Wednesday, August 21, 2019

The Thirteen Presenters Who Will Ruin Your First Day Back

It's been a great summer. You've had a chance to recharge and reflect. You've developed some new ideas, units, and materials, and most importantly, away from the dailiness of the job, you have gotten back in touch with all the reasons you love the work. You cannot wait to get back to it., take a couple of in service days to get fully up to speed, and then-- bring on the students!

Unfortunately, your administration thinks that your very first day(s) back should be spent sitting in some professional development sessions. In some lucky few school districts, these sessions will actually be useful and even  inspiring. But if you are really unfortunate, you'll spend those sessions with one of these soul-crushing people:

The Defense Specialist

"I'm here to remind you that at any moment this year, someone might burst into your room and kill you and your students. I'm going to talk about how you should react when someone is about to shoot you, presenting a variety of scenarios and details of previous shootings that will all be so vivid that for the rest of this week you won't be able to concentrate on teaching material because you're too busy looking for hiding places in the room, peering into your own soul to consider whether or not you are the kind of person who would die for your students, and just generally staring into the abyss of human mortality and brutality."

The Social Issues Specialist

"I'd like to talk to you about some issue that affects your students-- something like hunger or poverty or gang violence or homelessness or whatever drug is currently out of control. I will remind you that many of your students are being slowly crushed by forces outside of your control and you will need to be sensitive to that, which is the classroom equivalent of sending thoughts and prayers. I represent a group that is trying to address the issue, but we are desperately short of both time and money, and you will end up being depressed that the two things we need are the two things that you don't have enough of to contribute anything helpful."

The Data Dumper

"Here's a bunch of test score data. Some of it's on this website with lots of cool color-coded graphics. Here are some spreadsheets. Here's some disaggregated data on students that you won't actually meet for a few days. Of course, you can't see the test or the questions, and you'll just have to take our word for it that these numbers mean what we say they mean. None of this will actually be useful in planning your courses, but it will serve as a gut-kicking reminder that no matter how  awesome you  are in the classroom this year, all your bosses really care about is the results of this damned useless invalid test. Those of you who don't even teach English or Math can go ahead and get extra depressed and angry about this."

The Education Entrepreneur

"I was plodding along in a classroom just like yours until I had the bright idea of taking something that's a widely known teaching technique and giving it a small superficial tweak and a snappy piece of branding. I copyrighted that puppy and now-- ka-ching! You will spend the next hour looking at my nice clothes, thinking about my cool car, and questioning your life choices."

The Ballsy Tourist

"Every one of you has more training, experience and knowledge about teaching than I do. Sit back and get comfortable while I tell you how to do your job. I thank God that teachers are too professional and polite to charge the lectern, no matter how much rage I generate."

The Sacrificial Lamb

"I'm a teacher in this district. You all know me. The fact that administration sent me out here to present this program/policy/initiative tells you everything you need to know. It sucks, and they don't want to have to look you in the eyes or take your questions when you realize just how much it sucks. They're hoping that I have enough social capital earned with the rest of the staff that there will at least not be immediate open revolt."

The Lawyer

"I'm going to scare the crap out of you with a list of all the possible ways that things you do innocently every single day could destroy your career and ruin your life. Have a great year."

The Edu-Celebrity

"I'm chirpy and internet famous, which makes sense because I mostly talk in Tweets. I'm going to say obvious platitudes like 'attitude is important' and 'we teach students, not subjects.' The biggest damage I will do is the permanent loss of respect you're about to feel for your colleagues who think I'm a freakin' genius."

The Flavor of the Month

"Let me tell you about the Hot New Idea in education that your administration got excited about at some conference, or maybe they read an article.  Whatever. Yeah, you might recognize me from last year when I was making the rounds to talk about grit. Never mind.  That's over. You're probably thinking that you can ignore me and keep your head down until this trendy new storm passes, and you're probably right. That's okay. I'm still getting paid."

The Angel Of Slow Death

"What am I talking about? You have no idea, because I am the most boring speaker in the history of the world. Watch as all the oxygen in the room spontaneously self-deports."

The Bringer of Bad News

"I am a person in a position of authority, so you can't just openly howl in anguish as I detail a piece of educational malpractice that you will be required to perpetrate this year. 'This is not why I became a teacher' will play over and over in your head as I outline the kinds of actions that ought to be denounced by any ethical professional. Ten years ago I used to try to get you to buy in on this stuff, but now my message is do this or else.  What the hell do you know? You're just a freakin' teacher."

The Unfortunate Administrator

"Hey, there! Remember me? Chances are you kind of put me out of your mind over the summer, but I wanted to grab some of this in service day for myself so that I could remind you of all the ways I'm a giant pain to work for. Here's some cool new paperwork and procedures I've concocted; we'll go over those in a few minutes, because I would rather force you to look at and listen to me than just handle this with a simple e-mail, but first, let me say some things I don't really mean, like 'this is a team' and 'you guys do the most important work in the district' and 'my office door is always open.' Now I'll tell a bad joke laced with a crippling lack of self-awareness. Watch who laughs! Dance, puppets!"

The Camp Counselor

"Let's start with a fun ice breaker! Then we'll pair and share over some question you'll ignore while you pair and share about how much you wish you were getting work done in your room. If you're good, I might even let you play some games that you would never use with your own students, but some of you will play along anyway because I have some fast food gift certificates to give away as prizes."

Monday, August 19, 2019

KY: Starting the New Year With Threats Against Teachers

Sadly, it's not unusual for teachers to start their new school year by being threatened, but even the worst administrators understand that it's useful to at least pretend that they think of teachers are respectable grown-up professionals. But in some districts, bosses go straight to thinly veiled warnings. And then there's those special rare occasions when teachers start the school year by being threatened by their state's governor.

Welcome to Kentucky.

All discussions of teacher upset in Kentucky have to start with one important reminder-- teachers in Kentucky will get absolutely nothing from Social Security when they retire (surprised? There are fourteen other states where that is true).

So when you mess with teacher pensions in Kentucky, you are threatening teachers' entire future.

The recurring strikes in the newly right-to-work state of Kentucky have been about issues related to the teacher pension, an always-tender subject, as it is possibly one of the worst-funded pensions in the country. So, in  2018 it was about a sneaky attempt to kneecap the pension fund. And in 2019, it was about an attempt to strip the Kentucky Education Association of its power on the pension board. This is a logical next step in a right-to-work state that is just flexing its muscles and trying to  disempower the teachers union. Some media dutifully note that KEA "only" represents 43,000 active and retired teachers, without providing the context that there are just under 43,000 teachers are working in Kentucky.

The state wants to give more power to the Kentucky Association of Professional Educators, one of those non-union unions. They say they aren't anti-union, but they also proudly list the many things they don't do, and just leave the "like those other guys" part silent. They've been at this for quite a while, providing teachers with, basically, liability insurance and propaganda to counter that nasty union propaganda, while making it a point not to take a position on any legislation (aka supporting the party in power, aka GOP). Many legislators (GOP) belong to the group, which heads its website with the motto "KAPE Stands for Truth." It might be nice if they also stood for teachers.

KAPE has about 3,000 members, but the legislature would like to see them on equal-or-better footing  with KEA on the pension board, thereby playing into a long-standing tension between the two groups.   Legislators say they don't like the idea of one group having so much say over the pension, which is a little bizarre when you recall that the pension being discussed belongs to KEA members. Kentucky teachers found it  more than just bizarre, so they walked out again.

Which brings us up to the threatening part.

Kentucky's Labor  Cabinet announced that they believed that the teacher walkout was illegal, and that they had the authority to hit every teacher who walked out with a $1,000 fine. Governor Bevin, a DeVos BFF who has made it more than clear that he's no fan of teachers or public education, decided not to actually levy the fine, but his Labor Secretary made it clear that next time, books would be thrown

“Let it be clearly understood that the grace extended in this instance will not be extended for future such proven violations,” he warned.

Kentucky House Democrats at least seem to have a grasp of the situation:

House Democratic leaders responded with a joint statement, saying, “This administration has tried every trick in the book to undermine our teachers and their supporters. Its Labor Cabinet threatens them with fines for exercising their right to be heard on legislation directly affecting them; its Finance and Administration Cabinet all but locks the doors to the Capitol to shut down any form of dissent; and the governor calls them thugs and tries to take away their retirement. Our teachers — and all of Kentucky — deserve better than this.”

You generally don't want to start the school year with a message that says, "We have more plans for you guys, and whatever we decide to do, you had better just sit there and take it quietly--  or else." But the Kentucky governor and his GOP allies have been consistently unpleasant to teachers for a while now, and Kentucky teachers remain largely unbowed. Stay tuned for what comes next.

Raising Your Public School Profile

Modern corporate education reform has, in its own way, helped reveal many things that public education does badly. Teach for America, for instance, probably wouldn't have been quite so widely embraced if it weren't that some college teacher prep programs are inexcusably awful.

And then there's the unleashing of free market forces.

The free market does not foster superior quality; the free market fosters superior marketing. Some choice advocates imagine a world in which families just check out the test scores for schools, but if marketing was about quality, we'd all have spent decades drinking New Coke while we watched movies on our Betamax machines. No, charter marketing has been more like the PA cybers that advertised that their schools would make students happier and leave them more time to become sports stars.

But the explosion of marketing in education has revealed another public education weakness-- many public schools really stink at letting the public know what they do.

When I retired, I was surprised at how quickly my former school district became invisible. I knew that being in it every day made me acutely aware of what was going on there, but I was still unprepared for how much the school does not communicate with the community at large.

A cursory check of schools in the region revealed more of the same. Websites that are strictly Web 1.0 (the equivalent of hanging a folder of brochures on a stick at the end of the school driveway). No social media presence (except on snow days). Not even a reliable place to go look up school events.

The problems that ensue are worse than simple invisibility, because nature abhors an information vacuum. I had bosses years ago whose first impulse was always to cover up, and it was always a mistake, not just because of the honesty and integrity thing, but because if you don't put your story out there, someone else will put some other story out there in its place.

Every town has always had cranks and complainers and a rumor mill; now cranks and complainers and gossipers have Facebook. Local media may be supportive, or they may not be supportive, or they may not even actually exist as local media any more.

Meanwhile, choice advocates are marketing hard. Not just the billboards and the advertising buys and the Facebook ads and the pamphlets, but face-to-face meetings. In my little corner of the world, a conservative group sent someone out to speak to the local Tea Party group about how to get out of paying taxes and fund private schools at the same time (aka Scholarship Tax Credits).

It is easy, when you're on the inside of a school district, particularly if it's not a large urban district, to feel as if everyone in the community knows who you are and what you're about. They don't. And that is on you as a school system.

I'm not suggesting that your district establish a big marketing budget; it's pretty damned hard to justify that use of tax dollars collected to finance education, and charter schools should be shamed for it. But you do need to redirect some of your human work hours to making your presence known in your community.

Note: this is doubly true if your administrators don't live in the community your district serves. If your community does not know your school leaders by sight, that will be a problem. Sorry, but they are the people who will attract the most complaints and issues, and there impact on your school's public face can be the difference between "She did what?! Figures-- all I ever hear about her is what she's done wrong now" and "No, I can't believe that. She sits next pew over in church. I see her shopping groceries all the time. Our kids play t-ball together. I don't buy a word of it."

Your school needs to have a presence outside the building. Your performing groups should be out there playing for non-school events. You should be actively looking for events and activities that involve taking the school to someone else's turf, not making them come to yours. And you should raise your profile and visibility beyond that.

Do you have a sharp, focused, pithy slogan? Get one. Hard to raise your profile with a default slogan like "East Egg School District: We have, like, you know, schools and stuff." Is your mascot image a blotchy mess that's a forty-seventh generation Xerox of artwork originally done in the fifties? Update that. Do you have your slogan, name and mascot slapped on every conceivable item that humans can buy, wear, drink from, or otherwise use? That's cheap and easy these days-- get it done.

So what can you do? Someone, or someones, on staff can take some of the following suggestions and run with them:

Maintain a school website with new content put right up front daily, especially big bold announcements of the next event and big beautiful pictures from the last one. Include links to all of your various social media accounts.

Maintain a Facebook account. Post several times a day. These do not need to be announcements; they can be pictures of students or classes, quick blurbs about class projects. Even neutrally professional articles about education stuff.

Maintain a Twitter account. Tweet multiple times a day with upcoming events, lunch menu, class projects. Make up awards (Best Socks Tuesday, Sweetest Cookies at Lunch, Best Interpretive Dance Version of the Periodic Table) and post about the winners (daily is not too often).

Maintain an Instagram account. Take pictures. Post them. My old school used to have a student Instagram club, and it was awesome.

Set up a YouTube channel. Post clips of your performing groups and sports teams (observing pertinent copyright laws). Share them.

Give somebody the job of managing news releases. It should not be an outside hire, but someone who is already in your system, preferably a teacher. Something should go out to local media at least once a week (if you have any).

All of these should be managed by somebody inside the system. First, because they already know what's going on, who's doing what, etc. Second, because the inside knowledge and relationships will mean they can do this without having to pester staff and make more work for everybody else in the building.

Yes, you'll have to manage the legalities of using student images. And no, none of this will gain traction overnight. And yes, maintaining social media accounts on a daily basis can sometimes feel a great deal like drudgery. And depending on your locale and audience, what works will be somewhat hit and miss.

But if you do nothing--well, the inevitable negative stories will blow up and the small positives will languish in obscurity. Meanwhile, your competition is pick pick picking, not just at the families with school age kids, but at the taxpayers who can either support or oppose legislation that will enrich the privatizers (thanks to cyber schools, in some states this is also true in rural customer-sparse areas in which other charters are uninterested). You do not want to wait for the day when yet another ax falls and when you go to the public for help, the childless taxpayers of your district shoot a puzzled expression and ask, "Do I know you?"

The days are gone when a public school system can just sit back and assume that everyone knows what they're doing, what they're about, and what kind of job they're doing. That's not a bad thing--some schools have gotten lazy about it. But they can't afford to stay lazy any longer.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

ICYMI: Spousal Back To School Edition (8/18)

This  week my wife heads back to it, with a new grade assignment. I am excited for her and putting on my supportive pants. In the meantime, here's some reading from the week. Remember to share the good stuff-- that's how the word gets  around!

S.C. teacher files class action lawsuit demanding pay for after school work, classroom supplies 

A long overdue step in fighting back in South Carolina.

Why is union membership bleeding in the red teacher revolt states?  

Fred Klonsky and what may be a troubling, or obvious, trend.

Children Don't Need Adults To Give Their Play a Purpose    

Teacher Tom reminds us that the littles can manage their own play, thank you very much.

In God We Trust   

Kentucky decided to force schools to post "In God We Trust" in some prominent place. So one school framed a dollar bill...The AP reports.

The 1619 Project  

The New York Times has launched a massive project looking at slavery in America.

Data Leviathan 

Not specifically about education, but once again, if you want to see the future of the surveillance state, look to China.

Keeping the Why of Writing Instruction in Mind  

It's been too long since I passed along a Paul Thomas piece. Here's a thoughtful post about writing instruction.

Zuckerberg's 200 Year Old Mistake 

As the last of the Zuckerbooker ed reform package is washed away in New Jersey, I Love You But You're Going To Hell looks at who could have warned the Facebook chief that it wouldn't work (spoiler: everybody) and a historical antecedent for the failure.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Feed A Teacher For A Year

I get plenty of pitches--news releases from folks who want to help me come up with some content (and who frequently have never actually read what I write) and mostly I ignore them, but this one caught my attention because it involves free food for a teacher for a year.

The company involved is Sun Basket, which touts itself as "the leading healthy eating service"-- another one of those outfits where you sign up and a box full of ingredients shows up on your doorstep, just waiting for you to chef it into some delicious shape. Sun Basket seems to put a lot of emphasis on healthy lifestyle, organic, best choicey ingredients, and features a variety of 11 different subscriptions, from the dubious (Paleo) to the responsible (Pescatarian, Carb-Conscious). The company was founded in 2014 by Adam Zbar, one of those entrepreneurial types who started at McKinsey, and Justine Kelly whose name I gather might mean something to you if you are a foodie (or foodie-adjacent). Did I mention the company is based in San Francisco?

The contest is called Treat Your Teacher, and it's simple. You nominate a teacher living in the US (except for AK, HI, and parts of MT, NM, and ND-- don't complain to me-- I didn't make the rules), explain why they're awesome. Ten of the nominees will win a Sun Basket account that will cover three meals a week for the whole school year.

The basic procedure:

Nominations opened on August 15, 2019, and close on September 5, 2019

Nominations to include:
Teacher's name, grade or subject taught, city, state, school
Must teach grade K-12
250 words or less on why your teacher is exceptional

You can email or share on Instagram or Facebook using #treatyourteacher and @sunbasket, and must include the teacher's name and school, the grade/subject they teach, and a short blurb on what makes them exceptional.

Winners will be announced September 14, 2019, on social media and will be contacted via email.

You can also get the info at the contest website.

Yes, you'll be helping this company up its social media profile, and I've only done a cursory check to see if they're involved in any unpleasant causes, and they don't seem to be. Also part of their pitch is that they're backed "by top-tier venture capitalists, which-- eww." But still.

A campaign built around showing support for teachers throughout the US. Fancy free food for a teacher you love for a school year.I don't see down side here, other than when all of you enter, it will make the competition stiffer for the entry I'm writing for my wife.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

The Problem With Comparisons In Education

Which is the best movie: Ghostbusters, Singin' In The Rain, Casablanca, or Avengers: Endgame?
It depends, of course, on how we choose to compare them. Based on level of romance? On the happiest ending? Best dancing? Most money made? Best use of Sigourney Weaver? Criteria make all the difference. But it's not just the criteria; it's the problems with criteria that naturally emerge from the mandate to compare.
One of the driving features of modern education reform has been the mandate to compare. Fans of free market education want to be able to compare schools; several reform programs targeted schools that ranked in the bottom five percent. The New Teacher Project (TNTP) made a huge splash in 2009 with "The Widget Effect" arguing that we should compare teachers and make staffing and pay decisions based on the results. Ranking schools is as important to U.S. News as swimsuits are to Sports Illustrated.
There are problems applying comparisons to education.
Comparisons are not measurements. Pat may be ranked the tallest or shortest student in class, but either way, knowing Pat's ranking does not tell me how tall Pat actually is. "Most improved" may make good advertising copy, but your enterprise can be "most improved" and still be terrible.
This problem only increases as we deal with more complex systems. The better a measure is for making comparisons, the worse it is for actually describing the thing being measured.
If we want to describe what makes a particular school great, or where it is falling short of greatness, we have to talk about a complex web of factors in the school and community--everything from teacher content knowledge to curricular offerings to community socio-economic information to what the stakeholders in the community value and expect from their school, as well as a long-term look at what graduates of the system think five, ten, twenty, forty years later. The list of factors that describe a school, as well as those who work in it, is hundreds of items long.
But creating a clear comparison of thousands of schools based on a hundred-item list of factors is as impossible as ranking great movies. So people who want to compare schools have come up with various truncated lists, lists that are so simplified that they fail to provide any real picture of individual schools.
The answer for modern education reform has been to use standardized math and reading test scores as the measure of schools (and school districts and school teachers). This makes comparison easy because it narrows the long, long list of criteria down to just one. But one data point makes a lousy descriptor of an entire complex organization like a school. And this is a particularly lousy descriptor, because research shows again and again that test scores can be predicted by basic income and demographic data. Students from wealthy families get better test scores.
Worse, when we do a comparison based on a simplified single measure, we encourage folks to pursue that single measured quality. This is exactly what has happened in many schools. While stakeholders may care about the arts programs and school atmosphere and teacher experience and traditions that have made that school great, schools have been told that their greatness will be measured by test scores, and so elements from recess to history class have been dropped so that the school can focus on the single measure. (And for the moment, let's not even get started on the idea that VAM scores would allow us to compare a third grade phys ed teacher to an 11th grade history teacher.)
More complex measures of school quality are possible; Beyond Test Scores by Jack Schneider details the work done with such a model in Somerville, Massachusetts. Certainly many parents engage in informal complex assessments ("I like West Egg High School because the English teachers are really good, they have a great football team, the band is awesome, most of my family has gone there, it's a nice safe school, the principal is a great guy, and it's located close to our neighborhood") but those are as varied as all the stakeholders in a school district.
In the end, education reformers have to face a simple limitation--if an assessment tool is good for comparing and ranking schools, it is not a good tool for describing the strengths and weaknesses of that school. You can do one or the other, but not both. A tool for ranking schools (or teachers or districts) will not provide the information needed to strengthen and improve that school. When creating a tool, the very first question that must be addressed is which goal you want to achieve--do you want to compare schools, or do you want to help them improve. As the saying goes, repeatedly weighing the pig will not cause it to gain weight, but it will also not tell you whether or not the pig would make a good addition to your household.
Originally posted at

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

FL: Educational Hypocrisy On Display

Oh, Florida.

Maybe it was the principal who wasn't sure the Holocaust was a thing. Maybe it was the latest round of teaching mandates passed down, like the last minute mental health mandate. Or maybe he's just still cranky from his ongoing fight with Duval County Schools.

But Florida's education czar Richard Corcoran has had enough.

This guy.
Florida school districts had better fall in line. They had better be implementing the state-mandated Holocaust instruction. They had better be teaching what they're supposed to be teaching. They had better be following all the instructional standards and mandates. If not, he will use all the tools at his disposal. This, mind you, in the state that has vowed to end Common Core once and for all because federally mandated micromanagement is bad, but apparently state-level micromanagement is fine.

Critics suggest that this is one more attempt by Florida's government to come up with excuses to take over public school systems and hand them off to charter operators. This might seem like a bit of paranoia except for two things:

1) This is Florida we're talking about.

2) The various regulations and mandates do not apply to charter schools.

Yup. While Corcoran is railing against public schools that don't follow the state's mandates, charter schools are still free to teach about Jesus riding on dinosaurs and the flat earth and how the Holocaust is just a story fabricated to gin up sympathy for Jewish folks. It's not the first time that Florida's elected leaders have jettisoned accountability in favor of the ability to move those public tax dollars into private pockets.

But it's a reminder once again that Florida is working hard to bind and break public education while making sure that every day is Christmas for charter and voucher schools.