Friday, February 28, 2014

Sharp-Minded Van Roekel and Rhee Join Debate Club

US News has a feature called "Debate Club" which presents "a meeting of the sharpest minds on the day's most important topic." Yesterday they decided to collect some sharp minds to debate the Common Core. And among other things, we learned that Van Roekel's "course correction" lasted about a week.

The choice of sharp minds is telling. Arguing against the Core are Neal McClusky (Cato Institute Center for Educational Freedom), Matt Kibbe (FreedomWorks), and Mike McShane (American Enterprise Institute). So we're going with the "CCSS is opposed by some right-wingy types" narrative.

Arguing for are Charles Barron (Democrats for Education Reform), Jack Markell (Delaware Governor and co-chair of CCSS initiative), Michelle Rhee (educational dilettante), and Dennis Van Roekel (sound of my hand slapping my forehead).

Van Roekel Unchanges Course

All of these sharp minds deserve attention, but it's DVR's offering that is most illuminating. You may recall that just over a week ago DVR "corrected course." His offering to the debate club is literally just an edited down version of his course-correction letter, but it's what he has cut in the edit that is most damning.

Still here: Calling himself a teacher. NEA members always thought national standards a great idea. Critics on right and left oppose them. Implementation train wreck. National standards are better than patchwork. Roll-out sucked because teachers not involved. Books and tests should match standards. Globally competitive blah blah blahdy blah.

Not here: DVR's "botched implementation" letter included specific recommendations, including putting a hold on CCSS while teachers on the state level examined and rewrote the standards as they deemed necessary. DVR's debate club edit shows no trace of this. In fact, we've completely backed off backing off. The headline-grabbing course change is no more. It took just a week for DVR to walk back everything significant he said in his course correction letter; now we're back to "the core is totally awesome and we just need to tweak implementation a little bit." 

Note that, given the length of some of the other arguments, DVR did not have to cut the action items from his own piece. The only reason for his earlier, stronger statements not to be here is because he wanted to cut them out. It took DVR just eight days to weasel-step himself backwards.

In the interests of transparency, I admit to having said nice things about DVR when he offered the course correction. I suppose, like most of the good reformy folks, I could just erase that blog and pretend I never said it. So, well played DVR, well played. Also, bite me.

What Other Sharp Minds Have To Say

While the DVR double-reverse is the big takeaway here, I can't skip over the other sharp-minded offerings in the debate club. Here, in no particular order, are these wise observations.

Mike McShane thinks national standards are super-fine. But states went after them too quickly, which was a big problem, and then they signed on for uber-computer-techy-testing, which was just foolhardy and expensive as all get out. CCSS botched the implementation so badly that the whole business has been undermined.

Jack Markell believes in the Big Mo of CCSS and warns us not to panic. Improve implementation and wait patiently while several years' worth of students have their education wasted as we figure this out. He claims to have met first grade teachers who have used data analysis and CCSS to make themselves more effective, and I'm probably not supposed to conclude from that that these teachers sucked terribly before CCSS, but that's the only conclusion I can reach. Markell also scores points for nerve by actually using the phrase "staying the course" without irony.

Neal McClusky comes out of the gate with the headline "Common Core Treats Students Like Soulless Widgets" and wraps up with the sentence "It is a federally coerced, one-size-fits-all regime that ignores basic, human reality." Everything in between is icing on that cake.

Charles Barone reminds me that I want so badly for his group's full name to be "Democrats for Education Reform Programs," because then their acronym would be DERP and justice would be served. Barone provides a pretty spectacular goulash of goonery. He says in some states CCSS is becoming the "Vietnam of education issues" and isn't that a rich and curious analogy for a CCSS proponent to use. He depicts opposition is "all-purpose right-wing fringe arguments" and lumps opponents with "small bands of tea partiers." He blames the rash of testing in New York on Randi Weingarten and the AFT. And then, as God is my witness, he descends into a series of disconnected sentences that argue against CCSS. These perhaps are meant to support his main point, which seems to be that CCSS intentions are beautiful but implementation is undermining that. In which case, DERP is a well-earned title.

For the finish, Barone, incredibly, goes back to Vietnam! This is an apt metaphor apparently not for "never should have been there in the first place" or "mess created by tissue of government lies" but instead we're reaching for "quagmire" or "place everybody left after they figured it was  not cost-effective to stay." Not making things better, Charles.

Matt Kibbe argues that all attempts at national standardization are doomed to fail, that all federal attempts to intervene in education have failed miserably, and that the federal government is a really awful terribly money-sucking black hole that consumes all things bright and good. He offers an interesting new summation of CCSS-- "Common Core represents a set of national standards with the aim of imposing uniformity on the country’s schools through rigorous testing requirements." Then he offers further observations about how badly federal government sucks, notes that children are individuals, says conservatives should hate this, and brings it all home with a call for School Choice.

Michelle Rhee hasn't accomplished much of value in her adult life, but boy does she have her talking points polished to bright sheen. Her argument is personal-- she uses the word "I" a great deal-- and familiar. The states wrote the CCSS. Teachers (75% of them) love it. We have to fight the status quo because Estonia is kicking our ass. She constructs a barely-made-of-straw man and then kicks it down (straw men are the only people Rhee will debate). Rhee feels all the feelings. She's outraged. She's appalled. She has some false statistics to back her feelings up. Also, high tech companies are pushing for more foreign work visas because we don't have enough engineers in this country (willing to work cheap). She is no stranger to how change is hard in education reform. She is all about the kids. That's why from now on she is going to donate her massive speaker fees to charities that work with children. Okay, I made that last part up. She's totally going to keep making money hand over fist talking about how much she wants to look out for the kiddies.

Who won the debate? You can still click on over there and cast a vote. Unfortunately, you can't vote on how badly you think US News stacked the debate against a full examination of CCSS, nor can you vote for which debater made the most ridiculous points or most egregiously stabs his own union members in the back.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

VAM for Dummies

If you don't spend every day with your head stuck in the reform toilet, receiving the never-ending education swirly that is school reformy stuff, there are terms that may not be entirely clear to you. One is VAM-- Value-Added Measure.

VAM is a concept borrowed from manufacturing. If I take one dollar's worth of sheet metal and turn it into a lovely planter that I can sell for ten dollars, I've added nine dollars of value to the metal.

It's a useful concept in manufacturing management. For instance, if my accounting tells me that it costs me ten dollars in labor to add five dollars of value to an object, I should plan my going-out-of-business sale today.

And a few years back, when we were all staring down the NCLB maw requiring that 100% of our students be above average by this year, it struck many people as a good idea-- let's check instead to see if teachers are making students better. Let's measure if teachers have added value to the individual student.

There are so many things wrong with this conceptually, starting with the idea that a student is like a piece of manufacturing material and continuing on through the reaffirmation of the school-is-a-factory model of education. But there are other problems as well.

1) Back in the manufacturing model, I knew how much value my piece of metal had before I started working my magic on it. We have no such information for students.

2) The piece of sheet metal, if it just sits there, will still be a piece of sheet metal. If anything, it will get rusty and less valuable. But a child, left to its own devices, will still get older, bigger, and smarter. A child will add value on its own, out of thin air. Almost like it was some living, breathing sentient being and not a piece of raw manufacturing material.

3) All piece of sheet metals are created equal. Any that are too not-equal get thrown in the hopper. On the assembly line, each piece of metal is as easy to add value to as the last. But here we have one more reformy idea predicated on the idea that children are pretty much identical.

How to solve these three big problems? Call the statisticians!

This is the point at which that horrifying formula that pops up in these discussion appears. Or actually, a version of it, because each state has its own special sauce when it comes to VAM. In Pennsylvania, our special VAM sauce is called PVAAS. I went to a state training session about PVAAS in 2009 and wrote about it for my regular newspaper gig. Here's what I said about how the formula works at the time:

PVAAS uses a thousand points of data to project the test results for students. This is a highly complex model that three well-paid consultants could not clearly explain to seven college-educated adults, but there were lots of bars and graphs, so you know it’s really good. I searched for a comparison and first tried “sophisticated guess;” the consultant quickly corrected me—“sophisticated prediction.” I tried again—was it like a weather report, developed by comparing thousands of instances of similar conditions to predict the probability of what will happen next? Yes, I was told. That was exactly right. This makes me feel much better about PVAAS, because weather reports are the height of perfect prediction.

Here's how it's supposed to work. The magic formula will factor in everything from your socio-economics through the trends over the past X years in your classroom, throw in your pre-testy thing if you like,  and will spit out a prediction of how Johnny would have done on the test in some neutral universe where nothing special happened to Johnny. Your job as a teacher is to get your real Johnny to do better on The Test than Alternate Universe Johnny would.

See? All that's required for VAM to work is believing that the state can accurately predict exactly how well your students would have done this year if you were an average teacher. How could anything possibly go wrong??

And it should be noted-- all of these issues occur in the process before we add refinements such as giving VAM scores based on students that the teacher doesn't even teach. There is no parallel for this in the original industrial VAM model, because nobody anywhere could imagine that it's not insanely ridiculous.

If you want to know more, the interwebs are full of material debunking this model, because nobody-- I mean nobody-- believes in it except politicians and corporate privateers. So you can look at anything from this nifty three minute video to the awesome blog Vamboozled by Audrey Amrein-Beardsley.

This is one more example of a feature of reformy stuff that is so top-to-bottom stupid that it's hard to understand. But whether you skim the surface, look at the philosophical basis, or dive into the math, VAM does not hold up. You may be among the people who feel like you don't quite get it, but let me reassure you-- when I titled this "VAM for Dummies," I wasn't talking about you. VAM is always and only for dummies; it's just that right now, the dummies are in charge.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Duncan, Civil Rights, & Highly Qualified Teachers

Whether you're David Welch (StudentsMatter) financing the Vergara lawsuit in California, or Arne Duncan, crafting new shiny policies and talking points in DC, turning classroom teachers into a civil rights issue is all the rage. I owe thanks to Michele McNeil and Alyson Klein for some of the reporting on which this column is based.

Coming Attraction and Policy Balloons

Assistant Secretary Deb Delisle did some talking shortly after the State of the Union address about the new 50-state strategy regarding highly qualified teachers, presenting a kind of coming attractions trailer of possible policy. Fans of reformy stuff will remember that NCLB put a deadline on putting a highly-qualified teacher in front of every student in the country, and NCLB waivers initially kept that requirement in place, but the Obama administration has since quietly dropped that. George Miller, retiring top Democrat of House Education committee, NCLB co-architect, and bi-partisan educational twit, even squawked a bit about that.

This notion has floated to the surface of reformy soup at various points. There are folks who believe that we just find the Highly Effective Teachers and move them around so that they are covering the most challenging classrooms, and then a million education flowers will bloom. This policy has not yet been deemed ready for prime time because of that "move them around" part. How would that work? Would districts move teachers from school to school, or would states move teachers from district to district? Would teachers be offered bribes incentives to move, or would they just be forced? Various folks have dipped their toes in these waters, but nobody's really ready to take a swim yet.

But the new 50-state plan  redefines teachers as a civil rights issue by harnessing the enforcement power of the Office of Civil Rights to ensure that poor children will have just as many highly qualified teachers in front of them as anybody else. Predictably, not everyone thinks this idea is super-swell.

Ineffective Teaching: A Highly Effective Definition

Discussion of teaching of a civil right often circles back around to the assertion that poor students have more lousy teachers than non-poor students. This assertion rests primarily on a model of circular reasoning. Follow along.

A) Teachers are judged low-performing because their students score poorly on tests.

B) Students low test scores are explained by the fact that they have low-performing teachers.

Or, framed another way, this argument defines a low-quality teacher as any teacher whose students don't do well on standardized tests. The assumption is that teachers are the only single solitary explanation for student standardized test scores. Nothing else affects those scores. Only teacher behavior explains the low scores. That's it.

Ergo, the best runners are runners who run down hills. Runners who are running uphill are slow runners, and must be replaced by those good runners-- the ones we find running downhill. Or, the wettest dogs are the ones who are out in the rain, while the driest ones are the ones indoors. So if we take the indoor dogs outside, we will have drier dogs in the yard. While it rains.

As long as we define low-quality teachers as those who teach low-achieving students (who we know will mostly be the children of poor folk), low-achieving students will always be taught by low-quality teachers. It's the perfect education crisis, one that can never, ever be solved.

One More Growth Opportunity for TFA

Remember the budget deal last fall? You may have forgotten that part of the deal was an early Christmas gift for Teach for America-- a redefinition of "highly qualified" to include TFAers. Because passing a PRAXIS and taking a five-week summer training session are pretty much the same deal.

So TFA bodies are eligible to be foot soldiers in this battle to put effective teachers into the classroom. Now, despite their glowing PR, there's no reason to believe that TFA bodies can magically erase the effects of poverty, but by the time test data has been gathered up to indicate their ineffectiveness, they will have moved on anyway. An endless revolving door churn through a black hole of teacher ineffectiveness perfectly suits the TFA model.

You might imagine that two years as an "ineffective" teacher might be a black mark on the record of a blossoming young Master of the Universe, but take heart-- Michelle Rhee was ineffective as a classroom teacher and disastrous as a school leader, but that has not slowed her rise to lucrative fame as an education thought leader and celebrity spokesmodel one bit. You only have to be able to say you were in a classroom; it doesn't matter to your career if you were great or terrible.

Hold on There a Second!

So one can reasonably conclude that redefining an effective teacher as a civil right might not be a big win for public education. But fear not-- there are people in Congress willing to stand up for teachers and public schools and those people are--- Republicans!

Representatives John Kline and Todd Rokita have sent a letter to Duncan asking for clarification (Congress-ese for "You got some 'splainin' to do, Lucy"). Their questions are (I'm paraphrasing here):

1) Exactly how do you figure the Office of Civil Rights has legal authority over teachers?

2) How's this going to work, actually. Details, please.

3) When is this going to be released to the public and how will you be handling feedback from the stakeholders? Which is polite talk for "You'd best not be thinking you can unilaterally just slip this by everybody involved."

4) How many stakeholders have you talked to about this, and what feedback did you get? Which is polite talk for "We're betting the answers are 'zero' and 'none.'"

5) How are you going to incorporate comments and concerns into your final proposals? Which is polite talk for "We've noticed that this administration doesn't listen to anybody about anything."

The five questions could also be entitled "Five things we plan to lambaste you about when you formally propose this, so you might want to get your bullshit story straight and your cover in place." And the letter concludes with a directive to contact a staffer "immediately" to set up a meeting to talk about all this.

I don't know that much about Kline and Rokita, but these two GOP Reps and the not-a-minute-too-soon departing Miller are a reminder that teachers should never assume that Republicans are a threat and Democrats have our backs.

In the meantime, watch for the more-final-ish version of the 50-states proposal for turning the Office of Civil Rights into the Bad Teacher SWAT Unit.

A Quick Duncan-DVR Question

I have a simple question for Dennis Van Roekel.

Would you please list five points on which you disagree with Arne Duncan and the USDOE?

I ask because I realized this morning that I can't think of any, and that in my own mind, you and Arne Duncan have become like different manifestations of the same person. So I'm wondering.

I understand that disagreeing with the USDOE is not automatically a good thing, and I do not want to propose that union leadership should be judged based on how much they argue with the government. I even confess that I do not believe the government is always wrong. I also recognize that you are just about out the door, but I don't imagine that you single-handed set the tone and direction for NEA leadership.

However, if NEA leadership is simply traveling in lockstep with the current administration with no critical or independent views, I'm betting that's not A Good Thing. If NEA's policy is, "Hey, if it comes out of Duncan's office, that's good enough for us," it's not good enough for me.

I've been trying to think of a time you criticized an administration policy, a time when you said, "Mr. Duncan is just wrong on this," a time at which you said, "While it might be politically expedient to stay silent, on this matter I must speak up against the administration and on behalf of my members." I can't think of any.

Now, my memory is not as sharp as it-- well, my memory has never been sharp. So maybe I'm just forgetting something. In which case, you or someone can correct me. And I'm really hoping you will.

Because if there are no points of significant disagreement between the USDOE and the NEA, what exactly do we need the NEA for?

So I'll ask again-- can you name five significant policy points on which you disagree with Arne Duncan?

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Duncan's Pre-K Top 10

On Monday, February 23, Arne Duncan laid down some speaks on the National Governor's Association Winter Meeting. His prepared remarks touched on many areas of education, but he devoted much of his speaking to the issue of Pre-K.

Mind you, Duncan did not speak about why Pre-K is a good idea or a valuable idea, nor did he speak about what Pre-K done right would look like. In fact, he didn't really talk about the educational aspects of Pre-K at all. What he addressed was its political inevitability.

So let's see what the compelling reasons for welcoming Pre-K might be. Here's Arne's Top Ten List.

#10: There is much greater public awareness today of the importance of the early years to the long-term health, learning, and success of our children and our communities--and it is coupled with widespread public support for a big expansion of early learning.

The political ground is fertile for the planting of Pre-K support. Lots of people believe this is a good thing, although most of them are imagining something completely different from our vision. You can win votes by backing this. Also, doesn't this sound much more attractive then testing and drilling four-year-olds?

#9: A powerful, bipartisan coalition of governors are funding expansions in the states—in some cases, big expansions—of high-quality early learning programs.

There is a big bunch of money pushing this. People are going to want to be your buddy when you have the power to make them rich. Also, note the new buzzword "high-quality," which means roughly, "carrying the USDOE seal of approval (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Pearson, Inc)"

#8: There is a remarkably diverse and robust coalition of law enforcement officials, military leaders, clergy, CEOs, unions, parents, and others that strongly support expanding high-quality early learning opportunities.

Again, there is political support out there for this, from all sorts of folks. It's true that all these folks know next to nothing about the needs of four-year-olds, but they know plenty about the needs of politicians.

#7: The old arguments that states should have no role in providing low- and moderate-income families with voluntary access to early learning and child care have lost force.

We have broken down the traditional desire for local control.

#6: There is a growing recognition that quality matters tremendously when it comes to early learning. 

We have no idea what "quality" means, but it tests positive with all our focus groups. Some people think "quality" means games and fun and being a child while learning some stuff, instead of drilling and testing. We can use these people. And as long as we control the meaning of "quality," we control the Pre-K franchise.

#5: For the first time, a majority of the states are now assessing the school readiness of children when they enter kindergarten.

Testing five-year-olds will help generate the kind of fear and panic that are great for motivating people. Let's just skip over the question of what in the hell a five-year-old needs to be tested on, or the developmental appropriateness of making Kindergarten the new First Grade. Is your four-year-old writing complex historical analyses and reading Faulkner? Then get thee to Pre-K. And don't forget-- no child is ready for school without a working knowledge of politics in Mesopotamia.

#4: The enactment of third grade reading laws in many of your states is going to propel an expansion of high-quality early learning.

We're going to start labeling your eight-year-olds failures if they can't pass a standardized reading test. Again, don't ask why. Just relish the highly motivational panic this will create in your electorate.

#3: America is way behind high-performing countries in our provision of early learning--and there is a growing awareness that high-quality early learning is critical to sustaining our international economic competitiveness.

Actually, we're just making stuff up now. This talking point has been constructed without the use of a single verifiable fact. But yeah-- Estonia is going to bury us economically if our four-year-olds don't know fifty sight words!! OMGZZ!!

#2: America is currently in the midst of an unprecedented wave of innovation and capacity-building when it comes to early learning--and a new federal-state partnership helped unleash this wave of innovation.

Key word here is "capacity building." Somebody is going to have to create all those Pre-K schools and programs. Do you smell that? It's the smell of money just waiting to be made.

#1: The enormous unmet need and demand for high-quality early learning.    

Unmet, unverified, and unsubstantiated. But okay. We are doing our best to help create the illusion of need in order to drive a real demand.

The speech is directed at politicians, so the political nature is understandable, but I am still struck by how completely and utterly Duncan ignores the question of what "quality" looks like in a Pre-K program, which is exactly the conversation we should be having.

Look, I'm a high school teacher. But it sure looks to me like we are creating-- inventing from scratch-- a whole new grade of school, pushed on our most vulnerable citizens and promoted without the slightest conversation about what a new grade of school for four year olds should look like. What would be developmentally appropriate? What would best serve the needs of the children?  Everything we know about the USDOE, Duncan, CCSS, and the implementation of reformy stuff indicates that the USDOE doesn't know the answers and doesn't particularly care.

Declaring Pre-K "inevitable" for any number of reasons is irresponsible for a Secretary of Education. We should be talking about whether it should be evitable. We should be talking about what form it must take if we're going to allow it to happen.Set some policy. Ask not if it IS inevitable, but whether or not it SHOULD be.

Duncan ought to be saying things like, "Before we make any attempt to take very young children out of home to participate in new educational programs, we'd better make damn sure that every aspect of that program is carefully designed and vetted by educational and developmental experts." Instead, he's out cheerleading about a unique opportunity for investors and politicians. As with CCSS, children are just cannon fodder.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Gates Goes Shopping

Why shouldn't Bill Gates spend his money terraforming the education landscape? Why shouldn't rich guys use their power and influence to promote the issues that they care about? Haven't rich powerful guys always done so?

These are not easy questions to answer. After all, Rockefeller, Carnegie and others made hugely important contributions to the American landscape, legacies that have continue to benefit Americans long after these dead white guys had moved on to Robber Baron Heaven.

How is Gates different? This post by Mercedes Schneider (whose blog you should already be following), helped me see one significant difference.

Rockefeller and Carnegie (the dead white guy philanthropists I'm most familiar with) helped invent modern philanthropy by discovering some basic issues. Mostly, they discovered that when people hear you want to give away money, the wold beats a path to your door. So they set up various entities whose job was to accept, filter and respond to the applications for big bucks that various groups sent to them, based on a set of criteria that the rich guys developed out of A) their own set of concerns and B) the opinions of knowledgeable people in their fields. That's how Rockefeller, a white guy who believed in homeopathic medicine, ended up revolutionizing the study of medical science and building a higher education system for African-Americans.

This is not how the Gates Foundation does business.

Where classic philanthropy says, "Come make your pitch and if we like your work, we will help support you," the Gates Foundation says, "We have a project we want to launch.Let's go shopping for someone to do that for us."

From the Gates Foundation Grantseeker FAQ:

Q. How do I apply for a grant from the foundation? A. We do not make grants outside our funding priorities. In general, we directly invite proposals by directly contacting organizations.

There is also this:

Q: Who makes decisions on investments and when?

A: As part of its operating model, the foundation continues delegate decision making on grants and contracts to leaders across the organization.  With our new process, decision makers are identified at the early stage of an investment.  Check-in points are built in to help ensure that decision makers are informed about and can raise questions during development, rather than holding all questions until the end.

I know it says "investments," but we're still on the foundations Grantseeker FAQ page, in the section that talks about how various data and progress reports will be used along the way as grant recipients complete whatever project Gates is funding.

We pick the project, we approach the people we want to have do it, we bankroll it, and we supervise it until completion. The Gates Foundation model looks less like a philanthropy and more like corporate subcontracts.

This model explains a few issues about the Gates approach.

Why do so many edu-groups funded by Gates seem to have no existence outside of doing Gates work? Because Gates isn't looking to find people already running proven programs that can use a financial boost, but instead is looking to sow money and reap groups doing exactly what Gates wants to have done. "I've got a gabillion dollars here to give to a group that will pilot and promote an unproven educational technique! I'd like to pay you guys to set that up for us?"

Occasionally Gates does work with a pre-existing group, but often this is a matter of shopping for someone who can provide brand recognition, like AFT or NEA. But those "grants" are still predicated on "I have a project I want you to do for us" and not "Let me help support the good work you're already doing."

This is far different from Rockefeller's "I've got a gabillion dollars to spend promoting Black education in the South. Find me some people who are doing good work in the field that I can help expand with this money."

The Gates Foundation model is astroturf philanthropy.

Look, if you're a rich guy who loves anchovy pizza and you want to use your clout, that's fine. If you open the door for successful anchovy pizza makers to apply for grants so they can expand, that's super. But if you decide that you are going to fund a whole new anchovy pizza plant, and hire health department inspectors to get all other pizza makers condemned, and hire consultants to flood the media with bogus reports about the healthful effects of anchovy pizza, and create other consulting firms to push legislation outlawing everything except anchovies on pizza-- if you do all that, you are not a philanthropist. You're just a guy using money and power to make people do what you want them to.

Rockefeller, Carnegie and the rest were not saints, and it's arguable whether their philanthropic benefits offset their robber baronical misbehavior. But when it came to running a corporate-based oligarchy, they were small-timers compared to the folks at the Gates.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

What's Not To Love About Pre-K

One of the most recent ed-issues du jour is Pre-K. There's a great deal of political and public support for earlier childhood education these days, but I find much of it far more troubling than encouraging. While the data on the success of pre-K programs could be called mixed, there are a motivations behind the current push that indicate it should be feared and resisted.

Investment Opportunity

One of the appeals of Pre-K for investors is that there is no pre-existing institution that has to be bulldozed first.

Turning public education into an investment opportunity has been a long, arduous process. Discrediting public schools, buying up enough political clout to dismantle the public system, aggressive marketing to steal public ed "customers"-- it has taken a lot of time to break down a cherished American institution in order to create investment opportunities.

But the Pre-K landscape is only occupied by a handful of relative lightweights. It's the difference between building your new Mega-Mart on an empty lot and having to condemn and clear a residential neighborhood. Easy pickings!

Brand Extension

Yes, I see what you did there. We've stopped calling it Pre-School because that would indicate that it isn't going actually going to be school. But that's not where the push is going.

Instead, we have politicians deciding that since Kindergartner's are having trouble meeting the developmentally inappropriate standards of CCSS, the problem must be that they aren't "ready" for kindergarten. So we have the spectacle of people seriously suggesting that what four-year-olds need is some rigorous instruction, and of course THAT means that we'll need to give those four-year-olds standardized tests in order to evaluate how well the program is going.

It's like some sort of unholy alliance between people who won't be happy until they're selling eduproduct to every child in this country and people who won't be happy until we've made certain that no child in this country is ever wasting time playing and enjoying life.

More Pipeline

The Big Data machine needs more data. Right now we can only plug your child in when she reaches age five. Oh, but if we could only get our hands on those children sooner. Even a year sooner would be an improvement. Pre-K programs will allow more data collection and fatter file for each child.

Don't you want to know what career your four-year-old is best suited for? Don't you want to be certain that your four-year-old is on track for college? The let us add another link to the Big Data Pipeline.

There's no question that, done correctly, Pre-K can be a Good Thing. Anecdotally, I tell friends who are obsessing over it that I could never look at my eleventh grade classroom and tell you which students had pre-school and which did not. But, still, putting a small child in a rich environment to play and socialize and learn a few things couldn't hurt.

However, I'm convinced that a vast number of the people currently pushing Pre-K have no intention whatsoever of doing things right. Instead, what many politicians and thought leaders and hedgucators are supporting is an extension of CCSS/reformy stuff baloney to four-year-olds.

So support Pre-K if you wish, but be damn sure that the people you're agreeing with are people you are actually agreeing with.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Testing Resistance & Reform Spring: Three Simple Goals

There's a new coalition in the ed world, one that you should be hearing more about. Here's the meat from their first press release:

Widespread resistance to the overuse and misuse of standardized testing is exploding across the nation. Testing Resistance & Reform Spring (TRRS) is an alliance of organizations that have come together to expand these efforts in order to win local, state and national policy changes: Less testing, more learning. 

To ensure that assessment contributes to all students having full access to an equitable, high-quality education, we unite around three goals:
            1) Stop high-stakes use of standardized tests;
            2)  Reduce the number of standardized exams, saving time and money for real learning; and
            3)  Replace multiple-choice tests with performance-based assessments and evidence of learning from students’ ongoing classwork (“multiple measures”).

 There's a lot to love about this. Let me look at those three goals:


There is no justification for this use of standardized tests. There never has been. The high stakes use of the test exists for only one purpose-- to force students and teachers to take the tests seriously. Making these tests high stakes is the last desperate action of a speaker who can't get the crowd to9 listen, so he finally threatens to shoot them if they won't shut up.


Is there seriously anybody who doesn't think this is a good idea? Other than, of course, the people who make money selling exam programs to schools. This year, because we have moved PA's Big Test from 11th to 10th grade at my school, I will get to teach my students an entire unit more than I have been able to include since we started testing. They will get at least two week's worth of additional education.

There are reformers claiming that we need to lengthen the school day or the school year. But we can just as easily put more hours back into education by wasting less time on costly, time-consuming tests.


Fans of the High Stakes Testing sometimes speak as if there would be no measuring of students at all if not for the big bubble tests. But of course classroom teachers are already doing constant, complex, nuanced assessment that is directly tied to what is being taught. Is it so crazy to suggest that we could just use it? 

TRRS has an action website and an impressive list of members, including Fair Test, United Opt Out, Parents Across America, Save Our Schools, and the Network for Public Education. It has a clear mission, and as more parents get to meet PARCC, SBA, and their bastard cousins, more communities are realizing that the mega-testing program cannot stand as is.

When people are up to no good, or simply don't know what they're talking about, you get twisted overblown jargonized gobbledygook. Compare the rhetoric of testing fans to the three simple goals laid out above. The time has come to make this happen. Proponents have said, "Well, don't tell us what you're against. What are you for?" There it is. Plain and simple. Come join the resistance.

Standardized Testing Sucks

I am not a testing scientist. There are bloggers and writers and people who frequent the comments section of Diane Ravitch's blog who can dissect the science and the stats and the proper creation and forming and parsing of testing and testlettes and testicles (okay, maybe not those). I'm not one of those people; Mercedes Schneider has undoubtedly forgotten more about testing that I ever learned in the first place.

But I do believe standardized testing, testing that operates on a level beyond the local, sucks. And I don't just mean that it is unkind or obnoxious or oppressive. I mean that it just doesn't work. It does not do what it sets out to do.

Years and years ago, Pennsylvania launched state-wide testing. Not the PSSAs, but the PSAs. One of the first to be rolled out was the PSA writing test. Students in fifth, eighth, and eleventh grade across the state responded to a nifty prompt. These were all gathered up, and the state assembled a Holiday Inn's worth of Real Live Teachers to score papers for a weekend.

I was there for two of those years. It was kind of awesome in a way that only an English teacher could find awesome. We received some training on the kind of holistic rubric scoring that we all now know and-- well, know. And then we sat at tables and powered through. In exchange, we received a free weekend at a nice hotel with food and a chance to meet other teachers from across the state (one year we also received a "I scored 800 times in Harrisburg" pin-- again, English teacher geek awesomeness).

But the PSAs ran up against a problem from the get-go-- students recognized that there was no reason to take them seriously.

And so the state started looking for ways to FORCE students to take the state tests seriously. Make schools count them as grades. Give cool diploma stickers to the best scorers. Make the tests graduation requirements. And hire a company, not actual teachers, to score the test. Students of history will note that these ideas never quite went away.

But when you have to force somebody to take you seriously, when you have to threaten or bully people into treating something as if it's important, you've already acknowledged that there is no good reason for them to take you seriously. And that is why standardized testing sucks.

I am not opposed to data collection and assessment. I do it all the time in my room, both formally and informally. I don't test very much; mostly my students do what we're now calling performance tasks-- anything from writing papers to designing websites to standing up and presenting to the class. My students generally do these without much fuss, and I think that's because they can see the point. Sometimes they can see me design the task in front of them ("Our discussion of the novel headed off in this direction, so let's make the paper assignment about this idea...").

My students know an inauthentic bogus bullshit assessment task when they see one. They know the SAT is bogus, but they have been led to believe it holds their future ransom, so they do it anyway (and we know that after all these years of development, it still doesn't predict college success better than high school grades-- do PARCC and SBA really think they'll do better). And the state has tried to place the High Stakes Test between students and graduation so that students will take the test seriously, but they still recognize it as inauthentic malarkey. If you hold someone hostage and agree to release her if she kisses you, you are a fool to turn around and claim that the kiss is proof that she loves you.

Standardized testing is completely inauthentic assessment, and students know that. The young ones may blame themselves, but students of all ages see that there is no connection between the testing and their education, their lives, anything or anyone at all in their real existence. Standardized test are like driving down a highway on vacation where every five miles you have to stop, get out of the car, and make three basketball shot attempts from the free throw line-- annoying, intrusive, and completely unrelated to the journey you're on. If someone stands at the free throw line and threatens you with a beating if you miss, it still won't make you conclude that the requirement is not stupid and pointless.

And so the foundation of all this data generation, all this evaluation, all this summative formative bibbitive bobbitive boobosity, is a student performing an action under duress that she sees as stupid and pointless and disconnected from anything real in life. What are the odds that this task under these conditions truly measures anything at all? And on that tissue-thin foundation, we build a whole structure of planning students's futures, sculpting instruction, evaluating teachers. There is nothing anywhere that comes close in sheer hubritic stupidity.

To make matters worse, the structure that we've built is built of bad tests. Even if students somehow decided these tests were Really Important, the data collected would still be bad because the tests themselves are poorly-designed untested unvalidated abominations.

It is great to see the emergence of Testing Resistance & Reform Spring, a new coalition of some of the strongest voices in education on the testing issue. They've come out in favor of three simple steps:

            1) Stop high-stakes use of standardized tests;
            2)  Reduce the number of standardized exams, saving time and money for real learning; and
            3)  Replace multiple-choice tests with performance-based assessments and evidence of learning from students’ ongoing classwork (“multiple measures”).

These three goals are an essential part of taking back our public schools and dislodging the most toxic of the reformy stuff that has infected education over the past decade. It's a movement that deserves widespread support. Let's get back to assessment that really means something.

Up Against the Data Wall

This picture has been scooting around twitter, just the most recently egregious example of one of the more odious techniques attached to the CCSS/testing regime-- the Data Wall.

The data wall is a logical extension of Reformy Stuff's complete misunderstanding of how tests work and how human beings are motivated. A Data Wall makes perfect sense if you believe A) students are primarily Data Generation Units and B) human beings are best motivated by shame and bullying.

The Data Walls were inevitable. After all, we're well past the point where we decided that generating a bunch of cool numbers with badly designed invalid junk tests and then publishing those numbers in the newspaper would be a most excellent way to motivate teachers. Why would we not want to do the same with students?

Sure, everything we actually know about human motivation says that this is wrong. And the technique of combining useless tests, bad data, and public shaming has not yet produced any useful results in any of the school systems where it has been tried with teachers.

But we've learned that one of the SOP's of the Masters of Reforming Our Nation's Schools is that when something you really believe clashes with reality, it is time to bash reality in the face. If your latest technique failed, then you don't need to adjust-- you just need to fail harder.

Most of the examples that we have seen of this practice show at least a passing respect for privacy issues, or at least the lawyers who make money suing over them. And a while back somebody had a minor internet hit with a Data Wall about the educational qualifications of Gates, Duncan and Rhee (spoiler alert: none). But these things won't go away. A look at some of these terrible public displays of student results can and should be read over at Edusanity.'And Valerie Strauss addressed the wrongness of it all last week.

Maybe, as the MoRONS usually would have us believe, just haven't pushed it rigorously enough (because, you know, of our unaccountable urges to coddle six-year-olds). Are there ways we could make Data Walls even betterer?? Sure-- here are some thoughts--

Data Dress Codes. If you are Below Basic, you must wear the Below Basic uniform, a sort of middling grey. Basic students may add black and white to the palatte. Proficient students may wear primary colors, and Advanced students can have a full range of colors, including tie-dye.

Data Recess. If you are Proficient or Advanced, you can play a base or pitch in playground softball. Below Basic sit a special Below Basic Bench. Basic students play left field.

But hey-- if rigorous shaming toward excellence is good for kids, why not apply it to adults as well.

In Congress, we could have a giant data wall charting which legislators have passed the most bills. Or, since data walls often post meaningless junk data, lets post things like gallons of coffee used per office. Lets go to law firms and put a big chart in the lobby showing billable hours per lawyer. Let's make banksters start using transparent accounting-- so transparent that the  accounting of each firm is posted ten stories high on the side of office buildings.

Let's bring this into homes. At the end of each street, we can post data about each couple that lives on the block-- how much they make, how many times they make love per month, what they eat for each meal, how many times they've been ill, and from what, and lets collect the data from every source we can, including gossip and bad guesses.

I mean, hell, we could just record all that information, every personal scrap of data, no matter how stupid, insignificant, personal, private, meaningless, important, whatever, from whatever source- no matter how unreliable-- and place that data in the cloud, to follow the people around for every day of their lives, visible to all sorts of people who get to decide things like employment and health insurance.

Oh, no, wait. We're already working on that.

Suddenly I get it. Data walls aren't just an indefensible abuse of children. They aren't just a way to make school a bit more hostile and unpleasant, a way to shame and bully the most fragile members of our society. They're also a way to acclimate children to a brave new world where inBloom et al track their data from cradle to grave and make it available to all sorts of folks. Where privacy is a commodity that only the rich can afford.

Data walls are deeply and profoundly wrong. There is no excusable reason on God's Green Earth for them to exist. They may represent a small battle in the larger reformy stuff war, but they are a direct assault on our students, and they should stop, now, today.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

DVR Corrects Course

Dennis Van Roekel today let loose on the NEA Today website with what represents a big set of admissions for him, and what for many of us wins a Captain Obvious merit badge. Regarding the CCSS:

I am sure it won’t come as a surprise to hear that in far too many states, implementation has been completely botched

Well, the "no surprise to hear part" is pretty obvious. And we've been saying the rest for a while. So how big a shift does today's commentary actually represent.

The opening paragraphs can be dismissed, I think, as face-saving revisionist history. New lipstick on the same ugly damn pig. "The CCSS came out and educators leapt forward like good soldiers, embracing the standards with joy blah blah blah but it turns out the bureaucrats muffed the implementation, and you know, we told them not to do that!!" Okay, fine. That, combined with the note of "like a good life long learner, I've been listening to teachers and learning what it looks like on the ground" is probably the closest we'll get to an apology, and I'm okay with that. Politics. It's what's for breakfast, and he still washes it down with the koolaid.

But gone is the factoid about widespread teacher support. Now we're talking about widespread teacher non-preparation for the core, and the non-support teachers are getting with implementation. It sounds a lot like the standard "The standards are swell; it's just an installation problem" so far, but somewhat feistier than in the past.

A few grafs later, he arrives at the sixty million dollar question:

Where do we go from here?

DVR acknowledges that lots of folks want NEA to call for scrapping the standards. And it would be easy to go along with the critics on the left and the right (one bonus point for admitting they all exist), but we don't want to go backwards. Specifically, we don't want to go back to the bad old days of NCLB and teaching to tests and bad bubbling.

DVR, you do know that there were schools before NCLB. We could go back a mere fourteen years and find ourselves back in the age of authentic assessment, an approach that had potential but was snuffed out by NCLB. So, minus one point for ignoring the full range of options.

He moves on to some specifics. Work with teachers. Stop giving old bubble tests that don't match the new standards. Involve teachers in developing some of this stuff.

And in fact the whole thing would be way too weak to mean much (other than DVR is sliding one step closer to living on the same reality as the rest of us), except for one thing. And I am going to hold DVR to that one thing, because if we get that, none of the rest matters.

DVR has a list of seven items NEA wants from "policymakers" (DVR first artfully sidesteps the issue of whether it's states, feds, or corporations that are driving this bus), and at the number one spot, we find this:

1. Governors and chief state school officers should set up a process to work with NEA and our state education associations to review the appropriateness of the standards and recommend any improvements that might be needed.

Can we just tattoo that across the sky? Paint it on DVR's face?

The other six are just arble-garble about testing and proper field-testing and accountability and probably ploughing the road for NEA's Helmsley-fund financed partnership with PARCC and SBA, but I don't care and I'm willing to ignore it, because if we get a do-over on the standards, if we get a state-level method of revising the standards to suit that state with teachers in an actual position to affect the process-- I would do the kind of happy dance that would embarrass grandchildren that aren't even born yet. Rewrite the standards? With the states, not the USDOE? I have to say, I don't hate that idea.

There will be a ton of parsing of DVR's release today, but for me, that one point is the bombshell. Because the standards are the foundation of everything else. And, done correctly, everything else must wait for the standards to be finished and fixed. I have no illusions about the likelihood of that happening easily or even at all. I'm just happy that my national union has even just one thing on the table that I can support. There's an awful lot of platitudinous baloney on this new plate, but for the moment, I'm going to ignore it and focus on the yummy chocolate chip cookie that I can see.

I am already reading the cries that it is too weak and too late, and there's absolutely no question that it's both. But at this point, there are only two options-- being too late, or staying too wrong. You can't fix Too Late. Absent a time machine, DVR can't undo his ongoing period of wrong-headed quackery. At this point the best we could get would be Too Late But Absolutely Right.  Too Late But Slightly Less Wrong isn't perfect, but it's still better than Still Dead Wrong And Unwilling To Talk About It. Sometimes better is all you get. 

UPDATE : Well, it took DVR about a week to backtrack on this and walk back the most interesting and worthwhile parts. Here's the scoop on that.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

TNTP Enters the Evaluation Game

The New Teacher Project was a Michelle Rhee spin-off from TFA. While TFA is all about shiny new 22-year-old temps, TNTP has thrown its focus toward recruiting more mature candidates looking to change careers (people who have actually held a job). TNTP has long indicated that it believes that some teachers are better than others, and that public education needs a reliable tool for spotting the winners. This has been most thoroughly expressed in their two-- I don't know-- research projects? PR pieces? Prespecti? Ad campaign programs? The Widget Effect and The Irreplaceables.

TNTP has the same root problem with teacher evaluation as TFA-- they love testing, they love Value-Added, and they already think they know who the Good Teachers are, so the evaluation tool must give an answer that checks out against what they already believe to be true. (This technique is known as The Not Very Scientific Method).

These days TNTP shares TFA's desire to bring diversity to classrooms (which is, if nothing else, a more easily-defensible PR position), and like all good supporters of the status quo, they are determined to fight the status quo.

But today they have taken another step in their quest for the appearance of excellence by releasing the TNTP Core Teaching Rubric. And because it's a snow day in my neck of the woods, I've been perusing this document.

The TNTP Core Teaching Rubric streamlines today’s bloated rubrics to bring the same focus and coherence to classroom observations that the Common Core brings to academic standards.

TNTP's premise is that current rubrics are too big and messy and give the observationator way too much to do, and I can hear Danielson-burdened principals across the country say, "No shinloa, sherlock!" And let me give TNTP credit, because if their goal was to come up with a more light and airy rubric, they have scored a big win.

The rubric scores teachers across four areas. They are: 
·      STUDENT ENGAGEMENT: Are all students engaged in the work of the lesson from start to finish?

·      ESSENTIAL CONTENT: Are all students working with content aligned to the appropriate standards for their subject and grade?
·      ACADEMIC OWNERSHIP: Are all students responsible for doing the thinking in this classroom?
·      DEMONSTRATION OF LEARNING: Do all students demonstrate that they are learning?

So, okay. Students engaged? Fine. I know research says there's no actual correlation between engagement and learning, but my teacher intuition agrees with everybody else's-- student engagement is good.

But essential content? We're seriously proposing to evaluate teachers based on whether or not they are covering the CCSS. You're right TNTP-- there is not yet enough micromanaging of classroom teachers. Let's evaluate them on how well they allow themselves to be micromanaged.

"Are all students responsible for doing the thinking in the classroom?" Oh, good lord. I know somewhere in my head that these reformers prefer that teachers not think, but to just come out and say it is.... I don't know. Rude. Still, I think the taxpayers in my district would prefer that students not do ALL the thinking in my classroom. (And just to be clear, no, I didn't misplace the "all." If I say "I'll do the driving" or "She'll do the cooking," that does not indicate a shared task.) Later the document describes this element in terms tat make a little more sense, but that is an ongoing issue as well-- it's a short document, but it lacks internal consistency, as if each page was composed in a separate office.

Demonstration of Learning. And so we've hit all the basic reformer food groups. One part something that's supportable, one part bureaucratic nonsense, one part pedagogical nonsense, and now, one part something so obvious that only someone who knew nothing about teaching would think it needs to be pointed out. Oh, and twelve parts essential elements that have been left out because the creators don't know any better.

"Each performance has three components." We will be checking an essential question, descriptor language, and core teacher skills. The essential questions are close in wording to the descriptions above. The descriptor language is one more five-column rubric breaking all of these areas into specifics. As is typical of these holistic scoring tools, it takes an array of multiple details that allows for 152,633 possible configurations (I'm just roughly estimating here) and crams them into five different scores. For those of us who have been steeped in holistic scoring, it's not really as impossible as it seems.

The core teacher skills part is actually my favorite, because it's where the rubric backslides from its clean and simple lines. In this area, we try to reverse engineer what we think the teacher did in order to get the student behavior. For instance, if all the students demonstrate that they are learning, can we trace that back to teacher core skills of leading instruction, checking for understanding of content, and responding to student misunderstanding. Is it possible that, in keeping with the spirit of CCSS math, a teacher could arrive at the correct result, but not in the correct manner? At any rate, the teacher skills are not supposed to be part of the evaluation, but part of the conversation about the results.

As this is a pilot program, users are invited to "take what you learn from a pilot to inform ongoing training and norming. And please tell us what you learn" at an email address. You're invited to change the language of the rubric to fit your local and reminded that this should be one of "multiple measures of performance." You didn't think we were going to leave student test scores out, did you?

Is there a research basis for this? Why, sure. It's the standard reformy model. In this case, TNTP leans on their experience training teachers for the field, but the formula is the same. We know that these are Excellent Qualities because Excellent Teachers use them, and we can identify those Excellent Teachers because they are the ones using Excellent Qualities. Though it should be noted that only a very few should receive the super-duper seal of excellent excellence, modeled on the winners of TNTP's Fishman Prize (an absolutely awesome name for a prize even though I'm sure the actual trophy is nowhere near as cool as the one I imagine).

So there you have it. Not evil or nefarious. Just kind of sloppy, ill-considered, and generally mediocre. Once we all get our school districts to volunteer to do TNTP's field testing for free, we'll have yet another superlative tool for evaluating teachers into such a state of excellence that they won't know what hit them.

You Keep Using That Word...

Status quo.

The Masters of Reforming Our Nation's Schools keep railing about the status quo. The current crisis in education requires us to break the mold, change our course, do something different. the status quo, we're told repeatedly, is not working.

Here's the thing.

A Nation at Risk came out in 1983, kicking off the current generation of mania for waving one sort of magical stick or another at schools. "OMGZZ," said the risk-threatened nation. "We had better get wise men in DC a-fixin' this, toot the sweet!" (I'm paraphrasing here.)

No Child Left Behind became law in 2001, becoming effective at the start of 2002 and thereby enshrined the notion of top-down, federal-controlled, test-based, punitive, centrally-designed management of the nation's educational system. NCLB's ridiculous and unreachable requirement that 100% of the nation's students be above average was used as leverage to push states into a more top-down, more federally-controlled, more test-based, more punitive, more centrally-designed system of public schooling under Race to the Top and Common Core.

So when somebody says that we need to change the status quo, I completely agree, because you know what the status quo is?? This. This test-worshipping teacher-punishing student-hating one-size-fits-all mockery of a school system is our status quo.

Every single child now in America's school has encountered only this "reformed" version of public schooling. We have now inflicted this foolishness on an entire generation.

Every criticism of public schools, every test score offered as "proof," every "we have to do better" political press release is not not NOT an indictment of the traditional model of American public schooling. That model has been, depending on your location, something between crippled and crushed for over a decade, buried under the bulk of NCLBRTTT baloney for over a decade.

No, if you want to criticize the State of Education in this country, you will need to direct that to the current keepers of the status quo flame, the folks formerly known as "reformers." We've been living and teaching in their world for over a decade. They have had control of education for the entire school life of our current students. They cannot whine that they are outsiders, bravely trying to pull down the ramparts of the status quo, because they ARE the status quo. And in the words of that great philosopher, Dr. Phil, I have to as, "How's that working for you?" If the car's wrapped around a tree, and you're the one who demanded the driver's seat, don't start blaming the hostages you stuffed in the trunk.

We will have to wait for the language to catch up. What we've been calling "reform" or "reformy stuff" or "that miserable pile of polished turds pushed off on us by corporate tools" is, in fact, the status quo. It is those of us who want to reclaim traditional American public education who are the rebels, the reformers.

In the meantime, every time those folks complain about the need to disrupt the status quo, I will remember the words of the other great philosopher, Inigo Montoya, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

Monday, February 17, 2014

12 Reasons To Resist TFA

1. Five Weeks.

 Let's get the obvious out of the way first. Five weeks of training. My flightiest fifteen-year-old students have longer relationships. The gestation period of a guinea pig is longer. Phileas Fogg could not even get halfway around the world. And even the "five weeks" is overstating it, because as numerous TFA escapees have noted, a large chunk of that five weeks is not actual training, but simply being dumped in front of a faux class to flail away.

The go-to analogy here is "Would you hire a doctor/lawyer who had only five weeks of training," but we don't have to get that fancy. I wouldn't let a five-week plumber touch my pipes or a five-week mechanic touch my car. When I worked a summer as a catalog order phone sales rep, I was trained for two entire weeks, and closely supervised for another month.  The only jobs where five weeks of training are adequate involve either "Do you want fries with that" or "Paper or plastic?"

2. Stability.

Schools need it. Schools serving poor and at-risk populations need it even more. Those students need to know that their school is stable, dependable, and there for them every day. Stability is not enhanced by a teaching staff that turns over every single year comprised of teachers who are just passing through. School is where students should meet adults who care enough about the children to stick around for the long haul.

3. A Solution with No Problem.

Maybe once upon a time there was a shortage of teachers (and by "once upon a time" I mean 50-60 years ago), but there sure as heck isn't one now. I find unemployment figures from 6% to 9% for education, and the anecdotal info matches that.

I can believe that Wendy Kopp's mission was noble twenty years ago. But twenty years ago I was married to a different woman, and that's not who I'm going home to tonight. Today's world does not need the TFA solution from twenty years ago.

4. TFA (among others) Doesn't Understand Economics

There are, to be sure, districts that have trouble recruiting teachers. The entire state of North Carolina is doing its best to drive teachers away. But economics tells us how to fix the issue. Heck, we're all instructed in this issue every time some criminal CEO gets a raise.

If you want the right people for a particular job, you have to pay what the invisible hand of the market says you have to pay. If you can't get anybody to work for you shoveling fertilizer for minimum wage, you have to pay more. At the very least, you have to make the job more attractive.

People who squawk about attracting and retaining top quality highly effective teachers keep acting as if this is some mystery. It's not. If you want to get people to do a job, make it worth their while. That doesn't necessarily mean money-- people work for autonomy and a sense of value-- but it certainly doesn't mean you throw up your hands and grab some 22-year-old temp with no training.

5. So Discover a New Problem, or Else

Since no teacher shortage exists anywhere, TFA has massaged its message. Because how are they going to stay in business if they simply announce, "You know what? The teacher shortage of two decades ago is over. Problem solved. We can all go home now." Nope. Instead, TFA has quietly changed its mission to something else entirely.

In this, TFA reveals itself to be a status-quo loving institution just like any other. Because the number one mission of every hidebound dinosaur of an institution, the ironclad law of the institutional jungle, is Self Preservation. And TFA has arrived at that magical spot where the mission is "Say whatever you need to, but keep our directors employed and the money rolling in."

6. Its New Mission Is More Bogus That the Old One

Teach For America works to eliminate this injustice by finding, training, and supporting individuals who are committed to equality and placing them in high-need classrooms across the country. Through this experience, they become lifelong leaders for a better world.

Points for honesty-- we're not even pretending that TFA is aiming itself at education, really. Notice that "teach" doesn't appear anywhere except in their name. And we're going to find these special snowflakes and place them in a classroom-- what they do once they're placed there is anybody's guess.

TFA has repositioned itself as an engine for equality. Twitter is awash in TFA tweetage about getting black teachers in classrooms, and TFA has made "diversity" one of its core values. TFA is hustling like crazy to get black men into the classroom, and of all the ways in which TFA has rewritten/tweaked its mission, this is one of the least objectionable. But its mission remains the same-- recruit the elite, the people who are just better than everyone else, and give them some classroom experience. Just by placing these superior humans in a classroom with, well, inferior humans, the inferior humans will be elevated. Why? Well...

7. TFA Doesn't Understand Mobility

The average TFA body's success story goes something like this.

"I was born into a rich family and grew up in a rich neighborhood. My family's connections got me into a top private school, and connections and money made it possible for me to attend a select ivy league college. Now I'm going to go help poor kids get a good education, because the most important factor to getting ahead in this world is education."

Or: "I was born on third base, which makes me uniquely qualified to teach people how to hit triples."

8. TFA Has An Arrogance Problem

TFA has built itself around recruiting and retaining people who are Just Better Than Everyone Else. And then it devotes tons of internal communication to reminding its people that they are Just Better Than Everyone Else. Consequently, many TFAers do not play well with others. They enter schools convinced that the professional teachers who already work there are the problem, and should be ignored. The best schools, even the most not-too-bad schools, depend on collegiality and cooperation. When TFA says "team," they mean their team, not the public school team.

TFA knows they have a problem. Another core value that they've added is "respect & humility."

9. TFA Wastes the Good Intentions of Good People

Many, many TFAers join up for the very best of reasons with the very best of intentions. These are people who really want to help make the world a better place for children who face tough obstacles. Instead, they are made part of a program that sets them up for failure in the classroom and wastes all their good intentions on simply enriching TFA itself. Some of these people actually end up staying in teaching for good, and God bless those people. But how many more of those good people would still be teachers if they had actually gotten involved in, I don't know-- a teaching program.

10. A Classroom Is Not An "Experience."

The classic Onion column said it best. These are real live students with real needs and desires and hopes and dreams and needs. They do not exist simply so that some future Master of the Universe can say, "Hey, I once spent a year in a classroom with some poor people." 

Here's one way to understand Being a Professional: when you are doing your job, it's not about you. At all. When you are a doctor in an operating theater, your personal wants and dreams are the least important thing in the room. When you are a lawyer in court, you leave your personal issues for the day outside. And when you are a teacher in a classroom, the very last thing you should be wondering is "What am I going to get out of this?"

Students are not there to provide you with an experience. You are there to provide them with an education.

11. TFA Isn't Very Interested in Teaching

In addition to those already listed, TFA's Core Values are Leadership, Team and Transformational Change. Nothing about teaching. They talk about leadership a great deal, about establishing a culture of excellence, about how it is all challenging. TFA is interested in how the experience will foster your leadership skills and make you a better person when you finally get to your real job.On TFA's website, the verb "teach" rarely appears. Beyond the official materials, there's a lot of talk about TFA as a great resume-builder. But not a lot of talk about teaching.

I had a student teacher once who struggled a great deal. What became clear was that he didn't really want to be a teacher-- he just wanted to be the smartest guy in the classroom. TFA materials remind me of him a great deal. No talk of teaching techniques, pedagogical approaches, breaking down materials into manageable chunks, developmental appropriateness. TFA's pedadgogical approach appears to be, "Arrive in classroom. Be awesome. Demand excellence. Watch education magically occur. Quit and go to grad school for MBA."

12. TFA Diminishes the Profession

TFA institutionalizes the very idea that teaching is so idiot-simple that anybody can do it. Well, at least anybody from among the elite. That feeds very nicely into the newly-reformed conception of teachers as Content Delivery Units. If the teacher's job is just to unpack the unit from Pearson's shipping carton and read the script to the students-- well, yes, if teaching were that simple, any idiot COULD do it. 

Or if we decided that the only real job a teacher has is to insure good scores on The Test, well, most idiots could probably do that as well. In the end, TFA has solved its own first problem. If five weeks of training is insufficient to prepare someone to teach, well, then, let's ramp down the professional requirements of a teacher until it's something that you CAN be trained for in five weeks.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Revenge of the Hall Monitors

There's a strikingly odd generational irony that underlies the world of reformy stuff.

The architects of this wave of top-down, rigidly created and enforced educational control-freakery, from the legislative creators of NCLB to the corporate underwriters of CCSS are largely Baby Boomers. Bush, Clinton, Obama, Duncan, Gates-- boomers all. Other generations are represented (e.g. David "Babyface" Coleman and Eli "Elder Statesman" Broad), but school reform remains largely one more attempt by my generation to rewrite the rules of society.

It seems so unexpected. How did the generation that rejected its parents' desire for a stable, solid structure, a generation that found a thousand ways to stand for non-conformity-- how did that generation end up demanding that its own children shape up and snap to? How can it be that middle-aged men are now getting out their well-worn vinyl copy of Pink Floyd's The Wall and thinking that those children's chorus singing "Teacher, leave those kids alone" really needs some rigorous educational pummeling? We were going to fight The Man. Somehow, some of us grew up to be The Man on steroids.

Part of the answer is, of course, that no generation is homogenous. For every kid running through the halls of the school and trying to fight The Power with his scruffy jeans and tie-dye (cause The Power hated tie-dye), there was a kid from the same class, neatly dressed, working as a hall monitor and telling people to be quiet and get to class. Nor have all of us grown up to believe that Kids These Days are slack-brained degenerates who need to be pummeled into obedience.

But, as often noted, Bill Gates was not exactly a young Republican afraid to cross the street without parental permission. Nor was George Bush exactly Exhibit A for How To Properly Pursue an Education.

So what has happened? Is this the revenge of the hall monitors, who have finally secured positions of power and are now finally going to make Those Darn Kids behave? Did we decide that little boxes made of ticky tacky are actually desirable-- at least for other people? Is this just the Boomer's well-documented tendency to believe we have Grasped an Important Righteous Truth and must now make everyone else see?

I don't know. I mean, I really don't know, and I am really puzzled. Has the most individualistic, do-your-own-thing generation in modern memory literally forgotten what it means to be a young human searching for your own place in a one size fits all world? How have we decided that our own experience growing up is one that our own children (or at least other people's own children) absolutely must not have?

In The Lego Movie [mild spoiler alert], Will Ferrell is a father who has created an awesome and amazing Lego world. He forbids his son to touch it, and begins gluing it into place so that those blocks can never, ever take another shape. When he realizes what he is doing to his son, and that he has become the villain in his son's story, he relents, and the two begin to create together. (Also, you should totally go see this movie, because it is absolutely fun in the best way-- children laugh at some spots, adults laugh at other spots, and everybody goes home humming that earworm of a theme song).

We need a moment like that. The leaders of reformy stuff need to look some real, live human children in the eye and start creating with them instead of experimenting on them. They need to stop performing Orwellian gymnastics that use the language of opportunity and choices to describe the reality of straightjacketed one-size-fits-all limits.

Most of all, we need to remember what there was to love about our own lives and challenge ourselves to give our children more. Somehow, reformy boomers have grown up, not to be our parents, but something even worse. We do not create a better world with our children by way of "no" and "less," even if we cloak it with the language of "yes" and "more."

Friday, February 14, 2014

"Why I Heart Common Core"

Hey. Everybody else is writing one. Why not me? Here's my teacher-cheerleading CCSS letter.

As everybody knows, US education has been descending into failure of Biblical proportions, leading to an entire generation of students who don't know enough to come in out the rain. We were facing world domination by Estonia and South Korea. Thank goodness a bunch of teachers got together, possibly teaming up with parents, to produce the Common Core State Standards which were totally not created by a bunch of guys from the major testing corporations. These life-changing and nation-rescuing standards were voluntarily adopted by 45 states who were in no way influenced by their desire to get their federal ed money and avoid the impending NCLB crash. In fact, these 45 states were so excited about voluntarily adopting CCSS, some of them did it before the standards were actually published.

Some wacko tea partiers Obama haters crankypants teachers have been raising a fuss, but a complete legit assortment of polls show that 75% of teachers support the standards, because standards just like these have been around forever. So these are just like the standards we had when we were sucking hard enough to take the chrome off a fender, but they are so totally different that we will now turn education completely around.

In my own classroom, Common Core Standards have been pedagogically transformative in a dynamically epistomological kind of way. My students are involved in deep and thoughtful activities that involve interaction, reflection, and involvement. We do projects. We have discussions. We use critical thinking. We read books, and when we do, we read carefully and deeply and discuss ideas about the book while using details from the book to back these up. We even write stuff, and sometime use computers and techy things.

These may sound like activities that teachers have been doing in classrooms since the dawn of time, but before CCSS, I made my students learn everything by rote and repetition. We used pieces of slate that we drew on with charcoal. If we used novels at all, we simply let them sit on the desk and gained insights into the contents by consulting our spirit animals. I mean, I had no idea that critical thinking even was a thing! It used to take me three months just to introduce regular old thinking. Also, grit and rigor. We are awash in grit and rigor, and I can see with my own eyes that the grit and rigor is transforming my useless young hooligans into future investment bankers. It's awesome.

CCSS has liberated me. Once I open my Pearson test book and set up the lesson that is carefully aligned to the standards for that exact day of the school year, I am free to put my own personal spin on it. I could deliver the lesson with a red shirt on, or I could wear a blue shirt. I could recite the opener with a thoughtful face or a happy face. I can part my hair on whatever side I choose. Teachers who say that the Core is restrictive are just cray cray. Because freedom is slavery.

Of course, teachers need time to adjust to these new standards of awesomeness, time to plan lessons around our new materials, and time to adjust students to having just skipped an entire grade of instruction. And maybe we could hold off on the tests until, you know, some are actually written-- though the tests are a necessary part of the learning experience. Also, seeing results from last year's single test will totally tell me what I need to emphasize with next year's students.

But even though the standards have never been tested, we can all be assured that they will make all students gritty and rigorous and college ready. Whether students want to grow up to be artists, welders, scientists, writers, actors, engineers, or stay-at-home parents, don't they all deserve to have the exact same preparation for those futures? But by giving them rigorous tests now, we can unlock all their dreams for the future. Because dreams, rigor, common sense, and effectiveness.

I am a more effective teacher now that I have a set of government and corporate documents to tell me how to do my job. Also, ignorance is strength.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Vicki Phillips Tries Again

Vicki Phillips last EduWonk PR piece for CCSS sparked plenty of debate. Glancing through the comments and Bill Gates's latest heaping helping of baloney in USA Today, it would seem that it was also used as something of a prompt for the newest wave of CCSS talking points.

So it's only fitting that Phillips is back this month to field test the next wave of CCSS support bullets. Phillips is a Pennsylvania product, starting her admin career in Lancaster before becoming part of Smilin' Ed Rendell's revolving doorload of Ed Secretaries who took on the thankless task of powering through his program of unfunded mandates and terrible tests. When she left to head Portland schools, we were not particularly sad.

She works for the Gates Foundation now as Director of Education, College Ready. And now she's here to talk at us some more about the awesome momentum of  CCSS.

Stick-to-itiveness. Determination. Tenacity. Grit. These are concepts that every teacher tries to impart to his or her students – the importance of not giving up when the going gets tough.

That's the lede, so we know where this train is headed. That ol' grit-- it is one hugely important quality for students to have. So why, Phillips asks, would we risk stopping the forward movement on CCSS, "the most important U.S. education initiatives in decades." And may I just add, "A bicycle, because a vest has no sleeves." But no-- Phillips is not even going to pretend to create any sort of plausible link between grit and the Common Core (they just go together, like a horse and carriage, love and marriage, apples and oranges).

See, as we move forward, we all knew that we would have to be flexible, willing to "adjust and recalibrate." This is one of the shinier talking points these days, in which reformers speak as if they've always expected there to be a need to carefully consider what we were implementing and no, they were not the ones insisting we all follow their orders precisely, no, that wasn't them at all, nuh-uh. No, the newest round of CCSS reformy folks say things like this:

Equally, we must ensure that teachers and students are truly prepared before consequences for not meeting the standards are implemented.

No more impassioned full-speed-ahead, build-the-plane-while-we-fly-it stuff. No, we want to take our time and get it right. And like any good Orwellian overlords, we are not only going to say this with a straight face, but we will not at all acknowledge that we ever said anything else.

Okay, then. In this brave new world, what does Phillips suggest we are supposed to do to maintain the awesome runaway-truckish momentum of CCSS?

First, teachers must play a key role in the Common Core implementation process.

Teachers must play a key role. A "key role" is what you offer somebody when you want to soften then news that they won't be in a leadership role. "Sorry, you didn't get the new management spot, but golly whiz you will have a Key Role in the transition team." Nobody ever uses "key role" in their CV. 

We have apparently seen great success in Cleveland with teacher-created materials. And all around the country teachers are already working "with other education practitioners" and, really, what the hell is an "education practitioner"? This confabulation of teachers and EPs is working "to ensure teachers have access to the high-quality resources and tools they need as the Common Core State Standards are implemented."

And, seriously, as noted in Colin McEnroe's genius column, when somebody talks like this, they are either hiding something or selling something or both.

We'll follow that with a nod to the NEA Master Teacher program, a fully-owned subsidiary of the Gates Foundation, so why wouldn't we be plugging that. It will have a full year's worth of lessons! Districts won't need to hire real teachers with actual skills ever again!! So maybe the "key role" teachers are playing is the role of "making actual teachers obsolete." Thanks for having my back, NEA.

Second, we need to make sure teachers have the time they need to collaborate and prepare for these changes. 

I do not disagree with Phillips here. If we are going to be forced to unpack an Augean Stable's worth of CCSSBS, at least give us a shovel and few extra hours to do the job. We all seem to know something that Phillips is pretending not to know, or has forgotten since she was a district administrator-- time costs money, and school districts don't have an endless Gatesian-sized supply of it. So I think I speak for many superintendents when I say, "Thanks! That's a fabulous idea. More time! I never THOUGHT of THAT!" Also, next year the Gates Foundation will buy ponies for all the poor people in America-- all they have to do is build barns for the ponies to live in. It will be super-easy.

And then we get more lip service about how teachers have to be co-opted so they will buy in recruited as valuable co-leaders in the process. Because, finally, reformies have decided that maybe teachers should be involved in all this reformy stuff after all.

Then a full paragraph devoted to how CCSS will make it easier for children to move from one state to another. Certainly a legitimate reason to upend the US education system. Next year Gates will be reconfiguring the climate of the entire Northern Hemisphere so that children can move from Alaska to Hawaii without experiencing discomfort or needing to buy new clothes.

We round on the home stretch with a link to blog by a teacher who thinks CCSS rocks his world. The link is actually broken, but based on the quotes, I think I can reproduce the gist of the teacher's comments:

I used to teach nothing but rote memorization and I tried never to talk to my students and we just used slates and charcoal to do our endless drill, but then CCSS came along and I was all like, "Woah, you mean we can do thinky things!!?? And all sorts of cool learny activities." So thanks to CCSS I know how to teach because before I didn't know how to do nothing. But now critical thinking and computers. Thanx, CCSS.

Now cue the violins and fireworks for the big finish:

This is what we need to remember every time we hear calls to roll back Common Core. We cannot give up. We owe it to our children to continue to move forward and ensure that every child in this country has a chance to pursue his or her dreams. After all, if we expect our children to show grit in the face of adversity, how can we possibly ask any less of ourselves?

[insert inarticulate roar here] What the hell does the implementation of CCSS with its attendant school of bad program pilot fish have to do with making a better life for our children. Show me one single minute freakin piece of evidence that CCSS has anything at all to do with children pursuing their dreams!  And "grit in the face of adversity"??!! School is not not NOT supposed to be "the face of adversity," not for students, not for teachers, not for parents or administrators or janitors or bus drivers. What sort of bollixed-up brain-deficient balonery equates school with a test of whether students are worthy or having dreams?

I don't know if Lancaster Superintendent Vicki Phillips lost her understanding of actual schools or if she sold it. But this piece of press-ready PR puffery does her no credit. Please may we not have a third Ode to CCSS Momentum.