Friday, September 13, 2019

DeVos Saying The Quiet Parts Out Loud

Betsy DeVos will be kicking off her "Back To School" tour next week. And it will start by announcing loudly and clearly what her preferred goal for education is. No reading between the lines will be necessary.

The announcement notes that she will head to Milwaukee, "home of the first-ever education freedom program that allowed parents, no matter their income, to select the school that was the best fit for their child."

On Monday, September 16, 2019, Secretary DeVos will visit St. Marcus Lutheran School, a school that serves 900 students, nearly all of whom benefit from the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. While there, she will tour the school, host a roundtable focused on the importance of education freedom with parents, students and educators, and deliver keynote remarks.

And what sort  of school is St. Marcus Lutheran School? The website lays it out. No excuses. Discipline and love. Relentless high expectations. Oh, and this part--

St. Marcus School is driven by its mission to disciple children for Christ, now and for all eternity, and to train them in excellence for their roles in their family, church, community, workplace and country.

Still unclear? This should help:

Our core values are Christ First, Biblical Discipleship, Sacrificial Love, and Radical Expectations.

Years ago, before she knew she's have a gummint job or that she'd have to start being more,  um, diplomatic, DeVos and the Mr. were quite clear about their goals-- advance God's kingdom. Talk to a hard right Christian folks, and you will hear about how the church needs to "take back the schools." And vouchers for folks like DeVos are not about choice or freedom or liberty nearly as much as they are about steering tax dollars into the support of churches.

The thing is, where voucher systems are implemented, it's working.  In Milwaukee, where it's mnot  working quite as well as in some other voucher hot spots like Indiana, 9 out of every 10 voucher students is attending a Christian school.

So Wisconsin taxpayers, including the atheists, the Muslims, the ones who believe that the separation of church and state is a good thing-- they get to contribute tax dollars to a school where Jesus is a cornerstone of the curriculum while public schools go begging. These religious schools answer, of course, to their church authority and do not answer to the public at all.

At worst, it's a gross violation of the basic principle of keeping a wall between the church and the government. At best, it's a massive rewrite-without-discussion of the fundamental mission of public education.

Either way, it's one more clear indication that the top federal education official in this country does not believe that preserving, protecting and strengthening public education is her mission. That dead end can be shut down and its functions taken over by the church. And she's going to kick off her Back To School tour by saying so.

Dammit, Chan-Zuckerberg! Not Elmo, Too! (And Not Philanthropy, Either.)

If you haven't been paying particularly close attention, you may have missed the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative slowly inserting its hyper-wealthy proboscis into a hundred different corners of modern life, using its not-quite-philanthropy LLC model to follow in the Gatesian footprints of wealthy technocrats who want to appoint themselves the unelected heads of oh-so-many sectors.

One of those sectors is, of course, education. Their latest bold new initiative is being trumpeted in People, where it is getting exactly the fluffy uncritical reception one might expect, which is too bad, because there's plenty to be critical of.

The tech mogul, 35, and pediatrician’s philanthropic organization, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, is working in conjunction with The Primary School and Sesame Workshop to help fund a “new curriculum” that aims to “integrate social emotional learning into early childhood literacy lessons,” according to a press release.


The Primary School is out in Palo Alto, "expanding the boundaries of traditional education." It is the elementary school that Chan co-founded in 2016 to bring together issues in education and pediatrics. They have all sorts of business style leadership positions like "director of talent" and "director of strategic initiatives" and the teaching staff seems to be made of a few "lead teachers" and a whole lot of "associate teachers." Their CEO comes from the NewSchool Venture Fund and Aspire. Their "director of innovation and learning" spent two whole years in Teach for America. The school's principal once founded a charter school and stayed with it for five years. Of the lead teachers a little more than half have actual teaching backgrounds, while the rest are TFA or other "non-traditional" approaches to the field. I admittedly didn't check every single one, but a spot check of the associate teachers turned up zero with actual teaching backgrounds.

In short, it's very new, very reform, very Palo Alto-y, and yet, wonder of wonders, the folks at the Sesame Workshop, "the global nonprofit behind Sesame Street and so much more" and who have been at this for fifty years (longer, I'm betting, than virtually every staff person at The Primary School has been alive)-- those folks feel an urge to team up with The Primary School.

According to the press release, this teamwork has been going on for two years. So, from when The Primary School was barely barely started.

There is a video, in which Chan and a few Primary School folks co-star with Elmo, who is very excited about this chance to inject SEL into early childhood literacy, which opens up the possibility for a turducken of bad education policy, particularly in a school in which almost nobody is a seasoned education practical expert.

The best part of the video is Chan saying things like “The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is proud to support a collaboration between The Primary School and Sesame Workshop,” as if the Primary School were not a school that she personally started and leads as the board chair (The People article somehow fails to bring up Chan's connection to the school).

I suppose that sounds better than, "We have so much money that I decided I could go ahead and start a school, and then I could hire one of the most high-profile early childhood ed organizations in the world to help work on my school." That is the ultimate in not-philanthropy-at-all. It's as if I announced that the Curmudgucation Institute was proud to announce that it was financing a partnership between Bob's Housepainting Service and My House. Or a collaboration between the Exxon Corporation and My Car.

And of course there's more-- by the end of 2020, they'll have the curriculum digitized and available to other schools around the country.

There was plenty written about the mercenary impulses of Sesame Street written when they were bought by HBO, but you can check out the promotional video and watch another piece of childhood die, as Elmo cheerleads for another wealthy self-appointed education leader.Lord only knows what CZI will get their hands on next.






Thursday, September 12, 2019

Does Social And Emotional Learning Belong In The Classroom?

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) has been gathering traction as a new education trend over the past few years. Back at the start of 2018, EdWeek was noting "Experts Agree Social-Emotional Learning Matters, and Are Plotting Roadmap of How To Do It." But as we head into the new year, many folks still haven't gotten far beyond the "it matters" stage in their plotting.
I'm here to teach you how to be human.
That's the easy part. We can mostly agree that SEL matters; in fact, we ought to agree that it already happens in classrooms. It's impossible to avoid; where children are around adults, SEL is going on. Asking if SEL should occur in a classroom is like asking if breathing should happen in the room. The real question is whether or not it should occur in a formal, structured, instructed and assessed manner. That is the question that starts all the arguments. We can break down the arguments by asking the same questions we ask about any content we want to bring into the classroom.
Why do we want to teach this?
Some SEL proponents have developed a utilitarian focus. Summarizing the work of the Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development, EdWeek said "social-emotional learning strategies center on research that has linked the development of skills like building healthy peer relationships and responsible decision making to success inside and outside the classroom." But what happens if we approach what used to be called character education with the idea that it's useful for getting ahead? Doesn't SEL need to be about more than learning to act like a good person in order to get a grade, a job, and a fatter paycheck? Are you even developing good character if your purpose for developing that character is to grab some benefits for yourself?
We can reject that kind of selfish focus for SEL and instead focus on the "whole child," and treat SEL, as Tim Shriver (co-chair of that Aspen Institute) and Frederick Hess (of the American Enterprise Institute) wrote, as "an opportunity to focus on values and student needs that matter deeply to parents and unite Americans across the ideological spectrum—things like integrity, empathy, and responsible decision making." But then we find ourselves with another problem.
What do we want to teach?
If we're going to adopt SEL in order to essentially teach students to be better people, then who will decide what "better" looks like? Is "tolerance" going to be one of the virtues, and if so, does that mean that students must learn to tolerate persons who would not be tolerated by their families (be that married gay folks or strict religious conservatives)? Should students be taught to feel empathy for everyone, from Nazis to sociopaths?
The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) identifies five "competencies" for SEL(self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, social awareness, relationships skills). That framework is widely used, but "explained" with a wide variety of definitions (one resource says it includes "achieving useful goals"). All of them are heavily loaded with value judgments; how many arguments have you been in your life about whether or not something was a "responsible" decision or not? Who decides if a goal is "useful?"
We have been down this exact road before. In the 90s, Outcome Based Education was going to be a great new thing in education, but before it could gain traction, a bunch of folks noticed that it included an element of teaching values, and a large number of parents were certain that was not a job they wanted the schools to do. OBE never recovered. As two articles in this packet from AEI note, much of what comes under the SEL umbrella used to be considered the providence--indeed, the whole point--of religious and faith-based education.
Wherever SEL is implemented, expect a huge fight over what will actually be taught.
How will we teach it?
How exactly does one design a unit to teach a room full of children to empathize or be self-aware?
Google "SEL Resources" and page after page of links will pop up. Software companies that are plugging their "personalized learning" packages are selling SEL elements to be included, evoking the picture of a child being taught about emotions and character by a computer.
SEL learning occurs in the wild through unplanned, unprepared moments of opportunity. One of my toddler children fell last weekend, requiring an ER visit and stitches. He's fine, but he now understands and uses the word "sad." It was an effective SEL moment, but not one I'd want to deliberately manufacture for other children. Can the teachable moment about human emotions, empathy, or self-awareness be formally constructed?
How will we assess it?
How exactly do we measure these social and emotional qualities? What would be a good test of empathy or self-awareness? Plenty of folks are working on the problem, but their solutions require some hefty suspension of disbelief. NWEA, for instance, scored a grant for their technique of reading students' social-emotional qualities based on how long the student waits to click the answer for an on-line multiple choice test. Software has been field-tested for reading student emotions via facial expressions. Just this May, the news came out that Amazon is working to teach Alexa to read the emotions in your voice.
These kinds of software solutions could be used to assess student social and emotional behavior against a desired outcome. But who decides what the "correct" answer is on such assessments? And how easy will it to be to game such a system? We're talking about assessments that try to read student emotions--will we teach students to feel those emotions, or teach them how to act like they feel those emotions? We don't have a way to truly measure empathy, which means we'll have to judge students on how well they perform the appearance of empathy.
What will we do with the results?
What we can measure with software we can store with software, so as with all the other current assessments, the question becomes how will the data be stored and who will have access? Will future employers be weeding out prospects whose fourth grade empathy scores were too low? How much privacy is going to be violated, and how badly?
Does SEL Belong?
There is no question that SEL is important in education. Virtually every "How a teacher changed my life story" has a strong SEL element (though there is also ample evidence from business and politics that a lack of empathy, self-awareness, and responsible decision-making need not be an obstacle to success). The real question is whether or not SEL can be incorporated as a structured, formal, assessed element of education, and that question does not yet have a clear affirmative answer.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Education and Remembering

It's 9/11, and social media is plastered with a thousand variations on a single theme-- Never Forget.

Well, of course we'll forget.

First of all, we don't can't even articulate a shared version of what it is that we're remembering. That somebody once successfully attacked us? That we subsequently lost our national shit and chewed through a variety of civil liberties in hopes that Benjamin "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety" Franklin was wrong and that everything from surveillance to some airport theatrics would be just the thing? That a mass of people dying for no good reason sucks? That people in the world wish us harm? That we are all fragile tiny humans stuck together on a tiny rock spinning into a vast cold void?

I've seen a handful of posts praising the spirit of 9/12, and I get that-- it was nice to set aside a lot of petty bullshit and just try to help each other, to take care of people in the way that I'm pretty sure we should be doing all day every day. I would like to see folks do that all the time. But I also remember that the spirit of 9/12 included a teenage girl getting harassed in a high school parking lot because she was Muslim-looking. Not to mention some serious warmongering and a renewed patriotism that was sometimes inspiring and warm and sometimes scary and jingoistic. I remember that anti-terrorism wrapped in a flag and carrying a Bible became an excuse for a lot of bad stuff.

So which part of that should we never forget? I'd say all of it, but that brings us to the second problem.

We're Americans, and we suck at history. It's like we're a nation built on the banks of the River Lethe, that mythic river whose waters brought the end of memory. Collectively, we can forget stuff so fast it will make your head spin. School shootings? We can forget those within a week, tops, but we've been at this forgetting thing for a long time. Lessons from Viet Nam? Some of which were a review for lessons of Korea? McCarthyism? World War I was loaded with valuable lessons, and most of the US slept through all of them. The labor movement? The shift from rural to urban living? And our massive national brainwipe re: the Civil War and Reconstruction and the Death of Reconstruction-- that's some important material and we're still paying the price for forgetting it.

It's not all deliberate. Life and history are complicated and remembering complicated things is hard, so sometimes it's easier to just simplify things in our memory-- just cut out all the complicated or challenging stuff.

Of course, the Civil War/Reconstruction stuff is a good example of how we like to deliberately forget things. The South and its friends launched a long term disinformation campaign so that our collective memory would forget all the real stuff and even remember some made-up stuff instead.

Every piece of history goes through that same meat grinder-- it happens, and folks scramble to write the stories about it, hoping that some number of people who don't entirely forget will remember what they've been coached to remember.

US high school students will tell you that history is the biggest waste of time in all their courses. We are living through one more demonstration of why that's really wrong. As frequently noted, no student currently in school has any memory of 9/11. To them it is as distant as the Tet Offensive or the Kent State shootings-- just one of those long ago events that the old folks get all worked up about.

And sure-- like war and divorce and discrimination and childbirth, these traumatic moments of history are never as vivid and compelling second hand. You did have to be there. And past a certain point, all history is second hand. The Norman Conquest changed everything in the English speaking world, but it's pretty hard to find anyone who gets really worked up about it. All the people who  really cared about it are dust, their feelings vanished into some unknowable space.

Lots of us think of education as simply the transmission of facts, and that is certainly part of it. But facts are just a foundation, and as teachers all across the country are reminded every year on this day, being exposed to facts doesn't necessarily mean that students really feel the impact of those facts. This is one of the roles of good literature and well-written history-- to help the audience feel.

But the facts matter, particularly for events in which history starts to fade and those who would shape it to their own ends deliberately try to fuzzy the picture. Who was responsible on 9/11? Osama bin Laden? Saddam Hussein? Iraquis? Iranians? Afghanis? Didn't the Saudis have something to do with it? Chances are, sitting their reading this paragraph, you are realizing you need to look things up to be certain.

This is one of the huge reasons that education matters, because on top of our general American antipathy to knowing the past, there are those who would mess with our knowledge of history in order to control the present. Holocaust deniers want to change how we view Israel and Jewish folks. 9/11 truthers want to uproot our current government. We still can't sort out our issues around race because we are collectively ignorant of how we got to this place. And because we are so untethered to the past, we are a fertile ground for people who are just paranoid dopes (looking at you, anti-vaxxers).

This is also why it matters that we should not, as a country, support education that distorts the record-- no flat earth high school or holocaust denial or claims that Jesus signed the Declaration of Independence or tales of happy slaves who put on a Confederate uniform and fought for the South.

My seventh grade social studies teacher was Mr. Confer, who was maybe a thousand years old and had more energy than all of us put together. He had grown up in an orphanage in the Depression and I don't even remember what all else, but we knew these things because he often digressed from our lesson to tell us tales. At the time, we thought he was doing a terrible job and failing to teach us all the things he was supposed to. It was decades before I realized that he had taught middle schoolers an almost impossible lesson-- that the world was not always the way it is now, and it will not always be the way it is now, and that the world that was was filled with human beings just as real as those of us sitting right here, and that the went through a host of experiences that worked on their hearts and spirits. On days like today, I think about Mr. Confer.

Some people will never ever forget, but as a country we'll forget because that's what we tend to do, and because healing involves a little distance, and because those of us who remember first-hand will slowly, inexorably be replaced by those who don't. This is education in its purest form. We collect all the things we know and that were passed along to us by people who learned, saw, felt them first hand, and we hand them off to a new generation and say, "You were not there, but these are the things we want you to remember." Teachers are there tending the dike that holds back the River Lethe, and while folks are declaring "Never Forget!" and the mass of Americans reply, "Yeah, sure, we'll-- squirrel!" teachers set their jaws, tighten their grips and say, "No, we never will."

Monday, September 9, 2019

Online Pre-K Continues To Spread Like A Big Stupid Plague

So this article pops up on my screen-- the Hechinger Report's Bracey Harris asking "Can 15 minutes a day of online preschool help prepare a child for kindergarten?" I might have suggested a rewrite on the headline, something along the line of  "Why in the name of all that's holy are you putting a four-year-old child in front a screen and subjecting her to kindergarten prep software!"

Stop farting around and get to work kid
Look, I'll warn you right up front-- long time readers of this blog will not find me saying anything here that I have not said before, but 1) I'm pretty sure most of this should be repeated daily until it sinks into certain skulls because 2) this is a terrible idea that stands on the shoulders of other terrible ideas and every time it shows up wrapped in uncritical boosterfluff like this I get the kind of angry that I can best work off by hammering these keys. I am even going to bold things, because dammit, I've got a pair of two-year-olds napping fifteen feet away from me, and this bullshit has got to stop.

Focused on Mississippi, Harris's piece contains most of the classic features of what is unfortunately becoming a genre. For instance, a mis-framing of the problem--

Of the more than 35,000 Mississippi kindergarten students who took the state’s skills assessment last fall, about 64 percent scored below the state’s readiness benchmark. Since then, the state has made few strides in expanding efforts to help more of its youngest children prepare for school.

If most of your state's five year olds are not ready for your kindergarten program, then it is the kindergarten program that is messed up. It is not a small child's job to get ready for school-- it is the school's job to get ready for that child. It is not the family's job to meet the needs of the school-- it is the school's job to meet the needs of that family. 

This is the legacy of No Child Left Behind and its bastard cousins and children. One of the effects of the accountability movement has been to turn schools upside down, to flip the school student relationship. In the flipped relationship, the school (and the state) need students to be generators of reliably high test scores, and so, in the accountability-flipped school, we do not ask students, "What do you need? How can we help you?" Instead we ask each other, "How can we get these kids to cough up an acceptable score?" And part of that answer has been, consistently, to try to get to them sooner, to start them ASAP, so that we can get them ready for the third grade literacy test that gets them ready for the state-issued reading and math Big Standardized Test and so on and so on. Can't let these little slackers just sit around and play and waste time and stuff-- we need to get them ready so that kindergarten can be the new first or second or third grade so that we can get them more ready sooner even though there isn't a damned bit of evidence that getting more ready sooner has any beneficial long term effect whatsoever but plenty of evidence that it's bad for the children. But hey-- as long as we can squeeze some good scores out of them.

This particular article is plugging UPSTART, an online program that started out in Utah, where it did the double duty of providing some semblance of pre-school at much lower costs than backing actual pre-school would have cost, as well as pushing what money the state did spend into the coffers of a Utah company in the district of the legislator who sponsored the bill adopting UPSTART for the state.

From there it has spread like poison ivy, especially to corporate-reform-friendly states like Ohio and Indiana. It's currently in 532 districts and independent schools. The program itself is essentially Personalized [sic] Learning for very tiny people. From their website

UPSTART is designed for very young children. It uses large buttons, obvious directions, and support that helps children progress. Each child moves through a personalized learning path that is designed to meet his or her skills and needs. The software assesses the child's progress at key milestones to determine what type of instruction each child will receive.

The program (and the computer that delivers it) are free, courtesy of UPSTART's many partners, which include the New Schools Venture Fund, TED, Comcast, Intel, and Raspberry.

The Hechinger piece is a classic fluff sandwich-- about 2/3rds of the way down, an opposing view is given one sentence before we get back to the happy fluff about this awesome idea. The opposing view that Harris scoots past is a statement issued jointly by Defending the Early Years and the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood that seriously lambasted this practice (and which Hechinger did cover at the time). Harris mentions that "some experts" have misgivings, but makes no attempt to report those concerns in detail or examine their validity. The statement offered plenty of research and reports to back up their objections; here are must a few of the highlights:

"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.”

“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?”

You should read this part, too:

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.

Utah did a study of its own, asserting that UPSTART raised some BS Test scores, and isn't that what you're most hoping for when you hand your tiny human over to the care of a school system? I could spin off into a rant about the BS Tests, but let's leave it that there is no reason to believe that higher tests scores, particularly for elementary students, say anything at all about the child's future-- and even reformsters know it.

I dream of the day when the folks who work at UPSTART suddenly look up and say, "My God! What the hell are we doing?!" Then just shut everything off and walk away, turning out the lights behind them. But of course, as suggested above, they are not the only players in this stupid game. Search for online pre-k and you can find plenty of vendors like ABCmouse, which offers online reading activities and for the love of God-- just get the kid a book! Dolly Parton will send your child one book a month for free, a real actual book that you can hold in your hands and read to your little while she is curled up in your lap! Or there's Time4Learning, which will start your little out with a software program:

The interactions (verbal instructions, interface buttons, graphics, and format) are designed for pre-readers with an early learning level of attention, fine muscle control, and vocabulary. It is designed so that, after the first session, a child could use the program on his or her own with minimal adult supervision

Excellent. I can just tell my four year old to go play on the computer on his own. What an excellent learning experience.

Yes, the argument is going to be that this will reach children who don't have access or finances to go to pre-school, that this can be a resource for isolated families, to which I say this is like saying there are families that don't have access to enough nutritionally rich food, so let's mail them all cases of diet soda and arsenic. Yes, this targets families and children who need something-- but what they need is not this. Nobody needs this.

Modern education reform has spawned plenty of awful things, but plunking three and four year olds in front of a screen-- even for just fifteen minutes a week-- so that they can get ready for kindergarten is one of the worst, most glaring signs that some folks have totally lost their way and that the search for more revenue streams knows no shame.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Privatization and the Weather

Like many Trumpian flaps, the recent Alabama hurricane flap du jour directed our attention to things we probably should have already been paying attention to-- in this case, the drive to privatize the US Weather Service.

Barry Myers was the top lawyer for Accuweather, the weather service founded by his brother Joel. This article from Bloomberg Businessweek chronicles the thirty or so years that Myers spent fighting with the National Weather Service. He had a variety of complaints, not the least of which was that while Accuweather was charging clients to get weather reports, NWS was giving away that stuff for free.

It's going to be a bad day for somebody.
There are two things wrong with that argument. One is that one of the people that the NWS gives it away free to is-- Accuweather. NWS has 120 Doppler Radar positions around the country, plus the computer power to process all that information that comes in, and they do, in fact, give it away. Even if your local tv station has its own Super Eye On The Weather Sky Place weather product, chances are good that it depends on NWS data. At one point in his years of kvetching, Myers argued that it was like the US Postal Service vs. FedEx, only with the USPS delivering for free. While his analogy is a bit off, it's self-defeating in one respect-- when FedEx doesn't want to deliver your package to some remote address, it hands the package off to the USPS. Their entire business model depends on using the federally funded service to fill in the less profitable holes, because their business is built on only serving the profitable customers. Not unlike the basic business model for a charter or voucher system.

The other problem is that the NWS stuff is not free. Yes, they don't charge the users of the information, but we taxpayers have already paid for the whole operation. That is our information-- to collect it and then charge us for it again would be like, well, those times when taxpayers pay for a school building twice (once to build it and once to finance a charter buying it) and still don't own it.

If you clicked through to the article, you already know the other parallel here to education-- Myers was the Trump nominee to head up NOAA (the agency under which NWS falls) in fall of 2017. That has not gone particularly well; in the meantime, the agency is just one more that is operating without a permanent chief. They come under the purview of Wilbur Ross, another swamp dweller.

Oh, and fun trivia. Rick Santorum once tried to float a bill to force the NWS to charge for their stuff, thereby helping Accuweather compete.

So the plan was (or still is-- who knows) to have the government agency that provides an important service for all citizens headed by somebody whose allegiance is with private businesses that want to compete with the taxpayer-funded agency that provides essentially the identical service. Barry Myers, meet Betsy DeVos.

Is there anything new to learn from this? Well, Myers is still not head of the NOAA because some senators actually took a stand. So I guess that could hypothetically work, sometimes. And the silencing and attempted discrediting of actual experts seems familiar. I guess the only other lesson here for public education advocates is that it's not just us-- if the government does it, and taxpayers pay for it, somebody would like to make a buck offering a private alternative, and they would like to kneecap the government in order to do it. It's not just education.

ICYMI: No Teacher Shortage Edition (9/8)

So about forty-eight hours ago I put up a post at Forbes.com that has been blowing up. It's an interesting study in the vagaries of the interwebz-- the post (why it's important to recognize that there's not a teacher shortage) makes some points that I have made before many times, and several other bloggers have made before, but somehow this time, it found an audience. It's a reminder to keep plugging at the point you want to make (even if you feel like you're repeating yourself). And for our purposes here, it's a reminder of how important readers are to the whole process. I didn't really do anything in this post that I haven't done before; what made the difference was not me, but the readers.

So when I ask you every week to pass along the posts that speak to you, I really mean it. That's what gets these pieces out into the world.

How Charter Schools Won D.C. Politics 

Rachel Cohen is at City Paper, laying out the ugly, infuriating story of how lobbyists are spending our tax dollars to keep charters happy and unregulated.

Come As You Are   

Jose Vilson with some important start-of-year thoughts.

Almost No Education Research Is Replicated  

Inside Higher Ed reports on one more reason to remain unexcited about what education researchers report.

Enemy of Public Schools

Infuriating. One guy is traveling around the country running anti-bond campaigns because he's sure God hates public education. Really.

How Big A Mess Is the PA Charter Sector?

Big. Carol Burris at Washington Post breaks down the details of my home state's miserable charter situation.  

School District Secession Deepens Segregation

Look at a Penn State study that shows the problems behind school district secessions.

Why Don't We Have Enough Teachers  

Tim Slekar is on Wisconsin Public Radio explaining why there is no teacher shortage.  I told you I'm not the only person beating this drum. If you'd rather read than listen, try this one.

The Parable of the Teacher and the Experts  

Rick Hess often gets it wrong, but this EdWeek piece is pretty fun and painfully familiar for any teacher.

Why 2020 Dems Should Target Nonprofit Charters

When a charter destroys a beloved local landmark. Sarah Lahm with a story at Common Dreams, showing how there's big money for charter nonprofit operators-- and big losses for communities.

ALEC Legislator Retires As Charter Millionaire  

Lawmaker plus charter guy equals big bucks. From the indispensable Mercedes Schneider.

No, We Cannot Look Everything Up  

From eLearning, a reminder of the reasons that the internet doesn't excuse us from actually know stuff.

Who Gets To Use A Single Classroom  

Charter versus public school for space-- and it gets ugly.

For Teachers, the Money Keeps Getting Worse  

At the Atlantic (with their shiny new paywall limiting you to only five free articles per month), a very depressing look at teacher pay.

The Walton Plan for the Little Rock School District  

More infuriating news, this time from the Arkansas Times, in which we learn that the Walton forces have all sorts of bad ideas in mind.

Schools In Arizona Crippled By Ransomware 

Not everything is about ed reform. The problem of hackers holding district IT systems hostage is growing, and now it's shutting down school districts. From The Hill.

Excess Teacher Responsibilities Are Stealing Bonding Time With Students 

From Bored Teachers, talking about all that extra piddly baloney that gets in the way of the better parts of the job.

How To Practice Best Practices

McSweeney's comes through again with the absurdly recognizable. And for more fun, check out McSweeney's First Faculty Meeting of the Year Bingo.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

The College And Career Ready Scam Continues

ESSA requires schools to pick another measure of success, and many have gone with some version of gauging college and/or career readiness, but the results, as described by EdWeek, are a "hodge podge." But here come the folks at Achieve, the same folks who brought us all the beloved Common Core, with a state by state hodge-podgy guide to just how states are measuring the Common Core compliance college and career readiness. It highlights beautifully why the whole CCR business is a scam, a snare and a delusion, a room full of smoke and mirrors, and a web of moonbeams and unicorn farts.
We're ready for what, now?
The table version really does provide a useful state-by-state compendium of who is doing what (mostly-- some states are a big ole blank). But the real fun is in the Data Explorer, a collection of hyperlinked graphics that take you to all the various measures. I'm honestly not sure who, exactly, this is for, though EdWeek Marketplace did a piece about it which suggests somebody thinks there's money to be made here.

The Data Explorer starts by laying out the challenge:

Though all states collect data on student outcomes, the measures they track differ from state to state—differences like which students are included in each indicator, which assessments are used, whether data on student subgroups are reported, and how indicators are constructed. Furthermore, the data states report are often found across a number of websites, and some states publicly report more information than others. Each of these factors makes it hard to know how well-prepared students are for their next steps after high school.

There is, of course, a big whacky assumption there, which is that knowing how well students are prepared for post-high school life is a knowable thing. Achieve settles on seven key indicators-- let's see if those indicators would be useful in determining such a thing.

4-Year Graduation Rate

This has always been a stupid piece of data, because it assumes that a student who drops out of school should count the same as a student who stumbles, repeats a year, and then gets his act together and graduates. I have enough anecdotal data (and so do most high school teachers) to know that that's just not so. I know that this is not news to anybody who spends time around young humans, but fourteen year olds are not super-mature, but then, as they get older, they sometimes figure things out. The chemistry slows down, the brain grows a few more anterooms, and they figure things out. But sometimes they take a few detours first. The notion that they are only ready for college or career if they spend exactly four years in high school first is just, well, dumb.

CCR Coursework Completion

Achieve thinks that students have completed proper CCR preparation if they take math and ELA courses that are aligned with Common Core "state-adopted CCR standards." The problem here is, which we will return to a few more times, is that there's no shred of research, evidence, support, or anything other than David Coleman's dreams that says that the CCR standards are aligned with life or college or careers or anything.

9th Grade on Track

Checking to see if 9th graders have enough credits to be on track for graduation is just another way of playing the four-year completion card, and it's equally balonified. I mean, it's a useful piece of data to have, but it doesn't tell you anything about CCR stuff.

CCR Assessments

This is based on the percentage of students who score at the CCR level on the Big Standardized Test. There are so many things wrong here. First, the CCR level is, of course, refigured by the states every year, and that refiguring has absolutely nothing to do with anybody saying, "Studies show that to be career ready this year, students need to score fifty points higher on the BS Test." But of course that cut score can float around year to year because nobody has any idea at all what the relationship between cut scores and future CCR might be. Well, that's not true-- actually, as Jay Greene (University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform) has pointed out repeatedly, there is ample evidence that there is no connection at all between BS Test scores and what happens to the student in life. In other words, CCR assessments, tied as they are to the standards, which are in turn tied to nothing but Yeti breaths, have no useful role in measuring college and career readiness.

CCR Measures

What we might call the kitchen junk drawer of CCR measures. AP classes, CTE courses of study, apprenticeships, "military readiness" (so, high school ROTC or a good score on the ASVAB?) and whatever else states have come up with. This indicator actually contains some useful ideas. Have you studied welding for three years at your tech school, done a work study with a fabrication plant, and passed some welding certification tests? Then you probably really are ready for a career in welding. Congratulations, and feel free to ignore every other indicator listed here.

Earning College Credits In High School

This includes both taking actual college courses and earning a 3+ on an AP exam. It's no guarantee (particularly since so many colleges will tell you not to bother taking an AP exam in the field you plan to actually pursue), but at least this one isn't flat out stupid.

Postsecondary Enrollment

This indicator rises to the level of the Kafka-esque. Remember, part of the entire argument in favor of Common Core college and career ready standards was that students were arriving at college unprepared to do the work there. In other words, it was turning out that getting into college was no guarantee that they were actually ready for college. So it makes no sense to use the number of students enrolling in college as an indicator of college readiness. Well, unless the original argument was just baloney.

For The Love Of God, Please Stop

Look, it would be a great thing if we could tell if students were ready for college or career. Mostly it's a bell curve-- some students we know are absolutely ready for anything, and some are not ready to do anything. In between, there's a vast grey area.

In that grey area, one of our actual jobs as educators is to help students figure out what college-or-career future best suits them, which one is the one they are, or can be, ready for.

But the notion that any standardized measure can tell us that a student is ready for any future, from carpentry to brain surgery, from deep sea welding to jazz drummer, from majoring in art at Harvard to studying accounting at community college-- well, that's just stupid. There is an infinite number of futures ahead of students, and there is simply no way to measure whether or not they're ready for every single one of them. "College and Career Readiness" is, in some ways, an excellent replacement term for "Common Core" because CCR more clearly captures the one-size-fits-all-ness" of the whole exercise. Folks who pursue this as a legitimate measure of education reveal a tiny vision, a failure to imagine all the rich, varied futures that await our students and the marvelously winding paths they will take to get there.

I get it. I understand the parent impulse that makes you want to know with certainty, to have a guarantee of ironclad knowledge that your child is, as Arne Duncan often put it, "on track for success." I totally get wanting that. But you can't have it, any more than you can have a clear guaranteed prediction that your child have a happy marriage or a nice house. All you can do is give her as many tools as possible, as many chances as possible, as much support as possible, and a system that doesn't short-change her by focusing on meagre piddly goals like "score well on this standardized math and reading test." She had have an education that helps her understand the world and her best self and how to be fully human in the world, not standardized test prep. Better that her school system focus on giving her that kind of educational experience rather than focus on giving government officials and education thought leaders the kind of paperwork and reports that they want.

Friday, September 6, 2019

What Should Be Our Hot Topics For The New Year?

It's the beginning of a new school year, and a good moment to take stock of the major policy issues, controversies and problems that we can expect to be (or ought to be) wrestling with in the coming year. Which issues are on the rise, which have lost a little steam and which should we be addressing?

Common Core

For years, the Common Core Standards were the hot button issue. Widespread pushback, from both left and right, changed that. The original Common Core dream was that every student in every school in every city in every state would be studying essentially the same things at roughly the same time. That dream is dead.

But the standards themselves live on. Some states have modified them lightly and given them an assumed name to hide under, but they're still there. Other states have promised to stamp them out, but it remains to be seen if they can really accomplish the task. Much of the discussion of standards is still held in plain sight, under the phrase "college and career ready." But on the school and classroom level, many teachers have long since adapted the standards to fit their own professional judgment.

The standards are still a presence in education, but not the hot-button issue they once were.

High Stakes Testing

High stakes standardized tests have been with us for a while, but the federal push for Common Core gave HST a tremendous boost. Education reform advocates leaned hard on the notion that test results could be used to make staffing and salary decisions for teachers, or even evaluate college teacher programs. None of that turned out to be actually possible; test results were inconsistent and unreliable, and converting test scores to a value-added measure turned out to be a pipe dream. In the meantime, teachers and parents have complained about the amount of time spent prepping for the Big Standardized Test.

Some states are backing away from at least the graduation exam version of the test. Pennsylvania repeatedly postponed their Keystone graduation exam requirement and now allows a variety of gradation readiness assessments; New Hampshire has been experimenting with a shift to Performance Based Learning. Ohio's attempt to shift graduation requirements under guidance of business representatives is resulting in a patchwork of shifting requirements over the next few years. Several states are toying with the use of the SAT or ACT as a new graduation exam. So while many states are looking to draw back from a high stakes test, the search for an alternative is a bit messy, depending on which state you live in. Meanwhile, there's no real respite in sight for elementary students.

Personalized Learning

Nobody knows exactly what it is, but personalized learning is seen as one of the more promising sectors for businesses and investors in education. Depending on the form it takes, it may appear under a variety of other names (performance based learning, competency based education, etc) and drenched in a thick sauce of marketing jargon. Watch for terms like "artificial intelligence" as a clue that your child might be learning through algorithm-selected computer activities. Gates, Zuckerberg and Jobs are all throwing big piles of money at personalized learning, and opening up education to more digitizing also means tapping into a goldmine of data, so expect many different vendors to turn up plugging their product and extolling the wonders of personalized learning--whatever it is.

The Parallel School System

Charter schools get most of the attention, but vouchers, scholarship tax credits, and education savings accounts are all part of a mechanism that has been built to divert funding from public schools into a parallel school system that is privately owned and operated. One can argue that the debates over these are overblown, given the small part of the sector they encompass (charters enroll a little over 6% of all U.S. students). Charter growth has actually stalled, though Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is more partial to voucher style reforms. But in some local districts, the cost of school choice programs has created major financial crises. Trying to run multiple parallel school systems with the money previously used for just one system is taking a toll on American education. We are starting to see state leaders push back; Governor Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania just this week announced that he would push some charter reform through via executive order.

Related to this, but much less discussed, is the parallel staffing system set up to feed and advocate for the parallel school system. Much comment has been made about how Teach for America provides just a few weeks of training for its teachers; less note is made that after just two years in the classroom, TFA grads may become policy "experts," opening charters, starting education businesses, doing ed reform advocacy, or even taking high level leadership positions such as superintendent or even state education chief. Other programs like the Broad Academy or the Relay Graduate School of Education turn out educational leaders even though they are founded and run by people who have little educational training.

In many ways, education is suffering from a notion that has long been causing trouble in the private sector--that if you're a really great manager or CEO, it's not necessary to know anything about the industry in which you're working. Expect continued flare-ups of this conflict on the local, state and national level.

Equity

Decades after Brown v. Board, school segregation is still a problem (read here, here and here), not just because of the segregation of students, but because of the segregation of resources that follows it. Public schools are bad; charter schools are worse. And while a few places have addressed the problem successfully, mostly the education system is stumped. There's work to be done with how school district boundaries are drawn, but we know full well that segregation can occur within a single building, simply by blocking students of color from resources and higher level classes. The issue deserves to be on the front burner of education policy discussion, and the Democratic primary has brought some attention to it, but time will tell if we have the will to really work on it.

Taking Care of the Littles

The biggest crisis, the most major struggle in education right now, may well be the education of the Pre-K through grade 3 crowd.

It has been years since we first started saying the kindergarten is the new first grade, but we haven't fully reckoned with the implications of that shift. Ramped up kindergarten has several causes. One was the backwards scaffolding of the Common Core. Imagine that your goal was to have students bench press a hundred pounds at graduation. To scaffold that, you figure that they can add five pounds to their load in each preceding year of school--the end result is telling 5-year-olds to bench press forty pounds. Backwards scaffolding works poorly if one disregards the developmental stages of the youngest students, and that has been a criticism of Common Core all along.

High stakes testing has also pushed schools to move academics into lower grades. "We don't have time for recess," many administrators have declared. "We've got to get them ready for that fourth grade test now!" Several states have made passing a standardized reading test a requirement for moving into fourth grade. The argument is that third grade reading skills are correlated with later success, but there is little evidence that retention does any good. Meanwhile, 8-year-olds are facing the pressure of taking a single test that could flunk them for the year.

There are other signs the push to get academics into the early years is out of control. Some states are now offering cyber-school Pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds. We are seeing increasing problems related to making small children sit in chairs at a desk for long hours. Writers are repeatedly publishing articles about the importance of play for children because somehow we are having an argument about whether a 5-year-old should be working on papers (or a computer) at a desk most of her day. Some states, like Florida, are wringing their hands over the huge number of littles who are testing as "not ready" for kindergarten.

If most of your students are testing as "not ready" for kindergarten, the problem lies with your kindergarten program and not the children. Not that small children can't learn--they are essentially learning machines. But this failure to build developmentally appropriate education for the early years is going to affect an entire generation across all dividing lines. Here's hoping that we do a better job of addressing it over the next year.

Are There Others?

Sure, we could talk about the trouble folks are having filing teacher vacancies-- but that would require some honest reflection by policy makers and leaders. And data mining remains an issue inside the schoolhouse and out. But the list is the one I originally cranked out, and I'm inclined to stick with it for now. Feel free to discuss.

Originally posted at Forbes.com