Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Scorched Earth Education Policy (Charters, Watch Your Flank)

This is you should ignore the old admonition to not read the comments.

I converse with plenty of folks that I disagree with, both in the ed policy world and outside of it, and those conversations are largely civil, which sometimes distracts me from the fact that there are people out there who hate, hate, hate public education ("government schools") and the teachers who work there  ("union thugs").

I meet them, some days, on Twitter. On Facebook, there are groups that sprung up in the days of "Let's all get together and fight Common Core" that are now dominated by folks who rail daily against teachers and unions and public schools and how we should just burn it all down until there's nothing left but homeschooling and church schools (Christian ones, of course).

Of course, these days, you don't have to dig so deep to find these virulently anti-public-ed folks. Here's the Attorney General of the Freakin' United States of America, declaring that our country is under assault in an "organized destruction" of the foundational values of our society (by which he means the Judeo-Christian ones). And "ground zero" of the assault is US public schools. Attorney General Barr, the head law enforcement official of the United States of America has called out public schools as everything just short of "enemies of the people."

Meanwhile, the author of a new book about the Koch political empire tells us that what the Kochs want from public education is simple-- they want it to go away. Talking to Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider at the Have You Heard podcast, Christopher Leonard summed it up like this:

Here’s the actual political philosophy. Government is bad. Public education must be destroyed for the good of all American citizens in this view.

So the ultimate goal is to dismantle the public education system entirely and replace it with a privately run education system, which the operatives in this group believe in a sincere way is better for everybody. Now, whether you agree with that or not as the big question, but we cannot have any doubt, there’s going to be a lot of glossy marketing materials about opportunity, innovation, efficiency. At its core though the network seeks to dismantle the public education system because they see it as destructive. So that is what’s the actual aim of this group. And don’t let them tell you anything different.

Barr's opinion is not exactly unique in the current administration where the State Department front page featured a speech from Secretary Pompeo about Christian leadership. And it's no secret that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is long focused on "kingdom gains." The government-run school system needs to be broken up, and a privatized system, built mostly of church-run schools, should be put in its place.

These are not fringe positions. There are plenty of people out there who agree with the Kochs or the theocrats or both, cognitive dissonance be damned.

With that in mind, I wonder if some reformsters aren't making the same mistake that Common Core supporters made.

Common Core fans like Jeb Bush thought they just had to worry about those damned liberals and lefties. They were shocked and surprised by the uproar on the right (an uproar so huge that progressive core opponents occasionally had to jump up and down and holler "Us too!") that they never quite recovered; they couldn't quite shift to their right flank fast enough.

Charter proponents have likewise focused on their left flank. They carefully cultivated alliances with card-carrying Democrats, ginned up DFER, and even now, keep trying to sell the idea that Real Democrats like charters. They are insistent that charters be called "public" charters because, doggonit, they are, too, public schools.

I'm wondering if they might not live to regret that. I wonder if they're not concentrating on the wrong flank.

The scorched earth crowd is not interested in tweaking public education. Folks like DeVos see charters as a nice stepping stone to the true goal, but no more. This, incidentally, is not really news. Charter fans stepped up to oppose DeVos's nomination, and charter fans are about the only group that DeVos attempted to make nice with when she took the office. But that truce seems unlikely to last.

The scorched earth crowd represents an alliance much like that which birthed the Tea Party-- religious conservatives and libertarian-ish money righties. While that's a hard alliance to hold together, on the matter of public schools, they're in agreement (even if it doesn't entirely make sense)-- public schools need to go. People are attached to them, so it's not possible to attack them head on. Some patience and rhetorical flourish is necessary. DeVos's "Education Freedom" proposal is a fine example-- it's about vouchers, not charters, and she's been quite clear that it's money that can be spent many ways, not just in a "school."

I don't find it at all difficult to imagine a future in which the scorched earth folks work to take down charter schools right along with the public system (the one that charters insist they're part of). If I were a scorched earth person, my plan would be first to split the funding stream into several streams (public this way, vouchers over there) and then just slowly pinch off the public stream. The techniques that we've already seen work just fine-- starve the schools, create a measure to show that they're failing, use their failure as justification for starving them further.

Charters, meanwhile, have been flipping through a stack of index cards looking for a justification that will work. They don't get superior academic results. They don't close the achievement gap. They don't create competition that makes everyone improve. These days they've settled on the argument that choice is the right thing to do in and of itself, but that argument serves vouchers far better than charters, which scorched earth folks can paint as just an appendage of those same damned gummint schools (hell, some of those charter teachers have even unionized).

And Espinoza v. Montana is on the Supreme Court docket, a case that would shatter the wall between church and state in education. Why send a kid to a charter when you can go straight to a church school. That would become one more charter problem-- why would voucher fans stick with voucher lite when they can get the real thing?

Ultimately, scorched earth ed policy would involve choking the revenue stream for everybody, because one of the things they hate about public education is those damned taxes. In one version of the scorched earth education future, there are just tax credits-- wealthy patrons support their educational vendor of choice instead of paying taxes, and everyone else just scrapes by. As traditional tax revenue is choked off, charters get caught in the same vice as public school, with too little money to serve underserved communities. That's okay with the DeVos's and Kochs and other folks who, at heart, disagree with the notion of elevating the Lessers. Society works better when everyone accepts their proper place (that either God or economics have called them to) and all these socialist attempts to help people rise above their station are both expensive and against natural law. If some people end up getting little or no real education in this system, well, that's just too bad-- they shouldn't have chosen to be poor and powerless.

I've called charters the daylight savings time of ed reform, like trying to reposition on too-small blanket on a too-large bed, arguing about who gets covered instead of shopping for a bigger blanket. But the scorched earth folks approach is "I'll buy a blanket for my kids and you buy one for yours. We'll just use our personal resources and you use yours and we'll just keep that thieving, interfering gummint out of it. Good luck, and enjoy your freedom!"

Charter schools would end up on the wrong side of all of this if they fail to watch their right flanks. And all of the US suffers if the scorched earth education crowd manages any level of what they call success. But do not underestimate them; they are out there, and they are pissed.

Are State Takeovers A Useful Tool

Earlier this month, the 74 published an unusual article from  Ashley Jochim and Paul Hill, both of the Center on Reinventing Public Education. Their argument is that state takeovers of school districts "remain a powerful tool."

What's exceptional about the piece is that it is loaded with evidence to the contrary. I mean, ordinarily I would have had to go hunt this stuff down myself, but it's right here in the piece. Tennessee, having pioneered the Achievement School District model for state school takeover and having proven thavte model doesn't actually work, is finally backing away from the whole idea. Ohio's state takeover law has created some real disasters, and the legislatures is wrestling with getting rid of it, but in the meantime, it has hit pause on takeovers. Louisiana, New Jersey, Georgia-- the list of states getting out of the takeover biz is growing.

There's the culprit
The authors acknowledge all of that. They acknowledge some of the criticisms, including those from conservative and even reform-friendly writers like Jay Greene, saying that takeovers are just overreach by distant bureaucrats and have a lousy track record. Plus, folks object to how state takeovers often seem to be part of dismantling public education, which is apparently a lefty position (some say we need to figure out how rejecting a foundational institution in society became a "conservative" idea).

Also, they note that state takeovers "can carry steep political costs," as in the way that takeovers of mostly black districts invariably result in the stifling of black voices. And takeovers can suppress union vices as well, which I'm pretty sure some folks see as a feature and not a bug.

Despite all this, the authors argue that states should keep takeovers in their bag of tricks anyway.

Their evidence? Well, none, really. Their argument is that there were no takeovers in the 1990s and schools were "unable to shake persistent low performance." Well, no. First, we'd need to clear up what exactly their basis for writing off the nineties is, and second, correlation does not equal causation. Even if 90s schools were low-performing, I can think of a few gazillion other variables that might explain it. The Bush administration. Home Alone came out. Game Boy. MTV stopped showing videos. Grunge. Cheers ended. Sonic the Hedgehog.

So why are takeovers worth keeping in use? Well, um. The report from which this article is spun is really a compendium of interviews with ten state education chiefs, which may well reveal msome details of takeover stories, but are unlikely to find a state official who  will say, "This particular power should be taken away from me and my successors." It offers some thoughts about how to do it properly, calling takeovers an "important but limited tool.

The report emphasizes that there has to be a local political base and an implementation oplan that involves lots of stakeholders. That is true-- the mess in Ohio is a fine example of how things go when takeovers are simply imposed by the state. But the Ohio examples illustrate an issue that the writers don't directly address-- your takeover law can't be dumb to begin with. The Ohio law (HB 70) puts one takeover czar in charge of every single aspect of running the school; he becomes the entire central office staff and the school board, and if he can also leap tall buildings in a single bound while taming unicorns, that would be good, too. Ohio's law is guaranteed to fail because A) it is imposed against the will of the local folks and B) it hinges on a person of superhuman expertise in every single aspect of running a school system. It could never be implemented well because you cannot implement a lousy law well.

The thing is, takeover laws tend to be lousy laws. The writers say "states cannot stand idly by while local districts struggle to meet the needs of students or taxpayers," but who is there in the state capital who knows more about how to run the East Egg school district that the people who live in East Egg and the professionals who work in those schools. I get it-- in some East Eggs the people don't appear to know enough. But who in the state capital knows more?

And is our premise in a takeover that the state does know how to run an awesome school district? And if so, why don't we just have them run all the school districts? Or are we saying that their expertise is only what's needed to turn a failing district into one that's good enough to get by- in which case, doesn't that indicate they aren't really up to the job? Because fixing a district in trouble is mostly a lot harder than running a district that's not in trouble. So why do we think the state has any of the expertise necessary to pull this off?

The writers also reveal one other aspect of takeovers by saying that it's good for the state to have that authority, even if they don't use it. In other words, state takeovers can serve as a motivational threat.

But states that abandon the tool "risk irrelevance." In other words, the writers (or their interviewees) don't envision the state's role as providing support or resources or otherwise partnering with local districts. Instead, it's more "Pay attention to me and treat me like I'm important or I will hit you with this stick." I'd suggest that if you have to resort to threats or otherwise force yourself into the relationship, you really are irrelevant.

Is there a role for the state? Sure. Enforce the law. For instance, stomp on districts that insist on segregating students and the providing non-white students with substandard resources. Provide districts with resources-- you could even ask them what they need, first. Be a partner. But this takeover nonsense hasn't worked, isn't working, and shows no signs of working in the future. Get some different tools.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Betsy DeVos, Polly Williams, Vouchers, And Selective Facts

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos kicked off her back to school tour at the Saint Marcus Lutheran School in Milwaukee a few weeks ago. This piece ran back then at Forbes, and I don't repost everything from there, but we've developed such goldfish memories under this administration, I'm going to trot this one out again here. Because we need to remember what the threat to public education is. 
The choice of location itself sent a message about what DeVos means by “freedom.” The school’s mission is “to disciple children for Christ, now and for all eternity, and to train them in excellence for their roles in their family, church, community, workplace and country,” and it is a longtime beneficiary of Wisconsin’s voucher program. Its core values are “Christ First, Biblical Discipleship, Sacrificial Love, and Radical Expectations.” It is not particularly unusual to find that a voucher-supported school is using public tax dollars in a private religious setting; in most voucher programs, the vast majority of taxpayers’ money is directed to religious schools
It’s not surprising that DeVos would support this. Years ago, she and her husband were clear that their hope for education was for “kingdom gain” and a return to the days when the church, and not the public school, was the center of the community.
Her speech on Monday is supportive of that vision, even as it elides some inconvenient facts.
Portions of the speech are simply allegations. She says that “too many students can’t read,” and she blames that on “the education cabal.” She discusses the average amount of money spent on students, but talking about averages in education finance is not very useful. As mathematician Ian Stewart observed, the average person has one breast and one testicle. The difference between per student spending in the richest and poorest districts in this country amounts to tens of thousands of dollars, and that gap is behind many of the educational issues in the U.S. Developing education policy based on average spending is as ineffective as permanently turning on the air conditioning in your home because the average annual temperature is 72.
DeVos says that administrative costs are eating up the money that should be spent on students, but school choice has not provided much of a solution to that problem. Research suggests that A) charters spend more on administrative costs than public schools and B) it may not matter.
DeVos invokes 8th grade NAEP scores as proof that public education “is not working,” yet there is ample reason to doubt that NAEP scores predict actual college readiness. She brings up the old issue of the mediocre US ranking on PISA scores, ignoring the fact that the US has always had mediocre PISA scores, seemingly without any dire national consequences.
DeVos also chose to invoke Annette “Polly” Williams, the mother of school choice in Wisconsin. The Democratic politician and activist wrote the first school choice legislation in the country (adopted in 1989) and became a popular speaker on the issue, particularly to conservative audiences.
But Williams became disenchanted with the school choice movement. Her original legislation did not include religious schools, but was expanded to do so five years later. Williams took to calling the voucher program a “Catholic movement.” She expressed displeasure with some of the folks, like Lamar Alexander and Bill Bennett, who swooped in to speak. She accused leaders of exploiting black and poor families, and of leaving poor families behind with the program expansion. 75% of voucher recipients were not escaping the public system, because they had never been in it. She was critical of education measures taken by Governor Scott Walker, whose supporters have included the DeVos family.
Williams told an interviewer, “Our intent was never to destroy the public schools.” When accused of drifting away from the movement, she would reply, “I haven’t changed. The people around me have changed.”
It’s an odd choice for DeVos to invoke Williams, who seems to have viewed folks like DeVos as having hijacked the charter movement. But DeVos seems determined to launch, or at least lay a foundation for, a national voucher program, and she’s going to paint a favorable picture with whatever brush she has handy.
Originally posted at

Monday, October 14, 2019

Fake Slaughter And The Liberal Arts

The interwebs are abuzz with a video shown in some side room by some assortment of Trumpists at the American Priority gathering held at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort. There are questions about who brought it, who showed it, and how it had already been kicking around the internet, but there's no question that the whole thing is pretty brutal.

In the clip, a bunch of faces and logos have been cyber-pasted, Job-Jab style, onto a fight scene from the movie The Kingsman. As altered, it shows Trump kicking, stabbing, choking, shooting, and blowing the brains out of various enemies, from press organizations like CNN and even the BBC News, to individuals such as Barack Obama and John McCain. It is brutal and ugly (yes, even more brutal and ugly than Kathy Grffin's beheaded Trump), but at this point it's not entirely clear whether this was sanctioned and arranged by anyone with official standing, or whether some pair of sixteen-year-olds got all worked up by their copies of Atlas Shrugged and went rogue.

Either way, it's ugly, and its ugliness is about to be parsed at great length. So that's not where I'm headed.

Where I'm headed starts here-- the clip that all the faces and logos were pasted on is a clip from a mainstream film, a film often billed as an action-comedy. The movie is five years old, and was a middling success at the time. Nobody called it awesome, nobody called it terrible. But that scene of graphic, relentless and brutal slaughter was always there. The context doesn't really help-- both our hero (Colin Firth-- don't look, Pride and Prejudice fans) and the other  people in the church are triggered by a cell phone signal designed by the villain to make folks turn homicidal. But the film doesn't play it for horror; instead, the church is packed with intolerant religious racists, so it's "okay" to kill them (when religious folks complain that Hollywood picks on them, this might be something they have in mind).

Anyway, it's brutal. And the overlap between this movie's audience and the people alarmed by the "Trump murders his enemies"video may not be great.

But why, I'm asking, is this clip suddenly beyond the pale?

The answer, I think, is that the original was "just a movie," and the people getting slaughtered weren't real humans, but just objects to be mowed down. And that, I'm afraid, tells us something about the mindset of the people who made the Trump video (and the people who are, quietly now, rather tickled by it)-- that for them, the press and the opponents of Fearless Leader are not real people.

That's not a surprise. We are wired, most of us, to treat other humans decently, and so, Step One in treating others poorly is to find a way to see them as less than human. "I treat most people well, but he is one of those [your favorite epithet here]." One of our measures of character is how broad our definition of "people" is, how far it extends before a baseline of "people are those who are just like me." Another way to understand a sociopath or narcissist is to think of him as someone who sees himself as the only actual real person in the world.

The Trump Massacre clip is shocking (and awful and odious and indefensible) because it moves us from the realm  of "Just a movie and not real people" into the real of talking about real people doing awful things to other realm people. Why we didn't get to that place with the original film  (and others like it) is something we really ought to talk about as a culture, someday.

For me, this whole "only some people are real people" thing is part of what got us a Trump Presidency in the first place.

Allllll of this is my Exhibit A in Why Education Should Be More Than Vocational Training.

We are increasingly hearing the call to make education into vocational training, to focus on getting students skills that pay. Nothing else matters-- just crank out more well-trained meat widgets for Wonder Corp.

But a good education should include some other non-vocational pieces of broader learning:

There are other people in the world who are not like you and who may even be really wrong about some things, but they are still people.

The world was not always the way that it is now, and it will not stay this way, either.

People who disagree with you are not an existential threat to your existence.

None of that can be reduced to a skill or measured with a multiple choice standardized test. All of it maters. I am not even at the moment arguing for tolerance. Just a simple "that person is also a person" and "given a different set of circumstances you might be in her place." The kind of thing that might result in recognizing a shared humanity with a person that you are certain is a huge dope.

And for the love of God, please let's not try to reduce this to a special "program." Let's be conscious and mindful of it while teaching. Let it be part of how we approach literature and history-- as a chance to see into the hearts and minds of people Not Like Us. We don't have to love them or think that they're anything but completely wrong. But we have to understand that there is more to humanity than just our own centered perspective. We have to understand that deliberately hurting someone we disagree with or disapprove of or even hate is just as wrong as trying to deliberately hurt a loved one. Education should widen a person's experience and mind enough to make that understanding possible or more likely.

The earth is covered with millions of people, all different, but all actually equally real. We need a better fantasy than imagining we can just blow away all the others who bother us, and that means imaginations educated well enough to grasp all those possibities.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

ICYMI: Quiet Sunday Edition (10/13)

It's a quiet day in these parts, but there is still some reading to do from the previous week. Here are some pieces you might want to catch up on. Don't forget to share--

The Walton Takeover of Public Education Continues

The Arkansas blog looks at what our favorite retail oligarchs are up to in their home state.

Five Signs Your Reform Has Become Another Education Fad 

Rick Hess at EdWeek makes a useful point.

When Parents Shop For Schools, Students Can Suffer

Yeah, it turns out that the brave new world of education choice doesn't work as smoothly as Reformsters hoped. The Boston Globe takes a look.

Vanquishing the Windigo: Standing Up to Marc Tucker and Digital Capitalism  

From Wrench in the Gears, some more connecting of various reform digital dots.

Racists in one of America's richest counties are freaking out over forced bussing  

Oh, this is just ugly and depressing. What century is it again? Mother Jones has the story from Maryland.

The biggest lie tech people tell themselves — and the rest of us    

Spoiler alert: it's that all of these bright new ideas and inventions are inevitable evolution. But evolution is a terrible metaphor for technology, and we don't have to do some of this stupid stuff, argues Rose Evelth at Vox. This might be the must-read of the week.

Texas and the portfolio model  

One more state wants to try this dumb idea. The Texas Tribune takes a look at how it's worked out in other places, and who's pushing it in the Lone Star State.

The DC Voucher Story Finds Its Way To The Silver Stream-- Sort Of 

Another inspiration ed reform movie will be coming out. The indispensable Mercedes Schneider has done the research and let's us know about the parts the filmmakers will leave out.

Nashville Elementary School Refuses To Provide ICE With Records  

ICE wanted to run a check on students at this predominantly brown elementary school. The school told them to go away. An encouraging story from WCPO.

Politics, Pregnancy, and Public Education

A thoughtful reflection by Nancy Flanagan, sparked by the Elizabeth Warren pregnancy flap, but reaching far beyond it.    

Saturday, October 12, 2019

KY: Pushing Old Charter Myths In A New Market

Kentucky has spent a bunch of time in charter limbo--there is a charter law on the books, but the legislature wouldn't fund it and local districts are (shocker) unwilling to share their aready-meager funding.

So Kentucky remains a fresh market, and charter advocates are still trying to gin up some public support, which lends itself to a sort of Greatest Hits tour of failed charter school arguments.

Take this op-ed from the Lexington Herald-Leader: "If public schools aren’t performing, why not give charter schools a chance?" It's by Ronald Vissing, a Lexington marketing consultant and political activist (he helped push through bills that allow Kentucky voters to recall property taxes). For folks in Kentucky, these pitches may sound new. They aren't. Vissing has helpfully numbered his alleged myths, so here we go:

First: the myth that charters can be "for profit."

Of course, if the law says the school can't be for profit, that settles... well, nothing actually. Vissing says that since charters can't charge tuition, "it's hard to see how a public [sic] charter school can make a profit." Oh, honey. By cutting costs, of course-- one of the reasons that many people don't love the idea of charter schools. The means of profiting from charters are legion; real estate business, fat contracts for charter management organizations. Vissing anticipates the argument that authorizers might enter into secret contracts, and Kentucky has some procedural and transparency laws in place for that, but one good question for Kentuckians to ask is who is supposed to enforce that law, and how. Bottom line: charters can be better than printing money.

Second: the myth that charters will cherry pick the best students.

Vissing says this could never happen, because the law says no entrance exam and no sorting according to race, religion, disability, English Language Learner status. And then if there are too many applicants, they can only use a lottery to sort. I do not know if Vissing has failed to do his homework or he just hopes the readers don't know stuff. From marketing (Look at this brochure- does this happy group of students look like you'd belong?) to paperwork and application processes, there are ways to increase the likelihood that you'll have the student body you want. Also popular: "We are happy to accept students like your child here, but you should be aware that we have absolutely no programs designed to help with this particular disability, nor do we plan to. But hey-- you can still send your child here. Totally your chice."

Third: the myth that charters have less qualified teachers.

Well, Vissing just punts here. His argument is that certified teachers aren't anything special. Private and parochial teachers aren't certified and they "outperform certified teachers." Vissing offers no explanation of what "outperform" means, exactly. But he also wants you to know that charters can fire any teachers at any time for any reason "without the burdensome process of multiple hearings and appeals" aka "due process." He does not mention that this E Z Fire feature means that teachers can be fired for fun reasons like "insisted on sticking up for your child" or "refusing to date her boss." Of course, Kentucky's a Right To Work state, so teachers already have problems.

Vissing has given up counting, but I reckon this is fourth: whattabout specialty schools?

He specifically cites Carter G Woodson Academy, a small (191 students) males-only school serving a mostly poor, almost entirely black student population. It has dress codes, its own curriculum, college prep focus. What's the difference, says Vissing. I'll go with "the academy is owned and operated by the taxpayers, and charter schools aren't.

Finally: some public schools stink.

So why not give parents a choice. I would say because parents don't want a choice as much as they want a non-stinky school. Vissing cites a local school that came up low on Kentucky's ridiculous 5 star school rating program. Those parents would like to send children to a good school. Why, I wonder for the gazillionth time, wouldn't we try to make the school not suck? The old argument is that students can't wait, that it takes too long to change a school, yet somehow we're proposing that a school can be go from nonexistent to awesome in the same short time.

Bonus round: charter schools are not public.

Kentucky charter advocates have gotten the memo to call charter schools "public charters schools." They are not. Public schools are owned by te public, operated by elected representatives of the public, are completely transparent to the public, and serve all of the public.

Kentuckians, do not be snookered by these mythical myths and the charter advocates who push them. You're a fresh market; at a minimum, you deserve a fresh sales pitch.

Friday, October 11, 2019

California Is Burning: One More Argument Against Privatizing Education

California is burning, even as California is dark, its people trying to survive a manmade nightmare.

PG&E, never America's most favorite utility behemoth, has made a hash of things. To save a buck here and there, the power company cut back on some necessary maintenance, but that-- plus a dry season-- has led to almost a dozen catastrophic fires, which have been followed by some hefty lawsuits, which has now been followed by the company shutting off the power for millions of residents (including folks dependent on medical equipment).

2017: This image always gets me because I was once right there
on that exact piece of road.
This is, to repeat, not some kind of unforeseeable disaster, but a systematic program by corporate chiefs to do less maintenance so that they could make more money.

And it's not like this is an isolated incident.

Let me pause for a moment to say that I don't hate capitalism. There are some things that it's very good at, and I'm not ready to throw it out. But if left unattended in the hand so of scruple-impaired men, it can start to do some Very Bad Things.

Take the Boeing 737 Max. The plane crashed multiple times dues to features that were par of a  concentrated effort to cut corners. It was a management problem, not an engineering problem. But it is now looking like it will be a hard one to come back from (not unlike the difficulty in coming back for the people the planes killed).

But if nobody's careful, the engineers will ultimately lose. 

Steve Jobs is just one of the people to have laid out how this happens. The basic sequence looks like this. Acme Widget Company starts with a new idea for how to make a better widget. It enters the market, and through excellence in design, it captures a hefty market share. The widget engineers run the company. But eventually that only gets so much of the widget market, so the company starts hiring high-powered marketing guys to increase market share or grow the market into new places. Now the sales department runs the company. One other critical event occurs-- the company goes public and with that changes its purpose. It no longer exists to make and sell widgets; it now exists to maximize stockholder value. So now the company calls on Beanus Maximus-- the bean counters who can find new ways to squeeze money out of the company. Cut wages. Cut staff. Cut benefits. Cut materials costs. Cut procedures, even safety procedures. And keep doing it, because it's never good enough to do as good a job as you did yesterday.

And so Beanus Maximus cuts and trims and cuts some more and giant jets slam into the ground and California burns in the dark.

That's not all. The "retail apocalypse" that has taken down stores like Sears and Toys R Us is not simply about bricks being outplayed by It's about manager and hedge fundies and private equity firms strip mining all the value out of the chains, until they are too broke to maintain a level of quality and service, until they are too hollowed out to be limber and competitive. 

Call it late stage capitalism or a moral and ethical crisis of management. Call it what you like, but ask yourself if it belongs anywhere near institutions that are entrusted with the public good. Privatizing things like water and parking have not worked out well for many municipalities for precisely this reason-- the companies involved are run from a world away and see nothing but a spread sheet. 

Is there a solution? I don't know, and I think about this a lot as I've watched my own small county suffer from the effects. Make every CEO live within ten miles of the widget factory he runs, because I think the biggest problem with the wealth gap is that it has allowed the super-rich movers and shakers to turn the meat widgets and worker bees into abstractions, not real live humans. 

Every time I hear someone say that schools would work better if they were spurred by free market competition, I want to ask, "Have you actually seen what that kind of competition is doing to the country lately?" It is not excellent that companies have figured out how to get away with paying less-than-living wages. It is not excellent that most citizens live one health crisis away from financial ruin.  It is not excellent to come up with a really elegant system that chews up human beings. And it is especially not excellent that the Acme Widget Company ends up creating neither good-paying jobs nor top quality widgets. 

I don't want to see these kinds of forces turned loose in the world of education, nor do I want to see education shackled and twisted to work in service to these forces, reduced to nothing more than human capital production. 

I know that I will hear from some of my more progressive friends-- capitalism is inherently evil and awful and all you can do is hope to get rid of it. Personally, I'm not there yet. It doesn't have to be this way, and there are certainly companies where it isn't. But in its current state, it doesn't belong anywhere near schools-- particularly when it's been brought there by the same Beanus Maximus hedge fundies that are making a hash out of everything else, blithely cutting corners and making excuses while planes slam into the ground and California burns in the dark. 

FL: Surveillance State Update

It's been over a year since Florida passed and signed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act. That act included a massive data grab that was intended to serve as a feeder for some secret algorithmic future crime unit, through, of course, the Florida School Safety Portal-- because the state wants to capture and record your every move only in your best interests.

Researchers from the Aspen Institute took a look at the situation, and were not impressed.

For one thing, there isn't a lick of evidence that such a thing works. Which-- I mean, how could there be? "We've arrested twelve people for future crime and they never committed a crime, so it must be working"??! The researchers were unimpressed across the board.

"No evidence-based research has demonstrated that a data-driven surveillance system such as the FSSP will be effective in preventing school violence. In addition, no information is publicly available about how the database was designed, developed, or tested,” according to preliminary findings by researchers.

The breadth of "data" mandated for collection is mind-boggling. In addition to every single record that the school keeps and everything from social and legal programs run by the state, the program is also creeping students' social media accounts and "thousands of hours of video footage." All on the theory that if we collect All The Data, we can pick out the next shooter before he shoots. Except that there's no evidence that such data-based predicting can work.

Not that it would matter if anyone knew a way that actually worked, because whatever Florida is using is super-double-top-secret. For all we know, they've got a blind guy on a rotating bar stool throwing darts at student names pasted on the wall. "It's an algorithm," is all anyone knows, and that's only slightly more scientific sounding than "It's computer magic!"

Meanwhile, folks are still concerned that this will disproportionately hit students of color and students with disabilities, who tend to have more data in the system. And that's before we even get to issues like data security, because all of this giant mountain of data is stored in one place. Chances that it will be hacked at some point are certainly greater than zero. Chances that the state will at some point realize that they are sitting on a big data goldmine and decide to cash in (only with certain approved partners, of course)-- also greater than zero.

You have to give it to Florida for creativity, though-- here's a way to sacrifice the lives and privacy of all the children in the state just to avoid any discussion of sensible gun control. Florida's legislature looked at the horrific murders at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and decided that not only would they try to offer students more protection, but they would strip Florida students of any semblance of privacy in order to stuff a data gold mine built out of unicorn farts and yeti dreams.

The Secular Schools

This is going to be kind of rambly and personal and religious; you've been warned. I've been trying to sort through my thoughts about the use of tax dollars to support private religious schools. I started here, then picked the thread up here. I have problems with the idea of vouchers as a tool for religious freedom, and it has taken me some discussion and thought to zero in on part  of my issue.

It's not just separation of church and state. I believe in it, and not just for the state's sake, but for religion's as well. I've oft-quoted (but have trouble finding the original author for) "When you mix religion and politics, you get politics," and we seem to be living through a fairly stark demonstration of that.

But the mixing continues apace. I have some religious conservative friends who have long thought, as does, apparently, Betsy DeVos, that there are certain functions that rightfully belong to the church that have been usurped by the state, and it's high time they were taken back. Schools are on that list. I think that's a huge mistake, both for state and church.

I am trying to side step a larger discussion of religion here. My own relationship with the church is... complicated. I have been a C&E guy, and I've been in leadership positions. My faith in God remains far stronger than my faith in all the tiny little humans who purport to speak for God. And as a teacher of American literature, I talked to students about religion every year while staying carefully neutral (my standard preamble was "I am going to talk about what these people believed. I am not here to tell you whether they were right or wrong-- just what they thought"). I'm rambling a bit now, but my point is that I've spent a lot of time thinking about how personal faith intersects with life and work in a country that was not, sorry, ever set up to be anything like a Christian nation.

I got to discussing this with Neal McCluskey, the CATO education guy with whom I disagree about almost everything, prompting him to write this response, and that helped me spot a big point on which we disagree. Here's part of what he wrote. The set up...

Writes Greene about “Libby folks”—presumably libertarians and not fans of canned fruit—“you have, of course, always been free to send your child to a religious school. What’s new here is the argument that the government should pay for it.” He goes on, “Libbys are saying that citizens should be taxed so that their children can practice their religion,” which doesn’t seem like a very libertarian thing to do.

And the pitch:

I agree. It isn’t. Except for one thing with which Greene never seriously grapples: this is in a status quo in which everyone is taxed to support government schools, schools that, by law, must be secular. In other words, a system in which religious people are inherently second-class citizens.

I agree with the first part, but not the second. For me, "secular" is not the same as "anti-religious." I don't see an issue, and have never seen one in thirty-nine years, with students of faith in a secular classroom--


Unless the student (or her parents) believes that their religion should dominate everything else. There is that certain brand of Christian who believes that her belief system should dominate whatever room, whatever endeavor she is involved in. She may insist that it is an excuse to deliberately reject learning (a colleague who was teaching a gifted class about comparative religions in the world was told by a student that there was no point in learning about other religions because they were all wrong), or demand that other students do not say or do or be things that she finds offensive. And of course you can insert a discussion of all the different evolution arguments here.

These are people who have yet to grow in faith and who, frankly, don't know much about the story of their own faith (Fun fact for proponents of the Biblical story of creation: there are two creation stories in Genesis, and they don't match. Seriously.) The history of the Christian church is filled with arguing and fighting and stabbing and killing over doctrinal points we no longer even talk or think about. One of my basic articles of belief is that anyone who thinks they know everything they need to know about a subject is a dope, and that goes quadruple for religion. Every person I've ever known whose faith I respected and admired can tell you right off the top of their head five things they got wrong about their faith when they were younger.

Point is, we're all growing, or should be, and putting yourself in a bubble where nobody will ever say anything you disagree with is an impediment to growth. This weird new interpretation of the First Amendment (I should be able to discriminate as I think my religion requires me to) is not just bad for the country, but it's bad for religion and it's bad for the people who want to practice it.

Also on my list of Things I Believe-- if your idea can't hold up to discussion or opposing views, it's probably not a great idea. If you think simply being exposed to science will forever erode your child's faith in God, then your conception of God is flawed (including your lack of understanding of God's willingness to play the long game).

There is no way to include religion in public education without having the government pick a winner, and that's bad for everyone. And every argument that boils down to "But we really deserve to be the winner" is invalid.

There is one other factor at play here-- the mixture of religion and politics has given us people who think their political or social beliefs are religious. But believing in capitalism as the best system-- that's not religious. Believing that LGBTQ folks shouldn't be seen, heard, or given rights-- that's not religious. Believing in white supremacy is not religious. We have a long history of reading current social beliefs into scripture, like the Southern Baptists who left the main church over their belief that slavery was mandated by God. If you are just trying to impose your political beliefs under the banner of God, well, schools should also be apolitical, and you should go sit down.

But to circle back around to my point (and I do have one), secular is not the antithesis or religious. Technical definition: denoting attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis. Secular is the absence of religion, not the rejection of it. A sunrise is secular. A baby's birth is secular. A baseball game is secular. A good jazz solo is secular. Faith (and its confused cousin, religion) is what puts a foundation under all that. The secular stuff is the dry soup mix and faith is the boiling water you add to make soup. Secular is the what and the how; faith is the why. They are not mutually exclusive, but mutually enriching. Someone without any secular education is stuck worshipping Magic Santa ("Yeah, God just waves his magic hand and stuff happened) which is pretty meager stuff. Someone without faith-- well, I don't know. I don't know if I've ever met someone without any faith in a larger something of some kind, though I'm sure it's theoretically possible.I think it would suck.

But because the faith part is personal, and because religion plus politics equals politics, we have a secular government and secular government agencies like schools, because this is not supposed to be the country where we extract tax dollars from Ed to pay for a school that will reject Ed's kid because of their tiny view of God.

It's also the kind of country where you should be able to go set up your own bubble school if you want to, and I totally support that. Just not funding it wit tax dollars either directly or via some clever voucher set up.

And if your beef with "secular" schools is really that you and your religious brethren aren't being given the dominant voice you deserve, well, that's very American, too. It's a big part of what brought the Puritans here, which got us fun things like Salem and hanging Quakers for proselytizing wrongly and banishing people. Our colonial period is filled with examples of how badly things go when the state picks a religious winner, which is probably a chunk of what motivated the founding fathers to bake in religious neutrality.

And picking a religious winner is where religious vouchers end up. The Satanic Church or the Rastafarians will try to horn in and then some folks will say, "We need rules" and before you know it, we'll have the Federal Bureau of Religious School Certification. Neutrality is the only workable course.

Again, secular schools are not anti-religion unless you think you're religion is too good and right and better to be forced to be on equal footing with all the other religions. Secularism is not a religion. Science is not a religion. Secular schools leave a big blank space where religion goes, leaving families, preachers, or random youtube videos to fill in that space. If your feeling is that you must be allowed to fill in that space with your preferred beliefs, send your child to a school that does it, but don't bill me for it.

That's what I think.

Freedom: You Keep Using That Word...

Freedom is a great thing. I'm a huge fan. But because it has so many positive associations, some folks just can't resist the urge to twist it.

Take the frequent efforts to "free" teachers from their unions. Oppressive unions rob teachers of the freedom to work extra long hours, the freedom to be paid whatever their bosses feel like paying them, the freedom to be fired for any reason at any time. Folks like Jeanne Allen at the Center for Education Reform talk about "the freedom from constraining work rules and contracts" and the idea that teachers should be "entrepreneurs," another word that has been hijacked because "struggling worker in the gig economy who has no safety net, health insurance, or prospects for future security" is too wordy.

Betsy DeVos is also trying to get some mileage out of "freedom" as she tries to sell her school voucher program as "freedom scholarships."

DeVos's choices as Secretary of Education is best understood through this lens: businesses and churches (well, the right ones, anyway) should be free of all government oversight, free to do as they wish. Any rule that requires them to something they don't want to do, or that keeps them from doing something they want to do, should be removed (this puts her in tune with her boss, except that instead of "removed" he leans toward "ignored").

So education "freedom" means that any company that wants to take a shot at scoring some of those sweet, sweet public tax dollars should be able to. And any religious organization (well, not "any," exactly) should be able do the same-- and without having to worry about any rules about discriminating about one group or another. The government should be subservient to business and the church (well, not just any church).

Part of the "freedom" of DeVos's voucher program is the freedom to contribute to the private school of your choice instead of paying your share of taxes to the government. But that's the part that's being sold more quietly.

The loud sell is as freedom for parents, freedom to craft exactly the education that best fits their child ("fits" is one of my fave DeVosian euphemisms, far less unseemly than flat out suggesting that children should get the kind of education appropriate to their proper station in life, because people are always happier when they know their place and stay in it).

Parental freedom is a useful frame, because it lets reformsters turn to people like me and say, "So I guess you don't trust parents to choose well for their children."

But parental "freedom" isn't about trust-- it's about abandoning parents and violating the promise this country made about ensuring each child would get a good, free education. Have we sometimes failed at fulfilling that promise? Sure, and much too often, but the solution to a promises unfulfilled is not to just abandon the promise entirely. The kind of education "freedom" that DeVos is touting is about handing every parent a stack of money and saying, "Okay, you're free. There are some guys over there who might sell you some education, but that's your problem, not ours. Once we hand you some money, we wash our hands of you."

Could some parents navigate a education "environment" (another badly co-opted term) successfully? Certainly. But it won't be simple. Name one segment of the consumer economy that is dominated by honest, fact-based marketing. Name one segment of the consumer economy that is devoted to serving every single person in the country. Education will not be a magical exception. And with education, we're talking about a "product" that may not be seriously evaluated until years later, making it hard to collect consumer data. Some parents will be sorely tested by the work of navigating the marketplace, some will be unwilling to make the effort, and some will be snookered by slick marketing that ranges from misleading to simply lying. And some will find that for whatever reason, no vendors will want their child as a "customer." I have far more belief in the parents than I do in the market into which they'd be dumped, unaided and overmatched. And all of these struggling parents will face a government that says, "I gave you a voucher. I made you free. I did my part. What do you want from me? If you spent your Education Freedom Bucks poorly, that's on you."

There is an ugly underside to DeVos's pitch-- some families will end up as losers in this brave new free marketplace, and that is as it should be. Some people need to learn to run a corporation, and some need to learn how to serve it. Freedom in the marketplace belongs to those with wealth and power (that's how rich folks beat the housing market to get nice homes near the nice school), and vouchers, "freedom" or otherwise, will exacerbate the gap, not erase it.

The "freedom" being discussed is not freedom for the folks on the bottom. It's freedom for the folks on top. Freedom to profit and freedom to hold on to every dollar they touch. But most of all, the freedom not to worry about others. Like the heads of Lyft and Uber, they don't have to worry about their workers' health or future; they just keep figuring out how to get the most money out of those meat widgets. The freedom not to worry about the customers. The freedom not to worry about anything but the bottom line. The freedom to operate in an unregulated marketplace.

Freedom from public education is no more desirable than freedom from fire fighters. But we live in an age where some folks want to give the poor freedom from a social safety net and give retirees freedom from a secure income ("Just play the stock market yourself. What could go wrong?"). We are surrounded by people who see us a nice, plump sheep, and they would like to give us freedom from the fence and the shepherd.

It's not "freedom" to cancel the country's promise and obligation to its children. Yes, the "protection" of the government can be misguided, misplaced and even oppressive. As I said at the outset, I am a big fan of freedom. But to yank a ladder away from people while announcing, "Now you have the freedom to climb the wall on your  own," is no gift to people, not even if someone offers to sell them a shiny stepstool or magic beans (while demanding that neighbors help finance the purchase).

Balancing true freedom against a reasonable amount of security is never an easy task, and we've been fiddling with it for centuries, but the DeVosian idea of "freedom" makes a lousy north star, useful only for steering us to a land where liberty is a commodity and you can have all the freedom you can afford-- and no more. We're way too close to that land already; I'd prefer a different direction.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

AI Pokes Another Hole In Standardized Testing

The stories were supposed to capture a new step forward in artificial intelligence. A “Breakthrough for A.I. Technology: Passing an 8th-Grade Science Test,” said the New York Times. “AI Aristo takes science test, emerges multiple-choice superstar,” said TechXPlore. Both stories were talking about Aristo (indicating a child version of Aristotle), a project of Paul Allen’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, where the headline read, “How to tutor AI from an ‘F’ to an ‘A.’
The occasion for all this excitement is Aristo’s conquest of a big standardized test, answering a convincing 80% of questions correctly on the 12th grade science test and 90% on the 8th grade test. Four years ago, none of the programs that attempted this feat were successful at all. 
We see these occasional steps forward greeted with a certain amount of hyperbole (last year the New York Post announced that computers were “beating humans” at reading comprehension), or the time the BBC announced that an AI “had the IQ of a four-year-old child,” but the field still has a very long way to go. And as it tries to get there, it tells us something about the education tasks set for humans.
Wired perhaps best captured the issue in a story headlined “AI Can Pass Standardized Tests—But It Would Fail Preschool.” AI’s still can’t answer open-ended questions, and Aristo was designed strictly to deal with multiple choice, and only within certain parameters. Aristo has problems with questions involving diagrams, charts, or hypotheticals. The program, as Melanie Mitchell at Wired puts it, lacks common sense. Multiple choice questions tend to come with certain cues and “giveaways,” enough that Mitchell found she could just about pass the test with googling, making Aristo marginally “smarter” than a search engine.
These articles are all considering the development, design, and pursuit of artificial intelligence, but I would rather look at what all this says about the standardized tests themselves.
Despite the Post headline, no piece of software actually “comprehends” reading, and Aristo is not ready to be a cybernetic scientist. Or as Mitchell puts it, in a quote I would have mounted on my classroom wall, “We must keep in mind that a high score on a particular data set does not always mean that a machine has actually learned the task its human programmers intended.”
In that quote, we could as easily replace “machine” with “student” and “human programmers” with “teachers.” 
What these AI experiments keep proving over and over is that students do not have to possess any knowledge or understanding of the subject matter to be trained to succeed on the tests. The high stakes test that have been the foundation of the education accountability movement clearly do not measure what they purport to measure, as demonstrated by computer software that has zero “academic achievement” and yet scores well on the test. 
If actual academic knowledge and understanding is not a prerequisite for a good score on the test, then what does the big standardized test actually measure? And is there anything be gained by pushing–and measuring–students to be more like software that doesn’t know much except how to figure out the correct answer on a multiple choice test?

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Why You Can Ignore That Hot New DFER Poll

Yesterday the Democrats for Education Reform dropped a hot new pile of steaming poll results, and some media outlets, like US News, jumped right on it. The take was that Democrat voters are hollering for charters and choice, and the candidates are acting foolishly by running in the other direction.

Here's why you (and the candidates) don't need to be excitedly about any of this.

First, it's DFER. DFER was founded by some hedge funders who hoped to steer the Democratic party in a more free-marketty direction when it came to education. Their Democrat bona fides are suspect enough that some state Dems have actually demanded they un-D-ify themselves. DFER has had a bit of a tactical problem ever since Trump moved into the White House and brought Betsy DeVos along for the ride, namely that when DFER's favorite policies come out of DeVos's mouth, they're much harder to sell. Consequently, DFER has been trying hard to make the case that Good Democrats believe in charters and choice and Practical Democrats must at least act like they support these things if they want to get elected. So this is more of that.

Second, the polling company Benenson is not a polling company like Gallup is a polling company. Says their site, "We help leaders connect with, persuade and activate the audiences you need to win." They are a high-powered PR consulting firm, ready to help you anywhere "from the political war room to the corporate board room."

The poll questions are tilted (we'll get back to that), but the big clue to what's really going on here is in their own write-up of the results. Here's how one item is presented:

Message tested: “It’s time to not only start making real investments in our public schools, but fix the way we fund them so every student gets their fair share of resources, not just those in wealthy neighborhoods. Every child deserves a chance for a great education, no matter where they live, and to make that possible, we need to start funding schools fairly.”

Message tested.

This is a survey about messaging. This is not a "what do people actually think" survey, but a "what version of our message is most likely to sell" survey.

So, of course, the various tested messages are hugely biased. This isn't even a push poll (those polls that pretend to ask question but are meant to push certain ideas into the electorate ("Would you vote for John McCain if you heard he fathered an illegitimate black child?"). This is just plain old test marketing.

So yes. The example above is a good sample-- who, exactly, would respond "No, I don't want students to get their fair share of resources"? Or this one--

Politicians have failed our public schools and our children for decades by refusing to pay teachers what they deserve. We need to raise salaries for all teachers and use extra pay and incentives to diversify teaching and recruit great teachers in hard-to-staff subjects and high-need schools. Because a great education for our kids starts with great teachers in every classroom.

That polled strongly-- probably more strongly than if it had been phrased "We need to lower the base salary for all teachers and provide bonuses only for those teachers who teach students with high test scores."

The marquee result that was boosted by US News and others was

Expand access to more choices and options within the public-school system, including magnet schools, career academies, and public charter schools.

Again, a real winner that tested better than, say, "Give public taxpayer dollars to private companies that will not serve all students and which will be run by private individuals and not elected school boards." Also note that the survey question completely skips the question of whether or not charter schools are public schools or not (they aren't).

It must have been even tougher to come up with a way to sell testing, which pretty much everyone is fed up with, but Benenson gave respondents a choice between these two options:

Require each  state to measure student achievement through statewide assessments with a consistent set of benchmarks and standards, so that we can make apples-to-apples comparisons to understand which schools are succeeding and which need help.

Allow each school district in a state to set its own benchmarks, standards, and tests, instead of statewide assessments that measure every student's achievement based on a consistent set of standards.

That's not a choice that will tell us anything about how the public really feels about high stakes testing, nor does it reflect reality.

We could keep playing this game with the whole survey, but you get the idea. It's the equivalent of asking a child "Would you rather have a pretty pony or this rotting rat carcass?" It's market testing blue packaging and green packaging without asking any questions about the product in the package.

Most of all, this is a "poll" aimed at a very small audience--the Democratic candidates and their campaigns. The message is simple-- adopt our policies and you will totally be a winner. It completely avoids the complexity and costs of some issues (charters) and the settled toxicity of others (testing) in the hope that somebody with political power will be willing to be BFFs with DFER again. Here's hoping the candidates have the sense to ignore this big pile of baloney.

Monday, October 7, 2019

What The Heck Is A Chief Innovation Officer? (And Does Your District Need A Proactive Change Agent Visionary Leader To Transform Your Human Capital With Capacity-Building Systems?)

My college job was in the private sector, working in the education and communication department of an industrial manufacturing company. In ways that my college education could never hope to, my time there drove home how there are plenty of folks making a good living using language to obscure rather than reveal, the there's a whole art of using language to try to convey importance and weight while cloaking the actual content of those words with smoke and mirrors. On the one hand, it's appalling, like watching someone use the Mona Lisa to scrub the grime off their car. On the other hand, it's its own kind of hilarious language, a linguistic emperor's new clothes. We entertained ourselves by cranking out faux bulletins in corporate argle bargle; I actually have a bound collection of our best work.

I am reminded of all that when I read some of the corporate baloney unleashed on education (not that education doesn't have its own ridiculous jargon). Take, for instance, the new-ish corporate ed reform job of Chief Innovation Officer. Right off the bat, we know this is corporate-style baloney, because of the desire to signal this is a Real Important Job by making it C-level with a Chief in front. The whole trend of turning school administration jobs into "chief" jobs is about "translating" education-speak into corporate-speak.

The Center for Digital Education offered its own balonified exercise in explaining CIOs in 2013; you know from the very first paragraph it's going to be richly foolish:

Chief innovation officers are slowly popping up in school districts around the country. Some say they fill a gap in leadership that's preventing education from moving forward.

First-- "slowly popping up"?? I'm trying to imagine slow-popping popcorn, or a jack-in-the-box that emerges like an arthritic octogenarian. Nope. If you're going to pop up, you can't do it slowly.  Second- "some say"?? Some what? Some corporate guys who want to remake education in their own image.

It turns out that "around the country" meant "in at last four school districts" in 2013. The article features plenty of unfounded assertions, like "Right now, probably 70% of school districts  need a complete makeover." Don't expect any support or elaboration for that. The article interviews a new CIO who's supposed to provide "visionary leadership" and who says an "exciting piece" of his job is "to empower people  and build capacity in a way that inspires." But the article also notes that the CIO job description is varied from place to place; in Detroit, the  job is simply "to better prepare students for college." What that has to do with innovation is not clear.

Not that the corporate world where the term originated knows either. The term supposedly comes from a 1998 book, Fourth Generatio R&D,  and wikipedia says it's for the person most reposnible for managing change, who comes up with new ideas and who recognizes them when other people bring them up. Inc offers its own explanation which involves championing innovation and driving new growth. Back in 2009, Forbes was sure that you needed one for your company. LinkedIN shows close to 200 openings at the various times I looked.

Education has always been where corporate fads go to die (before Outcome Based Education, there was Management By Objectives), but modern ed reform, with its belief that education needs to be run like a business, has accelerated that process. So as we saw above, CIOs were a coming thing in 2013. In 2016, edWeb was explaining why schools needed a CIO in the same graceless language

Education is experiencing an extraordinary transformation that requires Innovative Leadership to implement major change initiatives and redesign numerous systems within a school district. A strong movement driven by Future Ready Schools is charging toward a personalized learning environment to prepare students for college, career, and life readiness that links the learning in the classroom to a real world setting.

It just sounds so smart, you know. Major change initiatives. Redesign numerous systems. Charging toward a personalized learning environment. It has the solid ring of corporate argle bargle-- you almost know what it means, close enough that you assume that with some specialized training you'd have a better idea what exactly they mean. That's a more charitable assumption than figuring that they are keeping the language vague and grand because they themselves don't know exactly what they mean, but they still want to make the sale. It's like moving a product by giving it a fancy designation, like JSB-400; it makes it sound hard-edged and sciency, even if you just made the whole thing up. Corporate reform wants to sell itself as hard-nosed scientific management, and so we get this language to hide the fact that they are just as vaguely fuzzy-headed as those bleeding heart humanists who want to call teaching an art.

Meanwhile, you can get a CIO certificate to prove, I guess, that you are a visionary change agent of environmental disruption. And higher education is being scolded for having only 25% penetration of CIOs.

To really capture the baloney-fest, here comes Bellwether Partners with an interview with two CIOs-- Margo Roen (Education First) and David Saenz (Forth Worth ISD).

Roen's view of the job is more entrepreneurial-- grab data, look for "gaps," fill gaps through "internal capacity building or external partnerships," and then "formalize these strategic partnerships through performance contracts that clearly lay out expectations, autonomies, and supports for partners." So, figure out what test  prep you need and hire  some companies to provide it. Saenz is more managerial-- the CIO handles "change management" with various projects and communications with "internal and external partners," plus knowing how all the parts of a school district works. So, pretty much a superintendent.

Roen notes that there is still "not one prototype for the role" which is charming but really, what other job could get away with that. Certainly nobody's response to "We need more evaluation and accountability for teachers" is not "Well, there really isn't one prototype for the role." Roen believes innovation "can help create new solutions and more equitable systems, and use a more focused process to surface innovation needs." So, figuring out what  problems ned to be solved and solving them-- is that really innovation, or just basic management?

Saenz gets to describe a typical week, and it's mostly meetings, but wow, what meetings. His typical week is "centered around meeting with a wide range of stakeholders to help foster collaborative decision-making as we address gaps in our district." He facilitates the work of the Office of Innovation, including the Innovation Action Team, a "cross-functioning team" with  all sorts of key officials (including the "human capital office.")

Saenz also talks about the supports in place, like a "district culture" that enables CIOs "to push the limits of their district's capacity and form new schemas for how we manage our schools." He also lapses into plain English long enough to say that a lot  of this is about charter school authorizing. Which for some of you will come as no surprise at all, because "innovation" these days is a euphemism for "privatization."

Which brings us to the last question in the interview-- why would a superintendent want a CIO. The argle bargle answer is that they are too busy with the daily problems and putting out fres that they lose the big picture. In other words, reformsters have found that getting their agenda fulfilled sometimes takes a back seat to actually running the district, so if the district could have someone working on privatizing full time, that would be a big help. Or, if you prefer, someone "who who is solely focused on the big picture, who shepherds forward an annual cycle of proactive evaluation and planning, and wakes up and goes to sleep every day thinking about the range of options and quality in the district."

All of this noise is generated in service to two obscure two things: 1) nobody pushing this stuff can offer  a specific, concrete explanation of what it is and 2) it's about  privatizing and profiteering.

It also reminds us of a point that is perhaps not made often enough (my hat is tipped here to Andrea Gabor, who addresses this really well in her book After the Education Wars) -- that we have a problem not just with reformsters who want to use business methods to manage education, but with reformnsters who want to use lousy business methods to manage education.

For teachers, the important point is to believe your own eyes and ears. You know language, and you know baloney when you see it. When it looks like someone is trying to fake you out with a bunch of baloney, they probably are. In this case, they definitely are. If you think you can see the emperor's bare ass, it's because you can. Do not be intimidated by what a friend of mine use to call Big Wig Lingo.

And for the people pushing this stuff. Take a step back, really looking at what you're saying, and ask yourself if anyone should take this kind of billowy jargon seriously (spoiler alert: the answer is no). If you really have something to say, you'll do better in plain English.