Monday, May 27, 2024

KY: A Constitutional Voucher Amendment

School privatizers wanted school vouchers for Kentucky. But they ran into two problems:

1) A constitution

2) Judges who can read the constitution

Lawmakers had passed a tax credit scholarship program, the kind of program where rich folks can send money to a private school instead of paying their taxes. 

Tax credit scholarships are popular with voucherphiles because they allow folks to argue, "Hey, this isn't giving public dollars to a religious school, because the state never touches the dollars in the first place." 

This is not a good faith serious argument. I often explain it this way:

You love a certain brand of pickle. Your spouse says that the family already has some perfectly good pickles, and under no circumstances will they allow you to spend household budget money on your brand of pickles. So you make a deal with your employer; when it’s time to pay you, they will spend $50 of what they would have paid you to buy pickles instead, the give you the pickles and a check that is $50 lighter. Go ahead and tell your spouse that there's no reason to get upset because you didn't spend any money on pickles. Your spouse is still fully aware that the household budget is $50 short.

Section 184 of the Kentucky constitution has some straightforward language about funding education, including:
No sum shall be raised or collected for education other than in common schools until the question of taxation is submitted to the legal voters, and the majority of the votes cast at said election shall be in favor of such taxation
Kentucky’s Attorney General, arguing for the voucher plan, tried to assert a reading of the law that allowed for tax credit scholarships. The court replied, “We respectfully decline to construe the Constitution in a way that would avoid its plain meaning.”

“[T]he funds at issue are sums legally owed to the Commonwealth of Kentucky and subject to collection for public use including allocation to the Department of Education for primary and secondary education” and reallocating them to private school tuition is unconstitutional.

Deputy Chief Justice Lisabeth T. Hughes wrote “Simply stated, it puts the Commonwealth in the business of raising sum(s) . . . for education other than in common schools.”

Put another way by the court, “The money at issue cannot be characterized as simply private funds, rather it represents the tax liability that the taxpayer would otherwise owe.”

In short, the Kentucky constitution says "No taxpayer dollars for anything other than public schools. And that includes those tax liabilities y'all are trying to sneak behind your backs there."

That was back at the end of 2022. Then, another setback for choicers. A year later, Franklin County Circuit Court Judge Phillip Shepherd ruled against the funding law set up to promote charter schools in the state.

Wrote Shepherd in his ruling, “Whether the charter schools envisioned by HB 9 are good or bad, they are outside the scope and definition of the ‘common schools’ defined by our Ky. Constitution.” Citing the many ways in which the charter law allows charter schools to operate outside of the laws governing public schools, Shepherd concluded
This charter school legislation is effectively an attempt to bypass the system of common schools, and establish a separate class of publicly funded but privately controlled schools that have unique autonomy in management and operation of schools... This “separate and unequal” system of charter schools is inconsistent with the constitutional requirements for a common school system.
Shepherd also pointed to Section 186 of the state constitution, which he quoted in its entirety:
The violation of Section 186 of the Ky. Constitution is even more clear. That provision requires that “All funds accruing to the school fund shall be used for the maintenance of the public schools of the Commonwealth, and for no other purpose, and the General Assembly shall by general law prescribe the manner of the distribution of the public school fund among the school districts and its use for public school purposes.” (Emphasis supplied). To take tax dollars to support these privately owned and operated charter schools is flatly inconsistent with the mandate of Section 186 of the Ky. Constitution.

Frustrated Kentucky privatizers only had one real option, and that option was proposed in January of this year. HB 2 proposes a constitutional amendment that would fix all that restrictive public school language and make it okee dokee for taxpayer dollars to be spent on charter and voucher schools. It's not complicated; the new language says

The General Assembly may provide financial support for the education of students outside the system of common schools. The General Assembly may exercise this authority by law, Sections 59, 60, 171, 183, 184, 186, and 189 of this Constitution notwithstanding.

HB 2 will put the new language on the November ballot in Kentucky. The debate is the same old same old-- the GOP says "we need to give poor kids a chance" and the Dems say "So, give more support to the schools that most of them already attend."

Kentucky is way behind the curve on these issues, so much so that journalists include lines like "Advocates of government support for private and charter schools refer to such efforts as 'school choice' initiatives." just in case readers don't know what "school choice" refers to.

Protect Our Schools KY has been launched by public education supporters, including teachers, administrators, and other supporters. Louisville Puiblic Media reported from Perry County.

Sawyer Noe, a recent graduate of Knott County Schools, said the constitutional change would divert funding from public schools.

“Not only are we being asked to allow our tax dollars to subsidize a private education for the select few, but we are being asked to do so at a time when public schools are having to cut critical services,” Noe said.

The actual question on the ballot will be

To give parents choices in educational opportunities for their children, are you in favor of enabling the General Assembly to provide financial support for the education costs of students in kindergarten through 12th grade who are outside the system of common (public) schools by amending the Constitution of Kentucky as stated below?

Here's hoping that public school supporters are able to muster a hefty heap of "no" in November. 

Sunday, May 26, 2024

ICYMI: Memorial Day Washout Edition (5/26)

No parade tomorrow, which is a bummer, but the incoming weather has spooked the parade's organizers. Won't feel quite right without the annual march down our main street, but sometimes the weather just can't be ignored. Have a good weekend, and here's a whole big lot of reading for you.

From the New Yorker, by Jessica Winter. I'm reading Mike Hixenbaugh's book about Southlake, and you should, too, but in the meantime, here's a quick overview of the events that turned out to be the cutting edge of the new wave of culture panic.

For ProPublica, Jennifer Berry Hawes travels to Camden, Alabama to remind us that that thing we like to think we don't do any more, we absolutely still do.

A reminder that sometimes the issues of education on the ground are not big, deep policy questions.

FAQ: Education Savings Accounts and private school tuition in Iowa

Last month Jason Fontana and Jennifer Jennings published a working paper showing that vouchers led direction to tuition increases in Iowa. That was followed by a bunch of privatizers complaining, "but-but-but..." So here are the answers to all of those objections.

Evidence That KIPP Is Still Abusing Students

At Schools Matter, James Horn points to a new case that suggests KIPP hasn't entirely cleaned up their act.

If You Give The Moms A Majority…

In Florida, Sue Kingery Woltanski with a close-up look at one district where the board has gone off the rails, thanks to Moms for Liberty and their good buddy Ron DeSantis. 

Columbus school board members at odds over leaked task force document

If your plan is to screw over your teachers and gaslight your constituents, maybe you shouldn't write the plan down.

A Meaningless Education

John Warner in Inside Higher Education writes about the student search for meaning and for money. Fun tidbit: "selling out" is no longer a thing.

Jose Luis Vilson on math and society and much more.

How Arizona’s school voucher program turned into a tax break for the wealthy

Copper Courier with a simple, brief overview of Arizona's voucher boondoggle.

Horticulture, horses and ‘Chill Rooms’: One district goes all-in on mental health support

Javeria Salman visits Pittsburgh's Northgate district for Hechinger. A look at a big time investment in mental health supports for students.

Black Teachers Matter. Why Aren’t Schools Trying to Keep Them?

Shariff El-Mekki addresses the issue of retaining Black teachers and offers some resources.

Conservative groups stand in way of governor’s private-school vouchers

Sam Stockard for Tennessee Lookout describes the terrain in Tennessee when it heads into the next round of headbutting over vouchers.

Feeding La. Gov Landry’s Universal School Voucher GATOR

Louisiana has its own push to expand and extend vouchers (plus a snappy name). The indispensable Mercedes Schneider has the story.

Moms for Liberty to spend over $3 million targeting presidential swing state voters

Somebody (they'd rather not say who) has given M4L a cool $3 million to go help the GOP win swing states, further fulfilling their role as conservative political operatives.

Vouchers undermine efforts to provide an excellent public education for all

From the Economic Policy Institute, a pretty direct analysis of what vouchers do and do not do.

Under Ryan Walters, Oklahoma lost federal funding to help schools respond to tragedies

Walters continues to be not good at his job.

Meanwhile, members of his own party think maybe taxpayers should be bankrolling his personal PR campaign.

How a Lancaster charity linked to a private Christian college influences public school policy in Pa.

Here in PA, the Independence Law Center has been the one stop shop for districts that want to ban books and make culture panic policy. Here's one piece of the puzzle of where they get their money.

Pennsylvania Treasurer candidate pledges to “fight” school vouchers

1) She articulates an absolute hard stand against vouchers in PA. 2) Look, vouchers are an issue in a non-education state race.

How Community Schools are Transforming Public Education

In The Public Interest with a look at the community schools movement and what's going on these days. It would make a good model for true public education.

‘Scary’: public-school textbooks the latest target as US book bans intensify

From The Guardian. Now they're coming after chapters in textbooks, like the chapters about vaccines and climate change.

The Schools Where the Western Canon Is King

Kiera Butler for Mother Jones takes a look at the classical schools movement and its ties to certain brands of conservatism.

Broad Coalition of Religious and Civil Rights Organizations Condemns Use of Chaplains as Public School Counselors

The movement to use "chaplains" to sneak Christianity into schools has stirred up opposition among actual chaplains. Jan Resseger has the story.

On your mark, AI is set. Go?

Benjamin Riley's substack Cognitive Resonance is a new addition to the Curmudgucation Institute blogroll, with lots worthwhile to say regarding AI in education. Plus in this one he quotes me.

Rex Huppke with a personal piece in USA Today. I agree. Don't wait.

You'll see NAR pop up more and more, a dominionist hard-core far right christianist movement. This guide from Religious Dispatches covers the basics.

Want something else to worry about for the future? How about a Supreme Court justice who thinks Brown v. Board is a mistake that needs to be reversed.

A Message From Your Child’s New ChatGPTchr©

Jay Wamsted envisions a whole new first day of school.

I was busy this week. Not one, but two pieces about a new report from Ed Voters PA showing waste in PA's cyber charters. A nice focused one for Forbes, and for Bucks County Beacon, a deeper dive that looks at the historical context of cyber-shenanigans.

Also for Forbes, in Idaho, the attacks on libraries has led to at least one public library becoming adults only. 

Join me on substack. It's free and easy!

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Who Really Needs SEL?

I like TC Weber's work because he manages to so adeptly fuse looking at policy and policy maker shenanigans with the more on-the-ground view of how students and parents experience schools.

There's much worth reading in his most recent post, but this is the line that really jumped out at me:
I continue to be amazed at the amount of money we sink into social and emotional learning while failing to implement those meaningful practices into adult interactions.

I've made my points about SEL before. I think attempts to formalize it and teach it in deliberate classroom instruction are a mistake. that at best they are just kind of silly and at worst result in entering a Human Decency Grade in a student's permanent record. At the same time, actual SEL is inseparable from the classroom. That's because young humans are always learning social-emotional stuff, always learning how to function like human beings in the world. Every adult in a child's life is modeling some sort of social and emotional behavior. Every "this teacher changed my life" story an SEL story.

Folks who want to somehow get SEL out of education and just go back to learnin' reading, writing and 'rithmetic are asking to eat chicken soup without any both, to be married without having another person involved. This is the empty view of education as some sort of content delivery system, a process by which facts are poured into a young human's brain, perhaps by the latest version of computerized algorithmic "education." 

Except here's the thing-- even that approach includes SEL, even if the SEL lesson delivered is "Your humanity doesn't matter" or "Life is strictly transactional" or "Only some peoples' feelings matter" or, in the case of your AI personalized computer program, "Some people are not worth bothering to have human interactions with."

So even folks like the "premiere pronatalists" who believe Certain People should have lots of kids, but who raise their own kids by hanging an iPad around two year old's neck and smacking a toddler in the face for bumping a table-- well, they certainly imbue their children with all sorts of SEL lessons. Will a school program overwrite the SEL lessons taught at home? 

Every school is chock full of SEL in the form of the school's culture and the teacher's classroom culture. This is a big reason that so many schools are absolutely wasting money on formal SEL programs. A nice little program teaching tolerance and kindness for thirty minutes a week cannot hope to make the slightest dent in a school where adults emphasize meanness-enforced compliance all day every day. 

If your administrators and teachers spend every day grinding down students to get them to fall in line and do as their told, that is your SEL program. Research shows that some schools and some states have huge disparities between Black and White students when it comes to suspensions for defiant, disruptive, or disorderly behavior; if you are one of those schools, that's your SEL program. My school, for a time, had obviously selective enforcement of dress code; whether an outfit was a violation or not depended on how good you looked in it. Don't think for a moment that our students didn't learn some social and emotional lessons from that. 

If you want students to learn grace and kindness, your faculty and staff and administration have to model grace and kindness (recognizing that grace and kindness can wear a wide variety of faces, and not all of them are warm and fuzzy). If you want students to develop socially and emotionally healthy interactions with each other, the adults in your school have to model socially and emotionally healthy interactions with each other (again recognizing that there are sooooo many ways to do that).

None of this requires sacrifice of time that could be devoted to content, because SEL is embedded in all the work of a school. It's not a what, but a how. 

Who really needs SEL? The adults in the building. If they aren't up to speed, all the "Character Strong" sessions in the world will make a difference. Soft skills, human decency (whatever you think that looks like), kindness, grace, respect, integrity, honesty--these all run downhill in any organization, and in schools, students are at the bottom of the hill. It requires leadership and personal commitment. It's up to adults to be thoughtful and deliberate about what they send rolling down that hill. 

Thursday, May 23, 2024

OH: Vouchers for Jesus

I can vaguely remember a time when the Heritage Foundation didn't wear its conservative christianist heart on its sleeve, but those days seem gone.

Witness this latest award from Heritage. Their 2024 Innovation Prize winers include Their 2024 Innovation Prize winers include outfits like the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, The Claremont Institute, Feds for Freedom, Immigration Accountability Project, and the Center for Christian Virtue.

CCV is an Ohio organization that started out in 1983 as the Citizens for Community Values. 
The First Amendment ensures that people of all faiths are free to exercise their beliefs in their day-to-day lives. For Christians, this freedom is essential because our faith compels us to act – to seek the good of our neighbors and follow God’s word daily.

Yet throughout the country, laws are in place to restrict religious freedom, and to punish people of faith because of their beliefs. For this reason, protecting religious freedom is our top priority at CCV. 

I often think that ancient Christians would be baffled by what modern christianists consider "punishment" for their beliefs. The modern definition of punishment seems to be stuck on things like "not allowed to discriminate freely against people of whom we disapprove" and "not allowed to grab as much taxpayer money as we wish." 

As punishment goes historically, it seems like tame stuff. But CCV is there to stand up against it by pushing "lifesaving legislation, including bills to prohibit abortion at the moment a heartbeat is detected in an unborn child, expand Ohio’s school choice programs, and protect religious freedom."

CCV leadership include president Aaron Baer, a comms professional (Ohio University '09) from Arizona, where he was a policy advisor for the attorney general's office. He helped launch the Ohio Christian Education Network, most noted for successfully suing the Ohio health department for closing Christian schools during the pandemic. OCEN has its own executive director, Troy McIntosh, a private Christian school vet. 

CCV isn't particularly coy about where they stand on the whole public education thing, as they explain in their release about winning the Heritage award:
CCV will receive a $100,000 award to support its Education Restoration Initiative, addressing Ohio's academically broken and morally corrupt government-run education system. The award will expand CCV's Ohio Christian Education Network (OCEN) model, which helps churches operate full-time, in-person Christian schools Monday through Friday. CCV plans on leveraging Ohio's EdChoice program to offer a moral and quality education to students at little to no cost, especially to those below the federal poverty line. CCV intends to launch dozens of schools across Ohio and export this model to other states to serve and save children across the country.

 I'm not sure exactly when we shifted gears from simply alleging that public schools didn't educate very well to also accusing them of being morally corrupt. But Baer is sure that we have an "educational crisis" because "agenda-driven bureaucrats are pushing political ideologies in the classroom."

And Heritage is right there with him. Upon delivering the award, Heritage president Kevin Roberts declared:

So much of our nation's societal decay stems from our education system, and institutions like CCV are spearheading the effort to save our children and restore morality and sanity in our schools.

It's all a reminder that Ohio's voucher program is about replacing a public non-sectarian school system with one that is explicitly Christian, and to do it in a way that circumvents any actual national discussion about whether this is a good idea or not. But I guess a conversation like that would be punishment.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

CO: GOP Says Pull All Kids Out Of School

Colorado's Democrat-led legislature passed HB 24-1039, a bill that requires school employes and contractors to address a student using that student's chosen name, and deems a refusal to do so discrimination (and it applies to charters, too). 

Colorado's GOP is not taking it well.

In a "call to action" email blast to Republican party members, Darcy Schoening, Director of Special Initiatives, had plenty of choice words.
Colorado Kids should be able to attend public schools, receive a quality education, and be free from indoctrination, but that is far from reality. In reality, all Colorado parents should be aiming to remove their kids from public education.

Emphasis hers. The e-mail also announces that the GOP's next policy 

aims to save Colorado children from progressive Democrats who want to turn more kids trans by requiring teachers to use "pronouns" that do not make any sense and cause gender confusion.

Because pronouns are how you turn kids trans. Schoening called the bill's sponsors far left progressives, "two of whom do not know their own genders and do not have children." And the GOP envisions how this will all go down

If your child decides he identifies as a girl because he is angry with you, or all of his friends are doing it, the Colorado government will actively encourage his new fetish by allowing him to identify as "she," "they," or whatever nonsensical terms your son's teachers and peers may dream up...all without notifying you of your child's disturbing behavior, which should be treated rather then encouraged.

Because that's why kids turn trans. Pronouns, peer pressure, and anger at parents. 

The goal here is clear; the Colorado legislature seeks to break down the family unit while convincing kids that government knows best.

Emphasis hers. 

The Colorado government is preying on our children and forcing their safety and educational growth to play second fiddle to the feelings of trans males who are pushing the indoctrination of our children into harmful sexual situations...this must stop.

There's more in this vein, plus a ready-made resolution opposing the new law for your local board to sign, a "sample religious exemption resolution."

This is all old hat for Schoening, who was up until last fall the chapter chair up until last fall the chapter chair of the El Paso County Moms for Liberty chapter. As chair, she offered some thoughts about gender issues: when CNN attended a chapter meeting, they heard this nugget:

For example, Schoening raised the idea that a tomboy – a girl who wore flannel and sneakers – would be told by a teacher, “You know, it might be time to gender transition. Let’s go talk to the school therapist. Let’s go talk to a physician. Let’s do this.” Schoening said she did not know any tomboys who’d actually transitioned after social pressure. But, she said, “Imagine the kids that aren’t strong enough to go talk to their parents and say, ‘My teacher is trying to gender transition me.’ We’re speaking for those kids. And those parents who aren’t made aware.”
Further, Schoening claimed 8-year-old boys could get surgery to remove their penises, and that she feared her state would pass a law saying if parents refused to have their boys’ penises surgically removed, the state would take them away. She thought this issue would eventually go to the US Supreme Court.
CNN asked Schoening if she was saying she believed there was some kind of high-level coordinated effort to make more children trans and gay. “There is,” she said. Who would be directing it? “Teachers’ unions, and our president, and a lot of funding sources,” she said. Why would they do that? “Because it breaks down the family unit,” she said. And why would they want that? “So that conservative values are broken down, and that we can slowly erode away at constitutional rights,” she said.

None of this is related to reality, but it's the kind of thinking apparently now animating the state's Republican Party. 

Schoening stepped down from her M4L post in September saying "I will no longer be operating under a brand." She took personal credit for much of the chapters action, saying of two policy achievements and M4L, "In fact, they really don’t have much policy support or guidance at all. So that was me, and I feel like it would just be more effective for me to be able to reach these school districts as myself rather than as a convoluted group." As for the M4L stance on LGBTQ--

Some of the people that I care about most in the world identify as LGBTQ. I think until a couple of years ago, we were all under this understanding that people we all have the same rights. I, myself, as a restaurant owner three years ago, was very, very adamant of baking cakes and making sure that everybody felt welcome all of the time. When things started to change, and it wasn’t to an anti-LGBTQ stance, it was to my feelings, which I believe a lot of people feel the same way with, ‘Hey guys, you know, you already have rights.’ And so the pushing of this into the schools —
I feel like the left is using a historically disenfranchised population and they’re using them in a way that is not beneficial to them.

All of this is where you end up if you believe that LGBTQ persons are not an ordinary human thing, but must all be recruited and coerced and tricked and seduced into being LGBTQ because otherwise no such people would exist. Even though all of human history tells us that LGBTQ persona are, in fact, an ordinary part of the broad spectrum of humanity. This is also where you end up if you imagine that coming out as LGBTQ gets you all sorts of cool benefits and treats and not pressure, abuse, broken family relationships, and just generally increases the risk for young people of suicide and/or homelessness. 

I feel sad for folks who feel this level of LGBTQ panic, sad for how fragile and threatening the world they imagine must feel. I would feel way more sad for them if their behavior and rhetoric were not such a threat to the health and safety of young LGBTQ persons. I would feel more sad for them if their panic did not lead to calls to blow up the public education system entirely, just because they're afraid that some students will get the LGBTQ cooties on them in school.

On the splintered GOP of Colorado, Schoening says that they're not "going to repair this" or woo independents, but instead need to focus on getting and keeping control of school boards, city councils, other local government positions. And she certainly doesn't seem to be trying to appeal to folks outside the base with this email. But then, when she left M4L, she did make a prediction:

In the coming months, you’ll see an announcement from me that will forever change the Colorado education landscape, and I can barely keep that to myself. In the meantime, I’ll be carrying out the important work of raising funds for the State GOP and continuing the work of saving our kids from the left.

I don't know that the Schoening's GOP is changing the education landscape, but we'll see if this kind of LFBTQ panic helps them raise money or get all the children out of schools.

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

AI Proves Adept At Bad Writing Assessment

AI is not responsible for the rise if bad writing assessment, but it is promising to provide the next step in that little journey to hell.

Let me offer a quick recap of bad writing assessment, much of which I experienced first hand here in Pennsylvania. The Keystone State a few decades back launched the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) writing assessment. Assessing those essays from across the state was, at first, a pretty interesting undertaking-- the state selected a whole boatload of teachers, brought them to a hotel, and had them spend a weekend scoring those assessments.

I did it twice. It was pretty cool (and somewhere, I have a button the state gave us that says "I scored 800 times in Harrisburg). Much about it was not entirely impressive. Each essay was scored by two teachers, and for their scores to "count" they had to be identical or adjacent-- and on a five point scale, the odds are good that you'll meet that standard pretty easily. We were given a rubric and trained for a few hours in "holistic grading", and the rubric was pretty narrow and focused, but still left room for our professional judgment.

But then the state, like many others, stopped using teachers. It was easier to put an ad on craigslist, hire some minimum wage workers, train them for half a day, and turn them loose. Cheaper, and they didn't bring up silly things like whether or not a student's argument made sense or was based on actual true facts. (There is a great old article out there by someone who did this, but I can't find it on line). 

Pennsylvania used this system for years, and my colleagues and I absolutely gamed it. We taught our students, when writing their test essays, to do a couple of simple things.

* Fill up the whole page. Write lots, even if what you're writing is repetitive and rambling.

* Use a couple of big words (I was fond of "plethora"). It does not matter whether you use them correctly or not.

*Write neatly (in those days the essays were handwritten).

* Repeat the prompt in your first sentence. Do it again at the end. Use five paragraphs.

Our proficiency rates were excellent, and they had absolutely nothing to do with our students' writing skills and everything to do gaming the system.

The advent of computer scoring of essays has simply extended the process, streamlining all of its worst qualities. And here comes the latest update on that front, from Tamara Tate, a researcher at University California, Irvine, and an associate director of her university’s Digital Learning Lab, her latest research-- "Can AI Prove Useful In Holistic Essay Scoring"-- written up by Jill Barshay in Hechinger. 

The takeaway is simple-- in a fairly big batch of essays, ChatGPT was identical or within a point (on a six point scale) of human scorers (actual matching 40% of the time, compared to 50% for humans). This is not the first research to present this conclusion (though much previous "research came from companies trying to sell their robo-scorer), with some claims reaching the level of absurdity

The criticism of this finding is the same one some of us have been expressing for years-- it says essentially that if we teach humans to score essays like a machine, it's not hard to get a machine to also score essays like a machine. This seems perfectly okay to people who think writing is just a mechanical business of delivering probable word strings. Take this defense of robo-grading from folks in Australia who got upset when Dr. Les Perelman (the giant in the field of robograding debunkery) pointed out their robograder was junk:

He rightly suggested that computers could not assess creativity, poetry, or irony, or the artistic use of writing. But again, if he had actually looked at the writing tasks given students on the ACARA prompts (or any standardized writing prompt), they do not ask for these aspects of writing—most are simply communication tasks.

Yes, their "defense" is that the test only wants bad-to-mediocre writing anyway, so what's the big deal?

The search for a good robogradcer has been ongoing and unsuccessful, and Barshay reports this piece of bad news. 
Earlier versions of automated essay graders have had higher rates of accuracy. But they were expensive and time-consuming to create because scientists had to train the computer with hundreds of human-graded essays for each essay question. That’s economically feasible only in limited situations, such as for a standardized test, where thousands of students answer the same essay question.
So, the industry will be trying to cut corners because it's too expensive to do the job even sort of well-ish. 

Tate suggests that teachers could "train" ChatGPT on some sample essays, but would that not create the effect of requiring students to try to come close to those samples? One of Perelman's regular tests has been to feed a robograder big word nonsense, which frequently gets top scores. Tate says she hasn't seen ChatGPT do that; she does not say that she's given it a try.

And Tate says that ChatGPT can't be gamed. But then later, Barshay writes:
The next step in Tate’s research is to study whether student writing improves after having an essay graded by ChatGPT. She’d like teachers to try using ChatGPT to score a first draft and then see if it encourages revisions, which are critical for improving writing. Tate thinks teachers could make it “almost like a game: how do I get my score up?”

Yeah, that sounds like gaming the system to me.

Tate has some other odd observations, like the idea that "some students are too scared to show their writing to a teacher until it's in decent shape," a problem more easily solved by requiring them to turn in a rough draft than by running it by ChatGPT.

There are bigger questions here, really big ones, like what happens to a student's writing process when they know that their "audience" is computer software? What does it mean when we undo the fundamental function of writing, which is to communicate our thoughts and feelings to other human beings? If your piece of writing is not going to have a human audience, what's the point? Practice? No, because if you practice stringing words together for a computer, you aren't practicing writing, you're practicing some other kind of performative nonsense.

As I said at the outset, the emphasis on performative nonsense is not new. There have always been teachers who don't like teaching writing because it's squishy and subjective and personal-- there is not, and never will be, a Science of Writing--plus it takes time to grade essays. I was in the classroom for 39 years--you don't have to tell me how time-consuming and grueling it is. There will always be a market for performative nonsense with bells and whistles and seeming-objective measurements, and the rise of standardized testing has only expanded that market. 

But it's wrong. It's wrong to task young humans with the goal of satisfying a computer program with their probable word strings. And the rise of robograders via large language models just brings us closer to a future that Barshay hints at in her final line:

That does give me hope, but I’m also worried that kids will just ask ChatGPT to write the whole essay for them in the first place.

Well, of course they will. If a real human isn't going to bother to read it, why should a real human bother to write it, and so we slide into the kafkaesque future in which students and teachers sit silently while ChatGPT passes essays back and forth between output and input in an endless, meaningless loop. 

If you'd like to read more about this issue, just type "Perelman" into the blog's search bar above.

Monday, May 20, 2024

20 Rules for Life (2024 Edition)

After first posting this list years ago, I have made it a tradition to get it out every year and re-examine it, edit it, and remind myself why I thought such things in the first place (it is also a way to give myself the day off for my birthday). I will keep my original observation-- that this list does not represent any particular signs of wisdom on my part, because I discovered these rules much in the same way that a dim cow discovers an electric fence. Also, I'll note that it gets longer every year; if you think you see a book in this, feel free to contact me with a publishing offer. In the meantime, I exercise a blogger's privilege to be self-indulgent.

My rules for life, in no particular order.

1. Don't be a dick.

There is no excuse for being mean on purpose. You will hurt people in life, either through ignorance or just because sometimes life puts us on collision courses with others and people get hurt. Sometimes conflict and struggle appear, and there is no way out but through. There is enough hurt and trouble and disappointment and rejection naturally occurring in the world; there is no reason to deliberately go out of your way to add more.

This is doubly true these days, even though some folks have decided that being a dick is a worthy goal, that inflicting hurt on Those People Who Deserve It Because They Are Wrong is some sort of virtue. It isn't. Be kind.

Step 1 of the writing process

2. Do better.

You are not necessarily going to be great. But you can always be better. You can always do a better job today than you did yesterday. Make better choices. Do better. You can always do better. Important note: having screwed up yesterday does not excuse from doing better today. No matter how lost or in the weeds you may be, no matter where you are, there's always a direction that takes you towards better.

3. Tell the truth (as best you can).

Words matter. Do not use them as tools with which to attack the world or attempt to pry prizes out of your fellow humans (see Rule #1). "Untrue but advantageous for my team" is not an okay substitute for "true to the best of my understanding." Say what you understand to be true. Life is too short to put your name to a lie. 

This does not mean that every word out of your mouth is some sort of Pronouncement from God. Nor does it mean you must be unkind. 

But you simply can't speak, post, write or publish words that you know to be untrue. Untruths are not an acceptable means to an end, if for no other reason than if you do not achieve that end, then all that's left is you being a liar.

4. Seek to understand.

The necessary companion to #3. Do not seek comfort or confirmation. Do not simply look for ways to prove what you already believe. Seek to understand, and always be open to the possibility that what you knew to be true yesterday must be rewritten today in the light of new, better understanding. Ignoring evidence you don't like because you want to protect your cherished beliefs is not helpful. Understand that this is a journey you will never complete, and it's not okay to quit.

5. Listen and pay attention.

Shut up, listen, watch, and pay attention. How else will you seek understanding? Watch carefully. Really see. Really hear. People in particular, even the ones who lie, will tell you who they are if you just pay attention. 

Don't skip moments because you think they're minor. Your life is happening right now, and the idea of Special Moments just tricks us into ignoring a million other moments that are just as important. Also, love is not a thing you do at people-- to say that you care about someone even as you don't actually hear or see them is a lie.

Also, pay attention to things and people who contradict your cherished beliefs about yourself, because there may be something there that you really need to hear.

6. Be grateful.

You are the recipient of all sorts of bounty that you didn't earn. Call it the grace of God or good fortune, but be grateful for the gifts you have been given. You did not make yourself. Nobody owes you anything, but you owe God/the Universe/fate everything. I have been hugely fortunate/blessed/privileged; I would have to be some sort of huge dope to grab all that life has given me and say, "This is mine. I made this. It's all because I'm so richly deserving." I've been given gifts, and the only rational response I can think of is to be grateful. That's important because gratitude is the parent of generosity and grace. These days, the world needs more grace.

7. Mind the 5%

95% of life is silly foolishness that humans just made up and then pretended had some Great Significance. Only about 5% really matters, has real value. Don't spend energy, worry, fret, concern, time, stress on the other 95%. I'm pretty sure that part of what happened during the pandemic is a whole bunch of folks looked around at their lives and thought, "Man, 95% of this is bullshit that I don't even care about." The trick is that every person has a different idea of what constitutes the 5%, and sometimes the path to honoring and loving that other person is to indulge their 5%.

8. Mind your own business (and hush).

Somehow we have arrived at a culture in which everyone needs to have and express an opinion about everything. If it's not your monkey, not your circus, and not a topic about which you know a single damn thing, what do you suppose you will add by chiming in? There are people whose whole day is organized around roaming the internet so they can unleash their opinion on people (see Rule #1). This does not make the world a better place, doesn't make them better people, and doesn't help solve the issue.

9. Take care of the people around you.

"What difference can one person make" is the wrong question. It is impossible for any individual human to avoid making a difference. Every day you make a difference either for good or bad. People cross your path. You either makes their lives a little better or you don't. Choose to make them better. The opportunity to make the world a better place is right in front of your face every day; it just happens to look like other people (including the annoying ones). Nobody is in a better position than you are to take care of the people right in front of your face.

These opportunities may come at inconvenient times in inconvenient forms. That's tough--we don't get to pick our times or circumstances, but we can either rise to meet them or bail. Bailing does not make the world better. Take care of people.

You are never too young for your first tin hat.

10. Commit.

If you're going to do it, do it. Commitment gets up and gets the job done on the days when love and passion are too tired to get off the couch. Also, commitment is like food. You don't eat on Monday and then say, "Well, that takes care of that. I don't need to think about eating for another week or so. " Commitment must be renewed regularly.

11. Shut up and do the work

While I recognize there are successful people who ignore this rule, this is my list, so these are my rules. And my rule is: Stop talking about how hard you're working or what a great job you're doing or what tremendous obstacles you're overcoming. In short, stop delivering variations on, "Hey, look at me do this work! Look at me!" Sometimes we spend too much time talking about the work instead of just doing the work. Self-reflection is valuable, but at some point you just have to get on with the work. 

Note, however, there is a difference between "Hey, lookit me do this work" and "Hey, look at this important work that needs to be done." Ask the ego check question-- if you could do the work under the condition that nobody would ever know that you did it, would you still sign up? If the answer isn't "yes," ask yourself why not.

One of the side effects of social media is that not only do we curate and craft our lives, but we want lots of other people to participate in and confirm the narrative that we're creating. "You're canceling me," often means "You are refusing to corroborate my preferred narrative." We don't just want an audience; we want pliable co-stars. Worry less about both. Don't craft your narrative; do the work.

12. Assume good intent.

Do not assume that everyone who disagrees with you is either evil or stupid. They may well be either, or both-- but make them prove it. People mostly see themselves as following a set of rules that makes sense to them. If you can understand their set of rules, you can understand why they do what they do. Doesn't mean you'll like it any better, but you may have a basis for trying to talk to them about it. And as a bare minimum, you will see yourself operating in a world where people are trying to do the right thing, rather than a hostile universe filled with senseless evil idiots. It's a happier, more hopeful way to see the world.

Also, this: when you paint all your opponents as monsters, you provide excellent cover for the actual monsters out there, and you excuse monstrous behavior in yourself.

13. Don't waste time on people who are not being serious.

Some people forget to be serious. They don't use words seriously. They don't have a serious understanding of other people or their actions or the consequences of those actions. They can be silly or careless or mean, but whatever batch of words they are tossing together, they are not serious about them. They are not guided by principle or empathy or anything substantial. There's no time-waters quite like trying to change the mind of a person about X when that person has no serious opinion about X to begin with.

Note: do not mistake grimness for seriousness and do not mistake joy and fun for the absence of seriousness. Beware: One of the great tricks of not-being-serious people is to get you to waste time on them, to spend time and energy thinking, fretting, arguing acting about shiny foolishness, leaving them free for larger abuses that go unchecked.

14. Don't forget the point.

Whatever it is you're doing, don't lose sight of the point. It's basic Drivers Ed 101. If you look a foot in front of the car, you'll wander all over the road. If you stare right at the tree you want to miss, you will drive right into it. Where you look is where you go. Keep your eye on the goal. Remember your purpose. And don't try to shorthand it; don't imagine that you know the path that guarantees the outcome you want. Focus on the point (even if it's a goal that you may never reach) because otherwise you will miss Really Good Stuff because you had too many fixed ideas about what the path to your destination is supposed to look like.


15. Don't be misled by your expectations.

Most of our daily misery (not the real big suffering stuff) is the result of measuring our actual situation against expectations we've created for ourselves. So many times we could be saying "Wow! A steak!" but instead we go with, "Dammit, where's my watermelon?"

Doors will appear on your path. Open them even if they are not exactly what you were expecting or looking for. Don't simply fight or flee everything that surprises or challenges you (but don't be a dope about it, either). Most of what I've screwed up in life came from reacting in fear-- not sensible evaluation of potential problems, but just visceral fear. Most of what is good about my life has come from saying "yes." And most of that is not at all what I would have expected or planned for.

16. People are complicated (mostly)

People grow up. People learn things. People have a day on which their peculiar batch of quirks is just what the day needs; our strengths and weaknesses are often the exact same thing just in different contexts. Awful people can have good moments, and good people can have awful moments-- it's a mistake to assume that someone is all one thing or another. Nobody can be safely written off and ignored completely. Corollary: nobody can be unquestioningly trusted and uncritically accepted all the time. People are a mixed mess of stuff. Trying to sort folks into good guys and bad guys is a fool's game.

17. Make something.

Music, art, refurbished furniture, machinery. Something.

18. Show up.

The first rule of all relationships is that you have to show up. And you have to fully show up. People cannot have a relationship with someone who isn't there, and that includes someone who looks kind of like they're there but who isn't really. In the combination of retirement and parenting again, I'm reminded that this also means nor just being fully present, but remembering to show up at all. You put your head down, go to work, and then a week or two later you're suddenly remembering that it's been a while since you checked in with someone. Rule #2 applies.

Part B of this rule is that when you show up, you may suddenly find out that the place and time requires something of you. Showing up means answering that call.

19. Refine your core.

Know who you are. Strip the definition of yourself of references to situation and circumstance; don't make the definition about your car, your hair, your job, your house. The more compact your definition of self, the less it will be buffeted and beaten by changes in circumstance. When you define yourself by your car and haircut, the loss of your car or your hair is an existential crisis. Refining your core means you don't waste existential panic on minor bumps in the road. Note: this is good work to do long before you, say, retire from a lifelong career that largely defined you.

20. How you treat people is about you, not about them.

It's useful to understand this because it frees you from the need to be a great Agent of Justice in the world, meting out rewards and punishments based on what you think about what people have done or said. It keeps you from wasting time trying to decide what someone deserves, which is not your call anyway. It also gives you power back that you give up when your stance is that you have to wait to see what someone says or does before you react to it. 

Treat people well because that's how you should treat people, not because you have decided they deserve it. But don't be a dope; if someone shows you that they will always bite you in the hand, it's prudent to stop offering them your hand.