Tuesday, November 19, 2019

PA: Charter Drains Public Schools, Now Wants To Absorb Them

This week the Philadelphia Enquirer ran the story of a charter operator that wants to take over all of a district's public elementary schools. This is perhaps a logical next step in a district that has been steadily and methodically starved over the past decade. Once you've sucked out the blood and consumed the flesh, what is there left to do but feast on the bones?

The school district is Chester Uplands, and they've been in the charter-related news before. Specifically, they were the poster child for how a careful gaming of the charter system in Pennsylvania could result in huge charter profits. As I wrote at the time:
The key is that while all CUSD students with special needs come with a hefty $40K for a charter school, they are not all created equal. Students on the autism spectrum are expensive to teach; they make up 8.4% of CUSD special ed student population, but only 2.1% at Chester Community Charter School, and a whopping 0% at Widener and Chester Community School of the Arts. Emotionally disturbed students are also costly; they make up 13.6 % of special ed at CUSD, 5.3% at Chester Community, and zero at the other two. Intellectual disabilities make up 11.6% for CUSD, 2.8% for CCCS, and zero for the others. 
Speech and language impaired, however, are pretty inexpensive to educate. CUSD carries 2.4% of the special ed population in this category, but the three charters carry 27.4%, 20.3% and 29.8%.
Back in 2015, this helped put CUSD in the astonishing position of giving more money to charter schools than it received from the state.

Gureghian's PA home, where he
no doubt sits and thinks about
how he does it all for the children
Meanwhile, the district has been under the supervision of a court-appointed receiver since 2012. The state takeover hasn't exactly helped; the administrative side of things is such a monumental mess that in 2017 the state auditor general aid his office could not complete an audit of the district-- too many records were lost or just screwed up. The third of the court-appointed receivers was re-appointed this year--and promptly to spend more time with his actual day job. This is not supposed to mess up the newest recovery plan roll-out, as that work is being done by some hired consultant.

In 2015 the district made a deal for charters to accept less money for students with special needs, but the cyber charters went to court to be exempted-- and the court eventually agreed, giving CUSD a huge retroactive bill to pay cyber charters.

The district has long been attractive to worst of charter vultures. Not just the cybers, but for-profit management companies like CSMI, founded by the infamous Vahan Gureghian, charter school multimillionaire and generous GOP donor.

Currently, charters enroll about half of the 7,000 student district population. CSMI would like to have a larger piece of the pie and run all of the elementary education in Chester Uplands, and it has asked the court to hand them over (because the district itself has no say in this). CSMI runs some charters elsewhere, including a school in New Jersey that is the subject of a whistleblower lawsuit. The suit was filed by a former principal who says she was fired for making a fuss over CSMI's policy of cutting corners to make a buck. Cutting corners didn't just mean cutting services; it also meant falsifying records and misappropriating funds. Great company.

The Palm Beach mansion Gureghian just sold at a profit.
There's probably a whole separate room just for thinking
about the children.
It is unclear how much money CSMI would make on the Chester Uplands deal because, as a private business, it doesn't have to account for its financials activities-- even though they are funded by trhe taxpayers. Do you see why, when someone like Cory Booker or Pete Buttigieg starts talking about how only for-profit charters are bad, they are just selling thinly sliced baloney. Chester Community Charter School is as non-profit school--that generates profits for the CSMI management company that runs it, and runs it like a business and not like a school.

The Inquirer quoted the CUSD school board president--his primary concern isn't the charter takeover of the elementary schools as much as it is the inadequate funding from the state. "Ask them what they have done for 25 years in Chester Upland." He has sort of a point, but the fact is that this non-weathy non-white district is in danger of losing all local control and voice.

This is what chartering as a tool of privatization looks like. Gut the public schools. Chase the students into profitable charters. Strip every last asset from the public school and strip all the power from the voters and taxpayers. Operate charters like businesses; every dollar you spend on students is a dollar you don't get to keep. Make some guy a multimillionaire while stripping public education and democratic voice from the members of a poor community.

Monday, November 18, 2019

PA: Vouchers Are One Step Closer To Ugly Reality

HB 1800, the bill intended to pilot vouchers in Pennsylvania, made it out of committee today. The vote was 13-12, with two GOP representatives (Rosemary Brown and Meghan Schroeder) voting no.

The precipitating excuse for this bill is the school system of Harrisburg, a system that has suffered from financial mismanagement and so was put in financial receivership, a sort of state takeover, last June. By August, House Speaker Mike Turzai was chomping at the bit, because after all, the state had had almost two whole months to turn things around.

Turzai is a Betsy DeVos fanboy with a long-standing dislike for public education, so Harrisburg's vulnerability must strike him as a great chance to once again try to sell vouchers to a GOP-dominated legislature that has already grabbed onto plenty of choice-flavored assaults on public ed.

The foot in the door is the classic voucher approach. It's generally "these will just be for the poor families" or "just for those trapped in a failing school." Turzai has always been a fan of the "We spent all this money on these schools and where are the shiny test scores?" line of reasoning, and Harrisburg schools don't have a lot of friends or political support right now, so they must look like a great chance to start the voucher train rolling in PA.

The bill is ugly. The state-appointed receiver is directed to offer vouchers, without caps and without oversight. Also, the districts have to provide transportation. Half of the voucher amount ($8,200) would come out of local money and half from the state subsidy. And the bill expressly forbids the state from forcing anyone to accept these vouchers-- so private schools can pick and choose which students they want to accept.

It's also worth remembering that where they have been implemented, vouchers tend to pump lots of public tax money into private religious schools.

In other words, this bill will literally require taxpayers to send their tax dollars to schools that may refuse to accept those taxpayer's children.

Turzai is floating the bullshit claim that this will somehow have a financial benefit to the district. It won't. It will drain millions of dollars from a struggling district, allowing only certain select students to move to voucher schools, without any oversight to let the taxpayers know how those dollars were spent. Plus that whole separation of church and state thing.

This bill is bad, bad news. It's another assault on public education, and honestly I don't know why conservatives aren't bothered by the whole "We're just going to send taxpayer money whereever and you don't get to ask any questions about what happened to it ever."

But the thing is out of comittee, which means it will be up for general vote at some point. So if you're in PA, now's a good time to get ahold of your legislator and ask them in forceful terms to vote "no" on this damned thing.

Pondiscio: Success Academy Is Better And Worse Than You Think

Robert Pondiscio is a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a thinky tank steeped in conservative ed reform and staunch advocates of school choice, so one might expect that his book about Success Academy, the famous/infamous charter chain in New York City would be something of a puff piece, one more example of founder Eva Moskowitz’s broad and endless PR campaign. Indeed, the title How The Other Half Learns, seems like a bad sign-- Success Academy is not and does not represent half of anything, and to present it that way might suggest that Pondiscio is setting out a case for SA as an elite solution to education's problems.

It’s not that simple (which could be a subtitle for the book). Pondiscio brings a unique skill set to this work; he was a journalist for his first career and, in a real rarity for Reformsters, he taught in an actual classroom (five years in the South Bronx, not far from where the school that is the subject of this book now stands). Pondiscio enters this project as a fan of choice, and he leaves the same way, but along the way he gives a fairly unflinching look at his year inside the Success chain. Much of the book is commendably objective and reportorial, to the point that it can serve, as Pondiscio suggests, as a kind of Rorschach Test. If you are a supporter of charters and SA, you will find much here to confirm your beliefs; if you are an opponent, you will find many of your critiques confirmed as well. In fact, there isn't a bad thing you've heard about Success Academy that is not here in this book. If I had to pick a bottom line for the book, it would be this:

Success Academy schools are both better and worse than you think. Here are some things I learned from this book.

Success Academy Does, In Fact, Cream

But not the way they’re usually accused of. As Pondiscio details in considerable detail throughout the book, the charter chain doesn’t cream students, but families. From a demanding application process, through repeated meetings that lay out the demands of the charter, even through measuring sessions for school uniforms, through pre-school orientation meetings, Success filters out the parents who are unable or unwilling to meet their requirements. A kindergarten child whose family missed a pre-year orientation session without calling the school to explain their absence arrives on the first official day of school only to be turned away; because of the family’s absence, his seat has been given to a student on the wait list.

Success Academy demands a high degree of involvement from its parents, and only those that are willing to meet and keep meeting that demand make the cut. A not-inconsiderable number of families who make the cut will, after a tough introductory meeting, vote with their feet to attend elsewhere. In the end, Success Academy is populated with students whose families are willing to toe the school line, which helps with what may be the secret of their success.

Success Academy Thrives On A Monoculture

The outcome of that selection process is to find families that are a “culture match” for the school. Likewise, as Pondiscio puts it, “at Success Academy, adults speak with one voice.” The message, from top to bottom, is consistent. Curriculum, pedagogy, discipline, behavioral norms—it all is (or is meant to be) the same from classroom to classroom and building to building.

That monoculture’s reach extends to the home, where homework, reading, and other expectations are expected—demanded—by the school. Pondiscio depicts several school-on-parent interactions that will make public school teachers cringe. Not many parents would tolerate that kind of demanding tone, the kind of “tough love” that permeates the school. There is a central irony here—once these parents exercise the right to choose that Reformsters value so much, these parents will never have any real choice about their children’s education ever again. From sock color to paperwork, they will do as they're told until their child leaves Success Academy.

Parts Of That Culture Are Not Bad 

One aspect that every school in the US could borrow? The Business Operations Manager with a full staff that monitors and maintains every physical aspect of the school. It’s an impressive thing, though it also speaks to one of SA’s secret weapons—a whole lot of money. Still, every teacher who has waited weeks for someone from maintenance to answer their pleas to fix a thermostat or replace a light bulb will gaze in envious marvel at this feature.

Like many SA critics, I have been inclined to see the charter as a sort of grey Soviet Bloc factory, and the charters are, in Pondiscio’s words, “unabashedly behaviorist.” But coming through clearly in this book is the teachers’ love and concern for their students. And that helps feed into the culture’s demand that all these students will succeed (as SA defines success). In the hands of other teachers and staff, that demand to perform could be oppressive and even crushing. But the tempering love and support of the classroom teachers makes more explicit what is implicit in the demand “You will do this,” which is “Because you can do this.” We can, should, and will talk about whether or not the “this” is well-chosen or not, but if you believe an important, transformative element of education is having a teacher who believes in you and believes that you have what it takes, then Success Academy seems to have that.


The system puts an enormous value on compliance. Compliance by students, parents, teachers, administrators—communication is constant and much of it is about compliance, about making sure that everyone is in the same paragraph on the same page. Despite Moskowitz’s denial, Pondiscio rightly identifies SA as very much in the No Excuses camp, and that extends from everything to being on time to sitting to reading logs.

That comes with a huge amount of micro-management, particularly, it seems, of teachers who are seen as not quite on the right page. The staff churn is tremendous, moving both within and out of the chain, and the teachers are all young; someone who has a mere six years in the classroom counts as the building veteran. Pondiscio notes that the youth and inexperience doesn’t seem to get in the way of the school, but that’s because they are all fully set into compliance with the SA model, which, while it doesn’t go as far as actual scripting, expects all teachers at one level to be covering the same material in the same way on the same day at the same time.

It’s another central irony of Success Academy. Eva Moskowitz has made a career out of refusing to comply with school district leaders, civic leaders, or state leaders. But she would not tolerate that level of non-compliance from teachers or students in her charter school.

But is it a bad thing to have everyone on the same page, if it’s the right page?

The Problems 

First, that assumes that any one page can be the right page for everyone. That point may not matter here, since Moskowitz has filled schools based on selecting those who are on that same page.

But another notable feature of SA is how externally things are managed. Students depend on external verification that they have spoken correctly, walked correctly, set correctly. Part of the goal is empower them, and yet at the end of the day, what they’ve learned is that the power they have is to comply with a power greater than their own. This may be why Moskowitz’s first attempt as a high school, as chronicled by Pondiscio, was a failure. It was supposed to mirror a high-toned prep school, and she hired the people to do it, but they found the students weren't ready for it. Well, of course not-- they've enjoyed virtually no independence or self-direction in their academic career and depend on external control and validation at every turn. Also, children are much easier to push into compliance than teens.

There are also plenty of indications that SA is not on the right page. Pondiscio lays out how the SA approach to reading flies in the face of much of what we know about reading instruction. SA is also deeply attached to lexiles and leveling and uses those shaky materials in ways that even their creators wouldn’t approve of.

And then there’s the test. The great holy Big Standardized Test. Moskowitz takes the students to Radio City for a giant pep rally, and test prep dominates the school for a massive amount of time. Pondiscio gives ample space to the work of testing expert Daniel Koretz (author of The Testing Charade) in explaining the many faults, failings, and ill effects of high stakes testing. But in the end he waves it off with a “We could argue about this all day.” We could—but given the work of Koretz and Jay Greene, to name a couple, it would be a hard debate for test apologists to win. Test scores are Moskowitz’s big win, the achievement hook on which much of the charter’s press hangs (though, as Pondiscio notes, only recently have SA students started to score at all well on the city’s competitive high school exams). Are high test scores opening doors for SA alumni?

But perhaps the most surprising thing for me when reading was the degree to which Success Academy seems lost. This may well be my own Rorschach Test speaking, but in their extreme devotion to every single detail, the entire organization reminded me of a beginning teacher who isn’t sure what matters and what doesn’t, so she just lays on everything extra hard, or an English teacher who isn’t sure how to assess an essay, so scores heavily on the size of the margin and the placement of the heading. Each time I was reading about one of the caring, invested teachers, I wondered how they might flourish in a school that didn’t require them to spend their days enforcing compliance by narrating student sitting positions.

As recounted in many profiles, the school seems to exist as an extension of Eva Moskowitz’s will. She rejects the notion of outside consultants, yet rarely have I read her citing any educational research or expert writings to support her notions of how school should work. At one point, she harkens back to the 1940s and how much more smoothly schools worked then, not noting that those schools only served a portion of the population. But for me she and her schools jumped off the page as uninformed amateurs exerting enormous control with enormous certainty that they haven’t earned. And despite all of this, they are absolutely certain of their correctness. "We do it this way because we know it works,' is the message, both internally and externally, but it's an empty assertion (unless you think the purpose of school is to get scores on the state's Big Standardized Test). But that certainty--that unearned confidence is part of the sales pitch. Pondiscio notes that part of charter appeal seems to be safety, and this seems like an extension of that. What could be more safe than a school that confidently, convincingly argues that there is One Right Way to educate children and they adhere to that way, top to bottom?

The charter chain is neither scalable nor sustainable because it exists as her personal vision. It has nothing to teach other charters or the public school system. Get donors to give you lots of money? Teach only the students that will comply with your vision? Public schools already know those nuggets—but that’s not the mission for public education. SA parents echo the thoughts of many charter parents—the school is appealing because it is less chaotic and rarely disrupted, compared to the public schools. It’s a safe space; that’s the other part of its secret to success.

The Big Questions

Is that reason enough for it to exist, and what about the students causing disruption? Pondiscio, in one of his best lines, identifies an issue at the heart of the public vs. charter school debates: “A significant tension between public schools and charter schools is the question of who bears the cost and responsibility for the hardest-to-teach students.”

Who indeed? Pondiscio tracks down a student who disappeared during the year, and hears from the parents of a non-compliant child who was systematically pushed out, and he must reluctantly admit that the story tracks with many other stories like it, told by parents who found the school would use all manner of tools to convince them to get their child out of there. It’s not a good look for the charter.

But for all its faults, Pondiscio suggests, if Success Academy is providing what some parents want and those parents are happy, shouldn’t that be reason enough. Is it any worse than rich parents who buy a home in a nice neighborhood or send Junior off to Fancypants Prep School? I’d argue that it depends in part on the cost. The book ends with an analogy about a lifeboat, suggesting that charters are a way off a sinking ship. But if we’re building the lifeboats out of pieces of the sinking ship, leaving those behind in even greater peril—well, that’s difficult moral calculus. And if the lifeboats really aren’t any more seaworthy than the big ship, have we really saved anyone, or just kept them comfy a little bit longer? And why aren't we trying to do something about the ship instead of building these life boats? And what sort of equity is involved if the lifeboat seats are reserved for only the right sort, the properly compliant sort, of people? As Pondiscio says several times in the book, it’s difficult and complicated.

There's a lot more to this book, but this is already a long post. Read the book. Seriously. It probably won’t change your mind; I still would be leery of sending a child to Success Academy, and under no circumstances would I recommend them as an employer for a young teacher (and they appear uninterested in any other kind). But I understand what’s going on there a bit more clearly, and that’s not a bad accomplishment for a book.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

ICYMI: Soup Party Day Edition (11/17)

My nephew and his wife are hosting a big soup party today, which I'm pretty sure is a first for me. Kids these days. In the meantime, here an assortment of reading material from the week. Remember-- share the stuff that really speaks to you. That's how bloggers become rich and famous- okay, well, not actually. But it is how media outlets find out they should do education coverage, and it's how people hear about the things that you hear about.

LA Schools Graded F for 4+ Years Mostly Serve Low-Income Students

The indispensable Mercedes Schneider unravels how the Louisiana school grading system tells us what we already knew-- the measuring system favors schools with white, well-off students.

Betsy DeVos Might Outlast Them All  

She's not beloved, but she's probably not going anywhere, either. Rebecca Klein at HuffPost explains why.

Khan Academy: A World Class Education For No One 

Alex Lochoff bends over backwards to start by saying that he's not saying that Khan Academy is terrible. Then he does a pretty good job of explaining why Khan Academy is terrible.

What's Wrong With Teacher Raises    

Adam Laats takes a look at what's wrong with taking Hanushek's Grand Bargain of greater pay for tighter accountability.

Why I Won't Be Voting For Bloomberg  

Jan Resseger has a great rundown of Bloomberg's NYC education history, and why it disqualifies him.

Ohio Catholic School Announces Mandatory Random Drug Testing For All Students

Attendance at the school, says the letter sent to parents, is a privilege, not a right.

The Wrong "Scientific" For Education  

Paul Thomas looks at some of the recent uses of the S word and explains why they fail to impress.

Should A Cooperating Teacher Be A Big Fat Jerk?  

Okay, I rewrote Nancy Flanagan's headline, but the idea is the same. On the topic of making life harder for student teachers.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

FL: Yet Another Bad Plan To Not Increase Teacher Pay

So previously there was the Best and the Brightest program, which awarded teacher bonuses based on student test scores and the teacher's own SAT scores. From high school. It had a variety of problems (above and beyond the basic boneheadedness of the idea) and the new governor, Ron DeSantis found it "confusing."

Yes, you can still buy swampland in Florida
This newer, betterer plan comes along with the DeSantis First Year bump-- $600 million intended to increase the minimum salary for teachers to $47,500. Average starting pay in Florida is a hair under $38,000, which raises a whole bunch of questions about how, exactly, this is going to play out. Will some Florida teachers start at $47,500 and then stay there for the next ten years of their careers? Does the state and district pay for these increases by cutting from the top of the pay scale? And as with all of these minimum pay proposals, I look forward to negotiations between the state and local school boards over just how much everyone is going to kick in. After all, a local board member can logically conclude that they might as well lowball salaries and let the state pick up the slack. And what happens down the road when the state decides it doesn't want to fund the bonuses any more, and teachers suddenly get a big pay cut? And what kind of dope thinks that offering a big bump for the bottom of the scale will somehow make teachers want to come and stay for years-- oh. Never mind. This is one of those reformster burn and churn we-don't-0want-them-staying-long-enough-to-cause-trouble ideas, isn't it.

But on to the bonus plan.

The short form analysis is, it sucks.

First, it's a bonus. Teachers don't need bonuses. You can't get a house loan based on your bonus. You can't plan a future on a bonus.

Second, it is not, technically speaking, a teacher bonus. It is a building bonus. Here's the Miami Herald explanation, which was as good as any I saw:

The bonus plan is divided into three tiers: Tier 1 is for schools that earn 85% or greater of the total possible points or gain six or more points in their A-F school grading calculation. Tier 2 includes schools gaining three to five points in their school grade and tier 3 schools gained one to two points in their school grade.

Teachers in Tier 1 schools would receive up to $3,700, $1,750 in Tier 2 schools and $500 in Tier 3 schools. Principals would earn $5,000 at Tier 1 schools, $2,500 at Tier 2 schools and $1,250 in Tier 3 schools. Teachers and principals at Title I schools, or schools with a high number of students from low-income families, would get double those amounts.

So, a couple of things jump out.

One is that once again, bonuses are tied to test scores, which would be great if test scores were indicative of anything having to do with academic achievement. Instead, this looks in the face of a nationally decried over-emphasis on high-stakes testing and attaches more stakes to it. It actually offers schools bribe money to make the problem worse.

But on top of that, we know what test scores are actually tied to-- the socio-economic status of students. I suppose the Title I doubling factor is supposed to compensate for that somehow, but that's like an admission that your system is messed up from the start. Yes, growth is a big factor, but that's not really a help, unless your goal was to incentivize schools to identify students whose scores might be shifted enough to make a difference and then test prep the living daylights out of those children.

Just imagine being the principal at a Tier 3 school, trying to recruit great teachers and knowing that they've already looked at your "bonus" history so they are interviewing with you only as a last resort. It's an inequitable system, and that will drive people to move around and--oh.

This is, of course, just the governor's proposal at the moment, so we have yet to see what Florida's crackerjack legislature will do in response. Maybe it will be awesome enough to earn them a bonus.

Betsy DeVos Accuses FBI Of Ignorance, Blames Public Education (And More)

Never let it be said that Betsy DeVos won't go out of her way to blame US public education for all the ills of the country, real or imagined. In retrospect, it seems like an oversight that she hadn't had a "Kids These Days" moment, but now that omission has been corrected. The young FBI agents are ignorant, and public education is to blame. That's been the headline from this speech, but there's so much more to see.

DeVos was accepting another award, this time from the Independent Women's Forum, an organization founded to provide an alternative to feminism. They actually grew out of the collection of women who formed the "Women for Judge Thomas" committee, a group that got together to defend nominee Clarence Thomas from that scurrilous hussy, Anita Hill. They've been active in opposing various forms of feminism, though they do seem to support the Violence Against Women Act. One of the banners on their website announces that "recognizing progressive privilege is the first step to ending it."

Last week, at their annual awards gala, they handed out three awards. Larry Kudlow was a conservative tv talker picked by Trump to head the National Economic Council. Dana Milbank said Kudlow "may have been more wrong about the economy than anyone alive," but the IWF dubbed him a "Gentleman of Distinction." Kristy Swanson, who was in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie, got a Resilience Award.

And Betsy DeVos was given the Women of Valor Award.

So, of course, she spoke.

She opened by referencing one of the founders of the IWF, Barbara Olson, a conservative tv talker who on September 11 was in the plane that slammed into the Pentagon. She was able to talk to her husband before impact, asking "What can I do?" It's a legitimately gut-wrenching story.

"So," said DeVos, "I accept this award on behalf of all women of action."

And here DeVos lays out her general operating philosophy:

We do what matters. We do what's right. And if someone puts something in our way, we find a way around it... or we just plough right through it.

And she illustrates a story with the tale of a mother of a child with Down syndrome who searched for options until she finally helped establish the Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship Program, which is a Ohio school voucher porogram, so "helped establish" is more like "served as a sympathetic spokesperson for."

But DeVos (or her speechwriting intern) knows this audience. "Nothing can stop a mom on a mission," she says, and after reflecting how "as a mom of four and a grandmother of eight" she knows this stuff, she observes that all moms want what's best for their children. "There really is no greater jobn, no greater vocation, no greater calling than to be a parent." This is IWF orthodoxy. Is there some dissonance here? Like, if the "something in our way" is the husband to whom you're supposed to submit, so you still plough right through? Is it okay to skip a few momming duties if you are busy running political operations in your state capital or jetting off to DC to take a high government position? Is it okay to skim over the parts of the Bible where Paul says, "Sit down and shut up, woman. Who let you get the crazy idea you could tell a man what to do?" (I'm paraphrasing.) To be clear-- I don't have a problem with any of these things. I'm just always curious about why women on the religious right don't, either.

But I digress. DeVos is now going to pivot to her favorite points. The state thinks it knows best! The schoolhouse will replace the home! Government "is generally not the solution to any problem. It's generally the problem. Government has never made anything better or cheaper, more effective or more efficient."

Oh, honey. "Never" is a big word, but I'm going to resist the urge to dig out items like building roads and ending slavery and instead focus in another direction. Because DeVos is sort of correct; there is little that government can do better than you-- if you are a mega-rich white person with plenty of political clout and a well-maintained mega-rich white person bubble. Food and transportation and education and even maintaining enough social order so that the peasants don't come burn down your house-- you can provide all of that better than the government can, particularly if you are only going to worry about providing it for yourself. If you think that government is the Little People's way of forcing their Betters to get them things they don't deserve and asking you to help pay, well, then, yes, you are going to sincerely view government as The Problem.

And DeVos sees government as most especially The Problem in education.

So, we are working to dismantle the government social engineering in education.

Her first specific example is Title IX, which has long been a bugaboo of IWF. Well, sort of the example. Because somehow she gets from Title IX to the campus issues related to handling sexual assaults in house, which can include hushing them up. But she doesn't like the process that some campuses use. Also, she finally gets around to what she really doesn't like-- too many things are being called harassment. Also, punishing speech protected by the First Amendment. Okay, at this point, I'm really not sure what the heck her point is. Is she trying to argue that grabbing a woman's butt or repeatedly propositioning her is protected speech? She complains about the University of Michigan's "Bias Response Team," which no longer exists, but the school still employs 76 diversity-related administrators who cost the taxpayers and students more than $10 million!

They focus on every kind of diversity except a diversity of ideas.

Is this starting to sound like one of those white folks complaining that not only does their company have to hire black people, but he can't even call the black people the N word without some kind of big flap happening? Because that's what it's sounding like. But DeVos goes on to complain about the colleges and universities that "have teams of speech bullies with the power to punish perpetrators of hurt feelings." Holy smokes. I mean, even Barack Obama has called out cancel culture, but DeVos is my age, so I know the world she grew up in, and she has to have been exposed to the idea that language has power and that power has been used to the detriment of plenty of folks.

But belt up, because I'm posting an Excessive Irony Alert:

Feelings are important, but learning isn't about feelings. It's about thinking. And it's a willingness to engage with any and all ideas—even ones with which you disagree or ones that aren't your own.

Says the woman who never, ever engages with ideas that she disagrees with. But there's a real reason for that, and it is on my list of Top Ten Reasons That Conservative Religious Folks Can Be Terrible In Government Office:

This Administration won't let students be silenced. We stand with their right to speak and with their right to learn truth.

Truth can be pursued, and it can be known. Students of all ages need the freedom to seek it.

There it is. If you believe that there is One Truth, then your idea of intellectual growth and development is shaped by that. Your ideas of how to govern are seriously shaped by the notion that the people you serve can be divided into two groupos: people who are right, and people who are wrong. At most, you might be generous enough to believe that the second group is "people who are on their way to being right but aren't there yet."

This is the secret of what some people try to call out as hypocrisy. It isn't, because the idea of hypocrisy is that there is one rule to follow and you ought to follow it with everybody, not just some people. But, see-- if you think the world can be divided into those who are right and those who are wrong, you can also believe that there are different rules for dealing with each.

But I digress, again.

DeVos is off next to the lotteries, and how sad it is that some parents enter charter school lotteries and don't win. Because then they get stuck in public schools that don't work.

She pulls out statistics, and apparently she paid attention to responses the last time she used these bogus figures because instead of saying that two out of three students can't read "at grade level," she says here two out of three can't read "like they should." That's both more and less accurate, because it doesn't pretend to mean anything. Who decides what "like they should" (or "as they should," if you prefer correct usage) even means? But then she tosses out "two out of three who do not know--let alone understand--our country's history like [sic] they should,"

55% of high school seniors have "what researchers call" a below basic knowledge of American history. She says they don't know what the Lincoln-Douglas debates were about, nor recognize a photo of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Heck, Betsy-- that's nothing! I know a high-placed government official who can't think of a single time the government accomplished anything well.

And this is where she dropped the headlining Kids These Days. FBI Director Wray supposedly told her that incoming FBI agents "are so young, they don't really know what happened on September 11, 2001." Kids these days!

So many questions. Did Wray blame it on their youth, which would make sense since a 21-year-old would have been two in 2001? But if so, what were schools supposed to do about that? And what does "don't really know what happened" even mean? How people felt and reacted? What the geopolitical causes were? Heck, I can think of highly placed government officials who seem unable to remember which nations were or were not involved in the attacks.

Now it's time to plug her program. It's time to fix America's "antiquated approach to education" with her Education Freedom Scholarship. She bills it here as the "limited government cure for what plagues American education."

It doesn't grow the Federal bureaucracy one tiny bit. It doesn't create a new Federal "Office of School Choice." It doesn't impose any new requirements on states or on families. It doesn't take a single dollar from public school students. It doesn't spend a single dollar of Federal money. And it doesn't entangle schools with Federal strings or stifling red tape.

In fact, it does every one of those things. Someone will have to screen and oversee the various schools and vendors that want to be recipients of these scholarships, as well as screening and overseeing the organizations that turn the contributions into scholarships. It will give families a different set of paperwork hoops to jump through to apply and stay in the program, and it will require states to follow what's happening with the federal-approved dollars. If all of this doesn't require a Federal Office of School Choice, it will require some batch of bureaucrats somewhere to fulfill the same function. All of that equals red tape for schools--and it had better, unless DeVos intends to have the feds stand by as Pure Aryan Academy starts accepting federal scholarship money.

The "not spending federal money" is a cheap dodge. It's not federal money, technically, because the feds never touch it. But if Education Freedom Bux are capped at $5 billion, that means it will leave a $5 billion hole in federal revenue, which means either something gets cut or more revenue is raised somewhere.

So absolutely everything she has said to sell Ed Freedom Bux is wrong, if not simply a lie.

Nor is it efficient or effective. As a commenter pointed out on line, you probably don't solve your historical illiteracy problem by funding schools that teach that humans and dinosaurs lived together shortly after the earth was created 5,000 years ago. Nor will it free up money that DeVos imagines is now soaked up by some "bureaucratic sponge" that stands between students and their education. If anything, an increase in the number of education providers means an increase in the number of administrators, and when administrators are trying to turn a profit for their edu-business (because it is education flavored businesses that DeVos imagines proliferating), they are about the spongiest thing out there.

But hey-- Jeanne Allen at least should be happy:

I like to picture kids with backpacks representing funding for their education following them wherever they go to learn.

That reminds me-- if you have a chance to see Backpacks Full of Cash, do so.

Education—how and where students learn—should be determined by students and their families. Because it's about them. It's about developing their abilities and pursuing their aspirations. It's about their futures, and it's ultimately about ours. 

Nope. Students and parents are absolutely stakeholders in education, but so are all the other citizens of this country-- and not "ultimately." DeVos is consistent-- education, like other government-provided amenities-- should be the individual's problem to solve. This is faux freedom-- the freedom to worry about your own education, your own health care, your own wages and working conditions, your freedom to manage your life without any help from anyone. Why does DeVos want your education to be "efficient"? Because then it can cost her less, because ideally she'd like to pay $0.00 to educate your children.

She wraps up with some blessings from God, and we're done. I've skipped a few points along the way, but you get the idea. Hard to believe this is the person responsible for overseeing US education.

Friday, November 15, 2019

OH: Outlawing Facts

The Ohio House of Representatives is ready to help students take a bold step forward into the post-fact world. Wednesday they passed (and when I say "they," I mean the solid vote-as-a-bloc GOP) HB 164.

It's called the "Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act of 2019" and it sets out to accomplish a few things:

It removes the limits on exercising expression of student religious beliefs. The old, struck-out language  said the board of education could limit said expression to lunch period or other noninstructional time. That's the piddly stuff.

Under the new language, "religious expression" (the stuff no longer limited to non-instructional time) includes prayer, gatherings (clubs, prayer groups, etc), distribution of written materials, and, well, anything religious, actually, including wearing religious gear or "expression of a religious viewpoint" (as long as it's not obscene or indecent or vulgar). Cue the Church of the Flying Spagetti Monster and the local Satanic Temple; if a student offers a prayer to Satan in the middle of English class and some Christians in the class find that indecent and vulgar, can it be suppressed? Congratulations to the first batch of lawyers and judges that are going to have to sort this out. Double congratulations to whatever government body ends up being responsible for determining which religions are state-certified to be protected under this law.

Students hall have access to school facilities before, during and after school that school hours to the same extent that secular activities may do so. Place your bets now on how many schools will simply ban all before and after school activities in order to sidestep this.

And here's the one that's been drawing headlines (because it is the most spectacularly boneheaded part of this exercise). Let me quote the meat. No school officials shall 

prohibit a student from engaging in religious expression in the completion of homework, artwork, or other written or oral assignments. Assignment grades and scores shall be calculated using ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance, including any legitimate pedagogical concerns, and shall not penalize or reward a student based on the religious content of a student's work.

The bill's sponsor, Timothy Ginter, insists that the bill does not say what it says.

“Under House Bill 164, a Christian or Jewish student would not be able to say my religious texts teach me that the world is 6,000 years old, so I don't have to answer this question. They're still going to be tested in the class and they cannot ignore the class material,” said Ginter.

Ginter has held a variety of jobs, including machinist and marketing guy for an IT company, but for thirty-nine years, he's been an ordained minister.

There are two problems with his insistence that the bill doesn't mean what it says. First, courts often interpret laws based on what they say and not what some legislator claims they meant to say. Second, if Ginter's reading of his own bill is correct, the bill is simply unnecessary.

Critics have already stated that the bill says what it says. The ACLU's chief Ohio lobbyist told Cleveland.com: “Under HB 164, the answer is ‘no,’ as this legislation clearly states the instructor 'shall not penalize or reward a student based on the religious content of a student’s work.”

Students brought in to testify about the need mentioned things like not being included in the school yearbook. As a former yearbook adviser, I'll answer that one-- yearbooks generally stick to activities actually sponsored by the school (I'm betting the yearbook also did not include the 4-H clubs that students belong to). The rights of religious freedom are well-protected; these days, it seems legislators are far more concerned about protecting religious privilege.

This reduces local control, extends the reach of religions into school, and would absolutely end up with a court case abut whether or not Chris can be given a lower score for refusing to answer questions about evolution. Worse, a whole lot of school administrators would greet the adoption of this law by scouring their curriculum to look for everything that could possibly end up in court and figure out ways to avoid it. Mark my words-- some principal or superintendent is going to respond by saying, "Let's just not teach evolution at all, just to stay safe." Congratulations to the science-loving family that drags him into court anyway for cutting out critical units.

The many possible consequences of this bill are a kaleidoscope of awful. It's not just the refusal to do science homework. If the student comes from a religion that believes women should be subservient, can he refuse to have a female teacher, or exercise his religion by ignoring, talking over, and generally harassing female classmates. Is a literature student allowed to go far outside the text to read it through their own lens and then demand an A?

But mostly, how do we run a school in which the religious answer on homework or a test is "correct," even when it isn't? Who keeps the running list of which religious beliefs are to be considered correct, or will students just be free to make them up as they go, like God-sponsored Calvinball. And who will be able to provide oversight for the believers who follow anything not-Christian? If I take my oral exam in tongues, will that do? And the rest of the bill is no small thing, either. Exactly how far can my exercise of my religion go during instructional time? Silent prayers? Loud prayers? Bursting into song? Berating my gay classmates?

This is a dumb law. Declaring the religion must supercede facts is dumb, bad news for both religion and facts. This is a dumb law. It's the kind of law folks pass when they've spent too much time thinking about how to score points back home with the Jesusians and too little time thinking about how the law will actually play out. Here's hoping the Ohio senate smashes it flat.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

NAEP Board Gets DeVosian Additions

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos just announced six new appointees (and one returnee) to the National Assessment Governing Board. These are the folks that oversee the National Assessment of Educational Progress aka NAEP aka the nation's report card aka that big standardized test that everyone tries to use to prove a point every year.

So who did we get?

Returnee Alberto Carvalho, plus Frank Edelblut, Eric Hanushek, Reginald McGregor, Martin West, Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst, and Carey Wright.

It's the reformster-heavy kind of group you would expect from DeVos. If the Curmudgucation Institute had a graphics department, they would totally be working on some sort of Snow White and the  Seven Dwarfs art.

Hanushek is an economist specializing in linking children's earnings to teacher effectiveness (I mean, what else could it be, right?) and who just recently mused that teacher pay should be linked to measures of teacher effectiveness, even though we don't have any.

Whitehurst is, for me, a mixed bag. A Brookings guy (boo) who once did a pretty good job of trying to get DeVos to say non-dumb things about choice (yay), but whose name is also on a "report" that argues we should test more (boo) and that when it comes to teacher evaluation, administrator observations should be more like VAM (booooo).

West is a professor at Harvard's uber-reformy GSE and editor-in-chief of Education Next, the Harvard GSE publication that carries work from the Fordham-AEI-Bellwether axis of reformsterdom. He's a Massachusetts state ed board member, too.

Wright is the chief state school officer for Mississippi, a state that is pretty awful when it comes to education, but they got their NAEP scores to go up, so she's an expert now. She's a Broadie, too.

McGregor is a "business representative" whose day job is the manager of engineering employee development and STEM outreach in the Research & Technology Strategy Group at Rolls-Royce Corporation in Indianapolis and he serves on a school board.

Edelblut is the real clunker here. Businessman, venture capitalist, and one-term state representative, then he ran for governor, lost in the primary and threw his weght behind Chris Sununu, who rewarded him with the education commissioner job. Edelblut has no actual education background; he didn't even serve on an education committee during his single term, and his kids are homeschooled. As commissioner, he has backed all manner of choice and vouchers and has happily signed up for as many DeVosian Freedom Bucks as he can get.

Oh, and Carvalho is the superintendent in Miami-Dade. You know DeVos isn't going to let a Florida guy go.

I have no idea how much mischief this crew can actually wreak, but it's not a group that I'm excited about having close to any educational policy activity. Add it to your list of reasons for not taking NAEP results so very seriously.

Pearson In Your Pants

Pearson, the edu-product giant that hopes to eat the world, just announced a new product.

It's part of the overall Pearson vision-- and nobody does large-scale vision like Pearson. They see everything happening in a "digital ocean." They have ideas about an "assessment renaissance" so huge that it took me five posts to write about it (here's the shorter version). And just this summer, they announced their intention to go "digital first." That is, not exactly phasing out textbooks entirely, but focusing on the digital; instead of offering digitized versions of print textbooks, they'll now work the other way around. Fun fact: "62% of Pearson revenue now comes from digital or digitally enabled products and services that make lifelong education possible."

It's very much in tune with their website slogan, "Learning Without Limits." That seems like a big reach, but again, Pearson has a big vision. What other textbook publishing company would offer two categories on its K-12 page: Products & Services, and Thought Leadership.
So this week's announcement is in tune with all of that.

Meet Aida Calculus. It's an app you can put on your phone, only that makes it sound too pedestrian, like one more version of Candy Crush. Hey, Pearson! Can we have some overly florid martket-speak here?

Aida is a first in the education industry and an important milestone in the use of artificial intelligence (AI) for learning. It's the only education app that uses multiple AI techniques from deep learning and reinforcement learning, customized for the purpose of tutoring students. The use of similar advanced AI algorithms is only seen in major consumer apps. Pearson is the first to apply that level of innovation in the education space.

Pearson CEO John Fallon boasts that "it's the first step we're making in redesigning education for the talent economy." It has thirty (30!!) "explainer videos." The Aida brand (which will be rolling out other edu-apps) takes its name from a combination of AI and Ada Lovelace (a 19th century mathematician and daughter of Lord Byron and just a hell of an interesting woman).

It can look at your homework, check your answers, offer tips. It uses AI that is the most AI-y AI that ever AI-ed in a piece of educational software. There's nothing AI-ier.

You can use the app for free for the rest of 2019, and if you want to try it and let me know how swell it is, I'd be glad to hear about it. I am in no position to try out a calculus app (my math education ground to a tortured halt somewhere around late-stage trigonometry).

Like all personalized [sic} learning, Aida offers several other implied promises, like someday you won't need a university or K-12 school-- you can just use your education voucher credits to buy apps for your phone that will automatically store your credentials on the blockchain and we'll never need any kind of formal education ever again. So I'm not going to encourage that by downloading it.

Will Aida actually work. Because ed tech folks have a history of overpromising everything all the time, with predictions and promotions that attempt to portray their product as an inevitable next step in human development. Maybe this time the super-duper AI will really deliver. Or not.

Actually, there's another reason I'm not trying out the app. Phone apps are like all those dumb games on Facebook (only worse) because if you're not careful, you are giving them al sorts of access to all the information about you that is stored on that phone. I'm not prepared to trust the folks who believe that the future belongs to those who have taken control of harvesting from the data ocean
(and who have already been hacked). Phone apps are convenient, a world of useful software right there in your pocket, but I'm not quite ready to let Pearson get into my pants just yet.

FTC Cracks Down On Edu-Influencers

One of the small tricks that education marketers have developed is to enlist teachers as brand ambassadors. Teachers are, after all, the voices most often trusted by other teachers, so it's got to be a real boost if you can get Mrs. Teachwell to tout your product on Twitter or Instagram or Pinterest. And the beauty of it is that Mrs. Teachwell may come cheap-- some free product, box of pens, maybe even some actual money.

It's a fuzzy ethical line; do teachers who accept some sort of marketing deal compromise their professional judgment? On the other hand, if you find an edu-product you really like, isn't the fact that you can get a few goodies for plugging just sort of gravy? People are not exactly lined up to give teachers things. Still, it's a pain to be talking to someone who you think is just offering a professional insight and then it turns out they're a paid-ish endorser.

Now the FTC has decide to add its voice to the conversation. EdWeek talked to FTC attorney Michael Ostheimer to get some clarity on the new rule, and it doesn't seem very hard tp grasp.

The connection between an endorser and a brand—whether it’s swag or a trip or getting paid money—that should be disclosed to the endorser’s audience,” said Ostheimer.

Just noting the connection in your profile is not enough. Every time you post about how awesome the Gradeinator 3000 is, you must also post that you are a Gradeinator 3000 Ambassador.  The guidelines indicate that you must reveal any "financial, employment, personal, or family relationship." Financial is of course not limited to being handed cash. Some of the guidelines are sensible (the notification has to be plain and clear and in the same language as the rest of the communication) and some of them will be  challenging. Liking a tweet or post by Gradeinator 3000 counts as an endorsement, so somehow your "like" will have to include your relationship. If you're doing a live stream that involves the Gradeinator 3000, you need to include your relationship frequently, so that your audience can't possibly miss it. (If you just really like the Gradeinator 3000 and you say nice things about for free, then you're off the hook.)

The rules don't seem to include second-hand benefits. In other words, my school district sent me to Seattle for PLC training, which was a definite benefit, but that was m district's money, not the PLC people's. But what about my SMART board training? The district paid for it, but the company certified me as a trainer, and my trainer status let me earn more hours toward my continuing education requirements, which were necessary for me to keep my job. That trainer status could have allowed me to make some extra side bucks as well, but I didn't. So did I get a financial benefit from the SMART board people or not? Ditto for anyone who has a collection of official Microsoft certifications.

The companies are supposed to get their "ambassadors" or "endorsers" or "influencers" or "good buddies" up to speed on all this, but it seems fair to be skeptical about that happening. If you want a quick primer, there's a nifty video that I'll embed. In the meantime, if you are all excited about the swag you're going to score by pushing the Gradeinator 3000, you might want to pause a moment and study up.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

ICYMI: Happy Birthday, Mom Edition (11/10)

Today is my mother's birthday, so there will be cake involved later. She's a pretty swell lady, so it's a day worthy of cake. Also, if you look to the right, you'll see that I've revamped the blog list and added a section of websites of interest that aren't necessarily blogs. So you can poke through that if you like. In the meantime, here's some reading from last week.

What Betsy DeVos Got Wrong About Detroit Schools

From the Detroit Free Press. Spoiler alert: almost everything.

Cassellius Puts Moratorium Onn District's Standardized Tests  

Boston's superintendent has concluded that an endless battery of practice and pre-tests might not be a great idea, so she's pressing pause.

The Failure of Betsy DeVos and 30 Years of Corporate Influence on Public Education

Nancy Bailey offers a brief but worthwhile history lesson about the true origins of public school problems.

The Stories of Segregation  Academies as Told By The White Students Who Attended

A fascinating new project gives us a chance to see an ugly chapter of US education history a bit more clearly.

Are Teachers Allowed To Think for Themselves

Steven Singer wants to know why teachers are highly trained, yet widely ignored.

More Testing Is Not The Answer For NYC Students, But Smaller Classes Could Be

Liat Olenick in the Gotham Gazette offers the cray thought that New York City schools might want to try a solution for which there is actual evidence of effectiveness.

What Is "Quality" Music? Choosing the Best Materials for Our Students

Nancy Flanagan is writing about the recent flap over what to include or throw out in the music ed library, but her thoughts here are useful for literature teachers, too.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Digital Curriculum And Lesson Management Is A Crock

Ed Tech overpromises in so many areas, but one the great lies is that implementing This Year's Great New Program is going to save teachers just oodles of time. It never does. It particularly never does when it comes to the kind of software leviathan's used to manage curriculum and lesson plans. 

The sheer volume of data entry for these programs (enter the curriculum, unit plans, lesson plans, all cross-linked to the state standards) is enough to suck up hours of work on a weekly basis, particularly if your district has saddle you with one of the more user-unfriendly examples of the species.
"Well, yes, at first," is the standard reply. "But once you get everything entered, there's barely any work at all." Which is almost sort of true-ish if you teach mostly the same stuff in the same order on the same days from year to year. Sometimes you get the build-as-you-go argument-- if you enter all your units and all your lessons as you go this year, you'll just sort of build the curriculum organically. 

But it's still not true, because Ed Tech is just like regular old Tech when it comes to its love for the latest fashion. The tech world is not much interested in longevity and staying power: "Let's come up with a device with an effective life of at least a decade and power it with software that we'll never mess with but alway support," is not the rallying cry of any tech company. 

This blithe dismissal of the future is sometimes stunningly obtuse. Years ago, yearbook publishing companies were pushing digital yearbook supplements, extras that would carry lots of pictures and even videos stored on cool new CD-Roms. I'm sure that some schools went for this shiny deal, and now, over a decade later, those discs are useful as coasters or mini-frisbees, while old fashioned paper yearbooks from a century ago work just fine. 

But curriculum management software is arguably worse.

Consider the example of my old district. Our first attempt at digitizing the English department curriculum came over a decade ago. It involved some very user-unfriendly software in which we invested a mountain of person-hours until the administrator whose pet project it was left the district and the project was mothballed.

Around six or seven years ago, the district did a soft rollout of another package that was a little more sophisticated. Some of us were trained to be the vanguard, and then the rest of the staff was added. This was supposed to follow the cumulative model, with units and lessons building to a curriculum. An administrator decreed that all weekly lesson plans would be submitted on the software; their successor directed us not to worry about it too much. It was glitchy and unfriendly and some folks took the bet that nobody was actually paying attention, and stopped using it (some won the bet, and some lost). 

During one of the very first training sessions, somebody (I might have been the person) asked  just how long the district's commitment to this software would extend past the initial free-to-us grant-fueled period. 

The answer turns out to be, "Till right about now." There is, of course, no compatibility between software platforms, so my former colleagues are now apparently condemned to manually enter everything all over again. 

A fair question-- is all this accumulated and discarded hourage resulting in some beneficial curricular datafication?

Well. During the first round of digitizing, we had to do a lot of formating, phrasing and framing on our own, so I asked (I'm certain I was the asker on this one) what exactly was the purpose of the end product. Who was going to open this up, and once they opened it up, they would be using it to do...... what, exactly? I did not get an answer, though I did get one of those administrative Not A Team Player looks.

With Program #2, it was clear that one of the supposed benefits was a feature that allowed us to drag-and-drop individual state standards to each lesson, unit, etc, thereby allowing administrators to see what "gaps" we had in our standards alignment. This is a benefit if one assumes that A) having all the standards (created by a small group of edu-amateurs with no basis in research or evidence) represented makes curriculum better and B) that screen-weary teachers don't align their units by simply dragging and dropping every standard in sight just to get the job done. 

So, useful for administrators. But for teachers? For teachers, these programs are mostly a solution in search of a problem. Is it easier to write your lesson plan on a computer or a piece of paper? More importantly, is it easier to consult your lesson plan on a screen or on a piece of paper? 

Here's an underdiscussed ed tech issue-- paper makes for a really versatile display medium, while software usually forces you to look at your stuff the way the software manufacturer thinks you should. Lesson plans-- particularly if we're supposed to cross-check them with units and other weeks of instruction and state standards-- are a fairly complicated thing to display, particularly because it involves some information that the teacher may or may not need  at the moment. And then there's the issue of making on-the-spot alterations (e.g. didn't get all the way through exercise 12, so start with that tomorrow). It's entirely possible that there are teachers out there who start every lesson by pulling up the digital version of their lesson plan, but I haven't met them yet (you can speak up in the comments). Meanwhile, plenty of teachers still use paper to plan lessons, transcribe it into the software, and then use the paper to do the work (that, of course, in addition to teachers who don't use traditional lesson plans at all,  but that's another conversation).

There are other benefits to digitized curriculum. The more detailed standardized format makes it easier to, say, tell Mrs. McTeachalot to go pull up Mrs. Teachovik's planning for her Modern Numerology class and take it over.  If we could just get teachers to record their lesson planning in greater detail, we could more easily replace them, and if multiple teachers have the same course, you've got one centralized digitized record of exactly how they should all be teaching it. And if you use software that also allows for entering all the assessments, pretty soon you'll have your whole district recorded and transferable to any warm body. As an administrator, you can check up on what your teachers (say they) are doing. And did I mention you can check to make sure that all the standards are being covered. 

Yeah, you may have noticed that none of these benefits are actually benefits for teachers. I can think of one-- if the district decides to fund extra hours to get the data entry done, teachers have a chance to make some extra money doing work that will be thrown out in a few years. So much better than filling up binders that will gather dust on some shelf somewhere in the district office. 

Friday, November 8, 2019

FL: Even The State Thinks Florida Virtual School Needs To Shape Up

Virtual charter schools have a lousy track record, so bad that even bricks-and-mortar charter advocates have called for them to shape the hell up. Meanwhile, Florida has implemented every reformy method of undercutting public schools that could be imagined. So it's entirely predictable that Florida would have its own cyberschool, and that it would be a mess. But a lucrative one, as under previous governor Rick Scott, the state added a graduation requirement that every student must take an online course.

The school itself? Well, a 2014 Harvard Kennedy School study found that FLVS was "not significantly worse" than public school. For some reason, FLVS did not include that in their marketing.

Florida Virtual School was launched in 1997 by the state, and has since spun off into a sort of private beast that offers franchises to school districts. Problems have ensued regularly since. For instance, in 2018 the on-line school suffered a massive data breach,  characterized by one expert as not so much a hack as the school "left the door open."

The most recent round involved the Orlando Sentinel trying to plumb the depths of the work of Frank Kruppenbacher, the once-attorney of FLVS. The Sentinel learned that the lawyer had been mixing his FLVS work with that of other clients, jobs, and his own family. He used school employees to do work elsewhere, hired family, and, additionally, was apparently a sexist jerk to staff. The school kept all of this under wraps, including a nasty court battle; FLVS not only refused to release documents, but filed a civil lawsuit against the Sentinel for asking.

How bad did it get? So bad that state edu-honcho and former actively anti-public ed legislator Richard Corcoran recommended a big-time audit of FLVS, and Governor Ron "Never Met A Privatizing Scheme He Didn't Like" DeSantis agreed. Previous Governor Rick Scott had loaded the FLVS board of trustees with folks who were cozy with Kruppenbacher, and DeSantis has made some noise about changing that, too.

This summer a new FLVS head was appointed, and some board was shuffled as the state took control of FLVS. The new appointees are all politically connected, with nary a molecule of actual education experience in sight (though Corcoran does know one from church). So there's no reason to expect things to look up there.

And last week, the audit arrived, sort of. Giant chunks of the almost $200K report were cut-and-pasted from existing sources. Because, Florida. Nevertheless, the report recommends "a new governor-appointed board, new ethics standards for employees and a new inspector general inside the school to oversee internal audits and investigations."

It's another top-notch Florida-style swamp of shenanigans, and at this point the nations first state-wide cyberschool doesn't seem to have anyone in its corner. Though at the same time, the only solution being considered is putting someone else sit on the deck and watch as FLVS continues to wander adrift. Maybe someone should be suggesting to scrap the whole mess.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Hanushek Offers Teachers A Grand Bargain

If there is anything we don't lack in the education sphere, it's economists who know all about how to make education work real betterer. Two faves are Raj Chetty and Eric Hanushek, who have both pushed some super-great ideas. You probably remember the one about how the right first grade teacher can mean you'll make umpty-zillion more dollars in your lifetime, a piece of foolery that might be called speculative economics, a house of cards based on so many tissue-thin assumptions, guesses and Hail Marys that it's hard to believe-- well, it boils down to sexy, memorable headline, so that's why you've heard it.

Anyway. Hanushek is over at EdWeek this week with a proposition, a proposal, a Grand Bargain, if you will-- but you probably shouldn't.

This guy, still.
Much of this is vintage Hanushek, but he's hung it on the current vogue for noticing that teacher4 pay is lousy and teacher working conditions are failing to attract hordes of awesome meat widgets. Sadly, this is what some folks think would be a grand solution.

Hanushek opens with some concern trolling-- teacher pay etc really is bad, as witnessed by tough job actions across the country over the past years, but "sequential appeasement of these outbreaks of union combativeness and teacher frustration will almost certainly not help the students and will likely make teachers worse off in the long run."

Hanushek is clear on the pay thing; he's done some of the research on the teacher penalty, aka the money that people give up to join teaching rather than other similarly-trained professions. And he is trying to dance on a thin line. On the one hand, he says, the low pay means that the teaching corps is not exactly the cream of the crop (and he throws in frickin' PISA results to underline his point, which is an odd  choice, given that US results have been mediocre forever, regardless of the ups and downs of the teaching pool). On the other hand, he says, "The bad balance between salaries and effectiveness does not mean that it is all right to bash teachers for not being better." And then he delivers his entry for the Backhanded Compliment Hall of Fame:

In fact, the nation ends up with a surprisingly good teaching force given the salary levels and working conditions. We attract many people who—for love of kids, for feeling of social purpose, or for what-have-you—are willing to take on the challenges of teaching.

Yes, I remember well the moment I realized that I could hear the call of what-have-you, and knew that I really wanted to pursue the something-or-other that could express my whatchamacallit somehow-or-other through kind of doing the teaching thingy. Thanks for noticing, sir.

But we're finally coming up on the meat of his argument, and it's the same old full-of-filler burger that he's pushed before. We need to fix schools by filling them with better teachers. How to do it?

First, he wants you to know that some teachers are more effective than others-- but we don't know what characteristics make some teachers more effective than others (but it's not education or longevity). Second, he wants to point out that simply raising salaries won't help, because it will retain both most and least effective teachers.

This is where the Grand Bargain comes in.

This bargain is simple: a substantial increase in teacher salaries combined with policies that produce a significant tilt toward more effective teachers.

Sigh. There are so many things wrong here, but this exercise in unicorn farming has been a favorite of modern reformsters.

First, we don't know what characteristics mark a highly effective teacher, so we inevitably go back to outcomes, aka test scores. The Grand Bargain has been proposed many times, and it's not that grand-- it just says "We'll pay the most money to the teachers with the highest test scores." But test score results are inconsistent and only cover math and reading. There's an underlying assumption here that's problematic-- the assumption that a teacher's effectiveness is some sort of set, permanent state, like their eye color or height. But with the exceptions of the extremes (superteachers and classroom disasters), most teachers are different levels of effectiveness on different days with different students. Teacher effectiveness is hard to measure in part because it is a moving target.

Hanushek has anticipated the argument about a lack of valid, reliable evaluation tools:

Mentioning evaluation often brings out a slew of arguments aimed at showing that any evaluation system—whether involving measures of student learning, supervisor and peer ratings, or parental input—has potential flaws. The claim that teachers can't be evaluated meaningfully stands in stark contrast, however, to what is seen in the vast majority of complex jobs across the economy.

Hanushek frames this as if these objections emerge as some rhetorical ploy; I'd say these objections emerge because there are real problems and people just keep pointing them out. And that last sentence-- I bet you think the next paragraph is going to offer an example of a complex job comparable to teaching that is meaningfully evaluated. Nope. He has no example to offer, and granted he has only so much space, but I'm going to argue that he has no example because there is no example because teaching is actually unlike any other profession. It stands in "stark contrast" to "what is seen" (by whom, anyway--oh, that passive voice) because the profession has some stark contrasts to other professions. For instance, health care professions might seem similar, but everyone who seeks medical help has the same basic goal-- to be made healthy. But the "customers" of schools have hundreds of different desired outcomes, from employable skills to bolstered self-esteem. Not to put too simple a spin on it, but education seems different because education is different.

So what else can Hanushek throw in? Perhaps some condescension.

To set a new, more positive path on evaluation, union leaders might take seriously one strand of their own rhetoric: We need to professionalize teaching. To some, professionalizing teachers means paying teachers the same as accountants. A more apt definition is professionals are people willing to be held responsible for their performance.

Really, dude? You are going to go with the old reformster whinge that teachers don't want to be held accountable for their performance? Because teachers are held accountable every day of their career. If you design a lousy lesson, you suffer some immediate accountability delivered by the roomful of small humans who will make you pay for your bad choice. Every parent has access to phones and email. Parenrts, administrators, board members, taxpayers--A teacher has a thousand bosses, and every one of them has some ideas about what that teacher should be doing.

Maybe what you want to say is that teachers should be subject to a formal accountability system that makes them pay a financial price for not meeting whatever standards we're measuring this week. But first-- as you've already acknowledged-- teachers have already paid a financial penalty for being teachers. And second-- and this is a huge one-- you don't have a functional, valid, reliable system for evaluating teachers, and until you do, teachers have to live with the possibility of those levers falling into the wrong hands, because here's the thing-- there is always someone who thinks we suck, someone who is a sure that we're a terrible teacher and a blot on the profession.

But to argue that because we don't want bad accountability systems, we don't want acountabillity at all-- that's just insulting. Teachers are just fine with accountability-- it's part of the what-have-you that drove us to teach in the first place, the drive to be able to look in the mirror and say, "You did good."

Hanushek winds up imagining that somehow such a system would involve union input and manages at the very last minute to throw in the old chestnut that "enhanced student achievement would engender broad economic gains across society." This is a piece of unsupported baloney,. but it fits the "if we just get everyone to score real high on the Big Standardized Test, poverty and income inequity will be erased and we won't have to address those issues at all" narrative. We've had years to see if this really works. Spoiler alert: it doesn't. One would hope that a truly professional economist would be willing to suffer some financial accountability for having pushed an inaccurate theory on education policy.