Tuesday, September 28, 2021

PA: Cyber School 101

As is often the case in education, some people are just now noticing something that's been going on for a while. In this case, it's the financially destructive and educationally suspect nature of cyber schooling. So I'm going to try to collect the basics here in one post, suitable for sharing with anyone who's just arrived at the party.

Before we start, let me add the usual caveat--cyber schools (or "virtual schools" as they're sometimes called) are a great option for a non-zero number of students. Anecdotally, you can always find a kid for whom cyber education worked. But we're going to look at the larger picture, and there are issues. Sooo many issues.

The basics. A cyber school is a privately operated charter school that exists as an online connection. Students typically are given a "free" computer, and do their school work by logging in and completing lessons online. An online teacher, out there somewhere, checks the student work and may provide some instructional support. In Pennsylvania, a parent can place their child in cyber school at any time for any reason. Reasons range from a program that fits the student needs to a parent who's tired of being threatened with a truancy fine. Many districts also use cyber schools for "credit recovery" aka make-up classes to get enough credits to graduate. Students typically average only two years in cyber school, with many either returning to their home district or just never graduating at all.

Cyber schools are paid with public tax dollars, typically "billing" the student's home district. The costs are huge--Pennsylvania reimburses cybers based on the student's home district's per-pupil costs, and not what it actually costs to educate students via online school. In most districts, a "regular" student might land in the $10-15K range; Tom Wolf's proposal, from reality-based numbers, would give cybers a flat fee of $5,950.  (The numbers are even worse when you look at special needs students, but that's a rabbit hole for another day).

Taxpayers are massively overpaying for bad cyber schooling in PA. The profit margins are huge; cyber charters are rolling in money, while districts get clobbered and research suggesting that poorer districts get clobbered most of all. The cost in tax dollars is huge; in 2016-2017, $463 million in taxpayer dollars went to Pennsylvania cyber charters.

Cyber charters are largely founded and operated by businessmen, not educators. K12 (now Stride), one of the cyber giants, was founded by a Goldman-Sachs investment banker and funded by junk bond king and convicted felon Michael Milken. (K12, like several players in the field, has been caught misbehaving multiple times.) Another major cyber chain is a sub-business of Pearson, the textbook publishing company. 

Results? The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University generally favors charters and choice, but their research results about cyber schools is pretty harsh. Cybers were found not just to be weaker than the home school in academics, leaving students half a year behind in English and a full year behind in math*-- in effect, a student would be just as far ahead to stay home and play video games for a year. In Pennsylvania, no cyber charter has ever met the state PSSA or Keystone testing benchmarks for academic performance

The picture is so bad that in 2016, the National Alliance for Public [sic] Charter Schools and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers--people whose whole business is to promote charters--issued a report saying that virtual charters were in big trouble.

Back then, there were 135 cybers operating with 180,000, with the majority in the big three states for cybers-- California, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. One quarter of the cybers enrolled 80% of all cyber students, meaning that most cyber students were in "schools" of over 1,000 students. Student-teacher ratios in cyber schools can get pretty high, though cybers tend to be pretty coy about the actual numbers.

There are operational issues. Student attendance is just a matter of logging in each day. More can be done--Minnesota actually implemented an aggressive and effective cyber-truancy program. But in PA, we're not doing it.

Oversight of charters is minimal. When Nicholas Trombetta used Pennsylvania Cyber School to funnel $8 million tax dollars to himself, it was federal authorities and not the state that finally caught him. Two years ago the Philadelphia Inquirer discovered that of Pennsylvania's 15 cyber charters, 10 were operating with expired charters. Cybers are not even subjected to audits. Multiple attempts have been made by members of both parties to tighten the rules so that cyber charters would be subject to, at least, the same rules as everyone else. But cyber charters lobby hard, and spend plenty of money in Harrisburg (a national pattern). Some states are pushing back against bad cybers, but in PA, there's still no progress.

The pandemic has, of course, given a big boost to cyber enrollment, and they are not above using anti-mask panic to help lift their numbers. Pennsylvania districts do have an option to try to stem the cost-- they can set up their own in-house cyber school, which has the dual benefit of keeping the money in the district and keeping students from falling too far behind academically. 

It's a mess, and it's draining small rural districts like the ones in my area. I often share this factoid--almost ten years ago, my old district closed an elementary school in hopes of saving about $800K. Their cyber school costs that year? About $800K. And to add insult to injury, as school boards try to deal with this large (and unpredictable) loss of revenue by cutting programs, the public slams them for doing a bad job of managing taxpayer money. This primer is for those folks. 

*Measuring education in years and months is extreme oversimplification, but I'm trying to keep things simple here. 

Monday, September 27, 2021

Teaching Lessons from Community Theater

I've been directing school and community theater productions for a long time, and I've learned a lot, much of which directly parallels the work of a teacher in the classroom (there are plenty of ways to frame teaching, but for me it has always largely been performance). Here are a few.

Don't Waste Time Pining for the Cast You Don't Have

In professional theater, you can afford to be picky. In community/school theater, not so much. You get what you get, and that's what you have to build a show out of. You can't try to lead the cast as if they were other people with other skill sets; you have to take them where they are and build from there.

Sometimes this leads to great things you hadn't really planned for. Every community theater director has a tale of gender-switching a role, pretty much always turning a male character female (because way too many roles are written for men, and men are not what you have an excess of in community/school theater). And it turns out that some changes strike cool little notes--for instance, when Belle in Beauty and the Beast has a wacky inventor mother rather than a wacky inventor father, it strikes some interesting deep notes. 

But you absolutely work with the cast you have, not the one you wish you had. And you don't view the cast you have as "less than"-- just different from the one you imagined. Ditto for your class. It's a toxic waste of time to be frustrated with your students because they aren't other students (e.g the awful "Last year's kids didn't do this")

You Don't Do It Alone

I've never worked a show in which I did not desperately depend on the work of costumers, tech folks, set designers and builders, and all the people working hard but invisibly as the show runs. Teaching often looks, and feels, like a solitary profession, but in the classroom you are leaning on the work of other members of your department, your students' previous teachers, the school's support staff, the special ed department, the building administrative assistants, and, if you are fortunate, your administration. 

On stage and in school, you have to learn who you can trust and depend on, and for what, and how much. Building a support network is hugely useful.

Big Ideas Need Practical Support

In community/school theater, it's not just about the actor's performance. You have to answer questions about how we'll build that piece, how we'll light that moment, how we'll store those set pieces off stage (fun fact--the awesome community theater I work in has little wing space and only enough fly space to "hide" something that's no more than seven feet tall). Failing to figure out the nuts and bolts has sunk many a production, and many a lesson. "That will just happen, somehow," is never a plan. Even if you think you've bypassed the problem by staging Our Town or some minimalist production design, you'll find you never really have.

Leave Room for Things To Happen

I've seen directors micromanage shows, telling every actor and every production staff member exactly what to do, detail by detail. It's a rough way to go--it robs everyone else of their agency, and it means the quality of the production rests entirely on the auteur being right about everything, all the time, every time. It also requires the director to exert, even waste, a great deal of energy and power bending everyone else to his will. It creates a toxic environment, an environment that people will walk away from. This kind of thing persists only because of the persistent myth of the awesome genius whose brilliant vision redeems his toxic behavior. 

We have the Visionary CEO model of school management, the goal of "teacher-proof" classes that script a teachers every word and move, and the classroom of the "genius" teacher who demands total compliance from every student. 

All of these are problematic for the reasons given above, but there's one more issue to consider. As a director, I find that when I leave room for actors and crew to create, imagine, extend and just generally fill in the spaces, wonderful things happen. It's a tricky balance-- you can't just say, "Everyone go out on stage and move around the way you feel like moving," but you have to leave some space for what they want to bring to the moment. 

The more one insists on total control in a classroom, the less opportunity there is for real things to happen, for students to bring a direction and energy to the classroom that allows learning to erupt. Doesn't mean the teacher just sits back and does nothing--as with all things in a classroom (and life), balance is needed. Total control does not offer healthy or robust balance.

Success Doesn't Always Look The Way You Thought It Would

If you are adamantly welded to one vision of a scene, you will miss other opportunities that present themselves as you work through the process. I believe this is pretty much a major rule for life, so on stage and in a classroom, it make sense to me that it would also be true. This doesn't mean you can't hold fast to things that you value, but every vision can be tempered with time, experience, and circumstances that you didn't foresee.

In community theater, it's great to have big ideas and to push the envelope of what your space can handle. But it's practical to have a Plan B (and possible Plans C through Z) because maybe that cool set piece won't work properly or something won't get built because the set guy had to spend the week on a family emergency (because everyone in community theater has a job and a life outside of the theater) or your lead won't be able to learn to juggle after all. So you move on to your next plan. And that's okay. 

If You Focus On Your Objective, You Are Hard To Derail

So this weekend, we used fog for our production of the Wizard of Oz, and it worked successfully all week--and then on opening night, it set off the fire alarm. Blaring honks, flashing lights, and the actors just kept doing their thing, and so the audience, with almost no hubbub, sat there. If you know what you're doing, and you keep focused on doing it, you are hard to move off track. True in the classroom as well. I never could quite understand teachers who were flummoxed by, say, an administrator popping in. Keep your eye on that destination and keep pushing toward it.

Everyone ought to do a little theater, on stage or behind it. It provides some useful perspective and some helpful lessons.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

ICYMI: Curtain Up Edition (9/26)

 The challenge of mounting and opening a full sized show in the age of covid is--well, in a couple of weeks I'm going to lie down and take a huge nap. And maybe I'm a little behind on my reading. But here's some stuff for this week.

School hasn't changed in 100 years. So saith TFA.

The indispensable Mercedes Schneider on the Teach for Awhile version of the popular unchanged education idea...

Whatever happened to the classroom of Tomorrow?

Those of us of a Certain Age recall Apple's big education idea. Larry Cuban looks at where that actually went.

Is the big test headed for the big crash?

Dad Gone Wild with a look at the Big Standardized Test on the ropes.

To achieve educational justice, we need more black teachers

I suspect that there are many areas in which Sharif El-Mekki and I disagree, but I see no flaws in his continued argument that we need more Black teachers in our classrooms. Here he is making it again, this time in EdSurge

Questioning Valor Charters

Cult-style SEL and a big bucks charter chain. Nancy Bailey blogs about what is going on with this set of aggressively marketed charters.

The myth that better schools will reduce inequalities in wealth

Somehow, Larry Cuban makes not one but two rare appearances on this list today. This piece is a thoughtful look at one of the major tensions in education, between public good and private advantage.

Teachers are not okay

Steven Singer talks about wear and tear and stress in the education trenches.

Friday, September 24, 2021

Almost unlocking a mystery of SAT scores

So close. Sooooo close!!

Covering the release of SAT scores this year, WTOP news noted two results and put them right in the headline: 

Va., Md. SAT scores rise, but number of test-takers plunges

It's the "but" that tells us that somehow, they didn't manage connect the dots, which is a shame, given there were only two.

Of course, they mean average test scores rose, and understanding averages is important here. It has always been important when reading the latest stories about SAT scores.

Any high school teacher can tell you-- "Let me pick who gets to take the SAT, and I can give you dramatically higher test scores in just a single year!" Because averages.

This year we measured only 5th and 6th graders for height, instead of K-6, and we find the average height of children in our school has increased. We did a survey of car prices; last year we surveyed all dealers, but this year we surveyed only Lexus dealers, and we find that the average price of a car has gone up. 

We've spent years marketing the SAT's flagship product to all students (in some states, we've snookered the government into requiring it), so as we add students who might not have been inclined to take the test to go ahead and take it, the average score is affected. That's how the results for every sub group can go up even as the overall average goes down. 

Now throw in a pandemic year in which students who are having a rough time just don't take the test, leaving it only to those who are well-buffered from the pandemic (and whose buffering is the same sort of socio-economic background that is an advantage on the test) and voila!! Instant increase in average score.

What we have here is just one more example of why test scores from the pandemic are not worth a thing. They can't be compared to any year, they can't really be normed accurately, and they just kind of mean nothing. But we're still going to be subjected to stories that can't manage to draw a line between two data points.

Critical Race Theory Panic Continues To Widen Its Aim

Moms for Liberty is one of the frontline groups fighting against "critical race theory" and a whole lot of other things. Launched initially as anti-maskers and anti-school closers, they quickly moved on to anti-race stuff. They are another of the groups that has hired some pros and generally displayed available resources that are impressive--even unbelievable-- for just a group of moms.

They're also an excellent example of how "Critical Race Theory" has become an umbrella term, a socially acceptable way to say, "I want all that Black race stuff out of my school."

MFL franchises itself through local activists, like the Tennessee chapter run by Robin Steenman, whose child attends private school but who is nonetheless "fed up with the way the public schools of Franklin, Tennessee are teaching kids about race."

Tennessee is a soft target for these attacks on public education because it has a law against "critical race theory," except of course that hardly anyone throwing the term around has any idea what it means or how one would prove that a public school teacher was teaching it, despite Governor Bill Lee saying that it's un-American.

Steenman sent a letter to the state Department of Education in June accusing Willamson County Schools of violating the state's gag law, but the specific charges are chilling. The Daily Beast reports on an 11-page appendix to the letter, a spreadsheet of all the objections submitted by parents, and they are--well, covering a very broad spectrum

Accompanying that letter is an 11-page spreadsheet with complaints about books on the district’s curriculum, ranging from popular books on civil rights heroes to books about poisonous animals (“text speaks of horned lizard squirting blood out of its eyes”), Johnny Appleseed (“story is sad and dark”), and Greek and Roman mythology (“illustration of the goddess Venus naked coming out of the ocean...story of Tantalus and how he cooks up, serves, and eats his son.”) A book about hurricanes is no good (“1st grade is too young to hear about possible devastating effects of hurricanes”) and a book about owls is designated as a downer. (“It’s a sad book, but turns out ok. Not a book I would want to read for fun,” an adult wrote of the owl book in the spreadsheet.)

There's way more in the list of 31 objectionable books. Spanish and Creole words might be "confusing for children." A fictional Civil War book is naughty in part because it depicts "out of marriage families between white men and black women." Someone objects to a book about Galileo because there is no "HERO of the church" to contrast with their mistakes in persecuting the astronomer. Also, there's too much sexy picture of sea horse mating in a sea horse book. 

This is right on par with the York, PA district that "froze" the use of some books (not a ban, nosirree) including books like I Am Rosa Parks by Brad Metzler, a really well-done children's book about her work (he's got a million kid biographies--you can see his work on the PBS Xavier Riddle series). I've read this book to the Board of Directors at least a zillion times, and there seems little to be upset about unless you find it objectionable that a couple of white people are depicted as being mean to her. After student protests (and lots of bad press), York's all-white board reversed the ban

But this appears to be where we're headed. Anything that parents or random citizens don't like, anything at all, can now be protested or reported to the authorities. Just say the magic words ("critical race theory"). We're talking broad, wide, stormtrooper-caliber aim, and it would be funny if these wild shots weren't hitting real targets, actual live students and teachers.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

If You Have Missed Michelle Rhee...

She Who Must Not Be Named is back, a little.

One of the early examples of how one can parlay two years in Teach for America into a career as an educational "expert," she took over DC schools, launched some advocacy groups, established herself as a major brand (the Kim Kardashian of education reform), and then--poof. Her career turned out to be brief after all

Dogged by controversy and revelations about her non-miraculous miracles, she retired to Sacramento with hubby and NBA star Kevin Johnson (who has had problems of his own). She was on the board of Miracle-Gro and a Sacramento charter school run by Johnson (apparently no longer). 

But you can still, apparently, hire Rhee to come speak from around $30,000 to $50,000--less if you want her to speak virtually. 

Somebody has taken her up on that.

Sacramento State has an annual Student Academic Success Day. This year's is coming up on September 27. Entitled "I Fly: Resilient, Relentless and Resourceful," the day is meant "to inform and inspire students and the community to lay out a blueprint of success that fosters lifelong dreams and achievements." It will be an all-virtual event, and will include some awards (Principals and Leaders, A Woman Who Takes Flight, Optimism). There are workshops and sessions and speakers. Three of them. 

The opening session speaker is Kevin Bracy, known as Coach Greatness and a busy motivational speaker. At noon, "leading educational expert, author, and one of the premier motivational speakers in the education arena," Jeremy Anderson.

And, as you have already guessed, the leaders and principals summit keynote speaker is Rhee

Her bio for the event is creative. For instance, in writing about her appearance on the public stage as DC school chief, we're told "Under Michelle’s leadership, the worst performing school district in the country became the only major city system to see double-digit growth in both their state reading and state math scores in seventh, eighth and tenth grades over three years." Except that her work in DC, besides being divisive, turned out to be smoke, mirrors, and cheating. She saw "bureaucratic barriers as a key problem in improving the school system," which is a fair representation of the mindset of the wave of reforminess that Rhee represents, the wave of hubris-infused amateurs who believed that no rules or regulations or other human beings should stand in the way of implementing their genius ideas. 

I suppose that Rhee is a fine choice for a gathering entitled "resilient, relentless, and resourceful," because she has certainly managed to just keep on swinging, even in the face of a single notable success in the field she elbowed her way into. I'm just going to hope that this is a gig of convenience and not an attempt to get back into the ed biz. If you're curious, you can register to zoom in on her address

Sunday, September 19, 2021

ICYMI: Tech Sunday Edition (9/19)

Yes, I'm directing a community theater production again, and in the time of covid it's quite the adventure. This time it's the Wizard of Oz, and today we enter the final run-up to performance, so if I don't seem to be logging as many hours at the Institute, that's why. But we have reading for today.

Ida's Wild Ride

The indispensable Mercedes Schneider keeps us updated on her Ida-related adventures, and how education in her classroom will prevail.

Separate and Unequal

Bruce Baker and Mark Weber have done some important research about funding and education in New Jersey.

Steve Bannon hopes homeschooling moms will be his new shock troops

The Daily Beast has been watching this political storm brewing. Take with a grain of salt, but pay attention.

Big money in selling charter schools

Carol Burris over at the Washington Post lays out a crazy pants story of how one charter group is all about making big real estate dollars.

How republicans turned school choice into a losing issue

A Jennifer Berkshire piece at The Nation takes us to the Pompeo/DeVos choice pep rally in New Hampshire. I told you this was coming, but she actually went. 

Black educators silenced from teaching America's racist past

Melinda Anderson takes a look at some effects of the CRT panic

School boards and other political targets

Nancy Flanagan takes a look at the current wave of attacks on school boards.

Our Faculty Success Initiative Redefines Everything You Thought You Knew about "Faculty" and "Success"

McSweeney's scores with yet another darkly comic look at education baloney.