Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Not Excited About CCSS #4: One size does not fit all...

How do we possibly figure that one educational experience, every step carefully timed and all goals carefully calibrated, can be exactly right for every single human being in the country?

On what planet does it make that every welder, doctor, musician, dancer, checkout clerk, dental assistant, accountant, truck driver, mechanic, airline pilot, senator, painter, chemist, writer, farmer, and computer programmer in the country need to learn exactly the same stuff on exactly the same schedule?

I'll grant you-- a good case can be made that there certain things that everybody needs to learn, like honesty, humility, and other foundational building blocks of good character. But as every real live human being who ever built those blocks can tell you, that construction work is very much the result of life experience, which has a funny way of unfolding on a schedule that is not responsive to human demands (which is ALSO a lesson that everyone needs to learn).

But we're not talking about that case, because CCSS is more concerned with calculus than character.

If we want to create lifelong learners, if we want to nurture real live human beings who embrace growing and changing and finding a path that best suits their calling, capabilities and character, how can we possibly give them that by making them all line up and march in lockstep.

How did we get to a place where a statement like "People are individuals with different needs and speeds in life" could be something radical.

 " Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. It is not important that he should mature as soon as an apple tree or an oak. Shall he turn his spring into summer? If the condition of things which we were made for is not yet, what were any reality which we can substitute? We will not be shipwrecked on a vain reality."

There was a time when I would have hesitated to include that quote from Thoreau, because it would have seemed trite and obvious. But nowadays it seems positively revolutionary and reactionary all at the same time. Even though it's non-fiction, I imagine David Coleman would still say, "Damn, Hank, shut up. Nobody gives a shit what you think or feel." And then we would flunk him, because while his writing was passable, his math scores were terrible.
If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.
If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

"Run LIke a Business"

The funny thing is, there was a time when saying something should be run like a business was useful and positive. It meant that decisions needed to be made realistically. It meant that you shouldn't spend buttloads of money you didn't have. It meant that you couldn't get so wrapped up in your magical unicorn visions of what the operation did that you forgot about paying the bills and taking care of the nuts and bolts.

But no longer. Today business is well entrenched in a mess best dissected in this column:

Businesses were no longer about making something or doing something. Businesses became all about maximizing stockholder value, getting return on investment, getting every last drop of blood out of the corporate turnip.

That had a variety of side effects, but the one most recognizable in our current world of education "reform" is this-- when ROI is the most important job of the company, knowledge of the industry is of minor importance as a CEO qualification.

We've watched company after company be taken over and run down by people who know nothing about the industry they're "leading" in. And that's on purpose. If I'm looking for a new CEO of a soup company, I'm looking for a guy who's good at getting money out of companies. What he knows about soup doesn't matter.

In my own little corner of the world, we had a CEO pass through who ran, in succession, a toy company, a soup company, an oil company, and a soap company. He didn't make successes out of any of them, but he did squeeze ROI out, before jetting off to his next gig. The last bankruptcy of Hostess was inevitable, because management was determined to squeeze out every last ounce of life. If the company was still alive, the reasoning goes, there must be some life left to squeeze.

"Run like a business" used to mean "with hardnosed practicality aimed at creating a quality product." Now it means "able to get a good financial return regardless of what the company actually does."

Which is why demands that schools should be "run like a business" are chilling, but accurate. You don't need to understand teaching and students and the material and child development and pedagogy to run a school. You just have to understand how to get a business to cough up some good ROI. We don't need educators in charge-- they just get distracted by the students and the learning. We need businessmen who understand measuring deliverables and squeezing budgets for full returns. And we need to give them full freedom to do their Master of the Universe thing. And talking about "experience" is silly, because all these so-called "experienced" teachers only have experience in what the business is supposed to do, and THAT is just a distraction from the true business of making those dollars flow in the right direction.

I have always maintained that public education is where failed management theories go to die. This time, they're bad enough to do some real damage to the schools they infect.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

PA Lurches Forward-ish

The news out of Harrisburg from last week is that the state has agreed to adopt Common Core standards, with a few notable caveats.

This line in particular jumps out: "The 13-4 vote to approve the so-called Common Core standards came after state officials said they would limit the proficiency tests to public schools, and agreed not to impose a statewide curriculum or reading lists, or expand the collection of students' personal data."

So, Gov. Corbett believes that these standards will be good for PA students-- just not the ones that attend private schools. The private school operators of the state thank you, Gov. Corbett!

The agreement "not to impose statewide curriculum" is so stunningly disingenuous that one wonders whether the state suits is devious or simply doesn't understand how this all works. I lean toward the latter, but here's what so many people fail to understand.

The test IS the curriculum. If you give a test and tell schools, "You will lose money and teachers will lose their jobs unless your students do well on The Test," the Test is your curriculum. It is not possible to create a method that more effectively mandates teaching to the test.

There would be some room to argue about how bad this really is if the test were an effective measure of the kinds of goals we want to see education accomplish. We could seriously argue, "Well, if they're well-educated, the students will do well on the test." There would be some room for disagreement-- a standardized test is not exactly authentic assessment-- but we wouldn't find ourselves completely out in left field.

But we aren't there. Here's why.

First, the PA exams are bad. Reading questions routinely ask questions that involve interpretation, or worse yet, matters of opinion, and proceed from the belief that there is only one correct answer. Only one correct interpretation. Only one correct opinion.

I've read questions that clearly have two or more correct answers available. The student's task is not to read and interpret-- the student's task is to try to deduce what the test writer wants the answer to be. Inferring the intent of standardized test writers is not a completely useless skill, but it has some limited utility. And yet it is squarely in the PA State Curriculum.

(I could provide examples of these questions, but then I would be liable for all sorts of penalties and possible loss of job because I'm not allowed to know what the tests say or to share that information with anyone. The tests are Top Secret. Maybe that's to maintain test security and intergrity, or maybe it's for the same reason that the Emperor's courtiers don't let him go out in his new clothes.)

Second, the higher-order critical thinking skills included in the CCNS (that's Common Core National Standards) are not assessable on a standardized test. It's great that the CCNS purports to support the kind of critical thinking involved in reading a complete novel, then analyzing and synthesizing themes by way of the literary analysis tools that we English teachers value, then expressing those insights in well-developed expressions of solidly-crafted writing. But that's not going to be on the test. It can't be. What's going to be on the test is some short piece of out-of-context reading followed by some multiple-choice questions that require the student to infer what point about a single aspect of a single small sample the test-developers thought needed attention.

You do not assess higher-order thinking skills with objective tests. No, not even with questions that call for a paragraph or two of answers, to be scored by either a computer program or a bunch of minimum-wage workers in a test-scoring sweatshop. You assess these kinds of skills with large-scale projects, such as papers or oral presentations or web-based multi-path computer creations. Then you have them scored by someone who is expert in the material and who knows exactly what expectations are appropriate for the students, and who will devote hours to carefully examining what the student has produced. It's not quick, and it doesn't necessarily produce nice, neat numbers-- but it's the right way to do it.

It's true that PA could be doing far worse than the choices in this last move. It says something about the state of government oversight of education that really bad choices now qualify as some of the best choices actually being made.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Beatings Will Continue

One underlying assumption of school reform has now been with us so long that it's no longer even questioned.

NCLB, RttT and whatever-it-is-we're-getting-now all assume that better teaching must be beaten out of teachers. We are all apparently sitting around, possessed of the full knowledge of how to perfectly educate America's students, but because we are too lazy or belligerent or just under-motivated, we keep that knowledge to ourselves.

Only by being threatened can we be truly motivated. Only with the stick of bad ratings and budget cuts and, now, firing, will we finally relent and say, "Well, okay, I guess I'll go ahead and do my job."

It is one of the most fundamentally insulting features of school "reform," People who are education dilettantes, school tourists, and powerful amateurs want to treat us-- you know, the teachers who have devoted their whole lives to education, who have sacrificed our time, our money, and any prospects of becoming Really Wealthy like the other people we went to college with-- as if we aren't really committed to schools. We spend our lives here, and they are just passing through, but somehow WE are the people who don't really have skin in the game.

The irony is that every committed teacher I know, every educator worth his/her salt, can give you a list of personal weaknesses. I can tell you exactly where I need to, and strive to, improve in my work. Because we all know that perfection in teaching is to be chased, but never achieved. Our reaction to criticism has NEVER been, "How dare you! My job performance is perfect. My awesomeness as a teacher cannot be questioned!"

We know our weaknesses, and we work on them far harder than any reformer ever thought of. And when we get one aspect of our practice under control, we move on to the next one. And it takes a hell of a lot longer than two years plus five weeks.

The continued attempts to motivate us by threats and insults are a distraction. They are a problem not just because they are insulting but because they are one more thing we have to deal with that takes time and attention away from the work we're trying to do. They are like paging a doctor in surgery and saying, "Look, you need to finish that operation up in the next five minutes because we need you in the office for your performance review."

I am already giving school everything I have to give. Threatening me will not get more out of me. Additional beatings will not improve my morale.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Beyond Politics

One of the notable features of the school "reform" movement is that it transcends politics (much in the same way that the military industrial complex transcends politics).

People are starting to notice the oddity of CCSS opposition coming from both the Tea Party and Union Lefties. But that simply mirrors the bipartisan nature of the "reform" movement itself.

You can remember back when we are all kind of surprised and hopeful that No Child Left Behind represented a bipartisan agreement to address education as a priority in this country. True, that optimism lasted about ten minutes once we saw what they'd come up with, but still-- it looked like something new.

But it's not. We've seen the same patterns in the military and food industries. There are two notable features:

1) The revolving door. There's a well-lubricated speed-tunnel between the offices where regulations are written and the offices where businesses make money from following the regulations. The suits who write the laws that make it possible for Monsanto to make an unhindered fortune are the same suits that go to work for Monsanto and cash in.

The Teach For America model is nothing new-- do a couple of years of government work so that you can build a resume and make some contacts, then head off to make the real money. The Common Core model is nothing new-- create a fake government body that ploughs the field so that you can go back to your real job in the corporate world and make money cashing in on the laws that you wrote.

2) Left-right fusion. Create a bipartisan appeal by including something for everyone. For lefties, provide the idea that this is a Big Problem and Government is going to Step In And Fix It. For the right, turn around and have Government fix the problem by turning to market solutions. Hire some private firm to provide your fix.

Again, this is nothing new. Forty years ago, activists got lefties to demand that developmentally disabled men and women be "set free" from institutions and allowed to take their place in society. Government said, "Well, sure" and then proceeded to create cash cows for any private contractors who wanted to set up halfway houses or other services for clients. It didn't work out real well for anybody (unless you really get a kick out of the squeegee guys you meet) except the contractors who got big gummint checks for pretending to provide services for the clients.

There are no politics in school "reform," or many other issues, either. The only division that matters is not left-right or Dem-GOP. It's the powerful, rich,and privileged vs the rest of us. They are not interested in American politics (heck, in many cases they aren't even particularly American) except as a tool for working their will on the marketplace. The education business, with its vast untapped resource of tax dollars, is just their new frontier.

What do we do? I wish I knew. I've tried for years to convince my liberal friends that getting the federal government involved just makes things worse. Collecting power in DC is like putting all your money in a big pile on your front porch-- you just cannot be surprised by the crowd that it gathers, nor that using your pile responsibly is not their priority. I believe that this is a battle that has to be fought on a thousand separate beaches. More than that, I don't know.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The NEA Makes Me Sad

President Dennis Van Roekel drinks the kool-aid daily, and then goes swimming in it. He claims that NEA was consulted on the production of the Common Core, and that teachers were involved in the creation of the standards. In some ways this is one of the most discouraging things he keeps saying because while some statements about CCSS are opinions or interpretations, this "involvement" piece is a matter of fact, a matter of record, and he can't possibly NOT know that what he's saying is not the truth.

Take this piece, for example:

It's so stuffed with wrong that it's a miracle it can still breathe.

It's not that I've always had blind faith in the union. It's not that I haven't occasionally disagreed with choices they/we make.

But I subscribe to the theory that it's a mistake to assume that anybody is always trustworthy, always worth following. In the end, you have to weigh the message and not just blindly trust (or distrust) the messenger.

And I wouldn't do away with the union for a second. We work in a business where we often face big ugly dogs; it's just practical to have a big ugly dog of our own.

But what I learned back when I was the president of a striking union is that the larger union often gets its ways mixed up with its means. The ultimate corrosive in politics is that the end justifies the means, and the first thing that ends up on that list is the means of maintaining political heft at any price. Not much further down the list is the idea that leadership knows what membership needs to decide to do, and it's okay to direct, nudge, and maybe even mislead membership to get them to go in the right direction.

And I'm a big boy. Sometimes the world is not unicorns pooping rainbows and you have to get your hands dirty to get the job done.

But this is worse than that. This is the leadership of the NEA agreeing that teachers need the federal government to tell us how to do our jobs. This is the leadership of the NEA agreeing that rich, powerful amateurs, are needed to straighten out us poor mere teachers. And this is the leadership of the NEA telling us up is down and black is white and that kool-aid is reeeaaaallly delicious.

Van Roekel says that CCSS will be the end of one-size-fits-all education, and yet, somehow, this wide-open freedom will guarantee that every child in the country is on the same page at the same time. I am baffled, and flabbergasted, and ashamed of my union leadership.