and breadth of educator engagement that set a new bar for the industry. Indeed, the consortia engaged thousands of classroom educators to review items and offer insights on development of key policies such as accessibility and accommodations and performance-level setting.

BS Tests have remained firmly sealed in the black box. PARCC has been aggressive in monitoring and tracking down students and teachers who violate the requirement for test secrecy. Teachers are not even supposed to look at the test, and when students or teachers leak even a general description of test items, PARCC has tracked them down. In 2016, when a set of items leaked, PARCC had Google take down every blog post that provided even a vague general description of the items (I know, because one of the posts taken down was mine). Nobody is ever supposed to discuss the contents of the test, ever. Teachers and students get test scores back, but they may never know exactly what questions were missed. None of this has to do with test quality; it is strictly to control costs for the test manufacturers. If items are never leaked, they can be recycled, because making an actual new test would cut into company profits.

As long as the top secret requirements for test contents are in place, claims of transparency are a joke. Allowing a small group of handpicked educators to "review items" does not change the fact that under the new testing regime, teachers have even less information about "what's assessed [and] how it will be scored." Nor can PARCC, which is in the business of selling testing and not actual teaching, offer useful advice about what to do with the scores, and since teachers aren't allowed to know where exactly the score came from, it remains a useless piece of data. The release of old items is of little use, and the claim that "engagement from teachers and administrators helped align the assessments with instructional practices effective teachers use in the classroom" is a fancy way of saying that some folks have figured out some effective test prep techniques. Just in case I haven't been clear on this before, test prep is not education.

The design of the assessments has also helped push the education field in important ways by sending signals about the critical knowledge and skills for students to master at each grade level.

It is not admirable to use testing as backdoor method of taking control of curriculum. Particular because large scale standardized testing has pushed curriculum in the direction of test prep.

Writing is a prime example: The consortia assessments include more extensive measurement of writing than most previous state assessments, and include a strong focus on evidence-based writing.

Writing is a prime example of how these tests have failed. The "evidence-based writing" questions are a grotesque parody of actual writing; these questions start with the assumption that everyone would respond to the prompt with the exact same paragraph, and instead of doing actual writing, requires students to select from among pre-written sentences, or to choose which piece of "evidence" they are supposed to use. These writing tests require huge amounts of test prep, because they don't reflect anything that actual writers in the real world do-- they just reflect what test manufacturers are able to do (at low cost and maximum standardization) to pretend to test writing.

Slover and Muldoon to back this up by offering that "we have heard from educators" that this has really helped with writing across the curriculum. But if we're going to talk "evidence-based", then saying "we have heard from educators" is glaringly weak evidence.

But keep your hand on your jaws, because more droppage is on the way. In talking about how PARCC and SBA helped pioneer the use of computers to deliver assessments, Slover and Muldoon offer this claim:

Technology-enhanced items allowed for measuring knowledge and skills that paper and pencil tests could not assess, typically deeper learning concepts; computer-delivered tests could also allow for more efficient test administration technology and improve access to the assessments for students with disabilities and English learners.

Chew on that. Computer tests can measure knowledge and skills that paper tests cannot. Really? Name one. Okay, there are actually several, all related to being able to operate a computer-- hence standardized tests in which student score hinges on their ability to deal with the software and hardware of the interface. Is the student comfortable with a mouse? Are they able to read selections through those tiny windows that only show a few lines of text at a time? Can they deal with scrolling within scrolling? These can all end up mattering, and the cure is simple-- more test prep on operating a computerized testing environment.

But if the suggestion here is that computers can test reading skills or math knowledge that paper cannot, I'm stumped as to what those skills and knowledge could actually be. What "deeper learning concepts" are only accessed by computer?

I will give them the improved access for some students. That one I believe.

Slover and Muldoon are also mostly correct to say that computer based tests can be scored faster and are cheaper than paper (a savings that may or may not be passed on to schools). But they also require tests that only ask the questions that a computer can score. This is why test manufacturers dream of software that can score writing samples, but despite their frequent claims, they have still failed to do so, and computer based tests still require questions with simple answers. Even then, students have to learn to think like the programmers. As a Study Island student once told me, "I know the answer. I just can't figure out how the program wants me to say it."

Slover and Muldoon find it "remarkable" that so many states have transitioned to online testing, sidestepping the more important question of whether or not that's a good thing. And of course they completely ignore the question of data mining and the security and uses of that data.

Above all, the experience of the consortia demonstrated that collective state action on complex work is doable. It can improve quality significantly, and it can leverage economies of scale to make better use of public dollars. Indeed, states that left the consortia to go it alone, ended up spending millions of dollars to develop their new tests from scratch.

Does it prove that kind of work is doable? Because at the moment, that work remains undone. States may have found that "going it alone" was expensive-- and yet, that didn't move any of them to say to the consortium, "We want to come back!" In fact, one of the things that didn't happen is for a state to switch teams-- nobody said, "We'd like to back out of PARCC so that we can join up with SBA." All of this would suggest that vast majority of states found "collective state action" not very appealing or effective. The myth of "improved quality" sounds nice, but it's not an evidence-based statement; it's simply a piece of marketing fluff.

Slover and Muldoon claim there is more to do, and like Arne Duncan, they blame the failure to achieve certain Grand Goals on politics.

For example, concerns about testing time caused the PARCC states to move away from their initial bold vision of embedding the assessments into courses and distributing them throughout the year. This was an innovative design that would have more closely connected assessment to classrooms, but states ultimately determined it was too challenging to implement at scale.

Yes, that was a terrible idea that nobody wanted to pursue, in no small part because it boiled down to letting PARCC and SBA design your entire local scope and sequence. This is a bad idea for several reasons. One is that involves essentially privatizing public schools and leaving local curriculum design in the hands of a test manufacturing business. And if you can get past that, there's the part where the tests aren't very good, and designing a course around the multiple bad tests over the course of the year yields a bad course. And finally-- who the heck thinks that more standardized tests would be a good idea. Slover and Muldoon seem truly oblivious to the degree to which testing has shortened the teaching year. And testing is not teaching. Test prep is not education. They say that "luckily" ESSA opens the door to this foolishness. States would be better off opening the door to a candygram from a land shark.

And Slover and Muldoon are still sad that all these individual tests get in the way of compare test results across state lines. "Parents and policymakers" are supposedly sad about this, because all the time parents say, "Well, I can see Pat's results, but how does his school compare to one that's seven hundred miles away?" What about the NAEP?

In contrast, NAEP—which is administered once every two years to a sample of students in 4th, 8th, and 12th grades—serves as an important high-level barometer of student progress in the nation, but doesn’t provide information to school systems that can be used to inform academic programming, supports and interventions, or professional learning.

Holy shniekies where are my blood pressure pills!? The PARCC and SBA do not, do not, do not, DO NOT provide actionable data that can be used to "inform academic programming, supports and interventions, or professional learning." They just don't. They provide numbers that are the data equivalent of saying, "This kid did well, this kid did not so well, this kid did very well, this kid sucked, etc etc etc And no, you may not know what exactly they did well or poorly." Lacking any real actionable data, schools have been reduced to trying various test prep programs, and that's it.

Slover and Muldoon are sad that opt outs in some states have made the data "not as useful" because they didn't reflect all the students. The data were never useful.

And-- oh, Lordy, here we go--

Finally, we learned that leaders taking on an ambitious reform agenda should not give short shrift to the communications and outreach required to build support for and understanding of the work—including building strong relationships with stakeholders and seeking to form coalitions of supporters. Reform leaders should not assume that good work on its own will win the day, especially if key stakeholders don’t know about or support it.

It's the last resort of every failed reformster-- "We didn't fail. The PR just wasn't good enough. People just didn't understand."

It is true that Common Core and the related testing regimen were rolled out like a steamroller, with an antagonistic attitude of "we know you public schools and public school teachers all suck and we're going to force you to shape up" that didn't help matters. But do Reformsters want to argue that this wasn't really their attitude and they were just faking it to motivate us? I mean, the "public ed sucks and is filled with bad teachers who must be forced to do their jobs as we see fit" was offensive, but I think it was at least honest.

And what pitch would have been better? "We'd like to roll out a battery of unproven tests, and we'd like to use them as a means of finding and punishing bad schools, and maybe bad teachers, too. And we'd like to take up a chunk of your 180 days of school to administer it. And we'd like to keep everything in the test a secret so that you never know exactly what your students messed up on. And the best predictor of how students will do on these tests will be their socio-economic background. And while we're at it, we'd like to tell you what should be teaching, because any professional expertise you might have doesn't mean squat to us."

How exactly could that have been rephrased to better win hearts and minds?

Come on. You guys sought really hard to build coalitions of supporters by doing things like having guys like Bill Gates write huge checks to astroturf test advocacy and Common Core groups. You sold the national unions on it. Support didn't erode because people didn't understand what was going on. It was the exact opposite; the more people on the ground saw how this reformster idea played out, the less they liked it.

While some Reformsters like Jay Greene are looking at the evidence and honestly reflecting on how this all failed, Slover and Muldoon are saying "good works on its own" won't necessarily win the day. And while that may be true, it's also true (and any classroom teacher can tell you) that when something really doesn't succeed, you might want to question your assumptions about how good it was in the first place and not just start blaming politics and bad attitudes and everything except the crappiness of your idea.

That is not going to happen here. Slover and Muldoon will wrap up by saying, again, that "the quality of state testing has improved substantially in recent years," having provided no evidence that this is actually true. I don't know if Slover and Muldoon are cynical publicists for the cause or simply deep in denial, but it is long past time to keep trying to sell the PARCC as a success. I'll grant you this-- it has been part of a testing program that has successfully paved the way for Competency Based Education and Personalized [sic] Learning-- but that is nothing to be proud of. Better to just get off that river in Egypt.