Tuesday, December 31, 2013

"Raise the Bar," or Not

While we're talking about watching our language--

Just in the afternoon, I've stumbled across the image of raising the bar on the education world about five different times. Here's what's wrong with "raising the bar."

Raising the bar is a perfect image for the idea of one-size-fits-all education. After all, it only makes sense if there's just one bar and it's set up in the only place where people jump. It's a metaphor that is repeatedly employed, and yet falls apart with very little examination.

Are we raising the bar for a high jumper, or a pole vaulter? Has to be one or the other, because here at the Common Core Track and Field Meet, there can only be one event.

What happens if we raise the bar for the 100 yard sprint? What if we raise the bar, but we set it up behind the jumping line? What if we raise the bar for the shot put? If we raise the bar for the limbo, isn't that rejecting excellence?

What if we raise the bar for swimmers? Should we raise the bar at basketball games, or should we raise the basket? Can we raise a bar at the band concert? Should we raise the bar for the dance group, or the drama club?

"Raise the bar" is the verbal equivalent of the oft-shared cartoon that shows all the different animals in school (the one where the fish fail because they can't fly). "Raise the bar" demands that we reduce the whole complicated business of education to one simple act that must be performed by every single student. "Raise the bar" insists that the whole wide range of human endeavor and achievement does not matter-- just the ability to get up over that bar. Use "raise the bar" with me, and I get the idea that your vision of what education is about is tiny and cramped and fails to reflect the full range of human awesomeness.

Let's Drop "Privatization"

As we continue the struggle with reformy stuff, we should always keep a close eye on our vocabulary. I think we need to stop talking about "privatization."

I understand the word's appeal. It seems to speak to a movement to move schools out of the public sphere, to make education policy and financing captive to the whims of our new corporate overlords. It is also a relatively shiny new word. Google ngram shows trace elements of it from 1920 on, but it doesn't really take off until the early 1980s with a peak in the mid-90s. That would suggest a word without much baggage, but I don't think it's the word we want.

"Privatization" suggests a neat, complete takeover. It makes it sounds as if the Masters of Reforming Our Nation's Schools just want to buy up all the schools and run them themselves. It certainly conjures up a scary picture-- slick, gleaming, soulless schools where uber-standardized children are stamped into uniform blank-eyed Stepford students.

But that picture, horrifying though it may be, is seductively wrong. It allows us to assume two comforting things-- 1) that privatized schools might be awful, but they will still be functioning which means that 2) there will still be hope of a revolution in which we recapture the front office and return the school to its rightful function. Maybe it will be like a private school, and many of those are quite fine. We imagine that the school is a big machine and privatizers will capture it and turn it to manufacturing ugly hamster cages. All we'll have to do is find a way to get the machine back and reset it to make pretty handbags.

But that's not what the MoRONS have in mind at all. From Philly to New Orleans to Chicago to LA, they've demonstrated that they no more want to privatize school than a junkyard wants to privatize your car.

What we're seeing is nothing new in the business world. One business often buys out another simply to get at inventory, a brand name, a customer base, or manufacturing capacity. They buy the company, take what they want, and discard the rest.

None of these MoRONS want public schools. In some cases, they want the branding (TFA uses the word "teacher" to help brand itself as some great humanitarian enterprise). In some cases, they want free use of real estate (e.g. the now-very-nervous charter schools of NYC). But mostly they want just one thing-- money.

Money. Government grants. Revenue streams from programs. Income from the Right Students. Money. Money moneymoneymoneymoney money MONEY!

Everything else about the public school system is unimportant to the MoRONS. The parts of the system they care about are the parts that keep the money flowing. Everything else is unimportant. It's a business decision. Anything that keeps the money coming in is good. Anything that costs money without providing ROI is bad.

So MoRONS are about dismantling the system, keeping what makes them money, throwing out the rest. Given the chance, they will gut schools like you scoop the seeds out of a cantaloupe. They are not interested in privatizing. They are interested in dismantling the machine, selling the parts, and scrapping the rest.

Teachers too expensive. Find a way to scrap 'em. Some students provide bad expense-to-income ratio? Get rid of them. Some schools too hard to get ROI from? Abandon them. Make sure that curriculum, programming, materials, and evaluation all work in a perfect circle, each buddy handing money off to the guy next to him, around and around and around. We don't need an education system; we just need a revenue transfer system.

All the MoRONS really need is enough of what looks like a school system to convince government to keep giving them money. And since they generally get to help government write the rules about how money is handed out, they can make that process completely streamlined.

And it's not just an urban fight. The big money is in urban schools, so that's where the MoRONS have focused so far. They may never turn their attention to rural schools (though in PA, cyber-charters are sucking small districts dry already), but even if they don't, they will redirect school tax dollars to the profit centers in big cities, leaving rural schools to sip fruitlessly at ever-drying pools of spare change.

"Privatization" is a seductively dangerous word because it suggests we're in a fight over who runs the public school system. I'm thinking we're actually in a fight over whether that system will continue to exist. We're not talking takeover; we're talking destruction. So let's all stop using the word "privatization." However, if you want to keep using the acronym MoRONS, you have my enthusiastic permission to do so.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Hard Part

They never tell you in teacher school, and it's rarely discussed elsewhere. It is never, ever portrayed in movies and tv shows about teaching. Teachers rarely bring it up around non-teachers for fear it will make us look weak or inadequate.

Valerie Strauss in yesterday's Washington Post put together a series of quotes to answer the question "How hard is teaching?" and asked for more in the comments section. My rant didn't entirely fit there, so I'm putting it here, because it is on the list of Top Ten Things They Never Tell You in Teacher School.

The hard part of teaching is coming to grips with this:

There is never enough.

There is never enough time. There are never enough resources. There is never enough you.

As a teacher, you can see what a perfect job in your classroom would look like. You know all the assignments you should be giving. You know all the feedback you should be providing your students. You know all the individual crafting that should provide for each individual's instruction. You know all the material you should be covering. You know all the ways in which, when the teachable moment emerges (unannounced as always), you can greet it with a smile and drop everything to make it grow and blossom.

You know all this, but you can also do the math. 110 papers about the view of death in American Romantic writing times 15 minutes to respond with thoughtful written comments equals-- wait! what?! That CAN'T be right! Plus quizzes to assess where we are in the grammar unit in order to design a new remedial unit before we craft the final test on that unit (five minutes each to grade). And that was before Ethel made that comment about Poe that offered us a perfect chance to talk about the gothic influences. And I know that if my students are really going to get good at writing, they should be composing something at least once a week. And if I am going to prepare my students for life in the real world, I need to have one of my own to be credible.

If you are going to take any control of your professional life, you have to make some hard, conscious decisions. What is it that I know I should be doing that I am not going to do?

Every year you get better. You get faster, you learn tricks, you learn which corners can more safely be cut, you get better at predicting where the student-based bumps in the road will appear. A good administrative team can provide a great deal of help.

But every day is still educational triage. You will pick and choose your battles, and you will always be at best bothered, at worst haunted, by the things you know you should have done but didn't. Show me a teacher who thinks she's got everything all under control and doesn't need to fix a thing for next year, and I will show you a lousy teacher. The best teachers I've ever known can give you a list of exactly what they don't do well enough yet.

Not everybody can deal with this. I had a colleague (high school English) years ago who was a great classroom teacher. But she gave every assignment that she knew she should, and so once a grading period, she took a personal day to sit at home and grade papers for 18 hours straight. She was awesome, but she left teaching, because doing triage broke her heart.

So if you show up at my door saying, "Here's a box from Pearson. Open it up, hand out the materials, read the script, and stick to the daily schedule. Do that, and your classroom will work perfectly," I will look you in your beady eyes and ask, "Are you high? Are you stupid?" Because you have to be one of those. Maybe both.

Here's your simile for the day.

Teaching is like painting a huge Victorian mansion. And you don't actually have enough paint. And when you get to some section of the house it turns out the wood is a little rotten or not ready for the paint. And about every hour some supervisor comes around and asks you get down off the ladder and explain why you aren't making faster progress. And some days the weather is terrible. So it takes all your art and skill and experience to do a job where the house still ends up looking good.

Where are school reformy folks in this metaphor? They're the ones who show up and tell you that having a ladder is making you lazy, and you should work without. They're the ones who take a cup of your paint every day to paint test strips on scrap wood, just to make sure the paint is okay (but now you have less of it). They're the ones who show up after the work is done and tell passerbys, "See that one good-looking part? That turned out good because the painters followed my instructions." And they're most especially the ones who turn up after the job is complete to say, "Hey, you missed a spot right there on that one board under the eaves."

There isn't much discussion of the not-enough problem. Movie and tv teachers never have it (high school teachers on television only ever teach one class a day!). And teachers hate to bring it up because we know it just sounds like whiny complaining.

But all the other hard part of teaching-- the technical issues of instruction and planning and individualization and being our own "administrative assistants" and acquiring materials and designing unit plans and assessment-- all of those issues rest solidly on the foundation of Not Enough.

Trust us. We will suck it up. We will make do. We will Find A Way. We will even do that when the people tasked with helping us do all that on the state and federal level instead try to make it harder. Even though we can't get to perfect, we can steer toward it. But if you ask me what the hard part of teaching is, hands down, this wins.

There's not enough.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Why For-Profit Schools Must Stink

There are so many reasons to object to the privatization of public education, but it all comes down to the pie.

It's the financial pie, a pie that can only be cut into so many pieces. There's a reason that we associate top-notch private schools with rich folks-- every time a Philips Academy needs a bigger pie, they just pick up the phone to their rich parents and their rich alumni and before you can say "Summer at the Hamptons," the school is awash in newer, bigger pies.

Not so in public ed. The size of the pie is set by a combination of legislators and taxpayers, and that's all the pie there is. And that means that private operators, whether they're operating a voucher school or a private charter or one of those public-private hybrid charters (public when they want money, private when anybody wants to see what they do with it), your business model has to acknowledge one fundamental fact. (This includes "noon-profits" that are really for the profit of well-paid executives.)

Every piece of pie served to the students is a piece of pie that the operators don't get to eat themselves. Every cent they spend on students is a cent they don't get to pocket.

In privatized public schools, the interests of the operators are in direct conflict with the interests of the clients.

We already have examples in the marketplace of businesses with this same pie problem-- a human service industry where profit depends on providing the least service you can get away with.

Of course there was the health insurance industry. There's a reason that Tom Batiuk made a great joke out of calling an insurance provider "Denialcare." But the rules are in flux there now that ACA has come along to guarantee that every insurance executive will have a Lexus and a vacation home every American will have health care coverage.

So instead, let's consider the nursing home industry. Nursing homes have always faced a pie problem-- they have to provide service for human beings while trying to fund it with blood squeezed from stones.

This interactive map from 2010 shows ratings for US nursing homes. It doesn't look too bad at first, but if you use the features to knock it down by star ratings, it starts to look pretty awful. Of course there are some great nursing homes in the country, and not just the ones that graduates of Philips Academies go to when they get on in years. But a tremendous portion of that sector is 1, 2, or 3 stars.

Way back in 2001 the Kaiser Family Foundation conducted a survey about nursing homes. The breakdown of the info is pretty thorough, but some highlights include: For starters, 80% reported some knowledge of nursing homes. 80% believed the homes are understaffed.  65% believed the staff is undertrained, and 61% believed that there was a problem with waste and fraud in how homes were run.

Right now, polls about education routinely turn up the result, "American schools suck, but my neighborhood school is just fine." In the Kaiser poll, people who were directly familiar with nursing homes were MORE likely to believe some of the worst things about those homes.

But when you only have so much money to split up, your motive is to find ways to spend less. And if you are a service business, spending less means providing less for your clients. Cheaper service providers. Cheaper services. Fewer services. You are never asking, "What's the best possible service we could provide our clients." Instead, you are asking, "What's the cheapest possible service we can get away with? Where is there a corner we can cut?"

The problem with the profit motive in fixed-payment service industries is not JUST that those in charge can only make money by finding ways to spend less on their clients. The more toxic systemic effect is that those in charge are pushed to inevitably see their clients as their biggest obstacle rather than their primary purpose. We know that attitude is lurking just over the horizon anyway-- how many of us deal with a business manager in our district whose attitude is that it would be easy to balance the budget if we didn't have to spend money on all those damn teachers and students.

For-profit schools are powerfully inclined to stink because they must foster an adversarial relationship between the owner-operators, the clients, and the employees. All of that takes place in an atmosphere of scarcity, of "having to do without." Add merit-based pay in which teachers must compete for their piece of the pie, and you get a school "community" that is anything but supportive and collegial.

Can it be done? Sure. The map tells us the nursing home industry here and there is doing it. But entering the business is fighting a powerful tide. If you entered the business because providing the service is powerfully important to you, you will have to fight the tide, but at least you're motivated. But if you entered the business to make a buck or get good ROI, you are already swimming with a tide that is going to sweep away everything good about the schools you are running.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The World's Worst Boyfriend

I thought maybe it was just me, but yesterday's piece evoked some familiar feelings for other people as well-- the feeling of being in a toxic relationship.

The familiar feeling was the feeling of self-doubt. Am I crazy? I could swear I see a pile of rabbit poop, but my partner insists that it's a pile of magic beans, and he certainly seems to believe it, and after all, if we don't trust each other then what do we have? So either I can't trust my own judgment, or my partner is trying to pawn a pile of poop off on me. Does that sound like the current deal surrounding reformy stuff in education?

Well, sure. So I decided to see how our relationship as teachers with the leaders of our industry-- the Masters of Reform (e.g. Jeb Bush), our state and federal DOEs (e.g. Arne Duncan), some of our leading administrators (e.g. Steve Perry), and the Big Leading Voices who haven't actually accomplished anything but still have a seat at the table anyway (e.g. Celebrity Spokesmodel Michelle Rhee)-- stacks up against the classic Bad Relationship.

I'm going to use the "15 Warning Signs of an Abusive Relationship" that is distributed by The Women's Center . There are certainly other lists out there, and fine dramatic examples of this kind of abuse. But this one is widely distributed and accepted, so it should serve our purpose.

Are we, as a profession, dating the worst boyfriend ever? Here are the signs.

1) He pushes for quick involvement. Give TFA bodies five weeks of training and put them in a classroom as if they were full-fledged professionals. Institute CCSS and related reformy stuff RIGHT NOW. We can't possibly roll them out gradually or wait to check the validity and usefulness of all these programs.

2) There is jealousy. Are you following other programs? Don't. And that union you've been seeing on the side-- I made it my bestie so that when you cozy up to it, you're really cozying up to me.

3) He is controlling. You think? Look, sweetie-- your autonomy in the classroom is just causing all sorts of problems. Let me tell you what to teach, when to teach it, how to teach it-- oh, heck. Just take this script and read it.

4) He has very unrealistic expectations. Okay, okay. I've learned my lesson from NCLB-- 100% of students cannot be above average. But the effects of poverty and family life and other personal difficulties? You should just go ahead and erase all effects of those. Poverty wouldn't make a difference if you really cared about me.

5) There is isolation. I know I've already co-opted your national union, but if I could just wipe it out on the state and local level, that would be great. You don't need them. Just listen to me.

6) He blames others for his own mistakes. That messed-up evaluation? A computer glitch. Anything wrong with CCSS? That's an implementation hiccup. Despite the fact that I've been running everything my own way for fifteen years or so, everything wrong with public schools is still your fault.

7) He makes everyone else responsible for his feelings. Our first miss. There's no sign that feelings are involved. And as Uber-reformer David Coleman famously observed, nobody gives a shit about your feelings anyway.

8) There is hypersensitivity. Duncan's favorite word for his opponents? "Silly." We don't ever need to talk things over, and there is no room to discuss, because every criticism of reformy stuff is just because you're a big old silly poopy doo-doo HEADED MEANIE!

9) He is cruel to animals and children. Children should not be coddled. Children need to recognize that they are dopes, regardless of what their white suburban mommies told them. They need to be smacked into place with rigor. If they have problems with being poor and all, they just need to suck it up.

10) His "playful" use of force during sex. You know, I'm just going to skip over this one.

11) There is verbal abuse. Teachers have been called so many names at this point that it's hard to keep track. But you're responsible for everything bad in education-- there is literally nothing that is not teachers' fault-- and if we just have to keep mansplaining to you in clear, direct language, it's only because you're too stupid, obstructing and lazy to get it the first time.

12) There are rigid gender roles. Why can't you all be like nice lady teachers who play with the kiddies and then go home. Do what you're told. We'll let you come to the table if you're pretty and cooperative and make us look like we aren't a total boys' club (could you get me a coffee, Michelle), but we totally are.

13) He has sudden mood swings. I'm going to make some really nice speeches about how important teachers are and how we need to pay you well and support you in your work. Then I'm going to implement policies that kick you right in the teeth.

14) He has a past of battering. Strap up. There will be head injuries.

15) There are threats of violence. We are going to evaluate you, judge you, end your career, cut loose the dead wood, whip you into shape, kick your ass, and generally use whatever leverage and coercion we can to make you behave the way we want you to. And if you won't, we are committed to tossing you into the street. You can't make a new educational omelet without breaking a few eggs, and you look like a Humpty to me.

There are other parts of the pattern as well. There's always that sad girl who insists, "You just don't know him like I do. There's really goodness inside." Whether it's "he's only mean when he drinks" or "the CCSS are great as long as we're not testing," there are always sad girlfriends who will make excuses for the abuser. Part of it is not wanting to see how bad things really are. Sometimes part of it is also selfish-- if I'm the only one who can see the good, then I can save him, fix him, and show the world just how special I am.

So we're in a bad relationship. What do we do?

If we were in an actual relationship with another live human that met these standards, there would be only one thing to do-- get out. I want to be very very VERY clear about this. I'm having some fun and making a point but don't imagine for a minute that I want to minimize the awful danger of a truly abusive relationship. If this list is you in real life, get out. Get out now. (And I've kept to traditional genders for this for ease of reading, but if you're a man being abused by a woman, this is all still true). As teachers, we stay for the sake of the kids. If you have kids, get out and take them with you. Take them with you, and get out now. Is that clear enough?

For teachers, it's a slightly different situation. We can't take the kids with us, and we need to stay for them.

Some of us can't. Some of us have stayed as long as we can, and we just can't any more, and we have walked away. I try not to judge those folks. You can't do what you can't do.

Some of us have to adjust expectations. Teachers enter the biz with lots of golden fantasies about what it will be like, and one of those fantasies is a Chips/Holland dream of being loved and revered by the vast community of our students. It's entirely possible that to grow up as teachers we have to recognize that however much we love teaching, it's never really going to love us back.

But this is beyond that. We stay for the kids. We stay for the work. We stay because we are invested in the communities that house our schools. We stay because when times get tough you do what you have to do. And honestly, for some of us, things aren't so bad right where we are.

Beyond all that, we stay because when times are tough, when it's the very hardest to make a difference, that's when it's most importance that a difference be made.

I know some of you have been reading this abuser checklist thinking, "Yes, that's it!" But maybe I've started out with the wrong metaphor, and we should construct a different story. In the new story, we aren't the ones in the abusive relationship. Instead, if you want to be abstract, it's schools and education. If you want to be concrete, it's the students.

Either way-- we're not the ones dating the worst boyfriend in the world. We're the best friend of the person in the abusive relationship. We're the ones who are there to protect, to intervene, to say, "If you raise a hand to her again, I will put such a hurt on you that you won't see straight for a year." We're the ones who step in to take care of the abusee, assure her that she's not crazy, it's not her fault, she's okay, it gets better-- all those things.

We got into teaching because we knew there were people who needed our help. We had no way of knowing what kind of help they would need-- heck, we made a commitment to students who weren't even born yet-- but whatever it was they were going to need, we made a commitment to help them. We may not have expected that they would need help dealing with the very institutions that were supposed to be watching out for them, but that's one of the worst parts of abuse-- it's a betrayal of trust. Whatever. That's the help they need, and even though we didn't always expect it, it's the help we signed up to provide. We can do that. We're teachers, dammit. We're teachers.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Trust Yourself

In 1841, the great American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson published "Self-Reliance," an essay which includes the line "Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string." Right now seems a good time for teachers to grab the iron in their hearts.

Teachers are, for the most part, good team players. We follow rules. We respect authority. And when people who are in positions of authority make rules, we try to behave.

If the teacher's manual gives an answer that doesn't sound right to us, we'll give it the benefit of the doubt until we double check. If district or building administration tells us to handle lunch money or attendance according to Procedure X, we'll go ahead and try to do that even if it doesn't seem like a very wise choice to us. We trust the people in charge, the responsible people. Sometimes, particularly early in our careers, we trust them more than we trust ourselves.

We're not suckers for just anybody. If some stranger walked in off the street and into the classroom declaiming, "Hey, I know exactly what your problem is. Here's what you should do," we would not imagine for a minute that this is advice we should take.

But of course that's exactly where we are. Except that the strangers have walked in off the street with bags full of money or previous success in some line of work or a note from our boss's boss saying, "I think this guy is swelleroonies!"

And these rich, powerful, well-connected amateurs are everywhere. They are running book companies, writing materials, running school districts. And of course they've engineered the biggest bloodless coup ever, a complete power grab for the entire American public education system.

Now teachers don't know who can be trusted. We want to be good soldiers, but now we don't know whose orders we're following. This is not scary because we are the subject of some evil conspiracy intended to suck our brains dry or make off with the family silverware. It's scary because, more than anything else, we want to do right by our students. In many cases we are the last, best advocate those students have. It's a tough fight, and traditionally we took strength from knowing that we were part of a large, committed army. Nowadays, we don't know who is watching our back and who is getting ready to stab it.

Imagine you're a surgeon, operating on somebody's brain. Your trusted supervisor is there, and her instructions begin, "First, get this chain saw started up..." That's teaching today.

Our unions, the textbook publishers, the state and federal ed departments, even in some cases our own district administrators-- all of them are telling us this chainsaw idea sounds pretty good. What do we do?

Trust yourself.

Emerson's point was simple-- the wise men of ancient times, today's captains of industry, the people who kibbitz from the back seat-- none of them stand where you are, see what you see, know what you know. Trust yourself.

There's been a bunch of kerflufflation over who actually created the Common Core. Shills have assured us that teachers were totally involved, in hopes that would shut people up. But they've missed the point. No critic that I've read or spoken to has said, "I think the CCSS standards are near-perfect, but since they weren't written by teachers, I shall hate them." No, the story was more like this:

1) Teacher looks at CCSS. Teacher says, "Hmm. These look like they were cobbled together by some amateur who knows nothing about teaching."

2) Teacher does some research.

3) Teacher says, "Well, that explains why these look like an amateur hack job. They were done by amateur hacks."

"The CCSS were not written by teachers" is not an excuse for not liking them. It's an explanation for why they are so unlikeable.

Lots of teachers were and are unable to trust themselves. But the further we wade into the Big Muddy, the more teachers are looking at the chainsaw they've been told to pick up and wondering if it's such a good idea. "This program I'm supposed to implement," they're saying quietly. "I'm not sure it's such a good idea." But they're saying it quietly because, you know, surely the book publishers and program designers and USDOE and all these smart, successful, powerful people-- surely they wouldn't be pushing actions that are bad for students.

Trust yourself.

When the directives you're looking at seem to go against all your teaching knowledge and instincts, trust yourself. When it seems like the directives for an English class seem to have been written by someone with far less expertise than you have, trust yourself. And if you are a newbie with limited experience to draw on, you can still trust yourself when it comes to deciding whom to trust. When it seems as if your directions are coming from people who don't know what the hell they're talking about, no matter how rich, powerful, important they may be-- trust yourself.

You are the one in the classroom. You are the one who knows your students. With years of teaching and training behind you, you are the one who knows how this stuff works. I'm not saying go Full Cowboy-- you should also be the one who knows when to get help from the right place when you need it. But you are a professional. You are an expert-- in fact, when it comes to the specific class you are teaching this year, you are THE expert.

Don't let yourself be ground down. Don't believe the message that you are a toady, a mere content delivery system, the source of all education problems. You are a trained, experienced professional. You're a teacher.

Trust yourself.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Amplifying the Noise

Again, today, the disappointment of looking at Huff Post and finding one more bogus article by one more bogus source pretending to represent teachers. (I'm not linking to it here, and the rest of this post will make clear why). This is not a new occurrence-- from the bogus education voices of astroturf education groups to the highly-unlikely results of polls touted by the alleged leaders of what used to be a national teacher's union, teachers are finding their voices squeezed out of the way by people who pretend to speak for and about the current state of reformy stuff and education's future.

It's particularly frustrating because at this point there are many teachers with something to say who are in fact saying it, and still crowds are gathered around some snake oil salesman. How does this happen? How do we fix it?

It helps to remember some basics about how the internet and "news gathering" work today. Just remember two things:

1) Every click is a vote for whatever you just clicked on.

2) Nothing gets attention more than something that is already getting attention.

In the meat world, attention is a hard commodity quantify. The folks at Nielsen and the executives who depend their work have gone to tremendous lengths to attempt to quantify attention, and it's still an inexact science. The ad for widgets ran, but was anyone in the room? Were they paying attention to the carefully crafted depiction of the widget's many fin qualities, or were they picking corndog remnants out of their teeth?

But on the interwebs, attention is totally quantifiable. There are dozens of sites that will tell me how many people are looking at other sites. And if I'm somebody trying to find out what's hot in education, I can go to a site the Teach100 and just read today's ratings. If I'm a lazy fake journalist with a lazy aggregator, my work is already done for me-- I just have to look it up.

And that means that we all have the power to promote our favorite bloggy voices.

If I read something I like, I forward it. I put it on my facebook page. I tweet it. I link to it.

Diane Ravitch is a great example of how this works. She is extraordinarily generous in using her own clout to direct her audience to other writers. Remember-- if you like the writer that she has excerpted or quoted, follow the link to the source. It's a vote for that writer's web presence to grow. It does more than that, too-- it allows the conversation that we're all having to grow and spread.

Follow the other links you find. I'm trying to get a blogroll put together here (look over to your right and scroll) and many other bloggers are doing the same. If it hasn't happened yet, somebody is going to make a big current edublogger list. Use it and follow the links. Read what's there. If you agree with it, pass it on.

Most of us of a certain age are trained to be somewhat passive as readers. We sit silently, read, move on.  But when we simply read something and then move on, we are not making the most of the powers we have here in webland. In the world of print, you acquire a wide audience because whoever runs the operation that publishes you decides you'll have a wide audience. To be a successful print writer, you need somebody's permission. Here on the web, you just need the active support of people who think you have something important to say.

I am not a heavy hitter in this conversation. I'm just a teacher from a small town high school in a mostly-rural area with a couple hundred regular readers across the country. But hey-- I'm just a teacher from a small town high school in a mostly-rural area, and I have a couple hundred regular readers across the country. That's the kind of amazing thing that couldn't have happened even a few years ago.

You don't have to be a voice to have a voice. If we push and forward and click and link, we can reach the point where people who are thinking of important voices in education automatically think of Mercedes Schneider or Jersey Jazzman or @the chalkface or any of the dozens of strong, articulate voices that are saying things that need to be said.

Follow people on twitter. Sign on as a follower of their blog. Leave comments on pieces you like (leave comments on pieces you hate, too) to let other readers see the imp[act of the blogs you support. Boost their numbers and their profiles. There is such a broad range of voices-- you can select the ones that most reflect your own priorities and attitudes. But each time you follow or like, you show the world that those writers have your attention.

And that attention leads to more attention. HuffPost and other sites like it may have ideologies, but their main ideology will always be "We like money." If you're going to draw a crowd for them, they will call on you instead of some stupid astroturf group.

Right now there are a little over 35,000 members of BadAss Teachers Association. That's not peanuts, but in a world in which the Justin Bieber fan page has sixty million likes, it's not really earthshattering. But BATS have become a nationally recognized brand that is sometimes turned to for quotes from their side of education issues because members have relentlessly pushed and tweeted and posted and retweeted and amplified the noise. Nothing gets attention better than already getting attention. With 35,000 BAT members on facebook, there are only 6,000 followers on Twitter. As much noise as the BATS have made, they could make far more. And if we added all the non-BAT people who are passionate about the state of educational reformy stuff...?

So-- you don't have to say something profound or clever or feisty. But you can amplify the reach of your favorite purveyor of profound clever feistiness. You can make education blogs from the right side of the issues climb up the charts so that when people go looking for voices in education, they find the ones we love.

Friday, December 20, 2013

What Real Teachers Can Learn from TFA

Despite its recent setback in Pittsburgh, TFA continues to enjoy both success and public esteem and looks to expand their brand into Canada. This is a rotting raspberry seed in the teeth of real teachers throughout the country, but if we can put down the hate-sticks for a moment, there are things we can learn.

Before we start, let me just reassure you that this is not a defense of the spectacle of privileged youths stooping to use disadvantaged students as rungs on the ladder to success. Nor am I forgetting that TFA is an awesome display of mission creep, shifting from a vision of filling long-empty positions to one of replacing actual teaching jobs and teachers with revolving classroom doors. There are plenty of bad things to say about TFA, and I believe almost all of them, but that's not the point of today's exercise.

Look-- TFA is successful in many ways (few of them educational, but again-- not the point), and that means there are lessons to be learned.

Boost your team

Over the past few days, I watched #shinealighton roam across my twitter feed. It was TFA, just basically using twitter to shower attaboys on each other.

On the one hand, I thought, "How typical of the Stepford child chirpy pep rally groupthink mentality."

On the other hand, I thought, "Why don't we do stuff like that?" Why don't we. Why don't we post little notes, tweets, post-its, whatevers telling our colleagues "Hey, good job! Glad you're here doing your thing!"

#shinealighton took no real time or effort. Five seconds to type, a few seconds more to retweet. It would take next to nothing to create a simple local, state or national initiative in which we held up fellow teachers for fifteen seconds of appreciation. But we often lean into our classroom isolation and forget to connect with our fellow teachers.

Not all of us are wired for "unity" exercises. Plenty of us tense up every time our union or building staff create some sort of bonding exercise. But if you aren't a bonder, may I suggest an alternative-- individual appreciation. Doesn't have to be a big production. Just something short and sweet and simple that says, "Glad you're here. Good job." If TFAers can constantly tell each other they're awesome when they aren't all that special, why can't we tell people who actually ARE special that they're great?

People Want To Like Teachers

TFA's drive to brand themselves as a charity is offensively stupid. But the degree to which it has been embraced tells us something-- people want to support teachers. The spectacle of the fabulously wealthy TFA passing the hat may be bizarre, like a telethon to help Bill Gates put his kids through college, but it taps something that public school teachers have mostly failed to tap. People want to help teachers and students and schools, but they've never had some easy way to do it.

Pittsburgh shows that once people understand what TFA really is, they start to back away. So why are various corporations-that-shall-not-be-named cashing in so large on TFA-as-charity. Because people see the word's "teach" and "America" and think, "What could possibly not be right about that?"

Our anger at TFA is not helping here. TV shows people a stirring, heartwarming portrait of teachers in classrooms, and your buddy sees you and says, "Wow, that Teacher show was awesome. It made me really impressed with teachers," and you say, "Grr. Snarl. Those weren't teachers. Those were TFA plants."

What is he supposed to take away from that? Real teachers aren't enthusiastic and hopeful like that?

TFA shows us that desire to back schools and education and students is out there. TFA is tapping it. You know who should be tapping it? Actual teachers in actual public schools.

Teacher training

Oh, I hate to bring this up. It is true that five weeks of training to be in a classroom is a joke. But when TFA supporters are critical of teacher training programs, we know in our hearts that they have a point.

How many cooperating teachers have spent how many hours having conversations with student teachers that boil down to "The things that your ed professor told you to do are bunk." How many teacher lounges have heard conversations about how Teacher Farm State University isn't doing anything for future teachers except checking them for a pulse and making sure their check doesn't bounce.

Teacher training programs are the great soft underbelly of our profession, and TFA stabs us right in the gut. Programs in this country range from "Pretty Okay" to "Embarrassing."

How we fix it I do not know (though I do know five weeks of summer school is not the answer). One of the weaknesses of our profession is that we don't control our own entry paths. If I want to start a doctoring, nursing, lawyering, or physical therapizing program at my college, I have to convince doctors, lawyers, nurses, or physical therapists to let me. If I want to start a teaching program, I just need the permission of some bureaucrats at the state capitol.

Those of us who have the ears of college programs need to speak some harsh truth to them. When we have a student teacher, we need to tell her supervisors, "Here are the ways in which you served this future teacher poorly." And we need to be more actively involved in the first few years of our new colleagues. We can't just walk past his door and think, "Well, he's a grown up with a degree. Hope he does well, but it's on him."


We are learning what is old news to other professions-- people don't love and respect you just because X is your job.

TFA has marketed itself relentlessly. It has sold its own picture of teaching and the people it puts in it. We have not.

We have let ourselves get sucked into arguing the negative. Our response to so much of what's out there these days is some form of "No, that's not true" and "No we don't" and "No they didn't." That's a classic case of letting other folks control the argument, and TFA has had total control of this debate.

We can't market "Not TFA." We can explain why having an experienced teacher in the same classroom for years provides much-needed stability for students and programs. We can explain all the sorts of things that make extensive training and experience a plus. We should not be arguing with TFAers as if they are our equals; we should be patronizing them and patting them on the heads like the cute little junior adults they are. I keep thinking that instead of screaming, "Back to the depths of hell that spawned you, you filthy unholy Balrog-- you shall not pass!" we should do more "Well, aren't you just precious."

At any rate, when the public hears "Teach for America," they imagine some fresh-faced well-scrubbed enthusiastic (white) teacher surrounded by happy (brown) children. What do they imagine when they hear "public school teacher." Mitt Romney lost electoral traction because he let the Obama camp create the public's picture of the Mormon flipflopper. We have a similar problem.

You can't create a picture by simply erasing somebody else's. You have to present a picture to take its place. TFA is very good at that. Public school teachers, so far, are not.

I believe that in the long run, results will tell the tale. TFAers will eventually paint themselves as cut-and-run dilettantes because, marketing or not, that's what the public is going to see. But the damage that will happen in the meantime means that we can't afford to just wait for more Pittsburghs. And we clearly can't wait for our unions to lead the charge (if TFA were smart, they would offer a big fat check to cover membership for all their faux teachers-- I'm pretty sure the national union would decide TFAers were swell). As with everything else in education these days, each of us is going to have to be his own Superman.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Union Leaders: View from the Cheap Seats

These are difficult days for members of teachers unions. Our national leadership has thrown their lot in with the CCSS crowd and added their (and therefor our) voices to the chorus of folks saying, "Hey, we might have banged CCSS up a bit taking it out of the package so fast, but with a little polish and proper care, it will make a great centerpiece for the living room."

They are dead wrong in this belief. That is not the issue. We're teachers. We deal with people who are wrong on a daily basis. The question is not "Are they dead wrong?" but "Can we work with them?"

I'm a practical person. I'm not a big fan of political purity tests, of demanding that a person be 100% in agreement with me or else be declared The Enemy. Every time a group I'm affiliated with throws someone out for expressing an opinion that "promotes disunity" or is one of those things "we just don't say here," I cringe. It's a terrible way to deal with humans and human complexity. Throughout history, people who have disagreed have worked together productively. Heck, our own Congress used to work that way.

So I don't need to hear my leadership say that they believe exactly what I want them to believe. But I need to know that I can work with them, that I can, to some extent, trust them.

As I've fallen down the twitterverse-blogoshere-facebook page rabbit hole over the past several months, it has been interesting to see how differently the two major presidents interact with teachers. It's rather a large contrast.

I am an NEA member, so AFT pres Randi Weingarten hadn't been on my radar much. I knew that she, like Van Roekel, frequently turned up in articles shilling for CCSS. But when I started in a-twittering (had an account for years, but never had anything to say-- now I have two accounts that I use daily), there she was. And I was impressed.

Weingarten is there all the time. And she engages with and responds to her critics, of whom there are many. And the thing about twitter is that it's a hard place to roll out a finely crafted PR piece. When you're responding within thirty seconds to someone who just called you a sell-out and a traitor, your response has to be pretty visceral. Weingarten-on-twitter is direct, plain, clear and open. She leaves the impression of being honest and forthcoming, not defensive and combative.

Now mind you, as far as CCSS goes, she hasn't changed my mind a bit. She thinks that CCSS can somehow be moderated and that it can somehow be surgically separated from the high stakes testing regimen. I think she's dead wrong on that. I think she's doing a giant misservice to her members by doing things like co-writing a pro-CCSS, anti-opposition letter to the governors. But I give her high props for actually, daily, regularly engaging the many members who want her to know that they think she's hugely mistaken. And I've come to believe that while she's pretty much completely wrong on how she's responding to CCSS, it's an honest wrong, a wrong that appears based in an actual concern for teachers and the profession. I'd be more impressed if what she was hearing changed her mind and she would put down the big mug of kool-aid, but I am impressed that she's at least listening. Maybe she's actually horrible. But that's not how she comes across.

Then there's my own union chief. Sigh. Dennis Van Roekel had lost most of my trust months ago. Hearing the "Well, if not CCSS, then what?" line from the NEA gathering said it all for me, and I've explored elsewhere why I think he needs to go. Nothing has happened then to change my mind.

NEA has not just cranked out the usual puff pieces about CCSS, but has actively campaigned for it with cooked poll numbers and flat-out lies. And I was kind of surprised to discover that Van Roekel's presence in the twitterverse is-- well, he has a carefully blocked profile that only allows a select few handchecked followers. He is following one person and hasn't topped fifteen tweets yet. This fits my personal experience-- I have never received an email response from Van Roekel (I hear that Weingarten answers hers pretty regularly).

From out in the cheap seats, dealing with NEA is like dealing with any other impersonal corporate structure. I suspect that the narrative of NEA leadership selling out to CCSS has traction in part because NEA leaders come off as the sort of people who would hang out with Gates and Duncan rather than actual classroom teachers.

NEA occasionally attempts to interface more organically with its members, but that usually results in ideas like the GPS network, a website/ghost town where conversations involve three people and advance at the rate of two posts a month.

Van Roekel also repeatedly apes the party line about CCSS being Just Swell if we could get corporate testing mitts off it. There's just not any reason to think that he believes it, or that he has any particular concern about what's happening in the trenches. Is he worried more about how trends in education affect teachers or more about how shifting tides affect NEA's political clout in DC? It certainly looks like the latter. Maybe he's actually wonderful. But that's certainly not how he comes across.

It's possible that, were I not just a rank and file teacher, and if I had closer access to the halls of power, I would see another side of these issues and realize a more comforting truth. But what I'm telling you is what I see from out in the cheap seats, and from out here Weingarten looks like a leader who has let politics sucker her onto the wrong path for making things better for her members, while Van Roekel looks like a corporate tool who is interested in his members only insofar as getting them to fall into line as he wishes gives him the political clout he's after.

Hey--- I could be totally wrong. But if I am, it's not up to me to fix it. Do not tell me that I would better understand if I got more involved in campaigning to be a super-secret sigma-12 decoder-ring level 42 national rep. I have a friend who does that-- I don't have that kind of time, and that's why I have union reps to handle the whole business for me (and I've paid my dues, including being a local president through a strike and tough negotiations, so I'm no slacker) so that I can get back to having a life.

No, if leadership wants members to get a certain impression, they need to communicate it-- and not with slick PR. Weingarten has the right idea-- actual communication with actual teachers even if they haven't been properly screened and vetted. Van Roekel either needs to come down out of his corporate tower, or (more likely) be replaced with someone who will.

These days I'm looking for national leadership that is ballsy, practical and, especially, open and honest with its members. I'm all too familiar with the POV that says rank and file need to be herded in the direction they need to go. But this rank (or maybe I'm a file) is real tired of being surrounded by my betters who know what I'm supposed to be doing. I don't need my leadership to be my puppet, but I don't have any desire to be theirs, either. I don't need them to consult me on every little thing, but I need to feel like my leaders are there to look out for me, not use me as cannon fodder. And most especially, I need leaders to finally develop some backbone and stand up to political monkeys, even if they are monkeys who have always been OUR monkeys. Stand up for us, even if it means making powerful Democrats sad.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

What's the Big Deal?

As much as I've churned words here and elsewhere, as strongly as I feel that American public schools are facing an unprecedented fight for their institutional lives, I have a confession to make-- tomorrow morning I'm going to get up and go to work at a school where things aren't bad at all.

I read-- oh, how I read-- about the scripting in New York and the slashing of staffs in Philly and Chicago and the bizarro demands being made of teachers across the country in the name of Reformy Stuff. I'm less than two hours away from Pittsburgh, where TFA bodies have been hired to come fill positions while graduates of my school who pursued a teaching career would very much like jobs. So I am aware of how bad it is getting out there.

And admittedly, I don't teach at Shangri-La High School (although now that I think of it, that would be a school where nobody ever got older, so I might well have the same students forever, so perhaps Shangri-La High School is not such a Shangri-La). We have felt the budget pressure from the state capital, and we've been living under the same test-or-else mandate as everyone else.

But nobody has tried to strap me into a pedagogical straightjacket. Our curriculum is loose and I have the kind of teaching freedom that teachers always used to have. I work with good people. I have a good boss. We get to try new things because we think they might be worth trying. We get to throw out is ideas that don't do so well.

We've started aligning things, and it's a process that looks a lot like alignment under NCLB-- it's not so much about changing what we do as it is about adjusting the paperwork.

Like many teachers and principals around the country, my colleagues looked at the CCSS and said, "Well, yeah. We already do most of this."

Every time I read a story that casually mentions how a school has been changed by CCSS ("Yes, back before the core we did strict rote memorization by banging students' heads against rocks, but with CCSS we use thinking and stuff") I want to cry. What exactly did some of these people think we were doing? Did they imagine a nation of Miss Grundys, sitting in a dull daze behind our teacher desk? Yes, there I was in a stupor, just picking up my teacher's manual and dropping it on my desk, over and over, hoping some edumacation would fall out or something. Lawdy lawdy thank you Chee-sus that CCSS came along and showed me how to DO MY JOB because in thirty-five years I had never once figured it out!!

No, I've been doing my job, and while I'm not any sort of superteacher, I think I do okay. So all the parts of CCSS that don't seem entirely stupid, at least at first glance-- I've been doing those, and so have my colleagues. So CCSS didn't motivate us to change anything major, except of course all the alignment paperwork that bureaucrats up the food chain want to see.

We are far from the front lines of battle. TFA's don't want to come here, nor do charters. Not yet. We're too small. There's not enough money to be made. That's bad news for us, because as the state funnels more money to the privates, it will funnel away from us (it's already happening to the tune of hefty six figures with the cyber-schools).

But when I update my colleagues on the mess that is CCSS et al, they often wonder what the big deal is. Here, far from the worst of it, CCSS looks like just another round of rewriting the paperwork. Heck, as recently as six or seven months ago, that's kind of what I thought. So I suspect that a large number of our teaching brethren are at that same "what's the big deal" place. Far from war, and rumors of war, it doesn't seem so bad. So what is the answer to "What's the big deal?"

Here are some thoughts to answer our not-yet-alarmed colleagues without launching into full ranting edu-wonk mode:

1) The ice is thin. See these horror stories from other school districts? About the only thing between us and that is an administrator or two who is holding off the worst of the reformy mess.

2) The retroactoive devaluing of teachers. In some districts, CCSS is like a foreman who shows up after a building is half-constructed and starts yelling at the workers to stop shirking. Then he takes credit for all the work that was done before he arrived. It's just bad for everybody when the narrative is that we never did a damned thing until CCSS lit a fire under us.

3) Alluded to above. As corporate dismantling and privatization of education advances, more and more money will be redirected away from us. Those of us in rural areas are in long term danger because we are such a small customer base. Imagine if the USPS went under and there were nothing but UPS and FedEX to deliver packages-- isolated areas would either be charged huge fees or simply be without service, because there's no money to be made driving an envelope ten miles back Bob's Road.

4) Available materials. Don't like the crappy new materials with COMMON CORE stamped all over them? Too bad. If the tide doesn't turn, that's all that will be out there.

5) They're teaching nothing but this baloney in teacher schools. Ed colleges are starting to turn out students whose professional expectation is that they'll show up, unpack a program, deliver the content, go home. If you've met, mentored, or co-operating teachered any of this bold new generation, you know how little you want to work next door to them -- for the 1-4 years that they're going to last in a classroom. We already know about people who leave the profession because of low pay, lack of autonomy, and high crazy pressure. Mark my words-- we're about to see the rise of teachers who leave the profession because nobody told them it would involve actual work.

6) Professional mobility. We're you thinking you'd go teach in New York after a few years here at our school? You'd better look again at what's going on there.

I know that there are a zillion other reasons for teachers to be upset, angry, actively cranky, or otherwise inflamed about the current state of education. But for people far from the front, people who haven't noticed more than a distant rumbling and some odd complaints on Faux News, people who aren't really feeling the heat personally, it is going to take a few to come up to speed.

It's up to you to help them. Screaming until your flecks of spittle are on their glasses won't get it. Explaining is good. (Mansplaining is not.) Offer links to pertinent and informative articles. Keep the rhetoric to minimum (nobody is coming to put teachers in gas chambers). Be smart about knowing who your allies, and be smart about being sand in the machine for the rest.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Why Teacher Merit Pay Is Stupid

Sometimes we forget the obvious, so let me spell it out. Here's why teacher merit pay will never make sense.

In a business, here's how merit pay is supposed to work. Watch carefully:

1) International Widgetmakers, Inc makes $1,000,000 more profit than originally projected.

2) CEO Mr. McMoneygutz says, "Wow, that's great. Let us share this bounty with the hard workers who helped earn it in the first place."

3) A large slice of the million bucks is divied up and handed over to grateful employees based on how much help they were in earning it.

In business, here's how merit pay sometimes actually works. Again, pay attention.

1) International Widgetmakers, Inc makes $1,000,000 more profit than originally projected.

2) CEO Mr. McJerkface says, "Hey, Board of Directors. You're so lucky to have me. You should give me a pile of that there extra moneys."

3) A large slice of the million bucks is handed to the CEO and hardworking employees get screwed again.

Notice what each of these versions of merit pay have in common: An extra stack of money lying around. That's why companies having lean times don't give out merit bonuses-- because to give out bonuses, you have to have extra money.

So to discuss the wisdom of teacher merit pay, we don't have to talk about its motivational qualities, or its philosophical validity. All we have to ask this question:

When and where has it ever been possible to describe a public school system with the phrase "has an extra stack of money lying around."

When a company does well, that means, by definition, that it has made a ton of money. When a company does poorly, it has NOT made a ton of money. But the amount of money a school district takes in is exactly the same regardless of how good a job it does.

Reformy business guys know this. In fact, it is one of the things that drives them crazy, because it offends their very understanding of how the world is supposed to work, just as their notion that a school whose students get low test scores should get less money makes us see red. It is one of the bedrock fundamentals on which private sector and public ed people disagree. Much of what has happened in education reform can be understood as business guys doing their damndest to force schools to conform to what they view as fundamental rules of the universe.

(There's a whole other piece of writing to be done about why the free market profit motive (which I happen to have a great deal of respect for) does not belong in many human service sectors. For now, I'll just observe that when your most beloved family member needs heart surgery, you do not look for the cheapest doctor you can find, nor do you want the doctor who is preoccupied with how he's going to make his mortgage payment. You do not want the doctor who will look at your beloved as some sort of obstacle standing between him and his pay check.)

No school district has extra money. (In fact, no school district "has" any money-- it all belongs to the taxpayers.) The only way to have extra money would be for the district to say, "Taxpayers, our teachers did so well this year we'd like to collect an extra three mils worth of taxes so we can pay them appropriately." Call me crazy, but I don't see that happening.

Merit pay is extra money. There is no extra money. So what we're talking about in schools is not "merit pay," but "pay." Any school district proposing "merit pay" is really saying, "See this bucket of money? We are going to let you teachers compete to see who gets the biggest chunks of it."

This is certainly a creative way to rewrite salary scales. But it is not merit pay.

Friday, December 13, 2013


As I've discussed before, slapping the title No Child Left Behind on the bipartisan Bush-era cluster of reformy claptrap was a bit of a tactical error. But in one respect it was a brilliant positioning of the pre-reform forces.

Most of us remember how it worked at the time. You could point out the pedagogical foolishness that came bundled with NCLB, or you could point out the foolishness of all-stick-no-carrot motivators for schools, or you could point out that not all students were exactly receptive and ready to grab the educational bull by its academic horns, or you could just point out the sheer mathematical impossibility of a system that demanded 100% of students be above average. It didn't matter; eventually you were facing this question:

So, since you don't support NCLB, tell me, exactly which children do you think should be left behind?

Annnnd you were done.

The Current Reformy Academics Program is borrowing a page from that book. It was on display on John King's studentsfirst-packed lovefest in NY, and it's on display in Michelle Rhee's latest heaping helping of deep-fried baloney over at Politico.

What about the poor kids?

The gummint is going to create and enforce these cool equalizing standards, and that will produce educational equality (for the love of God, can we all ALL just stop using the word "equity" incorrectly in all these discussions?). "Those rich kids with their white moms out in the suburbs will get to use these cool standards," the argument goes. "Are you saying you don't want these poor kids to have the same benefits?" The government has ordered funny hats for everyone; why should the uptown kids get funny hats while downtown kids have to wear berets?

It's an elegant argument, because it skips over the whole question of whether CCSS has any benefits at all. It also skips over the efficacy question-- if we buy all schoolboys big burly suits, does that mean they will all grow into them? It plays the race card, sometimes subtly, and sometimes not. And it plays the social status card. And it just generally gets us focused on this political card game when we should be over there playing chess or shuffleboard or some other game having to do with whether the CCSS are any damn good in the first place.

The answer to the poor kids question is already with us, however.

If the CCSS are such a great benefit, why aren't the private schools using them? And if equality is the motivator for reform, why aren't we talking about how to bring the benefits of those elite schools to poor neighborhoods (imagine the feds new program-- Harkness tables for everyone!)?

When the great Current Reformy Academics Program leaders are telling their stories about how much their own children and grandchildren are benefiting from CCSS, then we can talk.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Searching for Teacher Zero

The latest Anthony Cody blog, which makes good use of the work of the indispensable Mercedes Schneider, shows just how far we've come in piecing together an accurate picture of how the Common Core came to be. But it comes in response to (and attracts comments from) a chorus of backlash-backlash writers out there who are making renewed efforts to counter the criticism of CCSS with some favorite old refrains.

Chief among them is the origin story that David Coleman was bitten by a radioactive scantron-- no, wait. Wrong story. The argument that we're hearing is that yes, indeedy, a room full of Really Smart People and Actual Teachers of School sat down and created the CCSS.

The technique proponents use to make their case is what trained rhetorical artistes call "Insisting Real Hard." One would think that such fans of CCSS would turn to some text-based evidence, or some of those "facts" that often come into play when you're doing that there "critical thinking." But no-- we just get the same repeated insistence that critics are being meanies, and of course there were teachers writing the CCSS cuz we say so and just trust us rich and powerful people wouldn't lie.

This is not really getting them anywhere, which is sad for them because, really, it would take just one press release for them to win their argument. Just one simple new story would force those of us complaining from the cheap seats to sit down and shut up. But for some reason, CCSS backers have not taken the time to write that story. So in the interests of fairness, I've written it for them. All they have to do is fill in some blanks. Since I don't have a name for the subject of the article, we'll just call him Teacher Zero.

"Yes, I was there," said Teacher Zero. "I helped write the Common Core standards for reading."
We sat down with an interview with Teacher Zero in [insert location] at a coffee shop just down the street from where he teaches English at [insert name] High School. He seemed eager to talk to us and clear up some of the misconceptions about Common Core standards.

"I was just into my twentieth year of classroom teaching," he said. "I was looking for a way to advance the profession, when I got a call from the governor, asking me to serve on the committee. It was hard work. We had many meetings at the [location] to pore through research about best practices. We were particularly influenced by the research of [insert names here]."

"After much research and preparation, the day came." said Teacher Zero. "My colleagues and I went into a conference room and started to draft the standards from scratch. I can't say enough about the work of [insert name] from [name] High School, [name] from [name] Elementary School in [location], and [add list of teachers' names and their schools]. We also benefited a lot from the work of Child Development Expert [insert name]."

We asked him if there were any standards that he was particularly proud of. He smiled thoughtfully. "I feel real ownership of all the standards, but I really think the way we handled [insert specific standard] and the way it allows [some sort of educational jargon which can ne translated for the general reader]. And I think all of it feels close to our hearts because as our many conversations unfolded, we were able to distill what was essential and important about the way we, as real teachers, really teach."

"Not that I think all teachers should teach just like me. That would be stupid. But as real working teachers with decades of classroom experience, we were really able to talk about the sorts of standards that would make sense to us and to our students."

"I look forward to traveling around the country and talking to teachers as they try to implement these standards. And I want to thank the governors for their support and trust in us and letting us have such an instrumental voice in developing the standards. Even the people from the publishing and testing companies just stood back and said, 'No, you guys are the experts. We're just here to learn.'"

The day that article runs is the day that many of us who take issue with the CCSS will have to shut up about its origins. If what the mythmakers say is true, this article should be a piece of cake. Just find Teacher Zero and his colleagues, take down the names and information, and just plug it in.

I expect we'll be seeing it in the paper tomorrow. No need to thank me.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Bain of Principals' Existence

I have begun to think that I could keep busy just re-christening this blog as the Educational Hip Boots-- I'll wade through the reformy septic system so that you don't have to. So I guess that will be a regular feature here-- giving you the Reader's Digest version of some of what's lurking out there on the interwebs. Today we'll take a slow brown slosh through this article that might otherwise earn nothing but a TL;DR.

Building pathways: How to develop the next generation of transformational school leaders

It comes from the folks at Bain and Company, a heavy-hitting corporate consulting firm based in Boston. They have a presence in 32 countries, but you may remember them better as "that place Mitt Romney worked in the 90s."

It's a hefty brief, so I'm going to give you a quick tour. The brief sets out to address the management shortage in education, and in all fairness, I'm going to tell you up front that it's not all crap.

It starts out with crap, launching immediately into the premise "Education experts across the ideological spectrum agree that we can and must do a far better job of educating our nation’s youth. Too many students leave our public schools unqualified to compete for jobs in an increasingly global workforce. The result is slipping US competitiveness and a perpetuating cycle of poverty" (AKA "one more slice of the same old baloney.")

"We don't really know," the brief goes on to say, "what in the name of God might actually help, and a lot of people are spending time flapping their jaws about it" (I'm paraphrasing here).

And here comes the lede. "What we do know," Bain says, "is that individual schools can accomplish great stuff even when in the midst of terrible poverty etc etc, and that the explanation for this is the presence of transformational leaders." Good to know, and I suppose, in a way, it's true-- if by "transformational leader" you mean "person willing to sacrifice staff, teachers and any students who don't help get those scores up." At any rate, according to Bain, it's replacing and recruiting those transformational leaders that is the secret of Fixing Schools.

Having established our premise, the Bainsters are now ready to move through a four-point take-down. I will give you the gist of their drift.

1.Introduction: A Random Walk to School Leadership

Main point: the path to school leadership is kind of a random drunkard's walk through a dark and confused forest. We illustrate with two stories.

First, Michael. Michael was good potential leader material as a classroom teacher. Fortunately, his principal decided to mentor him, took him under a friendly wing, and made a successful principal out of him.

Next, the sad story of Kevin. Kevin started into teaching as a TFA body who wanted to, you know, "give something back." Though he became a "standout math teacher," he quickly came to believe that he could "magnify his impact" if he became a principal. Unfortunately for all of us, Kevin had no mentor. In fact, his principal, "impressed with his abilities as a math teacher," was more intent on keeping him in the classroom."

The district has no principal track he could jump on, and Kevin "concluded he’d reached a dead end." Got that? Ending up as a classroom teacher was a dead end. The classroom is just a place one passes through on the journey to greatness. (Kevin left teaching, got an MBA, and is now a rising star in a senior management role at a major retailer.

Someone tell me again about how dedicated TFA bodies are to teaching.

Paragraphs later, the Baininator acknowledges that some teachers are best used, most effective, and most happy staying in the classroom. But there is a problem in education-- there is no clearly defined career path for people who want to, or are suited to, leadership roles. And here, I cannot argue with them.

Fortunately, they have done research at twelve school districts and charter management organizations. And they've learned stuff. There are charts.

For instance, the most talented people in schools don't become principals.

2: Strong Leaders Produce Strong Schools

Okay, even I have trouble wading through this part, so I will summarize really briefly:

Blah blah blah charter schools with rigorous expectations create oases of educational awesome in deserts of poverty and sadness, and they totally do it with awesometastic leaders, not skimming the best students and bouncing the low-performing ones blah blah blah we need more of these strong leaders.

3: Identifying the Roadblocks to Success

Roadblocks, that is, to recruiting and retaining transformational leaders.

Roadblock #1. School systems encourage too few high-performing educators to pursue leadership roles. 80% of those surveyed said they didn't want to be principals. That was split halfies between "I am happier in the classroom" and "the principal's job is unattractive." Actual principals said  that their pursuit of the job depended on some mentor convincing them the job wouldn't suck too much.

Roadblock #2. Lack of stepping stone roles. You're either a teacher or an administrator. There are no baby steps from the classroom to the front office.

Roadblock #3. Aspiring leaders don't get coaching or training with appropriate skills. That may be connected to this chart:

Roadblock #4. Leadership roles are not managed systematically, or with some sort of pipeline or track or defined way to get there. This includes the problem of roadblocks-- teacher leaders who don't want to be principals when they grow up. Shame on them. If you aren't going to be a principal, get back in your damn classroom.

Roadblock #5.  Hiring process is disconnected from performance management. Don't know how things are in your district, but in a few I could name, this is dead on. Principals are hired without anyone hinting what the job expectations are, or how they will be evaluated. Plus (Bain keeps returning to this) they are often hired at the last minute from a panic-induced speed-assembled shallow pool of whatever happens to be available right then.

I don't disagree too strenuously with these five, but so far, they've avoided Giant Honking Roadblock Number One. Let's call it "Fifteen years of corporate reform has turned school administration into a battle with the most hole-ridden dike ever imagined, a battle in which principals can expect to have all of the blame and none of the power and have their careers cut short by some reformy bullshit or other." I think that's a roadblock.

4: A Roadmap for Change

That's the short form. The long form is figure out what you want in a leader, build a pipeline, support it and reap the transformational benefits. But hey-- you know who already does a super-duper job at this? The folks at KIPP. We also like the model used by Denver.

Yes, at the end of a small mountain of verbiage, we arrive at another small mountain, laying out for your consideration what some other people already do. Some of these models make a certain amount of sense, but you may find it hard to imagine them working anywhere but in some parallel universe. For instance, the District of Columbia also has a model for developing transformational leadership, and I trust that, because the DC school system has never had any issues with leadership, right?

No, these are some fine models if you are working with an infinite amount of time and money to invest. That would be the last roadblock that goes unaddressed by Bain-- the fact that leadership development in school districts, like everything else, is done on the cheap.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Real Opportunity Gap

Here's another piece of rhetoric from the administration that has truck-sized holes in it. Arne Duncan has tossed these ideas around multiple times, but today let's just look at them as they appeared in his December 3 PISA Day remarks, "The Threat of Educational Stagnation and Complacency.

He leads with his analysis of the PISA, framed once again as "OMGZZ! We are stagnating and falling behind! Run away! Run away! It's a direst emergency!" All that is missing is a minion with a blinking red light hollering "WEE-OOO, WEEE-OOO" He cites some of the countries "beating" us, like Latvia. You all remember what a threat Latvia has been to the US international standing, how they've overtaken us economically, industrially, socially. Yeah, Latvia.

This politics of panic stuff is pretty standard. You open with "The sky is falling," as a way of setting up "You're doomed if you don't follow my directives." The PISA panic attack has been addressed pretty well elsewhere (like here and here and we could all use a good link to a chart that shows how disaggregated data shows the US doing just fine, thank you), so I'm going to go ahead and skip on past that upside-down car in the ditch.

The pivot point in Duncan's speech comes here: "That reality is at odds with our aspiration to have the best-educated, most competitive workforce in the world."

After a nod, without discussion, to the notion that poor and minority students might be bringing down the US average, we're ready for this: " We must close what I call the "opportunity gap." The only way to increase social mobility and strengthen the middle class is through high-quality education."

You see where we're going here. People don't have trouble getting an education because they're poor. They're poor because they have trouble getting an education.

Now, some people point out that the US has managed a few lifetimes of robust economic growth, innovation, productivity and entrepreneurship without the benefit of scoring well on a standardized test, I mean, educating every single student to the college level. Duncan says this about that:

"What those skeptics fail to recognize is that education plays a much bigger role today in propelling economic growth than in the 1960s or the 1980s. In a knowledge-based, globally competitive economy, the importance of education has increased enormously. Education is the new currency, and this currency is recognized internationally."

I'm not even going to make fun of "education is currency." I am  not the only teacher in the room who has had a student say, "You know, school is like work and we ought to get paid to come here," and I am probably not the only teacher who ever replied, "Your pay is that you get an education." So I'll go along with "education is currency."

You know what else is currency? Bitcoins. Confederate dollars. Stones with holes drilled in the middle. Currency is only useful if its value is recognized by the people from which you want to buy something.

That brings us up to the more-quoted line from this speech:

"Today, there are basically no good jobs for high-school dropouts. To land a job that pays a living wage, most people will need at least some college."

This echoes one of those special parts of CCSS that occasionally rears its head. Numerous teacher friends of mine have had it explained to them this way-- when the CCSS says "career ready" it really means "a better than minimum wage job which will support you above the poverty line."

And that's when my baloneymeter slips over from "Oh, Come On" to "WTF."

There are many, many reports on poverty and the working poor out there.You can look at US Department of Labor stats, census stats, even business-backed study groups like The Working Poor Families Project. 

The WPFP issued a report in 2011 indicating 46 million Americans lived in low-income working families. In April of this year, the Atlantic published a article surveying just how grim the picture was for college grads. It includes a frank look at the underemployment issue, concluding it might not be as bad as the 54% figure that was thrown around during the Presidential campaign, but there's still a hefty number of college grads who have gone from analyzing deeply researched data to analyzing the relative merits of paper or plastic.

We cam throw more economic indicators around, like the nearly-50% of Americans who don't pay income tax. It's a red-meat talking point meant to say, "Look at all these lazy freeloaders," but every time it's raised, all I hear is "Look at all the people who don't even make enough money to owe income tax on it."

Well, the economic analysis belongs best in the hands of someone other than a high school English teacher. But I'm going to suggest that in a nation where so many are employed in part-time, minimum-wage jobs, job qualifications are not the issue.

Does Duncan imagine that the process will be: 1) an unbroken stream of college grads show up to apply at Wal-Mart and so 2) they are all offered well-paying, full-time, family-supporting jobs? Because he has to know that 1 is already happening and 2 is never going to happen.

What does Duncan's imaginary country look like? Every person has a college degree and works at a family-supporting wage, while all minimum wage jobs have disappeared? All Americans work in high yield office jobs and the low-level jobs like retail and low-training labor are performed by-- who? Thirteen-year-olds? Migrant workers? Robots? Duncan is from Chicago, South Side-- surely he is not one of those city boys who thinks that meat appears in supermarkets already butchered and wrapped in plastic. Surely he knows that meatpacking jobs are a thing, and that somebody has to do them if the rest of us want to get our Safeway steak.

Duncan needs to be schooled in two areas here. First, I recommend that he spend a week marathoning Dirty Jobs and listening to Mike Rowe talk about the jobs "that make civilized living possible for the rest of us." Rowe has become a tireless advocate for working class jobs in this country; Duncan needs to be schooled by him. Second, I recommend that Duncan spend some time shadowing some twenty-something college grads (ones who don't have well-connected, well-heeled parents) as they try to find a career to go with their fine college educations.

When he's done, maybe he'll understand the other opportunity gap, the gap between the kinds of careers that he wants all students to prepare for, and the kinds of jobs that are actually waiting for them as well as the kinds of jobs America needs people to do. It's not just that jobs aren't there for people with career training. We need people to do the work that these days barely pays subsistence wages. These are gaps that won't be closed by implementing CCSS.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Worst That Can Happen

Watch this video. Enjoy how it promises to tear apart the process that brought us CCSS.


Now, check the credits at the end and notice who's producing it. The Homeschool Legal Defense Association.

We've parsed out the many groups that have joined the call against CCS in a variety of ways, most commonly noticing that both liberals and conservatives have complaints.

But there's another way to divide up the opponents of current reformy stuff. People who think CCSS threatens public education's most basic character and purpose, and people who think CCSS is the ultimate true expression of public education's most basic character and purpose.

When those folks see this film next February, their first response will be, "I told you so." Their second response will be, "See, EVERYBODY needs to get their kids out of public school." The federal over-reach, the unproven experiments performed on school children, the disenfranchisement of parents, teachers and taxpayers, the treatment of students like wheels on an assembly line-- for them, these are all the things they always knew in their gut were going to happen. Not an aberration, but a confirmation. Not public schools being deformed, but showing their true colors.

Those of us who love and support public education have tended to assume that the worst-case scenario of reform is that Pearson and Gates and the rest will have their way. They will destroy public education and build some sort of two-tiered factory-style soulless shell of a privatized education system in its place.

But that's not the worst case scenario. The worst case scenario is this-- public education is destroyed, and NOTHING is ever built in its place. Parents see what is happening and instead of trying to save the instutution, they flee it. Citizens unable to distinguish between the people who want to save public education and the people who want to "save" public education attack the whole lot of them. The building is razed, leveled, smashed to the ground, and nothing is ever built in its place.

That's the worst that can happen. We need all the allies we can get, but we have to think past the hoped-for death of the current reform wave, because sometimes the enemy of my enemy is, in the end, my enemy, too.

Friday, December 6, 2013


Sameness. Stultifying standardized straightjacketed sameness.

If I had to put my finger on the one most troubling aspect of the wave of reformy stuff that is currently battering us, it would be this. The standardization. The premise that education is a big machine with interchangeable cogs. The one size fits all. The sameness.

It is troubling because conformity and standardization are seductively appealing to schools and teachers.

In "The Good Student Trap," Adele Scheele lays this out as brilliantly as anyone could. Scheele talks about learning system dependency, because in school, we learn how the system works, and all that is required of us is three steps:

We were learning the Formula.

• Find out what's expected.
• Do it.
• Wait for a response.

And it worked. We always made the grade. Here's what that process means: You took tests and wrote papers, got passing grades, and then were automatically promoted from one year to the next. That is not only in elementary, junior, and senior high school, but even in undergraduate and graduate school. You never had to compete for promotions, write résumés, or rehearse yourself or even know anyone for this promotion. It happened automatically. And we got used to it. 

The formula rewards conformity. It rewards obedience. And it produces a platoon of students moving in lockstep, because each one marches to the same beat of the same drum.

Let's not kid ourselves. That's how many teachers like it. I have talked to teachers who think CCSS is awesome. I have talked to teachers who think scripting is the best thing since sliced bread. I have talked to teachers who wish that certain smart-ass students would stop bringing up questions and ideas that aren't supposed to be part of the program.

I deal every year with honors students who have learned that it is most efficient and expeditious to turn off their brains to deal with school, that assignments go better if you DON'T engage and you DON'T think, but just figure out what's expected and do it. Plenty of students like it. They're good at it, and it's easy.

And I have met far too many students who have come to really believe in this system. They believe that standardized lockstep is how the world works. "Look," I tell my juniors, "You act like you are all running in one race to one finish line and if you win the race, someone pops up and rewards you with a life. That's not it. You are each headed to a different place. You are each running on your own path, to your own finish line." Some of them get it. Some of them do not.

Scheele's good student learns to erase himself. In that three-step formula, there's no place for that individual student's point of view, attitude, personal history, personal goals. A good student learns to ignore her own self. Just find where the lines are and stay within them.

Stay within the lines, and you will be rewarded with safety and success.

This approach of sameness, of standardization, of conformity, or union under the beat of the same big drum is absolutely enshrined by current reformers. Educational programs should be teacher proof, i.e. it shouldn't matter which teacher is delivering the material. Schools should be marching all students down the same CCSS path to the same CCSS destination. Every aspect of education should be measured by the same yardstick. Every student should get the same grade on the same test by giving the same answers.

Every single aspect of current reform, from TFA to charters to most especially CCSS and the testing program to which it is irrevocably tied to the programs being hawked by Pearson et al-- every single aspect is aimed at one thing. Sameness. Standardization. A system in which individual differences, whether they're the differences of students or teachers or schools, do not and can not matter.

This is not right. This is not how we human beings are meant to be in the world. It doesn't even work (let me be the one gazillionth person to point out the irony that most of these reformers would have fought and failed against their own system if they had to come up through it). It's a lie. It's terrible preparation for our students, and it seeks to deny and stamp out the humanity of every teacher and student who passes through a school.

I'm not an anarchist. I'm not here to argue that schools should be centers for anarchic rambling. I've seen open classrooms and fully-student-directed learning and I'm well aware that the population well-served by such set-ups is small. The vast majority of students need some sort of structure, just as the vast majority of teachers need some sort of curriculum direction.

But here's a thought. What if we set up a system where every learner had a personal education professional who saw the student on a daily basis, face to face, and who got to know him well enough to chart a course that factored in the content area, the strengths and weaknesses of the learner, the strengths and weaknesses of the education professional, the individual learner's personal goals, and the unique qualities and history of the place where they were working. It would have to be a very robust and resilient system to accommodate all the zillions of individual differences, but we could achieve that robust resilience by empowering the educational professionals to make any and all adjustments that were necessary to accommodate all the factors listed above.

Or we could just require everybody to cover all the same material at the same time in the same way while ignoring all of the individual factors involved with the live human beings in the room. We could standardize everything. We could make everything the same.

I'm going to vote for the first choice. It has the virtue of reflecting reality, plus it has the virtue of using a system that we already had in place. We just have to put teachers and schools back to where they ought to be.