Monday, January 18, 2021

A Really Bad Anti-Public School Analogy

You know I love a good analogy. I spent four decades trying to help people understand one thing by connecting it to some other thing. So I love a good analogy. 

This is not a good analogy.

Nick Freitas is an army vet and Virginia politician, who served in the house of delegates before making a couple of unsuccessful runs for the US Congress (both House and Senate). In his bid for national office, he was backed by folks Rand Paul and Mike Lee, the Club for Growth, and Freedomworks. He has been writing for the ultra-right Daily Wire, where he usually sticks to war and the evils of communism. But this week, he decided to stick his oar into education waters with "We Wouldn't Let Government Control Our Grocery Stores. Why Do We Let Them Control Our Schools?" Transparency requires that I link to the article so you can check my work if you're so inclined, but I'm going to ask you to resist giving this thing any more clicks than you can help. So here's the link.

There are so many things wrong here. But it's worth poking through this pile because it's representative of how the anti-gummint school crowd views the issues.

Freitas opens by reducing the many debates about school to two sides--one side all for "choice and freedom" and  the other side "insists that improved education can only be achieved through strict government control of schools." Well, no, not really. It's not clear what exactly he means by "government control" or "strict," but a lot of straw is going to fly before he's done. We have locally elected school boards, which is government, but their control is not particularly strict in most case. We have oversight on the state and federal level, which is where most of the rules and regulations that he might be upset about come from, but if we were going to have strict control from that level, we'd have lefties arguing to end local school boards and just put schools under direct control of the state or federal government, but the only people I know making anything like those arguments are conservatives. Without traveling too far down this rabbit hole, I'm just going to say that the debate has far more than the two sides he has described, and, in fact, at least one of the sides he has described doesn't really exist.

Anyway, his whole point is to skip over a rehash of old arguments so that we can try his thought experiment.

Rather than rehashing the same old arguments, let us instead engage in a thought exercise regarding government’s involvement in another important aspect of our lives — access to food and nutrition — and see if we can draw some relevant parallels. After all, while access to education is important, it can be argued that access to food is just as important — if not more so. With that in mind, what would happen if we put the government in charge of grocery stores?

We're in trouble already, because public education doesn't provide "access" to education, but rather sets out to provide education to every single child in the US. But lets move on.

For whatever reason, Freitas sets his experiment in the Depression, and asks us to imagine what would happen if "the government decided to set up thousands of grocery stores across the country." He posits that you would suddenly be unable to shop at the store of your choice, but would be assigned a grocery store based on your address. Further, he imagines a government-proscribed "scientific" approach to shopping, and you would be forced to buy according to government recommendations. And you'd have to lobby the government for change, but of course, money talks. Also, of course, the workers at these stores would not be rewarded for excellence, but just seniority. 

So that's the straw man he set up. Let me count the ways.

First, while his "controlled by the government" is a bit vague, grocery stores highlight some of the ways in which government regulation is useful. We shop in grocery stores with a high level of confidence that the food we buy will not poison us and that the store itself meets certain safety standards--"scientific" ones, at that. 

But more importantly, the world of grocery stores provides an excellent demonstration of why a market-based privatized education system is a lousy idea. Freitas is selling freedom and choice and decrying his imaginary government grocery store for imposing choices on citizens, but the marketplace imposes its own choices every day. You can only shop at the grocery stores that are available in your area, and you can only buy the things those stores choose to stock. Now, if you live in a wealthy community, that may be great--you may have a choice of several stores with a vast variety of products to choose from. But the market doesn't provide that for everyone. There are towns in the West where you have to drive 5, 10, 15 miles over to the next town to get groceries. 

And in the US, there is such a thing as a food desert, a community or area that lacks access to affordable or nutritious food. In 2010, the US Department of Agriculture "reported that 23.5 million people in the U.S. live in "food deserts", meaning that they live more than one mile from a supermarket in urban or suburban areas and more than 10 miles from a supermarket in rural areas." Note that one mile to shop for groceries is only "close" if you have a car. 

Bottom line-- the free market world of grocery stores does not provide a cornucopia of choice to all citizens in the country. It provides very fine arrays of choice to communities that are wealthy, and a lousy range of choices--or no choices at all--to communities that aren't. I've made this point roughly a gazillion times now--the "free market" is a wonderful thing, but it's a lousy match for public education because the market is mostly good at picking winners and losers, not just among the businesses, but among customers. Every single functional business model requires businesses to decide which customers they are going to make no attempt to serve, because it won't be worth their time and money to do so. That is not compatible with a mission to provide education for every child.

Public education already has trouble meeting that promise, precisely to the degree that its funding has been infected through the housing market. And the notion that we have government controlled schools that are tightly controlled and carefully managed by some central education planning group is itself absurd. What we have is a bunch of nesting dolls (I know--they're Russian!! Gasp!!) each trying to assert control over the system in an endless tug of war, so that every teacher in a classroom is required to serve a hundred different masters. 

The rest of his argument is the same old anti-public school baloney. The fake "vote with their feet" argument. The "evil unions run everything" argument (always news to the actual evil unions). The "teachers would be free to be rewarded for their expertise" argument, which closely parallels the idea that a rising fast food industry increased pay levels for chefs. Mostly it's the "we must take back control," with very little exploration of what exactly the writer means by "we."

Donors Choose Monday: Small Things

I have been trying to make a regular weekly attempt to give some small support to teachers on Donors Choose, a platform that allows teachers to solicit support for projects in their classroom. Not all schools allow their teachers to participate, and I wish there was a better way to find teachers who deserve a hand, but we work with what we've got.

Sometimes the asks are really small, simple things. The kinds of things that you'd hope school districts would fund themselves, but you already know how that goes. But I'm a big believer that small differences are what really move the needle in this world, especially from the perspective of the students who are getting the help.

So I have some small things for your consideration this week.

In Mount Airy, NC, Mrs. Fletcher is looking for bookmarks for her littles at Franklin Elementary School. It's not a big ask, but it struck a chord-- I remember how much I liked a really cool bookmark to stick in a book I was reading (it is possible that I have not outgrown this). 

In Friendswood, TX, Ms. Gardner is looking for some help funding her cache of classroom treats and prizes for good work. As with many Donors Choose asks, you may be thinking, "Well, hell, all the teachers in the world self-fund their classroom prize store, and I agree. So let Ms. Gardner be a reminder and an inspiration, and help provide some teacher you know with some classroom rewards. And if you don't know a teacher who could use that, then help Ms. Gardner.

Also, I am shocked--okay, not shocked exactly, but disturbed--to see how many teachers are on Donors Choose asking for hand sanitizer, masks, basic PPE. I'm not going to put any of them up, but I am going to suggest that you could easily grab some extra of these items the next time you're shopping, and drop them off at a school near you. Should the school already be providing such things? Absolutely. But the need is still there. My old district stopped buying facial tissue a few decades ago, and many parents got in the habit of just sending a box into school with their child every so often. An absolute godsend.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

ICYMI: Well, Nothing Blew Up This Week Edition (1/17)

Did we just get through a whole week without anything more than whingings based on the willful misunderstanding of the First Amendment and admittedly horrifying details from last week's insurrection? I feel like maybe we're having the equivalent of when someone screams in your ears and then stops but your ears still keep ringing. Or maybe my brain has just reached an overload stage and something horrible happened this week, again, and I've simply blocked it out. If that's the case, you can disillusion me in the comments (I'd rather have truth than comfort).

At any rate, I have some stuff for you. And I promise you something beautiful and encouraging at the bottom of the page.

A Look At The Biden Education Team

Thomas Ultican runs us through all the players in the Biden education sector. A thorough look. 

State Disinvestment after Great Recession  

This is not beautiful. The Education Law Center crunched some numbers, and they figure that post-2008 states underfunded public education to the tune o0f about $600 billion. This article has a link to the full report, if you're feeling tough enough to read it. 

Education Still Top Issue in Arizona   

Arizona is getting more interesting all the time--solid red, except for the people they elect lately. And still screwing over public education even as surveys like this indicate that the voters want something else.

Private school vouchers back on state legislative agenda  

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution writes about how Georgia is back to pushing school vouchers, an oft-defeated proposal, but we're going to give it another try because Covid.

Well, That's a Special Kind of Dumb  

As long as we're touring states, let's check in with Dad Gone Wild to see what Gov. Lee is up to with silly education bills in Tennessee.

Use of CARES funding by cyber charter schools in question  

In Pennsylvania, The Citizens' Voice is wondering how cyber-charters managed to play the double dip game with relief funds yet again. They're public schools! They're private businesses! They're whatever will get them a check.

School Finance Indicators Database  

"Often imitated but never duplicated," courtesy of the Albert Shanker Institute and Rutgers Graduate School of Education, it's a big mountain of curated and collected data about school funding. 

Why Billions in Food Aid Hasn't Gotten To Needy Families  

Anya Kamanetz at NPR looks at how red tape is keeping so many students and their families hungry

These Textbooks In Thousands of K-12 Schools Echo Trump's Talking Points  

Okay, it's Huffington Post, so the headline's a little clickbaity. But it's Rebecca Klein, who specializes in the many ways that school choice has been used to finance schools of Christianist nationalism and assorted anti-science baloney.

Why doesn't increasing knowledge improve reading achievement [sic]?

Shanahan on literacy, and the actual question he's asking is "why doesn't increased knowledge raise reading test scores?" The resulting article has a subtext contrasting the goals of  "raising test scores" and "building a better life."

Books of 2020

Nancy Flanagan has her list of big books from last year. If you're looking for something to pick up...

Grendel should not have rampaged through our capitol, but slaying him will only further divide the clans

Lit nerd political humor from McSweeney's

And I promised you something encouraging. This is from last spring, but I missed it at the time. It's a music video written and produced by a student and her friend, involving students from across eleven states. There are references to "September" which make it a little bittersweet (ah, how young and hopeful we all were last spring), but it's still a great piece of work.

Make the World Better from EL Education on Vimeo.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Moral Distress and Teaching

 I've run across this new-to-me term several times in the past few months-- moral distress. It wasn't developed for the teaching profession, but lots of teachers are going to recognize what is being described here.

Andrew Jameton gets most of the credit for drawing the moral distress picture, looking at the world of nursing. This piece from the AMA Journal of Ethics lays out his ideas pretty succinctly and points the way to broadening them. Here's the basic definition:

Moral distress, according to Andrew Jameton’s highly influential definition, occurs when a nurse knows the morally correct action to take but is constrained in some way from taking this action.

This is immediately recognizable for anyone who has been in the teaching world for the past few decades. "Stop teaching all those full literary works," some of us were told, "and start drilling these short excerpts with multiple choice questions instead." Pull these kids out of their electives and put them in test prep classes instead. Stop worrying about their education and their life after school, and start worrying about their test scores instead. 

Honestly, moral distress in teaching can't be blamed solely on education reform. There have always been those moments. The time a supervisor told you that you needed to stop counting spelling for a student's work--including his spelling tests. The students you were required to pass because the front office wanted that kid out of there. I was in a meeting with a special ed supervisor once, debating the scores for a student in my class, and I lost my cool and snapped, "Look, why don't you tell me what grade you expect the student to get in my class, and I'll just fudge the numbers to get that." Without a hint of irony, she told me that would be very helpful. Beyond the special events, most teachers carry in a dark corner of their heart the catalog of times that they failed to provide a student what she needed.

So, yeah, the moral tensions of teaching have always been present. But ed reform ramped the whole business up by creating a set of goals that teachers know are wrong. Working the student over until she spits out the test score that the school administration wants from her--that's not what anybody went into teaching to do. 

This article lays out three stages of moral distress--indignation, resignation, acclimation. It strikes me that those of us who made ourselves barely-sufferable over the past many years simply never moved on beyond indignation, though I suppose a certain amount of acclimation is necessary in order to get things done.

I wrestled often, particular in the last decade or two of my career, with the stress of being required to do things that I knew were simply educational malpractice. Some, like coaching students to do the kind of writing that makes for high test scores, were not just about NOT teaching the right things, but actively teaching wrong things, things that would never be of any use to the student. For most of my career, my growth as a teacher was about pushing out against my own limits, finding ways to get one more ball in the air each year. The last few years, I felt stymied-- I was no longer getting one more ball in the air, but was trying to figure out how to lose as few balls as possible (har) because my administration was requiring me to carry an anvil at the same time.

"Well, just refuse," is common advice offered by people (specifically, people who don't teach). But it's tiring to go and fight every day, to fend off an angry dog with one hand while trying to engage positively with students with the other hand. And refusing is insubordination, which puts your job on the line. And so you keep computing the moral calculus, the complicated four arm balance between then good you can do while you're there, just how bad the requirement is, how well you can mitigate the damage, which choice will let you keep looking in the mirror. 

Right now teachers are struggling with a different moral distress as they are confronted with the demand to Get Back To Work (as if distance learning isn't work) even if the school's conditions haven't been improved one iota since this pandemess started. 

I don't know of any particular solution for moral distress beyond making choices that you can personally, morally live with. But now you've got a name for it. 

Friday, January 15, 2021

PA: Chester Upland School District On Verge of Charterization

I don't usually do this, but I've spent a ton of time working on a piece about a PA school district that is on the verge of making history by becoming the first district in the state to be fully charterized. It's a big complicated story, but it hits on many of the classic problems. The charter funding death spiral. The long term effects of de facto segregation; this school district shares a border with one of the wealthiest, top-rated districts in the state. 

And while we're all listening to testocrats argue that the spring test must be given because that's how states identify need and target resources--well, Chester Upland test scores have been screaming "help us" for a long time, and the state hasn't sent jack or squat in targeted resources--just a long string of disruptive, failed takeover attempts. 

So this is a story that's important and worth reading, and I'm hoping you'll click on over and take a look while it's still fresh

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

AZ: Teachers Slapped Yet Again

Arizona is one of a handful of states that owe a debt to Florida; were it not for the Sunshine State, Arizona would be a strong contender for State Most Hostile To Public Education. And now their governor is sticking it to teachers yet again.

Arizona has a long-standing problem with convincing teachers to work there; they are one of the states that was recruiting folks from the Philipines to fill teacher positions. Their teacher pay stinks, and their actual money spent on students stinks as well (in 2015, per pupil spending was at $3400). Governor Ducey turned to public education demolition experts like Paul Pastorek (obliterator in chief of New Orleans schools) and Joel Klein. 

Arizona is a great playground for charter profiteers (just gut public schools to make privatized options more attractive). They have long hemorrhaged teachers from their workforce, even as they keep electing lawmakers like the GOP House Leader who claimed that teachers were only working second jobs so they could buy boats and bigger houses. They tried and failed at merit pay for teachers. Oh, and they're one of those states that fake-dumped the Common Core.

So it should not have been a surprise in 2018 when the state's teachers put on their Red4Ed shirts and walked out in staggeringly large numbers. It had a large-but-not-large-enough-to-replace-the-governor impact. And it made some GOPpies like Kelly Townsend mad enough to try to slap a gag rule on teachers across the state (after trying to sue them). 

But Gov. Ducey was pushed to at least admit out loud what was obvious from the facts and figures--Arizona's teacher pay sucks. In fact, back in 2018 he was promising a 20% raise spread over three years. That didn't happen. That half-assed attempt at a serious raise was still better than the latest proposal.

Ducey just announced that "it's time for a raise for Arizona teachers."

His budget proposal called for a teacher raise of 2% over 5 years. 

Also, somewhere in there he threw in some threats about how the state would only pay schools for butts in seats--none of that distance learning stuff. His office tried to clarify that Ducey just meant that if students changed their enrollment to a different school (AZ is an open enrollment state), the money would follow the student, which is how things normally work there anyway, so why highlight it in the State of the State address. For educators, it sounded like a threat, and that seems like a correct read. Because everyone knows that distance teaching is like being on vacation. SMH.

But back to that raise. 0.4% raise per year? It seems kind of like a joke. Well, not a joke. A deliberate insult, like leaving a dime as your tip at the restaurant. 

Ducey also took a speechifiying swipe at Prop 208, a measure passed last November that funds teacher raises by putting a tax on income over $250,000. Ducey has indicated that high taxes make rich people sad and he would like to lower them. 

Maybe it's not fair to say that Arizona's leaders are hostile to public education, but they certainly aren't serious about supporting it or strengthening it, and they certainly do come up with lots of ways to express disrespect for the teachers who work in public education. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Did DeVos Get A Raw Deal

In today's National Review, Rick Hess is suggesting that Betsy DeVos got a raw deal, that attacks on her "have taken a torch to the basic standards of public discourse and democratic civility." 

Hess acknowledges some of the issues surrounding her as legit ones:

During her tempestuous tenure in office, DeVos evoked strong feelings among her critics. Many disagreed vehemently with her views on school choice, religious freedom, and government regulation. They profusely criticized her talk of “factory-model government schools” and often deemed her ill-prepared for the role. Many thought she should never have agreed to serve under Trump, or else should have resigned in response to his earlier provocations. These complaints are legitimate and fair grounds for tough-minded debate.

But Hess finds attacks on DeVos go above and beyond that, and often "curiously unmoored from what she has actually done in office." Here he has a bit of a point. DeVos somehow entered popular culture pictured as a fool and a dope; I've argued before that while it may be fun to imagine DeVos as the dimmest kid in class (you may have seen the "Dere Mr. Presidne I resine" meme floating about), I don't think it's a particular fair or accurate caricature of her.

Hess also hints at another argument in DeVos's favor when he alleges that most of her critics can't actually point to awful things she's done. She messed with Title IX rules. She cut the Office of Civil Liberties off at the knees. She consistently sided with predatory for-profit colleges over defrauded students (you've probably already forgotten her plan to sic the IRS on borrowers). But many of her noteworthy actions were notable for her failure, like her repeatedly thwarted attempts to steer extra stimulus dollars to private schools, just part of the DeVos Ed Department's record-breaking 455 lawsuits

It did not help that she was uniformly terrible at articulating her ideas. Arne Duncan may have stunk as a secretary of education, but he could, occasionally, sound like a guy with a vision. From her terrible confirmation hearing appearance to her terrible 60 Minutes interview to her various terrible Congressional hearing appearances, DeVos showed that thirty years of practicing checkbook politics really doesn't prepare you to make your case to people who are not either already in agreement or hope to be beholden to you. She was the queen of the non-answer, which added to the myth of her dopiness. I've argued before that the real explanation is some combination of her checkbook advocacy past and her conservative Christianist faith. She was also a good soldier for Trump, and spent some time looking at the underside of the bus; the annual theatrics of an education budget that zeroed out the Special Olympics budget which she would dutifully defend until Trump stepped in to un-zero it, all of which smells very much like the standard Trumpian arsonist firefighter shtick, where he would create a problem so that he could heroically solve it. 

But let's face it. Far fewer people were interested in understanding DeVos when it was easier to just hate her.

Hess wants to argue that she was a mostly-unknown outside-the-box candidate that was held to a double standard; he suggests that Miguel Cardona is not being held accountable for Connecticut schools in the same way DeVos was blamed for Michigan and Detroit's schools. But there is no double standard there. Cardona has barely been in office a year. Hess argues that DeVos never held a position of authority in Michigan, but that's disingenuous--DeVos spent decades using her fortune to bend Michigan lawmakers to her will. Remember this classic DeVos quote on her family's political spending:

I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect some things in return.

Betsy DeVos deserves plenty of blame for her failed experiments in Michigan.

Was that enough reason for folks (at least folks outside of Michigan) to take such an intense dislike to her? Probably not. But DeVos engendered plenty of ill will on her own.

She was a fine example of the outsider myth. In a soft, fuzzy exit interview with Hess, she said that because she didn't know all the things "you 'can't do'" she came in with "fresh eyes and a laser focus on rethinking the ways we approach all aspects of work at the department." It's a pretty thought, but as many folks pointed out early on, DeVos was spectacularly unqualified for the job-- had never held down a real adult job, never spent time in a public school, never run a large organization, and the ones she had run she ran via her fortune and political clout, so she'd never had to sell an idea to a boss or a peer. I say that not to argue she's a terrible person, but to point out that these, plus the general insulation of living one's entire life swaddled in wealth, meant there was no reason to think she had any of the skills needed for the job. "outsider status," is not a qualification. I don't want my brain surgery performed by someone who has "fresh eyes" because they have spent all their time outside the medical field.

DeVos never disguised her contempt for public education, for the "government schools" that she views as a "dead end," and she repeatedly struck out against the "education cabal" or even the "unholy mob." There were some attempts to at least look interested in public schools, like trading visits with Randi Weingarten, or her disastrous visit to a DC school where she criticized teachers for being in "receiver mode." But mostly she conveyed the message that there wasn't anything she didn't know about public schools that she needed to know. She called education an industry, compared it to Ubers and food trucks, and just showed in a thousand little ways that she doesn't get it. She became noted for her smug smirk, and although I've been a pretty dedicated DeVos tracker for these years, I can't turn up a moment of humility or an admission that she had anything to learn; certainly, like her boss, she's not one to say, "I made a mistake." 

Perhaps DeVos is in part the victim of really bad timing. At this point, teachers and other actual education professionals have just about had it with well-heeled well-connected amateurs swooping in to say, "I don't really know anything about how your job works, but I am still going to tell you all about the many ways you suck," and she seemed like the ultimate unvarnished personification of that attitude. So maybe she's taking the heat for a lot of other people. 

She became identified with that smug smirk (less in evidence the longer she was in office) and a quality that looks, at least to me, like the classic Christian "I am in the world, but not of it" stance, but comes across as an aloof elitism. When she claimed her resignation was an act of protest, not cowardice, maybe educators should have given her the benefit of the doubt, but why would they--she has never given them that benefit, never, in fact , suggested that she had an ounce of doubt in her belief that public education should be dismantled and replaced with religious private schools. She has been clear--the folks who work in public education are the enemy.  

All of that can, I think, explain the vitriol directed at her. I'm not going to try to argue that it justified it--that takes us down a whole other dark philosophical road. But I will make one more observation. There is an obvious power differential between cabinet-level officials of the federal government and, say, classroom teachers. DeVos was in the leadership role; the job of setting a tone for her relationship with the education world was with her. She could have made critics, like me, eat our words by working hard to understand the landscape, learning about public schools, offering support, even just using language that built bridges. She could have displayed grace and humility. Instead she used the bully pulpit to punch down. Civility requires more than thinly veiled insults issued through clenched teeth. 

Yes, given her disdain for everything that she was set in charge of, DeVos did remarkably little real damage during her tenure; her ineffectiveness mitigated her worse instincts. And yes, Trump could have put Ivanka or Eric or his favorite pretzel vendor in charge of the department so maybe we didn't live through the worst possible scenario. But Betsy DeVos came to DC to break things with a smile on her face and self-righteousness in her heart, and if those things decided to push back against being broken, well, that seems only right and well-earned.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Donors Choose Monday: Ukuleles

 Okay, this has turned out to be more sporadic than I originally planned. Bt I'm still committed to making regular attempts to supporting public school teachers in small ways (beyond just yapping about policy issues). Yes, Donors Choose sometimes includes requests for funding that absolutely should be coming from the local district, and no, I don't have any way of checking to see if the teacher is an admirable professional and not a putz. That's all right-- I'm still going to keep doing it, and encouraging you to join me. 

Teachers should have support and assistance, and Donors Choose remains a not-bad way to do that. So.

This week I've picked a school in the Waynesboro, VA system. Wenonah Elementary is a Title I school and Ms. Gilmer is a first year music teacher who is trying to round up a set of ukuleles. I am a sucker for ukes, though I can't play myself, and for programs that give students a chance to become musicians, a skill that can enrich the entire rest of their lives. Don't care if it raises test scores, and I don't care if it's not on employers' list of in-demand skills. Being able to make music is a life-altering existence-improving activity, and ukes are a great tool for elementary kids.

So you can go to this page and chip in. Doesn't have to be a lot, but it's an easy way to support a new teacher and her students.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

ICYMI: Well Aren't We Off To A Grand Start Edition (1/10)

Well, that was a week, wasn't it. What a hellacious shitshow (sorry, Mom). But despite the the dumpster fire burning brighter than ever, we still have things to read, because while governments may rise and fall and grind to a halt and play stupid games with stupid insurrectionists, you know what still keeps on keepin' on? The post office and public schools.

Republican Cowards Betsy DeVos and Ted Cruz  

Yes, there's tons to read about Betsy DeVos on her way out, and you've probably read all of it, but you might have missed this take from the politics editor at TeenVogue, the surprise source of solid political commentary these past four years. No punches pulled.

Betsy DeVos's Greatest Hits

Okay, just one more. Valerie Strauss at Washington Post has a nice synopsis of DeVosian specialtude over the past four years. 

Will pandemic impact further reduce teacher pipeline?

Maureen Dowd in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, saying nothing that will surprise you, but with details and reporting to make it a little more real.

You literally just did history

Chalkbeat talks to Colorado's teacher of the year about teaching in times that get extra interesting.

Stupid and Clumsy from Grief  

Lisa Eddy blogs about her week. It's personal and moving and a fine piece of writing.

Voucher Vultures Face FBI Raid  

While other things have been happening, the FBI raided some members of the TN House GOP over a plot to pass Gov. Lee's voucher scheme in 2019. Andy Spears has the story.

Do schools spread Covid

For a change of pace, try this reasonably balanced look at what we know, courtesy of Matt Barnum at Chalkbeat.

Reform PA cyber charter authorization and funding

Eric Wolfgang with an op-ed in the Courier Times, repeating what we all know-- PA's cyber-school rules need to be overhauled with a flamethrower.

Reforming Educational Authority

Andy Smarick is a reformster, but he's also a classic conservative and as such brings some interesting ideas to the table. You'll disagree with parts of this, and it's not a short easy read, but it's a useful perspective on what has happened to the way we run school systems.

Unlearn Chait's False Opinion About Charters

Jonathan Chait once again was given space to unleash his opinion about charter schools (without any accompanying caveat that his wife is a charterista). D. Julian Vasquez Heilig pointed out the many problems with Chait's piece, using the clever weapon of actual facts.

ExamSoft's proctoring software has a face-detection problem  

Yet more crappy student surveillance software in action. The Verge has the story. Three guesses what sort of faces the software has trouble with.

The Ridiculousness of Learning Loss

John Ewing at Forbes with a fully-exasperated explanation of why the learning loss panic is bunk.

Kafka Narrates My Online Teaching Experience

From the New Yorker. You can use a laugh this week.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Watch Out: K12 Has Changed Its Name

Back in November, when most of us were pre-occupied with a few other things, K12, Inc, the giant cyber-school company, went and gave itself a new name-- Stride, Inc. The rebranding came with some new acquisitions, but underneath it all, K12 is its same old self.

K12 is a big fat for-profit cyber-edu-biz operation-- in fact, the biggest and fattest. They were founded by Goldman-Sachs banker and McKinsey alum Ronald Packer with financial backing from junk bond king Michael Milken, who Wikipedia calls "convicted felon, financier and philanthropist (and, fun fact, he was pardoned by Donald Trump in February of 2020). Andrew Tische (Loews) and Larry Elison (Oracle) also tossed some venture capital in the kitty. Oh, and Dick DeVos, too. K12 was launched in 2000, with William Bennett as the public-facing face of the company. Packer is still the CEO of the company.

You'll note that  none of the top names in the company have actual education expertise, but that's okay, because K12 is a for-profit company that sells an education-flavored product, not an actual school.

Over the years, K12 has been caught in all manner of naughty behavior. Here's a fairly brutal shot they took from the New York Times way back in December of 2011 detailing how K12's schools are failing miserably, but still making investors and officers a ton of money. Former teachers routinely write tell-alls about their experience, like this more recent guest piece on Anthony Cody's blog. In 2012. Florida caught them using fake teachers. The NCAA put K12 schools on the list of cybers that were disqualified from sports eligibility. In 2014, Packard turned out to be one of the highest paid public workers in the country (as in, people paid with tax dollars) in the country, "despite the fact that only 28% of K12 schools met state standards in 2011-2012."

That low level of achievement is the norm-- so much the norm that even the bricks and mortar sector of the charter world pointed out that cyber-schools are deeply terrible. In Pennsylvania, K12 (like all our other cybers) has never earned a satisfactory rating. But what cybers do have going for them is the huge amount of charter lobbying money being spent in Harrisburg. In fact, K12 and Connections have spent more money on Harrisburg than on any other state in the union. That might fit in with the same discussion involving PA being the most cyber-friendly state in the union.

The election of Trump in 2016 fed some investor exuberance in the cyber sector, with K12 showing fairly spectacular growth. By which I mean stock value growth--their actual attempts to educate students and behave ethically were as bad as ever. Earlier that same year they got in yet another round of trouble in California for lying about student enrollment, and during the Trump years they still had trouble keeping all of their schools open. And they even had one school staff unionize. In 2017, they made Kevin Chavous President of Academics, Policy and Schools; Chavous a former politician, helped launch DFER, served on the board of Betsy DeVos's American Federation for Children, and helped Bobby Jindahl whip up a voucher plan for New Orleans.

The pandemic has obviously been a help to K12, but still--well, they landed a big lucrative contract in Miami-Dade county (after a big lucrative contribution to an organization run by the superintendent) and made such a technomess out of it that Wired magazine wrote a story about their "epic series of tech errors."

So why rebrand now?

The company PR says that Stride, Inc, reflects its "continued growth into lifelong learning" regardless of students' ages or locations. The company has already acquired Tech Elevator, a coding bootcamp provider, and MedCerts, which does certification training for healthcare and medical fields. Meanwhile, the K12 portion of the business had been renamed Fuel Education, and is now K12 Learning Solutions. The whole shuffling was done, according to a spokesperson, "to further simplify the brand structure and to better align with the company's core K-12 offerings." Totally nothing to do with criticism of the brand by, well, everyone. 

And they are still bearing down hard on their primary product, and by "primary product" I mean "marketing." Here's the Valdosta Daily Times running, unchecked, a piece about an EdChoice (you know--the choice-promoting advocacy group that used to be the Friedman Foundation, as in Milton Friedman) survey discovering that 70% of parents think online learning is awesome (news to the hoards of folks demanding that school buildings reopen) and going on to cite the awesomeness of Stride products specifically. Here's an actual paragraph from an alleged news story:

“What the coronavirus pandemic has laid bare is our nation’s dire need for more effective online learning options,” said Jeanna Pignatiello, Stride’s Senior Vice President and Chief Academic Officer. “Thousands of students, families, teachers, and school districts across the country have turned to Stride K12-powered schools to find high-quality, personalized learning solutions that meet their needs during this unprecedented time. And the evidence is clear—these are programs that work.”

Meanwhile, the new Stride website promises "Inspired learners. Empowered educators. Prospering partners." Want to place bets on which one of the three they will actually deliver?

So if you hear about Stride, Inc, in your neighborhood, be aware that it is the same old K12 wolf in a swiftly stitched-together set of sheep suits, with far less interest in actually educating students than in grabbing some of those sweet, sweet tax dollars. 

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Betsy DeVos Bails Out

Well, she finally had enough.

DeVos blamed Trumpian rhetoric for the riots, called it an "inflection point" for her, and became one more GOP Trump-fluffer to suddenly discover her shock and outrage for exactly the same kind of shit that he's been doing for four years. I mean, there's something deeply disingenuous about watching someone throw gasoline and matches around for four years and only getting all pearl clutchy and knicker twisty when the completely predictable fire actually starts.  

She also said "Impressionable children are watching all of this, and they are learning from us. I believe we each have a moral obligation to exercise good judgement and model the behavior we hope they would emulate." Which is as true today as it was when President Pussy-grabber talked about shithole countries and very fine people on both sides. It's an odd time to suddenly grow scruples. But at this point, I guess the wounded lame duck can't really do anything for her. The full letter can be read here. It actually starts with another rehearsal of her "accomplishments" as ed secretary.

She helped build this. She stroked his ego, gave him credit for having a hand in education policies when he mostly ignored the department. She is just one of the many enablers who taught him that he need not consider the consequences of his actions, words, behavior, ever. Walking away now with a sudden attack of ethical whirlies doesn't change the work she's done over years to build up this circus.

When you make a deal with the devil, sooner or later the bill comes due. DeVos signed up for this clusterfest because she smelled a chance to make her policies everybody's policies. Is  she now hedging her bets? Ducking out before she gets asked to exercise the 25th amendment? Trying to avoid possible accountability for any of this mess? Getting out before someone asks her to actually do something to clean up the mess? Just bothered that rioting mobs are declasse? Who knows.

At any rate, she's gone, a whole 13 days ahead of schedule and a whole four years too late. It will have virtually no effect on anything, other than adding to the picture of rats deserting a sinking ship. If only the ship weren't the US government. 

Becky Pringle said, "Her complicity, cowardice, and complete incompetence will be her legacy." But Randi Weingarten was pithier, with "Good riddance."

I know the news will be all over the eduverse, but I want to make sure you don't miss it. The MAGAs will call her a traitor; she'll never hear them from the comfy confines of her vast mansions, where she'll sit and figure out how to get back to the business of dismantling public education. She's not going away, but at least she won't be running the federal ed department any more. Hasta la vista, baby.

In Seattle, A Tough Back To School Choice

Seattle's school board made a decision, just a few weeks ago, to re-open face-to-face school for pre-K, kindergarten, some special ed, and 1st grade students. It's a good example of the kinds of re-opening challenges that parents and teachers are facing, the kind of thing that is being pushed out as a "plan" by a major district.

Parents received an e-mail inviting them to complete a "survey" and commit themselves to either continuing at-home instruction via computer, or sending their child back for in-person learning on March 1st.

The e-mail was sent out January 5th. The decision must be made by January 10th. 

The e-mail includes a link to a FAQ page that is not, well, as helpful as it might be. For one thing, the tone is perhaps not unpleasant, but certainly brusque. For instance, on the matter of the deadline.

Can I change my decision after March 1?

The decision a family makes by January 10 will continue through the end of the 2020-21 school year.

What if I change my mind before March 1?

January 10 is the deadline so staff can begin to finalize logistics and schedules. If you have completed the survey but change your mind prior to January 10, please retake the survey before the closing date.

Some of it is just unclear. If you were facing this decision, you'd probably want to know how many people your child would be sharing a classroom with, but the answer to the question "how large will the classes be" isn't really an answer:

Kindergarten and first grade classrooms will support a 1:15 teacher-student ratio.

Okay-- but a classroom with six hundred students and forty teachers would fit that criterium. Preschoolers are promised a maximum group size of 6-10.

Will classrooms of students interact during the day? "All classroom cohorts will stay together throughout the day," is, again, not actually an answer. Lunch will be eaten in the classroom. Classrooms will have less furniture, but will remain "joyful and engaging." The district is working with architectural firms to create "cohort zones." Some plexiglass shields are now installed in the offices. They're still trying to figure out phys ed class and other specials.

Testing? Well. no. SPS will do health screening by "attestation" which is fancy talk for "put everyone on the honor system" and also for "a clever way to cover the district's legal butt." The health screening will be some version of parents and staff filing a statement saying "I swear that I'm perfectly healthy, as far as I know." This won't help when someone is asymptomatic, but it will help if anybody tries to sue the district for creating spreading events.

Busing? Students will wear masks and the windows will be open or "adjusted as much as possible to maximize outside air flow." When the bus gets back to the main lot, it will be wiped down. 

Will teachers be vaccinated? Again, a non-answer answer that the state health department has scheduled teachers for Phase 2 vaccination. Will that be before March 1? Who knows. But the district will provide teachers with masks. 

Meanwhile, the district is hiring 80 more custodians and two cleaning services. Three times a day wipedowns of "high touch" surfaces. And they say they've done evaluations and upgrades on all the HVAC systems and filtration. 

So the plan is one part actual plan, and a few parts a stated intention to have a plan that meets certain criteria but which doesn't actually exist yet. And parents have until Sunday to decide if they're okay with this, or not. 

It has some gaping holes, and while many districts had the same gaping holes last March, school leaders should be getting smarter about this stuff. Like, what's the protocol if a teacher or student becomes symptomatic during the day? What's the protocol if a class or a member of a class has been exposed to someone who tests positive? What has the district done about the huge increased need for staffing? For instance, if one first grade class becomes two (one in the building and one distance), do they intend to do the right thing and have a separate teacher for each? What's the substitute teacher situation look like? And, of course, what if community spread is bad in Seattle on March 1 (and teachers haven't been vaccinated yet)?

It's not the worst plan I've seen. The district just up the road from me just decided to go back in the building full time starting next week, and if you want to talk about a plan that is not actually a plan and having no contingencies for anything, they're right on top of it. 

And the need for a firm commitment from parents is understandable from a planning perspective. But if parents change their minds after the deadline, it's not clear to me what a district could do or how they can win the inevitable lawsuits. Maybe that's why their answer to "what if I change my mind" is so vague and off-point--because they know the real answer is "If you change you're mind, we'll have to let you do it, but boy will it be a big pain in our institutional tush." And it looks like that tush is in some pain already. We'll see how it feels on January 11.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

About Teachers4OpenSchools

You may have run across a shiny new group on line that is agitating for teachers to be back in the classroom-- Teachers4OpenSchools.

The arguments are the usual ones, from the legitimate concern about mental health to the learning loss baloney. There's not much of anything new here, and not the kind of balance we find in a piece like this one.  But I'm always curious about these little pop-up goups, and the website is pretty opaque about who, exactly, is happening here. But poking around the site, I found two teachers who are apparently acting at least as spokespersons for the group.

One is NYC teacher Stephanie Edmonds, who runs the Youtube channel Class Disruption, where you can find vidcasts like this one, in which she explains what Ibram X. Kendi gets wrong about equity issues and also describes how lefties like emotional language "that may not exactly align with reality" while righties prefer reason and statistics and things that reflect reality (though she "doesn't subscribe" to the whole left-right thing). Power. Vibe. She's a little rambly. She was the president of her college's Libertarian Club. She wants unity and the media is hurting it. She's a history teacher who uses the 1776 unites materials. She has a very distinctive voice, sometimes. She's been a teacher since the fall of 2016.

Her compatriot is Catherine Barrett. We've encountered Barrett before, as a teacher voice on the Speak Out For Teachers website. Barrett a few years back was part of #RedforEd in Arizona until she became a GOP political operative for Doug Ducey, attacking the #RedforEd movement. She also turned up as chair of a group pushing a Classroom Code of Ethics in Arizona, proposed gag rule for teachers in the wake of #RedforEd; that proposal turned out not be an Arizona thing, but an anti-teacher move cooked up by activist David Horowitz and pushed out across the country. Speak Out For Teachers is a creation of the Center for Union Facts, a part of the bunch of dark money conservative groups run by Richard Berman, who  takes a scrappy win ugly approach to fighting unions. 

Right now Speak Out For Teachers is featuring on its page big bold letters proclaiming "Teachers Want To Get Back In The Classroom But unions are standing in the way."

So how did Edmonds and Barrett get together? Well, Edmonds has a big internet footprint, and Barrett is well-connected, so anything's possible. The stated goals of Teachers4OpenSchools are kind of rambly, from getting all schools open to empowering teachers to making a more equitable education system. And they acknowledge there is not a one-size-fits-all solution, though apparently their range of possible solutions does not include keeping buildings closed. 

There may be an argument to be made for opening some schools for some time under certain community conditions with certain supports and resources, but Teachers4OpenSchools doesn't look like the group to make it. 

Sunday, January 3, 2021

MO: GOP Rep Tells Teachers To Take A Hike

So here's a jolly exchange from Twitter on Saturday.

That's Justin Hill, a Missouri GOP rep from the 108th district, showing his love and support for teachers in his state. He was a cop before running for office, so you'd think he'd know something about public service, but maybe not so much.

He's had a few ideas to offer before. While the Missouri legislature was working on some Covid relief, Hill decided to complain about feeding school students:

“Our school districts have become glorified lunch rooms,” said Rep. Justin Hill, R-St. Charles. “They’re not educating children, but they certainly are going to get money to hand out free food.”

The bill would give $75 million for the School Nutrition Services Program to reimburse schools for school food programs.

“This is an embarrassment,” Hill continued. “This is such an embarrassment; I am ashamed to even be having a vote for $75 million in food. When we have children sitting at home and their parents are at work, the children are playing, frickin’ Minecraft or whatever at home, and they’re not getting an education.”

Hill's not a fan of spending tax dollars. He also hung out with the Save Our Country Coalition, a hyper-right group formed by ALEC, FreedomWorks and Tea Party Patriots and headed by Art Laffer, famous wacky economist. Last fall, Hill joined that group in opposing federal spending to help prop up states.

Hill is himself an ALEC member (in 2018, he was their Legislator of the Year), and his runs for office have been backed by folks like Reed "School Boards Should Be Abolished" Hastings and the Missouri Club for Growth, plus David Craig Humphreys (a well-heeled MO businessman). And he's one of the reality-defying legislators still cheering on the January 67 challenge to Presidebnt-elect Biden's defeat of Beloved Leader, and is filing a resolution in the MO House calling on other states to investigate the imaginary fraud.

So as you might guess, that terse response to Ms. Piper (who is no stranger to some political wrassling) was not a one-off, and the conversation didn't get much better. Responding to another teacher, Hill argued that "everyone is struggling" and teachers shouldn't complain "especially while many are being paid while not working." Then this:

It's excellent advice, since many Missouri teachers make less than folks working in retail. The state has a mandated $25K starting salary, and many school districts barely beat that seriously low bar. The bar might be so low in part because it hasn't been raised in fifteen years; Missouri teachers leaving the profession (or the state) cite the lousy pay as a big reason. Missouri consistently ranks near the bottom of states for average pay, and is next-to-last (thanks, Oklahoma) in starting pay. And as you can see, legislators like Hill are really, deeply concerned about this issue. 

Piper, for her part, responded to the t-shirt post with a cheery "You bet." You can order this shirt on Etsy right now:

The New York Times Adds One Plus One And Gets Three

You might have been excited yesterday if you saw a New York Times editorial board headline talking about "The Wreckage Betsy DeVos Leaves Behind" and thought that maybe, for a change, the greyest lady was going to stands up for public education. 

But then you read it.


There is much that they get right. They open by noting that the department has not just failed, but refused to lead, during the pandemic. It's a cruel irony that Covid arrived during the administration of folks who think that government should not do anything, ever, including helping keep its citizens alive. 

They also correctly note that there is a lot of undoing to undo, specifically in the area of civil rights protections where, again, it was DeVos's devout belief that government should not ever be helpful. 

They note a "striking" contract between DeVos and Cordona, offering the understatement "Ms. DeVos had almost no experience in public education and was clearly disinterested in the department's mission."

Then the board barrels boldly into the weeds.

They accept the NWEA's baloney pronouncements on "learning loss" as gospel, and from there it's just a short step to the usual arguments about why we must get back to the Big Standardized Test right away, because how else will anyone know how the students are doing. The board wants to gather data so that "the country" can "allocate educational resources strategically," except that is not what "the country" does ever, and as always, a good way to find out how students are doing is to ask actual teachers.

I am continually amazed at this argument, because what the heck do people think teachers do every fall? Seriously. Do they imagine that teachers just assume that all their new students know X, Y and Z because it's in the curriculum. Do folks imagine that teachers spend the weeks before school poring over BS Test results to learn where their students are? Because, no-- mostly the test results aren't available yet and because teachers are forbidden to see the actual question, all they get is the test manufacturer's "analysis" of the results, which is mostly hugely broad and unhelpful. 

No, in the fall, teachers use a large array of formal and informal assessments to figure out student's individual weaknesses and strengths. Teachers do this daily, and then they keep doing it all year. This remains one of the great, silly fictions of the BS Test--that the results are useful to teachers who would be lost without them. In reality, the BS Test is like a guy who shows up at the office of a general who is commanding thousands of troops on dozens of fronts and this guy--this guy shows up with a pop gun and announces, "I am here to win this war for you." 

The NYT board then swings back out of the weeds by noting that DeVos's affectionate support of predatory for-profit colleges was a bad thing and the new guy should get back to holding career-prep schools accountable for actually prepping people for careers.

The board remains firmly on the wrong side of testing. Let's hope the new secretary doesn't listen to them.

ICYMI: So I Guess This Is A New Year Edition (1/3)

 I'm not sure I've ever felt less enamored of our habit of celebrating the passing of an arbitrary line in the sand that we drew ourselves, but it's not the most terrible human activity, either, so carry on. Also cross your fingers and say a prayer for everyone going back to school tomorrow. In the meantime, here's some reading from the week.

The Bloom's Deception  

Greg Ashman challenges some common thoughts about the beloved taxonomy. Are higher orders really more important?

Remember This Year

Audrey Watters does a version of her annual review of the year piece, pulling no punches as always, and reminding us about ed tech amnesia.

An Idiot's Guide To the Philosophy of Education (Part 3)

Othmar's Trombone has been quiet for a while, but this week he popped back up continuing his series of irreverent looks at key philosophers of education, so here you go.

Yes, Virginia

This is a cool little piece about the annually celebrated girl who wrote That Letter and received That Reply. Turns out she grew up to be a teacher.

Pandemic Offers Opportunity to Reduce Standardized Testing  

That Josh Starr, CEO of PDK International, would write this piece is not exactly surprising, but that Education Next, the mouthpiece of the Fordham Institution axis of reformsterdom, would run it suggests that something's in the air right now. Let's hope. Also, add this to your bookmarked lists of good arguments for suspending testing.

The critical story of the "science of reading" and why its narrow plotline is putting our children and schools at risk.

The National Council of Teachers of English offers an excellent critique of the highly-popular-among-people-who-don't-actually-teach science of reading movement.

Penn State Hockey: Gadowsky away from family since July

My nephew is a sports writer specializing in Penn State sports. Here's a different kind of covid piece, about the university's hockey coach, who has sacrificed being with his own family in order to do the coaching job. One more cost of getting sports running so other folks can feel normal.

Trump's school choice executive order

The indispensable Mercedes Schneider explains why we don't have to give that EO another thought.

The President's executive order is vaporware

Here's a guest post on the reformy Jay Greene's blog, also explaining why we don't have to give that EO another thought. 

Amplify and iReady Claim Kindergarten and First Grade Reading Loss. Guess why.

Is it any wonder that much of the chicken littling about learning loss is coming from folks who hope to make a bundle "fixing" it? Nancy Bailey breaks down some of the baloney being sliced up.

St. Louis Public Education Theft Continues

Thomas Ultican looks in detail at the steady dismantling of St. Louis schools and where the situation stands currently.

Why the academic achievement gap is a racist idea.

This piece from Ibram X. Kendi ran back in 2016, but it poped up again this week and it is well worth a reread.

And finally, this tweet just made me laugh this week. If you don't get it, I can't help you.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Why Students Should Learn To Use Tech Tools

Because some day you might be involved in a national-level effort to overthrow the results of an election, and you might have to file a legal document like this one...

I really wanted to save this somewhere so that I could pull it out as an example some day, because this is just a special kind of awesome.