Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Sandy Kress Is Sad (Plus, A Smoking Gun)

Sandy Kress is one of the founding fathers of modern ed reform, and he wears his reformster  medals with pride. His LinkedIn bio tells the story of how reformed his way right up through the ranks of Texas ed reform, which earned him the post of senior education adviser in the George W. Bush White House. In that capacity he became one of the architects of No Child Left Behind.

This guy.
Kress's LinkedIn account does not mention his lucrative career as an education lobbyist. In 2011, he pulled in a cool half a million just for his work in Texas. Favorite clients include Teach for America and Pearson, the testing and education giant that made a pile of money in Texas. But by the mid teens, anger about Pearson and the Texas testing regimen was growing into a fire that apparently even Kress's lobbying skills could not extinguish. In 2014, Pearson was caught using its non-profit left hand to help its right-hand business. And when the curtain was peeled back on the testing, it was just ugly. In 2015, Texas ended its three-decade relationship with Pearson.

Kress has been pretty relentless in defending his NCLB work, though he often hides behind the facade of a simple Austin lawyer.

These days, Kress is in Texas serving as a living reminder that you can't have disaster capitalism without a disaster; therefor, nobody must be allowed to think that any problems have been solved or revealed to be hoaxes. You must stand there in the sun, hollering loudly that the storm is raging all around you.

Hence his latest post in Education News, "Pretending We're in Fantasyland Doesn't Solve Texas' Serious Education Problems."

There's plenty of subtext in Kress's post:

Although Texas made substantial gains educationally in the 1990s and the 2000s [when everyone was still listening to me], especially on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), we have slipped badly in the 2010s [after people didn't listen to me enough any more].

Kress thinks that Texas legislators lack the proper sense of crisis, and to illustrate his point he will now pick apart a "list of points that purport to show how great things are" circulated by an unnamed State Representative. Here's the point by point breakdown, with an adjudication of which party-- Kress or the legislator-- wins the point.

NAEP Scores and Accountability Systems and the Texas Miracle

Spoiler alert: neither Kress nor the Unnamed Representative is on solid ground here, because the correct response to NAEP scores is "who cares."

USR wants to tout the great NAEP gains between 1990 and 2011, which show great gains in Texas and puts Texas students on a footing with entire nations.

Kress wants to point out that there's a reason USR skips post-2011 scores-- they suck. And he wants to take credit for the great gains of the 90s made "because we implemented one of the best accountability systems in the nation." Kress is super-proud of his accountability system and often refers to it. You may remember it under the name "Texas Miracle."

Google "Texas Miracle" and you find that there are several; apparently Texas cranks out a miracle of some sort every few years. But the Texas Education Miracle refers to the huge gains made in test scores in Texas, a miracle so miraculous that Congress couldn't wait to scale it up nationally into NCLB's test-and-punish regimen.  Except that it was a miracle spelled M-I-R-A-G-E. There was no miracle; in fact, what there was was some clever cheating. One of the best tricks was to set up a system that tested tenth graders; then identify students who would do poorly on such a test (particularly the brown and black ones) and retain them in ninth grade, then after their second year in ninth grade, promote them to eleventh grade so that they're never tested at all. Voila! Miracle!

NCLB won the prize as one of the most hated and least successful federal programs in US history. It wasted billions of dollars on testing and effectively transferred control of local public schools to the feds. And with its innumerate and unachievable-- yet legally mandated-- goals, it set the stage for all the additional excesses of Race to the Top, Common Core, and legislation-by-regulation of the Obama-Duncan era. Who could have predicted that a conservative GOP administration could be so instrumental in crushing local and state control.

It's impressive that Kress still touts his test-and-punish system, which was thoroughly debunked in Texas and has, in its scaled-up national version, proven to be absolutely unsuccessful. Oh, and let's not forget-- the Texas accountability system is based on one of the earliest versions of VAM and it was just struck down by the court

We'll call this one a tie.

Fiscal Responsibility and a Jaw-Dropping Quote

USR says that almost every district in Texas has met the standards for financial responsibility and a whopping 95% achieved the states "met standards" in the educational accountability system.

And then Kress says this:

It strains the credulity of any reasonable observer to be told that everyone meets any real standard, and, even more, at the highest level.

Let that sink in. The guy who helped set up NCLB, a system that demanded that 100% of all students score above a certain level on the Big Standardized Test-- that guy says a reasonable person would never expect everyone, or even nearly everyone, to meet a particular standard. From which I can only conclude that Kress has always understood that NCLB and the rest of modern ed reform are designed to insure that a bunch of schools, teachers, and students will fail. That in fact, by design, by the expectation of any reasonable people, some students were going to be left behind. Every one of us who felt certain that the whole system was setting us up to fail-- we were right, and Kress knows it.

I'm going to give this one to Kress just because he waved the smoking gun at us.

College Readiness

USR says that Texas has early college campuses, early college high school programs, and big passing scores for Texas' terrible STAAR test.

Kress says there's no data to support the assertion that more students are college-ready, and he's correct because nobody yet knows how to measure such a thing-- including Kress. He says having a bunch of early college classes doesn't count because, hey, maybe they're all stinky. And exit exams don't count because Texas doesn't have enough of them any more, because if there's anything that measures college readiness, it's a standardized test. Oh no, wait-- there is something that predicts college readiness and that is high school grades.

We'll call this a draw-- both Kress and the USR are full of it on this point.

Graduation Rate

Graduation rates are up nationally and in Texas, too, says USR.

Well, sure, says Kress, the numbers look good, but the claims are "exaggerated and dubious" because, you know, "knowledgeable observers" have some "serious questions" about whether those grad numbers are legit. He offers seven links to skeptical articles. He does not take a moment to consider what role punitive programs like NCLB have had in incentivizing fakery and gaming the system. Like all the great reformsters (looking at you, David Coleman), Kress never stops bitching long enough to reflect on how his own policies and ideas might have contributed to the problems he's complaining about. He's just a cranky old fart who has blocked off the sidewalk in front of his house and now wants to rail at those damn kids to get off his lawn.

Kress loses this one by virtue of lacking self-knowledge

PISA Rankings

USR points out that when you compare PISA apples to apples-- in other words, US students of particular socio-economic status to other students of a similar status, we come out Number One! USA! USA!

Kress considers this a "doozy" instead of, say, a reasonable way to break down PISA data. Instead, he wants to chicken little the same old point-- the US is average.

Now, there are many reasons for the US to do poorly on PISA exams, including the obvious-- US students don't care about the test. It is also important to note that US PISA scores have never been great. And that changes in the test make current comparisons suspect. But the most important question to ask about PISA results is this one--

So what?

Kress points out that once again we've been smoked by Estonia and Poland, and he points it out like it should be a call to action. But why? Do PISA scores correlate to anything important, like economic strength or political standing or family cohesion or the happiness of a nation's citizens? If we raise our PISA scores, then what benefit will the USA garner other than the chance to instruct the US ambassador to Estonia to go tell Estonians, "In your face, bitches!" As reform-friendly Jay Greene has pointed out at length, test results don't have any predictive power when it comes to life outcomes. So why do we even care about raising the PISA scores. And more importantly, what other educational work would Kress have us abandon in order to make room for more test preparation?

Bottom Line

Sandy Kress got it wrong in Texas, and he got it wrong with No Child Left Behind, a program that virtually nobody holds up as an example of a great government program that achieved great things. And unlike some reformsters who have shown a willingness to say, "Okay, some of this just isn't working," Kress keeps on insisting that we are on the brink of educational disaster and people have to use his great ideas right now!

We've been field testing test-centered accountability for almost twenty years-- long enough that entire generation of children have been educated while soaking in the stuff-- and we have nothing to show for it but corporate profits, people abandoning the teaching profession, and educational results that show the gaps created when schools dropped actual education in order to prep for the Big Standardized Test. We have tried Kress's ideas. They have failed.

I'm not going to argue that the Texas legislature has the answers. But they are not going to find the answers by listening to Sandy Kress.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Inexcusable

Yes, everybody is talking about the detention of immigrant children by US authorities. I'm going to talk about it, too, because this is federally-mandated child abuse, and it's not okay. If you're a little fuzzy on exactly what happened to create these new abuses (child detention) in a long-standing situation (immigration with varying degrees of legality) this short excerpt from Slate's explainer handles it pretty well:

First is the new policy that any migrant family entering the U.S. without a border inspection will be prosecuted for this minor misdemeanor. The parents get incarcerated and that leaves children to be warehoused. The parents then typically plead guilty to the misdemeanor and are given a sentence of the few days they served waiting for trial. But then when the parents try to reunite with their children, they are given the runaround—and possibly even deported, alone. The children are left in HHS custody, often without family.

Second is a new and apparently unwritten policy that even when the family presents themselves at a border-entry location, seeking asylum—that is, even when the family is complying in all respects with immigration law—the government is snatching the children away from their parents. Here, the government’s excuse seems to be that they want to keep the parents in jaillike immigration detention for a long time, while their asylum cases are adjudicated. The long-standing civil rights case known as Flores dictates that they aren’t allowed to keep kids in that kind of detention, so the Trump administration says they have to break up the families. They do not have to break up families—it is the government’s new choice to jail people with credible asylum claims who haven’t violated any laws that is leading to the heartbreaking separations you’ve been reading about. 

Here are some other articles about the how and why of immigration policy involved:

From an ACLU attorney. From the Bipartisan Policy Center. From Vox (so, plain English).

If you want to share with friends and neighbors and strangers on line some specific pictures of just how bad it is, here are a couple of articles for that:

From the Associated Press, a tour of one detention center.

Coverage from Texas that shows just how crazy the whole thing is (the "legal" path to crossing is actually locked).

From The Hill. And here's a piece about how some get to enjoy a mural of Beloved Leader.

Here are things I don't want to argue about:

How this is typically American and we have done terrible unjust things to people before. This is true. It is all the more reason not to let it go on now. This is happening now. We can do something now.

The parents caused this by bringing their children here. No. Just no. This is the same bullshit as an abuser who punches their victim and then says, "Look what you made me do." This is on us, our government, the party in power.

Their parents broke the law. So what. First of all, as noted above, mostly we're talking misdemeanors which means this is not the same as what happens to someone who was convicted of murder-- it's like taking the kids away from someone who was caught jay-walking.

The bullshit claims that the feds had to do this because evildoers were pouring across the border, because every brownskinned person is a member of an evil gang and a rapist and murder and we must get rid of them all. This is just racist bullshit with no foundation in reality (just like all racist bullshit).

The Bible. A complete non-starter, and the fact that it has even come up is a sign of how far removed from any serious religious or spiritual thought this administration is. Do we really have to point out that the Bible justified the Inquisition, slavery and a lot of other bad stuff. But if you want a religious take on it, here's what the United Methodist Church (the one that Jeff Sessions nominally belongs to) has to say in condemnation. And here's a Twitter thread listing the many religious condemnations of this.

This shameful policy is part of a larger initiative-- to cut back the number of brown people coming to this country by making this country so unwelcoming, so cruel, so much worse than what they're trying to escape that coming to America will be unattractive. That's now our policy, our new unofficial motto-- "If you aren't white, it sucks to be here and you might as well not come." That's as stark a betrayal of our national ideals as we've ever seen in our long history of not living up to those ideals. And every gutless member of Congress who can't find the spine to say so needs to face trouble at the polls come the fall. And really, when this is done, all of us who are worked up about it need to ask if there aren't perhaps other equally huge but less visceral injustices being perpetrated that we should be throwing our energies against.

But that's the big picture.

Right now, the US is sticking children in detention. I don't care for the emphasis on "in cages," which suggests this would somehow be better if cages weren't involved. It wouldn't be. This is not okay and it needs to stop now. Call your representative in DC.

The Slate article has a great list of groups who are doing the work and who can use support. Help them.

This is not okay. This. Is. Not. Okay.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Teacher Brain

"Well, your retirement doesn't really start until September- you're just on summer vacation now."

I've heard this one often since my retirement officially began fourteen days ago, and to some extent I agree that retirement does not hit now with the same force that it will when the school buses are running and I'm not walking the school doors at 7 AM.

But still.

Every summer in my career, I had a big fat To Do List. Usually it involved re-reading works of literature from my course curriculum. The list also included designing and developing unit ideas, or tweaking and re-configuring materials I already had. I've never taught exactly the same stuff the same way in any two years, and a big part of keeping fresh and refreshed and on top of my game was that summer prep. To be certain, these past several years a lot of the planning has centered on how to do more with less, which corners to cut to accommodate the most recent cuts in the year and the day. But there was always a stack of things I had to do for the fall; like most teachers, I had summer vacations that were not entirely vacations at all.

So yes, my retirement has started as witnessed by the fact that a week or so ago, I was finishing up Lego Batman II story mode and not rereading Light in August. A god working teacher's summer vacation is not entirely vacation.

But even I have been surprised to notice that it's even more than that. I hadn't really appreciated how much of my summer has always been taken up with teacher brain.

Teacher brain is the part of a teacher's brain that never turns off, and it is relentless. It's the part of your brain that is always alert to learning aspects of your students' world. Maybe I'll sample this podcast that my students were talking about all year. I think I'll try to use my snapchat account for a week so that I get my students' references to that app. I have watched The Hill and read Twilight because at the time, my students talked about these things incessantly, and I couldn't put them in context without knowing what they were.

It is also the part of your brain that looks at every single experience from a classroom point of view. In summers when I work a part time job, I didn't just work the job-- I made mental notes of what the job was like and what the work involved and consider that as part of the bigger questions of what I should be teaching these days, or even being able to convincingly and accurately complete the sentence, "You know, when some of you guys get a job, you may well find...." Watching a movie? I'd be thinking about how it might be connected to some of the themes and works I usually teach. Read a book? Every book is not just read, but considered as a possible a recommendation to students. I scanned constantly for real-live examples of various writing and usage issues that come up in the year.

Every fall I would go back with my box full of tools, and all year, but especially in the summer while I had the time, I considered every bit of the world I encountered as a possible tool. My Uncle Frank, a history teacher for 50 years in Connecticut, traveled all over creating in his "vacation" time-- and he brought back photographs he took of all the places he went to use in his classroom (and for several years to line the halls of his school). Even when teachers vacation, they don't really vacation. The teacher brain is hard to get to rest. (Are there teachers who don't experience teacher brain? Sure-- the lack of teacher brain is a distinguishing characteristic of most bad and many mediocre teachers.)

I knew I did this, but I didn't appreciate just how much I did it. I bring it up not to convince civilians that honest teachers really do work hard in the summer, because honestly, people either believe teachers spend the summer eating bon-bons while they play the slots in Vegas, or they understand that teachers still work, and I'm not sure minds can be changed.

No, I send this observation out to teachers themselves. Note to you-- you work way harder in the summer than you even realize. More than that, you don't stop viewing the world like a teacher rather than a civilian. Your teacher brain is always running, and your so used to it permeating your entire life that you don't even realize it's happening. Yes, teacher summer vacation is far cushier than what many other folks get, but at the same time, there are so many jobs that do not permeate someone's life 24/7/365. Give yourself credit for that, and maybe figure out how to turn it off now and then before you retire.

ICYMI: Fruit Salad Edition (6/17)

It's the time of year when there's just nothing as good as a good fruit salad. So fill a bowl while you read and share these goodies from the week.

What Predicts College Completion

Here's one more piece of research showing that high school GPA is a better predictor of future success than the SAT. Let's just keep saying this.

Rebirth of the Teaching Machine

Another great look at the history of teaching machines leading up to personalized (sic) learning.

Slaves, Dinosaurs and White Jesus

A look at the scientifically illiteracy being taught through some religion-based texts, Your tax dollars at work.

Why iReady Is Dangerous

For those of us who are more about words than numbers, a clear explanation of why algorithm-driven computer-based math instruction is a Really Bad Idea.

Marco Polo History

How history's stories are told. With orgies.  

Friday, June 15, 2018

MI: When Legislators Don't Understand Testing

Michigan, having gutted its public school system and repeatedly mistreated its teachers, is reaping the consequences in the form of a teacher shortage, which is of course not an actual teacher shortage, but rather a failure of the system to make the job attractive enough to draw people to it.

One legislator had a bright idea about how to fix this-- get rid of one particular requirement:

The bill, approved unanimously by the House Education Reform Committee, eliminates the requirement that new teachers pass a basic skills examination - currently the SAT - before earning a teaching certificate.

There a couple of things to unpack here. One is the notion that the SAT can somehow be used as a "basic skills examination." How does the SAT in any way shape or form resemble such a thing? It's moments like this when I wish the College Board was run by people who were so ethical that they said things like, "No, you can't use the SAT for an exit exam or a basic skills examination because it was never designed for such things. Therefor, we won't give you permission to do it." Instead, we've got the College Board of this world which says things more along the lines of, "Super! Just make the check out to 'College Board' and you can use the SAT to test first grade reading comprehension if you want to!"

But what also jumps out of the coverage of the bill is one particular piece of language:

Sen. Marty Knollenberg, who sponsored the legislation, said requiring prospective teachers to pass the SAT is a burdensome requirement. 

Pass the SAT? What does that even mean? The SAT gives you a score, which as I told my students every year, is neither "good" nor "bad" until the college you're applying to says so. I talk to someone on line with ties to the testing and data biz and she absolutely hates it when people talk about passing or failing test. And yet, here we are, demonstrating once again that civilians (even elected ones) don't understand that tests are produced for very specific purposes and can't just be swapped to whatever purpose you like as if all tests are fundamentally the same. And instead of seeing some rich source of nuanced data that can be carefully decoded for a wealth of information, these citizens just see a thing that you either pass or fail. No more nuance or richness than a light switch.

And these are the people who legislate how tests must be used and what rewards and punishments will be doled out because of them. Yes, one of the biggest problems with modern ed reform is that it's amateur hour in education. Knowing what the heck you're talking about-- that's the test that people in power keep failing.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

NY: Tireless Charter Servant

In 1986, John Flanagan was a 25-year-old second year law student when his father died of a heart attack and NY GOP leaders recruited him to take over the family business. Then in 2015, Senate Leader Dean Skelos was nabbed for Naughty Behavior, and Flanagan was moving up in the world again.

Not great news for education in New York.

Flanagan is a legislator who has bobbed and weaved on the Common Core.  

This damn guy
To make parents more comfortable with what is happening in their children’s classrooms and by extension their kids as well, Senate Republicans will pass legislation to improve the provisions that were enacted in the state budget to ensure that tests are age-appropriate for children and the curriculum is consistent with higher learning standards, among other things,

In other words, he promised to try to do things with the stuff and spray lots of smoke and mirrors at the Core. But nothing that means anything. I'm sure they didn't use that kind of vague non-promise in rehab.        

He was a vocal supporter of Betsy DeVos as candidate for secretary of education.

Her support for an all-of-the-above approach to K-12 education – from charter schools, to public, private and online education – defines the school choice movement that has helped countless children across many of our states. By advancing these innovative solutions from the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos will put children first and empower not only states to lead the way in making critical education decisions, but also empower parents to choose what type of education is best for their children.

It will comes as no surprise that Flanagan has been a great charter booster. He's been vocal in criticism of NYC mayor Bill DeBlasio for not being nice enough to charters. He's been involved in Albany rallies for charter schools.

But now he's created some new leverage.

He has proposed a bill to address New York's broken (and kind of stupid) teacher evaluation system. And he'll finally back some relief for teachers-- if he can have a higher cap for charters. Fixing the teacher evaluation system is really important-- if he can have more charters.

In some ways, Flanagan's proposal is oddly honest. It tacitly admits that Flanagan is a dealmaker, that he has no interest in any of the ideas or principles-- just what he can trade for. No need to talk to Flanagan about the merits of any of this-- just tell him what points he can make on any given deal. Flanagan's play also tacitly admits that charter and teacher interests are innately opposed to each other, that charter schools are bad for teachers and it's reasonable to expect teachers to oppose them..

Is there any reason to tie better teacher evaluations to charter caps? No more than tying teacher evals to dog registration costs or global warming studies or the cost of seats for a Yankees game? No, none at all. If Flanagan wanted to propose a fix for teacher evaluations, he could just propose it. But Flanagan doesn't want to fix teacher evaluations-- he just wants to make a deal so that more charters can bloom  in New York. This is no way to run a state.

Monday, June 11, 2018

In Praise of Vagueness

This video (passed along by an administrator to staff) has some valid points, but on the whole, it represents a point of view that I think is hugely over-valued by some folks in education these day-- the view of education as a hyper-engineered all-on-the-same-page objective-dominated process. The speaker is Mike Mattos (who I sometimes find inspirational and sometimes-- well, sometimes he invokes Marzano's name like he's someone we should pay attention to) and the topic is getting "insanely specific about learning outcomes and learning objectives." I'm not a fan.

You probably know some of the hallmarks of this general approach--
  * every teacher in the department or grade level must agree on exactly the same outcomes and objectives and maybe even use the same assessments
  * post the objectives on the wall and drill the students in them
  * translate the objectives into clear, precise language so everyone is working toward exactly the same goal
  * decide what essential parts of the course every single student must master
  * set an agreed-upon measure of what proficient looks like

Before I launch into my counter-point, let me acknowledge two things:

I am opposed to national or state standards. I recognize that in this I am a bit out there, and I recognize that reasonable people can believe that state and federal standards would be a good idea. I just don't agree.

However, I am not an advocate of completely unstructured wandering classrooms. You should know why you're teaching what you're teaching; you should have goals and objectives in teaching that material. So, no-- I'm not lobbying for the Classroom of Do As You Please.

Also, feel free to insert "in my opinion" in front of all the following.

That said...

The kind of laser-sharp focus advocated by some educational folks gives me the creeps.

Sitting a department down to say, "We're going to figure out how we can all teach exactly the same things for exactly the same purposes aimed at exactly the same outcomes," diminishes the professionalism of the people in the room and does not serve the education of their students.

Laser-sharp focus on a single objective is a bad idea, a stultifying limiting idea. I say this not just as an education viewpoint, but a life viewpoint. People who focus on one single objective are the people who throw away gold because they were focused, laser-like, on digging up diamonds. Yes, some of them find diamond mines, but mostly they barrel through a lot of other human beings and riches of another kind because of their laser-like focus.

Laser-like focus also encourages you to view every deviation from the path as a crisis, a sign of impending disaster, instead of an opportunity. Laser-like focus fosters high-strung panic instead of sparkling improvisation.

To take that kind of focus into a classroom means to define a set single acceptable path to a single acceptable success, which means that some students in your classroom will inevitably be seen as disruptive non-compliant path-jumpers. If you are going to post the approved outcomes on your wall, you might as well also put up a poster of all the things that won't be valued or pursued in your classroom, and let your problem students know where they stand from day one.

It's no exaggeration to say that my life has not turned out anything like what I imagined at various points in my past, but it is also no exaggeration to say that, on the whole, if I had been free to design my life with laser-like precision, I would not have done as well as I have. The same is true for my life in the classroom. Students have surprised me; students will always surprise you. What you have to decide is whether you will treat those surprises as beautiful fire that illuminates and delights, or whether you will treat those surprises as disastrous fire that must be stomped out and extinguished.

I'm not an advocate for anarchy. To play a good jazz solo, it helps to have set known chords underneath. To teach a good unit, you need to know the territory well enough to know where the best views are for most people.

But for me, the prospect of a journey in which every step, every stop, every move is predetermined with laser-like precision is a boring, dull, soul-sucking prospect. Yes, I will set out with a direction and a purpose, but those are always subject to revision and they are always kind of, well, vague. More pudding-shaped than laser-like. And if during my career, you had dragged me into a meeting in which we were directed to develop a unified, all-on-the-same page laser-like focused set of outcomes and objectives, I would have been a pain in the ass every step of the way, and when it was done, I would have put up the poster on the inside of the cupboard door and the very first time something interesting came up in class that was not on the outcomes list, I would never have said, "Sorry, but it's Tuesday and we have to focus on reviewing the objectives for tomorrows common formative assessment."

Yes, different teachers may teach different things. So what? Different students will learn different things, care about different things, grow up to become different types of people in different types of jobs. I'm not saying dump reading lessons for macramé projects. I'm just saying that vagueness is not so bad. In fact, if you study the shapes of chaos and chaos theory, you find that vagueness is kind of beautiful.

A laser works taking all the different paths of light and forcing them into one, single, one-colored directed beam. But of course that's not how light usually works. Usually it bends and bounces and spreads and warps and filters in a million different ways and directions, giving us colors, shading, and everything pleasing to the eye. Sure, the laser has some useful functions in the world. But it is not how the world works. You keep your laser-like focus. I will continue to stay vague.