Wednesday, November 25, 2020

FL: Big Brother Is Watching Your Child

Eyebrows shot up around the country this week as the Tampa Bay Times reported on how the Pasco County Sheriff's Office keeps a secret list of "at-risk" kids who could “fall into a life of crime." Creating the list involves the office collecting and factoring a whole bunch of different you-probably-thought-they-were-confidential records, including records from the school district and from the state's Department of Children and Families. 

"We have an agreement with the Sheriff's Office," the superintendent said in an interview with the Times. "The agreement requires them to use (the data) for official law enforcement purposes. I have to assume that's exactly what they are using it for."

Low grades? Absenteeism? Violence in the home? You may well be flagged as a possible future criminal. The Sheriff's Office has a whole manual. And a list, with 420 names on it. And none of the families connected to the names knows a thing about it. This is not a targeted search, where someone is concerned about Pat McStudent; this is a blanket sweep of the entire list of records from the various institutions.

Mark Lieberman at EdWeek did some checking to see if this practice is illegal (if you're old enough, you may remember when FERPA protected students from this kind of thing). The answer seems to be "Maybe, but that's sure not what the writers of relevant federal law had in mind." 

The Pasco County list should not have come as a surprise. In fact, the only surprise would be if no other Florida counties are engaged in similar activity. Here's why.

Back in 2018, Florida passed the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act. After that horrific school shooting, one of the pieces of conventional wisdom is that somebody should have spotted and intercepted shooter Nikolas Cruz before he became a mass murderer. If we had a single integrated data system that collected and collated data from schools, state agencies, and social media, and then ran it all through some super-duper computer algorithm, we could stop the next Cruz before he happened.

So Florida opened up the Office of Safe Schools and put in place the tools for both increased school security and increased student surveillance. I'm not sure that anyone knows exactly how far the data hoovering has gotten, because it was all meant to be super-top-secret, but the full concept makes the Pasco Sheriff look like a slacker. 

Mind you, there's not a shred of evidence that such a Future Crimes Bureau actually works. There's plenty of evidence that a program like this would disproportionately affect the same students who are disproportionately hit by school discipline and law enforcement, i.e. the non-wealthy, Black, and brown students. 

The bad effects of such a program, beyond the plain old violation of privacy, are many, from turning student-school relationships adversarial to having students haunted through their entire lives by incidents from their childhood. This type of program puts a whole new ugly weight behind, "Careful, or this will go on your permanent record."

So it's good that the Times did this story, and it's good that people are freaking out about it, but my advice to friends in Florida would be to keep digging, because if the state did what they promised to do a few years ago, this Pasco business is just the tip of the iceberg. In the meantime, read the full Times report to see just how ugly, unjust, and intrusive that iceberg is.

Donors Choose Belated Monday: Orff and Robots

Okay, so I got caught up in the business of holiday stuff and pandemic surge, and I forgot to post Monday. But I am continuing with making a modest weekly contribution to some classroom somewhere in this country. As I've said before, Donors Chose shouldn't be a thing because schools should be fully funded, but in the meantime, individual teachers in individual classrooms can use a hand. This is doubly true in pandemic times, when pretty much no districts are investing the extra money needed to really pull this off.

So here's a simple way to help. I'll share with you my classroom of the week, and you can help with that one, or pick another one (last time somebody followed me onto the site and funded the entire project, which was cool). 

I'm doing two this week.

The first is from the school just right up the road where many of my friends teach. In this rural-ish area, robotics have really caught fire, but a lot of the emerging programs are operating on shoestring budgets. This particular elementary group needs some cases for transporting robots and equipment to competitions. I don't know this particular teacher, but I do know that these robot events are a huge amount of fun and have really allowed some students to find a niche that they might not otherwise have found. 

Meanwhile, out in Kansas, a teacher would like a set of Orff instruments for his K-5 elementary school. These are a great introduction to music for young students and a way for music learning to enrich their days even if they aren't destined to become future professionals.

It's a small thing, but I'm a big believer in doing small things to make the world slightly less sucky, so as always you are invited to join me in making a small contribution in a classroom somewhere.

Internet Data Caps Are Coming

If you are a Comcast customer in the Northeast US, changes are coming. 

2021 will bring caps for home internet customers in Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Vermont, West Virginia, and DC, as well as selected slices of North Carolina and Ohio.

There are reasons not to freak out. 

First, the cap is at 1.2 TB, which is a huge amount of data. Comcast says it's good for 21,600 hours of streaming music, 500 hours of streaming HD shows, 34,000 hours of online gaming, or 3,500 hours of video chatting. 

Second, for other parts of the country, this is not new. Comcast started capping accounts in other parts of the US way back in 2016

So, we're probably not looking at any sort of major issue right now.

However, as we contemplate the probable increased interest in internet-based schooling, it's a good time to remember that internet access is currently not free, not infinite, and not universal. 

If the Biden administration wants a goof internet policy project to tackle, let's look at pandemic schooling as a clear sign--again--that internet access should be a public utility, like water and electricity. It's way past time.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

The False God Data Fails Again

The dream of the Cult of Data is that for any issue, we simply design an instrument for collecting the data, analyze the Data, and select a solution suggested by the Data. Phrases like "data driven" or "data informed" are used to express the assumption that decisions backed by Data are inherently smarter, better, stronger, and wiser than Those Other Kinds of decisions. 

But what if they aren't? What if Data doesn't actually solve anythung?

I've made this point before while writing about the NAEP, the gold standard, America's report card, the test that is supposed to give us data that is clear and clean and objective and allows us to make wise decisions. Except that it doesn't. The Data come out, the arguments follow, and the hard data from the NAEP test settles exactly nothing.

Now here we go again. 

Matt Barnum, my personal favorite Chalkbeat reporter, took a look at a recent gathering of education experts who wanted to look at a simple question- are the gaps in test scores between the wealthy and the not-so-wealthy closing? Seems straightforward, and yet...

No one could answer the question. Or, more precisely, no one could agree on the answer. One researcher claimed the gap was growing, another said it was shrinking, and a third argued that it hadn’t changed much in decades.

It depends. It depends on which Data you look at, which data you trust, which data represents what you think it represents. And as Barnum points out, this is a particularly remarkable question to be stumped by, because the test score gap (aka "the achievement gap") has been on research radar for decades. Guys like Eric Hanushek and Tom Kane (both part of this confab) have made a career out of playing with this question. By this point, they ought to be pretty good at capturing, collecting, and crunching these particular Data.

And yet, they aren't. There is still no agreement about what the data shows about the test score gap. Nor do we have any data showing that closing the test score gap would have real life-improving effects for those on the bottom side of the gap.

Let me repeat-- we have a whole lot of Data, especially testing Data, and yet we still don't know the answer to that question. Data has not solved the problem, or even clarified exactly what the problem looks like. 

Mind you, the term "data" as used by members of the Data Clan has a specific meaning--numerical standard items collected through "objective" means. So even though a classroom teacher collects tens of thousands of data points every day, those don't count because they aren't Data. It is only magical Data that can save us, can provide clarity and certainty about what is happening. Except that it's not working. Just as it didn't work for things like data-driven staffing decisions, where we would just use VAM-soaked data to distinguish the good teachers from the bad. 

There's much to discuss here, but I want to keep my point short and clear--

Keep in mind how the False God Data keeps failing the next time somebody insists that we must test students this year, maybe even right now, because testing will get us the Data we need to know how students are doing, what learning they've "lost," and where the new gaps are. It's not going to work. It's going to waste time and money and time, and in the end all we'll have are some experts staring at strings of numbers and shrugging their shouders.

Monday, November 23, 2020

What Is The Actual Purpose of Social and Emotional Learning

I'm increasingly convinced that one of the reasons social and emotional learning (SEL) is such a matter of contention in education (and it has been, every time it has been it has been brought up under one guise or another) is that it requires us to look at the places where education bumps up against the really big questions-- what is the purpose of education? why are we here? what is our purpose? what is the meaning of life? That stuff.

SEL advocates generally back away from that, and it leads to discussions of SEL that are ridiculous. 

Here's CASEL, the big mac daddy of the SEL biz, listing the benefits of SEL, in order: academic outcomes and improved behaviors, long-term improvement in academics and conduct problems, 11;1 return on investment, reduce poverty (as in the poverty of individuals as in you'll make more money), improves life outcomes (eg not being on waiting list for public housing).

Lots of folks like to cite a research finding that SEL "improves achievement by an average of 11 percentile points, which is an odd thing to tout; since percentiles are rankings, if everybody received this benefit, nobody would receive this benefit. 

Even when research is more well-balanced, many folks writing about that research tend to focus on things like how SEL will "have long-term academic benefits on students' reading and vocabulary" and that it might "assist in closing achievement gaps." 

You may be asking what the heck I'm rattling on about. Aren't these all good things? And sure, they are. But there seems to be a huge disconnect here. 

Imagine, for instance, that we are discussing health. In fact, discussing the spread of Covid-19 through the population. Now imagine someone saying, "It's important that students remain healthy because good health raises test scores. Also, they can get a better job if they're healthy." I mean, that's not wrong, but are those really the reasons that we would prefer our children to be physically healthy? 

The implication, all too often, is that the point of having socially and emotionally healthy students is so that test scores will go up and they will be better employees, and I have to believe that human beings have a higher purpose than generating test scores and being a useful meat widget for some corporate enterprise. Too much of the SEL pitch ends up sounding like folks who are trying to make a utilitarian case for being happy and healthy, as if being happy and healthy couldn't possibly serve a purpose--or BE a purpose--on their own. No, I'm not going to argue that making yourself happy is your highest calling exactly, but that leads us into a rather long, deep discussion which we don't have room for here, but my point is that we're not even trying to have that discussion. Instead, we keep discussing SEL as a product that dovetails nicely with other products. That being a happy, healthy person of good character are only valuable because they make that person more useful to the folks in charge.

Here's a research project in Education Next, touting SEL and presenting a bit of a mix. It's a study of a collection of self-surveys of ninth graders in Chicago, and like any veteran high school teacher, my eyebrows went up at the ninth grader part, because when it comes to self-reporting social and emotional learning--well, they chose it because it's a transitional year of schooling and the point at which students are "most vulnerable to becoming off-track for high school graduation "due to too few credits.

This study looked at various schools and developed SEL "value-added" scores, which is an abomination because "I want my child to be happy and have a good character because it will make them more valuable" is not something any teacher or parent should say ever. Also, the researchers took the time to figure out that their made up SEL score was a better "predictor" of "behaviors that promote future success" than good old test based value-added baloney scores. So while there is much about this report that raises my hackles, I will give them this--they make a case for a way to expand the notion of a "good school" beyond "one with good test scores and high bogus VAM numbers." 

Their choice of "impacts" to look for include the usual bad cluster. On the one hand, I can almost see "impact on social well-being" as a worthy thing to look for. Chicago apparently muddies all this water by loading talking about both a social well-being index and a work habits index, with the latter focused exclusively on "useful meat widget" items like grit and academic effort.

The study finds that their SEL VAM work as well as test-based VAM in predicting test scores. They apply the word "intriguingly" here; I'm more inclined to note that this finding screams that both VAMs are the result of some other factor entirely.

There's a big fat chart entitles "High Schools That Promote Social-Emotional Development Also Improve Student Achievement" which of course just means that these schools have higher test scores. They also tie SEL to "long-term outcomes" by which they mean high school graduation and enrolling in college, as if socially and emotionally healthy people will, of course, go to college. 

Look, I am a big believer in the importance of SEL, just as I'm a big believer that every teacher ever has included SEL in their classroom intentionally or not because it can't be avoided (unless you, say, replace the teacher with a computer algorithm, but again, that's another conversation). I think it's hugely important. I think 95% of the "this teacher changed my life" stories in the world are primarily about SEL rather than actual content. 

But all that said, I hugely leery of attempts to quantify and formalize SEL in schools, especially when so much of what is being done is framed by the notion that SEL is important because it will raise test scores and get you a better job, as if becoming a healthy, happy, decent human being was not a worthwhile goal all by itself. 

Let me just append a poem here, from that great American SEL guy, Ralph Waldo Emerson, on being asked what the point of a flower might be:

In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes,
I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods,
Spreading its leafless blooms in a damp nook,
To please the desert and the sluggish brook.
The purple petals fallen in the pool
Made the black water with their beauty gay;
Here might the red-bird come his plumes to cool,
And court the flower that cheapens his array.
Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that, if eyes were made for seeing,
Then beauty is its own excuse for Being;
Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!
I never thought to ask; I never knew;
But in my simple ignorance suppose
The self-same power that brought me there, brought you.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

ICYMI: Here Comes Thanksgiving Edition

 Well, the holiday certainly feels heavily weighted this year, doesn't it. Will people get together? Will people die because they couldn't bear not to see Grampa cut the turkey? And how hard will it be for some folks to think of something to be thankful for? Yes, this is going to be a fun week.

In the meantime, here are some things to read. 

Public Schools. Public.

Nancy Flanagan makes a great plea for the value and preservation of public education. One more example of why I want to be her when I grow up.

Business Terms Used To Privatize Schools

Nancy Bailey with a very useful glossary of some business-speak that has been used to shape the conversation about public schools.

Digital Shock Doctrine   

Alex Gutentag at The Bellows looks at the pandemic digital boom in Californian and what it shows about the face of digital austerity. (Spoiler alert--it's not pretty).

Ed Tech Spending Rampaging in North Carolina   

Thomas Ultican takes a look at all the digital cashing in going on in NC. (Spoiler alert--it's not pretty).

Betsy DeVos Legacy (Civil Rights)

We're kind of drowning in these pieces, but as I've argued before, Betsy isn't going away, and it's a good idea to understand just who she is and what she wants. Rebecca Klein's entry into the genre is at HuffPost, and it's a good one.

How will DeVos be remembered?

Okay, one more of these. This time it's Cory Turner at NPR with a not-bad take on the DeVos legacy.

After four years of DeVos, what a Biden presidency will mean  

I try to stay away from most of these murky crystal ball pieces, but this is Joy Resmovits returning to the ed beat in the Seattle Times, so it's worth a look.

Cheating detection companies made millions during pandemic. Now students are fighting back.

At the Washington Pst, Drew Harwell takes a look at the new battles between surveillance companies and the students they're spying on (badly).

Why applications are plummeting at Florida universities

Akil Bello joins the gang at education with a story about how Florida is testing its own hjigher ed system into oblivion.

Study Challenges Use Of Test Scores To Gauge Teacher Effectiveness   

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution brings us yet one more study showing that VAM is junk. SWhat a surprise! Still, a nice addition to the file.

Canceling Student Loan Debt; Just Do It   

John Warner at Inside Higher Ed makes the case for canceling college debt.

Are Test Score Gaps Growing?   

Matt Barnum at Chalkbeat looks at the inability of researchers to agree on an answer to the question. You know that my answer is "Why should we care?" But it's still striking that we really don't know.

Stuck In It Until I Die   

Hechinger Reports has a sobering report about another side of college debt--Parent Plus loans are crushing folks who thought that sending their kids to college was the right thing to do. Wish someone had shown me this article a couple decades ago.

White female teacher bias shown in research   

Turns out that a lot of white lady teachers have some race-based bias problems. Hechinger Reports again. Some discouraging research results.

100 online shops to try instead of Amazon    

From the Sunshine Guerrilla blog, a look at alternatives to stuffing Jeff Bezos' pockets even more full of money.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Another Rich Guy Wants To Fix Education

 Joel Greenblatt is a hedge fund guy from NYC who, like many hedge fund guys, has it All Figured Out and occasionally writes books to share his insights with rest of us.

Of course, that includes education. It was Greenblatt and fellow Rich Guy John Petry who recruited Eva Moskowitz to take their little charter school, Harlem Success Academy, and turn it into the Success Academy juggernaut. They even came up with some creative means of paying her huge compensation.

Greenblatt's new book of wisdominess resulted in an interview with Michael Cannivet, a "markets" contributor at in which he explains the various topics he writes about ("I thought I could bring a fresh perspective to certain issues I care about"), and one, of course, is education.

In discussing his book of "common sense," Greenblatt includes some standard bromides, like "The biggest factor that unleashes upward mobility is education" which is a good example of conventional wisdom that isn't actually rooted in facts (I'm no Raj Chetty fan, but he has tackled the issue of mobility pretty effectively). Also, college grads earn more than high school diploma folks "so we've got to do better," and while the interview doesn't get into details, I'm guessing he doesn't mean "we need to unrig the system so that people on the bottom are better paid." 

But when it comes to education, there are lots of things that Greenblatt doesn't know. His idea is workaround solutions. He illustrates this with a riddle-- How do you beat Tiger Woods? Don't play him at golf.-- which is a pretty clever idea unless your whole point is to become a better golfer. I mean, this is a glib answer to the question "why is educational reform difficult," but I'm not entirely sure what it's supposed to mean. Education is hard, so do something other than educate students? 

But his idea is to do a "roundabout" when encountering certain roadblocks.

For instance, we know certain things do improve educational standards, like some of the best charter schools. I was one of the co-founders of Success Academy run by Eva Moskowitz. The results for the 20,000 kids in that program are phenomenal. As a group, their test scores exceed even the wealthiest districts. That’s a really good sign, because it says that with the right kind of supports, these kids can compete at the highest levels.

Well, no. Greenblatt surely must have read Robert Pondiscio's book about SA, but he may need to read it again, because it shows pretty clearly that one of SA's biggest secrets is creaming for families that are highly motivated and willing to comply with the charter's demands. Also, it's not clear which test scores he's referring to, because the Academy's students do well on the test they're prepped for, but tend to bomb all other exams. The few students who finally emerge from the heavy-attrition program actually haven't competed very well at the highest levels at all. Success Academy has accomplished some things with some students, but it's not the simple picture that Greenblatt draws here.

But Greenblatt is going on to note that charter schools serve a limited number of students, and the public schools have so much money, "it creates a maze of entrenched interests." That old argument. So Greenblatt wants to "an end-around the current system" and his idea is alternative certification.

He seems to mean some combo of competency based education and microcredentials, where you get little badges indicating you've proven you possess Skill X, having picked Skill X from a list of things that corporations want in hirees. The goal, as with many such systems, is to replace the public education system with a system for manufacturing worker bees and meat widgets made to corporate specs:

The best way to kickstart alternative certification would be getting top companies onboard. Major firms like JPMorgan, Amazon, and Google could help create more opportunities for high paying jobs by simply making public new hiring criteria they will use in lieu of a college degree to screen candidates for high paying jobs. They can come up with whatever certificates, courses or tests make the most sense for them and the positions they aim to fill.

And if you think I'm excessively snarky with my "manufacture meat widgets to specs" description, here's how Greenblatt responds to the question of how much this would cost government:

It wouldn’t cost the Federal government anything, because once a “buyer” is established for the people taking the certification tests or for those passing certain courses or receiving specified certificates, a natural ecosystem would begin to grow. Things like tutoring services and online resources would emerge and the network effects would snowball.

The free market would make it work. Of course, just like Success Academy, it would leave behind everybody who wasn't a good fit for this meat widget marketplace. But he's sure it would work, just like in that book by Clay Christensen, the disruptive innovation guy. 

There's more about other topics in a similar hedge fundie vein (social security should be replaced with individual accounts). There may be more subtlety and nuance to his education ideas, but he doesn't need my money and I don't want his book. There needs to be some sort of special name for Rich Guy Dunning-Kruger, where someone doesn't know what he doesn't know, doesn't feel the need to learn, and still gets to throw money around and write books like he's an expert. Greenblatt's a special case because his connection to Success Academy has given him the chance to learn a lot of useful things about education and apparently he just hasn't. That's unfortunate, particularly if he decides to launch another project.