Monday, October 15, 2018

The Lesson of Child Care Expenses

The group Child Care Aware last summer posted their answer to the question every parent of a little asks-- if child care costs so much, why aren't child care providers rich? They have a nifty little video that simplifies the answer so that even the math-impaired can get it.

Imagine your going rate is $10,000 per year per child. Assume a child care center with forty students, and therefor looking at revenue of $400,000. Where does that go?

$45K for building and maintenance.

$92K for classroom materials, food, and administrative costs (niceties like liability insurance).

Boom. You've burnt through all but about $260K, and you need to hire a director, three lead teachers (one for each classroom) and six assistant teachers (in most states, the law dictates what you need for personnel). That means your director makes about $22/hour while your assistants get about $10.50/hour. Nobody here is getting rich. In fact, depending on the specifics of your location, the whole thing may barely be staying in business.

I'll think of this now every time somebody wants to complain that the public school system is filled with waste and that spending just keeps increasing but taxpayers aren't getting more bang for their bucks. Because what is the above model except a much simpler version-- to get a real public school we'd have to add students with assorted special needs for which we needed more classrooms and more materials. Of course, we'd have to add more expensive professionals, but we'd compensate for that by cutting the number-- where your state law might require nine teachers and assistants spread over three classrooms for forty students, in some schools we just pack forty students into one room with one teacher (because while we have laws to protect the tiniest children from being under-supervised, we're not so concerned about actual school students).

It's not cheap to do education right, or even half-right. If there are any simple truths we struggle to avoid in this country, that's one of them.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

What Just Happened To Summit?

Summit Schools were an early entry (2003) into the world of charters, with founder Diane Tavenner trying to do personalized learning the low tech way. Tavenner is reportedly a former teacher, asst. principal and a graduate of the Broad Faux Academy of Superintendenty Stuff-- (oh, she's the board chair for the California Charter Schools Association, a board that includes Joe Williams, head of DFER as a member). Mark Zuckerberg ran across the Bay area school in 2014 and decided that he would give it not just an infusion of cash, but an infusion of technology. Including engineering support to "make this better."

Not feeling the magic here
Like AltSchool, another super-duper techno-personalized charter system, Summit decided they could make some real money selling their program to schools across the country, and in fact a few hundred schools are now Summit schools, using some form of the computer-based algorithm-driven education-flavored product.

Summit is one of Zuckerberg's pet projects, and it's also beloved by that other well-connected super-rich education amateur, Bill Gates, who has some of his Top People promoting hell out of it. Summit is, I presume, a dream product for many in the privatization biz, because it has been so successful in getting actual public schools to invite it to come and stay.

Not that everyone is a fan. Take a look at some of the comments in this piece "The Inherent Racism of Summit 'Public' (Charter) School." And many schools have backed away from the Mass Customized Learning Program (a term that deserves a place on the oxymoron shelf right next to Jumbo Shrimp and Peacekeeper Missiles). The program is a model for Personalized [sic] Learning via Competency Based Education, featuring playlists for students to work through at their own pace.

Indiana, Pennsylvania schools tried to quietly implement Summit programming, and parents began to squawk almost immediately. After just one month

parents began telling the school board that their kids were not adjusting to the new learning style, that they found questionable and objectionable material in the recommended online resources in their classes, and that their children were spending too much time in front of computer screens.

NY Magazine just profiled Cheshire, Connecticut, another town that fought back when the mass customized learning program came to town (or rather, the town came to them, since the Summit model involves logging on to the Summit website). The Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative had paid for the 130 Chromebooks needed, but once again, reality got in the way of CZI dreams.

Students rarely met with teachers, but instead had lots of screen time with a computer program that was reportedly easy to trick (just skip the lessons and go straight to the tests). The program still has glitches, including questions that cannot be answered correctly (maybe some nerdy programmer decided Summit needed its own Kobayashi Maru?) And there's the problem of the open-sourced playlists themselves:

Nothing about the platform said Silicon Valley more than the open-source approach to the “playlists.” Teachers were encouraged to customize them, to add and subtract — and Cheshire’s teachers were working on this, Superintendent Jeff Solan said in an email — but the base material was often just a bunch of links, to sites ranging from Kids Encyclopedia to SparkNotes to the BBC. I interviewed several educators who were involved in developing the platform in 2014, and when I mentioned this to one, he agreed they were “shoddy.” “We knew it,” he said. They were in such a hurry, he said, “we were just throwing things in there, that, at least from a Google search, looked reputable.”

Yikes. It's almost as if the actual education piece is secondary to some other part of the operation. I wonder what that could be...

And there was the question of data. Summit is clear about the 18 partners it shares its data with, and subjects itself to its own strong privacy agreements in addition to the legal protections around student data already in place, but parents and other locals were nonetheless concerned. “The Chromebooks were free. Nothing’s free. There’s always a reason,” said Mary Burnham, a retired educator who was part of the campaign against Summit. “If somebody’s giving you something free, chances are, they want something back, or they’re already getting something from it. As best I can tell, with Summit, it’s data.”

All of which brings us to the newest news from Summit Learning.

As we look to the future, we are excited to continue expanding our impact within the broader public school system by sharing the Summit Learning Program with more schools and refining the Program to best meet the needs of all students. To do this, and with our support, a new nonprofit organization will independently lead and operate the Summit Learning Program beginning in the 2019-2020 school year.

My emphasis. Who will be on this new board operating Summit. Well, Tavenner herself. And Priscilla Chan. You know who she is. Peggy Alford-- she's the CFO and Head of Operations for CZI. And Alex Hernandez. Tavenner plugs him as a "seasoned educator," but I'm betting he's on this board more because of his experience as a Broad graduate, a venture capitalist, the lead on Charter Schol Growth Fund's Next-Generation Schools practice focused on personalized learning and school model innovation, and superintendent at the Aspire charter school chain.

At this juncture, we might want to take a moment to step aside and review what CZI actually is-- not a strictly philanthropic organization, but an LLC-- an actual business with certain legal and tax benefits, but still able to think about things like profits and control and not having to divulge that which one does not wish to divulge.

So my question is, did Summit just become a subsidiary of the Zuckerberg empire. Did Mark Zuckerberg, who's entire fortune is based on the biggest data-mining operation ever seen in human history, just manage to grab himself a piece of (currently) 380 schools and all the students therein?

If you are the connect-the-dots kind of person, we've got public schools connected to charters connected to one of the biggest data grabbers on the planet, all tied up in a personalized [sic] learning bow. If your school district decides they'd like to let Summit, I'd recommend you ask some big questions, before someone in your district gives away the data cow in return for some not-very-magic beans.



ICYMI: October At Last Edition (10/14)

Is fall finally here? We can only hope. 

Remember, if it speaks to you, pass it on. 

Every Morning Is An Affirmation

If you're only going to read one thing this week, make it this piece by Jose Luis Vilson. Affirmation indeed.

Wick-ed

Burning that candle without being consumed.

New Orleans Teacher Held Against Her Will      

What a bizarre story! Mercedes Schneider has the details.

While Kavanaugh Craziness Rages, DeVos News Gets Lost    

Jeff Bryant reminds us about what DeVos has been up to while everyone else was watching Bro Brett audition for the Supremes.

Teacher Autonomy-- An Often Ignored Victim of High Stakes Testing

A reminder of one important casualty of test-centered school.

Quit Saying Special Ed Costs Too Much 

Nancy Bailey talks about the eight signs that someone is about to take an ax to special ed.

     

Saturday, October 13, 2018

How Teachers Avoid the Common Core

Here's an important thing to understand about the Common Core Standards--nobody is in charge of them.

Many standards have official gatekeepers. For instance, the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Colorado is the official civilian source for the answer to "What time is it?" through the national atomic clock.

There is no such body for the CCS. When the standards were first unleashed, the official word was that a state could not change a single word of them, and the states could add no more than 15%. The unanswered question was, "Or what...?" There has never been an official body to monitor state use of the standards. The folks who wrote the standards might have fulfilled such a function, but they dispersed almost immediately to new jobs (David Coleman took over the College Board, Jason Zimba booked some consultant gigs, etc). Sure, there's a site where you can look at the standards and read some PR, but it's the equivalent of a business site that won't let you contact the company or order product.

There has never been an official Common Core office to say, "This is correct, but that is not."

The implications for the use of the standards are huge. There is not, for instance, a body that approves whether or not a textbook can call itself "Common Core ready." Some organizations have tried to fill that gap by doing reviews based on textbook alignment to the Core, but those groups are themselves taking an unauthorized stab at what the Core says.

When the Core started finding its way to individual districts and schools, an army of consultants was unleashed to lead sessions on "unpacking" the standards. At these sessions, teachers would be put through the painstaking process of saying, "Well, what this standard is actually after is this..." with an explanation of what the consultants believed the standards said. Again, there was no oversight, no authority to "certify" that a consultant had a True Understanding of the standards.

That process was often followed by alignment--a process by which curricula were supposed to be written to match the requirements of the newly unpacked standards.

Problems emerged almost immediately. For instance, the lack of a Central Common Core Office meant there was also no Common Core review and revision process. If 500 schools all discovered what they believed was a flaw, omission, or misplacement of a standard, there was nobody to call, no process by which the regular review of the Core would lead to a Core 2.0 that improved the flaw. The Core's writers were either so confident or unconcerned that they created a system in which the standards would be more set in stone that the United States Constitution. All of that meant that if a district or state felt that there was a flaw in the standards, they had no option other than to just be rebels and change some standards anyway.

Another issue was the parallel roll-out of the Big Standardized Test, a test which immediately signaled that some standards mattered and some did not. Some states gave some standards fancy names like "anchor standards" which meant, roughly, the only standards you need to care about. For instance, there are ELA standards about speaking and listening, but they don't matter, because speaking and listening will never be on the Big Standardized Test.

The theory was that if one unpacked the standards and aligned one's curriculum, higher test scores would fall like manna from heaven. It became almost immediately obvious that this was not true--higher test scores would result from teaching to the test, standards be damned.

A few years in, all of these factors contributed to one important revelation.

What happens to a teacher who doesn't teach to the standards?

Nothing.

Oh, teachers still had (and have) to submit lesson plans that show alignment to standards, based on curriculum that is aligned to the standards. However, the alignment process is simply a piece of bureaucratic paperwork-- you can simply write down the lessons and units that your professional judgment considers best, and then just fill in the numbers of various standards in the blanks. Maybe you have an administrator who will hold your feet to the fire ("Mrs. McTeachalot, I believe your use of standard RL.5.2a is not entirely on point"), but mostly, life will go on, your paperwork will be filed, the district's report to the state will show that teachers are teaching to the standards with fidelity, and you can close your classroom door and do what you know is right. As long as the paperwork is good, reality can take care of itself.

This avoidance of the Common Core is also widely practiced by teachers and administrators who will deny that they're doing it. Innumerable teachers have written glowing essays about how they've used the Core to open up new avenues of swellness in their classrooms, and then go on to describe lessons that have nothing at all to do with the standards. But that's where we are. I can claim that my lesson about students meditating on a head of cabbage is Core aligned, and I may know I'm lying, or I may sincerely believe that I'm doing great Core things, but it doesn't matter--nobody is ever going to show up at my classroom door to say that the lesson is not Core-approved.

There are teachers who are less able to escape, who are trapped in micromanaged situations where administrators insist on scripted lessons straight out of the box. Mind you, those scripted lessons may also be a poor representation of the Core, but that's a small matter compared to scripting (it's a topic for another day, but the short line is that any administrator who insists their teachers teach from a script should be banished from education forever).

The Common Core Standards remain a sort of toxic vaporware--dangerous and damaging when first released, but slowly dissipating into a vague and formless while people try to recover from the damage they originally caused and are, in some places, still causing. We can only hope more teachers figure out how to escape.

Originally posted at Forbes.

Friday, October 12, 2018

One More Lousy Side Effect

One of my former colleagues and her husband are expecting a baby, and that is good news for everybody-- except, maybe, all the rest of my former colleagues.

Here's the problem. Since my retirement and the concurrent non-filling of my position, four English teachers are divided among the four high school grades. One teacher for each grade-- and that means that my colleague teachers all the students in the grade our high school subjects to the Big Standardized ELA Test.

She's due in March.

"Sorry to be a problem."
That means the district will be searching for a sub to fill in for the critical weeks before the students take the BS Test. My colleague has that test prep down to a science, so maybe her sub will be able to just kind of follow along and.... no, my district is probably about to experience a sudden mysterious dip in the effectiveness of high school teaching.

And while the state of Pennsylvania is on the brink of making our BS Test (the Keystones, because Pennsylvania is the keystone state-- get it?) optional for graduation, so that the stakes for students will be little-to-none, the stakes for the school remain large. Test scores (both raw scores and VAM-soaked "improvement" scores) are used to evaluate English and Math teachers- but they are also part of a score given to the entire building. And that building score is used as part of the evaluation score for every teacher in the building. That's right-- we still do that thing where teachers are judged in part based on the scores of students they never see in courses they never teach.

So that's where we are in this awesome teacher evaluation system-- one teacher experiences one of life's great personal joys, and a building full of teachers have to sweat their professional standing.

You may say that her maternity leave shouldn't really make any difference, that years of awesome instruction will be more than enough to lift those students to heights of swellness on the BS Test and all I can say is, Honey, aren't you cute. The test requires test prep-- not the kind where students drill and memorize certain facts and figures, but where they learn certain key vocabulary and learn to navigate the kinds of tricky gotchas favored by these test manufacturers.

Plenty of schools face this extra challenge-- a pregnancy or injury at an inconvenient time. And don't imagine that test-centered accountability doesn't affect which teachers will accept a student teacher, or if they do, what they allow those student teachers to do. Families are encouraged to schedule vacations at Not The Wrong Time. All sorts of events that used to be normal pieces of the ordinary life of a school have become dangerous bumps in the testing road.

My old department will pull together, and plenty of commercially available test prep materials will be marshalled, and my former colleague will help more than she should have to at such a moment because she's That Person, but the whole exercise is just a reminder of how far the Big Standardized Test is from measuring any of the things it pretends to measure.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

John White Remains Confused

Last week the Policy Innovators in Education (PIE) network held its annual meeting, this time in New Orleans. It's a jolly gathering of all our reform friends, and this year it featured a speech from Louisiana school chief John White, the test of which was run by Fordham's Flypaper blog. I'll warn you-- this starts out just sort of ill-formed, and ends up pretty awful. But it is a window, once again, on how fully lost some reformsters are.


White has a hefty reform pedigree-- Teach for America, TFA director, Joel Klein's team in NYC, Broad Academy of Faux Superintendency). The headline that gave this piece some legs and attention was White's observation that education is no longer a political winner, which is only slightly more insightful than suggesting that Barack Obama will probably win the Democratic nomination over Hilary Clinton. Or as I've commented elsewhere, 2018-- the year I run out of new ways to say "And you just figured this out now..."

White does note that the 2016 election put paid to the notion that education would be an important political issue. Jeb! Bush tried to make education a chunk of his campaign foundation, and Campbell Brown tried to set up a website that would position her as arbiter of the education discussion (remember when she staged education summits and nobody came). In 2016, people who banked on education as an issue were like folks who speculated in real estate, but the railroad went through some other town.

But White believes this lack of political interest in education is a serious problem. I don't disagree with that basic point-- it sucks that politicians, leaders, media outlets, and strangers on the street aren't more interested in what goes on in the world of education. But beyond that-- well, I find White's analysis suspect at best.

Education reform has made positive gains in this country for the people whom it’s set out to serve without question.

Yes, "without question" probably belongs somewhere else in that sentence, but it's a sentence that should be stricken, anyway, without question. Unless he means that the people ed reform set out to serve were profiteers and privatizers, in which case he may have a point. If he meant actual children, I don't think he does.

Nor does he offer much to back it up:

And whereas, when I started out my career in the 1990s and people ask you, “Point me to a set of schools where large groups of students are beating the odds, and are achieving some semblance of hope in the American dream in spite of challenging conditions as a child,” you could count on your hand how many schools met those criteria. Today, there are hundreds of them.

How many times do miracle schools have to be debunked? Roughly a zillion, I guess. What are miracles based one? Extra resources. Careful attention to which students they let in the door. Depending on a lousy measure of students achievement to make pretty numbers. None of that is particularly miraculous. Where are the thousands upon thousands of students who, by now, should have swelled the college ranks with success and gone on to richer, happier lives? And what do we know about the cost of those "miracles"? How many students had to be left behind in schools with even fewer resources so that some charter operator could stage a "miracle"?

And yet for some reason, today we have a political climate in which—whatever side of the Common Core issue you are on, whatever your take on school vouchers, wherever you come out on standardized testing or what have you—you cannot question the fact that politicians are running from education and not toward it. They are running from our elementary schools, our middle schools, and our high schools. And where they are even remotely interested in our education, it is in thin solutions for our postsecondary education and thin solutions for early childhood education. Somehow it’s the thirteen years, the thirteen deeply formative years, of school that they seem to want nothing to do with.

This is a great paragraph, capturing both the current state of politics vs. reformsterism and also capturing the confusion and cluelessness of some Reformsters. It's as important, in its own way, as Arne Duncan's sweetly oblivious memoir.

Politicians have decided to shy away from those thirteen years because virtually everything reformsters have talked them into in the last couple of decades has been a mess. Common Core turned out to be a nightmare, a disaster. Test-centered schools-- disaster. Charters-- looked like they might not be a disaster, but now stalled out. To the extent that White is correct, politicians have learned that many policy wonks are not very wise about schools, and that their ideas are often laced with kryptonite.

Of course, they have also learned to keep a lower profile. They've learned that you can get away with Common Core if you just call it something else. And they've learned that the next round of privatizing profiteering (personalized learning, competency based education, techno-data-everything, etc) can be better played close to the vest.

I'd also like to think that they've learned that education does not boil down very effectively to a sound bite on the stump. And that many people are very invested in education, so when you say something stupid, they will make a fuss.

White is missing one other puzzle piece. I'd argue that a huge reason that education wasn't a big deal in 2016 is because everyone, from corporate GOP candidates to corporate Democrats, agreed on one basic education policy-- "those smart guys with all that money should get to call the shots." You can't have much of a debate between people who are all on the same side.

Having missed that, White has also missed that something is changing right now. Teachers are running for office. And in several major races, education is actually a big issue. The problem for White and his PIE cronies is that the political noise about education is coming in opposition to reformsters and their legacy of educational vandalism. And with the election of Trump, reformsters had to learn another lesson that is coming back to haunt them this cycle-- when people are your allies only because it's politically and financially expedient to be so, then when it's no longer expedient, they will no longer be your allies.

White's confusion is as great as ever. When trying to explain "the brilliance represented in this room and in your organizations" is not about their ideas, but  instead

it has to do with the fact that over two or three decades, some of the nations most committed, invigorated, finest people, rich and poor, from west and east, from all racial backgrounds, have actually come together to focus on public education, or publicly-funded education. They have brought tremendous and uncommon energy to this issue, Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike. And we have achieved the gains we have, not because we are smarter than everybody else, but because we have great people who saw this as an issue to which they wanted to dedicate their life.

It occurs to me at this point that among his problems, White is a policy guy, defining "the spectrum" as a bunch of policy and political operatives (but not any actual teachers or people who work in the field), and that "success" in this context means issued some position papers and schmoozed some statehouse allies and got some laws passed here and there, and that John White neither knows nor cares how any of that played out for actual children in actual classrooms.

Sure enough. He defines the biggest crisis facing education reform and it has nothing to do with the lack of perceptible positive life effects for students or the state of actual learning or the problems of poverty and racism as they affect students' ability to be their most excellent selves-- no, the "crisis" is "the relevance of our issue, and therefore the attractiveness of our issue, for the next generation of activists, advocates, philanthropists, and politicians." John White isn't even worried about a teacher shortage-- it's the politician shortage that he thinks is the biggest crisis.

And as he outlines the problem and possible solutions, he talks about how he used to think that the solution was better PR (I'm paraphrasing here) as in a set of issues that would play better, or some billionaire who could kick them loose from a tired message or, well, "finding value in things that offer more value to a more diverse audience." He's just not so sure any more.

But here comes the big finish-- if reformsters are going to grow more reformsters like Bill Haslam or Mike Bloomberg, who can "create newness" or invent, they will have to reinvent, "be new." He wants the PIE folks to appreciate how rare and precious it is for folks to join across party lines. So think about how to "remain relevant" and "remain on the front page." Because PR.

Just when I think he will manage to discuss education without mentioning a single human being who's actually involved in doing it, as if the whole "do it for the children" mantra is only for the public and not something reformsters say to each other when they're the only ones in the room, he busts out the children-- and it's even worse.

I believe it’s possible because the good news is, whether you are in New Orleans or New York or anywhere in this country, there is one force that we can harness, that no other issue can harness, and that is the love of Americans for their children. Everyone knows that children are our most precious assets, and therefore we have a tremendous platform from which to get advocates. 

So don't forget-- people love their damn children and we should be able to leverage that love into political capital. Think I'm being harsh? Here's the very next, and final, two sentences:

But for some reason we are not converting that into attention, into political capital, and into new ideas. And that has to change.

Well, something has to change. Perhaps the cluelessness of reformsters like White could change. I would recommend less time schmoozing with the members of PIE and more time in an actual classroom, because this is a stunning display of reform disconnect, of a focus on policy winning (at whatever policy, as he seems none too attached to any particular policy-- just one that could get them winning again) at the complete neglect, ignorance, dismissal and obliviating of the children. It's a world in which education policy looms large, but actual schools and classrooms and teachers and children are virtually invisible.

And, yeah-- that has to change.


Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Follow Nancy Flanagan

When I first wandered into the world of edubloggery, one of the first names I learned was Nancy Flanagan's. Her voice and insights jumped out as being uniquely smart, insightful, and valuable, and she turned out to be an exceptional persona as well). If you are like me, then she is already part of your required reading and you can skip what follows. But for the rest of you, take a second and check this out.

Her nine years writing Teacher in a Strange Land at EdWeek were a Master's class in how to balance the personal and the professional, the passionate and the rational in talking about what is happening in the world of education these days. Hers is exactly the kind of point of view that the education debates need more of-- a knowledgeable, accomplished, and articulate classroom teacher (now retired).

She's making a big leap; she has closed down the EdWeek blog and has set up shop out in the open internet-- behind a paywall no longer!

Teacher in a Strange Land can now be found here, and if you have not been a regular reader, now is the time to start. Bookmark it, add it to your feed list, write it on a sticky note, subscribe-- whatever it is you do to keep up with your preferred blogs. No collection of education blogs is complete without it.

DEY: Opposing Online Preschool

Defending the Early Years and Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood have released a co-authored statement in response to the rise of online "preschools." This exceptionally dumb concept has been around for a few years (Utah leapt in with UPSTART in 2015) and yet there is still scant evidence that it's a good idea to plunk three and four year olds down in front of a computer screen to practice academic subjects.

Never not a terrible idea
Utah, a state unwilling to provide state funded preschool, did their own study and found that UPSTART students did better on standardized exams from kindergarten through fourth grade than "non-participating" students. In other words, online preschool provided better test prep than no preschool at all. The whole business is enough to make one rage-weep because A) there's no evidence that the standardized test means anything important (and even reformsters are coming to understand that) and B) why in God's name are we giving standardized tests to K-4 students?

Unfortunately, there is plenty of evidence that while this idea may suck from an educational, developmental, spiritual, and general being human standpoint, it is absolutely awesome from a make-a-whole-bunch-of-money standpoint. Some of the programs are "non-profit" which, as we've seen repeatedly, is a distinction without a difference-- somebody, somehow, is making money off them. Some programs are sold to the state, and some are sold to individual families, and yes, the damned feds are in there throwing money around, too ($11.5 million to help expand the UPSTART program).

The cyberpreschool programs are not just bad in their own right-- they also help feed the notion that the little should be spending more time on academics and less time playing and messing around like a bunch of little kids. This flies in the face of virtually everything we know about the development of tiny humans, but there's not nearly as much money to be made in having kids go out and play in a field with each other.

From the DEY/CCFC statement about cyberpreschool:

Recognizing the estimated $70 billion a year “preschool market,” an increasing number of Silicon Valley companies with names like “K12 Inc.” and “CHALK" are selling families and policymakers the idea that kindergarten readiness can be transmitted through a screen. What these companies offer is not preschool, but a marketing scheme designed to sell a virtual facsimile of real preschool. By adopting online pre-k, states are selling out kids and families for the benefit of private industry.

All of our knowledge about human development demonstrates that children learn best through exploratory, creative play and relationships with caring adults. As the American Academy of Pediatrics notes, “Higher-order thinking skills and executive functions essential for school success, such as task persistence, impulse control, emotion regulation, and creative, flexible thinking, are best taught through unstructured and social (not digital) play.” By contrast, there is virtually no evidence showing that online preschool improves outcomes for kids.

Online pre-K may expose kids and families to new types of risks. Research shows that screen overuse puts young children at risk of behavior problems, sleep deprivation, delays in social emotional development, and obesity. Extended time on screens diminishes time spent on essential early learning experiences such as lap-reading, creative play, and other social forms of learning.

All of the assertions come with footnotes to back them up. And if you like your experts a bit more live, here's an important quote from the news release that came with the statement this morning:


"All children should have access to high-quality, fully funded preschool," said Diane Levin, Professor of Early Childhood Education, at Boston University's Wheelock College.  "Online ‘preschool’ lacks the concrete, hands-on social, emotional and intellectual educational components that are essential for quality learning in the early years. Further, online preschools are likely to exacerbate already existing inequalities in early education by giving low-income children superficial exposure to rote skills and ideas while more privileged children continue to receive developmentally sound experiences that provide a solid foundation for later academic success.”

And another point well worth remembering:

“Allowing tech companies to push online preschools will lead to further marginalization of low-income families who already lack access to high-quality affordable child care,” said Dr. Denisha Jones, Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education at Trinity Washington University and DEY Advisory Board member. “If the parents of Silicon Valley won’t put their own children in online preschool, why would we think this is good for other people's children?”

The statement has been signed by an extraordinary list of 100+ organizations and education professionals, including Parents Across America, the Network for Public Education, Common Sense Media, the CEO of Chicago's Children's Museum, Peter Gray, Rae Pica, Tim Slekar, and author Joe Clement.

Read the statement, and check out the press release for more details.

Holding the line for the littles is one of the most important things we can advocate for, because running some unfounded bone-headed profiteering experiment on a four year old creates a lifetime of issues for that child. Online PreK should not be a thing at all, ever.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Is The Big Standardized Test A Big Standardized Flop?

Since No Child Left Behind first rumbled onto the scene, the use of a Big Standardized Test to drive accountability and measure success has been a fundamental piece of education reform. But recently, some education reform stalwarts are beginning to express doubts.
There are plenty of reasons to doubt the validity of the Big Standardized Test, be it PARCC or SBA or whatever your state is using these days. After almost two decades of its use, we've raised an entire generation of students around the notion of test-based accountability, and yet the fruits of that seem.... well, elusive. Where are the waves of students now arriving on college campuses super-prepared? Where are the businesses proclaiming that today's grads are the most awesome in history? Where is the increase in citizens with great-paying jobs? Where are any visible signs that the test-based accountability system has worked?

Two years ago Jay Greene (no relation), head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, was writing about the disconnect in test scores-- if test scores were going up, wasn't that supposed to improve "life outcomes." Wasn't the whole argument that getting students to raise test scores would be indicative of better prospects in life? After all, part of the argument behind education reform has been that a better education was the key to a better economic future, both for individuals and for the country. Greene looked at the research and concluded that there was no evidence of a link between a better test score and a better life.



On Forbes.com, contributor Frederick Hess (director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-tilted thinky tank) expressed some doubts as well. AEI has always supported the ed reform cause, but Hess has often shown a willingness to follow where the evidence leads, even if that means challenging reform orthodoxy. He cites yet another study that shows a disconnect between a student's test scores and her future. In fact, the research shows that programs that improve "attainment" don't raise test scores, and programs that raise test scores don't affect "attainment."
Test scores can be raised with several techniques, and most of those techniques have nothing to do with providing students with a better education. Drill the test prep. Take at-risk students out of electives and make them take test-related courses instead. And have teachers learn, over the years, how to teach more directly to the test. But do you want higher test scores or better education? Because those are two unrelated things.
The end result is that the test scores do not tell you what they claim they tell you. They are less like actionable data and more like really expensive noise.
Hess and Greene represent a small but growing portion of the reform community; for most, the Big Standardized Test data is God. For others, the revenue stream generated by the tests, the pre-tests, the test prep materials, and the huge mountains of data being mined-- those will be nearly impossible to walk away from.
But there is one critical lesson that ed reform testing apostates should keep in mind. The idea that the Big Standardized Test does not measure what it claims to measure, the idea that it actually does damage to schools, the idea that it simply isn't what it claims to be-- while these ideas are presented as new notions for ed reformers, classroom teachers have been raising these concerns for about 20 years.
Teachers have said, repeatedly, that the tests don't measure what they claim to measure, and that the educational process in schools is being narrowed and weakened in order to focus on testing. Teachers have said, repeatedly, that the Big Standardized Tests are a waste of time and money and not helping students get an education. Teachers have been saying it over and over and over again. In return teachers have been told, "You are just afraid of accountability" and "These tests will finally keep you honest."
After 20 years, folks are starting to figure out that teachers were actually correct. The Big Standardized Test is not helping, not working, and not measuring what it claims to measure. Teachers should probably not hold their collective breath waiting for an apology, though it is the generation of students subjected to test-centered schooling that deserve an apology. In the meantime, if ed reform thought leader policy wonk mavens learn one thing, let it be this-- the next time you propose an Awesome idea for fixing schools and a whole bunch of professional educators tell you why your idea is not great, listen to them.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

ICYMI: Post Show Edition (10/7)

Final performance and set strike last night, so I'm operating on too-little sleep. But that doesn't mean I didn't find you some worthwhile reads for your Sunday afternoon.

Tackling Bro Culture Is Hard

The Kavanaugh spectacle has opened up sopme discussion of dealing with bro culture in high schools. Here's a NYT take on the subject.

School Hopping Brings Chaos

A visit to Detroit shows how the proliferation of shake shady charters leads to a great deal of destructive disruption in students' educations.

The Easiest Money Bill Ackerman Has Made

The umpteenth example of how charters can be great tools for profiteers (particularly if they are also legislators who get to write the rules of the game).

It Didn't Start with Trump

The Guardian takes us back to the roots of modern teacher-bashing. Let's go back to 1983 and Ronald Reagan...

What Top-Rated Schools Have In Common- Fewer Poor Kids

The Nevada Current takes a look at high-achieving schools and discovers a strong link to wealth.

Guilty Verdict for Man Who Defrauded Newpoint Charter Schools

A look at yet another scam artist who uses the unregulated freedom of charters to make himself rich at taxpayer expense. Will you be surprised if I tell this story is from Florida?

Don't Let Richmond Dictate Charter Schools

Laura Bowman's plea to keep Virginis relatively clean of charter blight.

The  Truth About Money in Public Education Politics

Yet another look at how dark money worms its way into local education elections.

What Happens When There Are No Public Schools      

Jeff Bryant takes us to Michigan for a look at the bad outcomes of bad choice programs.


Saturday, October 6, 2018

DeVos Secret Vist To View Koch Program

Betsy DeVos visited Wichita last Monday, but it was a very quiet visit. Her online schedule shows Monday an unscheduled day, and neither the Department of Education nor the group she visited issued any news release. It was a local source-- Suzanne Perez Tobias at the Wichita Eagle-- that picked up the story.

So what did DeVos travel to Wichita to see? She traveled to Koch Industries to meet a teacher and some students from the Youth Entrepreneurs, a group founded by Charles Koch and his wife Liz in 1991. It started out as an eight week course at a Wichita high school "designed to improve the professional potential of at risk students." That's not a shocker-- the Koch brothers have been pretty clear about preferring business solutions to educational problems, as well as their desire to have schools crank out useful meat widgets for the business leaders of America. According to their annual report, the program was in 126 schools with 182 teachers working with 3,487 students.

Their foundational values are unsurprising for a Koch venture. Responsibility-- "take responsibility for your own life." Be principled-- act with respect, integrity and toleration. Knowledge-- seek and use the best knowledge. None of that low-quality knowledge. Freedom-- "respect the rightgs of others and study the links between freedom, entrepreneurship, and societal well-being." Passion-- Find fulfillment by improving lives of others. That may not sound very Kochian, but the next one does. Opportunity-- "You make your own opportunities." Sound judgment-- by which we mean using "economic thinking to create the greatest benefit while using the least resources."(Yes, that's incorrect usage.) Win-win focus-- cooperation creates value for yourself and others. It's an interesting list, a portrayal of the conflicted shore where Christian do-unto-otheriness crashes in to Ayn Randian "take care of yourself and let everyone else rot," a neighborhood where the DeVos and Koch families have long lived. I'm glad this course is only an elective.

The program notes its differences from the Junior Achievement program. YE is a yearlong elective course taught by teachers who get YE training. The program offers students and program alums the chance to earn money for a business or continuing education.

No local superintendents were informed of DeVos visit ahead of time; the teacher involved, Zac Kliewer, e-mailed to let him know that the students would be meeting Betsy DeVos on Monday. Kliewer tweeted a photo of himself, the students, DeVos, and Liz Koch on Monday, When media picked that up, well... per the Wichita Eagle:

After a reporter contacted Kliewer seeking information about DeVos’s visit, “He got a call from somebody with the Kochs, and they said, ‘We would prefer not to have any media coverage,’” Burke said.

The visit to Wichita came two days before DeVos kicked off a four-state tour entitled "Rethink School."

It's not entirely clear why the visit needed to be hush hush, nor even whether DeVos wanted to avoid association with the Kochs or vice versa. Maybe everyone was just trying to avoid that unseemly spectacle in which journalists presume to bother their betters with questions. No word from the Wichita Eagle on whether or not DeVos was attended by her high-priced security detail.


Friday, October 5, 2018

Management and Directing

This weekend is arguably the biggest weekend of the year in my little corner of the world. Johnny Appleseed lived in this area briefly a couple of centuries ago, and on that thin peg we have hung a gigantic local festival, complete with crafts, food, strange tchotchkes, a car show, and a theater production.

Our local theater group owns and operates a refurbished local theater, a beautiful facility despite the lack of fly and wing space. The group puts on about six productions a year; the rest of the time the theater hosts other performances. I've been doing directing of one sort or another with that theater group for thirty years now, wearing a variety of hats (this time it's stage director, lighting designer, and pit orchestra conductor). This particular production (Mel Brooks' The Producers) has been a real adventure, but I wanted a real adventure to carry me past the beginning of the first school year of my retirement.

I bring all of this up because I never get involved with a theater production that doesn't get me thinking about teaching in general and leadership in particular (also because I like to brag on my little town). Community theater directing has to be, in some ways, more challenging than working with the Big Time Pros. BTP can be less-than-delightful because they are paying people; my casts are all volunteers doing this for fun. BTP can say "the lead should be able to sing, tap and act, and he should be blond, blue-eyed and 5' 3" tall" while community theater directors say "Okay, these are the fifteen people we've got to work with-- how can we make them fit into this show?"

Directing is just like management-- your job is to get the best possible performance out of your people. That means supporting them and providing what they need to succeed. It means providing a overall vision and direction, and many directors have lots of ideas about how to do this. Some are less productive than others.

Micromanagement is not uncommon. This director tells her actors every single exact move and moment, every little gesture, every bit of business. If there is a moment in the show that she hasn't covered (and there always is) the performers stand awkwardly paused because they don't know what to do. On the other end of the scale we find directors how under-direct, who tell the performers, "Just go out there and say the lines. Stand somewhere. Or maybe move."

The sweet spot is somewhere in between, and the critical part of the vision thing is to explain some sort of answer to the question "What are we trying to do here?" Tell the actors the essentials about their characters. Tell everyone in the production about the style and theme of the production. Tell them what emotional notes we want to strike.

In short, establish the guiding principles of your work.

If you can do this clearly and effectively, and if you have chosen guiding principles that are sound and that are supported by the work, then magical things will happen.

Actors have a million decisions to make in the course of a performance, and if your guiding principles are solid and sound and communicated, they can use their own expertise to make those choices in a way that contributes to the show. Mind you, each one will have her own way of filling in the blanks, based on who they are, what they know, what they've learned, and how their character fits in the whole piece. But you have to trust them. You may help them spot some choices they didn't see, or be a set of eyes to spot choices that don't fit quite right, but mostly you have to trust them, because as a director you simply can't make every single choice for them (there are to many choices) and as a director you can create a hard and fast set of rules that will serve every actor and every character being portrayed. And some choices are rooted in very practical issues (can this actor change costumes fast enough to make that entrance? can we build that particular set piece?) and sometimes the art takes a backseat to the limits of the facility (did I mention the theater's lack of fly and wing space?). And you have to make sure all the technical support, all the lights and sound and set are there to help support the actors in their work.

If you know what the play's about, if you know what the point is, if you can just keep your eye on the ball and not loose track of the main thing-- AND you can communicate that to everyone else, AND you can select people who are talented and able and willing to grow into the experience AND you can figure out artistic solutions to practical problems AND you can give them the freedom to use the skills and art that they brought to the table-- if you can do all that, then the curtain will open and your audience will be treated to an amazing, beautiful, moving display of magic wrapped around a core of something true.

All of that is true about theater and true about schools and true about classrooms.

Two performances left. Stop by if you're in the neighborhood. Unlike a school or a classroom, a show only comes to life for a short piece of time.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

5 Necessary Additions to Teacher Prep Programs

In the search to improve teacher preparation programs, the focus has often been on tweaking some traditional features, like methods courses that focus on bulletin board construction and education professors who haven't been in a classroom since Ronald Reagan was a governor. But if we really want to beef up the preparation of teachers, there are some larger steps we need to take. If you run a college teacher program, consider adding these requirements. If you intend to become a teacher, the following should be elements of your preparation program.

Major Level Course Load

If you are going to teach English, you should take the same sort of course load that an English major takes (in fact, you should probably just go ahead and be an English major). Ditto for all subject areas. For elementary teachers, the requirement is the same, but you can pick your specialty.

There is no substitute in the classroom for knowing what you're talking about. That doesn't mean the teacher needs to be infallible. But if you have to teach the history of World War I and the last time you learned about it was in high school, you'll be challenged to come off like an expert. Beyond the academic benefits of having students learn from a teacher who knows, a teacher has far fewer classroom management issues when the students believe she knows what she's talking about. Be an expert in your field.

Be Involved In Performance

If you are going to work in front of an audience for a living, you should practice it. Join band or choir. Take a role in a theater production. Do something that requires you to get up in front of an audience and do your thing while simultaneously paying attention to crowd response. A good teacher is able to read the room; experience in the performing arts will help you develop that skill. Ideally, your experience should be in a small ensemble. As part of a hundred-piece marching band on a football field, audience reading is of limited use. But if you're working with a jazz trio, you will quickly learn about losing a room's attention and figuring out, on the fly, how to win them back.

Take A Course In Which You Stink

Nobody becomes a math teacher because math was their worst class in high school and they hated every minute of it. And yet, you will teach those very students. You probably plan to teach a subject that you aced, and despite what the critics say about the teacher pool, you are probably no dummy. Which means that your subject matter knowledge bank is filled a bunch of things you know because you just... well, you just know. You have skills that you just kind of have, somehow.

How do you help a student complete the journey from Being Deeply Lost and Confused all the way to Understanding the Subject Like a Boss if you never had to complete that journey yourself? Everyone has had that teacher--the one who doesn't really explain things but just keeps repeating them (and, in the worst version, looks at you like you're a dope for not getting it).

You owe it to every future student who will struggle in your class to go struggle in a class yourself. Feel the stress and frustration and burden of Not Getting It. Practice the attack skills that are needed by someone who needs more than just ten minutes of instruction and a single assignment to Get It.

Work At A Low-Level Job

You may very well do this already, but if you don't, you should. Not simply for the classic "this will help you realize how badly you want to use your college education to avoid this kind of work" reasoning, but because this is the world that a large number of your students are going into. In fact, if you teach high school, many of them are already there. Teachers are college educated, and if not careful, they develop a kind of college tunnel vision. But college is not everyone's destination after graduation. I'll gladly argue that all students benefit from studying Shakespeare and ancient history and algebra and classic American literary movements--but not all students benefit in a "this will help in college" way.

Some firsthand experience in the working world will help you maintain a more well-rounded perspective. Note: if you are in some parts of the country, you may be a teacher with twenty years of experience still also working at one of these low-level jobs. That's not helping your professional balance; that's being taken advantage of by your employers.

Take Up A Sport

It doesn't matter if it's a competitive sport like football or an individual sport like kayaking--get involved in an activity that involves bodily exertion, mental focus, and physical stamina. On that list of Things Nobody Tells You About Teaching is the fact that, done well, it is physically demanding. Not as demanding as roofing or professional wrestling, but definitely more demanding than office work. You will be on your feet all day, and you will not get to set your own pace--there is no "I'm just going to take five minutes to regroup" in teaching. So build your physical stamina and mental toughness, as well as getting involved in physical activity that will help shed stress.

Note: If you are going to be an elementary teacher, you'll want to work on your bladder-holding skills as well.

Originally posted at Forbes

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

More Charter Business Begging

Remember the days when part of the charter school sales pitch was that they could do it all better and cheaper? Those were the days. Now we are more likely to find charters demanding greater and greater chunks of taxpayer dollars.

Take this op-ed from Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public [sic] Charter Schools, appearing today in the Washington Examiner. Rees started her advocacy career with the uber-conservative Heritage Foundation, spent some time in education for the Bush administration (including some time as Dick Cheney's education advisor), hopped to a consulting firm, before landing with NAPCS.

I'm not holding Rees responsible for the title of her piece; these are typically given by the editors, and this one is both a) not really representative of the content of her piece and b) not very bright. "Public school buildings belong to public school students-- including charter students" is just dopey. Public school buildings belong to the taxpayers; charter building ownership is a more tangled web, depending on the state. But to date I have not seen a story about a charter school closing and giving its building and equipment to its students.

Rees' complaint is a common one these days-- why can't charter schools have access to public tax dollars to help build their physical plant? Why can't the state and federal authorities throw more money at charter education so that charter schools can have Nice Places?

Charters are not just poor-mouthing in hopes of getting some more cash. This issue goes right back to the Big Lie of Charters, the lie that says you can operate two or three or ten school systems for the same money you spent to run one. The physical plant is the first place that lie runs into trouble-- you can't buy, build or operate ten school buildings for the same money you used to operate a single school. That has never not been true, but charter fans couldn't start the charter revolution by saying, "...oh, and you're going to need to raise more tax dollars to finance all this." So charter creep has been incremental-- first, sell the idea of charters and how they'll do more with less. Talk about how the money should follow the child, but don't mention that, actually, that won't be enough money and we're going to need more. Get the charter foot in the education door and then, once you feel more safely entrenched, it's time to ask for more.

Rees slips the critical point of her argument in via dependent clause:

Even though charter schools are public schools, supported by state and local tax dollars...

That, however, is the crux of the problem. Charters are not public schools, nor does the fact that they are paid with public tax dollars make them public schools. Defense contractors are paid with tax dollars; they are private businesses, not public companies. And charters have been very aggressive about asserting their private business nature (eg the White Hat charter management case in which White Hat successfully argued it was a private company and was entitled to keep all the equipment and supplies and money left in its defunct charter schools). Read the astonishing research by Bruce Baker about how the public can end up buying a charter school building twice and still not owning it. Real estate companies are among some of the early adopters of chartering, recognizing that a charter school would make good cover for some real estate profiteering.

Charters aren't transparent, don't answer to elected representatives of the taxpayers, don't have to follow various rules, don't have to serve all students. They are not public schools. They're private businesses, no more entitled to a taxpayer subsidy or handout than any other private business.

Rees argues that charters have to spend money on buildings instead of students. They also spend a ton of money for advertising; should the taxpayers foot that bill as well? Rees argues that charters don't always have the amenities. That sometimes they have to set up in strip malls. That they need about $375 million to bring charter physical plants up to speed. But none of this is news. None of this can be a surprise. This is the business that charter operators chose to go into-- what other business opens up shop and then tells the government, "Actually, this is pretty expensive and I'm going to need you to give me some taxpayer money to help out." It is interesting, though, that Rees admits that many charters are "making the best of inadequate facilities that lack essential school features." How, exactly, did these charters get off the ground if they lack the basic requirements to operate? And why is that the taxpayers' problem?

As Rees notes, nine states have already fallen for this pitch, thereby increasing the burden on taxpayers-- even if those taxpayers never had a say in whether or not they wanted to foot the bill for a few more private schools in their neighborhood.

Rees wants to paint this as a fairness issue, but what is fair about having taxpayers fund a private business?

Rees' solution is simple enough-- give charters more taxpayer dollars, or taxpayer-owned buildings. That's not my idea of a solution. I'm willing to support the public funding of charter schools, as long as we agree to a few stipulations. If charters want public tax dollars, either directly by having the money to build, or indirectly by taking over taxpayer funded public schools, then here are the rules--

The charter school building is the property of the taxpayers, and it will be overseen by a board elected by those taxpayers. Charter management will answer to that board.

Should the charter fold, the building and all its contents will continue to be taxpayer property.

The charter will operate with complete transparency, accounting for every dollar of taxpayer money that it spends (and do that spending under the authority of the elected board).

The charter will serve any and all students in the area from which it draws its taxpayer dollars. That includes all students with special needs and ELL students.

The charter will not close mid-year.

If you want to claim public tax dollars by claiming to be a public school, then act like a public school. If you want to be a privately owned and operated business, then suck it up and deal with the invisible hand of the free market like every McDonald's and Walmart and furniture store struggling to make it in the marketplace.

The Learning Path

Everyone has their favorite metaphor for understanding education. This is mine.

An area of learning is a block of territory-- let's call it a square ten miles-- to be explored. Some of the territories are well-traveled, tramped flat by the footsteps of a million people who have gone before. Some are rougher, more untamed, more filled with little-examined places.

Our method of exploring these territories is our process of learning.

The classroom teacher sets out a path for students to explore the territory. There may be places to stop and rest along the way, and the path may have been carefully cleared of obstacles. Sometimes students wander off the path, and the teacher has to go find them and bring them back-- that's one reason the teacher should know every inch of the territory like the back of her hand. Not only will students wander off the path, but sometimes a student will see something interesting and unusual off the prepared path, and the teacher needs to be knowledgeable and flexible enough to take the whole class off-path and grab that unique teachable moment. But within the set time, they would have to make their way to the set exit point. Of course, the better the teacher knows the territory, the less the class has to depend on a pre-cleared path.

In more rigid classrooms, the teacher (or curriculum director or course-of-study-in-a-box) lays down railroad tracks. Each student is strapped into a seat; nobody leaves the train. The students proceed together along a pre-set path at a pre-set speed, and the teacher's job is to travel with them, pointing out the pre-selected sights along the way. At each stop on the track, the teacher and students would look at what that stop's lesson is. At every stop, every student gets off, gets the lesson, and gets back on the train. See something interesting away from the tracks? Can't stop for it. Of course the teacher doesn't really need to know about the territory; she just needs to know about the parts right next to the tracks as they lead to the exit point.

True personalized learning would work like this: we'd drop the students off somewhere in the territory. Then the students would each select where they wanted to go and what they wanted to look at. When they had satisfied their curiosity about one location, they could move on to another. The teacher would be an expert guide, able to answer questions, offer directions, and provide explanations at every location within the territory. In a traditional time-based school, the deal would be "You have 180 days to cover as much territory as you can, and then you'll move on." Each student would create her own path, select her own destination.

The personalized [sic] learning that is being marketed is just another train, because most often what is actually personalized is not instruction, but pacing. Every student still rides the same train on the same tracks to the same destination. The only difference is that when students get off at a stop, they can stay at that stop until they get it, and then board the next train. Proponents are silent on what happens if after 180 days or 13 years, that student is still on a station far away from the exit point, and there are no more trainings coming to pick her up.

The underlying theory of Common Core is that all we need to teach students is the skills involved in riding a train, so we practice having the students sitting up straight, properly fluffing a pillow, practicing walking in the aisles. The train has to stop every 500 feet for a Train Riding Practice test before the final Big Train Riding Test, so this train never does cover very much territory.

Charter operators want to build their own train, and to do it they need to take the wheels from the public train. Sometimes the charter ends up being a caboose sitting by itself in the woods, the students stranded and the operators long gone with the money they took for tickets. Other charters figure their train will go faster if it's painted really nice. And some charter operators just dump the students by themselves in the middle of nowhere with a baloney sandwich and some string cheese.

Education policy is written by men who have never actually visited the territory, but they have seen pictures, so they will decide based on pictures where the paths should be cleared or where the tracks should be laid. Cyberschool students also ride a train, but they never get off it, they have to shovel their own coal, and the windows are all painted black.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The Opportunity Myth Myth

When it comes to slick, pretty education "research," the folks at TNTP know their stuff. Reformsters have been milking the slick-but-hollow "Widget Effect" for years, and now TNTP has whipped up another sure-to-be-referenced-way-too-much "report" entitled "The Opportunity Myth."

If ed reform eats its own tail, what does it poop out?

Who are these folks? TNTP used to stand for The New Teacher Project; She Who Will Not Be Named created it as a spin-off of TFA, designed to put older career-changers into the classroom. At some point it changed into an advocacy group pushing a redesign of teaching (current slogan: reimagine teaching). TNTP is led by Daniel Weisberg, who started out as a lawyer and then served as a labor specialist under Joel Klein in NYC. The board is packed with entrepreneurs, PR specialists, and reform CEOs. You can hunt through the whole list of TNTP leaders and find that this organization devoted to teaching has no teachers in leadership positions (just a few TFA temps and other alternative paths to one or two resume-building years in the classroom).

So this report comes straight from the heart of reformdom.

The report is a slick piece of graphic-soaked digitized niftiness (Look! This part scrolls sideways! And here are more graphics!!) but it features the TNTP sleight of hand. The subheading is the first piece of misdirection-- "What students can show us about how school is letting them down-- and how to fix it." But despite a lot of dressing about Listening To The Students, at its heart, this report is making a familiar point.

The Remediation Myth

After opening with a story about an individual student, TNTP lays out a familiar picture of the problem.

While more students than ever before are enrolling in college, far fewer are succeeding once they get there. Nationwide, 40 percent of college students (including 66 percent of Black college students and 53 percent of Latinx college students) take at least one remedial course, where they spend time and money learning skills they were told they'd already mastered in high school. A recent study found that college remediation costs students and their families $1.5 billion annually...

There are several corners cut here on a subject that deserves attention. Were those students told they had mastered the skills? Because high school teachers have been part of the following conversation for the past several years:

College: This student is not ready to be here!
High school: Did you look at his transcript? Did you look at his grades? Did you look at which courses he took? Because we told you pretty clearly that he was not ready for college, and you took him anyway.
College: This student is not ready to be here!

By the way-- "learning skills"? Common Core and other reform movements may keep insisting it's all about skills, but higher learning also requires some content knowledge, too.

The rise of college remediation courses is a subject that deserves examination, because something's going on and we really need to know what. Possible explanations include:

1) Colleges desperate to fill seats accept underqualified students.

2) The college eligibility test, the one that determines who needs remediation, is not a good test.

3) Students need more remediation these days because more of the year is spent on test prep and testing instead of actual education.

4) Colleges are pushing maybe-not-necessary remediation because it makes them a whopping $1.5 billion each year.

I taught 11th graders at both ends of the academic spectrum. Here are two things I can tell you I've seen multiple times:

Student visits from college and says, "Yeah, they tried to push me into a remedial course, but I just didn't do it, and I've been fine."

Student in vocational prep class insisting they want to go to college; they just don't want to take the "hard" college prep course right now.

As I said, there's a huge conversation to be had here, because those remediation numbers are trying to tell us something important. But this report is not interested in that conversation-- it brings up the subject only so it can make the same old reform point---

Public schools are failing.

The We Did Research Myth

There are somewhere under 15,000 public, private, whatever school districts in the country. TNTP "partnered" with five of them. That is not an impressive sample size-- and they weren't even randomly selected. This is like deciding that, since you have a problem with geese running into jets at the airport, you will go study some penguins in the zoo.

They observed 1,000 lessons-- but that's 200 per system. They followed 4,000 students, but that's just 800 per school. Within each system, according to their technical appendix, they divided the district into elementary, middle and high grades. Then they split those subgroups between 1/2 above-average students and 1/2 below-average students. So the study literally does not include any average students. Ten teachers volunteered from each school, and each teacher picked two classes to have included in the study.

For the three urban districts, percentage of students involved in the study was 5% or lower. In the single rural district, 64% of the district's students were in a study classroom.

But wait-- there's less!! In each of the two classrooms, the participating teachers selected six students-- two way below level, two just below level, and two above level. So once we dig down, we find a tiny sampling of students that is skewed toward underachievers. Well-- relative underachievers, because these six were within one classroom. So presumably we've got the student in an AP classroom who is in over her head, and we've got the student who is taking the low-level class that is way below his ability.

From this tiny not-even-sort-of-random sampling, the authors are able to make all sorts of sweeping statements about how different sorts of students are being educated in this country.

The Grade Level Myth

The big sexy headline-generating takeaway from the report is that all these students are being failed by a system that doesn't require them to do work at their level. The lessons aren't challenging enough.

Students spend most of their time in school without access to four key resources: grade-appropriate assignments, strong instruction, deep engagement, and teachers who hold high expectations.

Because numbers are sexy, the report also tells us exactly how much time is wasted--  "Students spent more than 500 hours per school year on assignments that weren't appropriate for their grade."

The entire report rests on this assertion about the grade level of the instruction in these courses. But what does "grade level instruction" even mean? Once again we delve into the technical appendix (which, I should note, involves following a series of links to a pdf file written in about .2 font). Once again, the rigor is underwhelming.

Assignments were collected from the six special students (photographed by the teacher) and the assignment quality was rated by "raters," all of whom had "at least two hours of training." TNTP gave them a rubric to judge three domains--

1) Content. Does the assignment align with the expectations defined by grade-level standards.
2) Practice. Does the assignment provide meaningful practice opportunities for this content area and grade level?
3) Relevance: Does the assignment give students an authentic opportunity to connect academic standards to real-world issues and/or contexts?

By "standards" we mean the Common Core (NGSS for science). But if we're parsing Core standards by grade level, I foresee some problems. Here are two different years for the same standard (RL.1):

Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.

That's the fifth grade and sixth grade standard. Can you tell which is which? I know-- it's an unfair question because you haven't had your two hours of training. TNTP does site some subject-specific criteria for the rubric-- but the link is dead and the address leads to an error page.

The raters are also supposed to determine if the student completed the assignment successfully-- in other words, grade the assignment-- which is pretty impressive work for someone with two hours of training. They were also supposed to see if the student met the standards' requirement. It is not clear if these raters were hired through Craigslist or the TNTP intern program or some other agency.

The Strong Instruction Myth

This is good old fashioned tautological ouroborean research. First, you decide how to identify "strong instruction" based on what you consider identifying characteristics. Then you check the "strong instruction" to see if it shows signs of the characteristics you believe are important. Voila. It mostly does. In this case, "strong instruction" includes lessons that reflect "the demands of the standards."

And they watched two whole lessons by each volunteacher.

Moving on. Nothing to see here.

The Chicken Littling Myth

The biggest bit of misdirection in this report is the great amount of weight thrown behind the narrative that these students have dreams and ambitions, but they are being lied to, lied to by school systems that tell them that they are on a path to college and career readiness. There are plenty of charts and numbers to quantify the size and shape of student aspirations, and to suggest that teachers and school systems somehow don't know this about their students, as if the entire system is that guy sitting at the desk behind a newspaper that he never lowers to actually look at his students.

This is the oldest routine in the reformster playbook-- lean heavily on explaining just how bad the problem is. Lay out the problem in gut-wrenching detail. Make sure to define the problem in terms that fit your proposed solution. But while you have research and data and details about the problem, the part where you insist on your solution remains unsupported by anything except your assertions.

Reformster: Look at these test results. Look at these x-rays. You definitely have a brain tumor, and if  it's not fixed, you'll soon lose feeling in your limbs and your legs will stop working properly.
Patient: Oh my God! Save me!
Reformster: Certainly. I'm just going to use this chain saw to cut off your legs.
Patient: Wait! What? How will that help with my brain tumor?
Reformster: Look at these x-rays! Look at how big it is! Right there in your brain! This is terrible!
Patient: But how will hacking off my legs-
Reformster: X-rays! Brain! Terrrrrrrible!

Oh, and the writers also want you to know that socio-economics are no explanation or excuse for students' low performance.

The Recommendations Myth

The recommendations portion of this report starts with a reminder that we should be doing this For The Kids, and that the classroom experience of students should be the center of policy decisions. Then it calls for two commitments: First, give every student grade appropriate assignments, strong instruction, deep engagement, and teachers with high expectations regardless of any part of their identity. Second, every student and family should be "an authentic partner" and should have a serious role indecision-making-- a real choice, one might say.

This leads to five recommendations:

1) Listen to parents and students.

2) Grade-appropriate assignments for everybody. Regardless of whatever.

3) Give all students, especially the behind ones that is [insert rhetoric that gets you around actually saying "rigorous" here].

4) High expectations. Stop being racist.

5) Conduct an equity audit to make sure everyone is getting the good stuff.

The Deja Vu Myth

So, to sum up....

Schools are lying to families by telling them that their children are college and career ready when they actually aren't. Teachers should have higher expectations, which can be put into action by aligning class work with the very best college and career ready standards-- and poverty and racism, while bad, are no excuse for low performance on the school's part. Do it For The Kids- don't put adult concerns ahead of children's needs. The school system should be responsive first and foremost to parents, who should have choices available that suit their goals.

Does this all sound familiar? It should-- this entire report is the report that Reformsters (particularly Arne Duncan) wish they had come up with a decade ago when trying to pitch Common Core and charters.

We could spend even more time picking apart the research techniques here, though Matt Barnum at Chalkbeat hit the basic issues pretty well, but looking at the details is really beside the point. The details are window dressing. This is the same pitch we've been hearing for over a decade, adroitly stripped of the test-centric angle and the demand to evaluate teachers-- arguably the two most hackle-raising obstacles to reformster goals.

The authors have tried to ease up on teachers, even going so far as to write at one point "for those of us working in the school system..." which-- well, no. The folks at TNTP are not down there in the trenches with actual trained educators. But the repeated calls to listen to the students and teach them the right stuff make it clear that the premise here is that teachers currently do neither. It's an odd charge, given that teachers have been laboring under reform programs for years, but then the other curious feature of the report is that it does not acknowledge how NCLB, RttT, Common Core, and test-centered accountability have changed the landscape.

This report could have been written fifteen or twenty years ago. Again, I'll bet some Reformsters wish it had been.  But there is nothing new here.

Here is probably the report's biggest flaw. If you really thought the problem was that students aren't ready for college and career, as evidenced primarily by the rate of college remediation, why wouldn't you gather up students who needed remediation and those who didn't, and compare and contrast them. Why wouldn't you study them to see what one group got that the other lacked? You wouldn't do that because you have a point you want to make, and your research "design" is based not on a quest for answers, but on building a scaffold for the answers you already want to sell. This report was funded by the Joyce Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Overdeck Family Foundation, and the Barr Foundation.

The Unfortunate Truth

As Barnum notes:

The research of TNTP, previously known as the The New Teacher Project, has a track record of shaping policy, particularly with an influential 2009 report known as The Widget Effect, which focused on perceived flaws of teacher evaluation systems.

The report is old wine in a slick new skin. But it looks really, really cool, and it layers on the For The Children with a shovel and a backhoe, which is always compelling because we really should do it for the children-- but not if "it" means launch a highly profitable education-flavored industry based on pumping amateur hour standards out into a top-down imposed framework that stomps on actual education professionals.

I don't know that anyone will be "influenced" by the report, because it is old news. But people who are already invested in this reform agenda will have a slick new publication that they can wave around to bolster their position. The Widget Effect mattered because instead of just saying, "I think this should be policy because I like the idea," reformsters could call policy-makers and wave around an official-looking report-thing. The same will happen here. TNTP has provided the striking headline-- "Students are wasting 500 hours a year on work that's below their level"-- and a whole bunch of policy makers will never look any deeper than that.

So that's a bummer.

When someone waves this in your face, you can tell them that it's a report based on a tiny number of students in a tiny number of schools about which we know no pertinent details. You can tell them that the report may back up the notion that students have aspirations and sometimes have trouble achieving them, but that TNTP made up its own notion of what "grade level work" means, and someone else's notion would yield different results. You could point out that this is one more call for schools to buy material aligned to the Common Core standards, and if the Core was going to fix all this, wouldn't it have done so by now? You could ask them to tell you what, exactly, is a new idea included in this report?

Here's hoping that more people listen to you than are going to listen to this report.