Sunday, August 19, 2018

FL: Taking the Next Step To End Public Ed

There are times when I think I could write about Florida all the time. The state's legislators lead the nation in outright hostility to public education and indifference to children. And this time they're really outdoing them with some Franken-bill known as Amendment 8.

Amendment 8 was produced by the Florida Constitution  Revision Commission, which voted to put it on the ballot as an amalgam of three amendments to the state constitution.

We're well past the point of using lipstick.
One amendment would mandate "civic literacy" as a subject in public schools. One would weaken school boards by imposing term limits of eight years. And one would render elected public school boards obsolete while giving the charter industry the power to inflict taxation without representation on communities. Some authorizer could establish a charter school in your community, and then all oversight and operation of the charter would be by the state. The only part of the charter than the community would be involved in is paying the bills; the amendment completely circumvents the elected school board.

Guess how the legislators have been publicizing the bill.

The amendment's official title is “School Board Term Limits and Duties; Public Schools” and official summary is:

Creates a term limit of eight consecutive years for school board members and requires the legislature to provide for the promotion of civic literacy in public schools. Currently, district school boards have a constitutional duty to operate, control, and supervise all public schools. The amendment maintains a school board’s duties to public schools it establishes, but permits the state to operate, control, and supervise public schools not established by the school board.

The League of Women Voters considers that misleading enough to file a lawsuit about it. Said Patricia M. Brigham, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida,“Voters will not recognize that the real purpose of the amendment is to allow unaccountable political appointees to control where and when charter schools can be established in their county."

Backers of the measure say the League just doesn't like the bill. But hey-- who are the backers of this proposed amendment sandwich, anyway?

The FLCRC board includes Erika Donalds. Donalds is a partner in a New York investment group. She founded Parents' Rights of Choice for Kids (Parents ROCK). Then she got herself elected to a school board, and founded the Florida Coalition of School Board Members, a group with only six founding members and which seems devoted to austerity and school choice. The group appears to be tiny, but in tune with the priorities of Florida's reform legislature. Amendment 8 is Donalds' baby. Also on the FLCRC board is Patricia Levesque, a well-known name in the reformster world. Levesque has been Jeb Bush's right hand at the various incarnations of his reformy groups. And FCSBM has been plenty cozy with Bush/Levesque's group.

Donalds has a PAC devoted to selling Amendment 8, and it has been collecting money from all manner of charter school supporters and profiteers. And her husband Byron is a GOP member of the legislature and helps run a charter school of his own (Mason Classical Academy). Byron is the guy who gave Florida the law that says textbooks must be "balanced" and that any taxpayer can challenge anything in any text-- a law that mirrored policies adopted by Erika's school board.

Amendment 8 is a classic poop sandwich-- take something radically unpalatable and hide it between two delicious slices of bread. Civics education and term limits-- don't those sound great (the FLCRC has apparently been making lots of poop sandwiches for all the sectors).

But it is also part of a larger long game that Florida has been playing to dismantle public education. Last year the legislature created a powerful means of draining public education tax dollars into charter coffers, giving the charter crew to separate a mountain of money from the public system. Amendment 8 lets them do the same for governance. Under the proposed amendment, Florida's legislators will be empowered to create an entire parallel school system controlled by their own designated school czar. The charters will no longer be accountable in any way to local elected authorities. All charters will answer only to some charter-loving bureaucrat in Tallahassee. From local taxpayers and voters they will not take any direction, any rebuke, any protest, any complaint, or any oversight. Just money.

And of course once all that money has been diverted to private charter schools over which taxpayers have no say, and maintaining public schools will require either higher taxes or fewer services and programs-- well, that will simply accelerate the systemic gutting of Florida's public schools.

I hope Florida's voters fight hard. I hope that folks are going door to door explaining, "If Amendment 8 passes, some person you will never see can start a school next door that would reject your own child, and you will pay the bill. They might open a school even if nobody wants it, and you will pay the bill." This really is taxation without representation. And because FLCRC has unleashed a bunch of these poop sandwiches, cutting through the noise so that people remember No on Amendment 8 will not be easy. But if this amendment passes, the Florida legislature will have nearly finished the business of butchering public education and feasting on the pieces.

Don't live in Florida? Then you just have to remember one thing-- Betsy DeVos thinks Florida is a great example of how education should be managed.

Hat tip to Sandy Stenoff, who directed me to some useful sources for this convoluted mess of a story.

Who's Your Hippo?

Take a moment to watch this...

Surprise. If your idea of a hippo is a big lumbering fat creature, then discovering that hippos swim like rocket-propelled sharks may come as a shock and a surprise. When you see those ripples headed for your boat, you may not realize exactly what's going on.

Teachers can have their on classroom hippos. It's easy to assume that a student who is bad at one thing is similarly challenged in all things. And that can lead to some problems with expectations.

We often talk about expectations (or were taught about them) as if they're a controlling factor. If we expect Pat to be a math whiz, Pat will be a math hiz. But if we expect Pat to stink at math, Pat will stink. To some extent that can certainly be true, but there are other reasons to watch our expectations.

As human beings, we see what we expect to see. The hippo will not be affected at all by our ideas about how well it can swim, but our expectations about how well hippos swim will affect how well we understand the situation we're witnessing.

Our expectations can change how we handle the data. If we decide that Chris is a horrible person and we expect Chris to do nothing but horrible things, then when Chris saves a bus load of orphans and puppies from a fire, we'll explain it away. "Oh, Chris was just trying to show of and get attention."

If our hippo shows us it can swim, we can accept that information and alter our expectations about hippos, or we can explain it away. We do that with our classroom hippos. We expect Alex to be a huge jerk, so when Alex says something that might be considered nice, we assume there's some level of sarcasm in there. We expect Pat to stink at fractions, so if Pat does a great job on a fractions test, we may dismiss it as an aberration. In an elementary classroom, or a language classroom, where many different subject areas are involved, it's frighteningly easy to assume that low ability over here means low ability over there. I am ashamed to think of how many times in my career I was far too slow to understand that my classroom hippo was an awesome swimmer. A student who was such a rude jerk most days that I didn't see at first that he was really deeply concerned about the people in his own life. The student who couldn't write to save his life, but was a dynamic and engaging public speaker.

This is the real reason not to listen to information about your new students from their old teachers-- it's not that you'll expect them into some academic disaster, but that you might not be able to process the evidence with a clear head.

In my setting, that was nearly impossible, and I always knew many students by name and reputation before I actually met them. The challenge was to stay open to what they could show me about themselves.

That's the challenge in a new year. Keep your eyes open, keep your mind open, and watch out for the hippos.

ICYMI: Stone Skipping Edition (8/19)

Yes, stone skipping. We'll get to that in a second. First, here's some reading from the week that is worth your attention. Remember to share.

How We Known The Reason for the Drop in Texas Special Ed Numbers  

You may remember the story of how Texas quietly capped the number of students with special needs that districts were allowed to find. Here's a follow-up of sorts, a rebuttal of all the excuses given for why the problem might have occurred.

Clash of Visons in Puerto Rico

Disaster capitalists square of against fans of actual public school education in hurricane-damaged Puerto Rico

The Reason for My Work

Chuck Pearson with a worthy entry in the Why I Teach genre.

What We Mean When We Say High Expectations

Jose Luis Vilson looks at the idea of high expectations and who exactly they are for.

Arizona Charter Boasts of Mass Expulsions

A charter in Arizona actually bragged publicly about how it turned itself around by expelling all the students who made it look bad. Now they are experiencing regret (for talking openly about their secret for success).

The Strange Story of Susie Strangfield

Within this tale of Oregon bureaucracy and politics is a fairly horrifying glimpse of their Big Brothery data plan.

NY Bronx Charter Teacher Fired for Reporting Sexual Harrassment by Students  

How bad can conditions get in  the charter world, where teachers have few of the job protections that public school teachers have? This bad.

The City Fund

Yet another tool for privatizing public education.

Finally- yesterday I spent the mid-Augusr afternoon as I have for about twenty years-- serving as a judge for our local rock skipping fest. This year's field included the current world record holder and the champion from Japan. A few year's ago, CBS Sunday Morning visited, and you can get a rough idea of what the event is like here. This has nothing to do with education; just small town life.

If you want to see what the world record throw looks like...

And if that all piqued your interest, there's an actual documentary available on Amazon Prime.  

Friday, August 17, 2018

Standing Up

"I just want to teach."

Those words have been repeated by so many teachers, so many times. This time it was a friend of mine who appears to be on the verge of having a contract. The school district has been wrestling with the contract for two years, with board members offering useful observations like "We have the money, but we don't want to give it to them." Last spring, the board offered its "final" proposal and refused to get back to the bargaining table. The union met and voted to strike in the fall. The community has been largely supportive of the teachers, who have mustered a huge presence at every board meeting. Finally, the board replaced their negotiating team, and a tentative agreement is now before both parties. Next week will tell whether the board will actually sign, of if the strike is still on.

It has been an ugly, depressing, contentious mess, and it was in reflecting on that mess that my friend said, "I just want to teach."

Without even thinking about it, I immediately replied, "That's just not an option any more." And I thought about it and realized that even in districts where contracts are settled, it's still true.

It's been true for a while. When I started, you could still hope to close the door to your room and just teach. Not that there weren't challenges; in those days, I usually compared teaching to a form of guerrilla warfare, where you had to be clever and alert enough to do parts of your job under the radar, because sometimes your administrators or your parents or your students would try to thwart your attempts to educate the young humans in your room. Sometimes they were resistant, sometimes oblivious, sometimes just not very supportive-- you had to keep your eyes on the work and press forward, but you could get most everything done if, instead of trying to fight anyone, you just closed the door to your room and forged ahead. You might have had opponents, but most of them didn't care enough to try to actually catch you doing your job.

The rise of the ed reform movement changed that. State departments that had previously practiced benign neglect started to practice active interference. When I started out, state presentations involved feeble attempts to get teacher buy-in to bad ideas; at the turn of the century, I realized they had become more coldly aggressive. From "We really hope to sell you on the value of this policy," we shifted to "This is going to happen, and you can get with the program or we are going to roll right over you."

Teachers have always fielded suggestions that they try dumb practices; under No Child Left Behind, we began to shift to demands, mandates, orders to employ educational malpractice.

Many teachers took quite a while to catch on. A building principal would announce a new bad idea, like test-centered schooling and senseless teacher evaluation systems, and teachers would roll their eyes and prepare to give the administrator a bad time, not understanding that his orders came from far up the food chain. Many teachers assumed they were suffering under local idiocy; it took a while to understand that this was state-and-national level foolishness.

At the same time, teachers felt the growing sense that they were being treated as the enemy. And if they didn't get it through deep reading of the situation, political leaders started to spell it out for them. (I remember a board member recounting in shocked tones being at the state capital and hearing the head of the government's education committee spit out angrily that they had already given "you people"-- meaning schools-- too much.) Then came policies that could easily have been entitled The Just Shut Up And Get These Kids Ready For The Big Standardized Test Act. To teachers' collective plea for assistance and support came replied like Teach for America and charter schools which said, essentially- "Help you?! We intend to replace you!" And it has come consistently from both parties.

After twenty years of ed reform, teachers have arrived at a point where they cannot shut the door and teach. Every teacher has to be an advocate for her profession, her school, and the institution of public education. Every policy and directive that descends from above has to be examined for its various effects, both on education and the profession, because teachers can no longer trust the People In Charge. The people who should be helping to smooth the road are building speed bumps and brick walls instead. To shut your door and teach is to the door to your room in a burning building; you may not feel the heat yet, but if you do nothing, you will surely feel it soon.

When we talk about reasons that so many fewer people pursue or stay with a teaching career, I'm not sure we discuss this point enough. You may want to Just Teach, but that will not be an option. You will have to fight constantly just to get to do your job. It's a huge disincentive-- "I would really like to do that job, but it looks like I won't really get to do the job I want to do."

Yes, every job has its crappy parts. But the problems of education and education reform and privatization of education and the general meddling of amateurs are smothering the work so that only the strong, the ones willing to fight, can see their way clear to get in there. And really, I can't imagine how tall that mountain looks when you are young, just starting out, and untenured.

Having said all that, I would argue that there are some positive side effects to the current condition of teaching. For one thing, it demands that you commit and become intentional about your work. When you say you "just want to teach," what do you mean, exactly? What are the important parts? What does the work mean to you? What is it that you are going to fight for? These are good questions to know the answers to. Focus. Keep your eyes on the real destination as long as you can.

Because teaching is still hugely important work, and the students are hugely important people, and both deserve to have warriors to defend them. Yes, it shouldn't be this hard, and yes, we are losing a whole generation of teacher might-have-beens because the education landscape has been turned into a dangerous, scary-looking place.

But none of that changes the mission-- to help students become their best selves, to help them understand what it means to be human in the world, to grow in all the best and most exciting ways. If I could say anything to people teetering on the brink of teaching or not, it would be that it will be a fight, and sometimes it will be a hard fight, and sometimes even a losing fight, and you can't give more than you have (and that matters-- you can't do what you can't do)--  but it will always be worth it. Yes, it's easier to stand up in a quiet room than in pounding surf, but we don't get to choose the times we live in or the fights that come to us. The work is worth it. The students are worth it.

Get Ready To Go

It is one of my great pet peeves.

Folks often observe that littles are excited to go to school. As that first day gets closer and closer, they just can't wait. But then they get older and the enthusiasm wanes. Why, folks wonder.

It's a complicated matter that involves many factors and problems, but I know one factor tat everyone could work on right away.

Stop telling kids they should hate school.

I know that hardly anyone ever says, in so many words, "You should hate school." But we tell them in many other ways, especially at this time of year. "Are you ready to go back to school," someone will ask in exactly the same tone they would use for "Are you ready to get hit in the face with a sack of poop?" Maybe we give them the old, "I'll bet you're really sad that vacation is over." We find many ways to signal to students that they should be sad about school, dread school, hate school. Granted, there are students who have good reasons to dread school, but the signaling by adults does not help.

Teachers can be just as bad. We complain about the end of summer vacation, complain about having to go back and face the students. We signal to folks that our job sucks, and while there are sucky parts of the job, teaching the actual students is not one of them (if it is for you, you are in the wrong line of work and you should search for employment elsewhere). Sometimes we get trapped in "polite" conversations with people who want to make small talk and land on some version of "Boy, I bet you're dreading going back" or "So, are you counting down to summer vacation already?" It feel impolite to say, "No, I love my job and the work is important and exciting," but anything else feeds the idea that school is a terrible hell where nothing good happens and nobody-- not students, not teachers-- actually wants to be there.

We talk a lot these days about standing up for the profession, and this is one of the most fundamental ways to stand up-- to stop feeding the idea that the job is an endless suckfest and that everyone in a school building wants, or should want, to be anywhere else on earth.

Don't talk about how awful it is to be going back. Don't tell students they should dread it. Don't idolize Fridays (because then we don't have to be here).

That doesn't mean we have to pretend that school is all unicorns and puppies and ice cream. But it's an important place, where important work is done, and where tiny humans become young humans who become practically-adult humans. It's kind of amazing. Teaching is important work, and it is a privilege to do that work. Likewise, the public school system provides an unparalleled opportunity for students to learn and grow and become more fully themselves as they learn how to be human in the world. This is the first fall in my life that I won't be going back, and while I'm comfortably certain that I'm right where I should be, I will still miss it. Your time in school doesn't last forever; you should embrace it while you can.

This is great work, important work, work that occurs with a ticking clock hovering in the background. Great work on a tight deadline. It is challenging and often difficult, and the difficulties are frustrating because so many of them are unnecessary-- artificial speed bumps created by the very people who are supposed to smooth the road. But the work is still great and important. Students and teachers should all be reminded of that, especially at this time of year.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Happy 5th Curmudgubirthday

Today marks the fifth anniversary of my first post on this blog. I'm going to be self-indulgent for a few minutes.

It has been an interesting adventure. If you go back and look at the early posts (and really, you should not), you'll see that I had no idea what the hell I was doing. At the time, I was just starting to unravel what was going on in the ed reform world. Like most teachers, I had suffered through the side effects of NCLB and was curious about what this Common Core stuff was about, and as I peeled back the layers, I became more astonished and outraged and incredulous and angry. And the more I learned the more I thought about it, and the more I thought about it the more I felt compelled to express what I was thinking. The pace of the blog picked up considerably, but it always felt like journaling. It did not occur to me that there was an audience for what I was writing.

I evolved. God bless the people who told me that my spiffy design of white text on a black background was not optimal for people who actually wanted to read it. I learned how to better incorporate links, and how to add images, and how to redesign and reconstruct my header.

Most of all, I re-learned what two decades of newspaper columning had taught me before-- the more you write, the easier it comes. That and they can't all be gems; better to let them fly than to belabor them at great length.

I found an audience. More precisely, other people found an audience for me. I'm not comfortable self-promoting. I look at the kind of work that some edu-celebrities do just to repeatedly say "Hey, look at me" and it just makes me kind of cringey inside. But the BATs and Diane Ravitch and Anthony Cody and Valerie Strauss and a host of other people helped an audience find me. I've always argued that the growth of the audience here is not a testament to anything exceptional about me, but is a testament to how concerned and informed and interested and engaged people are on the subject of public education and what is being done to it. As of this week, there are 2977 posts on this blog, and the blog has been viewed a little over 6,500,000 times.

There have been so many influences on what I do. Mercedes Schneider writes as much as I do, and her stuff is actually researched and fact-filled. Nancy Flanagan and Jennifer Berkshire and Jan Resseger and Mark Webber and Jose Luis Vilson and Wendy Lecker and Paul Thomas and another host of folks (look in the right column) have influenced and informed me.

I've learned. As with all controversial issues, it's easy to reduce the ed debates to simple black and white, but I am suspicious of simple answers, regardless of what side they come from. It is a challenge to balance the importance of nuance and understanding with a strong sense of what is right and wrong. The forces arrayed against public ed are not monolithic, which means they are not uniformly anything, which means we have to pay attention all the time. You have to keep learning. In education we talk about that all the time, but I'm not sure we always grasp what it really means.

The debates have shifted. The ed reform folks have shifted the terms of the debates many times, like a mouse probing and pushing to find a way through the wall. They will always shift, because this is a marathon, not a sprint. Put another way, there will never come a day when we can just sit down and say, "Whew-- all the threats to public education have been dealt with and we don't have to worry about it ever again."

I am fortunate to have had opportunities outside the mother ship here-- for a while at Ed Week and Huffington Post, occasionally at BAM Radio, and now at the Progressive and Forbes. Widening the audience is important-- those of us who spend so much time working on these issues can forget just how little the average citizen knows about public education and ed reform. I feel privileged to have a chance to help spread the word.

Thanks to readers and supporters and especially those who share and pass along the posts that speak to them. It is a writer's biggest job to give other folks the words and language they need to explain what they are thinking, feeling, and caring about. A writer's other big job is to connect people who share ideas, and to help them see a little more and grow in the process. If I'm managing to do even a little bit, that's a good thing.

Public education matters. It's a fundamental part of this country; as Benjamin Barber said, it's not just to serve the public, but to create the public. It's important, and it deserves to be defended vigorously, even as we look to solve those systemic problems that plague it from the inside.

Thanks, finally, to my wife, who tolerates my need to run off and make tappy-tappy noises on the computer and otherwise manage my internet empire. She is far better than I deserve.

So happy birthday, blog. Now it's time to get back work.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

PA: Wonderland Charter Gives Up Gaming the System

State College is the home of Penn State University, and up until last spring, it was the home of Wonderland Charter School. The school was authorized over the resistance of the State College School Board years ago, and has, according to some local sources, something of a 'hoity toity" following. But last spring, word got out that SCASD had the ammunition to shut Wonderland down, and so they voluntarily folded their tents in June.

Some history:

Wonderland was co-founded by Marilyn L. Ohnmeis as a kindergarten and preschool in the 1990s. She and her husband, Hal Ohnmeis, tried to make it a charter school in 1998 when PA passed charter laws. SCASD rejected their request but that was overturned by the state on appeal. The most common voice and front-man for the school is Hal Ohnmeis, a former army ranger with no educational background or experience. The school grew up to K-5 and promised a personalized education approach, touted the DISTAR model of direct instruction, and promised teaching to mastery for every student. As of last year the school had 79 students and 12 teachers.

But the public school system which handed over tax dollars to the school believed that things were not so rosy in Wonderland. In a statement issued last spring, solicitor Scott Etter said:

These failures, in the area of special education in particular, are systemic, institutionalized, and long-standing, and were put in place and are enforced by Wonderland leadership, to include its founder, former CEO, and current business administrator; its education director; its current CEO; and its other lead teacher. We believe that these failures are so severe and significant that it is appropriate to initiate the non-renewal/revocation proceeding provided for in the (charter school law) and the Basic Education Circular on Charter Schools.

While Wonderland has its defenders, who showed up at SCASD board meetings to make their case, the charter was also slammed by its own board members, teachers, and parents. An initial three-month review of the school revealed some significant issues:

Student performance on tests was lower than the sending district. The education director lacks an administrative certificate. Wonderland teachers were the lowest paid in the state. The school CEO allegedly refused to let the SCASD see the IEPs for Wonderland students. The "very scripted" curriculum resembles the curriculum used by most districts for at-risk learners.

Ohmneis said that SCASD didn't factor in teacher end-of-year bonuses, and misrepresented how they used special ed money. He also claimed that IEPs couldn't be shared with the district.

That was back in June. Now Etter has released his updated report on Wonderland and the school ends up looking like yet another example of charter school scamming in action. Here are some of the findings of the report, based on interviews with board members, teachers, and parents:

Wonderland systematically and deliberately gamed the special ed system of Pennsylvania to avoid enrolling or creating IEPs for all but the most profitable students with special needs. Etter argues they did this by, first, having a model of constant teacher turnover, which not only kept salaries low but created a regular "influx of young and inexperienced teachers, who are not in a position to know any better, say anything, or be there longer enough to really grasp what is transpiring." A board member who questioned the turnover was told it was the "Wonderland model."

Ohnmeis discussed the cost and "potential catastrophic financial implications" of IEPs at board meetings. Meanwhile, parents were discouraged from enrolling students with special needs. One parent was told that Wonderland would not administer their child's medication (they don't believe in medicating children) and that Wonderland doesn't like to have IEPs because "they restrain us in what we like to do to help the child."

Wonderland did, however, identify a ton of students in the speech and language category. This is Charter Scamming 101-- students so identified entitle you to the whole extra-large chunk of money from the state, but they cost very little to serve. Wonderland may have over-identified students in this category by as much as 1,000%. Ka-ching.

Keeping the scam under wraps. Teachers were forbidden from being friends with or socializing with parents; numerous teachers believe that is so they won't tell parents what the school was really like. In fact, teachers were forbidden to speak with parents at drop-off or pick-up.  Teachers were personally threatened with termination for violating this policy. And if all that isn't nuts enough, teachers at the school were not allowed to use or have e-mail.

Prior to parent-teacher conferences, Ohnmeis instructed teachers to tell parents who asked about IEPs for their children to tell them that the child was making progress, needed more confidence, needed more practice. Teachers were also dissuaded from including anything negative in write-ups of education plans for students; if anything negative was included, administrators removed it. Parents report being given a rosy picture of what was going on at school, only to be surprised later by the truth.

There are numerous stories of parents, teachers, and even visiting SCASD administrators that numerous students appeared, or were reported, to need special help. They were not getting it, and administrators of the school denied any such assistance. Later investigation showed that Wonderland was out of compliance with several regulations. Ohnmeis (who you will recall has no educational training or experience) often represented the school in IEP meetings.

Real estate scamming. Wonderland entered into a one year lease with a for profit corporation owned by Ohnmeis and his wife (did I mention she was a founder/chief academic officer, director). Work on the building does not appear to have been bid out. The school apparently also licenses its trademark from for profit corporation owned by, you guessed it, Mr. and Mrs. Ohnmeis. The couple has also served as board members while also employed by the school. That's probably illegal.

When announcing their decision to close, the school sent out an email that said, in part,

The Wonderland board of directors was faced with a very difficult decision Monday night. Over the last several months, State College Area School District has continued to inundate Wonderland with increasingly numerous costly and time consuming requests, as well as intrusive, harassing, and redundant inspections. All the while, refusing to present specific charges allowing the legal renewal proceedings to continue.

So not even an "Ooopsies! We made a few paperwork mistakes but we'll totally do better." Just a flat denial and closed doors. Meanwhile, the school's website has gone dark, though you can still visit them on Facebook. The good news here is that the public school system was able to shut down a financial drain on its ability to operate and offer programs to its students. The bad news is that things had to get seriously and demonstrably bad before they could do it.