Sunday, December 9, 2018

ICYMI: The Tree's Up Edition (12/9)

The tree is up, but we're waiting to see how the board of directors does with it before we add ornaments. Tis the season. In the meantime, here's some reading from the week. Remember to share.

Cashing in Immigrant Children

The warehousing of immigrant children has been a gold mine for one business. And guess what-- charter schooling is part of the business plan.

Dora Fisher: Down The Dark Money Hole

About one of the big dark money backers of charter schools whose name you might not know-- but you should.

What Really Should Be Happening in Kindergarten

Do I seem repetitive on this subject. I'll continue to be so until we stop screwing it up.

Lawmaker Shows How To Become a Charter Millionaire in Five Steps

Short, sweet and clear-- how an Arizona cashes in on the charter laws he helps write.

You Don't Have To Like It, But The Students Talk About Us

The Jose Vilson on a major aspect of the teacher-student relationship.

Does High Impact Teaching Cause High Impact Fatigue

Spoiler alert: yes. Read more about what that looks like.

No School Needed For Politician Overseeing Florida Schools

You probably didn't miss this, but in case you did (which is kind of the point of these Sunday roundups), here's the story of the homeschooled college dropout who will head up the Florida house education committee. Oh, Florida.

Six Questions We Should Be Asking About Personalized Learning 

Ed Week is right on the money this time, with some questions we should be asking about ed reforms Next Big Thing

Don't Teach Kids Coding

Slate piece from a computer programmer who says he will not teach his kids to code, and you shouldn't either.

100 Christmas Songs Ranked

Not about education, but this ranking by Alexandra Petri is hilarious and well worth your time. Tis the season.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

KY: Setting More Bad Goals for 2019

Oh, Kentucky. A state slowly being beaten down by the usual gang of mediocre businessmen masquerading as public servants.

Big data, charter entrepreneurs, voucher fans, pension vultures, testocrats-- they've all taken a shot at grabbing tax dollars from Kentucky taxpayers with a great deal of patience and varying degrees of success, even if Kentucky's teachers did raise a fuss (prompting Governor Matt Bevin to demonstrate yet again what low regard he holds the profession in).

Now Kentucky's Department of Education has let everyone know what their priorities are for the coming year, and it is once again not good news for fans of actual public education.

There will be a push, of course, for charters. It's worth noting how the push will come, because it's a lesson in some of the nuances of the budgeting process. Kentucky has, as of last year, a charter law. What it doesn't have is a mechanism for funding a charter school, and so, no charter schools, yet.

Yeah, let's hit this kid with some more tough love

Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis to change that. Lewis is a former teacher by way of the Teach New Orleans, the TNTP-run sister program of Teach for America. In creating a funding stream for charters, he faces a challenge. It's not a budget year, so it would take a super-majority of legislators to pass such a thing. The last set of elections were a mixed bag-- a teacher ousted a legislator who backed a crappy teacher pension bill in the primaries, but in the general election, teachers were mostly close but no cigar. However, even in losing, teachers sent a clear signal that education is a hot issue in Kentucky. So the super-majority supporting a new revenue stream for charters may not be doable.

What may be doable, however, is the same old diverting of tax dollars trick beloved in the charter world, because that doesn't require any new money-- just the same old "we can take the money that used to run one system and use it to run multiple systems, easy peasy" baloney.

Meanwhile, Kentucky would also like to get on that stupid third grade reading retention bandwagon.

When it comes to retaining third grade students over reading skills, the research is pretty clear-- it's bad news. It can be even worse news if the policy is not simply to retain students who read poorly, but to retains students who do not pass the test. This leads like the stupidity we saw in Florida, where students who had clearly demonstrated their reading ability were still retained because they wouldn't take the test. What are the odds that Kentucky, land of Opt Out Equals Zero Score, would follow a similarly dumb policy.

Board of Education Chairman Hal Heiner has tried to frame this as a reading "guarantee," and said that, well, don't pay any attention to the retaining part, just figure that we won't have to retain very many. This assumes that teachers or students or both are simply holding back, and once properly threatened. Or as one retention policy advocate once put it, "Retention policies are badly needed tough love." This set of assumptions would be ridiculous and insulting if real, live eight year old human children weren't made to suffer because of them.

In keeping with the general ed reform policy of diminishing the democratic process, the department also plans to spend 2019 stripping elected school boards of some of their powers. Because elections are dumb. Hope that Kentuckians don't have too many reasons to regret the choices they made in the last elections.

Inducing ADHD

"Maybe you should consider testing him. You know. For ADD."

That was my son's kindergarten teacher. His mother and I were in for yet another conference because he was "a problem." The nature of the problem? Well, because of my schedule, he arrived 15-20 minutes before school officially started. His teacher's expectation was that he would sit at his desk, still and quiet, while she finished getting ready for the day. The rest of his problems were similar, violations of her desire for order in her classroom. He was an active and social five year old boy, a July birthday and so youngest in his class.

It was not a good year, and one of the top regrets of my life was that I did not make more of a fuss on his behalf. I should have demanded a switch to a different teacher, or gone over the head of the one we had, made a fuss, been That Parent. But I didn't want too be That Parent, didn't want to violate professional respect (particularly since this was the same district in which I taught). I only had about a decade in the field. I should have fought harder for my son.

But I did know enough-- and so did my wife at the time-- to know that he was not ADD, that he did not even need to be tested for ADD.

It was a bad year, and at the end of it, my son had learned to things-- that he was a bad student, and that he didn't like school. The better ending to that story was that my district in the following year instituted a Junior First grade, and with a supportive and nurturing teacher, he thrived.

That was twenty-five-ish years ago, and I have often thought back on it, and not just because of my own regrets. What would happen, I wondered, with parents who were younger, in their early twenties instead of mid-thirties? What would happen if someone with a little less education or education profession background heard a teacher say their child should be checked for ADD? And more recently, I wonder what happens in post-Core classrooms where the expectation is now that five year olds- even very young five year olds- will sit quietly at a desk and do academic work.

The short answer to all those questions is "about what you would think" or "nothing good."

Nowadays, of course, it's ADHD, and it is being diagnosed at an ever-increasing rate, with 5% of the children in the US on some kind of ADHD medication. And it's not like an ADHD diagnosis is backed up by a lot of hard science. As noted in the New York Times

Unlike other childhood diseases — such as asthma, obesity and diabetes — the diagnosis of A.D.H.D. is inherently subjective and depends on the assessment of parents, school personnel and health care providers. For a child who is easily distracted, an assessment of normal, inattentive behavior by one could be a formal diagnosis of A.D.H.D. by another.

And now here comes a study from Harvard Medical School, noting that a child born in August is more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD. Is August a wonky month? Is Leo actually the astrological sign of the ADHD lion? No, the most likely explanation is that August-born students are the youngest in their class, and that a child who has just turned five is very different from a child who is almost six, and that increased pressure to perform academic tasks in "the new first grade" highlights those differences.

This overdiagnosis, official or unofficial, is not a new phenomenon. Every time in education we decide that we've Got It, that a program or system that we've developed is pretty much perfect and correct, we create a problem. The perfect system will fail some students, but because we are invested in its perfectness, we conclude that the student must be defective. Public schools have done this for decades, all the way back to the old old days when left-handed children were subjected to all sorts of abuse to "fix" the defect of their left-handedness. Charter schools have institutionalized the problem by declaring that their system (no excuses, whatever) doesn't ever need to be changed and that students who don't have what it takes to thrive in that system should just go walk with their feet.

The rise in ADHD diagnoses is a clear sign that we are screwing up with the littles. If, as is the case in Florida, huge numbers of students are testing as "not ready for kindergarten, that's a sign that your kindergarten, or your readiness test, or both are wrong. If large numbers of tiny humans are having trouble coping with The New First Grade in kindergarten, that is a sign that your kindergarten is messed up. If large numbers of tiny humans are being diagnoses powerful drugs in order to make them more acceptable to school, then somebody has really lost the thread.

The folks who are not fans of public education will get plenty of mileage out of the Harvard study. I hope that school districts and charter schools read the study and rethink their choices for littles. And I hope that the next parent who hears a suggestion to drug up their five year old so that she can better cope with the demands of kindergarten-- I hope those parents push back way harder than we had the balls to.

Yes, ADHD is real, and somewhere in those many children diagnosed with it are children with a real problem. But mostly the truth is this: if a child needs to take strong drugs to deal with going to school, that school is messed up

Friday, December 7, 2018

MI: Baldfaced Power Grab

Lansing is witnessing one of the most extraordinary power grabs ever attempted, and one of the targets of these lame duck Republicans is the state board of education.

Several actions are being attempted by the legislature, and they include an attempt to complete supplant the constitutionally established and democratically elected state board of education.

The move to overturn the democratic process is not unusual for either education or Michigan. Reeformsters have long used the move of pushing aside, dissolving, or neutering elected school boards, and Michigan also has s history of appointing "emergency managers" to strip power from locally elected officials (think Flint and how well that worked out).

Lansing in the winter, with bitter GOP sadness in the air
But generally speaking, these power grabs have two main characteristics-- one is that the voters who are stripped of their voting power are usually black or brown, and the other is that some sort of noble pretense is offered (such as the ever-popular "we're doing this For The Children).

But in Michigan, the GOP is prepared to negate the votes of an entire state (even the white folks). And in Michigan, the masks are off. As in Wisconsin, where a similar GOP revolt against democracy is under way, there is not even a thin veil of reasoning for the power grab. The argument is simple-- the Democrats are going to have power, and we don't want them to.

In fairness to the Michigan coup leaders, there's also an element of "They never obey me." The state board is about two shift from a 4-4 GOP-Dem makeup to a 6-2 spoilt favoring Democrats, but the board seems to have a history of mostly non-partisan activity. While most folks might describe that as  "working well," Rep. Tim Kelly (R) describes that as not working at all.

“The state board is not doing their jobs,” Kelly said. “It’s time to move forward.”

Mind you, that is "their jobs" as defined by Kelly, who has longstanding beefs with the board, having previously tried to kill it entirely. And "move forward" apparently means "overturn the will of the voters of Michigan."

The plan cals for creating what would essentially be a second appointed state board of education which would exercise powers stripped from the current elected board. In particular, Kelly sees the Education Accountability Policy Commission implementing "innovation districts" that would implement competency based education right away. The state board has been dragging their feet on CBE (even going so far as to bring in some education writer/blogger from Pennsylvania to talk about why CBE would be a bad idea). The current governor was a fan of CBE, but the New Democratic governor might not be quite so excited about it. Hence the "need" too create a GOP-run board that would push this troubled-yet-profitable reformy idea.

Kelly claims the innovative districts would be the very ultimate in local control. Kelly is full of it. First of all, unless every one of these future "innovation zone" districts has been clamoring for CBE, then the first act of this "local control" move will be for the state's unelected shadow board of education to impose a new, untested, unproven educational system on the local school district. That's the opposite of local control. Then, since modern CBE is most often a computer-based program delivered and controlled by an outside vendor, it is a system that is at odds with local control. It will make a bunch of people a bunch of money, but it will not give control to the local district. Kelly is full of something, and it's not Michigan snow.

Of course, if Kelly really believes in his policy, there's a path to getting it made into law-- have a bunch of people stand for election and let the voters say they want to see the policy enacted. But because he doesn't think his ideas will have traction under the administration that the voters actually elected, he's figuring to just ram it through now. If you're wondering how Kelly got to have such strong education ideas-- well, he was an education advisor to Governor Engler in Michigan, moving from Indiana to take the job (and after he worked in the asphalt business). Kelly was also in line for a job at Betsy DeVos's Department of Education until it turned out he had made blog posts insulting, among others, Muslim women, Head Start parent, and women in science.

Michigan schools are a mess, near the bottom of the nation by just about any measure you care to use. But Michigan has also been a happy playground for reformers like Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos and Rep. Tim Kelly. They have had their way for over a decade, and their policies have failed. But ed reform has always been in part about shutting down democracy for Certain People, so it's no surprise too see that used as a last-ditch attempt to keep reformsters in power in Michigan.

At any rate, if I were a Michigan voter, I would get on the phone and let my representatives know that   I would like to have the government that Michigan taxpayers actually voted for, and not the one that some sad, defeated Republicans want to impose by fiat. Tell your rep that Michigan does not need a second board of education-- certainly not one that was never elected to the post or assigned powers by the state constitution.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Disordered Order of Competencies

Competency Based Education (or Proficiency Based Learning, or Outcome Based Education, or Mastery Learning, or whatever new name appears next week) is the up-and-coming flavor of the week in education, even though it is neither new nor well-defined by the people who promote it (or the people who are implementing it in name only). But the basic principle is simple and, really, fairly common sensical. It offers a different solution to the age-old tension at the heart of education: students should definitely learn a certain core group of competencies, and they have to learn them in 180 days.
Traditionally, we resolve the tension by siding with the 180 days, and so some students are pushed through even though they don't necessarily fully master the material. But what if we flipped that? What if we said that every student must fully master one skill or unit of content knowledge before she moved on to the next one, regardless of how much or little time it took her to do it.
There's an obvious challenge here. What if Chris only takes 30 days to complete the full list of competencies? Worse, what if Pat needs 400 days to master the same full list? But there's another, less obvious issue here.
CBE is often presented with math lessons as the examples. That's handy, because everyone understands math to be sequential (you can't do calculus if you can't add and subtract).
But what about other disciplines? Remember, the sequence is very important, because in a true competency based system, no student can move to the next unit until she has demonstrated competency (or proficiency, or mastery) in the previous unit. So where should the critical roadblocks come? Should a musician be able to play Bach before they can try Beethoven? Does a physics student have to master potential difference in electricity before she can study centrifugal force? And what about English class? Should students be required to master Romeo and Juliet before they can start working on writing paragraphs? Does it make sense for a teacher to sequence her less engaging units at the beginning of the year when students are still fresh, or at the end of the year so that students who get "stuck" on that unit aren't left quite so far behind?
CBE calls for time to be the variable while learning is the constant, but few districts that have implemented some version of CBE have been brave enough to tell parents, "Summer vacation doesn't start for your child until they've finished all their modules," so there is still a ticking clock behind all of this, meaning that a student who gets stuck on module 3 may never make it to module 20 at all.
Does it make sense to let a student sit like a potted plant for 180 days, then collect a diploma at the end even though they've learned nothing? No, but that's not the only alternative. If Chris can't get past module 3, moving Chris on allows for the possibility that modules 4-26 will actually teach Chris something. CBE assumes that all students can learn everything, so Chris should get there eventually. But eventually can be a long time, and the clock is ticking. If we're going to deny Chris that option, we'd better be absolutely certain that all other modules are hopeless and pointless if Chris didn't master 3. We'd better be comfortable saying, "This stuff is so important that we're going to deny you the chance to learn anything else until you get past this." If you're more comfortable thinking of learning as a many-threaded flexible sequence of interdependent skills and content that can be approached from many different directions in many different combinations, or if you're more comfortable thinking that some times it's better to walk away when you're stuck and come back later after you've wrestled with some different challenges, it's possible that competency based education isn't really for you.

Guest Post: Why Tests Are Boring

It's Guest Post day here, and my guest is William Bryant. Bryant is currently an edupreneur with a company focused on helping students get ready for college, but he spent a decade working in test development for the folks at ACT. He has some interesting insights to offer about why tests end up the way they do; important to understand not just because of the tests themselves, but because of the testing effect on curriculum. Read on. 

Why Are Standardized Tests So Boring?: A Sensitive Subject 

It’s a guiding principle in educational testing that test questions should not upset test-takers. Much like dinner conversation with in-laws, tests should refrain from referencing religion, or sex, or race, or politics --  anything that might provoke a heightened emotional response that could interfere with students’ ability to give their best effort.  

Attention to “sensitivity” concerns, as they’re known, makes good sense conceptually, but in practice such concerns are responsible for much of why the standardized tests kids take in school are so ridiculously bland and unengaging. The drive to avoid potentially sensitive content constrains test developers to such a degree that we might legitimately question whether the cure is at least as bad as the disease.  

So determined are test-makers to avoid triggering unwanted emotions, they end up compromising the validity of their tests by excluding essential educational content and restricting students’ opportunities to demonstrate the creative and critical thinking skills they’re actually capable of.   

No one knows for certain if the tests are better or worse for being so cautious. There is no research defining sensitivity, no evidence-based catalog of topics to avoid, no study measuring the test-taking effects of “sensitive” content. For all anyone knows, inflaming emotions might actually improve test results -- though few test-makers would risk experimenting to find out.  

No test-maker wants to hear from a teacher or parent that a student was stunned, enraged, offended, or even mildly disconcerted by something they encountered on a test. And in fairness, no test-maker wants to subject a test-taking kid to a hurtful or upsetting experience.  

Since there is no research to guide decisions on sensitivity, the rules test-makers set for themselves are based strictly on their own judgment, and on some sense of industry practice. Inevitably they default to the most conservative positions possible: if a topic might conceivably be construed as sensitive, that’s enough reason to keep it off the test.  

Typically, sensitivity guidelines steer test developers away from content focused on age, disability, gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. Test-makers also avoid subjects they deem inherently combustible, such as drugs and drinking, death and disease, religion and the occult, sexuality, current politics, race relations, and violence.  

A “bias review” process gets applied in the course of developing passages and questions for testing, to weed out anything that might be offensive or unfair to certain subgroups -- typically African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, Women, sometimes Native Americans. The test-maker will send prospective test materials out for review by qualified educators who belong to these subgroups. If a reviewer thinks a test item is problematic, it gets tossed.  Though this process is better than nothing, it reflects more butt-covering than enlightenment, putting test-maker and reviewer alike in the awkward position of saying, for instance, “These test items are not unfair to black students. How do we know? We had a black person look at them!” 

Judgments on topics not pertaining to identity and cultural difference rest purely on the test makers, who are as risk-averse as can be. In one example I’m familiar with, a passage about the mythological Greek figure Eurydice was rejected because the story deals with death and the underworld. Think of all the literature and art excluded from testing on that kind of criteria. Think of the impoverished portrait of human achievement and lived experience conveyed to students by such exclusions. 

In another case, a passage on ants was rejected because it reported that males get booted out of the colony and die shortly after mating. I’m still not clear on whether the basis for that judgment centered on the reference to insects mating, insects dying, or the prospect of a student projecting insect gender relations onto human relations and being thereby too disturbed to think clearly. Whatever the case, rejecting such a passage on the basis of sensitivity concerns seems downright anti-science.  

I’ve seen a pair of passages from Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois nixed out of concern for racial sensitivity: you can’t have African Americans arguing with each other on questions of race. Test-makers strive to include people of color in their test content to satisfy requirements for cultural inclusivity. But those people of color cannot be engaged in the experience of being people of color -- which renders the whole impulse toward inclusivity hollow and cynical. Such an over-abundance of caution does more to protect the test-maker than the student.  

The validity of educational assessments that cannot reference slavery, evolution, Neanderthals, extreme weather events, natural life cycles, economic inequality, illness, and other such potentially sensitive topics seems severely compromised. More concerning still is the prospect of such tests driving curriculum. With school funding and teacher accountability riding on standardized test scores, teaching to the test makes irresistibly practical sense in many educational contexts. Thus, if the tests avoid great swaths of history, science, and literature, then so will curriculum.  

The makers of the standardized tests schoolkids encounter argue that they are not interested in censoring educational content, only in recognizing that when students encounter potentially sensitive topics they need the presence of an adult to guide them through. The classroom and the dinner table are places for negotiating challenging subjects, not the testing environment, where kids are under pressure and on their own.  

This rationale should rouse everyone to question why we continue to tolerate such artificial conditions for evaluating student learning. It essentially concedes that either testing will not align with curriculum, or that curriculum will align only with the things test-makers decide are safe enough to put in front of test-taking students. Surely we can recognize in this the severe design flaw that lies at the heart of the testing problem.  

William Bryant, PhD, is founder and CEO of BetterRhetor, a company dedicated to closing the college-readiness gap. He was formerly Director of Writing Assessments at ACT, Inc. Contact him at or visit