Saturday, September 29, 2018

Personalized Digital Test Prep Lab Rats

If you want to see the worst of what Personalized [sic] Learning can look like, let me take you straight to horse's mouth. We're not going to look at a critique, but at an actual sales pitch, and see how on the ground, Personalized [sic] Learning is about computer-delivered test prep. It is about extending the tyranny of the test via digitized instruction.


Here's the pitch. At first glance it appears to be just another article at EdSurge-- and it's meant to-- but in fact is what's now called "sponsored content" aka "advertising meant to be mistaken for an actual legit article. "A Back-to-School, Personalized Learning Toolkit" is by Ryan Hagedorn, COO at Edmentum, where his career has been in marketing and sales (he earned a degree in marketing from Hofstra in 2004). Edmentume is, of course, a leading provider of online Learning Stuff, and the tool kit is ten pieces of PR materials. In their own presentation, these folks tell us what they think the main point, purpose, and strength of Personalized [sic] Learning is supposed to be.

Let's look through the kit.

1) A how-to guide.

It's a 16-page booklet, and it identifies personalization with creating a student profile, assessing their current status, and setting a path. While it acknowledges "learning modalities" and the need to "appeal to student interests," the guide comes back to the idea of a "path." As we'll see again and again, the personalized learning is really personalized pacing. All students follow the same track-- they just get to go at their own speed.

There is a creepiness factor here. After suggesting a wide assortment of academic and personal data to be collected about each child, the guide suggests you make the solution to making the student profiles "manageable" is to "leverage online solutions." Then make the profiles accessible and get students to contribute information. Everyone can grab  shovel so the data mining will go more easily! Your Data Overlords thank you.

2) Video- Personalized [sic] Learning at Oregon High School

The promotional video talks to people in various roles at the school, including an actual teacher plus a principal, student, online/blended facilitator, parent, district online/blended coordinator. There are computer-porn shots of laptops being opened, shots of students sitting silently together at a table in front of their screens. The student talks about moving along the path at her own speed-- but not about determining the path. And we get a favorite Edmentum quote about not teaching to the middle any more. We get lip service about the importance of teacher-student relationship, but all the students in the video are at computers (pricey Apple laptops), with a teacher occasionally appearing at the student's shoulder.

The district coordinator talks about getting the pacing right. Pace pace pace. And being in line with the standards, because the (Common Core) standards are a necessary part of this "revolution."

3) Workbook- Online Curriculum Guide

This is a link to yet more "resources" like blog posts about evaluating ed tech and Marzano's best teaching techniques. The workbook portion talks about how online resources can be used as text, complete course, or credit recovery scam program. It offers helpful teaching advice like "clearly present goal/objective for each assignment" and "provide students with all materials needed to complete an assignment" and "remember to breathe"-- okay, not that last one, but the "tips" here seem aimed at someone who slept through all of their college teacher prep classes.

There are also tips for running Personalized [sic] Learning like "monitor student work" and "allow students to progress through assignments at their own pace" and "treat all students equally." Also "allow students to ask questions." It is hard to escape the notion that this program is being designed to be run by aides with no actual classroom experience, because this is basic basic stuff.

Then there are some tips for evaluating the online provider of your curriculum, thereby completing the picture of a program designed to be administered  by a "school" full of people who are either a) dopes or b) not actual educators.

4) Blog- Five Steps To Differentiated Instruction

Assess student, align to standards, create path, monito students, repeat. This is supposed to be a "deep dive" into how it's done. We may have some disagreement about what "deep" means.

5) Workbook- Blended Learning: Fundamentals of the Planning Process

This handy workbook defines blended learning as learning that occurs at least partly on line, in a physical location other than the student's home, and the "modalities along each student's learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience" which means-- well, I'm not sure. Edmentum might be rejecting micro-competency badges here, or they might just be flexing their gobbledeegook muscles.

They recognize four models-- rotation, flex, a la carte and enriched virtual. Rotation means moving through labs or stations, or using a flipped classroom. Flex is more a 1:1 computer situation. A la carte involves taking all of some courses on line. "Enriched virtual" means "virtual." Cyberschool.

It offers a blended learning project timeline for implementation. My favorite checkpoint on that is "Staff Onboarding."

6) Webinar-- Blended Learning: Which Model Works for You

Hard pass. The description indicates they actually focus on rotational and flex models.

7) Video- Blended Learning at Red Mill Elementary

Heavy once again on the personal pacing, but the most striking feature is how heavily it pushes the idea that Edmentum's stuff helps the school get better scores on the Big Standardized Test. Expected because one of the "teaching" programs is Study Island, which is a really terrible program designed to do computerized test prep. I don't want to go off on a Study Island rant, but if my children were spending any amount of time on Study Island at school, I'd be making phone calls. But the teacher and principal in the video are excited that students know "exactly what will be on the test" and that reports from the programs tell them what standards need to be additionally taught in order for the test prep to be effective. To be clear, "test prep" is my words, not theirs-- but that's what we're talking about. Computer programs used as test prep and test coaching-- not actual education.

The video also underlines the data backpack personal record that will follow the students on and on. The principal repeats the "not teaching to the middle" line and we talk about how a child who is below level is left to work at their own pace. What the constant discussion of pace continues to ignore is the age old question-- what do you do with a child whose pace will get them through six grade in eight years?

8) Workbook-- Virtual Learning: Exploring the Options for Expanded Opportunity.

The workbook promises to help districts decide if complete virtual implementation is best, if they should become a cyber school. Let me save you some time-- it isn't. Ever. Virtual schools have proven consistently to be disastrous for everyone except the companies making money from them.

9) Blog-- Universal Design for Learning: Powering Personalized Experiences for All Students

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is thrown out as another idea for personalization, except that it also purports to be about designing curriculum that will work for everyone. "One size does not fit all," says UDL, "unless you make one size the UDL way, in which case one size will totally fit everyone." (UDL fans can argue with me in the comments). UDL also throws around "brain science": and some of the discredited ideas about learning styles.

10) Blog-- How To Evaluate EdTech Tools that Support Teaching and Learning

"As the traditional classroom evolves into an environment rich in technology..." opens this blurb, demonstrating how simple word choices like "rich" can help sell your product. Incidentally, none of these blog links are to an actual blog-- the links all lead to ad copy on an authorless corporate website of Edmentum's. I'm not sure whether this tech-based company doesn't understand what a blog is or if they just hope their audience doesn't know.

But this ad copy says that good edtech is standards aligned, because standards standards standards. To dive, even non-deeply into the edtech world is to realize how much they needed and use The Standards as a marketing tool.

The tech should engage students, by which they seem to mean that the tools should assess students a lot and use the data  "to construct learning activities at the student's zone of proximal development" with just the right level of challenge. Do you know how this really works? Students learn that doing too well on the pre-assessment gets you hard work to do, but if you deliberately throw the pre-assessment, you can get yourself a break.

The tools should support teachers and inform instruction. Do they give lots of reports. And toold should "leverage technology for effective assessment."

There's more, but what we really ought to notice is that a conversation that started out about personalized learning is now entirely about buying computer software products to teach and assess the students.

How To Use This Post

The next time a Personalized [sic] Learning disciple tells you how it's not at all about computerized learning or data mining or perpetuating the Common Core, just send them to this post. See, I agree with folks who say that personalized learning-- actual personalized learning-- doesn't have to be about all this digital baloney. But the ideals of personalized learning are not what's happening-- this is what's happening. Slavish alignment to the Core standards (even if they're operating under an assumed name) while students spend chunks of their day staring at a screen, teachers are just facilitators, and a bunch of data is steadily extracted as mediocre instruction is digitally delivered to digital natives who are not, I assure you, saying "Wow, when I do boring worksheets on a computer it's so much more exciting!" (In fact, digital natives now think that desktops and laptops are quaintly old-fashioned, but that's a discussion for another day.)

This is what companies are actually selling as personalized learning-- software teaching programs that take the person out of personalized and turn learning into lab rat style training. No thank you.












Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Scaling Up Personalized [sic] Education

Creating a personalized education program presents many challenges. It presents even more challenges if you want your delivery system to be a computer. And it presents even bigger problems if you intend to scale it up.

The dream for many education reformers is not just to come up with a new system, but to manufacture a new system that can scale up and reach a broad market. Personalizing education for a single student requires a great deal of work and it can be hugely beneficial for that student-- but it's not very profitable.

So who wants to do the assignment this time?
But scaling up is best accomplished by standardization, and standardization is the enemy of personalization.

Consider a burger chain, one that has decided to become the anti-McDonalds. This chain wants customers to know that when they order a burger, they can have it their way. The chain will gladly hold the pickle or the lettuce, because they have developed a production system that easily allows for that sort of personalization.

But that personalization falls within a very narrow range. You can hold the pickle or the lettuce, but you can not have a black bean patty in place of the hamburger. You cannot have thin-sliced sirloin covered with mushrooms or avocado slices. If your tastes do not fall within the range of burger possibilities, if you are an outlier, you will take your business elsewhere.

This makes sense for the burger chain. There may well be customers who want, say, a herring burger with sautéed kelp on top, but those customers are so few and far between that it's not worth the expense of stocking herring and kelp. So the burger chain makes the sensible choice to let those outliers dine elsewhere.

Personalizing a U.S. school's education program runs into the same problem, exacerbated by one educational fact of life: public schools aren't supposed to discard the outliers.

Personalized education software must involve the creation of a vast library of exercises and instruction to suit every possible student. Just to teach grammar and usage alone, you would need a vast library of exercises to cover every single rule, every single problem one can have with the rules, and then multiple versions of each exercise geared to the student's reading level and areas of interest.

Our personalized program could get by with a smaller library if we just play to the large middle ground. Only certain rules are problems for most students, most of those students will be reading about the same grade level, and a focus on just three or four areas of interest will engage most students. We can create a relatively small library of materials and hit most students.

But the mission in U.S. public education is not to educate most students. The goal is to educate all students. That means a true personalized education program can't cut corners. A public school is not a burger joint that can say, "Well, if we don't have what they need, they can just go somewhere else." Public schools must serve the outliers, too.

The more you scale up a personalized learning program, the more outliers you have-- and each one will be completely different. That means to truly scale up a personalized education program, you must create a vast library of materials to be prepared for every possible student who could appear-- even if some of those outlier materials might not be used more than once or twice or never in ten years.

So far, most personalized education programs have dealt with this problem by not dealing with this problem and instead creating a program for most students. Some are not really personalizing education at all; instead, they personalize pace. In other words, all students cover the exact same material, in the exact same sequence, but the program lets them each travel down the exact same path at their own speed.

But if personalized education programs have trouble with scaling and outliers, how can classroom teachers possibly cope?

For the most part, easily. The advantage that a classroom teacher has is that she gets to meet the students first. Someone creating educational software right now is doing it for some students who aren't even in school yet, so the programmer must guess and prepare for unknown possibilities in the future, thereby either wasting resources or failing to meet certain needs. The classroom teacher, on the other hand, knows the students, collects daily information about the students, and develops relationships with the students, all of which makes it possible for a teacher to personalize instruction far more effectively than a software program ever can.

This is one reason relationships matter in a classroom. Can the system break down? Sure-- put fifty students in one classroom and that will strain a teacher's ability to maintain the relationships that drive education (that's one reason class size matters). But for true personalized education, you need two persons to form that teacher-student relationship. It's nearly impossible to personalize instruction with just one person involved.

Originally posted at Forbes   

Mastering Mediocrity

That Question. It is the question that students ask a jazillion different ways.

How many pages does this paper have to be?

When is this going to be due, and do I have to hand it in during class, or can I have till the end of the day?

That's a lot of mastery.

Tomorrow's test-- how many questions can we miss and still pass?

How many sources do I have to cite?

How much is this homework going to be worth? Enough to hurt my grade?

How many examples do I have to include?

Do I have to show my work?

All of these questions (and the rest of the jazillion) are really just ways to ask one simple question:

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

Students ask about the absolute least all the time. This does not make them lazy or terrible human beings. They're trying to manage their time and effort, often in a class that they're required to take and don't care much about (which, again, does not make them awful human beings-- all adults have the widely recognized right not to care about some things).

It's not really a good look on anybody. As I used to explain to my students when I was calling them out on this, "If you're new romantic partner asks 'What's absolute least amount of time I have to spend with you to keep this going," you will not be thinking to yourself "This one's a keeper." And you don't want to ask your employer, "What's the absolute least amount of work I have to do to keep this job."

Of course, there will always be students who shoot for amazing all the time, who always go above and beyond any requirement you give them. But for many, the moment you hand them a specific minimum is the moment they start thinking in terms of how little they need to do and not how much they could do.

For that reason, teachers often learn to be purposefully vague in the classroom. My answer to That Question was never terribly specific. Unlike some teachers of (bad) writing, I never gave a required paper length and never, ever told them that a paragraph must include X number of sentences. "Long enough to do a good job of making your point" was about the best they could get from me, or maybe, "Impress me. Amaze me." When you're proofreading your own work, there's a big difference between asking "Did I include the bare minimum?" and "Is this amazing?" Every English teacher has read at least one potentially good essay that basically stopped in the middle because the student believed she had written enough to satisfy the bare minimum requirements.

This has always been the problem with Learning for Mastery, an old ed concept enjoying a current comeback via Personalized [sic] Learning and Competency Based Education.

It makes a certain amount of sense-- you teach students an area of skill or knowledge, and once they can prove they've mastered it, you move on. But there are problems.

Mastery Learning asks us to create a performance task that will demonstrate mastery. That's our first problem, because if we define "mastery" too rigorously, may students will have great difficulty meeting the standard. Define "mastery" at a lower, more accessible level, and higher functioning students will become bored. If we're teaching basketball skills, does mastery look like LeBron James, or "student can dribble length of court without falling down." And there's a whole other problem with reducing complex constellations of skills to a list of performance tasks. Exactly how do we define mastery of, say, essay writing? But the list problem is one we'll save for another day.

Because another big problem is that in defining mastery, we are giving students an answer to That Question. And while we may see all of this as a culminating performance task that shows mastery of particular skills, what the student sees is an assignment or test and an answer to That Question. They will know exactly what they have to do to be marked as masters, and many will not do an iota more. This is double true in mastery systems where the assignment-- I'm sorry, the mastery performance task-- is just pass-fail and the students are grade-oriented. Why be amazing if you just get the same passing grade as a bare minimum project.

Mastery Learning makes it more difficult to push a student to work at the top of their game. Instead of a system in which teachers can use their full bag of tricks to raise or lower the bar for individual students, they're stuck with a system where the bar is welded in place, probably somewhere around the mediocre middle.

There are ways to make a mastery system better, starting by jettisoning the word "mastery" which suggests, incorrectly, that such a system will demand excellence of every student in all subjects, which is as realistic as No Child Left Behind's requirement for 100% above average test scores by 2014. Though I'm no fan of CBE, "competence" is a better term. Nobody takes a drivers test to show that they are master's of driving; the state just wants to know if you meet the basic competence level. To further tweak the competence system, we could institute an assessment system that showed just how competent the individual student was, and to get past the checklist flaw, we could give a wide variety of performance tasks that overlapped in the competencies that they assessed, with the ultimate effect that we get a more holistic look while assessing each competency multiple times instead of just once. Periodically we could combine all the competence level marks from each performance task into a combined competency ranking, and we could issue a report, maybe on something simple like a card, every so often, listing the precise gradations of that student's competencies and the grades on that report card would indicate whether the student is competent to proceed to the next level of.... oh. Never mind.

Mastery [sic] Learning is innately prone to promote mediocrity. Both in how it reduces complex learning to a list of simplified performance tasks, and also in how it answers That Question. What's the absolute least you can get away with doing in a class? Mastery [sic] Learning systems will always tell you, and that's not a good thing.








Monday, September 24, 2018

The Road Beyond The Test

I missed this piece when it first ran at KQED's education tab Mind/Shift, but Katrina Schwartz's article is worth looking at because it captures some of the inaccurate thinking that still surrounds the Common Core today.

Entitled "How To Teach the Standards without Becoming Standardized," the piece patches together some interviews at EduCon with Diana Laufenberg and  some others. Laufenberg teaches at a Philadelphia magnet school and also tells people about project based learning and "structuring modern learning ecosystems."

This was back in spring of 2014, so they could still talk about teacher "ambivalence" toward the Core rather than, say, hatred, and it is organized around a list of ways to avoid becoming standardized in your teaching. As is usually the way with such pieces, the advice is diplomatically worded versions of "ignore the standards stuff and just follow best practices in your professional judgment."

For instance, #2 is "Teach students to question. When kids develop effective questioning techniques they become active partners in constructing learning." That doesn't really have anything to do with the Core; it's just a decent piece of teacher advice.

But buried amidst the educational wonder bread is a piece of bad advice that KQED liked well enough to turn into a pull quote, but which captures a major misconception about the Core. It's a Laufenberg quote, and while she says some sensible things elsewhere in the article, this is not one of them:

Teach past the test to this other meaningful, creative work and you will get the test, but you’ll get all this other stuff too.

I've heard this sentiment expressed many times over the past decade, particularly from administrators. It's a pretty thought, but it's wrong.

The assumption here is that the Really Good Stuff is just straight on past and on beyond the "get ready for the test" stuff. Like if you're starting from Chicago and you have to go Cleveland, but you really want to go to Pittsburgh, so you just stop in Cleveland then hop on I-76 and head to Pittsburgh. Easy peasy. Only the real analogy is, starting from Chicago you're required to go to Tampa, but you really want to go to Seattle. Tampa is not on the way, not even a little.

To get to good writing, you do not test-pleasing writing, just a little more so. Test writing and authentic quality writing are two entirely different things that just happen to have a superficial resemblance to each other because they look like words arranged in sentences arranged in paragraphs. But as a classroom teacher, I would literally tell my students, "I'm now going to teach you some things to use for testing, but you should not ever use these in any other writing situation." The behaviors needed to game a writing portion (e.g. parrot the prompt, use big words, write a bunch even if it's repetitious, never worry about accuracy or internal logic) are not desirable features in real writing.

Nor is the ability to respond immediately to a multiple-choice question about a short reading excerpt taken out of context a step on the path to mature, reflective analysis of a full-sized work of literature.

This notion that the path to the test is at best a small detour and after we've touched that base we can head on into the Land of Actual Education is a snare and a delusion. The path to test readiness is a dead end' the road goes no further and all that lies beyond is just a vast, barren wasteland.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

ICYMI: Tech Sunday Edition (9/23)

No, not ed tech. It's tech Sunday, the kickoff of show week for the local theater production of The Producers that I'm directing. So I may be a little more scarce this week, but I've still collected a few things for you to read.

The Case Against High School Sports

Need to start a big argument? This article should do the trick-- but it's also some things to think about.

Learning from What Doesn't Work in Teacher Evaluation

Audrey Amrein-Beardsley shares some of the lessons of bad teacher evaluation (cough cough VAM).

Finding the Holy Grail in Poverty Mining

More scary news from the world of digital balls and chains. How exactly can the rich profit from poverty and data?

Bring Me a Higher Love

Jose Luis Vilson reminds us again of the place of the L word in teaching.

13 Things I learned While Blogging        

Nancy Flanagan remains one of my blogging heroes-- and she's pulling up stakes at Ed Week and moving out on her own. Her tenure remains one of the great runs in edublogging; I look forward to reading her without a paywall.

Rep Eddie Farnsworth makes a killing in AZ charters

Arizona remains one of the great places to run a charter school scam, particularly if you're a legislator there. Here's how one guy has played the game and made himself rich while pretending to be interested in education.

Behind Closed Doors    

Sarah Blaine has been quiet on the blogging front for a while, but she returns with a vengeance, looking at a New Jersey legislator's insistence that the decisions about the future of PARCC should be made far away from the prying eyes of parents, educators, and taxpayers.  

Who Is Behind Leaders in Education PAC    

The indispensable Mercedes Schneider once again does the research to peel back the layers of a reformster group and discovers the same old rich folks.

The Educational Outcomes Fund  

A plan for using education to strip more money from Africa and the Middle East.

A Teacher's Thoughts at 2 AM  

An honest and open reporting by Cori Anderson-Lais of her inner dialogue struggling with several school issues.


Saturday, September 22, 2018

How Pushback Against Reform Is Used To Push Reform Forward

The pushback against education reform ideas like Common Core and test-centered accountability has brought together a broad assortment of voices, from the right to the left, from supporters of public education to avid home schoolers. But the opposition to some forms of education reform also includes one other group--advocates of newer education reform.

It's called jiu-jitsu

Take this piece, recently being recirculated on the interwebs, entitled "The Testing Emperor Finally Has No Clothes." Writer Bruce Dixon wastes no time getting straight to the point-- he's talking about the "tyranny of testing." He's speaking to an Australian audience, but his criticisms are recognizable to U.S. and British educators critical of the practice of using Big Standardized Tests to measure students and schools and teachers.

Standardized testing policy is "intrusive, devisive, deceitful" and is "fast turning teachers into lab rats." It's an "insidious virus" based on "chicanery." It fosters the false impression that learning is a competitive sport. It "kills curiosity and penalizes diversity." He quotes writers like John Holt, Anya Kamenetz, Deborah Meier and Alfie Kohn, all critics of test-centered schooling. He invokes Finland as an education exemplar.

And he points out that the testing industry is big money, pushing the testing regimen as a giant cash cow. The choice, Dixon suggests, is between lobbyists and learners.
Up until this point in the article, Dixon's argument could have been written by any of the army of advocates for public education. But Dixon is not a soldier in that army, and he signals it as he starts to consider alternatives to a testing regimen. "Our modern world demands," he says, "a shift in thinking about credentials at every level, how and why they are awarded but more importantly why."

Dixon cites the Mastery Transcript Consortium, a group that proposes a new way of reporting student achievement based on what it calls "Mastery Credits." This is a version of what are sometimes called micro-credentials or badges. The idea behind them is to break down every bit of learning into one particular item, and once you pass some sort of competency test, a little badge goes in your permanent digital record (not unlike earning an achievement on your Xbox game). In the super-deal version, all of this is both delivered by and recorded via computer and the cloud, so that you can earn them anywhere, any time, and your digital "transcript," perhaps stored blockchain style can be accessed by any future employers, the government, and anyone who pays for the privilege, forever. If you want to know more about this, look at speculative video about The Ledger.

As you might have figured out, this approach to learning renders a traditional public school virtually obsolete and unnecessary.

So who is Bruce Dixon? He's the cofounder and president of the Anywhere Anytime Learning Foundation and a consultant who talks to education departments and tech companies and advocates for 1-to-1 learning, an approach that puts one computer in the hands of every student.

Another name for the mastery based approach is Competency Based Education, and another name for that is Personalized Learning, which many education experts see as Education Reform 2.0. Ironically, one of the great marketing tools for Education Reform 2.0 has been Education Reform 1.0. Bruce Dixon is just one example of someone whose using dissatisfaction with Education Reform 1.0 to pitch his 2.0 products.

If you are someone who is unhappy with test-centric schooling and the data gathering that goes with it, you should take a careful look at anyone who hopes to rescue you. The CBE you're considering may well get rid of the once-a-year Big Standardized Test--and replace it with small standardized tests every day. It may be heavily computer-based, and therefor hoovering huge amounts of data about your child. And rather than giving control back to your local school and your child's teacher, it may strip the local school of even more control and reduce the classroom teacher to an aide who monitors the software and keeps students on task.

And as always, the best question to ask someone who promises you to rescue from one Awful Thing is, "What are you selling?"

Originally posted at Forbes   

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 Amazon.com, 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.