Tuesday, October 16, 2018

PA: Testing Good News And Bad News

As was reported a few months ago, the Pennsylvania legislature has been working on finally lowering the stakes on our high school Big Standardized Tests, the Keystone exams (or rather permanently failing to raise them, as Harrisburg could never quite bring itself to say "Pass these tests or no diploma for you.")

Gov. Wolf gets a partial win
Now the bill has passed both houses, and the governor has indicated that he will sign it.

This is a good news--bad news situation. Here's why.

Good News

Students will now have a very broad range of methods for proving they are diploma-worthy. Graduation will not depend on their successful score on a lousy standardized test on which the cut score wanders from year to year, essentially norm referenced so that someone must fail, always. This new bill is excellent news for students, who can now graduate based on grades or big-time tests like the ACT or even a college acceptance letter.

For high school students, the Keystone exams are now no-stakes, meaningless nothing-tests. And that's a very good thing.

Bad News

The no-stakes meaningless nothing-tests will still be used to evaluate teachers and schools. Teacher professional rankings and school standings will rest on students taking a test that is a complete waste of their time, a game in which they have no skin at all. Will students try their very hardest to make their teacher and their alma mater look good, or will they breeze through quickly so they can take a nap? And will local school districts undo the legislature's work by making the test a local graduation requirement as a way of extorting effort out of their students (as many districts have done in previous years while waiting for Full Keystone to kick in)?

There may even be a bitter irony here for district's that restructured as a way to game the test. Some schools rolled their middle schools into their high schools. See, eighth graders generally test poorly (because have you ever met an eighth grader), so putting them under the same roof as high school students helped pull the average up. I do wonder if that trick will keep working.

So Here's Hoping

That Harrisburg completes the job and uncouples teacher and school evaluation from a test that students have officially no reason to care about. The new bill is a great step forward, but there are more steps left to take.

Monday, October 15, 2018

The Lesson of Child Care Expenses

The group Child Care Aware last summer posted their answer to the question every parent of a little asks-- if child care costs so much, why aren't child care providers rich? They have a nifty little video that simplifies the answer so that even the math-impaired can get it.

Imagine your going rate is $10,000 per year per child. Assume a child care center with forty students, and therefor looking at revenue of $400,000. Where does that go?

$45K for building and maintenance.

$92K for classroom materials, food, and administrative costs (niceties like liability insurance).

Boom. You've burnt through all but about $260K, and you need to hire a director, three lead teachers (one for each classroom) and six assistant teachers (in most states, the law dictates what you need for personnel). That means your director makes about $22/hour while your assistants get about $10.50/hour. Nobody here is getting rich. In fact, depending on the specifics of your location, the whole thing may barely be staying in business.

I'll think of this now every time somebody wants to complain that the public school system is filled with waste and that spending just keeps increasing but taxpayers aren't getting more bang for their bucks. Because what is the above model except a much simpler version-- to get a real public school we'd have to add students with assorted special needs for which we needed more classrooms and more materials. Of course, we'd have to add more expensive professionals, but we'd compensate for that by cutting the number-- where your state law might require nine teachers and assistants spread over three classrooms for forty students, in some schools we just pack forty students into one room with one teacher (because while we have laws to protect the tiniest children from being under-supervised, we're not so concerned about actual school students).

It's not cheap to do education right, or even half-right. If there are any simple truths we struggle to avoid in this country, that's one of them.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

What Just Happened To Summit?

Summit Schools were an early entry (2003) into the world of charters, with founder Diane Tavenner trying to do personalized learning the low tech way. Tavenner is reportedly a former teacher, asst. principal and a graduate of the Broad Faux Academy of Superintendenty Stuff-- (oh, she's the board chair for the California Charter Schools Association, a board that includes Joe Williams, head of DFER as a member). Mark Zuckerberg ran across the Bay area school in 2014 and decided that he would give it not just an infusion of cash, but an infusion of technology. Including engineering support to "make this better."

Not feeling the magic here
Like AltSchool, another super-duper techno-personalized charter system, Summit decided they could make some real money selling their program to schools across the country, and in fact a few hundred schools are now Summit schools, using some form of the computer-based algorithm-driven education-flavored product.

Summit is one of Zuckerberg's pet projects, and it's also beloved by that other well-connected super-rich education amateur, Bill Gates, who has some of his Top People promoting hell out of it. Summit is, I presume, a dream product for many in the privatization biz, because it has been so successful in getting actual public schools to invite it to come and stay.

Not that everyone is a fan. Take a look at some of the comments in this piece "The Inherent Racism of Summit 'Public' (Charter) School." And many schools have backed away from the Mass Customized Learning Program (a term that deserves a place on the oxymoron shelf right next to Jumbo Shrimp and Peacekeeper Missiles). The program is a model for Personalized [sic] Learning via Competency Based Education, featuring playlists for students to work through at their own pace.

Indiana, Pennsylvania schools tried to quietly implement Summit programming, and parents began to squawk almost immediately. After just one month

parents began telling the school board that their kids were not adjusting to the new learning style, that they found questionable and objectionable material in the recommended online resources in their classes, and that their children were spending too much time in front of computer screens.

NY Magazine just profiled Cheshire, Connecticut, another town that fought back when the mass customized learning program came to town (or rather, the town came to them, since the Summit model involves logging on to the Summit website). The Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative had paid for the 130 Chromebooks needed, but once again, reality got in the way of CZI dreams.

Students rarely met with teachers, but instead had lots of screen time with a computer program that was reportedly easy to trick (just skip the lessons and go straight to the tests). The program still has glitches, including questions that cannot be answered correctly (maybe some nerdy programmer decided Summit needed its own Kobayashi Maru?) And there's the problem of the open-sourced playlists themselves:

Nothing about the platform said Silicon Valley more than the open-source approach to the “playlists.” Teachers were encouraged to customize them, to add and subtract — and Cheshire’s teachers were working on this, Superintendent Jeff Solan said in an email — but the base material was often just a bunch of links, to sites ranging from Kids Encyclopedia to SparkNotes to the BBC. I interviewed several educators who were involved in developing the platform in 2014, and when I mentioned this to one, he agreed they were “shoddy.” “We knew it,” he said. They were in such a hurry, he said, “we were just throwing things in there, that, at least from a Google search, looked reputable.”

Yikes. It's almost as if the actual education piece is secondary to some other part of the operation. I wonder what that could be...

And there was the question of data. Summit is clear about the 18 partners it shares its data with, and subjects itself to its own strong privacy agreements in addition to the legal protections around student data already in place, but parents and other locals were nonetheless concerned. “The Chromebooks were free. Nothing’s free. There’s always a reason,” said Mary Burnham, a retired educator who was part of the campaign against Summit. “If somebody’s giving you something free, chances are, they want something back, or they’re already getting something from it. As best I can tell, with Summit, it’s data.”

All of which brings us to the newest news from Summit Learning.

As we look to the future, we are excited to continue expanding our impact within the broader public school system by sharing the Summit Learning Program with more schools and refining the Program to best meet the needs of all students. To do this, and with our support, a new nonprofit organization will independently lead and operate the Summit Learning Program beginning in the 2019-2020 school year.

My emphasis. Who will be on this new board operating Summit. Well, Tavenner herself. And Priscilla Chan. You know who she is. Peggy Alford-- she's the CFO and Head of Operations for CZI. And Alex Hernandez. Tavenner plugs him as a "seasoned educator," but I'm betting he's on this board more because of his experience as a Broad graduate, a venture capitalist, the lead on Charter Schol Growth Fund's Next-Generation Schools practice focused on personalized learning and school model innovation, and superintendent at the Aspire charter school chain.

At this juncture, we might want to take a moment to step aside and review what CZI actually is-- not a strictly philanthropic organization, but an LLC-- an actual business with certain legal and tax benefits, but still able to think about things like profits and control and not having to divulge that which one does not wish to divulge.

So my question is, did Summit just become a subsidiary of the Zuckerberg empire. Did Mark Zuckerberg, who's entire fortune is based on the biggest data-mining operation ever seen in human history, just manage to grab himself a piece of (currently) 380 schools and all the students therein?

If you are the connect-the-dots kind of person, we've got public schools connected to charters connected to one of the biggest data grabbers on the planet, all tied up in a personalized [sic] learning bow. If your school district decides they'd like to let Summit, I'd recommend you ask some big questions, before someone in your district gives away the data cow in return for some not-very-magic beans.

ICYMI: October At Last Edition (10/14)

Is fall finally here? We can only hope. 

Remember, if it speaks to you, pass it on. 

Every Morning Is An Affirmation

If you're only going to read one thing this week, make it this piece by Jose Luis Vilson. Affirmation indeed.


Burning that candle without being consumed.

New Orleans Teacher Held Against Her Will      

What a bizarre story! Mercedes Schneider has the details.

While Kavanaugh Craziness Rages, DeVos News Gets Lost    

Jeff Bryant reminds us about what DeVos has been up to while everyone else was watching Bro Brett audition for the Supremes.

Teacher Autonomy-- An Often Ignored Victim of High Stakes Testing

A reminder of one important casualty of test-centered school.

Quit Saying Special Ed Costs Too Much 

Nancy Bailey talks about the eight signs that someone is about to take an ax to special ed.


Saturday, October 13, 2018

How Teachers Avoid the Common Core

Here's an important thing to understand about the Common Core Standards--nobody is in charge of them.

Many standards have official gatekeepers. For instance, the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Colorado is the official civilian source for the answer to "What time is it?" through the national atomic clock.

There is no such body for the CCS. When the standards were first unleashed, the official word was that a state could not change a single word of them, and the states could add no more than 15%. The unanswered question was, "Or what...?" There has never been an official body to monitor state use of the standards. The folks who wrote the standards might have fulfilled such a function, but they dispersed almost immediately to new jobs (David Coleman took over the College Board, Jason Zimba booked some consultant gigs, etc). Sure, there's a site where you can look at the standards and read some PR, but it's the equivalent of a business site that won't let you contact the company or order product.

There has never been an official Common Core office to say, "This is correct, but that is not."

The implications for the use of the standards are huge. There is not, for instance, a body that approves whether or not a textbook can call itself "Common Core ready." Some organizations have tried to fill that gap by doing reviews based on textbook alignment to the Core, but those groups are themselves taking an unauthorized stab at what the Core says.

When the Core started finding its way to individual districts and schools, an army of consultants was unleashed to lead sessions on "unpacking" the standards. At these sessions, teachers would be put through the painstaking process of saying, "Well, what this standard is actually after is this..." with an explanation of what the consultants believed the standards said. Again, there was no oversight, no authority to "certify" that a consultant had a True Understanding of the standards.

That process was often followed by alignment--a process by which curricula were supposed to be written to match the requirements of the newly unpacked standards.

Problems emerged almost immediately. For instance, the lack of a Central Common Core Office meant there was also no Common Core review and revision process. If 500 schools all discovered what they believed was a flaw, omission, or misplacement of a standard, there was nobody to call, no process by which the regular review of the Core would lead to a Core 2.0 that improved the flaw. The Core's writers were either so confident or unconcerned that they created a system in which the standards would be more set in stone that the United States Constitution. All of that meant that if a district or state felt that there was a flaw in the standards, they had no option other than to just be rebels and change some standards anyway.

Another issue was the parallel roll-out of the Big Standardized Test, a test which immediately signaled that some standards mattered and some did not. Some states gave some standards fancy names like "anchor standards" which meant, roughly, the only standards you need to care about. For instance, there are ELA standards about speaking and listening, but they don't matter, because speaking and listening will never be on the Big Standardized Test.

The theory was that if one unpacked the standards and aligned one's curriculum, higher test scores would fall like manna from heaven. It became almost immediately obvious that this was not true--higher test scores would result from teaching to the test, standards be damned.

A few years in, all of these factors contributed to one important revelation.

What happens to a teacher who doesn't teach to the standards?


Oh, teachers still had (and have) to submit lesson plans that show alignment to standards, based on curriculum that is aligned to the standards. However, the alignment process is simply a piece of bureaucratic paperwork-- you can simply write down the lessons and units that your professional judgment considers best, and then just fill in the numbers of various standards in the blanks. Maybe you have an administrator who will hold your feet to the fire ("Mrs. McTeachalot, I believe your use of standard RL.5.2a is not entirely on point"), but mostly, life will go on, your paperwork will be filed, the district's report to the state will show that teachers are teaching to the standards with fidelity, and you can close your classroom door and do what you know is right. As long as the paperwork is good, reality can take care of itself.

This avoidance of the Common Core is also widely practiced by teachers and administrators who will deny that they're doing it. Innumerable teachers have written glowing essays about how they've used the Core to open up new avenues of swellness in their classrooms, and then go on to describe lessons that have nothing at all to do with the standards. But that's where we are. I can claim that my lesson about students meditating on a head of cabbage is Core aligned, and I may know I'm lying, or I may sincerely believe that I'm doing great Core things, but it doesn't matter--nobody is ever going to show up at my classroom door to say that the lesson is not Core-approved.

There are teachers who are less able to escape, who are trapped in micromanaged situations where administrators insist on scripted lessons straight out of the box. Mind you, those scripted lessons may also be a poor representation of the Core, but that's a small matter compared to scripting (it's a topic for another day, but the short line is that any administrator who insists their teachers teach from a script should be banished from education forever).

The Common Core Standards remain a sort of toxic vaporware--dangerous and damaging when first released, but slowly dissipating into a vague and formless while people try to recover from the damage they originally caused and are, in some places, still causing. We can only hope more teachers figure out how to escape.

Originally posted at Forbes.

Friday, October 12, 2018

One More Lousy Side Effect

One of my former colleagues and her husband are expecting a baby, and that is good news for everybody-- except, maybe, all the rest of my former colleagues.

Here's the problem. Since my retirement and the concurrent non-filling of my position, four English teachers are divided among the four high school grades. One teacher for each grade-- and that means that my colleague teachers all the students in the grade our high school subjects to the Big Standardized ELA Test.

She's due in March.

"Sorry to be a problem."
That means the district will be searching for a sub to fill in for the critical weeks before the students take the BS Test. My colleague has that test prep down to a science, so maybe her sub will be able to just kind of follow along and.... no, my district is probably about to experience a sudden mysterious dip in the effectiveness of high school teaching.

And while the state of Pennsylvania is on the brink of making our BS Test (the Keystones, because Pennsylvania is the keystone state-- get it?) optional for graduation, so that the stakes for students will be little-to-none, the stakes for the school remain large. Test scores (both raw scores and VAM-soaked "improvement" scores) are used to evaluate English and Math teachers- but they are also part of a score given to the entire building. And that building score is used as part of the evaluation score for every teacher in the building. That's right-- we still do that thing where teachers are judged in part based on the scores of students they never see in courses they never teach.

So that's where we are in this awesome teacher evaluation system-- one teacher experiences one of life's great personal joys, and a building full of teachers have to sweat their professional standing.

You may say that her maternity leave shouldn't really make any difference, that years of awesome instruction will be more than enough to lift those students to heights of swellness on the BS Test and all I can say is, Honey, aren't you cute. The test requires test prep-- not the kind where students drill and memorize certain facts and figures, but where they learn certain key vocabulary and learn to navigate the kinds of tricky gotchas favored by these test manufacturers.

Plenty of schools face this extra challenge-- a pregnancy or injury at an inconvenient time. And don't imagine that test-centered accountability doesn't affect which teachers will accept a student teacher, or if they do, what they allow those student teachers to do. Families are encouraged to schedule vacations at Not The Wrong Time. All sorts of events that used to be normal pieces of the ordinary life of a school have become dangerous bumps in the testing road.

My old department will pull together, and plenty of commercially available test prep materials will be marshalled, and my former colleague will help more than she should have to at such a moment because she's That Person, but the whole exercise is just a reminder of how far the Big Standardized Test is from measuring any of the things it pretends to measure.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

John White Remains Confused

Last week the Policy Innovators in Education (PIE) network held its annual meeting, this time in New Orleans. It's a jolly gathering of all our reform friends, and this year it featured a speech from Louisiana school chief John White, the test of which was run by Fordham's Flypaper blog. I'll warn you-- this starts out just sort of ill-formed, and ends up pretty awful. But it is a window, once again, on how fully lost some reformsters are.

White has a hefty reform pedigree-- Teach for America, TFA director, Joel Klein's team in NYC, Broad Academy of Faux Superintendency). The headline that gave this piece some legs and attention was White's observation that education is no longer a political winner, which is only slightly more insightful than suggesting that Barack Obama will probably win the Democratic nomination over Hilary Clinton. Or as I've commented elsewhere, 2018-- the year I run out of new ways to say "And you just figured this out now..."

White does note that the 2016 election put paid to the notion that education would be an important political issue. Jeb! Bush tried to make education a chunk of his campaign foundation, and Campbell Brown tried to set up a website that would position her as arbiter of the education discussion (remember when she staged education summits and nobody came). In 2016, people who banked on education as an issue were like folks who speculated in real estate, but the railroad went through some other town.

But White believes this lack of political interest in education is a serious problem. I don't disagree with that basic point-- it sucks that politicians, leaders, media outlets, and strangers on the street aren't more interested in what goes on in the world of education. But beyond that-- well, I find White's analysis suspect at best.

Education reform has made positive gains in this country for the people whom it’s set out to serve without question.

Yes, "without question" probably belongs somewhere else in that sentence, but it's a sentence that should be stricken, anyway, without question. Unless he means that the people ed reform set out to serve were profiteers and privatizers, in which case he may have a point. If he meant actual children, I don't think he does.

Nor does he offer much to back it up:

And whereas, when I started out my career in the 1990s and people ask you, “Point me to a set of schools where large groups of students are beating the odds, and are achieving some semblance of hope in the American dream in spite of challenging conditions as a child,” you could count on your hand how many schools met those criteria. Today, there are hundreds of them.

How many times do miracle schools have to be debunked? Roughly a zillion, I guess. What are miracles based one? Extra resources. Careful attention to which students they let in the door. Depending on a lousy measure of students achievement to make pretty numbers. None of that is particularly miraculous. Where are the thousands upon thousands of students who, by now, should have swelled the college ranks with success and gone on to richer, happier lives? And what do we know about the cost of those "miracles"? How many students had to be left behind in schools with even fewer resources so that some charter operator could stage a "miracle"?

And yet for some reason, today we have a political climate in which—whatever side of the Common Core issue you are on, whatever your take on school vouchers, wherever you come out on standardized testing or what have you—you cannot question the fact that politicians are running from education and not toward it. They are running from our elementary schools, our middle schools, and our high schools. And where they are even remotely interested in our education, it is in thin solutions for our postsecondary education and thin solutions for early childhood education. Somehow it’s the thirteen years, the thirteen deeply formative years, of school that they seem to want nothing to do with.

This is a great paragraph, capturing both the current state of politics vs. reformsterism and also capturing the confusion and cluelessness of some Reformsters. It's as important, in its own way, as Arne Duncan's sweetly oblivious memoir.

Politicians have decided to shy away from those thirteen years because virtually everything reformsters have talked them into in the last couple of decades has been a mess. Common Core turned out to be a nightmare, a disaster. Test-centered schools-- disaster. Charters-- looked like they might not be a disaster, but now stalled out. To the extent that White is correct, politicians have learned that many policy wonks are not very wise about schools, and that their ideas are often laced with kryptonite.

Of course, they have also learned to keep a lower profile. They've learned that you can get away with Common Core if you just call it something else. And they've learned that the next round of privatizing profiteering (personalized learning, competency based education, techno-data-everything, etc) can be better played close to the vest.

I'd also like to think that they've learned that education does not boil down very effectively to a sound bite on the stump. And that many people are very invested in education, so when you say something stupid, they will make a fuss.

White is missing one other puzzle piece. I'd argue that a huge reason that education wasn't a big deal in 2016 is because everyone, from corporate GOP candidates to corporate Democrats, agreed on one basic education policy-- "those smart guys with all that money should get to call the shots." You can't have much of a debate between people who are all on the same side.

Having missed that, White has also missed that something is changing right now. Teachers are running for office. And in several major races, education is actually a big issue. The problem for White and his PIE cronies is that the political noise about education is coming in opposition to reformsters and their legacy of educational vandalism. And with the election of Trump, reformsters had to learn another lesson that is coming back to haunt them this cycle-- when people are your allies only because it's politically and financially expedient to be so, then when it's no longer expedient, they will no longer be your allies.

White's confusion is as great as ever. When trying to explain "the brilliance represented in this room and in your organizations" is not about their ideas, but  instead

it has to do with the fact that over two or three decades, some of the nations most committed, invigorated, finest people, rich and poor, from west and east, from all racial backgrounds, have actually come together to focus on public education, or publicly-funded education. They have brought tremendous and uncommon energy to this issue, Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike. And we have achieved the gains we have, not because we are smarter than everybody else, but because we have great people who saw this as an issue to which they wanted to dedicate their life.

It occurs to me at this point that among his problems, White is a policy guy, defining "the spectrum" as a bunch of policy and political operatives (but not any actual teachers or people who work in the field), and that "success" in this context means issued some position papers and schmoozed some statehouse allies and got some laws passed here and there, and that John White neither knows nor cares how any of that played out for actual children in actual classrooms.

Sure enough. He defines the biggest crisis facing education reform and it has nothing to do with the lack of perceptible positive life effects for students or the state of actual learning or the problems of poverty and racism as they affect students' ability to be their most excellent selves-- no, the "crisis" is "the relevance of our issue, and therefore the attractiveness of our issue, for the next generation of activists, advocates, philanthropists, and politicians." John White isn't even worried about a teacher shortage-- it's the politician shortage that he thinks is the biggest crisis.

And as he outlines the problem and possible solutions, he talks about how he used to think that the solution was better PR (I'm paraphrasing here) as in a set of issues that would play better, or some billionaire who could kick them loose from a tired message or, well, "finding value in things that offer more value to a more diverse audience." He's just not so sure any more.

But here comes the big finish-- if reformsters are going to grow more reformsters like Bill Haslam or Mike Bloomberg, who can "create newness" or invent, they will have to reinvent, "be new." He wants the PIE folks to appreciate how rare and precious it is for folks to join across party lines. So think about how to "remain relevant" and "remain on the front page." Because PR.

Just when I think he will manage to discuss education without mentioning a single human being who's actually involved in doing it, as if the whole "do it for the children" mantra is only for the public and not something reformsters say to each other when they're the only ones in the room, he busts out the children-- and it's even worse.

I believe it’s possible because the good news is, whether you are in New Orleans or New York or anywhere in this country, there is one force that we can harness, that no other issue can harness, and that is the love of Americans for their children. Everyone knows that children are our most precious assets, and therefore we have a tremendous platform from which to get advocates. 

So don't forget-- people love their damn children and we should be able to leverage that love into political capital. Think I'm being harsh? Here's the very next, and final, two sentences:

But for some reason we are not converting that into attention, into political capital, and into new ideas. And that has to change.

Well, something has to change. Perhaps the cluelessness of reformsters like White could change. I would recommend less time schmoozing with the members of PIE and more time in an actual classroom, because this is a stunning display of reform disconnect, of a focus on policy winning (at whatever policy, as he seems none too attached to any particular policy-- just one that could get them winning again) at the complete neglect, ignorance, dismissal and obliviating of the children. It's a world in which education policy looms large, but actual schools and classrooms and teachers and children are virtually invisible.

And, yeah-- that has to change.