Sunday, May 16, 2021

Covid and the Good Guys

You can set this Twitter comment next to a quote from Rep. Virginia Foxx, who said that Weingarten "is attempting to rewrite history by framing her union as part of the 'solution.'"

Both are a fine example of how far off the rails the re-opening school debate has gone (if we can characterize a bunch of people hollering at each other a debate). Notice that the outpouring about Weingarten's call to re-open school buildings in the fall is not talking about whether that's a good idea or not. No, what we're now arguing about is who should get to call themselves a good guy. 

One of the narratives pushed and pushed hard for the last fifteen months has been the Narrative of the Evil Unions, who have somehow been behind the whole school closing thing even though many many parents have balked at sending students back and many private schools have stayed closed and it's not even particularly clear exactly how and where this union pressure has been exerted. Nor have I ever, ever understood what the villains' motivation was supposed to be in this story--if teachers are intent on shutting down schools, why is that, exactly? But anyway-- the Narrative of the Evil Unions has never flagged, and people who are invested in it will be damned if they're going to see the unions wiggle their way out of wearing their Evil Villain hats at the last minute. 

This is not a useful conversation to have now, and it never was. The last fourteen months have been hellaciously difficult and confusing. Schools kicked off this pandemic with absolutely no leadership from DC or, in some cases, the state, and with a lot of the science being worked out in real time, before our eyes, which, it turns out, is really hard for some folks to deal with--scientists are supposed to step out from the lab in carefully pressed lab coats and declare "These are the facts, immutable and set in cement under a blazing banner that says It's Science!!" And when that didn't happen, many folks simply blew a gasket.

It didn't help that Trump performed his usual feat of turning even the most non-political issue into a referendum on loyalty to Dear Leader. It didn't help that science and politics repeatedly got in each others' ways. It hasn't helped that we live in an era of bone-headed conspiracy theories. It has not helped that every loose seam and corroded weakness in our political and journalistic systems have blown apart under the stress.

And all of that ugly dumb mess is thrown on top of the actual problems of actual humans trying to lead their actual lives. Pandemic shutdowns have put families under huge stress-- financial, personal, and "oh my God what if this messes up my kid's whole life" type. Businesses have been sweating the uncertainty and strain and possible hollowing out of uncertain times. And teachers and administrators, have been trying to figure out how they can do their job without doing serious, even lethal, damage. 

These are all real, serious issues, and they have happened in the context of communities in which people who are near-paralyzed with fear over the disease live side by side with people who think it's all stupid and masks are a threat to liberty. 

And as this has dragged on, other issues have bubbled to the surface. Once the treadmill stopped, I think, a lot of folks looked around and thought, "Why, I'll be damned. All this stuff in my life and my job are actually bullshit!" Just now we seem to be having a mini-reckoning about an economic system that requires a large supply of desperately poor people to keep business churning along ("If they don't like the wages and benefits, they can always just quit" wasn't supposed to be advice that anyone actually took). Under pressure, some folks have said the quiet part out loud-- like teachers are servants and should start acting like it. 

We have no single trusted source of information, not in government or journalism or even scientific outfits like the CDC, which seems to have to walk back and/or clarify every damn thing it says. 

People are scared, angry, tired, and they have a legitimate right to all of the feelings. Unfortunately, some people are living by the rule that one should never let a crisis go unexploited, whether for political power ("Let's get those evil unions to pay for their behavior during the pandemic") or for economic gain ("Buy our hot new program for fixing learning loss"). 

But looking for simple answers is a fool's game. This is a mess, and it's complicated, and it does not lend itself to a simple narrative of good guys and bad guys. 

This part of it is easy enough to understand. Teachers and administrators have been trying to do the right thing, the thing that will allow them to educate their students and keep them safe, while also looking out for the lives of themselves and their family members. What that right thing might be has not been simply clear, and in fact an not-inconsiderable number of union locals include members who cover the same range of beliefs and fear and skepticism as the general public. 

The right thing has also been hugely local, depending on what resources and conditions prevail. This has been one of the dumber criticisms leveled against schools-- "East Egg High School is open and doing fine, so our school should open right now." But if East Egg High has a spacious building with great ventilation in a low-spread community and smart, engaged leaders, and your school is a crumbling cramped sealed box run by dismissive tools in a high-spread community, East Egg's experience means nothing. I can drive 75 mph down I-80; that doesn't mean that everyone should drive 75 mph down all roads at all times. 

I am tired to death of the attempts to turn this into a political horse race, as if this very real problem only matters insofar as it can be exploited for leverage. I am tired to death of people who want to suggest that the best explanation for what happened in schools is that teachers are involved in a vast, dark conspiracy to bring to a grinding halt the system that they devoted their professional lives to because the Truth is that they all entered teaching in hopes that it would give them a chance to hurt children. That's your explanation for what has happened? How about, instead, the idea that teachers and administrators have been struggling like everyone else to find a path through difficult times while still working to achieve the mission they dedicated themselves to before COVID ever showed its ugly head. 

Some people reach their convoluted explanation by starting with the premise that the solution is simple and obvious and not a shred of evidence contradicts or complicates. It's hard to tell if they hold onto that because of willful ignorance or because it's just a tool to achieve their goals, but I am quite certain that it displays a stunning lack of empathy and understanding for their fellow humans.

It's that last part that's going to haunt me long after the pandemic fades--that when things got hard and complicated, some folks revealed just how little heart and care they have for their fellow travelers on this earth. Rather than arguing over who gets to be the "good guy," maybe recognize mostly what we've got is a bunch of people trying to do what seems best to them, where they are, in a difficult leadership-thirty time. 

ICYMI: Grandchild Edition (5/16)

No, I don't have a new one. But my newest grandchild is in town, so I get to see him for the first time in a year. A photo of his extreme cuteness to follow, but you'll have to scroll past this list of reading material from the week.

How College Became a Ruthless Competition Divorced From Learning

In the Atlantic, Daniel Markowits has written a piece that will repeatedly having you yell "Yeah!" and trying hard to decide which quote to pull. Marriage, Jane Austen, educational hierarchies, elite schools, meritocracy, rankings and ratings. This is your "if you only read one selection" selection for the week.

4 Ideas about AI that even Experts Get Wrong

Yes, I know I share lots of AI articles, but you have to remember that this is the stuff that certain people want to take teachers' jobs, and we should be paying attention.

Is Critical Race Theory Dividing the Country?

Nancy Flanagan as usual provides a thoughtful look at the hot topic of the day.

The GOP's 'Critical Race Theory' Obsession

While we're at the Atlantic, look at this Adam Harris piece explaining how a fifty year old academic theory has become central to the GOP's latest round of fearmongering.

We found the textbooks of senators who oppose the 1619 project and suddenly everything makes sense

Michael Harriot at The Root did exactly this, and it's a pretty stark, clear reminder of how much the 1619 project diverges from traditional school history texts.

Restructuring Plan "Disastrous" for PA Universities

The state of PA is looking to downsize its (very expensive) system of higher education. Economists predict that results will not be pretty.

This is a map of America's broadband problem

Not actually an education article, except that it is, because broadband problems are education problems.

I spent a year and a half at a no excuses charter school. Here is what I saw.

Joanne Golan writing at the Conversation. Blunt and to the point. 

After a high point in the Obama administration, philanthropies no longer drive education policy

Matt Barnum at Chalkbeat offers a view of how the philanthropic landscape has changed in educationland. Interesting viewpoint.

What Black Men Need From Schools to Stay in the Teaching Profession

A useful and insightful interview with three Black teachers over at EdWeek

Rann Miller talks about the extra weight that Black teachers are asked to carry, and how that is tied to keeping them in the classroom. At the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Now, as promised. Yes, he's adorable.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

NV: Should Charter Schools Hire Licensed Teachers?

Nevada is one of the country's leading states for privatizers; in 2015, they went all in on education savings accounts aka super-vouchers. Well, not so super--they were not large enough to benefit the poor families that were the excuse for passing the bill. But they've got tax credit scholarships so that donors can get out of paying school taxes and support private schools at the same time. And, of course, they have charter schools.

Charter schools in Nevada enjoy a couple of advantages. One is that charters are authorized by a state board (the Nevada State Public [sic] Charter School Authority), meaning they can bypass any local boards that are elected by local taxpayers who might not want to foot the bill for additional schools in their area. 

Nevada charter schools are also excused from having to hire licensed teachers. Up to 30% of teaching staff can be unlicensed, as long as they aren't teaching certain subjects (eg English, math, special ed). The rest of the staff must be either licensed or "demonstrate subject matter expertise," whatever the heck that means.

Reportedly the state does not actually know how broadly that waiver is being used. Charter School Authority Executive Director Rebecca Feiden reportedly told lawmakers that only 36 out of 2,287 charter teachers lack "an active license," but she also acknowledged that a substitute teaching license counts as an active license. And they have no idea how many of those are involved. In Nevada, you can score a substitute license with 60 college credits. (Hat tip to April Corbin Girnus at Nevada Current for providing some concise thorough coverage of this issue).

Nevada's Senate Education Committee decided to level the playing field and put forward a bill--AB109-- requiring charter schools to have a fully licensed teaching staff. Makes sense. Nevada charters like to call themselves public schools, so why not operate under the same rules as actual public schools? Given the numbers Feiden shared, it doesn't seem like a huge ask, and in fact, since the bill quietly appeared in February, there's been no public squawking to speak of. 

There must have been some squawking somewhere, though, because the Assembly Education Committee amended the bill so that charters are only required to have 80% licensed staff. It's worth noting that both houses of the Nevada legislature are controlled by Democrats, and the Assembly Education Committee has a hefty 8-5 democrat majority. 

Not that there aren't some unhappy Dems in this. Girnus offers this quote:

“I want this on the record: that we have licenses for a reason,” said state Sen. Marilyn Dondero Loop. “We don’t hire firemen who aren’t certified. We don’t hire electricians and plumbers without a license. I think it’s important to keep that in mind.”

Pushing from the other side is GOP State Senator Carrie Buck, a charter school leader who says that Nevada charters (who get the same per-pupil funding as public schools) are poor because of facility costs. Also, national teacher shortage, which, well--no. Offer better jobs.

And, while we're here--why doesn't anyone know who is teaching in charter schools? Why shouldn't charter schools have full transparency about the qualifications of their staff? Isn't that basic information to which parents should have easy access?

So once again, charter schools are public schools, except when being a public school includes inconvenient rules, and folks who expect Democrats to support education are often disappointed. We'll see what happens next.

Friday, May 14, 2021

If You Follow This Blog By Email--Important Alert

If you are a regular email subscriber to this blog, please note that the current system will go dark in July. E-mails from the Curmudgucation Institute will just stop arriving.

If that prospect makes you sad (and why wouldn't it), help is already here. In the right hand column, you'll find a new widget for collecting e-mail subscriptions (and adding to RSS feeds, just for good measure). Sign up for that, and all will be as before (actually, I suppose for a while you'll get double emails). 

And if you have never followed the institute by email, well, now's a great time to start. Join the party.

Does The Nation's Report Card Have A New Reading Problem

Chester "Checker" Finn has concerns about the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), the folks who bring us the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), aka The Nation's Report Card, aka that Big Standardized Test that periodically fuels massive freak outs about the Youths and their Learnings.

Finn recently expressed concern over a "gag order" placed on the group by the chair, Haley Barbour, former Mississippi governor and RNC chair, which is a legit concern for any such body. This week he's worrying about a shift in the framework for reading assessments, both because it will interrupt the stream of consistent data and because there's some concern handling the issue of background knowledge and the socio-cultural context of reading, and this leads to a host of the usual debates surrounding reading tests.

None of this is new. What is reading exactly? What you believe shapes how and what you test. If you think, as the Common Core years encouraged us to, that reading is some set of discrete skills that somehow exist in your brain separate from knowledge etc, then you want to design tests in which knowledge doesn't matter, so, for example, giving third graders reading passages about ancient Turkish trading history or some other topic on which you can expect all students to be equally ignorant. If you think reading is basically decoding, you design extreme tests like the DIBELS test where students are required to decode nonsense syllables. If we drift to the end of the pool that's all about comprehension and higher order thinking, then it's hard to avoid giving reading tests that are not also thinking and knowledge tests. 

So I appreciate the concerns about reading tests, because the whole issue of trying to peek into a person's head to figure out what they do or don't understand is one of the great challenges of education. But here comes a place where I think I can put Finn and his fellow fretters at ease. Finn quotes a pair of professors from Johns Hopkins and Emery who are concerned about the socio-cultural framework:

“Rather than allowing poor performance to serve as a signal that large knowledge gaps should be fixed through better education,” they wrote in City Journal, “we will simply lower the impact of background knowledge on the reported test performance.... If NAEP follows this route,” they concluded, “its assessment will no longer be a reading test that we can trust to demonstrate where students need more help—and where teachers should focus their efforts.”

Never fear, folks, because the NAEP has never been useful for any of that. 

NAEP has had one primary use--to be fretted over by policy makers who then use it to flog whichever theory they have. It provides a bunch of cold hard data that does not accomplish any of the things data fans believe data can accomplish. Nobody's mind is changed or point proven.

And NAEP certainly doesn't inform the actual work of school districts. I admittedly don't have first hand knowledge of every district in the country, but I'd be very surprised to find any of them sitting down at curriculum planning time and saying, "Okay, let's be guided in this process by NAEP results." And I'd bet dollars to donuts that there are no teachers anywhere in the country depending on the NAEP to tell them where students need more help and teachers should focus their efforts. After all--teachers have the actual students right there in front of them. 

Meanwhile,  we still have to annually explain that "proficient" on the NAEP does not mean "grade level."

Fiddling with the NAEP will create more debating points for policy wonks and legislator staff members, but it won't make much difference in actual classrooms with actual teachers.

Finn goes on to describe what sounds like a horrifying/amazing fight amongst the NAGP members and staff (he calls it a "horror show") which, from out here in the cheap seats, seems like further evidence that the group really has lost any sense of what their mission is and what it means. Perhaps they might want to look around at the skipping of NAEP during the pandemic pause and ask what effect that missing data has had on teaching in this country (spoiler alert: none) and just calm themselves down.

More Koch Ed Privatization

 The Koch Network is getting with the times and launching an edu-reform substack. Yay.

The substack is co-hosted by Lisa Snell, director of K-12 education policy for Stand Together, aka the Charles Koch Institute. Previously she spent 23 years as Director of Education at the Reason Foundation. Her co-host is Adam Peshek, who is part of the same Kochtopus, having arrived Jeb Bush's ExcelinEd (formerly FEE). Peshek also works at Yes, Every Kid, a rebranding of some standard reform ideas

Their new platform is called "Learning Everywhere," and so far, they're playing all the hits. "Time to scrap the factory approach to education" is the first... issue? What are we going to call these substack things?  The subheading is "Individualization, not standardization, empowers learners to thrive," which kind of captures one of the odd whiplashes in the reform movement; I'm betting that while he was at ExcelinEd, Peshek spent a lot of time advocating for the Common Core standards, the one-size-fits-all standardization that Jeb Bush backed right into a conservative buzzsaw. But standardization is no longer where it's at.

The piece starts out with an unintentionally apt story about the Air Force's discovery of the problem with averages. In the early 1950s, the Air Force was having problems with pilots who had trouble flying--turns out that a cockpit built to "average" specs doesn't actually fit anyone, so they changed their approach to cockpit seat design (you can thank this development for the adjustable seat in your car). 

This is meant to be a story about how individualization is the key to everything, and I think it works, but I want to point out that while the Air Force redesigned the seating in the cockpit, they did not redesign how the controls worked, or any aspect of the actual plane. They didn't give every pilot the chance to "shop" for a plane design that they liked, nor did they develop an array of planes designed and built by people who had no actual background or training in aviation or manufacturing. They made it possible to make a few small but useful adjustments. That's it. 

But the writers are ready to move on to another reform trope. The education system is "by and large, out of date and fits only an imagined 'average child."" This will come as news to all the teachers who spend hours differentiating instruction, or the schools that provide various special services in keeping with IDEA. But the writers stick with the notion that schools are a "mass-produced, one-size-fits-all approach" that somehow "matched the needs and mindsets needed to succeed in what was mostly a factory-based economy." There's a lot of bad ahistorical argument going on here, and it's used to set up this sentence:

We live in a time when technology and circumstance require participants in an economy to be nimbler, and we have learned that individualized approaches tailored to personalized needs and interests are far more effective than a standardized model.

There is just so much unsupported assertion here. Which circumstances? What do you mean by "nimbler"? Where did we "learn" about relative merits of approaches, and what "standardized model" are you talking about? More effective how? And what's the evidence for any of this?

The writers also trot out the old "schools haven't changed," and reassert that the "modern, global economy" requires skills that "the original K-12 education system was not designed to foster." What skills are we talking about--the skill of working for less than a laborer in China or India?  "We have not adapted our approach with the times," they cry, and again, I am wondering what specifics are involved here, but that's saved for later in the piece. They do make one clear and concise statement:

Children are not factory-made products, why should we treat them as such?

That's true. Heck, I remember arguing that exact point back when I was opposing Common Core. So my question is, who says that children are factory-made products, and who is treating them as such? Actually, I know the answer to the first question-- "students are product manufactured for our consumption" has been a popular argument from business leaders and reformers. I've never heard it from an actual educator. 

So next we get a history lesson, arguing again that the "factory model" was an actual thing. Did you know the description of schools as a factory model only dates back to 1972? You should read this wikipedia article currently bearing mostly the work of education historian Jennifer Binis. After bringing out the old "100 year old model" trope, the writers cite Diane Tavenner, the creator of the Summit school-in-a-box model (with a little juice from Mark Zuckerberg). There are plenty of reasons not to be impressed by Summit (read the NEPC report "Big Claims, Little Evidence, Lots of Money"). But the writers are citing her as an expert on what "kids need for a fulfilled life." 

Tavenner is going to help them assert that complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, people management, emotional intelligence--these are the new skills that employers want (actually, they are the ones that employers say they want, not necessarily the ones they act like they want, but that's a discussion for another day). Boil them down to "innovative thinking, independence, initiative." "These," says Tavenner, "were not coveted skills in our grandparents' time." Really? Horatio Alger, a couple of century's worth of Puritanical exhortations, and my actual grandparents beg to differ.

But there's a huge disconnect in this argument, caught in the last paragraph before the sales pitch starts:

Of course, we’d be foolish to spend our time merely trying to align education to the needs of employers. Education should be about learning for life and – perhaps ideally – getting the foundation, skills, and values to be your own boss (if you want). But the misalignment between employer needs and what our system is focused on producing is worth highlighting.

IOW, we shouldn't let employers drive the education bus, because everyone should be getting the skills to do their own thing and be their own boss, except that employers should totally drive the education bus. Also, let's assume that the whole purpose of education is vocational training.

The solution is, of course, getting rid of public education.

Okay, I'm paraphrasing a lot. They retell the end of the Air Force story, making sure to paint airplane designers as resistant entrenched interests and work their way back to this:

If we want children to soar, let’s not strap them in one-size-fits-all cockpits. Let’s give them better than the current system built on averages and provide for them, instead, models that allow them to discover, develop, and deploy their individual talents.

Except, again, the pilots all fly the regular standardized plane. Except how, exactly, is the current school system "built on averages"? 

Look, "learn everywhere" is a popular slogan with those who want to blast the education system into particles, to have students earn credits here, there and everywhere, perhaps using education savings accounts to pay various edu-vendors. If you listen to folks like Charles Siler, former right-wing advocacy guy, you'll get the impression that this particlization is about getting rid of collectives--not just unions, but parents and students and taxpayers as well, so that they can never form into groups large enough to bother the Charles Kochs of the world. Or maybe it's about the idea of shrinking one more part of the government--public education--so that it's small enough to drown in a bathtub. Or maybe it's about not having to pay taxes to educate Those People's Children--here's a voucher and an opportunity to go shop for your own education products so don't bother us again. You're on your own. 

Maybe it's about a sincere belief that everything this substack says is true. The problem I have with that theory is that so much of it is demonstrably not true that it's hard to believe that anyone doing his or her homework would not see they had some research to do yet. And while it may be unfair of me, given the background of the writers, I don't anticipate this substack being about how to help public schools better develop individualization.

Learn Everywhere may not just be another arm of the privatization kochtopus, but I have giant factory-sized doubts. We'll see what unfolds in the posts ahead.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Elon Musk Buddy Ready To Fix Education And The World

You may recall that Elon Musk started a school a few years ago, because of course he did. It was sort of a private school, sort of the most expensive homeschool project ever launched (Musk has five kids--one set of twins, and one set of triplets, so God bless him and his wife). He was single-handedly funding the thing (almost a cool half-mill a year). And now one of his buds is ready to spin it off and monetize it.

We have seen this process before--launch a boutique private super-school, then spin it off and scale it up into a branded product that provides sort-of-the-same-but-not-really educational experience for a broader range of customers. Max Ventilla, formerly of Google, tried it with Altschool, not entirely successfully. Summit Schools also followed this trajectory, looking to scale up a version of its original edu-product across the country.

Leading the investor bandwagon jumping this time is Anthony Pompliano, entrepreneur and investor and podcaster and investment letter guy, all under the name Pomp. He announced a new round of investment for this plan in his substack-- The Pomp Letter-- under the title "Fix The Education, Fix The World." So we're aiming high here.

Musk's original school was called Ad Astra, then Astra Nova, and will "this game-changing educational program" will be coming "to the mases" under the name Synthesis. After grabbing $1 million in seed money, Synthesis is now looking for a $5 million Series A investment.

So what is Pomp selling? "A weekly, 1-hour enrichment program for students who want to learn how to build the future." Ages 8 to 14, with 6 and 7 year old version coming soon. Students learn through games and simulations. Cost = $180/month. So, roughly $45/hour. 

And who's actually running the thing? Well, the creative director and co-founder is the guy Musk hired to start Ad Astra--Josh Dahn. Dahn was hired away from Mirman School, a private school for gifted children located in Bal-Air. He worked at Mirman for two years; before that he spent two years in Las Vegas as a Teach for America 5th grade gifted specialist (his BA is from Miami University in Philosophy and American Studies). He's teamed up with co-founder/CEO Chrisman Frank, who engineered at ClassDojo for seven years.

Other "facilitators" include one who previously worked in the "national security realm" and "spent over a decade using strategy to combat threats in the domestic and  international spheres." A former actual rocket scientist from NASA JPL. An editor of animated feature films. A "data scientist" from Edtech and Lyft. Another rocket scientist. And one actual former teacher, a two time finalist for Illinois Teacher of the Year. 

Also on the team is Ana Lorena Fabrega. POmp touts her as a former teacher, but her teaching experience is four years in a Panama elementary school and a couple of years as a NYU Student Teacher. She lists herself as "Chief Evangelist" for Synthesis.

Pomp is one of those folks who says that schools just teach "rote memorization." He says that "the lack of critical thinking and problem solving skills being taught in our education system should be a national emergency" and "if you want your child to be more proficient and better prepared for the real world" you should hop on board. "It works," he says, providing no evidence that might be used by critical thinkers who are critically thinking about someone who claims he can fix the world with an education-flavored product that involves very few educators and is priced far out of the range of a good chunk of the world that he intends to fix. 

Dahn says that the goal was "to develop students who are enthralled by complexity and solving for the unknown" and that Synthesis aims to "cultivate student voice, strategic thinking and collaborative problem solving" and builds these skills "like no other education experience." 

Frank might be the one guy here with some perspective--he calls Synthesis an "enrichment club" that teaches complex problem-solving and decision making" through "online team games." 

As a pricey online education-flavored game, Synthesis might be fine. But I feel confident that despite one more rich smart guy amateur thinking he knows the secret to fixing education and the world, this is not going to do that.