Wednesday, August 21, 2019

The Thirteen Presenters Who Will Ruin Your First Day Back

It's been a great summer. You've had a chance to recharge and reflect. You've developed some new ideas, units, and materials, and most importantly, away from the dailiness of the job, you have gotten back in touch with all the reasons you love the work. You cannot wait to get back to it., take a couple of in service days to get fully up to speed, and then-- bring on the students!

Unfortunately, your administration thinks that your very first day(s) back should be spent sitting in some professional development sessions. In some lucky few school districts, these sessions will actually be useful and even  inspiring. But if you are really unfortunate, you'll spend those sessions with one of these soul-crushing people:

The Defense Specialist

"I'm here to remind you that at any moment this year, someone might burst into your room and kill you and your students. I'm going to talk about how you should react when someone is about to shoot you, presenting a variety of scenarios and details of previous shootings that will all be so vivid that for the rest of this week you won't be able to concentrate on teaching material because you're too busy looking for hiding places in the room, peering into your own soul to consider whether or not you are the kind of person who would die for your students, and just generally staring into the abyss of human mortality and brutality."

The Social Issues Specialist

"I'd like to talk to you about some issue that affects your students-- something like hunger or poverty or gang violence or homelessness or whatever drug is currently out of control. I will remind you that many of your students are being slowly crushed by forces outside of your control and you will need to be sensitive to that, which is the classroom equivalent of sending thoughts and prayers. I represent a group that is trying to address the issue, but we are desperately short of both time and money, and you will end up being depressed that the two things we need are the two things that you don't have enough of to contribute anything helpful."

The Data Dumper

"Here's a bunch of test score data. Some of it's on this website with lots of cool color-coded graphics. Here are some spreadsheets. Here's some disaggregated data on students that you won't actually meet for a few days. Of course, you can't see the test or the questions, and you'll just have to take our word for it that these numbers mean what we say they mean. None of this will actually be useful in planning your courses, but it will serve as a gut-kicking reminder that no matter how  awesome you  are in the classroom this year, all your bosses really care about is the results of this damned useless invalid test. Those of you who don't even teach English or Math can go ahead and get extra depressed and angry about this."

The Education Entrepreneur

"I was plodding along in a classroom just like yours until I had the bright idea of taking something that's a widely known teaching technique and giving it a small superficial tweak and a snappy piece of branding. I copyrighted that puppy and now-- ka-ching! You will spend the next hour looking at my nice clothes, thinking about my cool car, and questioning your life choices."

The Ballsy Tourist

"Every one of you has more training, experience and knowledge about teaching than I do. Sit back and get comfortable while I tell you how to do your job. I thank God that teachers are too professional and polite to charge the lectern, no matter how much rage I generate."

The Sacrificial Lamb

"I'm a teacher in this district. You all know me. The fact that administration sent me out here to present this program/policy/initiative tells you everything you need to know. It sucks, and they don't want to have to look you in the eyes or take your questions when you realize just how much it sucks. They're hoping that I have enough social capital earned with the rest of the staff that there will at least not be immediate open revolt."

The Lawyer

"I'm going to scare the crap out of you with a list of all the possible ways that things you do innocently every single day could destroy your career and ruin your life. Have a great year."

The Edu-Celebrity

"I'm chirpy and internet famous, which makes sense because I mostly talk in Tweets. I'm going to say obvious platitudes like 'attitude is important' and 'we teach students, not subjects.' The biggest damage I will do is the permanent loss of respect you're about to feel for your colleagues who think I'm a freakin' genius."

The Flavor of the Month

"Let me tell you about the Hot New Idea in education that your administration got excited about at some conference, or maybe they read an article.  Whatever. Yeah, you might recognize me from last year when I was making the rounds to talk about grit. Never mind.  That's over. You're probably thinking that you can ignore me and keep your head down until this trendy new storm passes, and you're probably right. That's okay. I'm still getting paid."

The Angel Of Slow Death

"What am I talking about? You have no idea, because I am the most boring speaker in the history of the world. Watch as all the oxygen in the room spontaneously self-deports."

The Bringer of Bad News

"I am a person in a position of authority, so you can't just openly howl in anguish as I detail a piece of educational malpractice that you will be required to perpetrate this year. 'This is not why I became a teacher' will play over and over in your head as I outline the kinds of actions that ought to be denounced by any ethical professional. Ten years ago I used to try to get you to buy in on this stuff, but now my message is do this or else.  What the hell do you know? You're just a freakin' teacher."

The Unfortunate Administrator

"Hey, there! Remember me? Chances are you kind of put me out of your mind over the summer, but I wanted to grab some of this in service day for myself so that I could remind you of all the ways I'm a giant pain to work for. Here's some cool new paperwork and procedures I've concocted; we'll go over those in a few minutes, because I would rather force you to look at and listen to me than just handle this with a simple e-mail, but first, let me say some things I don't really mean, like 'this is a team' and 'you guys do the most important work in the district' and 'my office door is always open.' Now I'll tell a bad joke laced with a crippling lack of self-awareness. Watch who laughs! Dance, puppets!"

The Camp Counselor

"Let's start with a fun ice breaker! Then we'll pair and share over some question you'll ignore while you pair and share about how much you wish you were getting work done in your room. If you're good, I might even let you play some games that you would never use with your own students, but some of you will play along anyway because I have some fast food gift certificates to give away as prizes."

Monday, August 19, 2019

KY: Starting the New Year With Threats Against Teachers

Sadly, it's not unusual for teachers to start their new school year by being threatened, but even the worst administrators understand that it's useful to at least pretend that they think of teachers are respectable grown-up professionals. But in some districts, bosses go straight to thinly veiled warnings. And then there's those special rare occasions when teachers start the school year by being threatened by their state's governor.

Welcome to Kentucky.

All discussions of teacher upset in Kentucky have to start with one important reminder-- teachers in Kentucky will get absolutely nothing from Social Security when they retire (surprised? There are fourteen other states where that is true).

So when you mess with teacher pensions in Kentucky, you are threatening teachers' entire future.

The recurring strikes in the newly right-to-work state of Kentucky have been about issues related to the teacher pension, an always-tender subject, as it is possibly one of the worst-funded pensions in the country. So, in  2018 it was about a sneaky attempt to kneecap the pension fund. And in 2019, it was about an attempt to strip the Kentucky Education Association of its power on the pension board. This is a logical next step in a right-to-work state that is just flexing its muscles and trying to  disempower the teachers union. Some media dutifully note that KEA "only" represents 43,000 active and retired teachers, without providing the context that there are just under 43,000 teachers are working in Kentucky.

The state wants to give more power to the Kentucky Association of Professional Educators, one of those non-union unions. They say they aren't anti-union, but they also proudly list the many things they don't do, and just leave the "like those other guys" part silent. They've been at this for quite a while, providing teachers with, basically, liability insurance and propaganda to counter that nasty union propaganda, while making it a point not to take a position on any legislation (aka supporting the party in power, aka GOP). Many legislators (GOP) belong to the group, which heads its website with the motto "KAPE Stands for Truth." It might be nice if they also stood for teachers.

KAPE has about 3,000 members, but the legislature would like to see them on equal-or-better footing  with KEA on the pension board, thereby playing into a long-standing tension between the two groups.   Legislators say they don't like the idea of one group having so much say over the pension, which is a little bizarre when you recall that the pension being discussed belongs to KEA members. Kentucky teachers found it  more than just bizarre, so they walked out again.

Which brings us up to the threatening part.

Kentucky's Labor  Cabinet announced that they believed that the teacher walkout was illegal, and that they had the authority to hit every teacher who walked out with a $1,000 fine. Governor Bevin, a DeVos BFF who has made it more than clear that he's no fan of teachers or public education, decided not to actually levy the fine, but his Labor Secretary made it clear that next time, books would be thrown

“Let it be clearly understood that the grace extended in this instance will not be extended for future such proven violations,” he warned.

Kentucky House Democrats at least seem to have a grasp of the situation:

House Democratic leaders responded with a joint statement, saying, “This administration has tried every trick in the book to undermine our teachers and their supporters. Its Labor Cabinet threatens them with fines for exercising their right to be heard on legislation directly affecting them; its Finance and Administration Cabinet all but locks the doors to the Capitol to shut down any form of dissent; and the governor calls them thugs and tries to take away their retirement. Our teachers — and all of Kentucky — deserve better than this.”

You generally don't want to start the school year with a message that says, "We have more plans for you guys, and whatever we decide to do, you had better just sit there and take it quietly--  or else." But the Kentucky governor and his GOP allies have been consistently unpleasant to teachers for a while now, and Kentucky teachers remain largely unbowed. Stay tuned for what comes next.

Raising Your Public School Profile

Modern corporate education reform has, in its own way, helped reveal many things that public education does badly. Teach for America, for instance, probably wouldn't have been quite so widely embraced if it weren't that some college teacher prep programs are inexcusably awful.

And then there's the unleashing of free market forces.

The free market does not foster superior quality; the free market fosters superior marketing. Some choice advocates imagine a world in which families just check out the test scores for schools, but if marketing was about quality, we'd all have spent decades drinking New Coke while we watched movies on our Betamax machines. No, charter marketing has been more like the PA cybers that advertised that their schools would make students happier and leave them more time to become sports stars.

But the explosion of marketing in education has revealed another public education weakness-- many public schools really stink at letting the public know what they do.

When I retired, I was surprised at how quickly my former school district became invisible. I knew that being in it every day made me acutely aware of what was going on there, but I was still unprepared for how much the school does not communicate with the community at large.

A cursory check of schools in the region revealed more of the same. Websites that are strictly Web 1.0 (the equivalent of hanging a folder of brochures on a stick at the end of the school driveway). No social media presence (except on snow days). Not even a reliable place to go look up school events.

The problems that ensue are worse than simple invisibility, because nature abhors an information vacuum. I had bosses years ago whose first impulse was always to cover up, and it was always a mistake, not just because of the honesty and integrity thing, but because if you don't put your story out there, someone else will put some other story out there in its place.

Every town has always had cranks and complainers and a rumor mill; now cranks and complainers and gossipers have Facebook. Local media may be supportive, or they may not be supportive, or they may not even actually exist as local media any more.

Meanwhile, choice advocates are marketing hard. Not just the billboards and the advertising buys and the Facebook ads and the pamphlets, but face-to-face meetings. In my little corner of the world, a conservative group sent someone out to speak to the local Tea Party group about how to get out of paying taxes and fund private schools at the same time (aka Scholarship Tax Credits).

It is easy, when you're on the inside of a school district, particularly if it's not a large urban district, to feel as if everyone in the community knows who you are and what you're about. They don't. And that is on you as a school system.

I'm not suggesting that your district establish a big marketing budget; it's pretty damned hard to justify that use of tax dollars collected to finance education, and charter schools should be shamed for it. But you do need to redirect some of your human work hours to making your presence known in your community.

Note: this is doubly true if your administrators don't live in the community your district serves. If your community does not know your school leaders by sight, that will be a problem. Sorry, but they are the people who will attract the most complaints and issues, and there impact on your school's public face can be the difference between "She did what?! Figures-- all I ever hear about her is what she's done wrong now" and "No, I can't believe that. She sits next pew over in church. I see her shopping groceries all the time. Our kids play t-ball together. I don't buy a word of it."

Your school needs to have a presence outside the building. Your performing groups should be out there playing for non-school events. You should be actively looking for events and activities that involve taking the school to someone else's turf, not making them come to yours. And you should raise your profile and visibility beyond that.

Do you have a sharp, focused, pithy slogan? Get one. Hard to raise your profile with a default slogan like "East Egg School District: We have, like, you know, schools and stuff." Is your mascot image a blotchy mess that's a forty-seventh generation Xerox of artwork originally done in the fifties? Update that. Do you have your slogan, name and mascot slapped on every conceivable item that humans can buy, wear, drink from, or otherwise use? That's cheap and easy these days-- get it done.

So what can you do? Someone, or someones, on staff can take some of the following suggestions and run with them:

Maintain a school website with new content put right up front daily, especially big bold announcements of the next event and big beautiful pictures from the last one. Include links to all of your various social media accounts.

Maintain a Facebook account. Post several times a day. These do not need to be announcements; they can be pictures of students or classes, quick blurbs about class projects. Even neutrally professional articles about education stuff.

Maintain a Twitter account. Tweet multiple times a day with upcoming events, lunch menu, class projects. Make up awards (Best Socks Tuesday, Sweetest Cookies at Lunch, Best Interpretive Dance Version of the Periodic Table) and post about the winners (daily is not too often).

Maintain an Instagram account. Take pictures. Post them. My old school used to have a student Instagram club, and it was awesome.

Set up a YouTube channel. Post clips of your performing groups and sports teams (observing pertinent copyright laws). Share them.

Give somebody the job of managing news releases. It should not be an outside hire, but someone who is already in your system, preferably a teacher. Something should go out to local media at least once a week (if you have any).

All of these should be managed by somebody inside the system. First, because they already know what's going on, who's doing what, etc. Second, because the inside knowledge and relationships will mean they can do this without having to pester staff and make more work for everybody else in the building.

Yes, you'll have to manage the legalities of using student images. And no, none of this will gain traction overnight. And yes, maintaining social media accounts on a daily basis can sometimes feel a great deal like drudgery. And depending on your locale and audience, what works will be somewhat hit and miss.

But if you do nothing--well, the inevitable negative stories will blow up and the small positives will languish in obscurity. Meanwhile, your competition is pick pick picking, not just at the families with school age kids, but at the taxpayers who can either support or oppose legislation that will enrich the privatizers (thanks to cyber schools, in some states this is also true in rural customer-sparse areas in which other charters are uninterested). You do not want to wait for the day when yet another ax falls and when you go to the public for help, the childless taxpayers of your district shoot a puzzled expression and ask, "Do I know you?"

The days are gone when a public school system can just sit back and assume that everyone knows what they're doing, what they're about, and what kind of job they're doing. That's not a bad thing--some schools have gotten lazy about it. But they can't afford to stay lazy any longer.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

ICYMI: Spousal Back To School Edition (8/18)

This  week my wife heads back to it, with a new grade assignment. I am excited for her and putting on my supportive pants. In the meantime, here's some reading from the week. Remember to share the good stuff-- that's how the word gets  around!

S.C. teacher files class action lawsuit demanding pay for after school work, classroom supplies 

A long overdue step in fighting back in South Carolina.

Why is union membership bleeding in the red teacher revolt states?  

Fred Klonsky and what may be a troubling, or obvious, trend.

Children Don't Need Adults To Give Their Play a Purpose    

Teacher Tom reminds us that the littles can manage their own play, thank you very much.

In God We Trust   

Kentucky decided to force schools to post "In God We Trust" in some prominent place. So one school framed a dollar bill...The AP reports.

The 1619 Project  

The New York Times has launched a massive project looking at slavery in America.

Data Leviathan 

Not specifically about education, but once again, if you want to see the future of the surveillance state, look to China.

Keeping the Why of Writing Instruction in Mind  

It's been too long since I passed along a Paul Thomas piece. Here's a thoughtful post about writing instruction.

Zuckerberg's 200 Year Old Mistake 

As the last of the Zuckerbooker ed reform package is washed away in New Jersey, I Love You But You're Going To Hell looks at who could have warned the Facebook chief that it wouldn't work (spoiler: everybody) and a historical antecedent for the failure.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Feed A Teacher For A Year

I get plenty of pitches--news releases from folks who want to help me come up with some content (and who frequently have never actually read what I write) and mostly I ignore them, but this one caught my attention because it involves free food for a teacher for a year.

The company involved is Sun Basket, which touts itself as "the leading healthy eating service"-- another one of those outfits where you sign up and a box full of ingredients shows up on your doorstep, just waiting for you to chef it into some delicious shape. Sun Basket seems to put a lot of emphasis on healthy lifestyle, organic, best choicey ingredients, and features a variety of 11 different subscriptions, from the dubious (Paleo) to the responsible (Pescatarian, Carb-Conscious). The company was founded in 2014 by Adam Zbar, one of those entrepreneurial types who started at McKinsey, and Justine Kelly whose name I gather might mean something to you if you are a foodie (or foodie-adjacent). Did I mention the company is based in San Francisco?

The contest is called Treat Your Teacher, and it's simple. You nominate a teacher living in the US (except for AK, HI, and parts of MT, NM, and ND-- don't complain to me-- I didn't make the rules), explain why they're awesome. Ten of the nominees will win a Sun Basket account that will cover three meals a week for the whole school year.

The basic procedure:

Nominations opened on August 15, 2019, and close on September 5, 2019

Nominations to include:
Teacher's name, grade or subject taught, city, state, school
Must teach grade K-12
250 words or less on why your teacher is exceptional

You can email or share on Instagram or Facebook using #treatyourteacher and @sunbasket, and must include the teacher's name and school, the grade/subject they teach, and a short blurb on what makes them exceptional.

Winners will be announced September 14, 2019, on social media and will be contacted via email.

You can also get the info at the contest website.

Yes, you'll be helping this company up its social media profile, and I've only done a cursory check to see if they're involved in any unpleasant causes, and they don't seem to be. Also part of their pitch is that they're backed "by top-tier venture capitalists, which-- eww." But still.

A campaign built around showing support for teachers throughout the US. Fancy free food for a teacher you love for a school year.I don't see down side here, other than when all of you enter, it will make the competition stiffer for the entry I'm writing for my wife.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

The Problem With Comparisons In Education

Which is the best movie: Ghostbusters, Singin' In The Rain, Casablanca, or Avengers: Endgame?
It depends, of course, on how we choose to compare them. Based on level of romance? On the happiest ending? Best dancing? Most money made? Best use of Sigourney Weaver? Criteria make all the difference. But it's not just the criteria; it's the problems with criteria that naturally emerge from the mandate to compare.
One of the driving features of modern education reform has been the mandate to compare. Fans of free market education want to be able to compare schools; several reform programs targeted schools that ranked in the bottom five percent. The New Teacher Project (TNTP) made a huge splash in 2009 with "The Widget Effect" arguing that we should compare teachers and make staffing and pay decisions based on the results. Ranking schools is as important to U.S. News as swimsuits are to Sports Illustrated.
There are problems applying comparisons to education.
Comparisons are not measurements. Pat may be ranked the tallest or shortest student in class, but either way, knowing Pat's ranking does not tell me how tall Pat actually is. "Most improved" may make good advertising copy, but your enterprise can be "most improved" and still be terrible.
This problem only increases as we deal with more complex systems. The better a measure is for making comparisons, the worse it is for actually describing the thing being measured.
If we want to describe what makes a particular school great, or where it is falling short of greatness, we have to talk about a complex web of factors in the school and community--everything from teacher content knowledge to curricular offerings to community socio-economic information to what the stakeholders in the community value and expect from their school, as well as a long-term look at what graduates of the system think five, ten, twenty, forty years later. The list of factors that describe a school, as well as those who work in it, is hundreds of items long.
But creating a clear comparison of thousands of schools based on a hundred-item list of factors is as impossible as ranking great movies. So people who want to compare schools have come up with various truncated lists, lists that are so simplified that they fail to provide any real picture of individual schools.
The answer for modern education reform has been to use standardized math and reading test scores as the measure of schools (and school districts and school teachers). This makes comparison easy because it narrows the long, long list of criteria down to just one. But one data point makes a lousy descriptor of an entire complex organization like a school. And this is a particularly lousy descriptor, because research shows again and again that test scores can be predicted by basic income and demographic data. Students from wealthy families get better test scores.
Worse, when we do a comparison based on a simplified single measure, we encourage folks to pursue that single measured quality. This is exactly what has happened in many schools. While stakeholders may care about the arts programs and school atmosphere and teacher experience and traditions that have made that school great, schools have been told that their greatness will be measured by test scores, and so elements from recess to history class have been dropped so that the school can focus on the single measure. (And for the moment, let's not even get started on the idea that VAM scores would allow us to compare a third grade phys ed teacher to an 11th grade history teacher.)
More complex measures of school quality are possible; Beyond Test Scores by Jack Schneider details the work done with such a model in Somerville, Massachusetts. Certainly many parents engage in informal complex assessments ("I like West Egg High School because the English teachers are really good, they have a great football team, the band is awesome, most of my family has gone there, it's a nice safe school, the principal is a great guy, and it's located close to our neighborhood") but those are as varied as all the stakeholders in a school district.
In the end, education reformers have to face a simple limitation--if an assessment tool is good for comparing and ranking schools, it is not a good tool for describing the strengths and weaknesses of that school. You can do one or the other, but not both. A tool for ranking schools (or teachers or districts) will not provide the information needed to strengthen and improve that school. When creating a tool, the very first question that must be addressed is which goal you want to achieve--do you want to compare schools, or do you want to help them improve. As the saying goes, repeatedly weighing the pig will not cause it to gain weight, but it will also not tell you whether or not the pig would make a good addition to your household.
Originally posted at

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

FL: Educational Hypocrisy On Display

Oh, Florida.

Maybe it was the principal who wasn't sure the Holocaust was a thing. Maybe it was the latest round of teaching mandates passed down, like the last minute mental health mandate. Or maybe he's just still cranky from his ongoing fight with Duval County Schools.

But Florida's education czar Richard Corcoran has had enough.

This guy.
Florida school districts had better fall in line. They had better be implementing the state-mandated Holocaust instruction. They had better be teaching what they're supposed to be teaching. They had better be following all the instructional standards and mandates. If not, he will use all the tools at his disposal. This, mind you, in the state that has vowed to end Common Core once and for all because federally mandated micromanagement is bad, but apparently state-level micromanagement is fine.

Critics suggest that this is one more attempt by Florida's government to come up with excuses to take over public school systems and hand them off to charter operators. This might seem like a bit of paranoia except for two things:

1) This is Florida we're talking about.

2) The various regulations and mandates do not apply to charter schools.

Yup. While Corcoran is railing against public schools that don't follow the state's mandates, charter schools are still free to teach about Jesus riding on dinosaurs and the flat earth and how the Holocaust is just a story fabricated to gin up sympathy for Jewish folks. It's not the first time that Florida's elected leaders have jettisoned accountability in favor of the ability to move those public tax dollars into private pockets.

But it's a reminder once again that Florida is working hard to bind and break public education while making sure that every day is Christmas for charter and voucher schools.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

PA: Governor Puts Charters On Notice

It was not so long ago that Pennsylvania's Governor Tom Wolf made charter supporters sad by rejecting the claim that charters are public schools. Today, he took another step and put charters in PA on notice.

At a news conference at a school in Allentown, Wolf said he would take executive action to change state regulations for charters, including tightening ethics standards. He also said he would push to revise Pennsylvania’s charter law, which he called “one of the most fiscally irresponsible laws in the nation."

Wolf also said that the current system "isn't good for anyone," harkening back to 2016 when the Auditor General called PA charter laws “simply the worst charter school law in the United States.” And he also gave special mention to cyber-charters, which have become a boondoggly cash grab of epic proportions in Pennsylvania.

What he will do, exactly, is unclear. There have been some bills that were lofted this year that would provide some good ideas-- like the bill that made it so that a school district would pay cyber-school tuition only if that school district did not offer a cyber-school option of their own. Heck, it would be nice to see a simple rule that said that charters could never again claim (in their taxpayer funded marketing materials) that they are "free." Rather, make them state publicly that they are funded with taxpayer dollars.

Wolk's executive order seems designed to bring charter oversight and transparency laws in line with those of state actors, along with yet another attempt to fix the funding problems.

Wolf acknowledges that with a GOP lock on the legislature, he's limited in options. The PA legislature has repeatedly proposed "charter school reform" bills, and they are consistently exactly what the charter industry would write for themselves in a constant search for more freedom to make a buck.

Someone pointed out that the administration could at least pull the plug on the cyber charters that are currently operating without current charters in place, and Wolf seemed to find that idea piquant.

But mostly he's proposing an executive action (aka end run around legislature) to hit charters with ethics and transparency, two areas that are a problem in PA. And there are some signs that something might actually happen. The head of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Pat Browne, chimed in:

“The governor’s actions today are an indication of the seriousness of the concerns for the current funding of public charter and cyber charter schools and its effect on overall public school finance in Pennsylvania," Browne, R- Lehigh, said. “It has reached a crisis point creating the potential of significant detrimental effects on all of our students’ progress in school.”

Now, Browne also said that the legislature hasn't been able to solve the problem because they haven't figured out how to make both charters and public schools happy. That seems nearly impossible, because charters, particularly cybers, are rolling in taxpayer dollars, and "fair funding" will mean "less revenue" for them. Whether it's paying cybers based, not on the actual costs, but on per-pupil costs of sending districts, or allowing charters to game the special ed system, charters are highly profitable in PA. Why does their happiness even matter? Because they are investing big bucks in Harrisburg lobbying.

Wolf spoke at Allentown, one of the PA school districts that has been absolutely hammered by charter costs (a problem across the state). We know he touched a nerve because Ana Meyers, the Tea Party former PR flak educational amateur who is the current executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public [sic] Charter Schools cranked her press release generator into High Dudgeon and complained about Wolf's "audacity" in denying families their choice blah blah zip code blah blah [insert tired charter rhetoric here]. It is the same old same old complaint and it comes without a single explanation of why it would limit family choice to make charters actually accountable to the taxpayers who foot the bill. This is the standard PA charter line every time laws come up-- anything that would fetter the charter freedom to do whatever they want, collect all the money they can, and not explain a single thing to the taxpayers whose money they take-- anything like that would "trap students in failing schools" and "limit the freedom of families." You would think that charter schools are so fragile and weak that the slightest legislative breath in their general direction would just kill them and not, say, require their owners to buy slightly smaller mansions or just generally be more efficient in their frauding. You might also get the impression that PA choice programs like our version of Tax Credit Scholarships were being used by poor families, and not just kicking bonuses back to the wealthy.

So, interesting times ahead. Let's hope that Wolf is actually able to pull this off and that Pennsylvania's eternal charter free ride is, if not ending, at least slowing down.

Monday, August 12, 2019

MI: Rural Charters, Warm Bodies, and the Effects of the Teacher "Shortage"

St. Helen, Michigan, has its share of problems. Founded as a logging community, it's Up North in Michigan. It's at least near the interstate, but the population is under 3,000, with a median family income of $30,268. They do have an annual bluegill festival, and Charlton Heston spent part of his childhood there. On the other hand, they're Number Two on the Roadsnacks list of Worst Small Towns in Michigan. Unemployment is a whopping 18.9%; poverty is at 31%. This summer the beaches at the lake have been closed down for bacteria.

Not actually a phys ed teacher
The town took another hit that started in 2008 when the Gerrish-Higgins School District wanted to raise some taxes to improve its buildings. St. Helen residents voted for the tax. Then the district was taken over by the Roscommon Area Public Schools and they marked the St. Helen Elementary School for closure, consolidating all their students into an elementary, middle and high school, all located in Roscommon.

Jennifer Jarosz had lived her whole live in St. Helen. She's the owner/operator of the Hen House Restaurant in St. Helen. She started up Rural Education Matters, and the community looked for ways to save their school, a critical part of the rural community. Initially, they could not find an authorizer, but in 2011 Jarosz was among those testifying before the House Education Committee hoping that the cap on Michigan charters would be lifted. Her work has earned her a spot on the Michigan Charter Schools Association board, an unusual presence among the usual collection of consultants, financiers and corporate profiteers.

This is a side effect of charter caps I'd never thought about, but if authorizers can only approve so many charters, the competition will be to see who can promise that authorizer the best return, and big corporate operations will squeeze out the Mom and Pop charters.

The cap was lifted, and St. Helen had their charter, initially for an elementary school, just down St. Helen Road from the Hen House, and named for St. Helen's most famous resident-- Charlton Heston Academy. It now covers K-12. They featured an extra long school day, and no three month summer vacation. Students have been traveling there from the surrounding rural areas, to the point that Charlton Heston Academy asked to be released from state regulations so that they could give preference to residents of St. Helen; Michigan charters must move to a lottery once they're full.

Yes, they indulge in some classic charter school baloney-- out in front they apparently have a sign that says "Tuition free..." and lists some other free things at the school. This is a lie. Like any charter, CHA is funded with taxpayer dollars. It's not free.

CHA has also become the largest employer in St. Helen, and that in itself is leading to other problems.

CHA has a teaching staff of over 40% substitute teachers.

This article features just one of the many (I'm not going to include her name-- you can find it easily enough, but I don't think the writer of this article was doing her any favors). She used to be a repo officer for a credit union. She applied to CHA to maybe be a payroll officer or office manager. They said, "Wouldn't you like to become a teacher?" So now she's teaching math. She says she loves it. She also says

If I would have went to school and came out at 24 to start teaching, I wouldn't have made it. You have to have life experience, you have to have backbone.

She also says:

I would say that [long-term subs and certified teachers] are absolutely equivalent. There’s a lot of misguided judgement from people because I didn’t go to school for teaching. I think they think we don’t deserve it. But I don’t think one’s better than the other.

And she also says this:

It (the test to become a certified teacher) doesn't say that you're going to be dealing with emotions. It's just, ‘Do I know how to add or multiply or do algebra in order to teach it to the kids?’ That's the smallest part of my job. The absolute smallest.

A first grade teacher with no teaching degree or credentials is asked what makes her feel she can teach first-graders without a teaching degree. She replies, "I'm passionate." And she was a preschool paraprofessional for a few years.

Long term subs in Michigan are only required to have 60 total college credits. CHA has the lowest student achievement (aka test scores) in their intermediate school district, which is unsurprising given the level of poverty in the district.

The superintendent (David Patterson, the registered agent of Champion Learning, LLC) says that while he would prefer to hire certified teachers, the subs are doing just as good a job as certified teachers-- "you can't tell the difference." Of course, at this point, many of the certified teachers at CHA are former subs who completed a crash-course, one-year-of-weekends program at Saginaw Valley State University. The math teacher quoted above, who should "have went to school" and who thinks content knowledge is a minor part of her job, is now a certified teacher via the SVSU program. The charter pays for the coursework in exchange for a three-year commitment to teach at the school. It may not be a great program, but it does cut fewer corners than Teach for America. Makes it about as good as the Relay GSE program, which is also baloney.

Patterson's background contains few surprises. He graduated from Roscommon High School and went to work as a social worker in both Michigan and Florida. He's been adjunct faculty at Davenport University, Henry Ford Community College, and the University of Phoenix. And he spent some time as a "school choice" advocate with The Center for Charter Schools at Central Michigan University. So when he says he can't tell the difference between a substitute teacher and a trained, certified teacher, I believe him.

Patterson says that "the issue" is not long term subs, but the "teacher shortage." On this, we agree. Well, sort of. There is no teacher shortage. Hell, there isn't even that much of a "shortage" in rural Michigan. Yes, Michigan has seen a big drop in teachers in the pipeline, but CHA is employing waaaay more substitutes than any other rural schools in the state.

But the narrative of a teacher shortage allows folks to justify all sorts of shenanigans. It lets teacher leaders pretend that there is some sort of teacher crop failure, an act of divine deprivation that they are helpless to address, so, hey, might as well just start grabbing warm bodies off the street or hitting up people who apply for other jobs entirely. As long as they have passion and really care hard, they'll be just like all the other fully trained teachers.

And what sucks more about this is that the students at this school are poor, rural students who really, really need a strong school with strong teachers. Particularly in Michigan, where the state court ruled that the state is under no obligation to provide students with an education that is actually any good. The students of St. Helen have been shafted in an unpleasant variety of ways over the past decade. I actually agree with the concept of a locally owned and operated charter school to replace what's been lost, but come on, folks-- that only works if you provide your students with a real school staffed with real teachers. CHA is all excited about the athletic facilities it's going to build when they need to be excited about the fact that they can't actually attract and keep the staff they need to run a real school.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

ICYMI: Just A Quiet Day Edition (8/11)

Buying office supplies. Fretting about getting up in the morning. School must be getting closer-- but not too close yet. Have a cup of whatever you have cups of to relax, and take in some of the education reading from the last week. Don't forget to share the good stuff.

How much knowledge is necessary for comprehension?

You need some background knowledge in order to get better at reading (regardless of what you've been told about "skills"). Turns out there's even research about how much is the bare minimum requirement. Yes, it's from the Fordham blog, but I think it's worth reading, anyway.

Strategy Overdue for Special Ed  

Wendy Lecker, writing in the Register Citizen, looks at how lobbyists have made a mess out of Connecticut's special ed sector.

In PA, a Charter Rules Change To Benefit Just One School

WHYY uncovers a somewhat nuts story about political payback to benefit just one charter school. Because level playing field.  

7 Harsh Truths That Will Improve Your Leadership Skills Overnight

From Inc., this piece isn't education-specific, but both teachers and administrators could benefit from these pointers.

Inside the NAACP Civil War Over Charter Schools 

Yes, charter advocates have gone so far as to plant folks inside the NAACP in an attempt to weaken the organization's stance on charter schools. From Rebecca Klein at HuffPost.

Student Culture in Question  

From Colorado, yet another example of a charter school that uses its "flexibility" to shaft its employees.

Nick Hanauer and Diane Ravitch

Ex-reformster rich guy Hanauer stirred things up a few weeks ago with his piece in the Atlantic. Listen to his podcast talking to Diane Ravitch; there's some really good stuff here.

Problems with Midyear Admissions  

Matt Barnum at Chalkbeat looks at one more way that charters game the test results and avoid taking on some of the tougher challenges of education.

Florida Charters Can Reject Kids With Disabilities

The Orlando Sentinel just noticed one more way that Florida charter avoid providing an actual source of public education to all students.

How a Truly Epic Charter School Fraud Unfolded in Oklahoma  

And speaking of charter cheating, John Thompson is at the Progressive with an astonishing tale of how a truly ballsy piece of charter fraud was pulled off in plain sight.

New Orleans' Kennedy High School Grading Fiasco  

The indispensable Mercedes Schneider with the continuing story of how a NOLA charter has put the future of its students in jeopardy. Will anyone be held responsible?

This Teen Hacker Found Bugs In School Software That Exposed Millions of Records

Want one more story to make you anxious about the online work your students do? This Wired story is just the thing. This high school student didn't just find problems with obscure edusoftware-- he broke into Follett and Blackboard, then used them as doorways to millions of student records including grades, medical, schedules, cafeteria balance, photos, and more. And this was just what a bored, curious sixteen-year-old could do.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Reed Hastings: Stars In Every Position

We’re like a pro sports team, not a kid’s recreational team. Netflix leaders hire, develop and cut smartly, so we have stars in every position.

That's Reed Hastings in a 2009 interview about his then-juggernaut business, Netflix. I came across it recently and, because Hastings has approached education and charter schools with the same business attitude, hoping to turn charter schools into a Netflix-style success story, it seems worth doing a deep read.
This guy.
Hastings has had his hand in many charter pies, from backing outfits like Rocketship and KIPP, as well as serving on the board of California Charter Academy, a chain that collapsed mid-year, leaving 6,000 students high and dry to helping shape charter law in California. Hastings has also had a hand in the launch NewSchools Venture Fund, an investment group that backs ed tech and other edupreneurs. So we're not talking fringe player here.

So what do we discover in this quote?

First, the "pro sports team, not a kid's recreation team" aspect. A pro sports teams picks and chooses its players. A public school does not. Nor can a public school "cut" students who don't measure up.

"Stars in every position" is the same focus. In Hasting's mind, that may apply only to the staff and administration of a school, but people who actually work in education know that part of what creates the atmosphere and culture of a school is, in fact, the students. Would a school that has nothing but star pupils be a great school? Probably. The job in public education is to educate everyone, but what we see repeatedly with the corporate charter movement is schools that "fire" students and their families.

This is educational gentrification. Gentrification says, "This neighborhood is problematic. But we'll come in and replace the buildings with better buildings, the stores with better stores, the apartments with better apartments, and the residents with better residents." Gentrification is about swapping out everything except the latitude and longitude of the neighborhood. In the end, you haven't "improved" anything-- you've replaced everything.

You don't improve a school by replacing everything except the building (and maybe that as well)-- you've just replaced it, and that's no achievement.

I also wonder how far down the star system runs. Is everybody toiling away at minimum wage in the Netflix mail room a star? Or is Netflix just another tech firm like Amazon, built on the labor of anonymous overworked underpaid people who are beneath the notice of the big boys. And how could anyone possibly apply that approach to a school?

But there's something else to watch here, because there's a good argument to be made that Hastings is mostly falling victim to a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. That's the one that says, "I did A, and the B happened, so A must have caused B." I wore my ugly hat to a baseball game and my team didn't suck, therefor my hat made the team unsuck themselves.

Hasting's theories about why Netflix has been successful are going to be put to the test. As you may have heard, the streaming video world that Netflix has previously dominated is about to become much more crowded, with Disney and Warner Brothers pulling content from Hasting's business, and customers already jumping ship. Maybe Hasting's all star team will come up with a clever way to turn this around. Maybe free market competition is about to spur new heights of excellence. Or maybe Netflix is about to become the next Myspace-- first to the party, but not ultimately the dominant player.

In other words, maybe Hastings is not so much a business genius as he is a relatively smart guy was lucky enough to get in front of a wave just as it was starting to peak. Maybe his brilliant leadership and his selection of what he thinks are a bunch of all stars is not the secret of his success at all. Maybe the only lesson he has to teach is "Be lucky," which is not news to anybody (and is already the hiring process for many schools). Or maybe the lesson is that sometimes the free market eats its young and businesses go stumble and fall every day, leaving investors and employees adrift, which may be great for the world of visionary CEOs-- but it's a lousy way to run a public school system, a system which, after all, is not meant to serve just the stars, but everybody.

What Does "Personalized Learning" Even Mean?

Personalized learning is all over the educational landscape these days, even though nobody can offer a clear and consistent explanation for what it might be. The field encompasses everyone from teachers designing more effective methods to businesses with a new edu-product to sell. Assuming for the moment that there is no solid, universal definition, let's consider the different aspects of instruction that could be involved when someone is pitching personalized learning.
Personalized learning can refer simply to pace. All students cover the same materials in the same order, moving at whatever speed seems to best suit them. If you're old enough to remember doing SRA reading exercises out of the box in your elementary classroom, you have experienced this type of personalization.
A more extreme version of pace. Some versions of personalization involve flexible time, with the student allowed as much (or as little) time as is required for them to show mastery of that particular unit. This often requires changes to the traditional rules in order to accommodate students with wildly different, so that Pat's school year may be less than 180 days and Chris's might be more. This could mean that Pat could finish high school by age 15 while Pat was still there at age 20. Nobody has really addressed how to handle this, yet.
The personalization may refer to the content used to deliver the lesson. For instance, everyone in the class may be working on reading for context clues, but Pat gets a reading selection about dinosaurs and Chris gets one about opera, because those are things that Pat and Chris care about. This will require a large library of materials.
Netflix is one of many companies that has had success in personalizing pitches. In other words, they take a chunk of content, and they create tailored trailers that are aimed at particular groups.  That's how you end up with a trailer for Lost In Space aimed at Canadians who like comedies. In education terms, this will come out as "we will find the ways to tap into student motivation" aka "we will make this lesson appear to be about something that interests the students." But all the students will still get the same lesson.
Chris and Pat take a pre-test about parts of speech. Pat does poorly with adverbs and Chris does poorly with pronouns, so for their next assignment, Chris and Pat get different worksheets. Each gets one geared to the weaknesses they displayed on the previous test. Again, a large and varied bank of materials will be needed.
Learning Styles
The most important thing to know about learning styles is that the whole concept has been repeatedly debunked. Nevertheless, you may find personalization based on this popular but discredited theory. So for a unit about the Civil War, Pat may be assigned a chapter of reading, while Chris is told to watch an instructional video. Be prepared for complaints about how someone got the "easy" assignment.
Assessment Modes
The idea here is to use a mode that best allows the student to display her level of achievement. That might be an objective test or an essay or some sort of project. It may include more than one attempt in more than one mode. Does such a system allow us to consider Pat and Chris's grades comparable? Nobody has really answered this.
Student Choice
One distinguishing feature of different personalization models is the degree of student choice. In a model that's strictly about pace, the student really has no choice except when to move ahead. Other models may give a student a choice of columns A, B or C. The extreme version would be a system that allows the student to make all the choices-- what will be studied, how it will be studied, and how the student will ultimately be assessed.
Delivery Systems
Everything we've discussed so far could be (and often is, because teachers have been personalizing instruction since the invention of dirt) handled by a human teacher. But much of the recent push for personalization comes from the edtech world, where there's a belief that A) computer software can handle many of the complex tasks involved and B) there is money to be made selling that software. The software may be billed as Artificial Intelligence, claiming that it can "learn" the student's style and strengths and therefor generate just the right materials. There are many issues to consider with computerized delivery-by-algorithm, not the least of which is having your educational experience designed and written by software engineers.
Edtech folks like to talk about personalization as anytime, anywhere learning. If all the learning and the assessment of mastery is done via computer, then it could happen any place that the student can hook up to the internet. The issue here becomes the monitoring of these various learning events. Who decides whether or not helping pick up trash earns a student a micro-credential in environmental science.
Questions to ask.
A personalized learning system can include any or all of these features, and yet few come with clear explanations of which features are involved and how they are managed. Personalized learning advocates have generally steered away from discussing the delivery aspect, perhaps because "Let a computer teach your child," is not a great sales pitch. Pitches are also often vague about just how deep and wide their library of materials is; it's worth asking whether the personalized materials are being newly generated or simply plucked from a pre-existing bank of materials, and how large that bank is.
Another good line of inquiry is to ask about the outliers. If you have a student who is socially withdrawn, low-achieving, very interested in Edwardian England, tends to work slowly, but has a very large vocabulary and excellent reading skills, will the program really deliver personalized lessons for that student, will it only come close, or will the student just get basically the same lessons as the rest of the class. In other words, how broad a spectrum of personalization can this system really cover?
Finally, make no assumptions. "Personalized learning" can be a legitimate descriptive educational term, but these days it is just as likely to be used as a marketing term, and like any good marketing term, it is used to encourage the customer to make assumptions about the product that may or may not be related to reality. Don't assume that just because your idea of personalized learning includes a certain feature, so does someone else's. Ask.
Originally posted at

Friday, August 9, 2019

Guest Post: Please Treat Teachers Like Dirt

Last week I posted a blog on about the Phi Delta Kappa annual report on education. This year it features a focus on teacher morale, and I pulled the quote "Tired of being treated like dirt." A reader-- Stacey Miller Chester-- wrote a reply on Facebook I just love, because I'm a sucker for good analogies and metaphors, and so I'm reprinting it here, with her permission:

May I be honest? 

I actually feel we aren't treated like dirt. 

"What?!" No, you read that right. We aren't treated like dirt. I'm a farm girl. I guarantee you that dirt is treated better than teachers. 

Dirt is indeed evaluated...regularly. If it's not producing as expected then the farmer acts quickly to determine the problem. Does it need fertilizer so that the quality of the plants it's responsible for growing is stronger? Perhaps it needs rest since fallow ground repairs itself over a short period of time. Perhaps it needs additives such as lime or nitrogen since so much is expected of it in such a short time. 

Dirt is a limited resource and therefore its value is important to the farmer. He or she values it so much that no expense is spared in its protection and use. Typically, the value of dirt increases and therefore the quality of the dirt is bragged about. Farmers regularly spend thousands of dollars to root out any problems so that dirt's ability to produce is supported and valued by the farmer. 

No, dirt is treated better than most teachers. So, you know, take it for what's worth to you.