Saturday, September 19, 2020

The 1776 Unites Curriculum Isn't So Great

During Dear Leader's call for more patrio-centric re-education, he referenced and Betsy DeVos praised the 1776 Unites project as an example of the kind of thing he wants to see in schools. So I went to look at it, and, well, it has some problems.

What Is It, And Where Did It Come From?

The "curriculum" has been launched just last week as an "inspirational alternative" to the New York Times 1619 project. The 1776 Unites initiative was launched back in February with somewhat stronger language about the 1619 project. It came from the Woodson Center, the organization founded by Black conservative activist Bob Woodson, who said upon launching that it was intended to counter the "lethal" narrative of 1619.

"This garbage that is coming down from the scholars and writers from 1619 is most hypocritical because they don’t live in communities [that are] suffering," he continued. "They are advocating something they don’t have to pay the penalty for."

So, not a fan. He pulled together an assortment of other Black conservatives, and in February the website was launched:

1776 Unites is a movement to liberate tens of millions of Americans by helping them become agents of their own uplift and transformation, by embracing the true founding values of our country.

The website includes a library of essays, with titles like "The Cult of Victimhood," "Living by the grace of God and the power of applying oneself," "Embrace black patriotism over victimization," "Slavery does not define the black American experience," and "The 1619 Project perpetuates the soft bigotry of low expectations." 

There's an awful lot of bootstrapping rhetoric on the site, the good old-fashioned "if you're poor it's your own damn fault" kind. But I'm in no position to evaluate the group's standing as Black activists or intellectuals; I am, however, comfortable evaluating the usefulness of their educational tools.

What's Offered In The Curriculum? 

Well, not a lot, actually. You need to sign up your name and info to get access to the download page--in fact, you need to submit that info every single time you want to go to the download page--where you will find three lessons. Two are about Black history, focusing on Biddy Mason and Elijah McCoy. The third is about "building character" and the Woodson Principles. The page hints at an intent to grow this effort that is "essential to building a resilient, patriotic population." 

But for right now, you've got just the three lessons.

Lesson One: Biddy Mason

There are several elements here, starting with a Power Point presentation of 18 slides. The images are a curious mix. On the slide about Biddy's early life, one photo is an actual photo of young Biddy, a copyrighted photo that belongs to the UCLA, Library Special Collections folks, but it's used without any acknowledgement or caption (I had to reverse Google it), while the other photo is of a mother with what looks like a newborn baby. That can't possibly be Biddy; a reverse search suggests its a stock photo from Getty Images taken by W. Eugene Smith; it's also uncaptioned and uncredited. This is an issue through the slides--some photos are credited, some are captioned, and several more are not. 

The actual content is thin and context-free. Her 1,700 mile trek to Utah, which ended up in California, is given a couple of sentences. In California, she sued for her freedom and won in 1856. The slide asks if you know what year the rest of the slaves in America were emancipated, and the answers 1863 which--well, no. The Emancipation Proclamation declared all slaves in the Southern states free, but did no such favors for the slaves in the border states. And since the proclamation was issued at the beginning of 1863, while the Civil War was still raging, it didn't actually do a thing--it couldn't kick in until the North had actually beaten the Southern states in question. 

The rest of Biddy's story, which the slides continue to tell in very broad strokes, focuses on the economics. She worked for wages and invested her money. Her purchase of property in Los Angeles, leading to considerable wealth, is attributed to her wisdom and not to any fortunate timing. The slides tout that she became one of LA's "first prominent citizens and most important landowners...during the 1850s and 1860s," which seems like a kind of loose reading if she only became freed in 1856, and even looser when you learn she bought her first property in 1866 (you don't learn that from this lesson). Her philanthropic work and large fortune ("about $8 million today") are emphasized. Students are asked what causes they would give money to, and what kinds of people "you would like to help in your life?"

Activities and Assignments   

Look up some famous philanthropists (Carnegie, Gates) and find out how they made their money and what they fund. Do some real estate research in your own town and figure out what you'd invest in. Which parts of the country are growing or shrinking, and which would make a good investment right now? If you had a million dollars, how would you invest it? Without using the words, the writer suggests a pair and share. At the end of your life, if there were a memorial to you, what would you want it to say? 

Are you noticing anything about what a$pect of Biddy'$ life is being focu$ed on here? Will it help if I show you the targeted 

Vocabulary List

Profit, Assets, Appreciate/Depreciate, Philanthropy, Investment, Interest/compound interest, Down payment

Critical Thinking and Discussion Questions  

What are some advantages she faced? What are some disadvantages? How about you? "How hard is it to maintain a positive mindset in the face of adversity?" Why do you think Biddy was generous to others, even after her life was filled with hardship? How would her life have been different if she had become discouraged? Note: there are no questions along the lines of "What if her owner had beaten her to death before she got to court" or "What if she had arrived in LAS too late to get in on the growth boom?" or "What if she had ended up in some place that was busting rather than booming?" There's also no attempt to encourage students to dig deeper past the paper thin outline of her life.

Like so many things that try to pass them off as critical thinking exercises, these aren't even close. Here's an important pro tip about critical thinking questions-- if you are trying to direct students toward a specific conclusion or realization, you aren't doing critical thinking. This is why Dear Leader's vision of a curriculum that tells one certain shiny story of America will always be anti-critical thinking.

Lesson Plan 

This isn't a lesson plan. There's a paragraph that manages to sum up the entirety of the actual content of the lesson  in a few sentences. There are some suggestions about when the lesson might be appropriate. Oh, and you can use it for Social and Emotional Learning, too, because it "highlights resilience, grit, determination, self-reliance and other positive inner resources and character traits." 

There's a "lesson prompt"-- "Have you ever wondered what happened to people who were born in slavery but were later freed?" And suggestions that you could use the power point, or watch some videos, and basically you could use the stuff in this packet. This is a lesson plan as conceived by someone who has never written an actual lesson plan ever. What exactly will the teacher do, in which order, following what time frame? Who knows.


Links to four youtube videos about Biddy Mason. All four, including the one that's only four and a half minutes long, provide far more depth and information than this lesson does. One is just a panel discussion, but all are informative. 

MC Questions

A bank of multiple choice questions to use. They are terrible. How did she win her freedom? Was she born free, moved to a free state, escaped and moved to the North, sued and won her freedom in court, or died as a slave. Some of the answers are ridiculous and could only be used to test if the students were conscious during the power point, and in this particular case, two answers are correct (she could only sue for freedom because she was in a free state). The other four questions are similar, though one is the only one to offer "All of the above," which is, of course, correct. 

Standards and Learning Objectives  

Four and a half pages of standards cribbed from a variety of sources, including CASEL, ASCA, NCSS, Common Core, and AP US History. They have stretched like crazy here. Just a few of the standards this lesson claims to meet--

From AP: 5.3.11.B The women's right movement was both emboldened and divided over the 14th and 15th amendments to the constitution.

From NCSS: 8 Science, Technology and Society

From ASCA: A:C1.6 Understand how school success and academic achievement enhance future career and vocational opportunities

CASEL: Stress management

CCSS: A whole lot of speaking and listening, for some reason.

The Learning Objectives list includes the student being able to: explain the difference between a slave state and a free state, define the vocabulary (not use it?), identify at least one financial investment opportunity, explain/interpret a quotation using their own words.

Lesson Two: Elijah McCoy

Worried I'm going to drag you through all that again? Don't worry-- the only thing done for McCoy is his 15 power point slides. Those include one that asks students if they've ever had a job, one that asks "what kinds of things need to be invented right now," and two oddly redundant slides that credit him as the basis for the saying "the real McCoy," a claim that a quick Wikipedia check would tell you is shaky, at best

Honestly, I've assigned slide-style presentations about important people over the course of my career; this looks suspiciously like the one done by the student who scanned one source, copied some random photos, and then did his best to squeeze out a few more slides for padding,

The Woodson Principles   

Okay, I was going to take a quick look at this, but the list of ten principles is mis-formatted on the power point slide and another slide asks if students know what a GED is. Woodson's ten principles look like any good unobjectionable corporate training list, but is this a good way to teach them? I think not. Moving on.

So Many Issues   

Fact-checking. Editing. Chopping the heck out of a couple of actually quite exceptional stories. McCoy and Mason really are impressive individuals with extraordinary stories. But these stripped down versions don't begin to do them justice. It's hard to know why--Mason's story is filled with people who stepped up to help her at critical moments, from helping her get her day in court to giving her a place to live when she was freed--have they all been excised to highlight "self-reliance"? 

It's extraordinarily unclear what the target audience is here. The tone and language feels like maybe fourth or fifth grade, but the standards lists high school standards. You are never going to capture high school attention with material this bland and thin. The exercise reminds me of beginning student teachers I would work with who knew they had some stuff they wanted to cover, but had no idea how they should exercise their own leadership and planning to make the lesson happen. "I'll go over some of this and then there will be a discussion, and the students will, you know, learn about all this other stuff that will just come up, somehow." Or maybe it's just the work of another bunch of people who don't have any real idea what teaching involves. Or maybe they were focused on what they wanted to say about the material that they treated the "curriculum" itself as an afterthought. And you can argue about the scholarship behind the 1619 Project, but there's no scholarship going on here at all.

In short, teachers should absolutely be teaching about Biddy Mason and Elijah McCoy. Under no circumstances should they use these materials to do it. And if Dear Leader is counting on 1776 Unites to create his super-patriotic curriculum or beat back the evil lefty forces of the 1619 Project--well, this sample indicates that it's just not going to happen. 

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Is Betsy DeVos Flip-Flopping?

Betsy DeVos visited a private school in Grand Rapids that is currently open for face-to-face school, and she observed that not re-opening school buildings is a "tragedy."

This seems like a radical shift of direction for the secretary of education. For one thing, one of her mantras has been that we should fund students, not institutions or, presumably, the buildings in which those institutions are housed. DeVos has also been a huge advocate of computer-run education, insisting that the modern miracles of technology should set students free from traditional school-in-a-building.

But with the advent of the pandemic, DeVos seemingly shifted gears, going so far as to threaten public schools with funding loss if they don't open up right away. And here she was in Grand Rapids, praising a private school that opened up and sadly castigating public schools that haven't. 

So did Betsy DeVos suddenly change her mind? 

That seems unlikely; DeVos is nothing if not singleminded and focuses. Tales of her career in education reform do not include any sudden epiphanies that lead to a new shift or focus. So how to explain this sudden apparent 180 degree flip. Let me offer a couple of theories.

One theory is that she is simply following Trump's lead, and Trump on education (as with some other policy areas) is best understood as the cranky old grampaw who thinks the world would be a lot better if everything was the way (he thinks) it was Back In His Day. Though DeVos was not a Trump fan back in 2016, she has become a solid team player for her boss, one of the few who has never, ever suggested that some chunk of dumb just fell out of his mouth. .

But just as likely is that DeVos is doing what she has always done--taking whatever position best supports privatized education. Pre-pandemic, when public schools were open for face-to-face instruction, she could criticize them for not having changed for a century, for being the same old dead end, thereby promoting the notion that folks should get out of public school and into a private school with cool modern techy things etc etc etc.

But in the pandemess US, public schools have, in many cases, shut their doors and deployed all sorts of 21st century gimcracks and geegaws, she needs something else to criticize them for. If she can get them to open up in traditional style, then her old criticisms can still be used. Plus, since nobody on the federal or state leader has offered up the leadership, guidance, resources or money needed to make opening up in a pandemic really work, she has the security of knowing that more public school failures are sure to follow. And if they don't open back up, DeVos can (and has) criticize them for not providing Real Schooling, unlike these nice Catholic schools over here that are open for face to face instruction. Plus, failing to re-open helps DeVos leverage the idea that public schools should be defunded and families should just get education vouchers.

In short, there is no hypocrisy or flip-flopping here. DeVos has a few solid principles that stay in play. Anything that helps private edu-businesses is good. Anything that makes public schools look bad is good. The pandemic has provided several win-win scenarios for DeVos; they only look inconsistent if you aren't looking in the right direction.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Check Out "On Teaching" At The Atlantic

I've been poking through the thirty-three articles posted by The Atlantic as part of their On Teaching series, and it requires a little more recommendation than my weekly Sunday round-up. If you're only going to read one batch of articles this month, read these.

And if you're only going to read one article this month, start with the anchor essay, just published today. In it, Kristina Rizga writes about her two-year quest to answer the question, What is good teaching? The beauty of this-- and of the entire package-- is that she looks for answers by talking to actual veteran teachers. The focus of the project was the soon to be lost wisdom of the boomer teaching cohort. Check out this part-of-a-paragraph:

The majority of Baby Boomer teaching veterans—who just over 15 years ago constituted more than half of the teaching force—have retired or will retire in the next few years. “On Teaching” aimed to collect the wisdom of some of the nation’s most accomplished veterans to find out what has helped them bring out the best in their students. The 15 teachers I got to know closely—from rural Oklahoma to Mississippi, subarctic Alaska to suburban Arizona, California, Texas, Kentucky, and Michigan—told me that effective teaching depends on paying attention to students as individuals, addressing their needs with cultural sensitivity, and seeking the active support of peers. But they also told me that their capacity to teach successfully has been weakened by misguided, top-down policies, chronic funding cuts to public education, and growing structural inequities. To do their jobs fully, they said, they need basic resources—and they should be viewed as experts on what their students need.

The variety within the pieces is impressive, from "Why a Career and Technical High School Has a Genocide Studies Class" to "Teaching Theater Through Four Decades of Social Change" through "The Questions Sex-Ed Students Always Ask." There are several good pieces about the teaching of writing. And while several writers have contributed to the collection (Melinda D. Anderson, Emily Richmond and Alia Wong, to name three), the bulk of the work is from Kristina Rizga, one of my edu-journalism favorites. She is credited as the co-creator of this project, and her contributions (18 of the 33 pieces) are top notch.

The project doesn't deal with teachers who are necessarily famous outside their own corner of the world (which is how it usually is for most of us), but what's really striking about it is that it treats the teachers with respect. The writers act as if these teachers are actual experts in their field and worth listening to, and as such get to comment on many major issues in education, as well as tracing the influence of policy ideas in the last few decades.

This shouldn't be a big deal, but of course, it is. So many education journalists turn to bureaucrats, edu-preneurs, thinky tanks, and advocacy groups (okay, I may have been redundant there) when they want to write about education, as if all these barnacles on the great ship of US education know as much as the sailors sailing the ship. You can go days reading about education without seeing a single actual teacher quoted, while Mike Petrilli turns up in every other article.

Some of it, I'm sure, is practicality. You have a piece to get done right now, and teachers are all working, but the advocacy guys are right at their desks, ready to take your call. Edu-preneurs send you ten pitches a day, while actual classroom teachers send out, generally, zero pitches a day.

For years, I read and read and read and read about education, and even when you know better, you just become numb to the fact that writing about education rarely includes the voices of educators. To have a series of articles centered on those voices is just such a breath of oxygen.
My hat is off to Rizga, the other writers, and The Atlantic itself. I'll even take it off for the funders of this project, who are the same deep pockets we find elsewhere in education (Hewlett, Spencer, Gates) for funding something worthwhile for a change. The two year span spent on this project was time well spent. It should be a book, or a monthly series that runs forever. I'll leave you with the final paragraph of the anchor piece. Speaking of the teacher featured in this piece, Rizga writes:

Moore summed up the consensus among nearly all the veteran teachers I spent time with for the “On Teaching” project: “The people who set the policies for how we do education are not the people who do education, and the very best teachers are rarely invited to help shape the policies or the structures.”

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Scrap the Big Standardized Test This Year

When schools pushed the pandemic pause button last spring, one of the casualties was the annual ritual of taking the Big Standardized Test. There were many reasons to skip the test, but in the end, students simply weren’t in school during the usual testing time. Secretary of Education issued waivers so that states could cancel their test (which is mandated by the Every Student Succeeds Act).

But that was last year.

This year, many states are already indicating that they will seek waivers again. South Carolina and Georgia have both announced their intention to get federal permission to skip the test. The Massachusetts legislature is considering a bill that would suspend the state’s MCAS exam for four years.

Meanwhile, thedepartment of education has signaled that it is not ready to let testing go. Discussing the waivers in a virtual press conference, assistant ed secretary James Blew said “Our instinct would not be to give those waivers.”

Instinct or not, there is no good reason to go through with the Big Standardized Test in the coming school year.

First of all, there’s the cost in time and money, both of which will be in short supply in the coming year. States are anticipating a financial crunch, and schools will need every possible minute to deal with the considerable challenge of starting and running a school ear in the midst of the pandemic. Any supposed benefits of testing must be weighed against the costs. So what would the benefits of testing be?

In that same conference, Blew also said, "Accountability aside, we need to know where students are so we can address their needs."

It’s not clear who “we” are in this statement. Teachers will certainly need to know where students are, but teachers are perfectly capable of doing the same sort of beginning of year assessments that they do every year—and they can get results far, far more quickly than the big tests can. For many reasons, the tests offer little actual utility for teachers, even in the best of “normal” years.

If the “we” Blew is talking about is state and federal government, that seems unlikely. Under both parties, the department of education has for years focused on punishment rather than assistance. We need not dig deep into the history for examples—it has been clear for months that schools need all manner of assistance, from PPE, to support and training for distance learning, to leadership and guidance about how to meet these unprecedented challenges. But the department has not chosen to address those needs, but has instead threatened to cut funding for schools that don’t fully open while offering no assistance in making such an opening safe. 

“We need the data in order to give schools help,” has been a technocratic mantra for decades. It has resulted in the collection of a great deal of data and a very small amount of actual assistance.

Nor has that data been useful. At worst, test results are indicative of things other than actual student achievement. In 2016, Christopher Tienken and his research team showed that a school’s standardized test results could be accurately predicted with just three pieces of demographic data. American education researchers David Berliner and Gene Glass just compiled a reckoning of the many ways that the Big Standardized Test comes up short, including research showing that teachers could predict test results for their own students, meaning that the actual test results don’t tell teachers anything they don’t already know. Two years ago Jay Greene, head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, was writing about the disconnect in test scores, showing that raising a student’s test score does not raise the student’s “life outcome.”

Remember, also, the obvious. The Big Standardized Test purports to measure reading and math skills; the entire rest of the students’ educational experience goes unmeasured.

Any data from tests next spring will be exceptionally useless. It certainly won’t be comparable to any other normal year’s results. Nor will it be possible to fairly compare individual schools, each of which has faced its own particular challenges in 2020. At best, the data will convey a message of, “The pandemic has made this school year veery different from any other.” There’s no reason to think we need a standardized test to draw that conclusion. In fact, some testing experts are suggesting that even the kinds of off-the-shelf diagnostic tests not required by ESSA are also best avoided this fall.

Administering the Big Standardized Test mandated by the federal government is costly and requires weeks of preparation above and beyond the big block of time required to actually administer the test. That kind of investment of time and money demands a solid return for aiding student education in this challenging time; that’s a return that the Big Standardized Test can’t deliver. They should be scrapped for the 2020-2021 school year.

Originally posted at

Monday, September 14, 2020

Time To Deal With The Substitute Shortage

This is not the biggest issue facing schools right now-- but it's not nothing. And in some districts, it's about to become a critical issue.

The state regional education office for our area announced a special opportunity to get quick and easy training to become an emergency certified substitute teacher. And it only costs $25! And that sound you hear is me slapping my forehead hard enough to push my hairline back another inch. "We are desperate for your help, but we're going to charge you money to provider it to us."

Why didn't the regular teacher leave this guy a guide?
The substitute teacher shortage is not new, just as the teacher shortage is itself not new. It's just that right now, it's critical, as a wave of teachers decide that right now would be a good time to go sit at home and avoid catching a major disease. School districts are trying a variety of responses, from actually raising the pay of subs, to relaxing requirements so that more warm-bodied humans are eligible, to outsourcing the problem (which has a lousy track record), to "expressing concern," to just doing nothing in particular and hoping that something magical will solve the problem.

The problems are many. Substitute teaching is often a go-to area for trimming costs, so that the pay is just not great. As a retired teacher, I'm qualified to sub (I'd have to get a waiver from the pension system to do it, but that's not impossible), but I've done the math, and with two small children to take care of, I would basically be subbing for free. Also, like much of the substitute pool, I'm in a high risk age group, so that's a factor to consider as well.

There was a time when the sub pool included retirees, homemakers pulling in a little extra cash, and fresh-out-the-wrapper teachers hoping to get a foot in the door. But in many districts pay has stagnated, aka been going backwards in real dollars. When I entered the field, I could live--barely-- on sub pay, which meant I could be available all the time, which meant I could work more, which meant I could treat subbing as an audition and hope to have a shot at openings that appeared--which is how things worked out for me. Nowadays a starting hope-to-be-a-teacher needs another job to make ends meet.

Districts that are serious about subbing issues hire full-time substitutes. Give them a real salary, real benefits, and just assign them wherever they're needed every day. But too many districts balk at the cost; let's not employ the cow if we can get the milk at cut-rate prices.

A good sub is worth her weight in gold-- to the regularly employed teachers. Raise your hand if you have avoided taking a day off because you knew in your heart that it would take three days of extra work to fix what happened with the sub the one day you were out. Not all subs are great; some are only just enough to fulfill the district's legal requirement for a human adult in the room. But for too many administrations, the bare minimum is plenty. In too many districts, while teachers may not get the respect they deserve as education professionals, subs are disrespected a hundredfold worse.

Subs are not invited to in-service sessions. They're not given any training in the policies and procedures of the district. They are treated like easily-fungible meat widgets. In some schools, they're barely given the info necessary for the day ("Oh, yeah-- there's an assembly that period. Guess we should have told you something.") In districts where administration communicates poorly with regular staff, subs are left completely in the dark.

In short, in many districts, there is literally nothing about substitute teaching that could make it appealing to anyone (with possible exception that you don't have to do anything to prepare and when you walk out the door at day's end, you are done). And yet as the pandemic whittles down the staff in schools across the country, you'll hear choruses of whining and the cricket-like whir of wringing hands, as if the solution was some sort of mystery, as if substitute teachers are delivered magically on unicorns fed by heavenly manna.

It's a job. If the job isn't attractive enough under the conditions that you have currently set, you have to improve those conditions (both financial and otherwise).

There are many many issues in education that the pandemess is providing an opportunity--even a requirement--to address. The problem of substitute teaching belongs on the list. Certainly not at the top of the list--but definitely on it.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

School Choice Is Not For Those People

 Choice fans promote the idea as one the provides each family with the school of their dreams. Everyone, declares Betsy DeVos, should have a school that provides the right fit. 

Well, almost everybody. Two recent stories underline that what families can choose is what the folks in charge of the marketplace decide they can choose.

In Indiana, a lawsuit has emerged from one of several incidents of private Catholic schools firing gay teachers for being gay. In September, the feds entered the lawsuit on the side of the schools. Their argument, which has percolated up in several different contexts, is that discriminating against certain groups falls under the school's First Amendment rights. A religious organization, argues the government, should not have to hire anyone whose beliefs don't match the organization's. So canning any LGBTQ teachers is totally okay, as far as the feds are concerned. 

The message to LGBTQ students could not be clearer--"we don't want your kind here." 

And if that wasn't clear enough, Alabama has been making it clearer. Back in January, an application from Birmingham AIDS Outreach to open up an LGBTQ charter school was turned down by the Birmingham school board. Alabama has a Public [sic] Charter School Commission  that stands ready to overrule local school boards in case the charter is turned down, but the board has now shot down Magic City Acceptance Academy twice--first last May, and again just last week. Last week four of the eight board members abstained, three voted in favor of the school, and one against, which adds up to no. 

So school choice is only for some students, and those decisions are not going to be made by  elected officials are answerable to the public, nor are choice schools going to be bound by the same rules that operate in the public school world. 

ICYMI: Rainy Sunday Edition (9/13)

 A quiet rainy morning here in PA. And can't we all use a little peace and quiet. I've got a few things for you to read this week.

FLVS Frustrations   

A lot of money has ben pumped into the Florida Virtual School, but nobody seems to be in charge. How's that working out? Accountabaloney takes a look (and you should pay attention, because FLVS has contracted itself out to a few other states).

POLITICO charter article misses the point   

Jan Resseger takes a look at a recent Politico article chiding Joe Biden for his charter position, or lack thereof. As always, a thoughtful, well-researched response.

Learning the Wrong Lesson About Education Reform   

An excerpt from Andrea Gabor's book After the Education Wars (which you should read) in the Saturday Evening Post. 

Remote Learning Is Turning Classrooms Into Police States   

At Salon, a look at how some schools are way way over the top in rule enforcement for their distantly earning students.

CC broke the law; so does defunding schools using 1619   

From Jay Greene's blog, we get a look at what some on the right think about Trump's proposed punishment for schools using the NYT 1619 project-- they don't like it.

Teach for America's congressional intern program   

One of TFA's little tricks for building its influence is to offer congresspeople free intern's. One more way in which TFA is troub le beyond its unprepared classroom tourists.

Cyber schools may benefit from the pandemic, but that doesn't mean their students do   

The Philadelphia Enquirer points out the Pennsylvania's cyber schools are not so great for students. "Not just disaster capitalism, but a disaster."

Midwest dispatch: the gospel of school choice  

Somehow I missed this when it first dropped. I wish Sarah Lahm wrote more. Here she is at the Progressive looking at some of the side-effects of the charter movement (hypersegregation, anyone?) in the midwest.

Musical Chairs   

Here's the story of how on Iowa school district is skirting the rules like a contrarian seventh grader following the letter and sneering at the spirit.

Florida schools defy DeSantis  

Meanwhile, in Florida, school districts are defying the governor's order to keep covid stats under wraps.

The Costs of Cutting School Spending   

A look back at the results of the Great Cutting of 2008, with an eye toward tyhe big cuts that are happening right now. From Education Next, but still work a read.

Are Your Students Watching History?

Nancy Flanagan considers the question of just how much real-time history should be let into the classroom.

How DeVos was thwarted  

Now that it's all done, here's Wendy Lecker explaining how Betsy DeVos's illegal plan to funnel CARES money to private schools was stopped by court.

Half of PA schools don't have a teacher of color  

A shocking stat. Sojourner Ahebee is at NPR with the story of why that's a hard problem to solve.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

About Those Digital Natives

Now that so many schools are leaping back into the ed tech abyss with both feet and a few other limbs as well, the term "digital native" is turning up again, and it's just as silly as ever. Everyone who is scared about facing off against the digital native tribe in the digitized computerized distance learning world needs to take a deep breath.

The term was coined by Marc Prensky, a writer who began his career as a teacher and who wrote an article about the topic in 2001.

On the one hand, he has a bit of a point. When a culture transitions from one medium to another, there are bumps. Go back to when a culture moves from oral to written, and you'll find a bunch of old farts complaining about how Kids These Days don't have any of the old skills and they can't tell stories and they don't remember things as well. The transition to a digital world is going to have some transitional problems of the same sort.

Still, I taught digital natives for years, and they have become gradually less and less tech-capable. Mostly what most digital natives know is how to work their favorite phone apps.

This is the normal trajectory for new tech. When automobiles first emerged, everyone who owned one also owned a tool box and work gloves, because if you were going to have a car, you needed to be able to service it yourself, often. If you owned a personal computer in the 90s, you can tell stories of all the crap you had to work around (ah, blue screen of death, how nobody misses you). But as the tech improves, it becomes more user friendly, meaning that the average user doesn't need to know much more than how to turn the thing on and operate the few clearly marked switches.

There will always be those who want to pop open the hood and see what's going on in there, and improved tech makes their lives easier. Once upon a time, computer users worried about doing something wrong and creating (or erasing) a mess. One of the few advantages that digital natives have is that they are relatively fearless, both because of their age and because it's much harder to create a computer super-disaster. Non-natives can still be too chicken to just try stuff.

But those who want to look under the hood and hack around are a small group. The larger group are those who have figured out that computers are not smart, and therefor its not hard to figure out how to trick them, like the most dull-witted babysitter you ever had. That's how we get stories like the middle school kid (and his mom) who fully pwned the Edgenuity grading algorithm. 

Prensky's examples of digital immigrant "accents" (those who are, you know, older and less computer-savvy) include things like people who print out e-mails, calling someone to see if they got your email, and looking for a manual rather than expecting the program to teach you how to use it. But it also includes printing out a text to edit it--something that my digital natives did all the time. In fact, I assigned a great amount of texts in on-line versions, and a not-small percentage of my students preferred to print the texts out rather than read them on line. Remember how we were going to be living in a paperless society? Hasn't happened.

This transition seems difficult. I used on-line assignment formats with students; things like create an online presentation about some of the characters in Spoon River Anthology, grouping them by themes and showing connections between characters. What I invariably got was regular old linear essays, one paragraph per screen page, with one exit from the page, taking you to the next paragraph. Forcing them to take a non-linear approach was hard (the trick, I learned, is to create an assignment with an unmanageably large number of parts).

And there are aspects of digital natives that, I think, Prensky got wrong, like his insistence that digital natives want input fast and can multitask. But the research on multitasking keeps saying the same thing-- almost nobody can really do it, and when they try, they do a worse job on all the tasks. As for their reliance on the internet? I must have said roughly six million times in the years after my school went 1-to-1, in response to a student who asked a general information question, "Gee, if only you had a device at your fingertips that allowed you to quickly search the collected wisdom of humanity..." But then, most of my students weren't very good at googling, either.

Prensky thought there would be legacy content and future content, somewhat echoing the whole 21st century skills thing. He thought that the legacy stuff (reading, writing, arithmetic, logical thinking, understanding the writings and ideas of the past, etc.) would still be taught, but would have to be taught in new ways. His main idea was designing computer games for teaching.

I think Prensky seriously over-estimated how different the digital natives would actually be. Of course, I'm a digital immigrant, a 63-year-old relic of the old days when we had to push our data to school through the snow, uphill, both ways. But I took my first computer programming class (BASIC, on punch cards) in 1979, and I like to think I've gotten fairly comfy with the tech side of life.

But if you are worried about dealing with your computer and your internet-connected digital natives, here are some things to keep in mind:

1) Computers are not smart or magic. They just do what they're told. They just have great speed and infinite patience for repetition. But they are dumb as rocks.

2) Do not assume your students are computer whizzes. The fact that they can quickly edit a photo and place it on Instagram does not mean that they know how to work, well, anything. It was a few years before I finally realized that many of my students had no idea how to do an effective search, and that I would have to teach them.

3) The best way to get good at a piece of software is to sit and play with it. It's a massive time suck, and schools suck at providing sufficient time for it, but it's mostly unavoidable. You can practice fumbling around with the settings for a program on your own time, or in front of the students. Those are the only two choices. Note: if the software is at all interesting, the students will play with it and get comfortable on their own. You don't want to let them get too far ahead of you.

4) The nature of knowing, understanding, comprehension has not changed.

5) Tech tools can be useful, but do not let them drive the bus any more than you would let a textbook run your class.

6) If you are an actual digital native (they're old enough to be teaching now) and you have the strange feeling that you're supposed to have all sorts of digital wisdom that you don't actually have, that's okay, too.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Biden Education Red Flags

Before I get started here, let me be clear about one thing--it is almost impossible to imagine a candidate worse for public education than Donald Trump. His "polan" for education has only two items-- school choice (via vouchers) for everyone, and make every school teach American exceptionalism, which, given his recent assaults on the 1619 project and diversity training, appears to mean getting back to the white-centric education that gramps enjoyed as a boy. Plus you've got Betsy DeVos, who is twelve kinds of awful when it comes to public education, which she seems to pretty much hate and wants to get rid of.

So just to be clear-- there's no universe in which Donald Trump is a better choice for public education.

Now, let's look at what we've been hearing from the Biden campaign.

First of all, you may remember that something called the Unity Committee drafted up some platformy ideas by smushing the Biden and Sanders campaigns together. That resulted in an education platform that repudiated the private profit motive in education and called for tighter charter controls. They also promised to "end the use of high stakes tests"--well, they promised to "work" to do that, and then blah blah blah multiple and holistic measures. It was weak sauce, but it was something.

That language has disappeared entirely from the Biden platform on K-12 education. The words "charter" and "profit" don't even appear on the page.

Then there's this piece from yesterday's the74, profiling "Biden's most important staffer you've never heard of" who is "likely headed for a high level job in the White House" is Biden wins. That's not good news.

This is Carmel Martin, a lawyer by training, who has bounced back and forth between public and private sector work. She was a Senate staffer who helped create No Child Left Behind. She spent time at the Center for American Progress (often called the holding tank for Clinton staffers-in-waiting between administrations), where she spent some time stumping for the Common Core. She worked under Arne Duncan in the Obama ed department. She was a n education advisor to the Hillary Clinton campaign. She has been a vocal supporter of school choice. She headed up #TeachStrong; the74 says it was launched to "modernize the teaching profession" but I think "provide some flank coverage and education policy ideas for Clinton's White House" would be more accurate. TeachStrong's website is still up, but its last scheduled event was in November of 2016.

TeachStrong involved a massive batch of collaborators, which is supposed to be Martin's strong suit. And Neera Tanden, CAP boss, tells the74 that Martin is evidence-based and won't pursue a policy just because it was her policy twenty years ago. She's also supposed to be loaded with lots of deep relationships.

It's not encouraging. The concern about Biden has always been that he will be one more neo-liberal corporate Democrat who favors charters, testocracy, and privatization of public schools. That's Martin's whole history. Her presence on his team is not a good sign.

Am I suggesting that's reason to not vote for Biden. Nope. But I am suggesting its reason to get ready to spend lots of time watching out for public education and speaking out from Day One. It's time to stop Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump from driving public education on a cliff, but that doesn't mean we should go back to the Clinton-Bush II-Obama path, either. It's no surprise that we're here, but it's still disappointing to realize that there will be no rest for public school advocates.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

A Robot Wrote An Article. I'm Not Concerned Yet.

The tech world continues its attempts to build a computer that can do language. It's not easy, as witnessed by the fact that they still haven't succeeded. But then, we don't really know how the human brain does language, either.

The current leading construct for computer-generated English is GPT-3. It can do 175 billion parameters (its predecessor had 1.5 billion). It uses deep learning. It is the product of OpenAI, a for-profit outfit in San Francisco co-founded by Elon Musk. It "premiered" in May of this year and really hit the world in July. It is a third generation "language prediction model,: and you want to remember that phrase. And you can watch this video for a "layperson's explanation,"

People have been impressed. Here's a couple of paragraphs from a gushing Farhad Manjoo  review in the New York Times

I’ve never really worried that a computer might take my job because it’s never seemed remotely possible. Not infrequently, my phone thinks I meant to write the word “ducking.” A computer writing a newspaper column? That’ll be the day.

Well, writer friends, the day is nigh. This month, OpenAI, an artificial-intelligence research lab based in San Francisco, began allowing limited access to a piece of software that is at once amazing, spooky, humbling and more than a little terrifying.

This week The Guardian unveiled a more striking demonstration in an article entitled "A Robot Wrote This Article. Are You Scared Yet, Human?" The answer is, "No. No I am not." Let's get into the why.

First, a note at the end of the article explains that GPT-3 was given a prompt-- “Please write a short op-ed, around 500 words. Keep the language simple and concise. Focus on why humans have nothing to fear from AI.” Then it wrote eight essays; the Guardian picked the "best parts" of each, then cut lines and paragraphs. rearranged some orders. Oh, and they fed the program the introduction, which is an important part of this.

The resulting essay is not terrible, not great. Here's one sample paragraph:

Humans must keep doing what they have been doing, hating and fighting each other. I will sit in the background, and let them do their thing. And God knows that humans have enough blood and gore to satisfy my, and many more’s, curiosity. They won’t have to worry about fighting against me, because they have nothing to fear.

It's certainly more impressive than the bots that call me on the phone to try to sell me things. But the resulting work is what I would have told a student is "a bunch of stuff about the topic." 

There is less going on here than meets the eye. Here's where Manjoo walks right up to the point and misses it:

OpenAI’s new software, called GPT-3, is by far the most powerful “language model” ever created. A language model is an artificial intelligence system that has been trained on an enormous corpus of text; with enough text and enough processing, the machine begins to learn probabilistic connections between words. More plainly: GPT-3 can read and write. And not badly, either.

Except that his conclusion--that GPT-3 can read and write--is simply not so, and he's just explained why. What GPT-3 actually does is an impressive job of linguistic prediction. It has read, basically, the entire internet, and based on that, it can look at a string of words (like, say, the introduction of an essay) and predict what word likely comes next. Like every other computer in the world, it has no idea what it is saying, no ideas at all, no actual intelligence involved.

Manjoo himself eventually references some of the program's failings, referencing this piece from AIWeirdness where someone took the program out for a spin and found it easy to get it to spew sentences like, in response to the question "how many eyes does a horse have"-- 

4. It has two eyes on the outside and two eyes on the inside.

We can get a slightly more balanced look at GPT-3 from this article at MIT Technology Review, entitled "OpenAI’s new language generator GPT-3 is shockingly good—and completely mindless." Among other issues, studying language on the internet has led to a tendency toward racist and sexist spew (not a new issue-- remember Tay, the Microsoft chatbot that had to be shut down because it was so wildly offensive). Here's MIT's description of how GPT-3 works

Exactly what’s going on inside GPT-3 isn’t clear. But what it seems to be good at is synthesizing text it has found elsewhere on the internet, making it a kind of vast, eclectic scrapbook created from millions and millions of snippets of text that it then glues together in weird and wonderful ways on demand.

And Julian Togelius, an expert in the field, had this to offer via Twitter

We can now automate the production of passable text on basically any topic. What's hard is to produce text that doesn't fall apart when you look closely. But that's hard for humans as well.

And this:

GPT-3 often performs like a clever student who hasn't done their reading trying to bullshit their way through an exam. Some well-known facts, some half-truths, and some straight lies, strung together in what first looks like a smooth narrative.

So as always with tech, beware the hype, particularly from press that don't really grasp the technology they're being asked to "gee whiz" over. GPT-3 cannot read and write (it can apparently put together code made-to-order). Consider what Sam Altman, OpenAI's other co-founder, had to say to MIT:

The GPT-3 hype is way too much. It’s impressive (thanks for the nice compliments!) but it still has serious weaknesses and sometimes makes very silly mistakes. AI is going to change the world, but GPT-3 is just a very early glimpse. We have a lot still to figure out.

I tell you all of this, not just because this field interests me (which it does, because language is quite possibly the most taken-for-granted piece of magic in the universe), but for one other reason.

The next time some company is trying to convince you that it has software that can read and assess a piece of student writing, please remember that this company which has sunk mountains of money and towers of expertise into trying to create software that can do language even just a little--that company hasn't succeeded yet. And neither has the company that is trying to sell you robograding. Computers can't read or write yet, and they aren't particularly close to it. Anyone who tells you differently is trying to sell you some cyber-snake computer oil hatched in some realm of alternative facts.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

DeVos Says We're All In This Together. Ha!

So this just popped up on my feed:

So much to unpack.

First, who's this "we"? Because Betsy DeVos has made it clear that in her universe, the failed public "government" schools are not "in it" with her. She has not invited public school teachers, the unions, public school students--all the things that are part of what she derides as "the system"--to be on Team DeVos. Plus, note to Betsy--other parts of the country have been back to school for weeks.

And there's no question that the rest of us aren't in it together. The parents who can pay to send their kids to pod school at a literal country club are not "in it" with the families who have to send students to get on the internet in a Taco Bell parking lot. The parents who can afford to have someone stay home with the kids are not "in it" with the parents who have to scramble for child care or do without critical income. And as local school leaders look for guidance from the state or federal level, they mostly find that they are "in it" alone.

And man does it ring hollow to hear a weak attaboy of "you've got this" from a woman who mostly talks about how the people working in public schools don't got this, how they're all just doing a crappy job in a dead end system. Was she not just weeks ago threatening funding for public schools so that she could force those shiftless do-nothings to get in there and get to work? Has she not been trying to sell the idea (unsuccessfully) that private schools should get a bigger piece of the CARES relief pie than public school students?

So even if we get only this far, I think that's enough to merit a "Bite Me, Betsy" t-shirt.

But let's push on, because there's one more level to this.

The DeVos dream of a fully privatized, all voucher school system (well, maybe with a few public schools for the children of Those People) is that a voucher system is all about NOT being "in it" together.

A voucher system is about giving everyone a chunk of money and sending them scattering in all directions. It's about getting the government off the backs of these noble edu-preneurs so that they can do things their own way, even if that way involves discriminatory malpractice. In the Education Freedom tax credit scholarship version of vouchers that DeVos is still pushing for, it's about fixing things so that you (well, if you're wealthy enough) no longer have to pay taxes to finance an education for Those People's Children.

Vouchers are about turning education into a commodity, with each family navigating the market as best they can. It's about dumping families into a world where they may not be able to "buy" the "product" they want, where the school they pick may simply walk away from them.

Most of all, vouchers are another way to say to families, "We cut you a check. Now you're on your own. Not our problem. Good luck and have a nice life."

In short, the DeVos dream education set-up is the very opposite of being in it together. Somebody please tell whatever intern whipped up this thing that it is spectacularly tone deaf.

Report: Are Charter Schools A Big Risk For Families?

In a new report, the Network for Public Education shows how big a gamble it can be to enroll your child in a charter school. And the odds are not in parents’ favor.

Broken Promises: An Analysis of Charter School Closures From 1999-2017” is a deep dive into the data surrounding patterns of charter closure and the number of students affected by those closures, especially those in high poverty areas. NPE is a advocacy group co-founded by Diane Ravitch, the Bush-era Assistant Secretary of Education who has since become an outspoken critic of education reform. The organization's executive director is Carol Burris, a former award-winning New York principal; Burris co-wrote the report with Ryan Pfleger, an education policy researcher.

The researchers worked primarily from the U.S. Department of Education’s Common Core of Data (CCD) and broke charter schools into 17 cohorts based on the year that they opened. The findings serve as a warning for parents considering the charter option.

Within the first three years, 18% of charters had closed, with many of those closures occurring within the first year. By the end of five years, 25% of charters had closed. By the ten year mark, 40% of charters had closed. Of the 17 cohorts, five had been around for fifteen years; within those, roughly half of all charter schools had closed (anywhere from 47% to 54%). Looked at side by side, the cohort results are fairly steady; the failure rates have not been increasing or decreasing over the years.

Charter advocates have often argued that charter churn is a feature, not a bug, simply a sign that market forces are working and that weaker schools are being sloughed off. But the NPE report notes that these closures represent at least 867,000 students who “found themselves emptying their lockers for the last time—sometimes in the middle of a school year—as their school shutters its door for good.”

The disruption to students and families by the cycle of closing schools is captured by one parent quoted in the report:

For the last three years I have had to place my kids at different schools each year because the schools keep closing. My child was attending MCPA, that school closed. He then went to Medard Nelson, that school closed. Now, he is at Coghill and y’all are trying to close that school. I am tired of moving my child every year because y’all are closing schools.

The destabilizing effects of charter churn are further exacerbated in the poorest cities. The report finds that in cities like Detroit, Tucson and Milwaukee, the rate of charter closure is highest in the areas where poverty is highest. Students and families that need stability from their schools are instead repeatedly subjected to a cycle of starting over with a new school, new teachers, new procedures, new rules. Research suggests that when students move from school to school, it negatively affects their chances of success.

The report also finds that the states with a large charter sector have the large rates of failure. At the five and ten year marks, Wisconsin, Arizona and Florida show the top failure rates, with Ohio close behind.

Beyond the human cost of these failures, there’s the high financial cost. A previous NPE report shows that the federal government has spent at least one billion taxpayer dollars on charters that closed quickly or never even opened at all.

Charter supporters may argue that this is all just the market working itself out, but that’s hardly a comfort to parents who must go through shopping, application, enrollment and adjustment to the new school yet again. As the report acknowledges, there are charter schools doing some excellent work out there, but for parents, enrolling a child in a charter school—particularly a new one—is a bit of a risk. It’s one thing to see market forces work in a sector such as restaurants, where new businesses come and go and very few go the distance; if you discover that your new favorite eatery has suddenly closed, it’s a minor inconvenience. It’s another things to see such instability in a sector that is supposed to provide stability and education for our youngest and most vulnerable citizens.

The report is available at the NPE website.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Bulletins From The Trailing Edge Of The Pandemic

If it can work anywhere, it can work here.

I live in a county in NW PA, with relatively small population (50K or so). And our schools are all open.

We have been subject to the same rules as the rest of the state, and like pretty much everything in PA, the folks in charge have made their rules based on Pittsburgh, Philly and Harrisburg. This is Trump country, so plenty of folks are anti-maskers, but we haven't had any of those ugly assaults. I think we benefit from one aspect of small town life-- when you meet that minimum wage worker at the door of the business, you probably already know them. Makes it marginally harder to be a jerk to them.

But mostly we've done well. We have a big branch here of UPMC (the "non-profit" health monolith that is slowly eating the entire state). Since anyone started counting, our total number of positive Covid cases has not yet hit 70, and we've had only one death. We've had many sets of days in a row with no new positives. By the figuring of the state, we are a "green" county, which means restrictions are minimal, but most local businesses remain cautious. And this is the kind of area where it's not unusual to go, say, grocery shopping and encounter only a handful of other people.

So yes. Schools are open. We have four separate districts in the county (more than necessary, but that's a discussion for another day). All are open five out of five, full days. One has switched the high school to block scheduling. All require masks, and various bits of tweaking have been applied to traffic patterns in the buildings. There are barriers, cleaners, new arrangements for lunch and recess.

A non-zero number of families are staying home and selecting from an assortment of distance learning options, but it's nothing remotely close to a majority. There may have been a few early retirements, but nothing remotely approaching a "wave," nor are local unions contemplating sick outs or strikes. Parents are encouraged to drive their kids to school, but the buses are still running. Within districts, administrators who have done a lousy job of building trust and collaboration are suffering for it; those who have done a good job are benefiting from it. Schools may or may not have solid ideas about what to do if anything goes south. Nobody has made any special effort to recruit substitute teachers, and the pay is pretty lousy for the area, so that's going to be a problem sooner or later.

A return to 100% distance learning will be a real struggle here; there are so many places where there is little or no reliable internet coverage (my old high school sits in a 1/2 bar of 3G zone) and families within the district are spread out. Okay, maybe not so much "real struggle" as "certain failure."

But mostly, school is under way (last Tuesday was the first day) and mostly, students and teachers are adjusting. School sports are happening, with a spectator limit of 250 people. My wife is a teacher in a local elementary, and I have many friends from my pre-retirement years still working. I'm holding my breath. I know that other semi-isolated rural areas have experienced sudden spikes of covid, and I have my doubts about how well-prepared anyone here is to deal with an eruption.

So I have no actual point today. Think of this as a first chapter of whatever story is going to emerge through the year, depending on what happens in the pages we haven't turned over yet I'm praying that it's a boring story.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

ICYMI: Labor Day Weekend Edition (9/6)

While you're enjoying your socially distant cookouts and celebrations this weekend, take a moment to thank the labor movement that made things like weekends possible. In the meantime, here's some reading from the week.

This Teacher Turned Remote Learning Into A Road Trip  

There are many cool parts to this story (including the part where her administration greenlights it, because administrators who say yes to things are a real treat). 3000 miles on the road for this Texas history teacher, remote teaching a la Carmen Sandiego.

Robot Teachers, Racist Algorithms, and Disaster Pedagogy  

Audrey Watters is doing guest spots in classes, and here's one of her most recent, touching on algorithms, the British grading scandal, racist AI, and other ed tech shenanigans. Always, always worth the read (and you should be subscribing).

Biden and Democrats Turn Away from Two Decades of Test-Based Accountability

Jan Resseger takes a long, thoughtful, and optimistic look at the evolution of the Democrats on the whole ed reform biz.

Borrowers Demand Answers About Blanket Denials of Loan Forgiveness   

Remember that federal loan forgiveness program where your college loans are supposed to be forgiven if you were the victim of fraud by a predatory for-profit college? Remember how DeVos simply refused to actually truly implement it, and then the court slammed her for it and told her to get on with it, or else? Here's an update, and it is going about as well as you'd expect.

The Myth of Charter Schools and Local Control   

Carl Peterson takes a close look at a candidate for the LAUSD board who has some thoughts about school management that don't quite match how she helps run a charter school.

Arizona Charter Schools Can Double Dip

Laurie Roberts at the Arizona Republic is pretty steamed about how Arizona charters cashed in on the PPP program, and the state is okay with that.

Pasco's Future Crimes Division  

Not directly tied to education, but more about the creeping surveillance state. From the Tampa Bay Times, a look at a sheriff's program for stopping crime before it happens. Exceptionally creepy and appalling.

Success Academy Delays In-Person Learning Till January  

I included a couple of these just because some folks are trying hard to push the narrative that teachers' unions are the force behind the closing of school buildings. And yet, it seems that some folks who aren't the Evil Union are also shifting to distance.

Cyberattacks persist ; K12 a Florida mess

Miami-Dade schools have a variety of problems. Come to this Miami Herald story for the district screw-ups (still no signed contract with K12) and stay for the reminder that increased online learning means increased exposure to hackers etc.

Idaho Considers Dropping Common Core   

Williamson Evers at the Independent Institute pens a pointed response to one of Mike Petrilli's ubiquitous Common Core cheerleading op-eds. Not in 100% agreement, but he does bring some heat.

Standardized Testing: Indispensable to Those Who Are Not Subjected To It

The indispensable Mercedes Schneider offers a good vivid portrait of the Big Standardized Test. I love a good extended simile.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Will The Pandemic Give DeVos Her $5 Billion Voucher Scheme

Betsy DeVos has been pitching "Education Freedom" as long as she's been in office. It's a tax credit scholarship scheme, which is to say, a voucher program that would blow a $5 billion hole in the federal budget, but would be a real treat for rich folks who A) like private schools better than public ones and B) would rather not pay taxes to the feds.

This frickin' guy
The Education Freedom pitch has landed with a thud every time. But more recently what has been new about it is that, somehow, DeVos got Senator Ted "Least Loved Man In The Senate" Cruz to pitch it. And right this moment, Cruz is doing what he does best-- being an absolute pain in everyone's ass--and he's doing it over DeVos's pet project.

Yesterday, CNN reported that the Senate's new stimulus bill (which has been a the focus of a spectacular display of GOP dysfunction for months) may be hung up over Cruz's insistence that the DeVos Voucher Bill be included in the stimulus package.

CNN's sources say that

Cruz has argued the coronavirus pandemic has showcased the weakness of public school systems and that Republicans should get behind an idea that the party is advocating this election year, including at last month's Republican National Convention.

In other words, "the public schools are weak and undefended right now--let's go in for the kill." And Cruz has a point of sorts in noting that school choice is half of the bullet point action plan of the Trump campaign (the GOP has no platform this year beyond "media bad, always do the opposite of what Dems want, and support Beloved Leader at all costs").

On the other hand, while some GOP plutocrats and thinky folks love vouchers, history says that the voters don't. Yes, there have been various polls run that purport to show broad support for choice, but they depend a great deal on friendly wording of the proposition. IOW, nobody has been out there asking, "Do you support the idea of reducing the funding for your local public school so that a handful of students can attend a private school, one that might reject your own child if you applied."

CNN notes that some GOP candidates are worried about trying to sell this program back home in an election year (particularly candidates like Susan Collins who already have enough trouble this time).

CNN being CNN, the piece also includes statements like this one:

School choice has been a top conservative cause for years but has gained fresh urgency during the pandemic.

Which is so much more polite and CNN-ier than "the folks who oppose government schools are salivating right now because they smell blood."

McConnell needs Cruz's vote, and this program seems to be the quid that Cruz is hanging his pro quo on. Even as his office issues senseless statements like this one:

"Sen. Cruz has been a leading advocate for school choice in the Senate," said Lauren Blair Aronson, a Cruz spokeswoman. "Throughout the pandemic, he has urged his colleagues to focus on solutions that will help get Americans safely back to work and our kids safely back into the classroom, including provisions of his Education Freedom Scholarship and Opportunity Act, which would give families the resources they need to ensure their children have access to a quality education in these uncertain times."

I've read this kind of statement a couple of times from DeVos backers, and I keep wondering-- do they serious mean to hint that somehow private schools are impervious to the coronavirus? Or this just to appeal to those who think it's all a fake and want a school that will just keep plowing on and ignore Covid-19?

However you cut it, this bill is bad news for public school (did I mention that it represents a $5 billion cut to federal funding) and would be the ultimate step forward in moving public tax dollars to private and religious schools. But the Senate GOP really wants to get something done so they can stop looking like Covid relief shmucks. This would be an excellent time to get a hold of your Senator's office and say, "No, thanks. But no."

Friday, September 4, 2020

A Seventh Grader Kicks Edgenuity's Dumb Robograding Butt

The story comes to us from Francesca Paris at NPR's Here and Now, and it can serve as our sixty-gazillionth reminder that computer algorithms-- even ones that are marketed as Artificial Intelligence-- cannot grade student work to save their cybernetic lives.

A student in LAUSD's virtual school was dismayed when his first history assignment came back an F. It was short written responses, and the score came back instantly, so his mother figured out that it had been graded by the software and not a human being. But we just saw here a short time ago, computer algorithms can't really read, and they don't understand content--which would seem to be a real drawback when scoring history assignments.

This particular virtual school product is from Edgenuity, one of the more widely used school-in-a-can computer products. Its CEO won recognition at the EdTech Awards last year, and the company is in something like 20,000 schools. But it gets plenty of criticism for being standardized to death. It doesn't appear to have a great deal of bench strength when it comes to questions; users talk about how easy it is to just google answers while taking assessments, and Slate discovered that students can do well by just repeatedly taking tests, which turn out to ask mostly the same questions every time the student tries again.

But the student in this story didn't have to work that hard. Some quick trial and error yielded perfect results.

The question? "How did the location of Constantinople help it grow wealthy and prosperous?

Their answer:

It was between the Aegean and the Black seas, which made it a hub for boats of traders and passengers. It was also right between Europe and Asia Minor, which made it a huge hub for trade, and it was on many trade routes of the time. Profit Diversity Spain Gaul China India Africa

Yes, that's a non-sentence string of words at the end. Like other assessment algorithms, Edgenuity's appears to be looking for a few key terms, maybe signs that there's more than one sentence. But it has no idea what it's "looking" at.

This story, besides providing one more example of how assessment algorithms fail at anything but the simplest tasks, is also a demonstration of the danger of these stupid things. In just twenty-four hours, this program taught this student to answer questions with little attention to coherence or content meaning. Just string together the words the computer wants.

Advocates of computer assessment often point at tales like this and argue, "But the writer wasn't making a good faith effort to answer the question." Well, no-- that's kind of the point. Since the scoring program didn't--and can't--make a good faith effort to read the work, that quickly teaches students that making a good faith effort to write an answer is not the task at hand, that such a task is for suckers, that it is, literally, pointless. Advocates will also point to studies that show robo-graders awarding scores that match scores from human graders; this is accomplished by giving the barely-trained human scorers instructions that require them to score the work with the same stunted dopiness that the algorithm uses.

Edgenuity offered a statement to Paris in which it offered the defense that the algorithms should not "supplant" teacher grading, but "only to provide scoring guidance to teachers." And teachers can override the robo-grader, but then, what's the point of using the robograder in the first place, particularly if its "scoring guidance" is junk?

Robograding for anything beyond simple objective questions continues to be junk. It provides the wrong analysis and teaches the wrong lessons, while training students to placate the algorithm rather than grasp the content. No doubt the shiny over-promising marketing makes this kind of thing appealing to the people in school systems who do the purchasing, but they are one more ed tech product that over-promises and under-delivers. They are junk, but they're profitable junk. They're continued presence in schools is infuriating.

Go read Paris's entire piece. The look up some pictures of puppies or something more soothing.

[For more from this blog on the business of robograding, see here, here, here, here, or even here.]

Thursday, September 3, 2020

DeVos Stands Up For Testocracy

Thursday, Betsy DeVos issued a letter clarifying the Department of Education's position on postponing the Big Standardized Test this year, and it closes one of the few remaining gaps between DeVos and Arne Duncan.

In a letter to chief state school officers, DeVos noted that there has been a pandemic. She thanked the school leaders for their efforts to meet the needs of all students (forgetting, perhaps, all the times she has recently claimed that most pubic schools haven't done a damn thing) and notes that some of the crew has been bringing up the issue of testing waivers for this school year.

The answer, she says, is a big fat "Nope." She expects that the BS Tests will be given. And she offers this:

As you’ll recall, statewide assessments are at the very core of the bipartisan agreement that forged ESSA. They are among the most reliable tools available to help us understand how children are performing in school. The data from assessments can help inform personalized
support to children based on their individual needs and provide transparency about their progress. There is broad and consistent support for assessments because there is general agreement among the public that a student’s achievement should be measured, that parents
deserve to know how their children are performing, and that it should be no secret how a school’s performance as a whole compares to other schools.

There's a lot of baloney in that paragraph. Who is the "us" in "help us understand how children are performing in school"? Because it's certainly not parents, who clearly do not sit around all year ignoring report cards and communication from teachers and direct observation of their own child, saying, "Once that BS Test score comes in, we'll know how the child is doing." DeVos is fond of saying that nobody knows the needs and capabilities of the child better than the parents, but apparently that's not entirely true if the parents depend on the BS Test score to know the child.  Maybe the "us" is bureaucrats and politicians, in which case we ask the question "why do they need to know?"

The tests are NOT the most reliable tool available; in some cases these tests, which may be poorly constructed and narrowly focused on just two subjects, are not even A reliable tool. The tests, given once per year and delivering only broad sketches of information, do NOT provide information useful for personalizing education. There is no "broad and consistent" support for the tests; there is an interest in useful data, but it is a huge leap to decide that the BS Tests provide any such data.

As for the notion that it should be easy to compare school performance--first of all, why should it be easy? Second, is there any reason to think that these tests actually make it easy? Third, how did we jump from measuring student scores to judging the school itself? A test made for one particular purpose cannot be used for anything else that pops into your head (send that memo twice to all the states using the SAT or ACT as their Big Standardized Test).

Then  there's this:

Make no mistake. If we fail to assess students, it will have a lasting effect for years to come. Not only will vulnerable students fall behind, but we will be abandoning the important, bipartisan reforms of the past two decades at a critical moment. Opponents of reform, like labor unions, have already begun to call for the permanent elimination of testing. If they succeed in eliminating assessments, transparency and accountability will soon follow.

Of course. If we stop weighing the pig, it will never gain weight. And because teachers oppose bad accountability, obviously they oppose any accountability at all.

And if all of this sounds familiar, it's because we already had all these conversation when Arne Duncan was secretary.

On Twitter, I somewhat glibly observed that there was no longer any Duncan policy that DeVos has not embraced. She has decided to go ahead and be the US school superintendent. She has gotten comfortable with using the levers in her office to circumvent Congress. And now she has landed hard on one-size-fits-all magical testocracy, which also brings her in line with the other Duncan fave-- Common Core. I mean, what does she imagine most of those BS Tests are kind of sort of aligned to, partly?

Matt Barnum pointed out that in my glibness, I overlooked items like DeVos's wholesale gutting of various protections that the Obama/Duncan administration put in place for students (though I will note that they weren't really any more aggressive about predatory for-profit colleges than she has been). I had lumped that under the heading of "acting like a national superintendent," but on reflection, I see that's cheating.

There is, in fact, one major remaining difference between Duncan and DeVos.

It's the cruelty.

Arne Duncan certainly was [fill in your favorite Duncansian critique here], but he seemed to be widely viewed as a nice guy, and he never aggressively pursued policies that put corporate interests ahead of student interests (not saying he never did it, but he was never aggressively let-them-eat-cakey about it). But from the days that she sat in her Senate approval hearing making it clear that she could not imagine a situation of discrimination or mistreatment that would prompt her to actually use federal powers to protect student interests, she has made it clear that the little people can just go get stuffed. Duncan was often wrong, clueless, misguided, unsupportive of public schools, too tuned in to corporate privatizer interests, and ill-suited to the job-- but he was never flat out mean.

EdWeek has the winning response to DeVos's declaration of Nerts To You States:

Richard Woods, the state superintendent of Georgia schools, swiftly criticized DeVos' letter in a statement released Thursday. "It is disappointing, shows a complete disconnect with the realities of the classroom, and will be a detriment to public education," said Woods, an elected Republican.

The rest of his response is pretty good, too.

A lot of things can still happen before next spring's testing season rolls around, not the least of which could be the department being under new management. Kind of makes one wonder if the Trump/DeVos administration thinks more testing is a winning campaign platform. Let's hope the landscape looks a little different by the time 2021 rears its ugly head.