Friday, January 31, 2014

College Ready

One of the linchpins of proof among CCSS supporters is that Kids These Days are not ready for college. This is generally expressed in scholarly tones as "X% of college freshmen were in need of remediation" (and in more rhetorical tones as "OMGZZ!! The college freshmens are soooooo dumb that they need undumbification classes to be in the college!!") And this is proof that We Must Do Something, with "Something" defined as "slap CCSS into place."

Time for a lesson in metrics. This legendary unreadiness is usually expressed as "need remediation" which is turn is measured by "percentage of students taking remedial classes." Remember that.

This always sounds sciency because it comes out as number, but trying to pin down that number turns out to be a challenge. The National Center for Education Statistics has a paper that looks at those numbers for 1999-2000, 2003-2004, and 2007-2008, and while it breaks them down a variety of ways, the overall conclusion is that 1999-2000 was worse than either of the other years sampled, and all of the numbers hovered around the twenties, low or high. But this article from Chicagoland says that over a third of students entering college need remedial help, based on 2008 stats from the government-- same as the previous report. A Harvard professor looking at a 2003 study comes up with one third as well. The Inside Higher Ed Bridge to Nowhere report throws around a 30% number. And I would swear that I recently heard 46% tossed into the remediation soup as well. Most of these sources do not compare the current figures to any from the alleged golden age of non-remediation. So can I at least suggest that the numbers are "controversial" or "contested" or maybe even "pulled out of a variety of different orifices"?

I'm not a scholar in the field. But as a high school teacher I have a buttload of anecdotal evidence that might explain this trend if it in fact exists (which I will concede it very well might).

Explanation #1. The college admissions process.

We used to tell our students, "You need to take college prep classes and do well in them if you want to get into college." We still tell them that, but they laugh at us as if we had just told them that sasquatch will eat them if they don't do their homework.

They laugh because every one of them knows somebody who barely passed non-college prep classes who was still cheerfully accepted into a college. Because at least in PA the college-age market is shrinking dramatically, and colleges are suffering dire financial straights because they can't find enough parents to cut checks enough searchers for higher knowledge and wisdom.

So when a local college prof starts in on "How can you send us these kids" my reply is always, "Look at his courseload and his grades. We told you exactly what you were getting. You accepted him anyway."

Explanation #2 College fund raising.

Funny thing about remedial courses at most colleges. They don't count as credit toward graduation. You do have to pay for them, though. So the more times a college can convince Joe Freshman that he "must" take Remedial Composition or Math or Hygiene, the more extra money they can bank.

For at least a decade I've been hearing stories about perfectly capable students who were told they must take a remedial course. Every once in a while they say, "No, I don't" and it never hurts them a bit. But imagine how many impressionable freshmen, alone in a college office without parental backup or sufficient knowledge of the system, are not able to stand up for themselves.

So have colleges start giving away remedial course for free, just to help their students succeed. Check what the enrollment numbers are like then. At that point, you can get back to me. In the meantime, remedial coursework is a great moneymaker for cash-strapped colleges.

Explanation #3 Marketing

We've been telling everybody that they just have to get a college education no matter what. It has been great marketing. It has brought lots of young folks into the market who are probably not well-served by the market. Meanwhile, America needs welders. Mike Rowe has been doing brilliant work on this issue. Bottom line-- we should stop heavily recruiting people who are 250 pounds and 6'6" to become jockeys.

So I can believe that college readiness is, kind of, an issue. But you'll notice that none of my proposed causes can be addressed by a national one-size-fits-all top-down-imposed curriculum.

[Update: Let me correct this an omission, because I do know better-- in many fairly significant ways, the reform movement has made things worse. For instance, standardized test writing is an abomination and teaching it undoubtedly makes students less ready for college. Just so you know I know.]

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Training Day- CCS, DOK, MOUSE

Today the state of Pennsylvania provided me with some CCSS training (well, not exactly, but we'll get to that). This blog post will probably be on the long side and perhaps not as entertaining, but for those of you who are wondering what some of this stuff looks like up close, let me give you a look. Today's training is

Depth of Knowledge through Performance Tasks (presented in partnership with the Common Core Insitute)

Training today involved about seventy teachers and administrators at the Intermediate Unit office (in PA, there are regional field offices for the PA DOE) in the Hemlock Room. Yes, just like the poison you drink if you're an ancient Greek philosopher who wants to kill himself. You can't make this stuff up.


The IU lady, who never actually introduced herself nor wore a name tag, started things off with a pep talk for CCSS. "It's not as much about new content as it is new teaching," she said. "We've been going on an efficiency model." She observed that we would now be moving on to effectiveness, and that word reminded her of the new teacher evals in PA. What better way to start the day than a reminder that our professional evaluations are riding on this stuff.

She introduced Ed Heelifeld (my best phonetic rendering) who taught high school math for 12 years but is now a sales and service rep for Common Core Institute. "We help people implement the common core." So, "institute" here means "program sales company." It's a nice touch. I bet in retrospect Ray Kroc wishes he had started the "McDonalds Hamburger and Fries Institute."

Ed turns us over to the lead dog on this CCSS bobsled today-- Jill Stine.

Jill Stine

Jill Stine works for some combination of CCI and the Center for College and Career Readiness. She has a varied background in ed, ranging from teaching deaf classes at Camp Hill Prison to Title I reading to assistant principal. She worked with Bob Marzano in Florida implementing teacher evaluations. She's not shy-- I know all of the above because she told us. She described working with Marzano as "a fun time" in a tone suggesting it was contentious and that she knows not everyone loves her work.

It would be entertaining to describe her as a difficult, unpleasant human being with horns and foul breath, but she came across as fairly straightforward and likeable. She took questions, generally didn't evade, and was willing to engage with those of us who had issues with the program. A quick search suggested that she has occasionally been a bit too forthright in the past. She was reasonable and human, but unapologetically described herself as having "drunk the koolaid."

The First Thing I Did Not Expect

Stine's brief version of the CCSS origin story was a new one on me. In her story, the creators looked across all the state standards to see what standards they had in common. Then they asked if those standards were getting the job done. Then they overlaid another level of complexity to make them more better. Make of that what you will.


I'm actually looking forward to the day that "efficacy" takes over. We had a long discussion about what rigor is and is not. She showed us that little bad animation cartoon where the Britishy principal grills the teacher about rigor. She shared the Barbara Blackburn definition of rigor. We brainstormed a bunch of ideas. I must conclude once again that "rigor" is either A) everything we all already knew was a good thing to do as a teacher, or B) magical fairy dust of learning.

I'm Starting To Understand Randi Weingarten

We began the pivot toward the actual point of the by re-affirming that how we teach should be how we assess. Don't do a project and then give a test-- use the project as the actual assessment. Not for the last time today, I could see that if you squint your eyes and look at the good parts of CCSS (what I like to call "things good teachers already do") it provides, all on its own, a pretty strong indictment of the high stakes testing program that is its conjoined twin.

But I can see how, close up, it might look like testing is somehow twisting CCSS all out of shape, and if you could just get the foot of testing off the neck of CCSS, the standards would spring back to life. Because frequently in the session you arrive at a variation on "Well, that would be swell-- except for the test that's coming." I contend that testing has not bent CCSS out of shape-- that IS it's shape. But I can see how, close up, you'd think otherwise. 

I suspect that this is part of the reason that the CCSS reformista package gives so many people gut-level cognitive dissonance even when they don't fully understand it. It's like a bad M C Escher drawing where segments try to be two mutually contradictory things at once. It can't all be true at the same time.

So anyway-- better assessments. Also, kids have changed. Remember that for later.

The Main Event Finally Arrives--Webb's Depth of Knowledge

You know, Bloom's Taxonomy was swell in its day. Nothing wrong with it. But its big weakness was that whole emphasis-on-the-verb thing. You can describe the color of a read ball, and you can describe how you would create a system for playing chess in zero gravity, and both use the verb "describe" but are clearly different levels of operation.

Norman Webb came up with a newer, better tool. The DOK scale (thank goodness he didn't call it depth IN knowledge) delineates four different way that students interact with content:

1- Recall and Reproduction
2- Skills and Concepts
3- Strategic Thinking/Reasoning
4- Extended Thinking

You may be thinking that this sounds an awful lot like a collapsed Bloom's, and I wouldn't argue with you. I actually agree with the Bloom's verby problem, but I'm thinking that's a pretty easy fix. I'm also thinking that nobody is making money teaching people about Bloom's any more, but some folks are making an awful lots of money teaching teachers about Webb's DOK.

We spent much time looking at and categorizing examples of the four levels, and it was at times a tough slog because essentially they're trying to teach us to use a whole new language to talk about things. If you really want to know more about DOK, just google your heart out. There's tons out there.

I will share one insight that I actually found useful. Because DOK focuses on the complexity of the interaction with the material, you can ramp up DOK even with material that's not difficult.

But the real reason you care about DOK is simple-- it's what's being used as a guide by the high stakes test developers. This is why, for instance, we're seeing questions that have the student look at two different works and construct an argument about them based on evidence-- because that would be a DOK 3 or 4 level and will help HST grow beyond the old bubble test stigma.

So we're to be designing performance tasks that represent these different levels because that will better help us bring to life the inner beauty of the CCSS.

More Dissonance

These sorts of performance tasks are supposed to go slow and deep. One sample lesson was going to involve a week spent on one poem. Because we could all just teach 36 short works of literature in high school English classes this year. And elementary teachers with their 180 pre-packaged lessons can totally stretch those out so students can go deep.

Again, what some experts tell us we should do with CCSS and what others tell us we must do with CCSS materials simply don't fit. CCSS is a GPS that gives you directions for driving south toward Pittsburgh and then ends with directions about navigating down town Cleveland.

We also discussed a sample task for third graders and noted that on the HST this sort of thing would require a lot of rigorous time and focused attention for an eight-year-old. The obvious solution-- make sure that your instruction includes long soul-crushing tedious tasks so that your third grader is used to it by the time the test comes. 

A Question I Asked

We were talking about how the PARCC (which PA is apparently still pals with; we mostly don't like the idea of the computer testing, perhaps because we actually tried that a few years ago and it was a clusterfig of mammoth proportions), and how it was going to include these nifty performance tasks for assessments, and I asked, "How will the answers to the complex questions be graded and by whom?" I think a lot of people found that question interesting, but Stine admitted frankly that she had no idea, and that yes, that was probably important. IU Lady made some noises on behalf of the state that were less illuminating.

I may also have squeezed in an explanation of how to game the PA writing test.

We broke for lunch

Afternoon Not-Really-Delight

The afternoon opened with a video clip of Taylor Mali's "Miracle Worker," and I always think that reformers' use of Mali is kind of like politician's use of "Born in the USA" and I want to ask, "Are you really listening to this?" But I had resolved not to be an ass today.

CCI has prepared a nifty 128-page deconstruction of the standards, making them easily referrable and broken down in a way that would make local alignment a slightly less-inconvenient piece of paperwork. We looked at that, and we looked at a performance task that, unfortunately, purported to use Close Reading. It was actually Close Reading 2.0, complete with making sure not tell the students anything before having them read the work. Did I mention that the Taylor Mali poem hinges on the idea "I gave you what you needed before you even knew you needed it?" Close Reading 2.0 instead preaches "I won't give you what you need, even when you're floundering without it."

I give credit to Stine, who not for the first or last time was perfectly willing to engage me one-on-one during group time to trade points of view on these things. I am not sure how much I can learn from her, but she could teach people like Cami Anderson and John King a thing or two.

We spent more time on specific sample lessons. You can find some of this stuff on CCI's website, and each performance task comes with a coaching video to help you understand what you're supposed to do, in case you're somebody who doesn't belong in a classroom.This was also an interesting study in how teachers react to CCSS. In the morning, there was a lot of "Well, this actually seems benign, maybe even helpful" in the room, but the afternoon was more "Wait! What? This is the result? Well, this just doesn't seem right."

Annnnnd we were about done. IU Lady said some more hostessy things which I mostly blocked out, though I did jot down the phrase "really rich and authentic data" because I'm curious about the kind of brain in which that is an actual thing that comes out of CCSS.

Last Dissonance Aside

You may have heard that CCSS (and perhaps your evaluation) really values questions with more than one right answer. We hit that a lot. Also, collaboration is a biggie. And independently researching points that come up in the pursuit of answers. This should be part of what we do all the time. Except when we're taking the high stakes test.

My Last Question

At some point we had circled back around to the idea that you could increase complexity of the DOK level without increasing the level of difficulty of the content. Which I totally dig. But I asked "How do we reconcile that with preparing students for the high stakes test that will increase the level of BOTH?" And there were a lot of words that followed, but none of them added up to an answer. This conundrum still seems to rest on rigorous fairy dust-- we'll get the DOK levels of their brains rigorously ramped up so much that it won't matter that half the vocabulary is unfamiliar to them.

The Second Thing I Did Not Expect

Remember how kids have changed? That came up more than once, in basically a "kids these days" manner. I had never, ever hear this one before, but apparently one of the reasons we need CCSS and DOK levels is that kids these days are helpless and lack initiative. Stine told a story about her child calling to ask "Are we out of butter?" while standing in front of the frige. So, CCSS and rigor. Apparently the CCSS will make kids pull up their pants and get off our lawns.

The Third Thing I Did Not Expect

Remember how I said the state of PA didn't exactly provide the training? Well, that's because the training was sponsored by the folks at Office Depot, who paid our registration fees (160-ish bucks/head). They are corporate partners of the CCI, and two representatives of the company sat in the back of the room all day. At the end, a nice lady from Office Depot told us how important CCSS is and how useful we will find it in our classrooms. And they reminded us that Office Depot could help our schools meet the costs of change by giving them cheaper ways to get supplies. They offered us a swag bag, but I actually forgot to pick it up because I was still wrapping my brain around someone from Office Depot giving me advice on how to do my job.

I was not numb. I've sat through far worse, and there were useful nuggets in this day, including a better understanding of where the CCSS/Testing machine is coming from on some particulars. But still no kool-aid for me.

At the very end we saw an inspiration video about a football coach tricking a kid into doing a death march (crawling on hands and feet with another guy on his back) the full length of a football field. I thought maybe the video would end with the kid collapsing of heat stroke and the coach being fired, but no-- everybody felt better, because in the end you can accomplish really painful, difficult, and pointless tasks if you set your mind to it. It's possible I drew the wrong lesson from the video.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Political Theater and Reality

Tuesday presented an interesting juxtaposition of events.

It began with news of the death of Pete Seeger. Stuck at home for a Polar Vortex Day, I sat and watched clips, everything from interviews to original Weavers clips to the video he made for Amnesty International at age 92. I reread accounts of his life-- living in a house he built with his wife of about 70 years, his blacklisting, his travels with Woody Guthrie, his stand on so many issues. I watched him sing, head tilted back, eyes on... something. Something bigger than himself. And I got choked up, moved by this man who absolutely lived his life and his art as if they were the same thing, who lived with integrity and honesty. I may not have agreed with everything he ever said or did, but damn-- the man absolutely fearlessly lived out his truth.

But as the day wore on, Seeger was pushed out of the cyber world by anticipation of the State of the Union address. If there is a more inauthentic, calculated piece of political theater outside of campaign events, I can't think of it. People spent the day on line speculating and agitating for what issues and elements POTUS might name drop in the SOTU, and at the end of the day of speculation, he gave education a side swiped batch of pointless sidestepping and spin. I didn't watch it, and I wasn't sorry. You can read two fine reactions to it; one by Chris Geurrierri and the other by Valerie Strauss. You can get the gist there. If the SOTU told us anything at all, it told us that no magical fairies visited POTUS during the night to make him understand how messed up his education policies are.

It was empty rhetoric, a fine example of how politicians have become accustomed to controlling the conversation, the audience, the setting, and the rhetoric, leading to the mistaken assumption that all of that equals controlling the audience. My biggest fear about the SOTU is the President Obama believes in his heart that he really accomplished something, that teachers and students are sitting out there thinking, "Well, that's mighty fine. He has my full support now." It's one thing when people pee on us and tell us it's raining; it's somehow worse when they think we believe them.

But not too far away from DC, another politician was having a more authentic experience. Cami Anderson did everything she could to keep the parents and teachers of Newark in line-- small meeting location, make them wait outside, control the agenda. But like John King and his New York Victory Lap of Common Core Wait What No I'm Not Going Back Out There Tour, Cami discovered that when people are authentically outraged, political theater and stage tricks will not keep them in line. She had a no good, very bad, terrible evening.

And like many politicians and reformers before her, she was not just surprised, but really offended that people were not well-behaved enough to stay in their place. It's particularly ironic that a personal barb appears to have been her breaking point, as if her actions and statements have not been personal attacks on the personal families of Newark persons.

And so she stomped out.

We are so steeped in the fake in this country, that our leaders have become focused on crafting fake events instead of dealing with real people, and when they have to deal with real people, they literally do not know how to cope.

And yet, part of the lesson of Pete Seeger is that authentic lives, lives in truth and integrity, create real beauty, perhaps the only kind of real beauty that ever exists. To hide from truth is to hide from what is true and beautiful and awesomely human. It's focusing on creating and controlling a completely artificial relationship and experience that is at the cold and lifeless heart of CCSS and reform.

The State of the Union address was one of the least important things to happen yesterday. Give me more Pete Seeger. Give me more Newark parents. Give me less political theater, especially when it comes to education.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Reform and Engineering Systems

Peter DeWitt ran a column last week on NBC's Education Nation advertising site leaping off from the question of how to chart a course through the middle of this debate. I feel his pain. Education has become another area in US life where it is no longer enough to believe that the people you disagree with are wrong-- you must view them as your mortal enemies, motivated by some combination of evil, greed, and stupidity. "Moderate" doesn't just mean a central position on the issues, but also refers to the degree of heat one brings to the argument table.

After some thoughts that you really should go read, DeWitt arrives at this:

 If we stop debating on who is right or wrong and actually work together to figure out how to move forward, we may find that our end goals are the same, and only our means are different. Perhaps I’m too idealistic. 

And that got me thinking, not for the first time, about the different goals in play in education reform and reclamation these days.

I think of myself as a moderate. I don't see any value in having national education standards, of any sort, at all, ever. But I do understand why some people think such standards have merit, and I don't assume that they are horrible people.

But I am afraid, despite DeWitt's hopes, we don't all have the same goals. I'm not talking about the profiteers. Lightyears of words have been strung together to tell that story, and I'm not going to address to that today. I think something else is driving the architects of school reform, and I think that explains, even more than greed, why we're pulling in different directions.

I've lived most of my life around engineers and their modern offspring, computer systems guys (as an English teacher, I'm a bit of an anomaly). And here are two things I know about folks in those fields:

1) They love neat, pretty systems.

2) Human beings often fail to behave the way they think human beings ought to behave.

Point #1 is important to understand. Engineers like elegant systems. Whatever it is-- stereo equipment, a way to move dirt in the back yard, a system for remote access a particular program-- they love to design a smooth, elegant means of accomplishing it. That is the goal. Given the choice between a sloppy cobbled-together system that gets the job done and a sleek elegant system that doesn't-- but should --they will pick the elegant non-functional system every time.

Who has not had this conversation with their tech department?

Teacher: This hardware/software you set up isn't parsing the widgets for me.

Tech guy: Really? That should work. [accusing tone] Are you sure you didn't mess up the fribulator?

Teacher: Didn't touch it. This thing doesn't work. Can you just do a workaround so I can finish

Tech guy: No no no. This should work. [followed by hunching over equipment having prolonged conversation with himself]

Three weeks later the tech guy is still trying to tweak the setup. Meanwhile, you've parsed your widgets with a pencil and some 3x5 notecards. File this with all the times you were going to use that cool hookup in your class and 95% of the period was wasted with tech guys trying to get things to work the way they were supposed to.

I don't know Bill Gates, but given my experience with engineers and computer guys, I wonder-- does he want to rule the world and make money from it, or does he just want to organize. I wonder if he and other engineery types don't look at our traditional education system and see a system that is so higgledy-piggledy, haphazard, random, and messy that it gives them hives.

I think it's possible they just want to see a smooth, elegant system.

Do they care about results or students or teachers or communities? Probably, but their core belief is this: if you get the proper system in place, the results will take care of themselves.

So if it seems as if the architects are talking about teachers and students and schools as if we're all just cogs in some big shiny machine-- well, yes. To them, we are. And as soon as the machine is properly tweaked and aligned and calibrated and set-up, we will all be whirring along, happy, productive cogs who are getting everything we ever wanted.

They're wrong. Human beings don't operate well as cogs, and system perfection is largely inachieveable. The day will never come when every single student will successfully take Smarter Balance test online in one day without a glitch. "But it should happen." And rather than bust out paper and pencil and do what works, the engineers will keep striving for perfection. And because our goal is to perfect the system, it doesn't matter if the clock is still running and years are wasted for the students while the machine is set up.

In the meantime, engineers see humans in the education system as functions-- teachers are Content Delivery Specialists and students are Data Generation Units. And all functions must be standardized to certain tolerances in order for the system to run smoothly. Worst case, engineers can see humans as a problem. By refusing to behave the way they ought to, humans will keep messing the system up. Either those cogs must be brought into compliance or replaced with other cogs that do what they're supposed to. For the good of the system.

So no, Dr. DeWitt, in the end I don't think we want the same things, and the differences in what we want end up being rather critical. In the best of times, when the system is running smoothly and the students are prospering, there's no conflict. But when crisis time comes (or is created artificially), and we have to decide where to focus our dwindling resources, it makes a critical difference whether our imperative is "Save the kids" or "Save the system."

I don't think the engineers are malevolent (though I think some profiteers are using them to break trail). But I don't think they get it. And I'm not sure how to help them get it, because the other obstacle to dialogue here is a power differential. The architects aren't speaking to us, and they don't have to. At least, not yet. I don't think it's hopeless-- I know several engineery types who get along quite well with other carbon-based life forms, so I know it's possible. So in the respect at least, Dr. DeWitt, I share your idealism.

Monday, January 27, 2014

NEA Sees News from NY, Punts

As everyone following the continuing CCSS adventures knows by now, New York State United Teachers' Board of Directors this Saturday voted "no confidence" on the policies of John King and recommended his ouster.

The resolution was sweeping in its rejection, but also came packed with a whole set of specific recommendations and requests. You can read the whole NYSUT release here.It's a pretty canny piece of political needle-threading.

"Educators understand that introducing new standards, appropriate curriculum and meaningful assessments are ongoing aspects of a robust educational system. These are complex tasks made even more complex when attempted during a time of devastating budget cuts. SED's implementation plan in New York state has failed. The commissioner has pursued policies that repeatedly ignore the voices of parents and educators who have identified problems and called on him to move more thoughtfully," said NYSUT President Richard C. Iannuzzi. "Instead of listening to and trusting parents and teachers to know and do what's right for students, the commissioner has offered meaningless rhetoric and token change. Instead of making the major course corrections that are clearly needed, including backing a three-year moratorium on high-stakes consequences for students and teachers from state testing, he has labeled everyone and every meaningful recommendation as distractions."

So, not a direct repudiation of CCSS. Just all its arms and legs and ears and everything done by the much-unloved guy who made it the cornerstone, bedrock, and giant stone albatross of his every policy. 

I'm not a "CCSS is swell once you get rid of testing and implement it properly" guy. I am a "kill it with fire" guy. I believe that testing is the whole inseparable point of CCSS. That said, I can see the flip side-- remove testing, and you've removed the point of CCSS, and it's just more paperwork. Pull out its fangs and it is, in the words of that great philosopher Yukon Cornelius, a humble bumble.

Well, there's been much to discuss about the NYSUT repudiation of King's policies. It's the biggest stand taken against reform so far, all the more ballsy because it required the state teachers to take a flier without any expectation that a national union had their back. After the resolution, Randi Weingarten quickly popped up with messages of support and approval-- more commendable evolution on her part.

Now, about 48 hours later, Dennis Van Roekel finally finds his voice. Well, sort of anyway. NEA's PR office released a message from the office of DVR, and of course the NEA leader is stepping forward to support and encourage the brave and ballsy teachers of-- oh, no. Wait. No, no that's not it.

The new Common Core State Standards provide real opportunities for the students in our nation’s public school system, but we owe it to them to provide teachers with the time, tools, and resources to get it right. Educators in New York were given no choice but to make a strong statement against the inadequate implementation of the standards. Teachers, administrators, parents and communities must work together to align the standards with curriculum, instruction and assessment, and this isn’t being done in New York.

Yep-- given a slam dunk union-leading opportunity, one that required nothing more than simply leaping up on an already-moving bandwagon, DVR took a flying leap and landed right in the middle of one more CCSS promotional piece.

Look at the two excerpts again. NYSUT is expressing concern that the interests of teachers, students, family, and community members are not being heeded and represented. DVR is concerned that the standards aren't getting all the love and care they deserve. And while this opening graf lists the people who aren't properly implementing the standards, DVR gets through all four paragraphs without mentioning John King by either name or title. Here, briefly, is the rest of the statement.

Graf #2) We've been telling people folks need time to implement this stuff. Kentucky and California are exemplars. Argle-blargle common sense principles. Blah blah blah college and career ready.

Graf #3) Believe it or not, we'll once again tell you about our poll that shows our members overwhelming support the standards. They love the standards. They would like to have the standards' baby. However most of them don't get to help implement it. Here are some things they would like to have, we hear.

Graf #4) "Our members support the standards because they are the right thing to do for our students..." Then bleep bloop embrace the promise and blurp blorp critical thinking and creative skills. Also, "implementation" many many times. NEA has been working to do stuff.

PS: Here's a link to our resources.

So there you have it. Given the opportunity to send a message of support and solidarity for the teachers of NY, NEA instead played Mad Libs with PR boilerplate and a list of stock phrases from every puff piece written about CCSS. DVR barely mentioned the substance or point of NYSUT's resolution, but instead used it as an excuse to issue one more love song of support for CCSS. Lordy. How many months left till the summer?

When School Choice Works

Under what circumstances would school choice work?

I've written a great deal over the years about all the many many many ways that I think school choice and/or vouchers would be a terrible idea for everybody (including most school choice advocates, many of whom I think are continually played by people whose interest in choice extends only as far as making a buck). But today is a snow day, my wife is at a conference, and I am home alone with the dog , so I have time for a little thought experiment. Let's see if I can come up with the circumstances under which I would support school choice?

Here, in no particular order, are my conditions. I'll stipulate right up front that these mostly would require government regulation and intervention, which is its own kettle of stinky fish. For the time being, we'll pretend that's not a problem.

Representative School Population.
Voucher schools must have a representative cross-section of the community. We'll allow the community itself to define what this means, but in general, here's the deal. No predominantly white school in a predominantly ethnic community. If the community is 40% free and reduced lunch, then so shall any school operating there. Choice schools must take the same proportion of special needs students. No voucher schools set aside exclusively for just the football players or just the Asian kids or just the cream of the crop. The school will be funded with the community's money. It must be just as reflective of that community as any public school would be.

Professional Staffing.
Teachers will be certified teachers. All of them. Administrators will have real credentials and not a certificate from Bob's Big School O'Superintendents. I'm sure you know some enthusiastic young people who would make great teachers; we all do. They should go to school to become teachers. You may, however, subject your employees to whatever requirements you wish. You can have a voucher school without tenure or seniority rules about hiring. You can pay whatever you like. Having trouble finding enough qualified people to work for you? Welcome to the free market-- you're failing your first test.

Oh, and real buildings, too. Buy it, build it, or rent it. And not in a public school building. There's already a school there. If students want to attend that school, do so.

Minimal Standards.
Being a voucher school will not be a license to teach about cavemen riding dinosaurs, nor will it be okay to be a basketball academy with fifteen minutes of academic studies a day. Your curriculum will pass muster by whatever group does the mustering in your state-- local school board, state legislature, roving education ronin. Yes, I know these sorts of safeguards are already sort of in place in some states, and it is providing about as much restraint as wet tissue paper trying to restrain a rampaging stegosaurus carrying the Baby Jesus. My only requirement is that the standards must be enforced by people who are elected to the office. If people want to elect dimbulbs to undercut their own educational system, that's the price we pay for messy democracy.

Increased Funding.
The bar-none flat-out stupidest thing about how we currently handle forms of vouchers is the funding. Specifically, we start with the premise that we can run two or three or ten school systems for the same money that used to run one. This is like claiming that you can solve your tight household budget problems by owning a second or third home. If the legislature of your state wants you to run two concurrent school systems, it's going to have to pay for them.

There are lots of ways to do this. For instance, when a student goes to a voucher school, 75% of his per capita cost goes to the choice, and 75% of his per capita stays with the home school. Or like any subcontractor, choice schools can "bid" for state contracts ("We can educate 150 students for $300K") and that's what they get, while the home school is paid according to the usual funding formula, rather than having to give up money for the choice.

"But," say choice fans, "That makes school choice more expensive." No, it just recognizes that a school choice system IS more expensive, always, every time. The extra cost may be shifted to taxpayers or parents or paid in kind with the destruction of the building and staff of the public school. But of all the dishonesty surrounding school choice, the biggest is the refusal to face one simple fact:

School choice is more expensive than a traditional single-payer public school system.

So if we are going to have school choice, we must recognize, accept and deal with the additional expense up front. If our politicians will not actually foot the bill-- well, that's why some people can't have nice things. It's not a choice system if you are sucking all the money out of public schools to fund it.

But I do believe that if you launched a choice system with these four guarantees-- representative student population, professional staff, minimum standards enforcement, and increased funding, I would no longer oppose school choice. And if a pretty pink unicorn showed up in my front yard, I would ride it.

Happy Pretty Pink Unicorn Week!

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Vouchers, Non-Schools & Second Homes

We're about to kick off school choice week, a week meant to help market private schools celebrate the awesomely swell things school vouchers have done for the US education system, and many of us in the bloggosphere are sharing our own teacher perspectives on what vouchers have done to meant to us.

In PA we mostly don't have a voucher system. Okay, there have been ongoing voucher shenanigans in the Republic of Philadelphia with the DOJ on one side and charters on another and Eric Cantor, champion of Keeping the Federal Gummint Out Of Local matters, on another, but the school business there is its own special animal. In the rest of Pennsylvania (or as those of us who live there call it, "Pennsylvania"), we don't have a traditional voucher program. Except--

Except for cyber schools. Any PA student can drop out of his actual school and sign up for a cyber school, and his home district will be forced to fork over his per-capita $$ (around 10K on average for non-special students, about twice that for special needs students). So when it comes to cyber schools, PA is operating a voucher system in everything but name.

This system has been around for a while. There may be some data, but for reasons I'll get to, I'm not even going to bother looking it up. I do know how the system looks on the ground for the teachers I know.

Here are some of the students served by cybers in PA:

1) A student with a set of individual circumstances and needs that are better met by a cyber school situation than by the bricks-and-mortar school.

2) A student whose parents are tired of paying truancy fines.

3) A student who is tired of all that stupid homework and having to pay attention and taking tests.

4) A student who wants to be free to pursue his own muse, without the terrible constrictions of schedule and other peoples' demands.

5) A student who has trouble getting along with other students.

The first type of student is the reason that cybers should absolutely NOT be wiped from the face of the earth. He will benefit from cyber school greatly, finish school, and earn a degree. Cyber schools are a brilliant and valuable resource for this student. I don't want to minimize that value for a second.

All the rest of these students will be back next year, one year behind. Whose records they hurt will depend on a fun side-effect of the system-- periodically people in guidance offices will sit down at their computers and try to fend cyber attempts to pawn off failing students before they "count." It's a sort of reverse ebay auction where the loser has to count Johnny McCyberfail against their enrollment/success/graduation numbers.

So what do I think about the effect of voucher schools? The free market competition is supposed to make everybody raise their game. Is that working? In a word, no.

Cybervouchers in PA have realized my worst nightmare about what cybers would mean, while providing the proof of the following equation:

Mandatory purchase of X + people who don't want X = large market for bad versions of X.

If Congress passed a law requiring every household to own a coffeemaker, even the people who hate coffee, there would instantly be a huge market for coffee makers that surfed the net and grilled cheese sandwiches and played video games, but just barely made bad coffee (just enough to meet federal requirements).                                   

There is a fair-sized market share of people who don't really want to go to school, or who want to go but not have to work much, or who want to spend the whole week in church, or who want to just play ball, or who want to go for an hour in the afternoon. Choice proponents will argue that public schools are failing to effectively woo these customers. But just as cable channels learned that survival came not from the pursuit of excellence, but by a rush to the lowest common denominator, vouchers open the door to operators who can use lots of appeals other than, "We'll educate you real good." Schools are poorly positioned to compete with day spas for students who would rather not crack a book.

And every one of those non-schools will take money away from public schools. The other thing we've learned in PA is that a poorly regulated voucher system can suck the blood right out of local schools. In my own district, we lost around $800K to send 72 students to cyber school in the same year that we closed two elementary schools to try to realize savings of, you guessed it, around $800K.

Choice advocates have used a wide array of marketing talking points over the year. Currently we seem to favor the notion that by competing, choice schools are really creating --well, we could call it evolutionary pressure if we believed in evolution-- for public schools to get better. That's just nuts, and not just because voucher schools play by different rules on a different field with hand-picked students.

Voucher systems promise that we can run multiple school systems for the exact same money that we previously used to run one system. That's like saying, "Hey, our household budget is getting a little tight. We'd better buy a second house."

So happy school choice week. As we're bombarded by school choice propaganda this week, just hold your nose and think about the day all these school profiteers end their education tourism and move on to their next money-making scheme. It can't come too soon.

Here Comes Efficacy!

I'm not sure who injected "rigor" into the education conversation in this country, but there can be no doubt who decided that we will now be talking about "efficacy"-- Pearson has made the term the centerpiece of their newest corporate initiative. And they've put a ton of their corporate information about the efficacy initiative on line where we all can get a look.

It's fascinating and rather involved reading. Michael Feldstein at e-literate has a great examination of the whole package; it's lengthy but worth the read. Feldstein breaks down much of the impetus behind the movement and encourages us not to jump to conclusions that Pearson is Darth Vadering things up, the better to see what they've really gotten right and wrong with this.

I went into the site looking for one simple answer-- what exactly does Pearson (and therefor, eventually everyone who deals with them) mean by "efficacy"?

Pearson wrote the book on efficacy, and the book is entitled "The Incomplete Guide To Delivering Learning Outcomes." The book includes a chapter entitled "What is efficacy?" and it is that chapter that I'm going to break down for you. The chapter is about ten pages long, so as I tell my students right before I cover the history of The Great European War in fifteen minutes, I may cut a few corners.

Pearson borrowed "efficacy" from the pharmaceuticals industry, specifically as it relates to "medical interventions" being proven through "systematic trials." They identify it as an "aspiration we intend to work toward," which I kind of wish it weren't because now I'm wondering how that would work. Will we have to form whole new reading groups and now instead of bluebirds and robins we will have white rats and placebos? I know there are lots of ethical safeguards and protections built into medical research, which is itself terrifically important. But the education = health care analogy is not one that I think holds up; still, I'll save that for another day and not wander off into the weeds before we're even to our second paragraph of this thing.

Here's our definition: An education product has efficacy if it has a "measurable impact on improving people's lives through learning."

They go on to explain. It's not enough that a student pass a test-- he has to experience some actual positive improvement in his life.

Pearson realizes this is a high standard, but inspired by the medical profession, they want to shoot even higher. After all some patients keep coming back (imagine) and some doctors are "incentivized" to order lots of procedures, because $$. And here we introduce one of the central shifts involved in emphasizing efficacy-- replacing focus on inputs with attention to outputs.

And then, charmingly, they confess to the hopelessness of their vision. Emphasizing outcomes requires tests we don't have and agreement on the subjective qualities of excellence, which we'll never have. But since all of that is off in the future, in the meantime we'll just have to rely on tests and graduation rates and all the same old baloney, while in the meantime argle-blargle with partners blah blah blah toward a bold vision of brighter blerg.

Next up: the Three Factors of Efficacy! They are

1) The student(s) and his/her-their incumbent level of motivation. (I'm giving them a bonus point for working "incumbent" in there)

2) The teacher and/or the technology with his/her/its capacity to make an impact. (Emphasis mine. Just in case you were worried that Pearson thought we couldn't be replaced.)

3) The interaction or relationship between them.

And as an add-on bonus, we also recognize that time on task matters as well.

"If this mix is right, learning should happen." That's a quote. So, if these things are present, six-year-olds will learn quantum physics and Shakespeare, I guess. Also, pay attention to the research (and they name check John Hattie). Leaders of schools, universities or systems (?) are the carburetors of education, properly mixing the fuel for the efficacy engine. PISA scores are cited as a useful tool, somehow.

"The idea of efficacy has a lot of support across Pearson" which I guess is how you talk about these things when you are a small corporate nation unto yourself. But this Framework of Efficacy section is interesting because it's more about how product groups within Pearson will now jockey for position.

It's a puzzler. How do we benchmark products without a "neat mathematical formula that spat out numbers"? If we had been collecting data about lifelong effects of our stuff, we'd be halfway there, but only a few divisions within the company were thinking that way. We've developed this framework based on Michael's work evaluating government programs back when he worked at 10 Downing.

The framework for evaluating very diverse products had to 1) Be constructive and practical 2) Be forward-looking and 3) Enable comparison. And there's a cool chart about mapping/evaluating outcomes, evidence, planning & implementation, and capacity to deliver. And the chapter finishes up with a look at each of these four areas.

I have to echo Michael Feldstein here-- it's kind of extraordinary that here on line we can see how Pearson is going to manage themselves and how, exactly, they will judge their various product groups. Anyway, here are the four subsections:

Goals. You remember Outcome Based Education.Apparently it's now in-house for Pearson. Tell management not just your sales goals, but what outcomes your product will create for the learners. We frankly admit that meeting this standard has been hard for some managers of pre-existing products. Yup. Pearson is here admitting that some product groups have a hard time explaining what a learner would get out using Pearson's product.

Evidence. Can you find a way to prove your stated goals have been achieved? Look at the research. And since there's not a lot of good research out there, Pearson's research division is going to focus on the parts of the education mystery that we keep not having answers to. We need more data so we can create programs with deliverable learner outcomes.

Planning. Pretty self-evident. How are you going to get this made and sold?

Capacity. This part is either creepy or encouraging, depending on how much Pearson alarms you. It starts with the observation that it's no longer enough to drop off the materials you sold and wash your hands of it, saying, "Hey, we delivered perfectly good stuff. If they screwed it up, that's their problem."

Frankly, this is not news in many other industries. I am a yearbook adviser who works with Jostens Publishing, and like most yearbook companies, if you want the sales rep to come in on a regular basis and walk you through every part of the process, they will do it-- because they want you to feel successful with their program. (They will also stay away if you ask, which I find invaluable).

If you want the encouraging view, it's a picture of a Pearson rep in your school helping you succeed with their stuff. If you want the creepy view, it's a picture of a Pearson rep in your school acting like s/he's an administrator there. Those of you who have already had some variation of this experience know the other picture-- a publisher's rep in your building demonstrating his/her ignorance of how to work with students in a classroom.

There's a rosy conclusion about how this new path for business leaders within Pearson will stride together into a great future of efficacy.

I don't think it's all bad news. Imagine, for instance, if this framework had been applied to the creation and implementation of CCSS? And the notion that I should be able to ask a Pearson rep, "So what how will my student actually benefit from this in his life, and how do you know that?" is kind of exhilarating. Yes, they may not be able to tell me, but if they get to pretend this is their corporate policy, I get to act like I expect them to follow it.

Still, it clearly doesn't address any of Pearson's terminally mistaken assumptions about how teaching actually works or the scary anti-wisdom of Pearson's one-world view. I'm not ready to cheer for Pearson's next onslaught, but I appreciate their sharing their plans for it.

Friday, January 24, 2014

#AskArne & Spleen Theater

#AskArne is a video series on youtube that features Arne Duncan spewing baloney answering questions from theoretical teachers and other interested folks. It generally features the sort of straight shooting we've learned to expect from the USDOE, but the newly released "The Role of Private Funds and Interests in Education" could be used to fertilze all the fields in Kansas.

I am not going to be the first or last blogger to take a look at this (in fact, it looks like Anthony Cody and I were typing at the same time, and his version is much more grown-up and facty)  but the point of this blog is me to vent my spleen before I end up with little blown-up spleen parts all over my insides, so I am going to break this down anyway. I watch with the captions on and sound off because I think you get better face and body language reads. Also, I get hives listening to Arne's voice. I'll be using the closed captions as my transcript, so if somebody has bollixed that up, the bollixing will be reflected here.

This may be the toughest seven minutes I've ever watched my way through, but here we go...

Opening logo. I never really noticed before, but what the hell is that thing at the bottom of the tree? A flying snake wearing a beret?

Hey! It's Joiselle Cunningham and Lisa Clarke, teaching fellows from NYC and Washington state. "That means we are teachers on leave from our positions, bringing teacher perspectives to the Department." Oh, honey. I hope you do better work back in your classroom. They are standing at the National Library of Education, a thing I did not realize existed.

They're going to talk about private interests, and they cross fade into thanking Arne for taking the time to talk to them at this arranged interview that they were assigned by his office to conduct. This canned note of acting like he's a gracious guest instead of the ringmaster hits a nice, full false note right off the bat. Arne is sitting at a library table with the ladies in just-a-shirt, as if he's a Regular Guy and not a Very Rich Guy who likes to hang with Extremely Rich Guys.

So Lisa is going to ask the first question. And we leap right into it, asking if corporate-based philanthropists are playing too heavy a role in public education and if there's a corporate agenda at the Department of Education. This is a question she's "heard teachers asking" and the slight smirk that accompanies it suggests that the question reminds her of when her daughter asked if there was a monster in the closet. What I'm seeing is, "Please, Arne, calm the foolish fears of these silly people."

Arne is a good student who dutifully works important words from the prompt into the first sentence of his response. But as for that influence, "Nothing could be further from the truth." Not for the last time, I must applaud the special effects of the film. You cannot see his nose grow at all. "We listen to everybody," he says, and then proceeds to list a bunch of everybody's who are all the types of groups that cynics might call corporate-based philanthropy. "We try and spend a lot of time, "he continues incorrectly (it's "try TO spend"), "with teachers, listening to students, listening to community members." It's at this point that I start talking back to the screen. "Try harder, Arne."I say. My spleen is mollified. "A number of really important decisions we have made recently have been based on those conversations" he says, and then sticks the landing on the talking point about moving away from zero tolerance.

"Arne, let's stay on this for a second," says Joiselle, and I think it's cute the way she pretends to be controlling the flow of this conversation with her patron and boss. Then I hear "as we talk to teachers around the country" and I am momentarily wondering when the heck THAT happened. Was there a USDOE listening tour? Because I'm thinking that would be almost as much fun as a John King CCSS pep rally. Anyway, she's heard somewhere (everywhere?) that there's concern about private corporations and philanthropists that are involved in public education. What is the role of private dollars in public education? Which is a nice phrase, so kudos, uncredited writer.

"Sadly, education is underinvested in the vast majority of places this country." And then he's on to a list of things that schools need money for but I am busy brain-goggling. Wait! What? Because it appears that he is

A) admitting that schools are underfunded and therefor lacking in resources, which is funny, because in his blaming discussions of What's Wrong With Teachers and Schools and Teachers, this problem doesn't get much play  ("We should be amazed and proud that our teachers achieve so much success with so little help from us," said no Arne Duncan ever);

B) that when the government underfunds one of its agencies, the private sector should be picking up the slack. So, as roads and infrastructures crumble in PA, we should be getting corporations to pick up that tab. I myself am really looking forward to "The CIA, brought to you by Proctor and Gamble"

and C) that this private picking up of  public slack is not a civic duty or a contribution, but an investment, aka thing you put money into with the expectation of getting more money out of it.

In short (okay, not really) I'm pretty sure Duncan just said, "Come buy up our public education functions. They're going cheap and offer great ROI."

AND (bonus round) he said it in the process of proving that private dollars do NOT have undue influence on public education. Which I suppose could be true, because "undue" just means inappropriate and (anti-surprise) Duncan thinks "due" influence = "pretty damn much."

So now my spleen is singing "Ride of the Valkyrie" but Arne says that you have to have good smart partnerships and you don't want schools to be isolated from the community, and that's not entirely stupid, so my spleen subsides once again. Schools as community centers. Yes, that's swell too. For example--

BAM. We will now list Swell Things That Corporate Sponsors Have Done. GE Foundation. Ford Foundation helped with labor relations? Joyce Foundation helped with teacher evaluation stuff (and that has been a rousing success, cries my spleen) which comes in the same sentence as reducing gun violence in Chicago which I don't think is meant to be related to teacher evaluations, although who the hell knows these days. Now we'll spend a relatively huge chunk of time on P-Tech (sponsored by IBM).

Then Arne unleashes "Again, all of this should be determined at the local level, not by us." And my spleen is amazed at the special effects, because you can not actually see the room disappear under a giant tidal wave of bovine fecal matter.

That somehow leads directly to a new idea-- that with all of this unmet need, for teachers and schools to bar the door and say that all these people are bad somehow or have an agenda of hurting kids or hurting teachers is just-- well, that has not been his experience. So there you have it. Arne's decision here is completely data-driven by one piece of data-- his experience. And schools need money, and these rich guys have money, so what else do we need to know anyway?

New question. We name check a couple of other Teaching Fellows who heard a question about private interests and the new testing stuff. And my spleen is sad, because it knows this is an important question and it expects to hate the answer a lot. Anyway, Lisa is saying that some people claim the new assessments are just about making money, and could you, Arne, tell us what you think about that, because we, as teaching fellows working here at the USDOE as well as being functioning literate beings on planet earth for the past several years, have no idea what Arne Duncan might say about the role of corporate interests when it comes to testing. And Lisa makes a pouty face, like she is sad to even have to bother this Great Guy with such a mean-spirited inquiry. Seriously. My spleen thinks this is the worst infomercial ever.

Arne thinks that's an interesting question. He thinks the facts don't quite back up the worry and skepticism (so, only mostly back it up?) and here comes what I believe is an actual shiny new talking point. Here's the pitch-- schools have been giving oh-so-many tests anyway, and they were certainly made by companies, and golly, THAT was certainly expensive. But now we've got these consortia that can get those tests for you bulk, and THAT has to be cheaper (because the government always gets stuff for the best price) and economies of scale, dontchaknow. And you'll be glad to know that the test developers are working to some up with something that goes way beyond the bubble tests with critical thinking and writing, too. So yippee! More better tests! Saving money, so we can pump the leftovers back into the classroom. My spleen wants to run over to the pentagon to get a $10,000 hammer to smack Arne in the head.

New question-- Do states have a choice, Arne, with all this? And we are going to pretend that "this" means "tests." At this point my spleen begins to suspect that Pearson shot Arne's face up with a 50-gallon drum of Botox because how else could he get through all this without laughing, but it seems to be wearing off because he finds parts of this answer hilarious, like explaining that states can be part of one or both of the consortia or make their own tests out of everyday objects found around the house. But--again-- don't 50 states have more purchasing power together and also don't we want to be able to compare things all across the country and my spleen and I are vocal again, hollering, "Yes, Arne, I hardly know how to plan my lessons without knowing what the kids in fifth period English out in Medicine Hat, Wyoming, are doing!" Arne thinks states are free to do different things if they want to act like damn fools.

New question-- When guys like Bill Gates or Eli Broad start throwing money around, does that buy them a seat at the table? Joiselle asks this like she's in a hurry to get to the end of the question because it's a dumb question and he needs to kill it with fire. I unkindly suggest that the question is backward and would rather ask what Arne could do to get the USDOE a seat at Gates and Broad's table, but I can see I am living in disappointment here.

Arne says he has great respect for them and appreciates all their money. He smiles like he remembers the time they took him out for smoothies and let him lick their spoons. But no, they don't have a seat at the table. "You guys are the table," says Arne, and I think that's supposed to mean "You guys who are teachers" and not "You guys who are my departmental prop/lackeys" but it doesn't matter because my spleen just exploded in one brightflash of raging incredulity.

Teacher Lisa shares that she knows Gates did some work with teacher leadership stuff and so it's complicated, and I spleenlessly yell that, no, it's not complicated at all, but she goes on to say she'd really like us to engage each other and I'm thinking, yes, because after the many many many many many many many many invitations teachers have received to be part of the CCSSreformy movement, we all just keep turning them down and refusing to offer any insights at all, and she is smiling a little bit like she can't believe she's saying this rotting raccoon carcass of a talking point either, but she'd like this conversation to continue, perhaps on twitter because she heard that worked really well for Michelle Rhee the other day, so let's use #AskArne to do that. And then she thanks Arne for showing up to this PR moment that he ordered, and we're on to credits and I am picking up pieces of my spleen from around the room.

You should not watch this. Nobody should. It is one of the most cynical reality-impaired dog-and-pony-with-a-paper-cone-pretending-to-be-a-unicorn shows ever concocted, and now I have to go lie down.

My NEA Dues at Work-- for USDOE

This week, the NEA proudly announced the first round of recipients for its new Great Public Schools grant program, a program so awesome that it prompted the NEA to shake down its own members raise dues to help fund it. This is the greatest idea since sliced bread. Or since requiring condemned prisoners to buy the rope for their own nooses.

NEA delegates in Atlanta last year voted 54-46 percent (not exactly a landslide) to approve a dues hike for "a special fund to help support projects by state and local affiliates to improve teaching and learning." Turns out that means funding projects to support the spread of CCSS.

That is not me reading between the lines. Here's the NEA's description of the purpose of one grant: California Teachers Association (CTA) was awarded a $250,000 NEA Great Public Schools grant to ensure the successful implementation of the Common Core Standards (CCSS) in the California. (That's cut and paste; the original appears to have dropped a word). Virtually every single grant listed by the NEA is centered on the implementation of CCSS.

Illinois is going to train some CCSS trainers. Local school districts in Maryland will embark on full scale implementation of CCSS because "a key to success in implementing the CCSS, and ensure student success, is to provide teachers with support, training, and resources to assist in instruction." Ohio Education Association will use their grant to "strengthen educators' voices in school improvement while advocating for the effective implementation of Ohio's New Learning Standards" (a rose by any other name). The Massachusetts Teachers Association will engage teachers in helping shape the implementation of CCSS, particularly in helping define the policies around the effective measure of student achievement. And if they get to do that in any meaningful way, they can also open a grooming shop for sparkly unicorns.

Many of the grants are described in that fuzzy kind of bureaucratic arble-garble that would have earned you an F in lesson plan design back in that methods class that Arne Duncan thinks you barely passed. And many of them involve "partnering" with state DOE's or groups with nifty names like Public Education Business Coalition or TeachPlus. One grant is going to a uniServe office.

Only one mentions students. 25K went to Stadium View School in Hannepin County Juvenile Detention Center (Minnesota) for, among other things, publishing the work of students and placing it in the local library. All other grants are aimed at bureaucratic CCSS implementation.

Dennis Van Roekel's love for the CCSS is already well documented. Reporting on a January 23 forum in DC, Stephen Sawchuck quotes DVR, "We created campfires of excellence. What we need is a brushfire." It's an interesting choice of metaphor, and it makes me curious-- what does DVR imagine would be burned up in this brushfire? Who or what, exactly, is the brush? Because in the brushfire that is CCSS, I'm pretty sure we're immolating public school teachers and students. Personally, I would much rather hunker down around a campfire for some S-mores of scholarship.

Sawchuck notes that previous brushfire attempts have not really caught on. A panelist attributes that to the realities of trying to steer such a large organization. Well, yes. Particularly if you're trying to steer it in a direction that it doesn't want to go and which is not in the best interests of its members.

I've been a union president on the local level, and not in soft, easy times. I get that leading a teachers union is not unlike trying to herd cats made out of jello with a ten foot pole. People want to know what's going on, but they don't always want to pay attention. Some union members are like that person who walks in for the last ten minutes of the movie and wants you to explain everything that has happened so far.

It is absolutely necessary to get out ahead of them, to show some leadership, to say, "Look, follow me this way" and not just wait for them to choose a direction on their own. But it comes really seductive to start just viewing them as a faceless mass to be manipulated into whatever form you decide is best for them.

All the signs are there for the national leadership to read. The miles of angry responses on facebook pages and nea site articles. The shrinking membership rolls. The GPS site itself, which is like a cyber-ghost town, all set up to foster dynamic conversations between stakeholders but instead featuring a handful of posts here and there by shills assigned the thankless but not terribly time-consuming task of monitoring the community, like being the sheriff of Wolf Hole, Arizona.

Most of all, the gazillion words written by writers who have done the research, read the documents, heard the speeches, parsed the implications, watched the boots upon the ground, and generally collected all the evidence that tells us plainly that the current wave of reformy goodness is toxic to public school teachers. Careers are being crushed, students are being discarded, and a tradition of great public education is being dismantled for parts in this country, and in this most critical of times, NEA has decided to go to work for the feds.

I cannot think of any time, ever, in US history when a union or professional association took dues from its members in order to help the government implement a program intent on destroying the profession of its members. I am, frankly, flabbergasted. We cannot even call it being sold out anymore, because at least when you are sold out you don't pay for the sale yourself!

I would like to believe that when DVR's tenure as president ends this summer, that will mark a change, but I don't for a minute believe that he has single-handedly engineered the handover of NEA leadership to Arne Duncan. We NEA members had better start educating ourselves, now, about which of our leaders really work for the USDOE, the Gates Foundation and Pearson, and which of our leaders actually represent teachers.

In the meantime, I will mull over just how far I will let the NEA push me before I finally leave the union. It seems I'm angry at them most the time. I've calmed down enough to change the name of this piece. Originally, I was just going to call it "Bite me, NEA." I'm not sure I won't still use that title some time.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Peek at CCSS 2.0

Press release from 2015

The United States Department of Education (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Pearson International) is pleased to announce the new, improved version of the Common Core State Standards. Some of the highlights of this new set of standards include:

*We're pretty sure that Kindergarten simply isn't early enough to start the reading process, so we are proud to announce a program that starts this important educational experience as soon after conception as possible. Our problem with backwards scaffolding has been that we stopped too soon. How can we hope to compete internationally when our newborns have not yet been exposed to a dynamic and robust reading curriculum. Phonics for Fetuses closes that gap.

*DIBELS broke new ground with its program of having small children read gibberish. But why stop there. The new SHMIBELS program will require students to write gibberish. Students must produce ten pages of lettering without creating a single recognizable word (yet all completely pronounceable). The writing will be timed and matched against the Pearson master SHMIBELS list to see if students have produced the correct gibberish and not just any random gibberish. (Note: this program is expected to help target many future USDOE employees).

*Now that we have first graders writing multi-sentence essays, it's time to step up our game. Novels for Nine-year-olds brings the writing process to your fourth grade classroom. Students will follow a simple 450-page step by step guide that will help them create a novel that is page-for-page pretty much exactly like every other novel being written for the program. Rigor without creativity-- just the way we like it. (Note: Pearson will retain the publishing rights to all works created in this program)

*In response to continued complaints that focus on testing has squeezed out many valuable phys ed and arts programs, we are proud to introduce the Physical Arts program. For this program, offered during one day of the 9th grade year, students will draw a picture of a pony on a tuba and then throw the tuba as far as possible.

*By pushing subject matter further down the sequence, we expect to free up the entire 10th grade year for testing. Nothing but testing, every single day, all day. With that much testing, our students are certain to become the kinds of geniuses who can trounce our historic enemies, the South Koreans and the Estonians. We anticipate this becoming a rite of passage and popular cultural milestone as families look forward with joy and anticipation to the Year of the Tests. To those critics who claim that we have not offered support in the literature for this testing, we want to note that we have closely followed the writings of Suzanne Collins and Franz Kafka.

*CCSS 2.0 will feature even more improved data management. Infants will be fitted with a Gates Foundation data chip, while their social security number will allow us to link the vital health data with all on-line and economic activity. At the end of Year of the Tests, we expect to present each student with a document explaining what jobs he will hold, where he will live, who he is likely to marry, if he will be allowed to reproduce, and when he should expect to die (and of which causes).

Schools that manage to become fully certified in CCSS 2.0 will be designated a Primary Testing School District. We intend to make sure these are so wide-spread that every student will be able to have a PTSD experience. When every student in America has experienced some PTSD, then our nation will be truly great.

Please note that these standards are a totally legal state initiative, and our involvement is just as a supportive federal agency that thinks what you states are doing is swell. However, state participation in CCSS 2.0 is voluntary. States need not join up.

In related news, the administration would like to announce Race to the Trough. State will have the chance to compete for the right to receive their usual funding for schools, roads, airport staff, as well as any consideration for relief in the event of any future emergency. States may compete by being one of the first fifty to announce that all state department of ed functions are being handed over to the USDOE. Thank you for your support.

Are You the Keymaster?

There have always been stupid ideas around education. Always. Mostly from one of these sources.

1) Highly educated amateurs.

You remember that moment from student teaching. You were about to implement one of those great ideas that you were taught in methods class, and your co-op either explained to you why you should never, ever, do that, or she let you go ahead and try and you went down in flames.

College professors, both in and out of education departments, have always had their pet theories and core ideas that they felt could be implemented in a classroom. That was if they had ever been in a classroom at all, it had been years ago (and research--mine-- suggests that it takes roughly two years to erase every memory of what a classroom had actually been like). So college professors are forever coming up with ideas for the classroom that ought to be right, based on their favorite theories. Sometimes these theories are even "research-based," meaning that they've been tried out on a group of 19-year-old college students being paid to be test subjects, which is of course totally representative of your classroom.

Highly educated amateurs get us everything from management techniques like having low function eleventh graders run a discussion of nature-based symbols in Romantic literature by tossing a rubber ball to each other for speaking privileges, to New Math (best explained here by Tom Lehrer, animation and a bad lip synch, and which may seem vaguely familiar these days).

2) Regular old amateurs.

Everybody in the world has ideas about how to teach The Right Way (frequently best defined as "How I Was Taught"). Traditional grammar and diagramming persist because everybody who ever learned it thinks everybody else ought to.

In low-education communities this often comes up in statements that begin with, "I don't know why you bother teaching..." In high-status communities, it's more commonly "Don't you think the children should be learning about...?"

Sometimes this leads to actual assistance, as in "Your students would probably enjoy doing the double-slit experiment and I just happen to have a mobile quantum physics lab at the house. Why don't I bring it over for you." More often it involves the less possible, as in "Buffy's studies of Shakespeare won't really be complete unless you stage a full performance of Rome & Juliet with her in the lead at Madison Square Garden."

3) Vendors and other snake oil salesmen.

Have you met Collins Writing? If you have, God bless you friend. If you haven't, here's the pitch-- some guy named Collins (I will not give him the benefit of looking up his name) took a bunch of conventional best practices in writing instruction, slapped his own labels on things, added some pointless proprietary rigermarole (have students skip every other line when writing), and marketed it as a "program" to schools for a nice pile of greenbacks.

His ilk have been around forever, but have blossomed in the computer age. If you were in the classroom when computers first arrived, you remember the basic sales pitch from every software vendor;

Vendor: This will be a great piece of software once you change the whole way you teach in your classroom.

Teacher: But what I do now works. I don't see any benefits to my students in changing things to match your software. In fact, I'll get less done.

Vendor: But it's a computer! See!! Computer! Shiny!

4) Private industry.

Public education is where failed management techniques go to die. When a management consultant has finally milked the industrial market dry, there's only one thing left to do-- cover up all those "Management by Objective" stickers with "Teach by Objectives" stickers and hit the school circuit.

So if bad ideas have always been around, why are we so besieged by them now?

Because in the past, we were the gatekeepers of our classrooms. We were the deciders. All of these rivers of crap flowed to our doors, but we were the dam, the filter, and the treatment plant. One of our jobs was to protect our students and their education from dumb ideas.

Oh, we tested them and tried them. Every teacher is, and has always been, a top-notch educational researcher. Every year we collect tons of data and develop a picture of what will and will not work with our students in that classroom.

Reform has been eating away at that, thanks to software salesmen and Texas. Software salesmen learned early on that when making a sale to industry, you don't need to sell to the end user-- you need to sell to the person who makes the purchase (thus, hundreds of engineers working on lousy CAD software purchased by somebody up the chain). And Texas taught textbook creators that if the buyer is the whole state instead of a hundred districts, there's money to be made easily.

Put them together and you get two idea in motion. We need to be able to sell to the boss, and the fewer bosses there are, the more lucrative the deal. So let's set up a system where there's just one boss of everybody and that boss can drive the market. We'll pretty the boss up and make it something harnless-seeming, like a set of national standards for educational awesomeness.

End result of school reform-- we are no longer the gatekeepers of our classrooms. We are no longer the keymasters. Some of greatest frustration teachers are now feeling is the inability to protect our students from bad, stupid, harmful programs. Today's ideas aren't any stupider or more plentiful-- they're just more unavoidable. Bad ideas have achieved great power in the marketplace, and we are increasingly losing the power to stop the sludge from flowing into our classrooms.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

John King Really Did That

John King yesterday managed to score a bank shot of marketing opportunism by using both Martin Luther King Jr and Abraham Lincoln as props for one more tired CCSS sales pitch.

In the NY Post, king (to avoid confusion, let's call Martin Luther King "King" and John King "king") hitched his sales-pitch wagon to King's 1962 speech commemorating the centenary of Lincoln's Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Let me break this down for you.

He actually starts out with a few harmless paragraphs. Historical context. Link to audio file of original speech (pretty cool, that). Then we get to the lede:

It is also, for me, a rallying cry for us to continue our efforts to transform our public schools.

That's your takeaway from King's speech? Public school reform? Please explain.

king proceeds to note that while progress has been made since the speech (which came even before the Civil Rights Act of 1964), there is still much work to do. Here comes the pivot, where we are going to staple together our two main threads:

Yet despite that progress, true equality of opportunity remains elusive — in no small part because we as a country have not yet found a way to provide all of our children with an education that prepares them for success in college and careers...

...while we cannot ignore and indeed must address the challenges posed by economic hardship, inadequate access to healthcare, housing and the like, the single best tool we have to advance opportunity is education

Got that, folks? Poor folks would have access to better health care and housing if only they had better economic opportunity, and that will happen primarily through education.

There are two problems here, one obvious, one not so much.

Obvious problem has been stated many times. Greater education of individuals will not make good jobs appear. Go grab any number of stats about the under- and un-employed college grads out there.

Less obvious problem is this-- the assumption here is not that we must make healthcare, housing and economic opportunity to the lowest parts of our society, but that people who are stuck down there must somehow lift themselves up. This is not a call for the US to provide, say, decent health care for the poor-- it's a call for the poor to get busy, get a good job, and get themselves some decent health care. We can argue the wisdom of that some other day-- all I want to ask today is "Does that sound like anything Dr. King said, ever??"

From there, king descends into standard boilerplate from the "Lies About CCSS" playbook.

It will be rigorous and use close reading and other cool buzzwords.

It was created by teachers. (Do people still buy this one?)

It was created with backwards scaffolding. Supporters keep saying this like it's a good thing. I always explain it this way: You want a high school senior to be able to run a ten minute mile. If you allow for getting one minute faster each year, that means you just need to make five year olds run a twenty-four minute mile. Or twenty-seven when they're three. Or a thirty-minute mile when they're newborn. Makes perfect developmental sense. That's how well backwards scaffolding works.

The Common Core offers a path to the precise reading, writing and thinking skills that will help propel their children and children across the state to success. Yet some now want us to delay, or even abandon, our efforts to raise standards.

I say no. As King said in that speech a little more than fifty years ago, “We do not have as much time as the cautious and the patient try to give us.”

So, in closing, Dr. King wants CCSS to be supported, and right now.

So let us all pledge today — Dr. King’s birthday — to do whatever we can to make real the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation, the promise of King’s words and the promise of equal educational opportunity for all.

Don't be distracted by king's mistaken placement of King's birthday (it's the 15th) Note the really important part. The Emancipation Proclamation and Martin Luther King's great speeches are equal in importance to the Common Core. Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and David Coleman all belong chiseled on the side of a mountain somewhere. It's only January, but I am all ready to award John King the Biggest, Brassiest Balls Award for 2014.

Civil Rights and CCSS

It was predictable that Martin Luther King Jr Day would involve repeated invocation of one of the newer mantras in the halls of the Reformatorium: school reform is the civil rights issue of our time.

Like many of the great lies of history, this one resonates because it could be true. It ought to be true.

We really should be moving heaven and earth to provide better education for our nation's poor. But to do that, we would have to ask questions like, "What would it take to help these students succeed in getting a great education?" But instead, we're mounting a sales pitch familiar to any street vendor who ever tried to sell a fake Rolex.

"Look," he says. "Isn't it shiny. Just like a real one. Why should those fat cats uptown be the only ones to have a nice watch? Don't you have just as much right to a nice watch like this?" And once again, the sales pitch ought to be true. Except for one thing-- the watch is fake. It's nothing but a sales pitch and some sparkle.

To be sure, the reformatorium pitch throws in two other wrinkles.

Our CCSS street vendor doesn't just sell to the folks on the street. He's gone to his rich Uncle Sam and said, "Sammy, what you should be doing is buying these for everybody, no matter their race, color, creed or income. You should get one of these for everybody and make them wear it!" And our vendor gets Sammy to make a massive purchase deal on a few million fake Rolexes. And everybody should wear the same make and model, no matter what they do during the day, from hair dressers to steel workers to artists to scuba divers. (Of course, the richest folks, the ones who have authentic, expensive Rolexes already-- they'll quietly demure and Sammy will let them).

There's another wrinkle. Our CCSS street vendors don't really understand watches, and so many of them really sincerely believe that their fake Rolex is just as good as the real thing. It has a face with hands, and the band is shiny. True, the hands don't actually move and the numbers are in the wrong places, but those are just the complaints of so-called "experts" and what do they know. Our CCSS street vendors don't know a thing about what makes a watch work, but they still are pretty sure that their fake Rolex that doesn't tell time is better than a solid Timex that does. And we should all be using the same watch, so Uncle Sammy says give up your Timex.

Look, I'm a middle class white guy who has lived most his life in small town/urban areas. What I know about being black in America wouldn't fill a thimble. But I do know this: the state of schools in our poorest urban areas is shameful. And I also know that from sharecropping onward, our country has a bad history of offering poor African-Americans fake versions of success, one false promise after another, meant only to enrich those already steeped in privilege.

Should we be addressing the obstacles that stand between poor blacks and browns and anyone else, and a good education? We sure as hell should be. Do the Common Core Standards do that? Do rich kids with no training wandering into classroom for a year or two do that? Do charter schools erected in the lot where neighborhood schools have been bulldozed do that? Does the insistence that poverty and its effects are just excuses that will not be accepted (but will instead be punished) do that? No. No, they do not.

When reformers say that education is the civil rights issue of our time, they are telling the truth. Everything that comes after that statement, however, is a lie.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Tests for Choice Schools

There as been a flap going on in the conservative edu-bloggoverse about testing and transparency for what Jay P. Greene and folks from his market-loving corner of the eduspectrum like to call "choice schools."

Apparently it has just started to occur to some folks (starting most notably with those dancing fools at Fordham Institute) that when you take government money, it's likely to come with big honking strings attached. In other breaking news, the sun is expected to rise in the East tomorrow. I'm sad now that I didn't start edu-blogging years ago, because I've been telling my pro-voucher friends for years, "You do not want to do this. You hate the government, and as soon as you start taking their money, they will start telling you what you may or may not do. The government does not give anybody free money ever. You do NOT want to do this."

I live just up the road from Grove City College, a small, private liberal arts college that many of my friends attended. They made some small news in 1984 with Grove City v Bell. Grove City had always refused all direct federal aid to avoid all the federal strings, but the feds maintained that since they had students on campus who received federal aid, the school still had to abide by Title IX. In the college's defense, they were not particularly intent on enforcing gender discrimination and the government never claimed a single incident of that discrimination; the college mostly seemed to want to avoid having to open a new Office of Federal Paperwork Maintenance. The case resulted in a sort of split decision-- Grove City would have to comply, but only in the financial aid department, and not the school as a whole.

Until 1987, when the feds passed the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987, which plugged the hole that Grove City had squeaked through.

The moral of the story-- if you want the government to hand you tax dollars, expect paperwork, strings, and meddling bureaucrats to follow.

Which brings us back to our story. Fordham's observation that voucher and choice schools have some 'splainin' and testing and transparency to do, has started a conversation notable for its level of high dudgeon. You can find a look at this conversation (including Rick Hess's latest self-pretzelizations) over at Geauxteacher. I want to spend a few words on Jay P. Greene's argument.

Jay P. Greene (who is not, as far as I know, a relative of mine, which is probably just as well because I think together we would make Thanksgiving at least a bit awkward) has recently discovered some important insights about the new waves of testing produced by the reformatorium.

The term choice school is used to distinguish between Greene's favored schools and old-school private school about which Greene previously wrote this
Existing private schools are not the voice of entrepreneurial innovation. They are the rump left behind by the crowding out of a real private school marketplace; they are niche providers who have found a way to make a cozy go of it in the nooks and crannies left behind by the state monopoly. They are protecting their turf against innovators just as much as the state monopoly.
So "choice schools" schools being pioneered by true entrepreneurs, who, I presume, are properly devoted to cashing in in the service sector, and not so much distracted by that whole educating thing. The market will tell them if they're getting it right.

Therefor, high stakes tests, which Greene has previously argued are extremely valuable and necessary for public schools, are simply not okay for choice schools. And in this piece, he focuses on three important arguments against testing choice schools.

1) The tests don't fully measure the benefits of these schools.

2) High stakes testing does not actually raise the student or school performance.

3) The argument that we should test anyway, despite #2, is silly.

Do those arguments look familiar to anybody?

In another column, Greene responds to Hess's suggestion that his argument is a startling yet magnificent monument to hypocrisy and double-think (I'm paraphrasing), given Greene's history of slamming public schools for low scores on these tests. His argument here is a bit more complex, but the heart of it is that choice schools don't need testing to tell how they're doing because the market will tell them.

In other words, the parents know how well the school is serving their students with out any stupid testing. Add that to your list of familiar arguments that Jay P. Greene now embraces. It's nice to see him embrace the arguments that we have been making for years in defense of our own schools, even if our own schools are not so choice. Welcome to the fight, Jay!