Thursday, April 10, 2014

#AskArne- Student Data & Test Edition

Yes, dear readers, the Department of Education continues to crank out youtube videos in which Arne Duncan is fake-interviewed about an educational issue. The newest clip presents a Teach to Lead update, a shady tale of data privacy, and some huge whoppers about the testing going on. I have included the link, but it's really only as corroboration; it's in your blood pressure's best interests not to click. (If you're thinking, "Well, how bad could it be, read my summary of a previous #AskArne.)

So let's see how long it takes this video to invoke some sort of incredible fiction and --oops, look. We're at the four-second mark and I'm looking at a screen that tells me that this video from March (youtube release date April 7-- so either a little long in production or somebody sees these before the crucial youtube demographic) is subtitled "Questions from Teachers." I've seen the questions that get tweeted under the #AskArne hashtag, and I would find a video in which Arne responded to those questions pretty special, but I'm pretty sure that's not what we're getting here.

The teachers who hosted our January outing are no longer here, and that might be an improvement, so like every rooster who thinks he makes the sun rise and every activist who thinks his squawking just made The Man change, I'm going to take credit for every change USDOE has made since I first vented my spleen all over them.

Anyway, our new hostess is Emily Davis, a Teaching Ambassadors Fellow at the USDOE. She is sitting at a table in a library talking to Arne. She thanks him for taking the time to sit down for this video shoot that he scheduled to talk about student data privacy, and he is nodding like, "Yes, yes, that's right, good job."

But first-- a commercial. Emily knows it's early to talk about the new Teach to Lead Initiative that he announced at the National Board convening last week, and I'm thinking, why, exactly is it early? After you announce a new program, would you not want to be able to talk about it? After all these years, I've come to believe that the Duncan DOE specializes in rough drafts, but nobody ever fills in the details. So I'll believe that Teach to Lead actually has a plan when I see it. Anyway, we can't talk about that yet, but she's really hoping he'll talk about it and -- flick go her eyes back to left-of-screen. This eye-flick will be repeated throughout the video and I can only conclude that just stage-right of the camera is either A) a toddler playing with a chain saw or B) Emily's script. She doesn't look quite afraid enough for the toddler theory, so I'm going to go with "working from some sort of prompter."

Anyway, Arne will absolutely talk about Lead to Teach the next time he schedules her to do one of these things. "I was thrilled with that," he says. "It was an extraordinary group of teachers... some of the best teachers in the country." And I guess we've conflated the program and the announcement. Maybe the program WAS the announcement, and now it's over. "The energy behind these hybrid roles of teachers, wanting more responsibility, wanting the chance to do more, but not have to leave the classroom and leave what they love most and do best," says Arne, and I am thinking that lots of teachers would be happy to get back the responsibility and autonomy they had before CCSS started chaining them up. "We have to make this real across the country and again, I think teachers are going to help lead us where we need to go," says Arne, and while I'm not sure what "this" is, exactly, I'm pretty sure that the USDOE's proven track record of ignoring, belittling, dismissing and disregarding teachers makes a joke out of this promise. And now he refers to the speech at the National Board as a "launch," so I'm back to wondering why we can't talk about the details because surely we didn't launch a detail-free rough draft?

Emily is excited, and then pivots awkwardly-- flick-- to the real topic-- student data privacy and the FY15 budget. The budget includes a 200 million dollar ConnectEDucators program (Emily just plain has to stare her notes in the face for this one). "What is this program and why is it so important," asks Emily, and I guess she looked away from the prompter before she could read "ask many teachers."

"This to me is absolute common sense," replies Arne. "Every teacher is looking for more technology." [insert gif of Stewart leaning in to say "Do tell!"] Teachers want time and resources and more PD and tech is changing learning and teaching and "what students are learning not just during the school day but at home" and didn't THAT just send a little chill down your spine? Anyway, we need significant resources and so we need the help of Congress to approve the budget (this would be another major theme of this video). With that, we can get to 40,000 educators and a couple hundred school districts. It will "really help empower teachers to take their craft to an entirely different level."

Emily says, "Oh yeah, that's me. I use technology every day. I'm constantly downloading apps." (Yes, I too, like the young people, am always downloading the apps and playing on the twitter as I listen to the rap music.) But you know, one of the challenges she faces is trying to stay current with the pace of innovation and still balance it with-- flick-- protecting student privacy. Two minutes in and still waiting for a teacher question.

Arne replies that tech changes at "warp speed" and is only going to get warp speedier, so it's hard to stay abreast of it. But as we move excitedly forward, we cannot compromise on student privacy. "That has to be first. That has to be foremost. That's absolutely paramount."  I was going to say actually educating the students was paramount, but I'll give him this one.

But at the same time, it's important to give teachers data, to think about not teaching-- oh, I give up. This rambly mess of a sentence either was botched by the captioners or Arne needs to borrow Emily's teleprompter. Eventually we come out the other side and arrive at what I think is his point-- we need lots of data in order to individualize instruction. Plus real time feedback for children and parents.

So we have laws on the books and we have set up a technical assistance center (really? where? for what??) but it's all changing so fast that we have to keep thinking, and it strikes me at this point that Arne has been very serious for this "chat" without any of the smirkiness that I noted last time, and I'm going to go ahead and take credit for that, too.

Anyway, because things change quickly, government at all levels will have to keep thinking (do tell) and we will all have to be very public and transparent in these ongoing conversations, and of course we are all thinking that transparency has been one of the hallmarks of ed reforminess over the past decade.

Emily says that one of the conversations she keeps hearing -- fliiiiiiiick-- in the field is that districts are releasing their student data to third parties, possibly for advertising. She wonders what Arne's thought are on that. Don't we all. And here comes your first huge spit take of the day, because here's what Arne has to say:

Well first and foremost, children's data can never be a commodity

I want to see the blooper reel for this. I want to know how many tries it took him to say that with a straight face.

He goes on to say that the info can be used by teachers to improve instruction, but it should not be sold to a third party-- and we are going to hammer versions of that phrase "not be sold to a third party" a few times. And whenever a political figure who specializes in broad generalities (like say, the Teach to Lead programmish thingy) starts using very specific language, my spidey-sense starts tingling. I'm thinking that if, for instance, we've redefined data collectors as part of the school system (hello, new FERPA), and we don't actually sell them the data, then we've totally kept this very specific promise. Just saying.

Remember-- FERPA was rewritten so that parents could not withhold information about their children in the first place. inBloom was run out of every state on a rail specifically because folks like Leonie Haimson repeatedly demonstrated that the system was already set up to feed data directly to inBloom, and that inBloom wasn't going to make promises about anything, including their ability to resist hacking. Saying "we'll never sell it to those guys because we already let them walk off with it for free," is no reassurance. Saying, "We won't let them sell raw, but only as part of a product they create with it" is no assurance of privacy at all.

When your brother-in-law asks for a set of your car keys, and you say, "Will you keep it safe and never use it except with permission?" you are not looking for an answer like, "Welllll, I'll never rent it to anybody." You know what the easiest way to keep student data private safe is-- keep it completely under the control of parents.

Anyway, there is a website about privacy and a Chief Privacy Officer named Kathleen Styles who is working on this all day every single day, so congrats Kathleen Styles on your new title and so sorry that you have to work weekends.

Arne is a parent, you know, and has children, and the last thing they want is their children's data being sold to someone. So no giving data to people to sell. No selling. Selling data bad. I think we get it, Arne. Districts need to get information, stay current, maintain the trust of parents and public.

Another conversation that Emily is hearing in the field is --flick-- we're in the assessment season-- flick-- field tests are out there linked to college and career ready standards (and somewhere Common Core weeps in its beer and cries, "Why? Wasn't I good to you? And now you never call, and when we run into each other you won't even look me in the eye! Why, Arne, why??!!"). Anyway, Emily says, do you think schools have the technological capacity to administer these exams? Because, yeah, of all the issues associated with The Test, tech preparedness is the biggest. 

And here comes Arne's giant whopper of the day, a pack of lies so phenomenally huge that-- he can't do it, he can't keep that poker face one more second and here comes the Arne "I Can't Believe The Bullshit Coming Out of My Mouth" Duncan liar's smile (just like the one on the face of all those baby daddies on Maury).

The field test is just a dry run. And this next line is a quote and I swear to God he actually says this:

There are no stakes attached to them.

"They are testing the technology. They are testing the test. Some items are going to make sense, some items won't'"-- because, you know, adult professional test writers can't tell if something they've written makes sense or not until they show it to eight year olds!!-- and there will be technological glitches. Arne thinks it's important that teachers and principals speak out about the challenges and then we'll have a year to fix things. He keeps saying that if people say the tests are going perfectly, they're lying, and I agree that there's a great deal of lying going on about the tests somewhere. But Arne expects them to be rocky. He expects it!! He wants the bumps! He cherishes the bumps! But wait-- he's not done saying ridiculous things yet.

These tests are going to, I think, start to be the end of the fill in the bubble tests.

Certainly. Because clicking on the correct multiple choice answer is totally different from bubbling in the correct multiple choice answer. It's a whole new world, a whole new bubble-free world. Nope-- adding a computer automatically gets you critical thinking skills. It will be a rocky transition, but we are on our way to the promised land.

Emily is refreshed to hear that Arne loves the bumps and that he's willing to work-- flick-- these things out. And she's looking forward to our next conversation and --Hey!! What happened to the questions from teachers??!!

And Arne wraps up with a reminder that Congress should approve the budget so he has the monies to do swell things. And he thanks Emily for giving him the opportunity to help her follow her instructions from his office. And feel free to send your questions to #AskArne so that they can be not included in the next video.


  1. Peter,

    Pardon my language, but g**d*mn you blow my mind with every single post you write. You are a lyrical GENIUS, and you seem to be channeling my exact thoughts with every word you write. I read your blog daily now and can't wait to see what truth you will deliver that day. I read it with glee (he gets it! he really gets it!) and anger (the sky really is falling!!! let's try to find a way out of this hell!) and feel myself getting frustrated about the dire straits of public education but also surprisingly energized to keep going to try - however desperately - to make a positive difference. So thank you, thank you, thank you, Peter Greene, for all you do. You are a wonder, and I hang on your every word (I mean that in the most positive, friendly, not-creepy way possible).

    Mary Holden
    public school teacher for 12 years and counting...

    1. I will take that as positive non-creepy praise. Thanks very much!!