Monday, October 19, 2020

Call Made For DeVos To Cut Off Fraudulent College Chain

Last week, an assortment of organizations signed off on a letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, from the AFT to the Feminists Majority Foundation to the Education Trust to the Young Invincibles

This crew came together to insist that the time has come for the department to finally cut the Center for Excellence in Higher Education (CEHE) off from any federal money. Let me give you the short form explanation of what's going on, because among other things, it's a great demonstration of how the non-profit private school dodge is still a great way for hucksters and grifters to collect a mountain of money, much of it from the taxpayers, and how these profiteers have burrowed into the department of education.

I'm going to lean heavily on the work of one other co-signer-- attorney David Halperin, who has followed this tale for years. And I'll warn you up front--this is a twisty mess.

We can start back in 2012. Carl Barney the owner-operator of several for-profit colleges including Stevens-Haneger, CollegeAmerica, and California College. According to Patricia Cohen in 2015 at the New York Times, in 2012 Barney sold these profit schools to a Denver non-profit, the Center for Excellence in Higher Education. According to court documents, that non-profit consisted entirely of just one guy--Carl Barney. Hold onto your hat for this next part.

Barney has always been a busy guy, but only a few critics have really gone digging as much as this website--I'm going to stick to the highlights.. Born in England, he ended up in Australia in the mid-60s where he got himself involved in Scientology. He later brushed that off as dabbling, but one researcher says Barney did far more than dabble, rising through the ranks to the level of Operating Thetan and taking yacht trips with L. Ron Hubbard. By 1975 he was calling himself "Reverend Barney" and owned several dianetics franchises. In 1979 he was drummed out for operating independently of the parent organization. 

Sometime in the seventies, sometime in his late thirties, Barney discovered Ayn Rand. And sometime after that, he got into the for-profit college biz. And sometime around 2012, the regulations governing that money train started to tighten up. In a not-entirely-honest 2016 interview with that same Patricia Cohen, he portrayed the selling of his for-profits to CEHE as a great personal sacrifice. 

He founded of the Prometheus Foundation in 2014, an outgrowth of his devotion to the works and philosophy of Ayn Rand, so yes-- the world's only openly objectivist venture fund. He also "conceived, planned, and funded the Ayn Rand Institute’s ARI Campus, now Ayn Rand University." Along with John Allison and the Koch brothers, he has been one of the top funders of the ARI until 2018, when he dropped out of that field. 

There's plenty more, but you get the general picture of the guy. Barney has dealt with a long string of legal issues. 

There were lawsuits involving former employees like Debbi Potts, who resigned from one of Barney's schools after she was asked to participate in and conceal various frauds. 

In 2018, the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges put nine of CEHE's schools on probation, based on a history of reviews going back to 2012 and including a variety of bad behavior involving lying prospective students and other issues with integrity. It came down to this:

The Commission found that the record shows that the inputs, resources, and processes of CEHE schools are designed and implemented in a manner that is not designed for student success.

The CEHE model is a familiar one for these kinds of fraudsters, with all the company's resources focused on recruitment of students. The sales force--admissions office, if you will--could make six figure salaries, far more than actual faculty who made $22 per hour. Students would complete programs, and when they discovered that this qualified them only for low level jobs that didn't actually require a degree, the schools would try to sell these students an advanced degree program. These were not nice people-- the commission particularly called out "the attempt by CA-Flagstaff to blame low rates of student success on the ethnic culture of its students."

And in 2016, after the feds tried to deny CEHE non-profit status, CEHE sued the Department of Education. Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell, an Obama-era hire who was not exactly hostile to these sorts of outfits in a department that was not particularly aggressive about cracking down on predatory colleges (see: the Corinthian College saga)-- even that guy smelled a rat:

"Schools that want to convert to non-profit status need to benefit the public," said U.S. Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell in a release about the decision on Aug. 11. "If the primary beneficiary of the conversion is the owner of the for-profit school, that doesn't meet the bar. It's not even close."

In the long run, that lawsuit didn't matter, because after 2018, the Obama-era department was out, and the business-friendly Betsy DeVos was in. Among her hires were folks like Diane Auer Jones and Robert Eitel, both previously working as executives at Career Education Corp, yet another predatory fraud factory that had to settle up with 48 states' Attorney Generals (now rebranded as Perdoceo). Jones in particular has been implicated in some shady work to protect some of thes predatory outfits. All taken together, plus DeVos's widely noted reluctance to actually follow through on the rules about reimbursing defrauded students, and you get an atmosphere in which outfits like CEHE can relax. 

CEHE withdrew its lawsuit against the now-DeVos ed department, and ACCSC okayed their accreditation with some probationary rules. In October of 2018, a bevy of senators, including Dick Durbin and Elizabeth Warren, called on DeVos to take a closer look, noting among other things that CEHE has hoovered up over $1 billion in federal Title IV student aid money. Nothing came of that, but some states were not waiting for the feds to take action.

Colorado's AG took the chain to court in 2017, and this August the judge slapped them with a $3 million judgment. The decision and order takes up 160 pages. That's a lot to take in; let's just go to Halperin's summary--

The opinion meticulously documents how Barney’s schools used a detailed playbook to manipulate vulnerable students into enrolling in high-priced, low-quality programs; how the school directed admissions representatives to “enroll every student,” regardless of whether the student would likely graduate; how the schools’ recruiters and advertisements greatly overstated starting salaries that graduates could earn; how the schools falsely inflated graduation rates.

The document covers a ton of specific instances of fraud and misbehavior:

A notable witness presented by the state was a student whom CollegeAmerica managed to sign to enrollment agreements for three separate programs, including a bachelor degree in computer science, even though, it turns out, the student has a “permanent and total” cognitive disability and thus was unlikely to benefit from the programs. One of the degrees cost $56,000. This student also was presented at trial with a “Satisfactory Academic Progress” appeal that he purportedly filed with the school, asking to remain in a program he was flunking. He testified that he didn’t write it. The ex-student now works at a dishwashing job set aside for disabled people. 

Not that all tgestimony was against CEHE. Diane Auer Jones, back in 2017 and before she went to work for the USED, was paid $50K to provide some testimony that Halperin calls "absurdly implausible."

The judge also held Barney and current CEHE CEO Eric Juhlin personally liable. 

The $3 million is peanuts to an operation like this, but it sends a message and the findings make the message extra-clear. And that brings us back to the letter with which I kicked off this post.

Following the ruling in the CEHE matter, it is incumbent on the Department to take steps to protect the integrity of the student loan system by immediately terminating CEHE’s access to Title IV, by providing the full student loan relief that borrowers who attended CEHE institutions are entitled to receive, and by proceeding against CEHE and its owners in order to recover liabilities stemming from the defendants’ fraud.

At this point, it hardly seems difficult to conclude that CEHE is among the many predatory fraudster colleges that should be cut off from federal loan money, if not simply taken to court and put out of business (and perhaps in jail, because if I personally stole $1 billion from the feds, I'm betting I would be sitting some place dark and uncomfortable). 

Sunday, October 18, 2020

ICYMI: Leaf Watching Edition (10/18)

 Well, it's really beautiful out in the world right now, so we've got that going for us. In the meanime, here's some reading from the week. 

There's a Better Way: Trust Based Observation   

Craig Randall guests at Peter DeWitt's EdWeek blog spot talking about a better way to handle teacher evaluations and, really, school management in general.

Separate and Unequal: School Funding in PA   

In the Pocono Record, an op-ed looking at the eternally unsolved issue of school funding in PA, by a student in Harrisburg.

School Boards, Public Schools, and Home Rule  

Accountabaloney lays out the many ways that the Florida legislature has tried to strip school boards of their power. Because Florida is just the worst.

Fix America by Undoing Decades of Privatization  

At the Atlantic, K. Sabeel Rahman puts the attack on public education in the larger context of privatization in the US.

Students Use Tik Tok to document test-taking surveillance software   

At Jezebel, a look at the software surveillance programs that are turning test taking into an unholy nightmare, and how students are fighting back.

Ohio: Who Pays for Vouchers 

Over at Diane Ravitch's blog, a look at a study showing  how the costs of vouchering in Ohio are really getting covered.

Covid Learning Loss Overhyped

Thomas Ultican has a good overview of the many folks who are trying to chicken little the heck out of the "covid slide." Guess what-- they'd all like to sell you something.

Governor Lee Calls For Suspension of Testing  

Go figure. Bill Lee of all people is standing up against the Big Standardized Test. The Tennessean has the story.

Boston students shivering in the cold  

An early look at one of the next pandemic school crises--schools that have decided to solve ventilation problems by opening windows in places where winter is a thing.

Charter Schools hitting same roadblocks as public schools    

At Chalkbeat, Kalyn Belsha and Mat Barnum counter the standard narrative on resistance to school openings ("it's those damned unions") by showing that charter schools are having similar problems.

Don't Believe the Hype  

Akil Bello explains why you can ignore the bleating of the test industry and their insistence that they provide students with opportunities.

Who's Watching This Class   

The indispensable Mercedes Schneider takes a look at the substitute teacher crisis. It was already bad; the pandemic has made it far worse.

Behaviorism Won  

Audrey Watters continues to share the guest appearances she does for teachers. This time she's talking about B. F. Skinner and the ways that his ideas captured bot society and education. Probably won't make you feel better, but you'll understand a little more.

Originalism and Education  

With the coming elevation of dead hand constitutionalist Amy Barrett to the supreme court, many folks have been observing that 18th century ideas may not be the way to go with schools. Here are two good pieces-- Steven Singer brings passion and energy to his post, and Jan Resseger digs into some illuminating scholarship.

Closing Ed Schools: A Bad Omen   

Nancy Bailey reminds us that with colleges shutting down, one of the things that's being hurt is the new teacher pipeline. Uh-oh.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

US Education versus Confucius

 Last Wednesday, the Education and State departments in DC announced that it was time to clamp down on Chinese influence in US classrooms.

The letter, which appears over the signatures of Betsy DeVos and Mike Pompeo, addresses the issue of the Confucius Classroom program. The program is a cultural outreach of the Chinese government; it has been around for a while and has always been viewed with suspicion in many quarters. From Associated Press coverage:

DeVos and Pompeo echoed longstanding complaints from academic groups that say schools give China too much control over what’s taught in Confucius Institute classes. Teachers who are vetted and paid by the Chinese government “can be expected to avoid discussing China’s treatment of dissidents and religious and ethnic minorities,” the officials wrote.

Conservatives have ben particularly critical. Here's Ethan Epstein, an associate editor of the Weekly Standard, digging up some quote ammunition for Politico in 2018:
A 2011 speech by a standing member of the Politburo in Beijing laid out the case: “The Confucius Institute is an appealing brand for expanding our culture abroad,” Li Changchun said. “It has made an important contribution toward improving our soft power. The ‘Confucius’ brand has a natural attractiveness. Using the excuse of teaching Chinese language, everything looks reasonable and logical.”

But concern extends outside the rightwing sphere. And internationally, Australia and Canada have both rescinded the Confucius Classroom welcome. 

In what is a rarity for me, I don't really disagree with DeVos or Pompeo on this one. If there's any nation that has perfected the art of pernicious political bullshit, it is the Chinese, the folks who brought world history the most horrifying and deadly demonstration of Campbell's Law ever--the Great Chinese Famine. Between 20 and 56 million people killed in a needless famine created by a government that was far more interested in appearances on paper than reality on the ground. And for years the world didn't even know. The Chinese government is bad business, even if their leader can write beautiful love letters.

There are several serious ironies here. The Trump family has proven willing to do business with the Chinese government, which I suppose is not so much irony as business as usual. 

Then there's this section of the DeVos/Pompeo letter:

While teachers in Confucius Classrooms may not appear to be engaged in ideological propaganda, those vetted and paid by the PRC can be expected to avoid discussing China’s treatment of dissidents and religious and ethnic minorities.  Indeed, some Confucius Classroom students have described their teachers’ repeated avoidance of topics perceived to be “sensitive” to or critical of the PRC.  Particularly at the high school level, this creates a troubling deficit of information in a setting supposedly focused on the study of Chinese language and culture.

This sounds pretty much like the Chinese version of the "patriotic American" curriculum that Trump has announced for the US. Trump has called for education that focuses on everything good and beautiful and pro-American in our history. He only has two education goals, and one is "teach American exceptionalism" i.e. the reasons that we are a better nation than all others.

The letter is correct in pointing out that a nationalistic program "creates a troubling deficit of information." Your country's nationalistic propaganda is my nation's proudly patriotic education program, I suppose. Stay tuned.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Today in Teacher Depreciation

 When you're in the work, the general noise from the chorus of teacher devaluators can become a faint background buzz. And then something happens, and you're reminded suddenly, "Oh, yeah. That's a thing." 

Happened twice to me on Twitter in the past 24 hours. First, there was the noise surrounding the Trump thing on the teevee last night, including this little punch from Mercedes Schlapp, a senior advisor for the Trump/Pence campaign

This is obviously supposed to be an insult, but I live in western Pennsylvania, right up the road from Pittsburgh, where the international airport includes a whole display/play area devoted to one of Pittsburgh's most beloved sons, Fred Rogers (she spelled his name wrong). Mr. Rogers is a national treasure and one of the few icons who hasn't been outed as some sort of secretly terrible monster. 

Why would anybody treat him as an insult punchline? Because they respect strength and cruelty and in Mr. Rogers, they see the twin "weaknesses" of being kind and gentle and of communicating with children. Rogers was a man with gift for teaching, supporting, and talking to tiny humans--so in the Trump camp's mind he must be the furthest thing from what you'd want in a political leader. 

That's a thought that was echoed in another tweet. The "How it started How it's going" meme has been around practically forever (like, a week). It started out showing relationship growth, then life in general, and then the irony set in, with the two images showing how something went to hell, which is where this next one comes in. 

Klippenstein is a reporter at The Nation, and just in case you thought he was unironically honoring this step up, he clarified the tweet, after an appropriate response from a well-known-ish teacher:


 Ouch. I know Klippenstein is taking a dig at Buttigieg's husband, but still--teaching is lower than working for Marketworld headquarters McKinsey?! It's a job you get "stuck" with? And this is a college gig, which carries a bit more status than a K-12 job, so thank God we weren't slamming O'Rourke for ending up in one of those jobs.

As always, part of what sucks is the casual way these sorts of insults are tossed off, as if everyone (even reporters for ostensibly left-tilted publications) knows that teachers are Less Than, that it's not Real Work for important Manly Men. Certainly not anything for young folks to aspire to. 

Here's hoping tomorrow's a better day.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

McKinsey Has Ideas For Fixing Schools (Pandemic Edition)

McKinsey is the 800-pound consulting gorilla with its hairy hands in everything. That includes dabbling in education; they've consulted with Boston schools and shown how to slash and privatize the crap out of the district, they've made data based advanced analytics explanations of how to improve test scores, and they've made the argument for computerizing classrooms. Their world view is captured by Anand Giridharadas in the must-read Winners Take All, dubbed Marketworld. They are the kings of neo-liberal thinking-- use data, unleash markets, measure everything (especially money). 

So of course it's no surprise that they have some thoughts about how global education should respond to the whole pandemic crisis. Some of it sounds good, but it's important to pay attention to the language (probably a good motto for this blog).

Yet crises often create an opportunity for broader change, and as education systems begin to make decisions about investments for the new school year, it’s important to step back and consider the longer-term imperative to create a better system for every child beyond the pandemic.

Yeah, "investments." Because everything is an investment with these guys, and every investment needs a return.

The process starts with a key question: What are we trying to achieve, for whom, by when, and to what standards? Our research shows that top-performing school systems can vary significantly in curricula, assessments, teacher behaviors, and even desired outcomes.

Hmm. That first sentence is not bad, but notice that somewhere between the first and second sentence, we have already answered all the questions. Because if you don't know the answers to those questions, how do you know if a school is top-performing? 

The article lays out its argument about four key points, claiming that "we know from decades of study that every school system must first get these basic elements right." Then they get into how to double down on these, which is where the real money is.

Four Core 

Here are McKinsey's "what works" basics that they want to recommit to.

* Core skills and instruction. Everyone needs to be able to read and math. They cite the confused stat that students who can't "read proficiently" (aka "pass a standardized test"0 in third grade are likely to drop out of school, but as usual we skip the difference between correlation and causation. You might be surprised to learn that "research has identified the curricula, instructional materials, and teaching methods that are most effective in helping children learn." I'm pretty sure that is unsupportable baloney, but McKinsey is all about reducing a process to a proscribed procedure identified by data analytics. Just get the machine built and in place.

* High-quality teachers and teaching. "Technology," they assure us, "will never replace a great teacher." Systems need to develop and support teachers. We'll see.

* Performance measurement. Data shouldn't be used to punish, just to know current performance and what the benchmarks are. Count McKinsey among the folks who are sure that all those (highly lucrative) standardized tests are super-important in pandemic times.

* Performance level and context. We need to measure and rank school systems and provide interventions of different types depending on how bad the schools are. Poor performers need centralized control, while top performers need more autonomy. 

Their prescriptions

I know I keep forgetting to bring up the pandemic, which is ostensibly McKinsey's reason for laying all this out. But they kind of forget it, too, pointing out here that "progress in educational outcomes " (again, "test scores") has stalled in recent years. Covid-19 is a "signal," or "opportunity" to "embrace more radical innovation" (aka "disrupt") school systems. 

Here's how McKinsey wants to do that:

Harness technology to scale

All right, so they know we can't just hand out devices to students. Also, "giving lectures on a video call is rarely a substitute for face-to-face-learning" (so much for Khan Academy). But we have to get tech out there, doing magic techy stuff, like "solar powered tablets preloaded with research-based, self-paced math and literacy software" that students can use "with supervision from any adult."

Move toward mastery-based learning

Lordy. Personalized. Adaptive. Blended. Mastery-based. It's buzzword bingo time here, with no solid research base for any of it. But "technology has made the model even more compelling." No, but it has made it more profitable.

Support children holistically

This section leads off with this statement:

Previous research has outlined the correlation between mindsets and academic performance, but the shift to remote learning has put it into stark relief.

If that seems a little starkly vague, the follow-up suggests that all they mean is that students who work well on their own are doing better at distance learning. Also,sun is expected in the East tomorrow. Their point is that schools need to address the whole child and although we're dodging the term "social and emotional learning," that's what we're getting at. McKinsey does have the astounding insight that students need to "go beyond what they simply need to find work," which is exactly the kind of insight you get from people who don't actually spend any time in the classroom with actual young humans. It's just a little more ironic coming from the sector that has hammered relentlessly on how schools should focus on better preparing tomorrow's meat widgets to corporate specs. 

They're going to cite International Baccalaureate and KIPP as exemplars here, ignoring the self-selecting nature of IB and the creaming nature of KIPP, as well as skipping past the part where KIPP and other charters decide that the no excuses model they've been holistically hammering students with might be a bad idea and let's drop it.

Help students adapt to the future of work

All that stuff about going beyond job-getting? Yeah, ignore that and let's get back to producing the worker bees that corporations will want in the future. Plus, more computery stuff! McKinsey is all about automation concerns for future employment, and not so much talking about how many workers are simply under bid by peanut-waged workers in regulation-free countries. Of course, all of these trends are driven, in part, by the work of consulting forms like McKinsey that help corporations squeeze that last drop of blood out of their working turnips.

Invest in new models of teacher prep and development  

I do not disagree, but their ideas are mostly dumb, like using computer simulations to train pre-teachers. This is a dumb idea, and it's the kind of dumb idea you come up with when you start with the premise that a computer has to be part of your solution. Mind you, simulations are great; I did plenty of them in Teacher School with Dr. Schall sitting in the back of the room providing what would turn out to be highly realistic portrayals of the students I would meet in the classroom. My school also required real pre-student teaching hours spent with live human children, 

McKinsey also wants to turn technology loose in the professional development arena, though what they seem to mean is using software to assist untrained teachers, citing the Bridge International program in Liberia, providing school in a can to replace the Liberian public education system. The best they can do is claim that Bridge gave students an extra two and a half years of learning over three years, which of course just means they raised test scores.

Unbundle the role of teacher

Lot of gobbledeegook here, but it boils down to breaking the teacher job into "high-value activities" and other stuff, much in the same way that Ray Kroc broke down the business of supplying customers with food in a way that just happened to drastically lower job requirements and labor costs. 

Allocate resources equitably to support every student  

Here's a crazy thought. What if we jiggered the economic system so that the profits and rewards of successful corporations were more evenly distributed to all the workers, allowing them to accumulate greater wealth and improving everyone's station in life, thereby having the effect of reducing the number of poor communities poorly served by poor schools? 

That, of course, is not what McKinsey is talking about here. They acknowledge the disparities that exist, such as racial ones in the US. They toss out redrawing boundaries, pairing top and bottom districts, and of course this great idea--

Could systems around the world incentivize top schools to offer all their advanced classes and electives, along with mentors, resources, and other forms of help, to high-poverty neighbors? Could that start with the remote-learning instruction currently being rolled out?

The ever popular idea that we just find out what the teachers are doing at West Egg High School, and transplant those ideas to East Egg High School. Maybe even move some of the teachers. You may recall the years of being told that calling poverty a factor in the performance of high-poverty schools was just making excuses, and it was probably that the poor schools had all the crappy teachers. McKinsey's still right there. Put a pin in this subhead, because we'll be back.

Rethink school structures and policies

Here's the old "schools haven't changed in 100 years," only McKinsey is going to say 300 years. They're going to also cite the baloney about covid sliding. They're going to bring up proficiency based learning. Maybe change the calendar. Switch things up, guys!

McKinsey's Fundamental Disconnect   

Here's the thing about McKinsey--they love change and disruption for everyone except the people at the top. They will gladly suggest that education be disrupted in a hundred different ways, as long as those ways don't inconvenience rich and powerful people. So my idea about disrupting the economic system, the rules and laws that have tilted it, so that we don't have huge gaps between the rich and the poor, so that we don't have one of our current fundamental education problems, which is that people who can buy and sell entire schools for their own children get huffy about having to pay taxes to educate the children of Those People. 

Sure, come up with a program, like any computer-centered whizbang that lets some wealthy entrepreneur make a buck while bragging at cocktail parties that he's helping Those People--that's a McKinsey winner. But don't mess with the upper crust status quo.

That includes not challenging any of McKinsey's amateur-hour assumptions  about education, like the notion that test-generated "data" tell you everything you need to know.

The main author on this report is Jake Bryant (who appears to be form Pittsburgh, so, Jake, next time you're home, give me a call). He's the McKinsey help-lead guy for North American education K-12; he's an "expert in online and blended learning." He ran an investment portfolio for the Gates Foundation, and before that, says his bio, he taught middle school in the US and Japan. Check LinkedIn and you find that he graduated from Harvard with a A.B. in Social Studies (that's a BA for you non-ivies), and he taught for a whopping one year, at a KIPP school in LA. I can't confirm that he was Teach for America, but it seems not unlikely.

Emma Dorn, his co-author, is the Global Education Practice Manager for McKinsey. She's been with the company for over twenty years, with a four year break to be an independent consultant at home. She's only been in their education biz for the last six years (since returning from her break). You can catch her on youtube on a variety of topics, including how teachers can stay "nimble" during the pandemic.

Look, I really don't want to be a massive jerk about this, and I know that these are real humans trying to do a job, but the combination of hubris and we-don't-know-what-we-don't-know is troubling. Over the past few decades, education has suffered mightily from the meddling of wealthy and powerful amateurs who haven't a clue about what it's like to be a career classroom teacher, and right now, in the midst of this medical mess, the last thing education needs is to hear more from these folks--particularly when they don't want to help so much as they want to grasp the opportunity to push their half-baked uninformed ideas yet again. 

Update #1 From The Pandemic's Trailing Edge

 About a month ago, I told you that if it can work anywhere, it can work here.

I'm in Northwest PA, a rural/small town county with a little under 50,000 people. As of a month ago, we had about 70-ish confirmed cases. Schools re-opened, almost entirely face-to-face five days a week. 

Well, things have changed. Our confirmed case number has doubled in about five weeks. The norm was days with zero or one or two new cases; now we are having some days with double digits. 

In two of the local four high schools, this week we learned that there were two cases in each of two high schools. In each case, one student and one adult. One school has closed for two days for a round of deep cleaning; the other has reportedly sent 40-some students and staff into quarantine. 

If you're wondering why the responses are inconsistent, well, that's what you get when a pandemic hits at a time like now. There are no rules, and words don't mean anything, so local districts have to just figure it out themselves. At another local elementary school, a teacher has been sent home for fourteen days because her son was sent home from his school (a different one than the one where she teaches) with a fever. That determination was made by the school nurse. 

That situation highlights another feature of the area. There are four different school districts, but they share band and sports programs, and the students mix outside of school at places like local dance studios. Aggressive contact tracing might help, but the folks around here have been clear that nobody is going to get their personal private information, and if there's a vaccine they probably won't take that, either. 

Yes, this is Trump country (though based on signage, I'm guessing Biden will do better here than Clinton did four years ago), and they have plenty of unkind words for our democratic governor (who has his own communication problems because he still thinks like a CEO and not a politician). It is also a county that depends on exactly the kind of small business activity that the shutdowns have been hard on, though we have also been super-concerned about getting to play and watch high school sports. 

At any rate, since nobody is collecting information about anything, I promised I would report on the local situation so that you have one more batch of data points to follow. Right now, things are changing here. We'll see if it's a blip or the beginning of a bad trend.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

ME: Charter Pushers Quietly Switch To New Product

Maine has suffered through its own brands of education disruption. Most notably, they became the target for a bunch folks who wanted to use Maine as a proof of concept state for proficiency based learning grafted onto standards based grading. At best they showed that a poorly implemented and underfunded disruption of this sort is disastrous; at worst, they showed that re-organizing education around the needs of data miners is a terrible idea. However you slice it, Maine's little experiment failed hard.

But what education in Maine hasn't had to deal with much is the rise of charter schools. The charter industry hasn't infected Maine as badly as, say, Ohio or Indiana. There are ten charters, with fewer than a total of 3,000 students enrolled. There are plenty of possible explanations, not the least of which is that once you get away from Theme Park Maine on the coast, Maine is pretty rural (I have an old friend who used to describe his central Maine high school as fifteen miles and an hour and a half away from the nearest rival). But that limited role for charteristas may be about to change.

Like every state where charters are legal, Maine has a group that promotes, advocates, lobbies and generally cheerleads for the charter industry-- the Maine Association for Charter Schools, whose stated purpose is to promote "high-quality options for all children within Maine's public education system." But last year the legislature indefinitely extended a charter school cap. 10 is all the charters they may ever have.

So what's a chartery education disruption group to do? 

How about renaming yourself? And rebranding yourself with a whole new mission by declaring yourself the leaders of the state's education community?

So let's meet a fun new group launched just a few months ago. It's the Education Action Forum of Maine and it is, well-- from their About Us page:

The Education Action Forum of Maine operated for twenty years as the Maine Association for Charter Schools. On June 17, 2020, the MACS board voted to change the name and expand its mission to adapt to the realities influencing the education landscape in Maine.

Think of them as the Pandemic Down East Opportunist Society. Also from their About Us...

The time is ripe for an organization, such as ours, to provide leadership to assist the education system to move forward safely, and to develop strategies to restructure the system in ways unimaginable before the pandemic struck.

It takes its "inspiration" from "analogous" groups like the Mind Trust of Indianapolis and Education Evolving in Minnesota. I've written about the Mind Trust before (you can read about them here and here), and they are the same old disruptor model. Declare the public schools a mess, and then declare yourself "leaders" in the education space by virtue of the fact that 1) you say so and 2) you have collected some money and political connections. Mind Trust was, in fact, saying a couple of years ago that they wanted to scale up their model to other states. 

So when EAFoM says that they are "designed to amplify the voices of families, students and teachers," you can take that with a few tons of salt. When they talk about "restructuring the education system," assume they mean dismantling and privatizing the public system. And when they say they are looking to develop some "critical partnerships," pay attention to the people they partner with.

The organization is still led by Judith Jones, the chair of the board. She's been at this for a while, incuding a stint in DC during their chartery formative years. The new hire at EAFoM is John Mullaney (not the funny one), who previously spent twenty years at the Nord Family Foundation, a less well known philanthropic outfit with a charter-heavy ed portfolio that he helped manage.

EAFoM has already made some friends and is getting ready to get back in the game. Jones just sent out an e-mail announcing their "Educator Innovators Series, an online forum where regional and national thought leaders share their views on the future of education." And who doesn't love a good thought leader. They're partnering with the Thomas College Center for Innovation in Education and Educate Maine. 

The Thomas College center is fresh and new itself, launched with a grant just a few years ago. They have a program that can crank out a new teacher in just three years, and their facility is open concept. One write up of the program is argle bargle heavy, saying this is more than a "quixotic pursuit" and laying on lots of pretty detail-free descriptions. They have a program for recruiting high schoolers as future teachers, and a "residency" program that places "pre-service teachers" in a rural community and school for a whole week. Founded in 1894, Thomas College is a private business college that focuses mostly on business, technology and education. I don't know whether they know what the heck they're doing or not.

Educate Maine, on the other hand, is cut from familiar cloth. It's another one of those business-centric reformy organizations, and its mission should ring a bell--To champion college and career readiness and strive to increase the educational attainment of the Maine workforce. In other words, to make sure that schools keep them supplied with meat widgets, specifically those that have been trained in the Common Core. They're rich with corporate sponsors. And at some point they folded in the Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education, a group that was involved in the PBL adventure.

So what does EAFoM want to do with its new friends? Well, the email offers some more hints:

This partnership presents a new opening for Maine educators, business leaders and families to participate in conversations that envision new and more personalized approaches to education in our public system.

And there's this

Our inaugural speaker is Jason Snowdon of Knowledgeworks. His research into potential models for education sets the foundation for our efforts to imagine a restructured and vibrant network of public schools in Maine.

The name Knowledgeworks should ring a bell--these guys are another Gates-backed outfit pushing hard on the computer-based algorithm-driven teacher-free data-collecting system marketed as Personalized Education. Really-- they've written a whole prospectus of what education could look like with more computers and fewer--as in none--teachers.

So it looks as if the folks who previously thought that Maine really needed charter schools have now decided that what Maine really needs is more personalized [sic] education. It's an unsurprising choice--Maine's rural nature makes it a bad fit for charter schools, but advocates of computer-driven personalized [sic] education love to tell the story of Chugach, Alaska and how competency based personalized [sic] education worked so well for that isolated tiny community (spoiler alert: what Chugach did is not what they're selling). 

So, wolf in sheep's clothing? Wolf in a different kind of wolf's clothing? Whatever metaphor you choose, it appears that Maine gets yet another round of privatizing, data-mining education disruption. Bummer.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Orphaned Education, Forgotten Children

These are depressing times. Let me tell you why I'm bummed, but first, let me tell you a story.

Almost a decade ago, I was the local union president during a contentious contract negotiation that became a strike. That was probably the lowest part of my teaching career. If you've taught for more than a year or two, you know, somewhere back in the back of your mind, that a lot of people are not really pulling for you, don't really respect the work you do, don't think you should get all uppity about wanting good wages, good working conditions, some sort of say in how the work is done. 

You know all that, but you put your head down, focus on the work, the students, the people out there who respect and value the work you're doing. There are plenty of them, sure enough. But those others. You know they're out there, in many cases in positions of power, but like I said--you keep your head down. But during the strike, I couldn't ignore them. They stopped me on the street, called me at home. I had to look right into that dark maw, and it was deeply disheartening. 

I feel like we're back there again. Seven months of this pandemess, and I think we've become numb, used to just how much education and children is NOT part of the ongoing concerns before us at the moment. On the one hand, it's not news--public education has been a political orphan for at least thirty or forty years. Go ahead--name a prominent political figure who's known for being a champion of public education. Name a Secretary of Education who did their utmost to stand up for public education. I'd punctuate this by saying "I'll wait," but I don't have that kind of waiting time. 

Education had its fifteen minutes in the Democratic primary, with candidates falling all over themselves announcing how many times over they'd multiply Title I, and some even showing a rudimentary grasp of the problems of privatizing public education, of handing it over to "market forces" to get the job done. Sanders had a good bit of platforming, and it even made it into the "unity committee" aka "will progressives please hush and play nice" document, but Candidate Biden's education "plan" is the same old weak sauce. So once again, the closest we get to an education candidate is "the one who isn't openly hostile to the very idea of public education." 

The coronavirus spread and the national conversation started including the question, "What about the kids?" And for a half a second you might have thought, "Great! This is the perfect opportunity to start talking about how we can remake public education in a better, stronger, more equitable form." But no. The next part was not "How will we insure their education" so much "How can we get them out of the way so that the economy can start reviving."

Jan Resseger gets to the point right here-

I do not remember a time when the wellbeing of children has been so totally forgotten by the leaders of the political party in power in the White House and the Congress. This fall, school district leaders have been left on their own as they try to serve and educate children while the COVID-19 pandemic continues raging across the states. School leaders are trying to hold it all together this fall at the same time their state budgets in some places have already been cut.

Teachers are being ground down by the new and stressful demands, but it's not like anyone is truly shocked or surprised that it has come to this. There are a million nuts and bolts that need to be put in place, and each one of them costs, and yet nobody in power is seriously trying to deal with any of it (unless you include Betsy DeVos calling public education names and trying yet again to get tax dollars to her beloved voucher schools).

Even when people try to address some of those nuts and bolts, it's, well, a bummer. A great Canadian article about the need for decent ventilation in schools ends like this:

There is overwhelming evidence that addressing ventilation in schools improves academic performance, decreases absenteeism and reduces asthma. When you total up all the economic benefits, it’s an economic no-brainer.

In other words, never mind the moral and ethical considerations of taking care of young human beings--let's look at the return on investment for providing schools with adequate air to breathe. I don't blame the author--you make the argument that you think will get the job done. But it's a bummer that this is the argument he figures will get the job done.

From our lousy parental leave laws to our tepid support of public education, the US has always talked a bigger game for caring for young humans than we actually walk. The pandemic has just underlined that and put it in caps. 

Not Politics In The Classroom

 Distance learning seems to have pumped new life into the debate about politics in the classroom. From parents freaking out over a Black Lives Matter poster, to simple declarations that teachers should never, ever talk politics, to the Pesident's adoption of the call for more patriotic education, we're back to arguing about how much political content should make it into a classroom.

I actually agree that a teacher's politics don't belong in the classroom. But there' a reason that maintaining the wall has become more difficult, and I'm pretty sure I don't mean the same thing that some critics mean.  But I have another way to sort this out--I'll get there eventually. 

The problem is bigger because of the politization of everything

One of the extremes represented by the current administration is the extension of a personal political brand. This kind of bundling is not new--if you were a Prohibitionist, there was a whole batch of political positions having nothing to do with alcohol that you were expected to support. But Trump has taken this over the top, from the very beginning of his term when he established that counting people in a photograph was a political statement. 

That has simply accelerated. If you say that climate science is real, that Black lives matter, that California is a lovely state, that Mexicans are not all racists, that racism is part of US history, that mocking disabled people is wrong, that Nazis are always bad, and any number of other comments, you have taken a partisan political stand. Trump has staked his claim to so many positions that it's hard to have a position on anything at all and not be taking a side for or against the President. Again, this is not new--once upon a time, it was partisan politics to say that ketchup is not a vegetable. But it's as bad now as it has ever been, and needlessly extended to a number of piddly issues.

For some subjects, this is an extension of an old minefield. I taught US literature for decades, which meant that I had to discuss race, religion and gender issues every week. All of those are more politically fraught now than they were thirty years ago. My position was always, explicitly, "I am not here to tell you whether these folks were right or wrong, but to show you as clearly as I can how they saw the world and their place in it." But the very notion that somebody can hold a particular point of view for reasons other than being stupid and/or evil--well, that's also politicized now. You can't just disagree with the President--you must, apparently, hate him.

How to build student understanding of the world without showing students different ways to see that world? That is increasingly the challenge.

It helps to draw a line between what is politics and what is not

YMMV, but this is where I draw lines in my own head.

Values are one thing, and politics are something else. What you think matters, what your map of the world looks like--that's not politics. The solutions to issues created by governments and laws, the lines that you draw to create boundaries on your map--that's politics. (I like, also, P. J. O'Rourke's definition--Politics is the business of getting power and privilege without possessing merit.)

Moral and ethical questions are just that--moral and ethical questions. They deal with how we humans are supposed to conduct ourselves in the world, how we are supposed to interact with other humans. Politics covers all the rules we think governments should make about how humans behave. Morals and ethics may inform our politics--but they aren't politics. 

That applies in both present and past tense. Whether Columbus was a wretched disaster vector or a noble-ish explorer is not a political question; it only becomes a politics-flavored question when you try to attach it to the question of what the government ought to be doing right now. 

But we often try to "reduce" things to politics as a way of diminishing them, of saying this is not about facts or honesty or a better understanding of the world--it's just about politics.

Hence the bitching and moaning about Black Lives Matter and the 1619 Project. Look, there is nothing remotely political about saying that Black human beings have a right to life. It is not a political statement. Some folks have tried to engage with good faith arguments with people who dismiss BLM by way of many fine metaphors (Imagine you've been sitting at the dining room table and getting nothing to eat. Imagine that your mother just announced she has cancer) but for some BLM opponents, that's not the point. They believe, essentially, that Black people used to have it rough, but at some point (maybe the Civil War, maybe the 1960s) we fixed all that and right now, Black people don't have it any worse than anyone else. This BLM stuff, they are pretty sure, is just a ploy, a piece of political theater intended to leverage the government into favoring a particular group. The 1619 Project is not a legitimate attempt to put forward another perspective on history, but simply an attempt to create pressure on the government, a political project.

It does not help that the past many decades have seen an increasing belief that government should make people behave the One Right Way. It does not help that we live in a time of heightened cynicism, where our elected politicians make whatever argument gets them political advantage, even if it directly contradicts the argument they made yesterday. It does not help that we have a guy in the White House who will say anything in order to gain political advantage. 

But talking about facts, values, and honesty--that's not politics. Saying that you believe human beings have an intrinsic worth is not a political statement. Saying "Vote for that guy" or "call your congressperson to oppose that bill" is a political statement. We have a sign in the front yard that says things like "science is real" and "love is love," and despite the fact that some folks have tried to politicize those issues, it is not a political sign.

"All of this clarifies nothing," I hear you saying. So let me try to boil it down to specific classroom practices.

No points for agreement

My class involved lots of writing about controversial subjects, and discussions to help flesh out the ideas. My job was to argue any and all sides to add fuel to the fire. Invariably my students would ask me what I really thought, and I always refused to tell them, because for a writing and discussion class, it was critical that they knew that all viewpoints were fair game. I learned in my first year or two that if you tell students what you think about the topic, you'll get a stack of essays that agree with you. 

It's impossible to pretend that we are some sort of blank slate of belief. Classroom rules ("everyone in this classroom will be treated with respect") are infused with our beliefs. 

As the year progressed and we built a level of trust, I would become more transparent about my beliefs. Teachers are among the few adults that students encounter in life, so it is important to model adult human behavior, including How To Believe Something Without Being a Giant Asshat About It. That includes giving students the safety to express opinions that you think are wildly wrong (and boy was I tested on that in some moments). That includes demonstrating disagreement on an issue without sending the message, "You are a jerk and a fool and Less Than because you believe that" (again, lots of testing). That doesn't mean pretending that you could conceivably agree with that damn fool thing that just came out of their mouth or pen, but once you've built trust, you can push back. "Find me some evidence" is your friend here. 

Two things I held onto here. One is that it's hard to make a good argument and write a good essay in support of terrible ideas. The other is that humans, particularly young humans, learn and grow, and they do it best when they have the ability to examine their own thoughts and ideas rather than building a fortress around them to protect them from perceived attack. 

There is a difference between "this is what I believe" and "this is what I think you should do about it." That to me is the difference between beliefs and politics in the classroom.

But how do you decide what becomes explicit in your teaching. I have that poster at home--would I have put it up in my classroom?

Where I draw the line   

For me, it goes back to a safe and accepting classroom environment. 

If I put up a KKK poster or a Confederate flag or legalized abortion is murder poster or argue against some legislation that has been labeled part of the gay agenda (whatever the hell that is) in my classroom, I'm going to send a message to some students that they are not welcome there. That's bad practice. It guarantees that some students will feel threatened, that they will know they should never write an honest essay for me. It will mean that they get the message from an official representative of the Adult World that they are unwelcome, Less Than. That is not okay.

Likewise, a poster for a political candidate signals that the classroom has been claimed by one particular team, and members of other teams are not welcome.

Does a Black Lives Matter sign, or a Love Is Love banner, have a similar exclusionary effect? I suppose a student who doesn't like gay or Black folks could argue that it is, but there's a big difference between "You aren't welcome here" and "I don't want to be around Those People." In one you are being excluded, even threatened, against your will, while in the other case you've made choice about who not to accept. Deciding you don't want to be included is different from being told you won't be included. 

The line for me is anything that makes the classroom feel unsafe or unwelcoming for a student. We can handle disagreement and controversy. But it is never okay to send the message, "Because of who you are, you are not welcome here. You are not okay." Not from student to student and certainly not from teacher to student. And if you believe that an inclusive message interferes with your need to treat other people as Less Than, well, you may want to search out a private alternative to public school (just don't ask the people that you want to treat that way to help pay your tuition). 

Sunday, October 11, 2020

ICYMI: PA Fake Summer Edition (10/11)

 Every Fall, in Western PA, we get a week or so of fake summer. This year it's particularly nice to get another pass at playing outside  in shorts and sweatshirt weather. The board of directors has suddenly taken an interest in gardening, and the timing is perfect since there's hardly anything going on that they could kill. 

Meanwhile, there's some stuff for you to read. Remember, sharing these readings helps amplify the message. Help out.

Bill Gates Quest for the Mythical Magic Bullet   

Ed in the Apple takes a look at the newest attempt by Gates to remake education; this time it's going to be Algebra I for everybody!

What does it mean when hardly anybody stands up for the basic needs of children and public schools.

Jan Resseger talks about how much it sucks that public education continues to be an orphan in these miserable times

Virtual Instruction: 5 pros and 5 cons  

Steven Singer takes a look at the pluses and minuses of trying to educate via computer connection

The Freedom to be That Change

Teacher Tom talks about the challenge of raising children to be moral, ethical beings.

NC can leave the dark ages on education    

Justen Parmenter offers an op-ed in the Charlotte Observer laying out in fairly short, stark terms, how leaders in North Carolina have lost the educational plot.

Governor accused of improperly using Covid relief money to fund vouchers  

Meanwhile, in South Carolina the governor decided he woud just go ahead and implement the DeVosian voucher plan on his own. From EdWeek.

Everybody needs to work less   

At Slate, Dan Kois notes that pandemic distance learning is stretching everybody, and the crazy radical has a solution to offer that doesn't involve dumping the problem on teachers or parents.

The lost year fallacy  

Nancy Flanagan takes a look back through history to see if it's legit to write off 20-21.

The corruption of charter schools in Alaska   

The Anchorage Daily News looks at how the  charter industry in Alaska is a money-grubbing mess

How online learning companies are using the pandemic to take over the classroom

Jef Bryant takes a look at the corporate opportunism going on right now.

Greatschools wanted to disrupt school ratings. Did they make segregation worse?  

Well, yeah, probably. And the hidden culprit is, once again, high stakes testing. A thorough look from Mother Jones.

John Lennon's Report Card   

From Valerie Strauss at The Answer Sheet, one more reminder that schools can sometimes miss the point

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Dear Secretary DeVos: Either Help Or Hush

Dear Secretary Devos:

Teachers in the US are facing unprecedented challenges this fall, trying to make the best out of whatever bad solution their local districts have chosen. It's a tough time, the kind of time in which we look for help and leadership from folks at the top.

You have not been helpful.

Last Wednesday, you took a conference call with the Phyllis Schlafly Eagles, a collection of your very conservative friends (You and I are old enough to when she was a big name in politics, opposing the ERA, homosexuality, arms control agreements, and guys like Nelson Rockefeller). You told those folks that many public school districts "have not really taken their customers--you know, their students and their families--into consideration." You specifically criticized the Fairfax schools for changing at the last minute their previous plans for the fall into all remote learning. You accused them of "pretending" to offer options over the summer, as if they were up to some sort of sneaky trip and not, say, trying to figure out how to navigate an unprecedented health crisis. A crisis that people in leadership roles, like you, have offered no leadership or guidance on dealing with.

Thursday you were in Waukesha, WI, speaking to a select group of private school parents about how families have been unhappy with education during the pandemic, which is a remarkably obtuse comment because, well, duh. Everybody is unhappy with education during the pandemic. There are no good educational options during the pandemic, and nobody--whether they are worrying about exposure in face-to-face school or struggling to overcome the many limitations of distance learning--is all that happy. 

What's the smartest choice? Hard to say. Some of the early data suggests that schools might not be super-spreaders, but then, schools that are just regular old Covid spreaders are enough to worry--and kill--folks.

While you've been out slamming public schools at events like the two above, you've made it clear what your interest is--promoting school vouchers. You keep plugging your scholarship tax credit plan, and keep insisting that the pandemic underlines how badly families need choice, as if one of the available choices were a school that is completely immune from the covid spread. 

It's seems hard to believe that you could make people more angry at you than they already were (I understand that you don't care--I'm just saying). But here we are with the school house on fire, and the head of education is using it as an opportunity to sell her personal brand of asbestos gloves.

I suppose it should be clear after all these years that we can't expect any help from you for public education. And it's a sign of the times that it makes sense to type a sentence like "the United States secretary of education cannot be expected to support public education in the United States." So sure-- no guidance, no assistance, not even a sympathetic pat on the shoulder or a half-hearted attaboy. Certainly not a "These are really difficult times-- what can we on the federal level do to help you?"

But if you're not going to elp, can you at least hush? If you are not going to be part of any sort of movement to help public schools, can you at least not be out in the front lines of people trying to attack it? Is that really so much to ask? Just, you know, hush. Just let the people who are actually doing the work of public education in this country have one fewer voices bussing in their ear declaring that they stink and they're failing and we should be giving them less support and instead buying everyone a pair of these asbestos gloves. 

Either pitch in and help us get through this, or, if you can't bring yourself to so that, just sit down and hush. 


Peter Greene

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Democracy Is Not The Point

 Twitter is often a fine place to catch people saying the quiet parts out loud. For instance, this tweet from this morning:

Mike Lee is a Senator from Utah who tilts all the way over into Libertarian rightness. He loves himself some school choice. He's also part of the crew that got Covid-19 as a parting gift at the White House Amy Barrett soiree. 

As a blogging master of multiple typos, I'm not going to dog him for clearly meaning "prosperity." But I am going to whoop and holler and point at the "democracy isn't the objective" part. That was a follow up to yesterday's tweet "We are not a democracy." (Don't bring any "but we're actually a republic" argument in here--that just signals you aren't ready to seriously discuss this).

It's the quiet part out loud, the part that we've been hearing in the assault on public education. It's in the arguments by guys like Reed Hastings (Netflix) that elected school boards are a hindrance and should be done away with. It's in the cities where mayoral control has been implemented. It's in the communities where charter operators come from outside and make education reform something they do to the community rather than with it. It is in the education disruption model that says what we really need is a powerful visionary in charge who isn't held down by regulations or unions and who doesn't have to be accountable to the community. This Wise and Powerful school leader will provide people with what he believes they need, and they should be grateful. 

One powerful part of the reformsters disruptive narrative has always been that "rank democracy" gets in the way of real reform. Just put that visionary CEO in charge, and let him be accountable to the invisible hand of market forces. Focus on how we're giving families a choice and direct attention from the fact that 1) they can only have the choices that we decide to give them and 2) citizens who don't have children get no say at all. 

We could dig deeper. Why is democracy so "rank"? Under the current administration, the working theory seems to be that the Wrong Sort of People have been allowed a say. People ask how this administration can even pretend not to be divisive; the answer is that they see themselves as uniters of Real Americans, and they're uniting them against all Those Others who are not Real Americans but have somehow been allowed to have votes and voices and some kind of control in the national conversation. America will be Great Again when the Right People are in charge.

That means schools, too. Or maybe even especially. 

I'll add the usual disclaimer--reformsters come in many flavors and types, and there's virtually nothing you can say that will be true of them all. 

But. This thread of anti-democracy, of just-sit-down-and-let-your-betters-run-the-show runs through much of the ed reform movement, and it's there not strictly because of the education world, but because it is part of a larger movement in this country to clamp down on democracy and put the Right People in charge, so that the Right People can enjoy their liberty and prosperity in peace, and so they can dole out whatever amounts of such things they believe all those Others deserve. 

"Democracy is not the objective." It would be a mistake to think that just because we're here in the United States of America, there couldn't possibly people--certainly not people in positions of power--who believe that. Lee says that he likes school choice because it involves the community, but always remember-- democracy is not the objective.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Has Miami-Dade Really Found The Secret Of Cheap Excellence?

From school choice to school finance, Florida is the state education disruptors love to point at, though they tend to point verrrrry carefully at very specific features of the Floridian education landscape. For instance, here's Michael Q. McShane at Education Next running a piece about how Miami-Dade schools have "bucked the staffing surge trend" while still maintaining "student achievement." His thesis is right up front:

The Miami-Dade County Public Schools spends less per student than the only three larger districts in the country and still manages to deliver top-tier student achievement results.

The implication, popular with the conservative wing of reformsters, is that educational excellence is available for bargain prices if we just worked the right levers. But there are three large holes in his Florida argument.

About that staffing surge...

McShane starts by pointing out that Miami educates around 350,000 students, and according to the census folks, they do it for less than $10K a year, far less than other huge districts, even when adjusted for cost of living. This has not a surprise; Florida schools have been trying to shake off the "latest" budget cuts for years (here they are in 2011, and here they are this year). Florida is run by politicians who are openly hostile to public education, and they've been trying to bleed the system dry for years. 

But Miami-Dade, says McShane, is doing it "partly" by providing low-cost education by pushing back against the "staffing surge."

Except here's the thing about the staffing surge. Bring it up on Twitter and Bruce Baker (School Finance 101), a Rutgers University professor specializing in school finance and education policy, may well bring up this chart:

The staff surge is not very surgey. Now, that is a national average, so some parts of the country could be feeling some surge, I suppose. McShane is using numbers from Ben Scafidi of Kennesaw State University, but he seems to have focused on how much student and staff populations grew or shrank by percentage. By his measure, Miami-Dade is unusual in showing a percentage of growth equal to the percentage growth of student population. 

Now, I'm not an education scholar, but I know this about percentages. If I have a thousand students in school, and next year I get 100 more, my student population has grown by 10%. But If I had two administrators and I hired two more, my administration staff has increased by 100%. Since student populations, particularly in a huge district like Miami-Dade, are way larger than teacher or administrator populations, comparing their growth or shrinkage by percentages is an apples-to-watermelons situation. I'm confident Baker's method of measuring is more useful, and that the "staff surge" issue is not that big a thing. 

About student achievement...

I'm a broken record on this point, but I am just going to stay in my groove until folks examining education start singing a different song. When McShane says "student achievement," he means "student test scores."

Test scores are not the same as student achievement.

Test scores are not the same as student achievement.

Test scores are not the same as student achievement.

Test scores are not the same as student achievement.

Just do me a favor and keep repeating that infinity times.

But even if we decide we care about test scores...

McShane wants to point at NAEP scores-- well, the Trial Urban District Assessment NAEP scores. But he only wants to point at very particular NAEP scores. Miami 4th grade reading and math scores outperformed  the large-city average for the test. The 8th grade scores were...meh. On par with other large cities. There is also such a thing as regular old NAEP scores and, in some years,12th grade NAEP scores, but McShane doesn't bring any of that up. Can you guess why?

Billy Townsend knows, and he lays out all the gory details in a blog post here. The short answer is that by the time Florida students are finishing their education and ready to go out into the world, all of that 4th grade test-based awesomeness has vanished. Not only vanished, but cratered as Florida's students fall behind the nation as a whole. 

Stanford did a study looking at growth, and Kevin Drum, a political writer for Mother Jones took a look at the results, mapping out districts based on how much students advanced in a year between 3rd and 8th grade. 

You know I'm not a fan of these kinds of test-based statistical shenanigans, but if that's the game these folks want to play, let's take a look. In the map above purple marks the districts with the very least growth between 3rd and 8th grade. As Drum concludes, based on these results, "Florida is an almost insane basket case."

Florida, I will remind you, may hate public education, but they absolutely worship at the altar of the Big Standardized Test. This is the state where sick and dying children have been harrassed with state demands that they take that test. This is the state where they test the littlest of the littles. This is the state where students who have top grades in reading are still held back a grade because they won't take the test. And with all that, they're still not very good at giving the actual test.

So if they've been drilling testing into students since the students were five years old, why don't they test well as eighth graders? That is a question that answers itself, although I might add, have you met an eighth grader? Florida wants to be a proof of concept state for many things, but one thing it is absolutely proof of concept for is that focusing your entire education system on test taking leads to lousy educating. 

So in the end, we have to conclude that along with the fountain of youth and land deals that can make you rich, cheap educational excellence is another thing that cannot be found in Florida.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

CAP: It's the School System's Fault

The Center for American Progress (CAP) is nominally a left-tilted thinky tank, but they have always been solidly on the side of reformsterism, backing charter schools and relentlessly stumping for the Common Core.

They're also fans of the narrow reformster view of education as a mill for churning out meat widgets, and here they are at it again in a post from mid-September (you know, about ten years ago) entitled "Preparing American Students for the Workforce of the Future." It's a pervasive reform idea--that the point of school is as vocational prep (and college is just vocational prep for higher-paying jobs).

And yes-- if schools were cranking out graduates who were completely unemployable, that would be a disservice to those students. But the notion that the years 1 through 18 (or even 22) should be focused simply on making yourself useful to your future employer is such a cramped, meager, joyless, shrunken version of what a human life can be-- Well, I could go on and on, but let's settle for this--no parents with resources to provide their child with more would settle for thirteen (or fourteen or fifteen) years of meat widget training.

But CAP leaps right in with "The United States has failed to prepare all students for college and their careers" and follows up by citing TNTP's Opportunity Myth, one of those non-research "reports" that reformy groups crank out so that other groups can cite them as if they contain actual research. I've discussed it at length elsewhere, so I'm not getting into it here--short form: it's not a good sign.

CAP throws in some chicken littling about the pandemic's effects on the US healthcare, economy and workforce, noting that Black and brown people are worst hit, and they're not wrong. But their call to address "systemic gaps in education" (and again, they're not wrong) focuses on just three areas of gappage.

We'll get to those three areas in a moment, but first, CAP wants to talk about its "new research approach, which aims to be more responsive to community needs and desired solutions." See, CAP is going to "embark" on a "series of community conversations across the country in areas with a high proportion of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous populations." The conversations will be "a unique way to collect data about the needs and potential solutions" for these communities, except the list of specific questions would seem to indicate that CAP has already decided that what these communities need is more job training.

The conversations will focus on how community members define the future workforce; how they learn about new industries and occupations; how well their schools help students prepare for this future; and how their schools should be held accountable for preparing all students.

CAP goes on to explain that a cross-sectional collaborative approach is necessary because this stuff is too complicated for schools to handle alone, and they devote half a sentence to another benefit for society that they foresee--engaging more actively as citizens. But mostly it's jobs jobs jobs, including a description of what constitutes a "good" job based on a Gallup poll. The list of ten characteristics, but we are still stuck in the allegedly progressive view of supply-side jobs programming, the notion that if everyone gets more education, somehow the supply of jobs will expand to meet them, that the lousy jobs will be magically done by, well, someone, and most of all, we need not look for any levers that might impel businesses to provide better jobs. Somehow, in this formulation, when the manager of Walmart sees that he has twenty-five people with advanced marketing college degrees, he will immediately increase the pay and benefits for the job he's trying to fill. At any rate, all those people you know in lousy jobs? That's the result of them getting insufficient proper education, and is in no way the fault of economic forces or cheap-ass corporate employers.


Here are the three magic bullets that CAP suggests for fixing the meat widget problem.

Early Career Preparation

Schools aren't "exposing" students to careers and industries, and they're not doing it early enough. It's in this section that we find this jaw-dropper:

Most students enroll in high school course pathways that lead to a dead end and leave students ineligible for their desired postsecondary options.

This claim is based on "research" by the Center for American Progress and I'm not going to take a side trip into that mess. Short version: they compared high school course requirements to college admission requirements, and then also compared course requirements to a set of "college and career ready" requirements that they just kind of made up. They did not--as one might expect from research that reaches such a gobsmacking conclusion--come up with any actual numbers of all these students who are stranded out in Dead Endsville. Because you'd think that if "most students" are on that dead end pathway, we'd here about it. Lots of fun to se "progressive" CAP aligning with Betsy DeVos on their assessment of public education's dead endedness. 

They are correct in noting that students in low-income communities may have less opportunity to hear about certain careers, mostly because there isn't a varied pool of employers in the area. From there they jump to the notion of an "imperative" for local employers to "engage" with schools--except, wait--if the problem is that there aren't many varied local employers then who is doing this engaging? Dammit-- this is an actual problem, but that's no solution. Networking, research, using the internet, staying in contact with students who leave the area, or, and humor me here, going to college without any plan beyond majoring in a subject you like and finding out there what you'd like to do with it. 

Holistic preparation for college and careers in the future of work

This is three paragraphs of argle bargle that walks right up to the edge of that baloney stat about how many jobs of the future don't exist yet. But I think this boils down to "the future of work  in many jobs is a big varied changing field, but we want to be able to measure it with some concrete instrument anyway." Try this paragraph and see what you think:

Research and practice have led to consensus on the different dimensions of readiness all students need for college and future careers. These include academic mastery across a range of subjects, technical training either in a specific field or in cross-cutting skills such as computer literacy, and 21st-century skills such as critical thinking and collaboration. Most states include these in their definitions of college, career, and life readiness, and some elements of these definitions are included in states’ school accountability systems. However, what’s missing are specific systems to develop these skills equitably across all students and ways to measure students’ attainment.

This seems a bit more on point

Too many people will be left out of the future of work. They lack opportunity to develop the critical academic, technical, or cross-cutting skills that allow them to participate in this evolving workforce.

So, the future is big and broad and unclear, but we ought to have a solid set-in-concrete one size fits all measurable program to prepare students for this no size fits all immeasurably broad and varied world. Or maybe students are supposed to be prepared for everything, even though they may have their own ideas about what they want to be prepared for--although you'll notice that student dreams, goals, and preferences are ignored throughout this piece. Everybody should study everything, just in case. And "holistic" is a cool word.

Accountability for establishing and maintaining high-quality pathways to good jobs

You know what? Screw you, CAP. How is this the responsibility of schools and not employers? Yes, CAP calls for employers to get in there and consult and "identify what systemic changes" will be needed, but the main point here is that we need an accountability system to hold schools accountable for how well-employed their graduates are. They're supposed to develop a "seamless pathways from education to training and to good jobs of the future," which harkens back to the old cradle-to-career pipeline. But all the responsibility lands on schools

Accountability systems drive administrator and educator behaviors, so the next generation of accountability systems must provide an incentive to drive behaviors that better prepare students for tomorrow’s workforce.

This also comes with an endnote that takes us to another CAP "report." But God save us from a school system driven by this measure. It's true that when you pick your accountability measures you answer the question, "What is the purpose of this school?" There has to be a better educational answer than "To provide employees for businesses."

It's not just that this narrows the horizon for students. Imagine if we use this yardstick for measuring the offerings of public education. Art? Music? History? Any electives that don't teach job-related skills? In CAP's world, none of that stuff is justifiable.

It's the same old baloney. A narrow view of education that privileged parents would never acept for their own children. Accountability for schools, but not for the politicians who manage the economy or the businesses that set the stage for working conditions. 

After rattling off statistics about low and under-employment for Black and Latinx workers, CAP says "The US education and career training systems should produce better outcomes than they are currently producing." What outcomes? Underemployment? Low wages and few benefits? That--that!--is somehow the fault of schools?? If we get a Democratic administration some day, I hope to God that they ignore anything CAP has to say.