Saturday, March 23, 2019

Goodhart's Law And The BS Test

When discussing the problems of test-based accountability, we've long used Campbell's Law as the go-to framer of the related problems. For the absolute top of the field, get a copy of The Testing Charade by Danielk Koretz. Campbell's law is not very pithy, but it illuminates beautifully:

The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.

Campbell was a social scientist, and though he died before the modern age of test-driven education really kicked into gear, he was still clear on the problems with the Big Standardized Test:

Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of general school achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways. (Similar biases of course surround the use of objective tests in courses or as entrance examinations.)

That's pretty well it. The Big Standardized Tests (and this can be applied to the SAT and ACT as well) don't really tell us what they claim to tell us, and they've warped the whole process of education as well, from months of education sacrificed for test prep to students forced to drop other classes so that they can take "extra" test related classes to the sorting of students into categories-- we don't have to worry about them, these students are hopeless, and these students are close enough to the line that we will invest time and money in pushing them over it.

But as apt as Campbell's Law is, it involves a lot of discussing and explaining, and it doesn't fit easily on a t-shirt. So if you really want to make a short, pithy statement, may I suggest the slightly less well known Goodhart's Law as restated by Marilyn Strathern. Goodheart was an economist and critic of Margaret Thatcher's policies, which led him to this observation circa 1975:

Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.

In 1997, Strathern, an anthropologist, translated that from economistese into punchy English:

When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

There we go.

Goodhart is a broader version of Campbell, while Campbell serves as a good explainer of how Goodhart can be true. But for civilians who are just catching on, Goodhart is brief and clear. This law, incidentally, is a fave in the data sciences world, whereas Campbell was more popular with social scientists. So all those data-driven decisions fans may well have already heard of it.

If you are measuring the output of your nail factory, that's useful. But when you start making a particular output a target, that's when you get a factory that produces only tiny nails because that's easier to do. If you measure how many customers your phone bank people talk to each day, that's useful. When you give them a target of so many customers per day to talk to, that's when you get customer service in brusque, one word, unhelpful but quick burst. And (one of my faves) if you measure how many shoes your soviet shoe factory makes, that's useful. But if you make that quantity a target, that's when you get a factory that turns out only left shoes, because that's more efficient.

When you use a standardized test to measure how students are doing, that might be useful for telling you at least a little about how well your class or your school are doing. When you require a school to hit certain targets, that's when you get-- well, you already know what we get. And you test scores no longer tell you anything useful.

So make a note. Goodhart's law is short, clear and will fit on a t-shirt. The kind of t-shirt you could wear to your next data driven decision making in-service, or your next test prep professional development session. It ma be time for me to go into the t-shirt business.

Stop Talking About Student Achievement

If I told you that my student had achieved great things in school this year, what would you imagine I meant?
Maybe she started reading longer books with heavier vocabulary and deeper themes. Maybe she not only read them, but spent time thinking about the ideas they contained. Maybe she improved her technical facility and musicality when playing her flute. Maybe she conducted an impressively complex and ambitious physics experiment. Maybe she created a beautiful and useful website. Maybe she progressed to more complex problems in algebra. Maybe she completed some impressive in-depth research on a particular historical period. Maybe she passed welding certification tests. Or maybe she packed away some chunks of learning that won't really come to life for her until years from now.
But we have a problem in current education policy discussions; when we say "student achievement," we usually don't mean any of those things.
One of the great central challenges of education in general and teaching in particular is that we cannot read minds. We cannot see inside a student's head and see what has taken root and what has taken flight.
So part of the gentle art of teaching involves the creation and deployment of performance tasks designed to get us at least a peek inside the student brain to see if they have in fact mastered what we tried to get them to master. It is an ever-evolving challenge, made complex by the many types of students and the many levels of learning, further complicated by the fact that the best assessment is never as accurate as it was the first time you used it (unless you believe that students never talk to each other).
Some pieces of learning are easy to measure (does the student know her times table) and some are much more challenging (does the student have nuanced insights into the psychological aspects of Hamlet).
So to measure student achievement, we depend on various proxies. Once we start doing that, we are in danger or mistaking the proxy, the symbol, for the actual thing. If we're using high-quality assessments for low-complexity learning, there's not much danger of inaccuracy in confusing the two; if Pat scored 100% on the times table quiz, it's probably safe to say that Pat really knows the times tables.
But if the assessment is not high-quality, and the learning is high-complexity, we can jump to unsupported conclusions. If Chris scored 80% on a five-question multiple-choice quiz about Hamlet, we cannot safely say that Chris has a solid grip on the deeper nuances of the play.
And that, unfortunately, is where we are at the moment. Since the launch of No Child Left Behind, we have gotten in the habit of using a single multiple-choice test of reading and math as a proxy for student achievement.
The tests, like the PARCC, SBA and other newer assessments, have a host of problems of their own. For instance, studies keep finding issues with inappropriate reading levels on passages. There have been incidents like the infamous talking pineapple questions, and the poet who discovered she could not correctly answer test questions about her own poems.
But there's an even bigger issue, and that's the continued unquestioning use of these test scores as a proxy for the larger picture of student achievement and teacher effectiveness. It's a mistake repeated by countless education journalists, researchers and policy wonks. It's a quick and easy shorthand, but it's inaccurate and misleading.
We should just stop. Instead of saying, "Strategy X was found to have a positive affect on student achievement," we should say "Strategy X helped raise test scores." Instead of saying, "Technique Z led to improved reading by third graders," we should say, "Technique Z led to improved reading test scores for third graders."
It's not that we shouldn't discuss standardized test results, but we should stop pretending that they represent some larger truth. We should call them by their name -- not "student achievement" or "effective instruction" or "high-quality school" but simply "scores on the standardized test." By using lazy substitution, we end up like a tourist sitting beside the Grand Canyon looking at a handful of pebbles and imagining that those pebbles tell us everything we need to know about the vast beautiful vista that we are not bothering to see.
After all, if I told you that my child achieved great things in school this year, your first thought would not be, "Oh, good test scores!" Let's use words to mean what they actually mean.
Originally posted at Forbes

Friday, March 22, 2019

Foolish Canadian Grit

Proving that dumb knows no national boundaries, Ontario's Education Minister Lisa Thompson this week defended the plan to increase class size by making this observation:

This woman.
"When students are currently preparing to go off to post-secondary education, we're hearing from professors and employers alike that they're lacking coping skills and they're lacking resiliency," Thompson told CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Wednesday.

"By increasing class sizes in high school, we're preparing them for the reality of post-secondary as well as the world of work."

Yessireebob-- what we need to do to toughen students up and give 'em some grit is just c ram more of them into classrooms. Why would the government even want to do such a thing? That answer is also recognizable down here to the south-- it will let them cut a bunch of jobs. About 1,000, by some estimates.

In all fairness to our neighbors to the North, their idea of increasing class sizes is pretty bush league-- high schools would go from an average of 22 students per class to an average of 28. I know. There are plenty of US schools where it would be a huge relief to get only 28 students in a class.

But the reasoning. Thompson is a longtime politician, though in her civilian life she was the manager of a goat cooperative, which seems like fine preparation for running an education system.

In the meantime, if she's really keen on this real world preparation through toughening approach she might consider some other program ideas. Make them all walk to school without coats-- no, without coats or pants! Glue the doors of the school shut and make them claw their way in. Build special roads so that when they walk to school, it's uphill both ways.

Prepare students for being too poor to eat well by closing all school cafeterias.

Prepare students for being mugged by hiring people to beat the children up on the playground.

Prepare students for dealing with tedious bureaucracy by making them go through a fourteen step process just to ask to go to the bathroom.

Prepare students for living with rules written by clueless leaders by letting random strangers from the street make up rules for the classroom.

Emma Teitel at The Star took Thompson to task under the headline, "Bigger class sizes don’t promote ‘resiliency.’ They just make it easier to skip class."

If you’re a fan of evidence-based policy in government, you might want to move out of Ontario. If you’re a fan of populist sound bites about pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps just like grandpa did in the good old days, by all means, stay put.

Teitel also has some thoughts about where Thompson might have gotten the evidence for her educational insight:

Says who exactly? Apparently Thompson heard this “loud and clear” in a consultation with the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, from people whose names and credentials she did not provide.

This does not sound like policy by research. It sounds like policy by anecdote. It sounds like Thompson went for lunch with a few business men, one of whom (likely a guy whose kids attended private schools and whose experience with public education is limited to voting Conservative in a school gym) blurted out over frites something to the effect of “I’m telling you Lisa, the kids coming out of school today are soft. No resiliency. No backbone. We had one intern with us a few months ago. The guy couldn’t cut it. In my day …” And voila, a plan for education reform was born.

Oh, Kids These Days. Pampered and lazy and won't even work for me for a crappy wage under lousy conditions. I don't know much of anything about Teitel, but I'm pretty sure I like her.

Just a reminder that other countries are not immune from the same kind of amateur-hour boneheaded leadership that we suffer under in the US. In the meantime, I see that Thompson has a family. May I suggest that she and her husband adopt twenty more children, so that they can all be raised with a proper amount of grit.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

TN: Taxation Without Representation

Tennessee's Governor Bill Lee has set a brick on the gas pedal of the school privatization bus, and that bus is driving right through the powers of democratically elected school boards.

Lee's very first budget proposal was unveiled at the beginning of the month, supported by Lee's deep, insightful observation "Choice is good." The budget has big money for vouchers; Lee is going with the education savings account approach, handing each family $7,300 and saying, "Go spend this on something educationny." Taxpayers will also foot more of the bills for charter facilities. How cool is that? If you were going into business, wouldn't you like the taxpayers of your state to buy a building for you?

A big kicker is Lee's bill for charter school authorization.

Previously, Tennessee made local school districts the authorizers of charter schools. This seems like a sensible approach-- let the decision for a charter rest with the elected representatives of the taxpayers who will foot the charter bills.

This damn guy.
The original version of the bill would have allowed charter operators to simply bypass local school boards for authorization. But a new scaled-back version of the bill allows  charters... to bypass local school boards. Well, now there would be an extra step, a state-level appeals board. The Tennessee Public Charter Commission would have the power to override a local school board's denial of a charter application. The nine members of the board would be appointed by the governor and approved by the legislature-- so there would be another layer of bureaucracy before the governor's handpicked board okays the bypassing of the local elected board.

This system is the very picture of taxation without representation. Tax dollars will go to the charters, and local elected boards will have no say.

Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, said what he likes about the charter school bill is that it would allow other districts to see what Memphis has seen for several years now — the state taking away power from local school boards.

"You all get to feel that and see what we have been screaming about for the past several years," he said.

So "choice is good" apparently doesn't man that local taxpayers should get any choice. Is anybody else old enough to remember when the GOP was the party of local control?

The bill has just cleared the House and Senate education committees and still has to come to legislative vote. If you are in Tennessee, you might want to make some phone calls.

What Education Reformers Get Wrong

Hard to believe that it took until now for a big voice in the reformster world to write a post entitled "What education reformers believe," but last week Mike Petrilli (Fordham Institute) did the job. It's not entirely thorough (we'll get to that). To start, Petrilli himself notes that there's been a lot of reformster angst about using the term "reformer," but he's willing to take a shot at clarifying the term and invites discussion as part of a search for the ground on which all the varied members of the reformy tribe can stand. I'm just going to go ahead and explain which of these grounds I believe are mistaken. So here we go.

Petrilli starts with four propositions that he submits as universally agreed upon:

* Every child deserves a good school and it's unfair that some don't get one.
* Strong education is important to individual dream and the nation's future.
* Educators deserve appreciation and more status than they get.
* Not everybody needs college, but they probably need post-secondary something to make a decent living.

Close enough. "Unfair" is a dodge, like undersupported and underresources schools are an act of nature and not the result of deliberate policy choices. I'm not sure everybody agrees that an education opens a great future. When it comes to post-secondary education, most everyone probably does believe it, but we'd be further ahead to verify its accuracy rather than its acceptance. The "more status" thin is demonstrably wrong-- if "everyone" believed that teachers deserved more status, then teachers would have more status. Teachers don't have more status because "most people" don't agree they should (otherwise, we would have to posit some mysterious force, some societal dark matter, that explains how teachers have lower status than everyone believes they should have). It's a sticky point here because one source of the low esteem for teachers would be all those years that reformsters pushed the idea that public schools suck because they are chock full of terrible, terrible teachers who have jobs only because they are protected by their terrible terrible unions. Some (certainly not all-- looking at you, Jeanne Allen and TFA) have backed away from that point, but it's disingenuous to pretend they have no idea who was out there bad-mouthing teachers for all those years.

Where we part ways with some of the status quo organizations is around the following principles:

"Status quo organizations"? The use of the term "status quo"  in reformy rhetoric is a bit ridiculous at this point. The Common Core or some one of its bastardized cousins is embedded in most states. charters are policy in many states, and the business of high-stakes Big Standardized Tests is enshrined in federal law. Even vouchers exist in one form or another in many states. There is nothing in the reformy playbook that is not part of the status quo. Yes, reformsters had fun day back when they could stand outside the education sector and say, "You guys are doing it all wrong. Boy, if we had our way, we'd really show you something." But those days are gone-- reformsters have gotten their way in many parts of the country, they haven't shown us a thing, and they don't get to play the maverick outsider card any more.

So, anyway, what are these principles?

Good schools deliver strong results for students—and all schools should be held to account for their results.

A variation on the old focus on outputs. Yes, Petrilli acknowledges, a decent building and qualified teachers and libraries with books matter, but the school should turn out educated graduates. America has, apparently, some beautiful, safe schools that don't teach students much. "Those cannot be considered good schools, and their failure to meet their foremost educational mission must be made clear to parents and the community and addressed by public authorities."

Okay. I'm curious where the people are who are staunch supporters of pretty schools where nobody learns, but okay. And "addressed" is mighty vague. But sure-- who doesn't think that schools should teach students?

Our schools as a whole could be delivering much stronger results for all their students, but especially for disadvantaged children.

Again, who is this supposed to be different from. Despite the field of straw men built by the reformsters over the years, I don't know a single good educator who would say, "Yes, my school and I have reached the pinnacle, and there is nothing we need to improve." And public education advocates, community activists, and plain old parent have been screaming forever that schools that serve the poorest communities in our need to do more, and need the tools with which to do more. The reformster response has been "Throwing money at schools doesn't help" or "Let's turn that school over to amateurs to run" or "Well, we'll let a few kids out of there to go to a charter school, but the ones who are left will have to make do with less."

One size does not fit all, so we should embrace a pluralistic school system.

Sure. Show me a school district where only one size is offered. Show me a school system where elementary schools don't differentiate or the high school doesn't offer a variety of programs which students can choose from, or even change their mind about, without having to withdraw and re-enroll.  Come to my small corner of the world and see it in action.

But next we are on to the how of embracing these principles. First, standards, assessment and accountability:

Academic standards that aim for readiness in college, career, and citizenship.

Boy, we got over that "one size does not fit all" thing pretty quickly. I appreciate the "aim for" part here, because this is a target that will never, ever be hit. There is no such thing as a comprehensive list of skills and knowledge that certifies readiness for every college, every career, and every manner of citizenship. And in every year (because this will be a moving target). It doesn't exist. It will never exist. Anyone who claims to have found it is either selling something or full of shit or both. It is critical to remember that because the next item is

Regular, high-quality, aligned assessments.

Nothing that reformsters have accomplished has done more damage than the imposition of high takes testing. It's important to know that here Petrilli centers the purpose of testing as giving parents information and helping teachers direct their teaching, and not other old stand-bys like evaluating schools and teachers. The BS Tests we have are not very useful for any of these goals, and that's in part because they are bad tests, both narrow and shallow and generating little useful information for anyone. Is it theoretically possible to create good tests that would be, as Petrilli puts it, worth preparing students to do well on? Not if the goal is to measure readiness for any college or any career.

School ratings focused primarily—but not exclusively—on academic progress and outcomes.

Here we get close to one of the beliefs of education reformsters that Petrilli does not include in his essay, and that's the belief that markets and entrepreneurs can run a school system better than the government. Petrilli argues that these ratings are needed to create pressure on schools to do better, but if that were the sole purpose, we wouldn't need a wide ranging system-- just a locally-determined state of the school report. The point of a rating system is to make comparison easier, the better to drive competition in an open martketplace.

Strategies for intervening in, and/or replacing, chronically low-performing schools.  

All failed strategies. First, they fail because for all the talk about multiple measures for accountability, in most states it still just comes down to test scores. Second, they fail because "intervention" too often means "put some state-appointed person who has no more knowledge about what to do than the professionals in charge." Or sell off the pieces to a charter school. Actual assistance to the school district, such as more resources or engaging the schools and community, seems rare. And those who insist that the power of the market will sort things out absolutely refuse to see the massive problems that come from leaving students and families dangling when a school closes (especially mid year).

Are there strategies that could help struggling schools? Certainly, but we haven't seen much of them.

Next up: Educator quality.

That word. I know "educator" is relatively harmless, but every time a reformster uses it, all I hear is, "You know, we don't need actual teachers to run a school."

High standards for entry into the teaching profession, combined with flexible pathways by which to enter.

As I've often noted, I am not the person to ask to defend traditional teacher prep programs. But reformsters don't have much of an idea about what to do instead (I do-- just ask me). High standards to enter the profession? What does that mean, exactly. Petrilli says reformsters want teachers who "can demonstrate an ability to help students make progress over the course of the school year" and while I believe that's what some reeformsters want, it mostly just means "someone who can raise test scores" which is the saddest, most inadequate description of teaching I've ever encountered.

I get the urge for a clear-cut system based on solid hard evidence of which teachers and which teachers aren't, but you can't have it. It doesn't exist. It will never exist. Read every "this teacher changed my life" essay ever written. Good teaching is fuzzy and personal and unquantifiable, and that's before we even get to the problem that teacher quality varies day to day and student to student. So whatever system you come up with (particularly one based on test scores) will miss thousands of excellent teachers .

Petrilli says reformsters reject the notion that anybody can be a great teacher. True that. But an awful lot of flexible pathways sure seem to be based on the assumption that any warm body will, in fact, be just fine.

Feedback mechanisms to help teachers improve.

You know what one of ed reformsters biggest problem is-- this unending feeling that they have discovered things nobody has ever before thought of and want things that nobody else wants. Seriously. Find me someone who doesn't think this is a good idea. Implementing it? Sure-- that's been problematic. For instance, every single teacher accountability idea that reformsters have created works against this, not for it.

Compensation systems that recruit and retain strong teachers.

This is a reformster value? Really? I thought that ed reform was all about making it possible for the school CEO to be able to hire and fire at will. Most of reform has been consistently built on the notion that teachers are replaceable widgets that wear out after a few years and should be then replaced with shiny new widgets. Petrilli here makes the leap to saying that "recruit and retain" means offer big salary up front with little raises later, because when teachers get older and want to start a family, they get really excited about "You'll never have a decent sized raise again." Clearly the key to holding onto people once they're seasoned and experienced.

Next up: high quality charter schools.

State charter laws that enable high-quality, autonomous charter schools to flourish.

Nice word choice-- "enable to flourish." Because, unlike public schools, charters just need to be left alone to blossom and bloom forth in all their awesomeness. Get rid of regulations. Just enough oversight to incentivize good behavior.

I'm trying to remember if I've ever heard a reformster argue that a public school should be enabled to flourish.

Equitable funding.

I came across a Canadian charter advocate the other day ho was arguing that charters should be allowed because they could do more with less than the public schools. Kind of took me back to the days that US charter fans made that argument. Just remember-- more money for public schools is throwing money at schools, but more money for charters is investing and equitable.

And that's it??!! Seriously? This is all ed reform has to say it believes about charters? No paeans to the free market? No "competition drives improvement"? No thoughts about why charters should be privately owned and operated instead of part of the public system? I feel that Petrilli just accidentally erased a thousand words from this piece.

Next up: high school reform.

A high school diploma that means something.

Once again, please link me to the non-reformy people who do not believe this.

Post-secondary education that starts in high school.

Sure, high school should be the new college because middle school is the new high school because third grade is the new sixth grade because kindergarten is now the new second grade because pre-school should now be about academics and also, we've just about figured out how to use ultrasounds to beam worksheets in to the fetus.

Is there any reason to believe that human development has changed so that the brain now develops earlier and faster? Sure, there are individuals who can do more, sooner, and we should totally support them. But for some students, handling their high school education in high school will be plenty, thanks.

Career and technical education is about post-secondary education, too.

I don't disagree, but is this a widely held reformster policy idea?

Finally: odds and ends.

Petrilli dumps a bunch of odds and ends into his final paragraphs. More standards-aligned materials. Personalized [sic] learning. Improvement to grading practices (again, I'm not sure the whole reformy tribe signed off on this one). Petrilli also notes some areas of reformster disagreement, such as disciplinary issues and the voucher related issues of including religious schools at the public trough.

It is, when you step back and look at it, a pretty small agenda compared to the days when reformsters were going to completely rewrite the educational universe, but of course it skips some of the big issues, like stripping power from elected school boards and turning the public enterprise of education over to private operators (and smashing teacher unions and the profession itself as a way to clear the path). But hey, the Status Quo Privatization Movement is still evolving from its roots in education reforminess; I'm sure they'll sort this all out.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Bill Gates Thinks The Textbook Is Dying. Is He Right?

The annual Bill and Melinda Gates letter features nine "surprises," including one trend sure to affect classrooms--if it really happens. "Textbooks," says Gates, "are becoming obsolete."

What he's really describing is how computer-driven mass customized personalized learning can supplant some aspects of traditional classrooms:

Suppose you’re taking high school algebra. Instead of just reading a chapter on solving equations, you can look at the text online, watch a super-engaging video that shows you how it’s done, and play a game that reinforces the concepts. Then you solve a few problems online, and the software creates new quiz questions to zero in on the ideas you’re not quite getting.

There are several reasons I would not write an obituary for textbooks just yet.
Cost. Schools buy textbooks once and then use them for years. Software, on the other hand, requires schools to buy a new set of licenses annually--in effect repurchasing texts every year. This model is not going away any time soon. In fact, the next time you get an update notice for Windows, stop and read the message. Chances are it starts with "Windows is a service." This is the rising model--instead of buying a copy of software to own and use as you will, companies are continuing to move toward "subscriptions" for a "service." We no longer buy a copy of Office, but instead subscribe to Office. This is good for their revenue stream, but for a school system to, in effect, repurchase its "textbooks" every single year in addition to regularly updating the equipment (netbooks, tablets, etc.) students will use to access the text--that's a big price tag.

Digital natives are unimpressed. Studies keep saying so and I can support it anecdotally based on my own years in the classroom--students would rather read paper. For a literature teacher, online copies of various texts are truly a game-changing resource. But invariably the majority of my students would follow the link to the text--and then print it out. The generation of digital natives is no more likely to be impressed by using a computer screen for a task than older folks would say, "I am really excited to do this work because I'm going to use a ball point pen!"
Instructional weaknesses. Imagine a teacher stands in front of a class and presents a lecture and demonstration for a lesson. At the end, a student raises her hand and asks if the teacher will explain one particular aspect of the lesson. "No," says the teacher, "but I can do the whole lecture and demonstration over again exactly as I did it the first time." That is not good teaching. Basic Teaching 101 says that when students don't understand a concept explained one way, the teacher needs to explain it a different way. But a video clip cannot offer anything except repetition. Trying to reteach a concept by talking over a video clip is more difficult than reteaching while referencing a printed text.

Gates himself points to another weakness of AI-driven mass customized personalized programs. If the student has some problem areas "the software creates new quiz questions." But a quiz is not an explanation. Imagine that your child flunked a math quiz, and the teacher, rather than reteaching the weak areas, just gave another quiz. Would you be pleased?

Technical limitations. Only one kind of text still works when student devices can't get on the network at school.

Overpromising. Gates plugs a free digital course that he funds called Big History, noting in particular that it "gives students immediate feedback on their writing assignments." For well over a decade, tech companies have been promising software that can assess student writing. They have never delivered it--every single attempt has fallen far short of human writing assessment (for more on this, follow the work of Les Perelman at MIT, who specializes in debunking these programs).

In his letter, Gates suggests that software can tell which concepts the student doesn't grasp and how well the student understood last night's reading. Those are really, really huge promises--a large part of a teacher's day is spent trying to determine what's going on inside the student brain, but software will just peek right in there? When software promises the moon and doesn't deliver, it invites the question, "Why did we buy this thing, anyway?" And it casts doubts on future purchases.

There is no question that technology has the power to extend and supplement traditional textbooks. It adds to the variety of instructional avenues available to teachers and allows for an immediate and vivid connection to the world that a textbook does not. Free open-source online texts have, so far, been worth what schools pay for them. There is some large potential is having teachers use online tools to create their own texts, but we aren't quite there yet.

It has been well over a decade since I first heard speakers tell me that the textbook was on its last leg, but old dead-tree textbooks still the preferred tool for the vast majority of classrooms in this country. Let's not write their obituaries just yet.
Originally posted at Forbes

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Play Unlocks The World

I will beat this drum until my knuckles crack and collapse-- small children do not need academic acceleration, they do not need test prep, they do not need soul-sucking worksheets. They need to play. The folks at Defending the Early Years have another excellent video that drives the point home.

Kisha Reid speaks for just a couple of minutes here, but there are a couple of lines that really jump out for me:

When children don't play, they don't understand their own capabilities.

Repeated experience with materials, repeated experience with other people, are not only teaching them about the world around them but teaching them about themselves.

Yes. If education is about helping students become more fully themselves, figuring out how to be fully human in the world (and I'm pretty certain it is) then play is the single most important thing. The Board of Directors here at the Institute are now 21 months, and though I've been down this road before, I am amazed all over again at all the things they have to figure out, all the things they have to learn, and all the times they'll spend, given the chance, to figure these things out. I might argue that the single biggest thing that education policy arguments forget is that babies come into the world knowing nothing. Yes, that seems obvious-- but every argument that pre-school should become the new third grade and kindergarten should become the new freshman year of college assumes that there's a whole bunch of learning we can skip over because tiny humans just know all that stuff automatically. They do not. They need play. Parents these days are being scared into worrying that their child won't be ready for first grade or third grade or college or life unless she is hunched over a bunch of worksheets at age 3. That's backwards. Play, as Reid points out, is the best way to be ready for all that lies ahead. I hope the Board of Directors gets a teacher who understands these things as well as Reid does.

Watch this.

Monday, March 18, 2019

DeVos Voucher Tour Hits Iowa

Secretary of Education Betsy "The Federal Government Shouldn't Meddle In State Education Affairs But I Have This Policy I Really Really-- Oh What The Heck I Can Make Peace With Federal Overreach When It's In The Service Of Something I Want" DeVos has decided to get out there and stump for her Education Freedom Scholarships.

For those of you late to this party-- EFS are one more shade of lipstick to be slathered onto the undead pig that is school vouchers. They exist in several states and, in fact, are sometimes quite profitable for the fauxlanthropists who donate to the funds-- plus, what they're "donating" is actually some of the tax dollars they owe to Uncle Sam. It's a clever dodge on several levels, but at root, it accomplishes what all voucher programs do-- it uses public tax dollars to help finance a private school education for a few select students. The private school in question is usually a religious one.

Most folks seem to think that this measure, like much of the Trumpian budget, has little chance of becoming real. But DeVos actually ventured out into the world to try to pump it up anyway, and last week that meant trekking out to Iowa.

She went to meet with Governor Kim Reynolds, who just a month or so ago was cheerfully proclaiming a Happy School Choice Week to Iowans. State Senator Bard Zaun (formerly a mayor and hardware store owner), stood with DeVos after the meeting; Zaun is a gun-toting, planned parenthood defunding, education privatizing Republican, and he has taken some heat for many of his proposed bills, with some critics seeing a connection between Zaun and ALEC. Sourcewatch finds that ALEC is pretty busy in Iowa, and reports that ALKEC members have contributed almost $20 million to Zaun since he first successfully ran for the Senate in 2004; those friends include the Kochs, Wal-mart, and the NRA.

Zaun and DeVos sort of answered a couple of questions afterwards. The point that keeps getting made is that this voucher program will not take money from public schools, though when DeVos and her friends are making that point, they never say where the money will come from. We're talking about a total of $5 billion dollars in taxes that folks won't have to pay, $5 billion dollars that the federal government will never collect. That has to come from somewhere. And that's before we get to what ever companion law the involved states come up with to let people skip out on state taxes.

I wish I could report more details on how exactly DeVos made her pitch, but, well...

DeVos met with Reynolds, state legislators, education leaders, and lobbyists for faith-based and taxpayer organizations for a roundtable discussion not open to the public or media.

And also...

Rep. RasTafari Smith, the top Democrat on the Iowa House Education Committee says he's disappointed public education supporters were not invited to the closed-door invitation only discussion arranged by DeVos' office.

The plucky folks at Progress Iowa planted themselves outside the meeting and recorded video of the attendees and turned that into a list of the privileged ticket holders:

Drew Klein, Americans for Prosperity Iowa (That would be the Koch lobbying group)
Eric Goranson, Iowa Association of Christian Schools
Tom Chapman, Iowa Catholic Conference
Ryan Wise, Director, Iowa Department of Education
Georgia Van Gundy, Executive Director, Iowa Business Council
Amy Sinclair, Republican State Senator
Brad Zaun, Republican State Senator
Dan Ryan, President, Dowling Catholic High School

So only the cool kids got to be involved, because this is not about democracy or inclusiveness or functioning transparently as a high-level employee of the American people-- this is about using power and clout and connections to make sure that only the voices that you value carry the day. DeVos is nothing if not consistent-- she doesn't want to see or hear from supporters of public education, she doesn't want to explain herself to anyone not already on her side, and she really, really wants to give public tax dollars to private schools.

At the moment, Reynolds and other Iowans have more serious problems to deal with. In the meantime, we'll have to see if DeVos has any more stops planned on her Federal Overreach To Privatize Education tour.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

A Huge Problem With Personalized Learning In One Sentence

You know there's going to be trouble when you see the headline of the article on eSchoolNews-- "Taking personalized learning to scale." But then, this is a business that regularly uses the oxymoron "mass customization" without irony.

But two paragraphs in, Dr. Monica Burns, curriculum and educational technology consultant and founder of,, is quoted from a webinar:

When it comes to student engagement, Burns said, “We want to make sure that we are capturing student attention by having students’ eyes where we want them to be or their hands where we want them to explore.”


Dr. Burns does has some respectable credentials, including six years teaching in South Harlem and actual degrees in education. But she loves a lot of tech programs; she's also an Apple Distinguished Educator.  Maybe the quote isn't an accurate representation of her ideas-- but it's the quote eSchoolNow chose to use, even as they position her ideas as similar to iNACOL, the big Personalized [sic] Learning pushers. The article itself is filled with lots of edu-babble, such as:

Enjoy our new personalized seating.
Through curriculum mapping, school-wide goals, and thematic exploration, school districts can establish norms and clear standards connections for personalized student experiences. Resources should be curated and differentiated and ready for individual students

There is a lot of technocratic baloney going on here, along with this tell about how we really want to scale up:

Resources can be distributed to individual students using digital tools so that students experience content that is relevant to their goals and interests.

So there's the picture. Personalized [sic] education delivered by computer, padded in bureaucratic blather, and-- well, somehow the individual student will follow her own educational muse through instruction geared to here by the computer algorithm, so that she can enjoy a personalized learning experience as long as she has her eyes and her hands exactly where we want them.

If you find personalized [sic] learning kind of creep and unappealing, this may be what you're reacting to-- the notion that we deliver instruction geared to an individual student not because that will allow that student to grow and learn and develop into her own best self in her own best way, but because by delivering a "personalized" lesson, we can better get the student to do exactly what we want her to. The Personalized [sic] Learning that we're being pitched isn't about reconfiguring the whole educational experience to be centered around the individual student, but another tool to get students to behave like good little widgets in a technocratic edu-system. This is not personalization aimed at better serving the student; it's personalization as a tool to get the student to better serve the system. "If we customize the seats and the restraints, then maybe the monkeys won't fight back so much when we strap them into the capsule and send them into orbit."

An Open Letter To TFA Re: Strikes

We appear to be between teacher strikes at the moment, so this might be a good time to draw attention to Seth Kahn's open letter to Teach for America.

When the Oakland teachers walked out, there was some question about what TFAers should or should not do. A previous open letter from TFA alumni suggested that guidance from TFA leadership was that honoring a strike would cost the TFA members. TFA was quick to say, "No, they should totally follow their conscience, and that the striking penalty is part of Americorps policy. It's worth noting that as quoted by the Associated Press, the TFA leadership did not say, "There will absolutely not be a penalty for striking." It's pretty clear that TFAers would lose a chunk money.

TFA members are stuck in a spot when strikes occur.

Kahn is a professor at West Chester University of PA. He has written an open letter to the TFA CEO, asking that the organization both help to supplement the financial losses of any TFA members that strike, as well as work with Americorps to change the rules.

As Kahn notes, it might be easier to sympathize with TFA if it did not have such a long history of supplanting career teachers while undermining unions and disrupting the profession, not to mention promoting a narrative of inadequate and failing public school teachers as a menace from which TFA must rescue students. But while many TFAers are transient edutourists on a resume-building gap year, there are also many who mean well, and even a few who go on to become dedicated and committed teachers.

I walked into a strike in my very first year on my very first job-- it's a rough way to get started.

So go take a look at Kahn's letter and consider adding your name. TFA still has a chance to pursue some policy changes before the next batch of teachers walks out. Here's his conclusion:

As long as striking is legal, and as long as TFA members can join unions, it is unethical for TFA to discourage participation in strikes, and more so while pretending not to be doing it. Furthermore, although many supporters of teacher unions and public education are troubled by TFA in principle, your organization could earn kudos by doing the right thing here.

ICYMI: Ignoring St. Patrick's Day Edition

The Irish contribution to civilization is huge and their history in America is instructive, but don't get me started on the wearing of the green. At any rate, I have your weekly reading list handy. Remember to share!

Southwest Key Schools, Charters and Immigrants

How to make money from the misery of children, and how charters tie to the detention of immigrants. A charter operation makes millions, but students eat in the gym.

Portfolio Model Explainer

Matt Barnum puts together a pretty decent explainer of the whole portfolio system. I'd correct a few points, but if you're trying yo figure out what it's all about, this is a good primer.

Education Reformers Keep Pushing the Same Stuff

Nancy Flanagan pulls apart a Mike Petrilli piece and finds the same old same old hiding inside.

The Chicago Charter CEO Gets A Raise-- But Not A Big One 

One more example of charters operating like a business-- a bad one. This charter is just struggling to meet minimum standards. Must be time to give the CEO a raise.

Remember All Those Anti-Tenure Lawsuits? One Just Died In Minnesota

Sarah Lahm follows another of those Campbell Brown-spawned lawsuits designed to strip teachers of job security. It hasn't gone well for reformsters.

State Leaders Rip Takeover Law 

Ohio legislators are waking up to how big a mess their state takeover law (proposed and passed in just one day) is making, just as it is poised to gut some of the state's major districts.

Who Pays for the Education Writers Association

Laura Chapman takes a look at who exactly foots the bill for the EWA. It's not a list to inspire confidence (and I'm not just bitter because bloggers can't join).

The Cost of Ignoring Developmentally Appropriate Practice    

It can't be said too much-- pushing the littles in the hopes that they can somehow be made smarter faster sooner is not just dumb, but is actually destructive.

And for a non-education policy moment of beauty, check out the=is Van Gogh painting rendered into a 1.2 acre field of plants and landscaping.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

OK: The Four Day Week

Oklahoma has been a great demonstration of what happens when state leaders decide that they just don't want to spend money on education. Oklahoma has led the nation in education spending cuts, and schools and teachers have paid the price.

But Oklahoma performed an interesting little experiment, one that is apparently about to end. The path was cleared by a rule that measures the school year in hours rather than days. And so, Oklahoma became the home of the four day school week.

The reasoning was that a four-day week would save school district's money, particularly in very rural districts where hundreds of expensive miles have to be traveled by school bus each day. Maybe, the reasoning went, this will save money.

It mostly didn't. But something else happened instead-- it helped with one of Oklahoma's other self-inflicted problems. 91 of the over-500 districts went to the four day week and discovered they were suddenly attracting teachers to fill openings. And older, more seasoned veterans at that. In a state that has lost 30,000 teachers in the last six years, these districts were getting to pick and choose from among dozens of applicants.

Why? Some cited the three day weekends for family time. That may be, though it only skims the surface. The four days are longer, leaving less time for family and errands, but that wouldn't matter. Teachers generally work six or seven days a week, more than eight hours a day, but those long hours come in two groups-- Group A hours are at school, professionally dressed, and with your location and duties assigned down to the minute. Group B hours are in the place of your own choosing, organized as you think best (e.g. grading term papers at the kitchen table with a pot of coffee, a stack of donuts,  dressed in your bathrobe. B hours usually have to be scheduled around A hours and Living a Life With Your Actual Family hours (and, in Oklahoma, Working Your Second Job hours). To be able to gather a pile of B hours in one day would be a pleasant luxury. I would bet you dollars to donuts that this was part of the appeal.

It turned out that, contrary to expectations, plenty of students and families liked it, too. But it also turns out that there's a group that doesn't like the four day week-- Republican legislators. Their five-day week bill just passed the Senate.

So what do they have against the four day week?

Yet four-day school weeks reportedly hinder business recruitment. When announcing that five-day weeks would be a Senate Republican priority this year, Majority Floor Leader Kim David of Porter said, “The four-day school weeks, as we all know, have hurt Oklahoma on a national stage.”

“We've had difficulty bringing in businesses,” she said. “It's hurt our workforce.”

Maybe. But there were already reports of trouble bringing in businesses because apparently people don't get excited about moving their families to the state that leads the nation in cuts to education! But the Oklahoma legislature has been consistent in its belief that no matter how badly they slashed education spending (including teacher pay), they could just count on teachers and schools to somehow keep things at least looking okay. This, I'll wager, is the big sin of the four day week-- it makes Oklahoma's disinvestment in public education obvious and visible. It marks Oklahoma as the state where education is so poorly funded that they have four day weeks. It's just an extra bitter irony that the four day week doesn't even really help, but turns out to be attractive for other reasons. Never mind any of that-- it just makes the state look bad.

And so, the legislature is poised to kill the four day week (with special exceptions if your district is really saving money and your test scores are up). It may not be a popular move, but at least it's way cheaper than actually fully funding education in the state.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Micro-Credentials 101: Do We Need Badges?

Micro-credentials are one of the hot rising ideas in the education space. To understand the basics, go look at your child's Xbox or PlayStation.
For most of the major games, there is an accompanying set of achievements, or badges. Every time a player achieves a particular task (kill 50 zombies without reloading, drive over every tree in the enchanted forest, smash every Lego fire hydrant, etc.) they get a small digital badge on their big page of achievements.
Micro-credentials take a similar approach to education. The root of the idea is simple--you demonstrate a very specific skill, and a badge certifying that micro-credential becomes part of your personal digital file. Some of the earliest micro-credentialing involved computer programming skills, but it has grown far beyond that. To see just how many types of micro-credentials are out there, take a look at Digital Promise.
Digital Promise was authorized by Congress in 2008 as the National Center for Research in Advanced Information and Digital Technologies. It offers micro-credentials of its own, but it also provides a platform for other entities to offer their own sets of micro-credentials. Right now over thirty-five other organizations offer micro-credentials through Digital Promise, including Arizona State University, Teaching Matters, and National Geographic. In 2017, Digital Promise hosted a Symposium on the Currency of Micro-credentials that attracted over 100 people, representing school systems, state departments of education, and the Institute for Personalized Learning. Funders for the organization include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Google, Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, and Laurene Jobs' XQ Institute. 
Digital Promise is a big player, but certainly not the only one. Bloomboard is another example of a platform offering a variety of micro-credentials. Like many such badge programs, Bloomboard is aimed primarily at teacher training. The dream was that micro-credentials would change the face of professional development for teachers; instead of boring sit-and-listen sessions, teachers would log on to their provider and sign up for a micro-credential that they cared about via a sort of on-line mini-course.
Of course, this method of content delivery can be just as deadly dull as any lecture. Anyone who has had to get an on-line certification for handling blood in the workplace or proper proctoring of exams knows the process--do some work at your desk while the slides play out on your screen, then take a short multiple choice quiz using common sense (and multiple attempts) to get your certification. One of the problems of micro-credentials is coming up with a valid and reliable measure of the competency that someone has supposedly acquired.
Another part of the challenge of micro-credentials is just how micro to make them. At one point, Relay Graduate School of Education offered a micro-credential in "Checking for Understanding Using Gestures," which was literally the competency of teaching students how to raise their hands to signal understanding in class. Relay seems to have backed away from the micro-credentialing business, and now a teacher might pursue a micro-competency in "Planning for Success: Helping Your Students Set Their Goals."
Of course, teacher PD is not the end game for micro-credentials; instead, the dream is for micro-credentials to become an element of the computerized personalized learning K-12 classroom that dovetails with competency based education. Digital Learning has started working on its ideas for a micro-credential classroom, as have many others in this field. There is an additional challenge here--how do you break the many competencies involved in a K-12 class into a series of micro-competencies. And there's the challenge that teachers already face--how do you turn the objective of knowing something into the demonstrated skill of doing something?
The money to be made is not just tied up in the competencies themselves--there must also be a place to store the badges. This brings us to companies like Learning Machine, who promise to anchor the business of digital identities (where else) on blockchain. At this stage, we start to encounter some companies blowing some serious smoke. Here, for instance, is PTB Ventures. What do they do?
PTB Ventures is a thesis driven venture capital firm investing in early-stage companies in the digital identity ecosystem. 
That is some high grade baloney.
Once we get to blockchain, we start talking about the big dreams. Just as bitcoins don't need any central authority to issue and support them, your blockchain-anchored digital identity does not need a special authority to update or oversee it. You could earn new badges anywhere--in particular, from the work you're doing, so that instead of taking courses to earn micro-credentials, you can earn them while making money. As one group's slogan puts it, "Learning is earning."  Schools and colleges? No longer necessary. Resumes or CV? Stored digitally; your digital identity is now a collection of badges, and someone who wants to hire can simply plug in a list of the badges they want and pull out a list of worker bees whose badge list matches.
This, it should be noted, would also include social and emotional traits, as SEL is another hot new item in digitized education. The digital unit about dealing well with conflict that you flubbed when you were eight will follow you for the rest of your life.
The ways in which this brave new future can go wrong are too numerous to count. Educational goals set and measured by computer programmers. The problem of innovation--a system like this can only certify skills that are already known. The flattening and simplification of learning to training in easily-measured job skills. Micro-credentials that may or may not actually be valid and reliable measures of what they claim to measure. The privacy nightmare of having your life reduced to a digital file that is beyond your reach and control. What would an untrustworthy government do with this kind of data? And what, one wonders, happens if the company responsible for storing your digital identity goes out of business?
But every element of this system already exists. We may want to pay attention in the next few years.