Saturday, May 31, 2014

Welcome to Common Core Hospital

Nurse Duncan: Welcome to Common Core Hospital. How may I assist you?

Chris: My name's Chris Wobble. I was just in a car accident. My arm seems to be broken in about three places.

Nurse Duncan: All righty, then. We just need to do some assessments here to see what shape you're in. As a major health care provider, your health data determines our success rate. Now first we're going to take your blood pressure. Let me just put the blood pressure cuff on your arm here...

Chris: Ow! Owwww!! Hey!! Holly mother of God! I told that arm's broken!!

Nurse Duncan: Sir, our standard procedure is to take the blood pressure with the right arm. Stop whining. Show a little grit.

Chris: Aaaaaaiiieeeeeeee!

Nurse Duncan: Goodness. Your blood pressure numbers are quite bad. Quite bad. We are going to have to address that with an immediate treatment plan. Bad blood pressure numbers are a sign of poor health. Often they are related to excess weight. Are you fat?

Chris: Do I look fat? Look, do you want to just weigh me?

Nurse Duncan: Oh, we don't have any scales here. We find that the blood pressure measure is all we need to determine patient health quality. Let's just continue with my questions. Are you suffering from any stress or anxiety over the last few weeks that might have elevated your blood pressure?

Chris: Well, my frickin' arm is broken!! But that only happened today.

Nurse Duncan: I think we must conclude that your blood pressure problems are the result of a sedentary lifestyle. Please answer the following multiple choice question. Which strikes you as the most likely cause of your sedentary lifestyle. A) Your apartment does not have a gym, B) Your apartment is too small to offer room for exercise, C) You only socialize by drinking at bars, or D) Meal selections at your regular restaurant are high caloric content.

Chris: What? What??!! Those don't even make sense. And I live on a farm.

Nurse Duncan: We'll just write down A.

Chris: What hell is wrong with you?!!

Nurse Duncan: Let me consult my individualized treatment options chart. (Fiddles with iPad). According to our individualized treatment chart, your personalized treatment program is a regular series of push-ups to be performed daily. Could you drop and give me ten right now, please?

Chris: Are you insane? Can you not see that my arm has extra bends in it?

Nurse Duncan: The use of my own senses for diagnosis is strictly against hospital policy. By the way, if you could give me your drivers license, credit cards, and on line passwords, we'd like to copy those for our records.

Chris: Why do you need that information for anything? What are you going to do with it, anyway?

Nurse Duncan: Well, that's not really any of your business now, is it? And I must say, Chris, that this is a charter hospital, and if you are going to be difficult to work with or require additional treatment options or indicate that you are likely to yield poor results that would hurt our ratings, I will be counseling you out.

Chris: You mean I won't get any treatment?

Nurse Duncan: Oh no. You will still be able to seek treatment at the public hospital. You passed it on your way in-- that gentleman in the back of the pick-up truck out in the parking lot.

Chris: Man. Will he take my insurance?

Nurse Duncan: Well, he can have what's left of your coverage payment. We'll still be keeping our full fee here. Now, about those pushups...

Chris: Oh look!! Isn't that Mark Zuckerberg in the hall? Is that a check he's holding?

Nurse Duncan: What? Where?? (Runs out of room. Returns shortly, confused and sad). I guess I must have missed him. Now then, about those push-ups...

Chris: Oh, I totally did them while you were in the hall. Can I have a pain pill at least?

Nurse Duncan: We're happy to hand out pills, particularly if it will make you more co-operative. As soon as we've finished our consultation here. I need to give you a final blood pressure check to measure your progress during our visit.

Chris: Here, give me the cuff. I'll put it on myself.

Nurse Duncan: But you've put it on your foot, outside your boot.

Chris: Just get your data.

Nurse Duncan: Very well..........Hmm

Chris: Yes?

Nurse Duncan: (Picks up phone). Maintenance? Yes, the patient I'm seeing is apparently dead. Get someone down here to process the patient out before it counts against us.

Chris: Oh for the love of God.

Quarter Million Served

Some time this week, this blog passed the 250K mark. A quarter million.

I've been up and running since August of last year, but it took me a couple of months to figure out what I was doing, and not till January of this year did my writer's gland really kick in. So I've done a huge amount of business in a short amount of time.

There are several takeaways from this, I think. Because I don't think the story is that I am an awesome writer or a person with an unusually compelling story to tell. I can slap words together okay on a good day, and in the classroom I am neither God's gift to teaching nor a pedagogical disaster. I think I'm a pretty representative sample of American public educatorhood. Nor am I an outstanding example of of educational bloggery-- given my numbers and my reach, I'm maybe one of the C list bloggers. I haven't met anybody in the movement face to face, haven't spoken at any rallies, haven't been offered a seat at any of those tables, haven't done anything to raise the profile of my brand.

So what that tells me is that there is a powerful need out there for the message. There's a powerful need among teachers and parents and the other people who care about public education, a need to know that what looks crazy and wrong really is crazy and wrong, a collective need to stand next to people looking at some incredible disaster unfolding and to turn to the person next to you and say. "You see that, too, right? I'm not crazy, right?"

There's a powerful need for words. What I hear over and over again is some version of, "I knew something was wrong, but it was wrong in such a fundamentally bizarre way that I couldn't even find the words to explain. My gut just knew something was horribly wrong." Followed closely by, "Thank God it's not just me. I was afraid it was just me." There's a powerful need for clarity and understanding and a sense of connection to other people who share a belief in the promise and importance of public education.

I am always struck by the huge contrast between the Reformsters and the Resistance. On the Reformster side we find almost exclusively people who are making a buck from all this mess. We find glossy sites and paid consultant work and huge efforts (and expense) to push the carefully spun and crafted message out there. On the Resistance side, we find...well, we find a herd of cats. A big unpaid volunteer DIY widespread pay-your-own-expenses herd of cats. If Reformsters were working on the Resistance's collective budget, with the Resistance's expectation of monetary reward in their future, the battle would be over today, because they would have about three people left fighting for their cause.

My readership is not about me. It's about a cause that matters. It's about a value for our culture that is important, in which we believe, not because we're paid to believe, but because it really matters. Blogging is funny-- you can't get people to read you except by writing a message that resonates, that speaks to an audience.

So I'm grateful that an audience has found me, and that what I'm saying has some meaning and value to them. I am so thoroughly heartened to discover such a nationwide web of people who care so deeply about public education, an institution that I believe is one of the most important and powerful to ever step forth on the stage of human history.

I'm grateful to Diane Ravitch and the Bad Ass Teachers, both of whom helped an audience find me, and I am grateful to the literally hundreds of other bloggers who keep this fight going, and I am grateful to the fans of this space who have been such big boosters of my writing. It is an amazing world in which people with no resources by a computer and their own spare time can sit down and reach out to others, where a network of people can share their concerns and information and understanding and strength across the miles.

Those of us who love public education are many, and we're committed, and we're connected, and we're not going away, and we're not giving up, and we're not alone, and we're not dependent on the kindness of corporate sponsors. And if a C list blogger can gather a quarter-million reads in a little over six months, let that be a sign of just how huge we are in number. The Reformsters had better check their resources, because they are in for a long hard fight.

Friday, May 30, 2014

North Carolina To Teachers: "F#@! Off"

There are several state legislatures that are working hard to earn the "Worst Legislature in America" medal. Florida, where it's cool to use terminally ill children as political tools and their families as punching bags, has always been a strong contender. New York State staked its claim by taking the extraordinary measure of overruling local government because they didn't like its decision. Several states have worked to promote the teaching profession by stripping it of any professional trappings like decent pay and job security.

But when it comes to suck, North Carolina is a tough state to beat.

The legislature tried to make tenure go away entirely, but was frustrated to discover that they could not legally revoke tenure for people who already had it. But the wily legislators realized that they had a unique piece of leverage in a state where teachers' real-dollar wages have dropped every year for seven years.

The proposal is simple. NC teachers can have a raise, or they can have job security. They cannot have both.

They may have a raise. And who knows. Some day they might get another one. But they can also be fired for being too expensive. Or they can have job security, but Senate Leader Phil Berger warns that they will probably never see another raise again.

The message is as clear as it is simple:

North Carolina legislators do not want teaching to be a career in their state.

If you want to devote your career, your lifetime of work, to teaching, you cannot do it in North Carolina.

If you want to support a family, live like a grown-up, experience a lifetime of success teaching students, you cannot do it in North Carolina.

We often talk about how a state "destroys" or "ruins" teaching as a profession, but often that's a bit of exaggeration and  what we really mean is that they make it very, very hard to stay in teaching. But North Carolina proposes to actually do it-- to actually make teaching untenable as a career for self-supporting grown-ups. This goes past disrespect; this is demolition.

There is no upside in this for North Carolina. None. There is no benefit for a state that drives the most qualified teachers away. There is no benefit for a state system that becomes the system of last resort (Motto: Come see us if nobody else will hire you for a real job). There is no plus in telling new job applicants, "We intend to screw you over as a matter of policy." There is no benefit to students being taught by teachers who are working three jobs to make ends meet ("Sorry, but I won't be grading your papers until I get a night off from Piggly Wiggly"). There is no benefit to school environments when a state tells students, "Nobody needs to treat teachers with respect." There is no benefit for a state to tell its young people, "Hey, if you want to be a teacher when you grow up, y'all are gonna need to get the hell out of here."

There's plenty of benefit for other folks, kind of like the benefit of having one less hungry family show up for buffet night at Pizza Hut. Virginia can continue its teacher recruitment program ("Hey teachers! We're not great, but we sure as hell aren't North Carolina"). And I suppose this makes North Carolina a perfect staging area for TFA bodies

My heart goes out to people in North Carolina. If it were the place I was born and bred, I would be sadder than words can say, sad that my own people wanted  to trash our state, sad that they want to actively discourage good teachers from working there, sad that they had zero interest in trying to get the best possible system in place for their children. Hell, I'm not from NC and it still makes me pretty sad.

So kudos to you, NC legislature. Tomorrow may bring new assaults on education from a different assortment of political twits, but for today, you are, in fact, the worst legislature in all of America.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Transparency For Reals

Reformsters loves them some transparency. However, by "transparency" what they means is "we want to show your school scores and teacher VAM scores and other fun data-ish stuff to the whole world." But if that's transparency, then Phyllis Schlafly is a stripper. "Transparency" means that the man behind the curtain will pass out some numbers and we will treat them as revelation.

Well, bullocks to that. Here's how we could have some real transparency.

Test Transparency

Along with the score, all parents will receive the completed version of their child's test. A complete copy of the test, with their child's answers marked, plus a brief explanation of why the correct answer is correct.

Parents will receive a complete guide to correlating questions to test areas. IOW, "Question 5 measures the student's ability to make inferences from text." Both these and the tests will be available to any member of the public.

Scoring Transparency

If there is any sort of conversion process to turn a raw score into a final score, that process will be made public. Also available in print and on the net will be an explanation of how the cut scores were set. It should be in the kind of English used by actual human beings.

For tests that involve human scorers, that facility will be open to tours by any interested members of the public. The training manual for those scorers will also be published on paper and net. Scorers names and qualifications will also be available upon request. None of those workers will be under any sort of gag order whatsoever-- they can talk to anybody about any aspect of their work at any time. They can write operas about it and perform them on street corners.

If the test is assessed by computer, that will, first of all, not be a secret. Second of all, any documentation necessary to establish that the program is more dependable than a hamster in a box will be readily available.

Validity Transparency

All data supporting the assertion that the test is valid and reliable will be published in their entirety. Honestly, I don't know why these people are scared of this-- there won't be three people in the country who can bear to read through it. Likewise all data about the field testing of tests will be available for anybody who can stand it.

Data Transparency

All federal, state and local school entities will publish clearly and publicly what other entities will be using test data. All of them.

I actually like the idea of a requirement that every time a piece of your child's data changes hands (so to speak) or is used, the parents are emailed a notification. I balk on this only because I suspect everybody's email would quickly become unusable.

Financial Transparency

Every test will come with a clear indication of who is making money for it. The price per unit of the test will be printed on the front cover, just like a magazine. ("Hey Mom! We took a fifty dollar test today!")

All not-for-profit schools will publish in big bold letters how much they pay their various officials. Maybe on numbers across the back of a jersey that said officials must wear to work every day.

VAM Transparency

All VAM systems must publish their computing formulas in full. With a complete explanation. If the explanation cannot be understood by an average college-educated 22-year-old, the system must be thrown out and started over. All VAM systems must also publish any and all studies done to create the impression that VAM works.

In short, stop throwing numbers around an insisting that if they're numbers they must be True. If you want to be transparent, then stop hiding the heart and spine of this bogus data system in a dark black box. 

What Reformy Thing Most Needs To Die?

It's a fun thought experiment. If you could erase one aspect of the Reformy test-driven high-stakes privatizing Core-loving status quo, which would it be. If you had the political power to eliminate one head of the public-education-crushing hydra, which decapitation would lead your list?

Yes, this is like playing "What would you do if you won the lottery," and yes, the various parts of the beast are interdependent. But the debate about priorities often erupts in the Resistance, so it's a thought experiment worth having. So how would I rate the hydra heads on the Evil Bloodsucking Monsters That Must Be Killed Scale.


It would be less destructive to teachers if we simply divined evaluations with tea leaves. And when your entire labor force is in a state of fear and uncertainty and general beaten-downness because of an evaluation system that is unscientific, invalid, irrational, and just plain crap, that cannot be good for your institution. Sam Walton, of all people, famously said that the way you treat you employees is the way they will treat your customers (Sam is dead now). Public education is seriously damaged by this assault on its own front line troops; public education can't function when every employee and every building always live under the threat or imminent disaster.



It's not that charters as currently practiced don't deserve to die. They do, and they can be relied on, for the most part, to kill themselves. When hedge fund managers and investment dilettantes rushed to this market because they thought they could produce some ROI, they forgot that they wold also have to produce some results. I am truly sad that a whole boatload of students have to be chewed up by these fraud factories for the public to figure things out, but sometimes things have to break before they can be put right. I know it's harsh, but better tens of thousand of students today than millions tomorrow. But charters will mostly die on their own, sooner or later, depending on how much political capital their bought-and-paid for legislators are willing to invest in them.



I look for the day when reality penetrates college campuses fully on this issue. There's a lot of good work being done to help idealistic young college students understand that if they want to be teachers, they should, you know, become teachers, and not under trained temp shock troops in the battle against having to pay professional wages in schools. But time and mission drift are starting to catch up with this decades old group, and people are even getting smart enough to ask "Is that real teaching on your CV, or just some Teach for America bullshit."

Still, they're a blot on the profession, a destabilizing influence in the schools they descend upon, and a work force that unnecessarily prolongs the life of deserve-to-die charter schools.



This goes beyond being a simple education issue and challenges what we want and what we will accept as a society. It has yielded the odd spectacle of adults trying to protect a generation that, when it comes to data, are making no effort to protect themselves. Its specific threat to education is that it has shaped too much of what we do. Policy and curriculum decisions are made not on educational merit, not even on "hey this is easy to do, anyway," but because we want to structure things for best data generation and collection. But its specific threat to society is that it's horrifyingly invasive and just plain wrong.



They're the face of the reformy status quo, the name that everyone uses as shorthand for the grand complex of all these other things. But how bad are they really? The answer is pretty damn bad, and the earn a "pretty damn bad" both for content and for the package its in. I swear I will go ballistic on the next CCSS apologist who says, "Well, yeah, it's a work in progress," because it's not a work in progress any more than the Washington Monument is a work in progress. If your claim is that you like them just fine except for a few things that need to be tweaked, then you don't like them just fine, because they will never be tweaked. And the content reads, particularly on the ELA side, as if they were written by overly self-confident amateurs (and we know why).

They are used as an excuse for testing and to bolster the idea that school is just vocational training and teaching is just content delivery. However, we do know how to deal with standards. We did it under NCLB. Close the door, keep an eye on the test, ignore the standards and teach as you know best. But other people learned, too, and they've set this game up so that CCSS and tests cannot be decoupled.



Badly designed, badly implemented, poorly executed, and given power way beyond anything that remotely makes educational sense. The Test provides the bad data to be crunched badly for VAM. As with NCLB, The Test is also the true delivery system for dictating curriculum; your curriculum is whatever is on the test.

There is no Test Prep without The Test. There is no loss of weeks of instruction without The Test. And The Test is not so much the teeth of CCSS; it's more like the balls. Cut them off, and the standards become manageable, docile, trainable, less likely to hump your furniture. Okay, maybe not that one, but you get the idea. CCSS apologists like to say that the Standards would be fine if not for the test. No, the standards would still suck. But it would be way easier to ignore them or simply pay paper lip service to them while doing our actual jobs. And there is no arguing simply for a better test. As long as your job is to come up with a standardized test to test the educational status of every single student in the US so that they and their schools can be compared, your result is going to be ann educational abomination, every time.

The other factor here is that the Test is vulnerable, now that every parent in the country is seeing what a ridiculous fiasco it is. It is the factor in the reformy status quo that is most vulnerable, and on which so much of the rest of the worst rests on.


Wednesday, May 28, 2014

What Should Conservatives Be For In Education

Over at the Young Guns network (which--eww-- you guys are politicians, not gunfighters, and you aren't all that young),  Frederick Hess has asked and answered the question, "What should conservatives be for in education?"

It's a good question. Conservatives have let themselves get boxed into a corner on the new test-driven high-stakes privatization status quo in education. On the one hand, the Obama administration has implemented education policies that are like a conservatives Christmas list. On the other hand, lots of conservatives would not accept a bucket of water from the President if they were on fire. The battle for public education has exacerbated the rifts in conservatism in this country, the great divide between small government conservatives, corporate conservatives, and social conservatives. Consequently, conservatives have ended up (and not just in education) as the Big Voice of No.

So what does Hess (who generally hews to a line somewhere between the very-endagered traditional conservative species and corporate conservatism) think that conservatives should be in favor of in the education world? To what should conservatives say Yes?

A Limited Federal Role

Washington doesn’t run schools. All it can do is write rules for schools. Congress can do little more than enact laws that tell federal bureaucrats to write rules for states, which write rules for school districts, which then give directions to schools. Washington can therefore force states and districts to do things, but it cannot make them do those things well. And when it comes to complex enterprises like public schooling (with 50 million students and nealy three and a half million teachers), whether things like teacher evaluation and school “turnarounds” are done matters far less than how they are done. 

I think that's all correct. Conservatives should be for local control with a federal role limited to making local control easy to do.

Yes, some local control situations will result in Poor Choices. Liberals, conservatives, mugwumps, and snapdoodles all have the same problem with freedom-- the nagging certainty that somebody somewhere will use his freedom to make a Poor Choice. But here's the thing. If you're not free to make a Poor Choice, you are not free at all.

Conservatives are supposed to place a high value on personal responsibility. Well, to turn Stan Lee on his head, you can't have great responsibility without having great power. People cannot be responsible for things over which they have no control. Conservatives ought to be saying, "You are smart people. Figure it out," and not "Shut up and do as you're told." Obedience is not supposed to be a traditional conservative value.

So, Conservatives should be in favor of pushing power down to the front lines, to taking the federal foot off the local school board neck.

School Choice

Hess really thinks conservatives should support school choice. I think he's wrong. I used up a bunch of bandwidth explaining why, but the short answer is, school choice is a great imaginary system in the same way that communism is a great imaginary system. But in the real world, it doesn't do any of the things supporters imagine it's going to.

Improving Transparency

I agree that conservatives should support this in the same way that I agree conservatives should support eating and breathing.

Hess thinks we achieve transparency by continuing to release the results of a secret test that nobody is allowed to see, comment on, or offer corrections to. Nope, we should just believe that tests measure exactly what the testmakers say they measure. "You may not look behind the curtain. Just trust the voice of the Wizard of Tests." And there's certainly nothing transparent about the processes used to transform test results into "measures of school quality" such as VAM.

So if conservatives say yes to transparency, let's really say yes. The day after The Test, let's put a copy of the test on line. Let testmakers append an explanation of how the three questions about an armless pineapple determine a child's ability to decode context clues. VAMsters are required to release their special secret formulas to the whole world and then to justify them. And then when it turns out that all of that, from test through data crunch methods, is transparently crap, we can have a transparent conversation about how to do better.

Educational Research

Traditional conservatives have a history of intellectual heft and hardnosed devotion to true facts, so it makes sense for conservatives to support educational research. As long as it's good. Because the problem with educational research is that much of it is bunk, studies that rest on behavior of twenty volunteer sophomores at an ivy league school, or on deep squinty readings of other peoples' research.

But conservatives should be all about getting schools useful data without also telling them how they're supposed to use it.

Constructive Deregulation

Federal and state relationships with educational regulation has always been weird. Representatives who want to plug choice will tout it as a way to escape bad school regulations, but wouldn't another solution be to get rid of the regulations? It's like chaining your dog to the porch and then declaring you need a new dog, because the old one won't run around the yard with you. Just unchain the dog.

So by all means-- conservatives should be at the forefront of opposing and rolling back the giant tide of unfunded mandates that are a-swampin' our schools. (This, sadly, is not what Hess wants to do. Essentially, he advocates restructuring regulation so that it can be used to blackmail states into making choices he likes-- kind of like the current federal administration.)

Teachers and Unions

There are six million adults working in K-12 education in the U.S., and they have an intense, immediate, voting interest in schools. Equally important, teachers are routinely cited as the most reliable source of educational information by parents and voters. Conservatives should not treat
them as simply part of the problem with American education.

And I could quote the rest of this section, too. Clip this puppy and send it to every conservative politician in the country. Teachers are hugely affected by school-related garbage. Teachers really get the frustration of working under fed micromanagement. A great insight here-- teacher participation in unions is driven in large part by a need for protection from a broken system. Teachers are not the enemies of education; they are the front line troops.

Hess does not go so far as to call the union a good thing, but he does recognize that simply attacking it isn't helping anybody. He knows one of the best old anti-union tricks-- people feel far less need for a union when they trust their bosses and feel safe in their jobs.

The Agenda

Hess's conclusion is wrong, but reasoned well, albeit incompletely.

The conservative approach to education should follow the broader pattern of conservative policy thinking: enable the system to experiment with options; enable parents, students, and teachers to choose among those options; and let the failures fall away. 

Here he lets his corporate conservative side get the best of him. First, he argues that DC can create an environment in which businessmen and entrepreneurs can create jobs (which is a pleasant, if as yet unproven, premise), so it can do the same sort of marketty magic for schools. Even if we assume that's not paralleling apples and aardvarks, the market can cheerfully slough of failure; it only results in displaced business leaders and out-of-work laborers who, in a perfect world, will find new jobs. But "let the failures fall away" in education means sloughing off students, and that's just not acceptable.

What Hess Missed

I find Hess's work incomplete. I think there are some other values that traditional conservatives can, and should, also say "Yes" to when it comes to education:

Traditional Institutions

The traditional American public school system took on a task that was unheard of and achieved success that was previously unseen in human history. I know we all have to keep saying that public ed in this country is like a brakeless trackless train driven by a drunken blind elephant, but dang-- we educated more of our people than anyone, whether they were rich or not. We created social mobility. We became one of the first nations to ever rise to global leadership without actually conquering other countries. Conservatives are supposed to love our traditional institutions. When people attack them, conservatives are the ones who stand up with love for tradition. Let's apply some of that love to the American public school tradition of success.


Thomas Paine told a story in The Crisis about a man who, standing with his son, wished for peace in his own time. Paine takes him to task, arguing that we should take the hit now so that our children don't have to. Some conservatives get this, at least rhetorically (e.g. She Who Must Not Be Named's frequent point that we should not make children pay for adult political squabbles).

But when, for instance, we've got corporate interests salivating at the chance to make a buck from education, it should be conservatives saying, "You will not get a cent until you convince us that the interests of our children will be cared for." And no, that doesn't mean simply talking about parental empowerment, because that's just an invitation for the various interests to bury parents under multiple snow jobs.

Does it not bother you, conservatives, that somehow the liberals got custody of the women and children? Be the group that says, "We will take the hit if it's for the good of the next generation. And we expect every corporation interested in education to do the same."


When the Chinese (and a few decades ago, the Japanese) were buying up every chunk of America not tied down or locked in a bank vault (in which case they just buy the bank), it's conservatives who stand up for America and American interests.

So where are conservatives as a foreign country steadily buys up every chunk of American education? Why are conservatives not raising a fuss about how American education is becoming a fully-owned subsidiary of a British company?

Me? I'm not sure what you'd call me. I don't particularly believe in Big Government, but I think there are some things that can't get done any other way. Some days I feel like a Libertarian, but then I remember that they would let their friends die because if you're poor, that's on you. I think anybody who is successful owes a huge debt of gratitude to God (or the universe, if you prefer) and that you pay it back by taking care of the people around you.

So I don't believe that conservatives are automatically evil and/or stupid. I do believe that they could be a positive part of the battle for public education but for some (cough $$$$ cough) reason mostly choose not to be (course, that's true of politicians across the entire spectrum). This list is not a bad place to start.

#AskArne: Teach To Lead To Lead The Teaching Leaders

Bad news: Arne and the US DOE are back with another scrumdiliicious video interview with his royal Arneness.

Good news: It's not all completely ridiculous. And as always, I'll watch it so that you don't have to. More times than usual, it turns out. I like to watch with the sound off to get a better non-verbal read, but the only captions available are the auto-captions, which are apparently set to "Names of Slavic sports heroes." So a few passes, with and without sound, were called for.

Let's Get Started

So we open on the usual graphic. looks like this time we'll be chatting abut Teach To Lead and --wowsers! We are picking up some terrific glare/distortion from the lights that we are shooting directly into. In fact, there are several production value issues that caused me to notice that this video comes from DOED Studio, unlike our previous entries in the series which came from I have absolutely no idea what that might mean, but this one does not quite come up to the previous standards.

Emily Davis has returned as our hostess, an I'm happy to report is simply setting her notes on the table in front of her instead of making that unnerving eyeflick to the teleprompter or cue cards or whatever they were last time. Like all good crusading bloggers (or roosters crowing at the rising sun), I'm just going to go ahead and take credit for that.

At any rate, Emily is looking a little testy, like she was pulled out of a meeting at the last minute to shoot this puppy. But our Emily is a game girl, so after the pro forma thanking of Arne for showing up at his own gig, she reminds him that he promised last time to talk about Teach to Lead. I am excited. At last we will hear hat this program is about!

Not Just Yet

The first words out of Arne's mouth are to the effect that we are still looking for good ideas for this (according to the captions "So we're still very much working through in need the best ideas some folks around," but that turns out to be inaccurate). And now-- wait-- this deserves its own heading

Arne Says Something That Isn't Entirely Stupid

Arne lays out the problem. If you want to get ahead in the teaching biz, if you want to get ahead either in terms of responsibility and pay, you have to leave the classroom and become an administrator, which isn't so much getting ahead in teaching as leaving teaching. I remember somebody telling me years ago that teaching is a field where you start in the middle and stay there for the rest of your career.

So Arne is thinking that teachers should get a platform from which to lead without having to leave what they love to do-- teach in a classroom. 

So Arne has said a true thing here. It takes me back to the days when I was young and happy and thinking that I hadn't used my Presidential election vote on somebody who was going to shaft me. Back then, Arne would say good things and I would think, "Hey, great!" Now I just wait for the other shoe to drop. The big, stupid, disappointing shoe.

So, Can We Know How Teach To Lead Works, Now?

Switching back to audio, because Arne just said "I'm Szekely." No, what he actually said was some Government-speak about driving student achievement by empowering teachers and nurturing the next generation and Emily, God bless her, closes her eyes like trying to will away a piercing headache, then does some spirited nodding. I swear, when and if I ever start behaving like a legitimate journalist, I'm going to hunt her down and interview her.

And Arne is now just spitballing ideas, and I'm beginning to suspect that we haven't done anything about this program except name it. So maybe these Teach To Lead Teacher Leaders will work across department lines, or maybe just half time in the classroom, or work as teacher mentors.

And now I'm distracted again because the color balance just shifted from overly yellow to blue-tinted. Emily she loves how he says that some of this is already happening and we're yellow, and bam, now we're blue, and now I'm wondering just how many takes of this thing Emily had to suffer through, and if that has contributed to her facial expression which seems to say, "If I find your socks on the sofa one more damn time I am going to feed them to you through your nose, sumbitch."

She's actually saying that she's excited to take a look at these people and she kind of bobbles the line and then sticks the landing with "Sowhyareyoudoingths?"

Another Chance To Tell Us What's Going On

 Arne is gazing down and to his right and looking kind of like he has pulled an allnighter to learn his lines. Which include "bifurcation"! Nice job, somebody. It makes no sense to him that teaching and leadership are split, and I'm thinking this would be a good thought to have the next time he's convening a gathering of education leaders without calling a single teacher to the infamous table. Cause you know what would give teachers a leadership role?? Being treated like important and experienced experts in their field by the bureaucrats who run education in this country. There you go, Arne-- problem solved.

What (Arne muses) if we had teachers who were so passionate about teaching that they said, "We want to run schools ourselves." Why, Arne wonders, aren't there more of those opportunities. I don't know Arne. Maybe because teachers don't have school-launching piles of cash like your hedge fund buddies.

Emily Amps Up The Pressure

"So how will Teach to Lead work," she asks, with a facial expression that says, "So explain again how the dog ate your homework." Will she get an answer?

This is "very early on" and we want "everyone who's watching to shape this." And he starts talking about a network of board certified teachers and Emily has a steely smile that says, "I am exhausted and tired of doing twelve takes and you have no effing idea, do you." But Arne drones on about extending these opportunities (you know-- the ones he hasn't actually named or described yet) systemically, and we'll be talk to schools and districts and states and what I imagine will be saying is, "So, have you guys got any ideas of how to pull this off?" No-- he's going to say "How will you extend these opportunities? And if you don't have anything to extend, how will you create it?" And I think there is no longer any doubt that there IS no Teach To Lead program-- just a title, and somebody else is supposed to figure it out.

But he's convinced that "this" will keep great teachers in the profession longer and will provide great support, somehow, for somebody. And mentoring, and student achievement. And-- honestly, he speaks pure garble for a second and emerges on "there should be no natural enemies." It'll be a win-win-win. And I am thinking, Good heavens, what do the takes they didn't keep look like?

Emily Is From Earth, Arne Is From Bizarro World

Emily says she likes leading from the classroom, but she can imagine the teacher-leader role being abused by an administrator (her example-- admin hands her a walkie-talkie and says "Go run bus duty.") This strikes me as a legitimate concern.

Arne's answer, however, is one more piece of evidence that he has never spent any time inside a school other than as a Visiting Dignitary. "A teacher's voice has to be heard," he says, and so he advises in that sort of situation "teachers have to say no, that is not acceptable."

Arne is in luck, because we already have a word for that kind of teacher voice, and it is "insubordination," and in most if not all school districts it is rewarded by something we like to call "firing." Arne, let me give you the same talk we give teachers who complain to the union about their job assignment: During the school day, by contract, we are "subject to assignment." If your principal says your job is to pick up gum wrappers in the hall, that's your job. It's a dumb use of you, but that's your job. And if he tells you to do that, you comply first and grieve later. Because refusing direct orders is insubordination and grounds for dismissal.

But Arne says this can't be business as usual, must break the mold, and can you break the mold if you don't even know what the mold is, if you can't even find the mold, and should you break the mold if you don't even know what the mold is for? Some places have an "intuitive sense" of how to do this, which is good because clearly nobody is going to get direction from the USDOE, but they aren't doing it "at scale" and one of our mold-breaking unusual business principles at the USDOE is that it's no good unless everybody can do exactly the same thing.

Arne's Wandering Again

"We just need to create many more different types of career ladders," says Arne, "or lattices, to use a different word" (and he's correct-- that is a different word). And Emily is nodding her head with her eyes closed and lips pulled tight and I imagine she's thinking "Sweet mother of God can I please go back to my classroom now?"

But Arne rolls on to some sweet, sweet reiteration about how talent shouldn't have to become an administrator when it doesn't want to. And then we fade out, because after the audible jump click that we heard earlier (seriously, I wasn't going to mention it, but this thing gets sloppier and sloppier) we're just throwing up our hands and fading cuts together.

Flipping the Script!

When we return, it's Crazy Times, because Arne is going to ask Emily a question! He refers to "you guys," the second reference to some sort of team that Emily belongs to. But Arne asks Emily (who is now leaning back in her chair as if she smells something) to describe what teacher leadership looks like today, and, if we're successful (at doing this thing with the stuff by the guy in the place) blurggle blufgle look like three, five years from now.

Emily feels that unfortunately teacher leadership right now feels like volunteering (and that is directly at Arne, then she looks off wistfully) and she would like it to be synonymous with leadership. Her example-- currently her principal sends her to a conference and she comes back and is told to talk to her peers, and she envisions coming back to talk to the principal about changes that could be made in the school, and BAM, twelve points for Emily, because how many of us have brought back transformative (even in tiny ways) ideas from conferences that die because for them to truly flourish, admins would have to take steps, and they don't.

But Emily would like to bring things back and talk to adminis and teachers and community members and actually change how the school works. She talks about this for a while, and wit animation and intensity that suggests she's been thinking about this and talking to people about it and getting exactly nowhere. Arne sits like a statue, specifically a statue of Homer Simpson thinking "Umm, Donuts."

Arne Is a Boy

Arne loves that (yeah, whatever, girl), although he doesn't say anything else except to dis conferences as outdated ideas and teachers should be getting their PD from other teachers, and Emily looks down at her paper and bites her lip like "Yeah, effing ignored on this yet again."

She hops back on after some spirited nodding to indicate that this is why she's excited because teachers can look at their own context and create action-oriented leadership and build those structures within their own schools.

And We're Out

The ending has the same rushed, harried feeling as the beginning, like we're trying to nail this last take at midnight so that the DOED video guy can stay up till three editing it. Emily is excited about this and that and she thanks Arne for showing up and also, thanks for his leadership (after which Arne unaccountably says "actually hard work" though so many clauses just piled on that it's hard to say what exactly he thinks the hard work is.)

No We Still Don't Know

And six minutes after we started, we still have no idea what, exactly, the Teach To Lead Leader Teachers Teaching Leaders To Teach program is supposed to be. The website ( offers some examples, but mostly more smoke and mirrors and the kind of empty rhetoric that is a Duncan specialty. It's possible that the world may just never know.

But this clip did underline one aspect of teacher leadership-- in most cases, it still rests on the permission of the administration. You can only be a leader if your principal okays it. Arne has talked about more money and more career advancement. What he hasn't talked about is a mechanism for getting teachers more power. Until they solve that mystery, Emily will nod her head in vain.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Arguing with Your Brother-in-Law (about ccss)

"I'm arguing with my brother-in-law (or uncle or cranky neighbor or postal delivery person) about the Common Core, and I need some points to really shut him up."

Can we help? Lots of folks have answered this need, and done it well (in particular, I recommend Anthony Cody's "Ten Colossal Errors.") But your brother-in-law may require something a bit more pithy. Let me offer some suggestions.

1) College and Career Ready Is Not Enough

In its very first sentences, Common Core redefines the purpose of education. It declares that the one and only purpose of education is to get students ready for a job (because in CCSS-world, college is just a way to get higher-level job training). That's it. Anything else we ever thought education was for-- fostering well-rounded humans, preparing good citizens, allowing students to reach better understanding of themselves  and their place in the world-- that is all thrown out. Education has one purpose- to prepare students for work.

Not only that, but CCSS also redefines what "college and career ready" means-- it means English and math. That's it. Want to be a musician or a lion-tamer or a physical therapist or a nurse or a machinist or a advertising executive? Your preparation is exactly the same as every other profession, and it's all about English and math.

"College and career ready by studying English and math," is a sad, tiny redefining of what it means to be an educated person.

2) There Is No Flexibility

"Well, teachers will just adjust. After all, the Core are a floor, not a ceiling. They may not be perfect, but I'm sure they'll get better."

But CCSS allows no flexibility. no adjustment, no room to move. There is no process for review and revision, no number to call with your suggestions. The Core will not get better. They will not change. The only improvements  will be made outside the system; the only teachers who tweak the Core will be those who go rogue.

The Core are copyrighted. Nobody is allowed to change them, ever. You will need to remind your brother-in-law of this may times.

3) The Standards Are Bad

Amateur-hour bad. I can point you at long, involved explanations of exactly what is wrong with them, but the short explanation is that we know many things about how different humans at different stages of development learn how to read and write, and the Core ignores all of them. "Well, just add in all that stuff you know," your BIL says? Go back and reread #2, I say.

4) Standards Don't Do Anything

Some folks keep saying that CCSS will help us close the achievement gap. They have no evidence. Not only do we not have evidence that standards close the gap, but we also have evidence that they don't.

Lots of states, most states, have had standards in place for a while now, and this achievement gap that we keep talking about inside the state. Every single state has a pocket of urban poor and a pocket of suburban wealth. If standards helped with that gap, would we not see that within states?

In other words, if Dunlevania had no, or poor, standards, we would expect to find a huge gap between its urban poor and its wealthy. That could be compared to South Borgia with its super-duper states standards, and a much smaller gap between its lower and upper student achievers. But we don't see that. If there is a secret formula for using state standards to shrink the achievement gap, nobody has discovered it yet.

Or, we could look at international achievers and see that, hey, this nation with great test results also has high strict standards, and this country with lousy scores has none.

The international scene and the fabled fifty-state standards hodge podge should have provided ample opportunity to demonstrate real linkage between standards and educational achievement. And yet, chirping crickets. There is absolutely no reason to believe that national standards will improve a thing.

5) The Core Turns Schools Backwards

Under the Core, students exist to serve schools. A school needs a student to put out certain numbers, show certain results, perform in a manner that serves the needs of the school itself. Witness who schools have tried to enforce the taking of The Test-- not because they think Junior will have his growth stunted if he doesn't take the PARCC, but because the school needs his numbers. What a student wants or needs, what a student expects to get out of education-- none of that matters. The student has to show that the school is succeeding, and that can only happen if the student performs as the state says he must. What the student wants is simply unimportant under the Core.


1) Wacky assignments

We really need to leave this one behind. Bad math problems, confusing readings, misprints-- these have been around since the dawn of time. If CCSS went away tomorrow, there would still be terrible number line problems and writing assignments that asked students to imagine things that their parents disagree with. Do not offer that up as a reason to revolt unless you want the revolution continuing in your classroom long after CCSS have been swept away.

2) CCSS Was Created By Corporations and Profiteers

Yes, that aspect burns my toast, too. But it's not a winner in arguments with civilians, unless you want to try to argue that you would reject the best education program in the world if it came from non-teachers. Diane Ravitch-- not a classroom teacher. Founders of BATS-- not classroom teachers.

The origin story of CCSS is important because it explains why the standards are such a hash, and because understanding the purpose of CCSS (making a buttload of money) helps make sense of how it unfolded. But something civilians seem to get that teachers are reluctant to admit-- all that stuff about profiteering and backroom deals and underhanded double deals could be true AND it could also be true that the standards are great. So don't argue that the Core has a bad pedigree-- argue that it is bad education. The pedigree just explains where the suck came from.

3) Federal Overreach

Again, I agree that this is a problem with the Core, but it's not necessarily a winner when arguing with your BIL.

The two political wings are united in one opinion-- federal power should be used to make people act as they should. Conservatives and liberals alike get this. Tea Partiers are perfectly happy with federal overreach that keeps The Gays from being, you know, all gay and stuff. Liberals hate activist judges unless they are reaching the correct conclusion.

"Federal overreach" is an argument add-on. It will get people more steamed about something they already hate, but it will never make them turn against something they actually like.

Good luck. You have till the Fourth of July family picnic to get your arguments in order.

Test (In)Security

One of the features of High Stakes Testing is a level of security usually associated with large bales of money, important state secrets, and the recipe for Bush's Baked Beans. On facebook, in the category of "Ethical Dilemmas Nobody Ever Thought She'd Face," teachers are arguing about whether it's okay to photograph or copy any of the PARCC or SBA exams. I have a thought-- but first, let me tell you a story.

Forty years ago I took a biology course called BSCS. That stands for "Biological Sciences Curriculum Studies," though we generally interpreted it as "BS College Style."  To this day, the tests from that course are the toughest tests I've ever taken. I still remember sections of those tests (a village where they make pottery compared to a single-celled organism, an experiment on a kangaroo rat) because they were so challenging. And these very tough, very challenging tests came with zero security.

In fact, we took the tests as take-home tests. People called their college siblings, friends who were taking college biology. We had test parties, and everybody came and hammered out the answers. And then, on the due date, we handed the test in. And then we took the same test (with questions rearranged) in class.

The tests were so perfectly built around the ability to think and reason scientifically, to interpret data, to build useful analogies, that no security was needed (and no, everybody did not get an A every time-- not even close). So here's what I think about high stakes test security:

If your test needs super-secret high-and-tight lock down security, it is a crappy test.

This applies to classroom teachers as well. The better I get at assessment, the less I need test security. My students pass on year after year, like tales of the Loch Ness Bigfoot, tales of various assignments that may crop up in my class (though the assignment list does vary from year to year). It doesn't matter. If I've done my job well, there is no place on God's green earth to go look up The Answer.

The PARCC and SBA make a lot of noise about how tight security must be in order to protect the validity of the test. Baloney. Aren't these tests supposed to be impervious to test prep, completely inaccessible to the world of memorization and rote? What these folks want to protect is their delicate ears and eyes, protect them from the onslaught of outrage and ridicule that would follow if the general public and professional educators got a good look at the test.

If your model of a test is a surprise, a moment in your course when you jump out from behind a bush a try to play "gotcha" with your students, you are doing it wrong. Tests should be an opportunity to apply knowledge, to ramp the whole process up one final step that really seats the knowledge or skill in the students' brains.

But the underlying assumption in the high-stakes test-driven movement is that there are skadzillions of bad teachers and the students they have failed to teach out there, skadZILLIONS of them, and somehow they are sneaking by and we are going to have to outsmart them so that we can catch them in their consummate suckiness. The high-stakes test-driven movement is not about education-- it's about finding proof, somehow, that public schools are failing. It is nothing but a game of "gotcha."

The super-duper secret security that surrounds the assessments is further proof of their suckiness. And, for what it's worth, the ethical dilemma of copying one of the exams is about the same as the ethical dilemma of photographing a policeman who is beating a suspect.

Conservatives Don't Really Like School Choice

Conservatives often claim they are big fans of school choice. I think they're wrong. I don't mean that I want to disagree with them using fluffy progressive liberal arguments. I mean that in the world of conservative values and goals, school choice really doesn't fit. Let me explain.

Resources and Inefficiency

One of the assumptions of every choice system is that a choice system can operate for the same amount of money-- or less-- than the current system. This is clearly false.

Which will be more inexpensive and efficient-- educating 100 students in one school , or educating them in ten separate ten-student schools, each with its own group of administrative employees and each with its own physical plant and infrastructure. "We're in serious financial trouble, so let's take our set of elementary schools and break them into even more elementary schools," said no school board ever.

There are some functions that government can perform more efficiently. Nobody suggests that we open the door to any contractor who wants to set up a competing system of interstate highways. Nor do we open up each new war to bids from any private army that wants to go in there. Okay, actually that one does happen a little, and you'll notice that when it does, things get even more expensive really quickly. And when government does allow a spirit of competition, it doesn't work out all that well. We are still trying to fix the massive disconnect between competing intelligence agencies that made it easy to pull off the 9/11 attacks.

I agree that given infinite resources, a multiple service provider system would look a lot different. But that's not what we've got and it's not what we're ever going to have. School choice requires multiple school systems to live as cheaply as one, and they can't. Yes, there are charters who claim they can do it. So far, they are all liars; any lower operating costs they purport to achieve are the result of simply tossing high-cost students out of the system, and if we're willing to throw away the expensive children, we can make public schools run way cheaper tomorrow.

No, a school choice system is no financial winner. We end up with waste and inefficiency and duplication of services, and we end up with school systems that either don't have enough resources, or we simply soak the taxpayers for more money.

Big Government

Because there are not enough resources to go around, we will need some Wise and Powerful Wizard to divvy them all up. That wizard is going to be the state or federal government. For better or worse, under current market conditions starting a new competing school system to compete with the public system will be like starting a new software company to compete with Microsoft Windows. The cost of admission is way too high unless Big Government gets involved.

The only way to extend the reach of choice schools will be to extend the reach of big government. And since the choice schools will be accepting government money, they will be accepting government oversight. Yes, I know they've battled it back for now, but they will lose that war. The government will declare, as it has with public schools, that it has a responsibility to see that it's money was spent appropriately. Some choice school will get caught doing something spectacularly egregiously stupid, and big gummint will have its opening.

You know what a good example of small, local government is? Locally elected school boards. Yes, many are less than perfect. But at what point did conservatives join the chorus of, "We need to just tell the electorate what to do. It's for their own good."

Competition Does Not Foster Quality Products

I've written about this before, comparing charter schools to cable channels. The big money is in the big markets, so the big players compete for the muddled middle. Education has two particular problems-- there's not much product differentiation, and a big chunk of your market is people who don't really want your product.

The lack of product differentiation (particularly if all schools are using the same CCSS to teach to the same Big Tests) means that the game will belong to the person with the best marketing. Trot out your own examples here (I like Betamax vs. VHS) of superior products that did NOT win the marketplace because they were out-marketed by somebody else.

In a choice system, schools will compete, but not by being the highest quality educators. They'll offer programs that appeal to students who don't find school appealing ("Welcome to No Homework High!!"), and they will offer really cool and glitzy marketing. You may say, "Fine. Let the jerks send their kids to crappy schools and that will just leave my kids at Really Quality High with the other cool kids."

Except. First of all, Really Quality High has to accept you. Every admission's decision will be a marketing decision. If your child is too expensive, we don't want him. If he is going to screw with our scores, we're sending him back to you. Here's your competition-- you will compete with other parents to pull strings, make it rain, and otherwise score your kid a seat at Exclusive High (pro tip: you won't compete by making your kid suddenly smarter or a better student, because you can't do much about those things, and I bet you won't say, "Oh well, you're just not as smart as the Smith kid, so we'll settle for Average Shmoe High.")

And second of all, Really Quality High has to exist. In the early days of cable, there were some really classy channels. I liked Bravo for broadway shows and Arts&Entertainment for its highbrow culture offerings. But there wasn't enough of me to make those approaches profitable, so now Bravo and A&E broadcast the same basic sort of dreck as every other channel.

Competition Does Not Foster Competition

One of my favorite history books is The Robber Barons, a history of the great money-grubbers of the 19th century written by a 1930s-era socialist. Matthew Josephson really wants to hate these guys, but at the same time, he clearly admires them because they are economic collectivists. Rockefeller, Carnegie, et al didn't really have a beef with centralized control of an entire industry, as long as they were the people in charge.

Unbridled competition leads to centralized control. Let, say, the phone company just suck up every other phone company, and you get the telephone monopoly of the 1970s, run by a corporation just as impersonal, uncaring, inefficient, unresponsive and insulated from competition as any sector ever run by Big Gummint. What does it take to keep such monopolistic centralization from happening? Why, hello there Big Gummint!

You think this won't happen in choice schools? Of course it will-- it already is. Pearson is already assembling a vertically integrated powerhouse of Rockefellerian proportions (and do I need to remind you that they aren't even American, that as upset as we were when the Chinese were buying up America bit by bit, Pearson has already done much the same with American education), and in may states, the only charter players are the big players. And like every power centralizer before them, they did not conquer their world simply by being so much better than everyone else. They use money and influence and, when necessary, the tool of Big Government to get their way.

This is not meritocracy in action. This is corporations and big government teaming up to display exactly why conservatives who rail against Big Government have a point.

Caveats and Etc

Are there pockets of charter schools who have avoided all these pitfalls? Absolutely. But look at today's corporate-dominated landscape and tell me if you really think there's room for a small, creative edupreneur.

Do I have ideas for alternatives? You know I do, but this is already running long. But conservatives-- you need to stop promoting school choice, because you don't really want it. You just haven't figured that out yet.

Monday, May 26, 2014

I'm Not Blogging Today

I realize that title launches me into some sort of post-modern metablogging fogbank, but hey-- it's the 21st century.

Shortly I'll head out the door to march with a 158-year-old community band in a small town Memorial Day parade, followed by a program in the city park. Because this is all within walking distance, my wife and I will stroll home afterwards, stopping to visit her family.

Along the way I will see and talk to friends, neighbors, family, students, parents of students and people I know in the community (some will fill multiple roles on that list). We will pause to honor those soldiers who have passed (and who, regardless of the arguable historic truth of events, did what they thought was right), and we will honor veterans like my brother-in-law (because you shouldn't have to wait to be appreciated until after you're dead). There's talk of steak and a grill. And then I'm going to psyche myself up for the last two weeks of school.

It's good, I think, to mindfully step out of one corner of one's life and into another, to remind yourself what you want your life to be like, to be about, and to plug solidly, fully, into each community to which you belong. So today I'm stepping away from the computer and into this small town post card that I live in. You enjoy your day, too. I will see you tomorrow.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

CAP Serves Some CCSS Baloney

The Center for American Progress came down hard for the Common Core last week, providing yet another field test for the 100% baloney sandwich that is the Core's urban poor talking point menu.

In "The Common Core Is An Opportunity for Educational Equity,", CAP asserts, "The Common Core State Standards hold promise for low-income students, students of color, English language learners, and students with disabilities, who traditionally perform significantly worse than their peers." And you know that this is a serious position paper because it has footnotes and stuff. What it doesn't have is sense.

Quality Control

The standards will act as a "quality-control check," and let's just stop right there, because do you know, CAPsters, how a quality control check works? Because this seems to be a point on which many CCSS supporters are really fuzzy.

Quality control does not mean that every piece that rolls down the assembly line is now suddenly up to standard. What quality control means is that we check every piece on the line, and when we find pieces that don't meet the standard we throw them away. Quality control does not mean every toaster will be perfect-- it means that every toaster that makes it out of the factory will be perfect.

Using Common Core standards as quality control can only mean one thing-- we will find the students who don't meet the standards and we will throw them away. This is really, really wrong and completely counter to the point of American public education and I can't believe I even have to type that out, but apparently I do.

Out of the Stone Age

Students will explore concepts deeply, work together to solve complex problems, and engage in project-based learning—instead of focusing on worksheets and rote memorization. 

Yes, because no teacher in the history of teacherdom ever knew how to teach concepts or cooperative learning or anything except worksheets before CCSS.

Highlighting Educational Gaps

In this section, CAP notes that low-income students and students of color are less likely to have access to higher-level courses, are more likely to have inexperienced or out-of-area teachers, and along with ELL and students with disabilities are less likely to graduate on time. They have footnotes, and I have no reason to doubt that these are all true facts.

Students of Color and Low Income Students Have Lower College Outcomes

Fewer of these students attend college and a high percentage of them need remedial courses. Again, I believe that by and large this is all true.

And Now That We've Wound Up, The Pitch!

So having established the need, I expect we're now going to make a case for how the implementation of CCSS will help address these issues and-- wait! What? Ummm... no, this is the whole conclusion, verbatim:

The Common Core will improve education quality for all students—particularly traditionally underserved students. Raising standards and preparing all students for college and careers will help reduce the disparities identified for low-income students, students of color, ELLs, and students with disabilities.

But-but-but--HOW!! Fairy dust! Magic beans! I mean, hell, I can type "Eating a baloney sandwich every day will make me grow tall, handsome and wise," but that doesn't make it so! Are you not even going to TRY to explain how Common Core will help? Not even try a teensy weensy bit??

Because-- and I don't think you need me to tell you this, but I want you to know that I know-- those are serious issues that you've laid out. Inequality of opportunity, of education, of employment, or health care-- this is a bit of a national shame. The fact that schools intended for the urban poor are underserved, underresourced, underfunded, understaffed-- I mean, all those things you listed as gapos and problems are things that we really ought to be trying to fix.

But here we are in the hospital ER looking at a patient who has been hit by a truck, who is broken and bleeding, and you want to offer him a magical baloney sandwich??!! Come on, CAP. You can do better than this.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Will "AP" Stand for "Assessment Prep"?

In Which I Have To Take Back Some of the Nice Things I Said About AP Courses

When I last wrote about the AP courses, I praised the looseness of the course design. I should have known better. Alert readers pointed me at the news from AP-land; apparently the looseness is now seen as a design flaw to be fixed.

Some courses, like the Literature and Composition, still sum up the basics in a half-dozen pages. But courses are being redesigned. AP US History is due to roll out new and shiny next fall, and its course summary is now close to 100 pages. Why the added detail?

The redesign of the AP U.S. History course and exam accomplishes two major goals: it maintains AP U.S. History's strong alignment with the knowledge and skills taught in introductory courses at the college level, and also offers teachers the flexibility to focus on specific historical topics, events, and issues in depth.

Yes, by providing a more specific and detailed course outline, the College Board folks will be giving teachers more flexibility, much like a straightjacket provides more freedom and ignorance is strength. In fact, "the lack of specificity put pressure on many teachers: uncertain about what the AP Exam would assess, they attempted to cover every detail of American history."

The AP folks have been working to erase some of that uncertainty for a while now. If you haven't looked under the AP hood in a while, you may not know that for the past five years or so, the College Board has required that all wannabe AP teachers must submit their syllabus for an audit annually. If that seems like a great deal of work, the College Board offers sample annotated syllabi-- in other words, you can now get AP courses in a can. In the case of AP History, it's a nineteen page can.

But if we look under the new extended course framework hood, what do we find? Some conservatives, like the folks at the Heartland Institute, a righty thinky tanky, think we find a newly biased version of history. The framework breaks the course into four areas. Let's look at each:

I. Historical Thinking Skills

These are just what the title implies-- various skills useful in organizing and interpreting historical information, like being able to determine plausible cause and effect linkage. I would be happy to teach this stuff. No problems here.

II. Thematic Learning Objectives

Now it gets dicey. Whether we're talking about the history of the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire or the history of Bob and Ethel's tempestuous dating relationship, we're going to make some judgments about what themes/factors drive the narrative. My college history professor said 19th century European history was all about war, nationalism, class,, something else. (What do you want from me? It was a long time ago!) And that in itself was a judgment.

I was going to get specific here, but there are seven large thematic objectives and each is broken down into several more for a grand total of  fifty specific learning objectives, for example:

Analyze how changing religious ideals, Enlightenment beliefs, and republican thought shaped the politics, culture, and society of the colonial era through the early Republic

Fifty of those, so basically one a week. Holy smokes.

III. The Concept Outline

Uh-oh. Here's the part that's going to start to piss people off.

This breaks down the historical periods that teachers are supposed to use, and provides the conclusions that the students are supposed to reach. For instance:

Reinforced by a strong belief in British racial and cultural superiority, the British system enslaved black people in perpetuity, altered African gender and kinship relationships in the colonies, and was one factor that led the British colonists into violent confrontations with native peoples. 

This outline is exceptionally specific, and notable for what it does and doesn't include. It favors economic factors, and is not very interested in social or cultural matters. It isn't interested in military history at all-- wars appear briefly but little is said about how they are fought and won. The outline was also clearly not the product of any historians who believe in the Great Man theory of history-- very few individuals appear at all. Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan are barely seen in relation to the historic moments associated with them. The closer we get to modern times, the more evident are the attempts to touch all the properly balanced or politically correct, depending on how you feel about such things. We cover Japanese-American internment camps, but not the national collective actions to support the fight against the Nazis. And if you think God helped make America great, you will not love the new AP version.

I'm not prepared to argue that any of these things absolutely need to be included in a summary of US history. It's very much open to debate, or at least it's open to debate any place other than in an AP History class. In this large section, the AP folks have imposed one specific reading of American history. Here comes the straightjacket of flexibility for AP History teachers.

Speaking of which, the section begins with a nice outline that tells us how much instructional time to devote to each period, and how much of the test will cover the indicated span.

IV. An intro to the test itself. Let's let that be.

This is going to anger some folks on the right (and it should anger the left as well). The same people who think creationism should be taught in science class will object to this outline's omission of America's exceptional God-given role in the world, or the implicit criticism of America in some of the goals. They are wrong. Some things just have no basis in fact and there's no reason for us to teach them in school.

But they will be right about one thing-- they will call this course outline biased, and in that they will be correct. And when studying history, I don't care whether your bias is widely accepted or Crazypants McFringebob-- part of the whole point of doing history is the give-and-take, back-and-forth, argue-and-support of differing viewpoints about exactly what happened, why it happened, why it mattered, and what happened next because of it. Real authentic history is about the never-ending wrestling matches over these questions-- not the learning to accept the answers that a current authority offers.

Beyond that-- remember back at the top when the College Board said that one benefit of this reboot would be more time to study pieces of history in greater depth? Can we talk about the history of coming up with that claim, because it had to have involved being on some historically strong drugs. Who knew that AP would turn into the class where teachers said, "Boy, I'd like to continue this discussion, but it's Tuesday and we have to move on the next unit right now."

Somehow the College Board (now run by our old buddy David Coleman) has taken AP US History from a loose framework for college-level inquiry and deep freewheeling study and exploration to a hog-tied tightly dictated connect-the-dots learn by numbers course.

But teachers can rest easy, knowing that they will now be able to do a better than ever job of prepping students to take the US History AP test.

When Data Are Not Data

My favorite story of the last week ran in Valerie Strauss's "The Answer Sheet" on the Washington Post site and dealt with Arne Duncan's reaction to the increasingly loud chorus of VAM debunkers.

The research showing VAM as ineffective is piling up. Research by Polikoff and Porter eviscerated, finding no real predictive power and suggesting that what VAM measures is not what we mean when we say "good teaching." That study was particularly telling because it had large piles of Gates dollars piled up behind it.

Perhaps my favorite VAM study was performed by Marianne P. Bitler who showed that VAM predicts a teacher's effect on student test score growth about as well as it predicts the teacher's effect on the student's height.

People who play with this type of statistical analysis have been warning that VAM was not solid for five years now, but now in addition to the professional opinions of people who do this sort of thing for a living, we have actual studies by actual scientists with actual-- what is that stuff called? Oh yeah-- DATA!

Don't we love data now? Isn't the whole foundation of the VAM system the idea that it's cold, hard data, with like numbers and stuff, so we know it has to be right. So wouldn't the US DOE want to make use of all this handy data that's rolling in about VAM? Here's the response that Strauss reports from the DOE:

Including measures of how well students are learning as part of multiple indicators of educator effectiveness is part of a set of long-needed changes that will improve classroom learning for kids. Growth measures are a significant improvement over the system that existed before, which failed to produce useful distinctions in teacher performance. Growth measures — including value-added measures — focus attention on student learning and show progress. While these measures are better than what existed before, educators will continue to improve them, and sharp, critical attention from the research community can help.

Strauss is a real journalist, so she simply reports this quote with little comment. I am not a real journalist, so I can go ahead and say this-- what a load of bullshit.

It is a distilled version of the Reformster narrative. We know (because, you know, we just know) that there are a whole ton of terrible teachers out there. The old evaluation system doesn't show the existence of these gazillion horrible educators, so the old system must not work. We will look for a new system that does work, and we will have proof that it works when it confirms our belief that a huge number of American school teachers suck. VAM may not work any better than tea leaves or reading the bumps on a frog, but it tells us that many teachers suck, and that's good enough for us and certainly an improvement of the old system.

The spokesperson also indicated that the US DOE keeps track of the research.

So bottom line-- Duncan's office knows that VAM is crap. They just don't particularly care. Because data are only data when they say what you want them to say.


The US DOE, among its many promotional and marketing activities, has been pushing hard for AP classes. This week they aimed loud praise noises at the state of Colorado for increasing AP participation in the state. The laudatory article declares success because more students take and pass the AP courses.

But before parents and students get too excited about the spreading and blooming of AP courses, they should remember a few simple facts:

AP Is A Business, Not A Public Service

AP tests are a product of the College Board, the same people who bring you the SAT, and although the name seems to suggest a group of college scholars who gather together on some altruistic mission to guard the gateways of higher education for the Greater Good, the fact is that the College Board is just a business intent on making a buck and keeping its market share (it is also currently run by David Coleman, one of the co-authors of the Common Core).

Every time a teacher goes to a seminar to learn about designing an AP course, the AP folks make money. Every time a school buys AP materials, the AP folks make money. And every time a student takes the AP test, the AP folks make money-- a bunch of money. 

It was a great day for these folks when they hopped on the Education Reform Gravy Train and became the Official Education Course Product of Race to the Top. In Pennsylvania, for instance, a school's rating factors in how many AP courses are offered. This is extraordinary, like Ford getting the government to rate school district excellence based on how many Ford school buses they used.

You May Get Absolutely Nothing For Your $$

AP stands for Advanced Placement. The whole point of AP is supposed to be that you take the exam, get a good score, and your college gives you either course credit or a higher placement. In other words, you get to either replace English for Dopes with a higher level course, or you get credit for the course without ever having to take it. The second option is appealing to students; it's not quite so appealing to colleges, because it amounts to giving away free credits. And here's the important point to remember--

What you get, or not, is completely at the discretion of your college or university.

Many schools prefer that you learn things their way. (“We want a Dartmouth education to take place at Dartmout.”) They may not grant AP credit within your major (which is likely to be your strongest AP showing), and they definitely may not be in the mood to give away credits for free. The College Board folks pooh-pooh these sorts of trends, just as they pooh-pooh the plummeting market share of the SAT test and the growing tendency of colleges not to require it, but if you think dropping $90 on the AP test is going to pay off in college, you may be better off buying your kid a nice outfit to wear to the interview.

This chart can talk about the students who "qualified for college credit" but it's baloney. Nobody is qualified for college credit until the college offers it. (The chart also provides a quick guide to how huge a financial windfall Race to the Top has provided for the College Board).

Is There No Value?

One of the odd positives in the AP marketing scam is leverage for teachers. Where administration might in the past simple axed any requests for resources by classroom teachers, the AP marketing boondoggle gives teachers a new magic power. "Well, if you want to offer AP Basketweaving," says the teacher, "You are going to have to give us double-lab periods and buy these super-duper books."

AP also has the virtue of being a loose framework. When we "added" our first AP English course, we only had to perform some minor tweakage on the honors program we already had in place. But now, you know, it was AP!!!!!!! (use your super-hero voice) and so it was totally awesome. I used to call AP the alligator on a polo shirt, and little has happened to change my mind. It's savvy marketing, but it comes without handcuffs or a program in a box. I guess it says something about the current state of education that it qualifies as one of the less malignant tumors growing on the heart of schools these days.

[Update: Annnnd I had to take back some of those nice words about the loose framework almost immediately.]

What! Already?

The end of May is always hard. Tests, prom, yearbook distribution, my birthday, and suddenly it's finals and summer vacation. Already? Seriously?

I know there are teachers who count down to the first day of summer vacation like it's Christmas morning. I am not one of those teachers. For me it's more like the countdown of a ticking bomb.

There has never been enough time in the year. When I started teaching, it was my own fault-- I just couldn't find the most efficient rhythm for getting through everything I wanted to teach my students. With every year, I got better, cutting away the chunks of unit that didn't really serve my students well, learning when to lean hard and when to lay back before I burned them out, discovering how to dovetail units and piggyback goals. And I became so much faster at grading, assessing, general paper turnaround.

But at the same time, more has been piled on. Testing and pre-testing and test-prepping began to eat larger and larger chunks of the school year, and no matter how hard I juggled, I had to drop some balls so that I could manage the chainsaws that our Education Leaders were throwing at me. This is part of the gig, one of those parts they don't tell you about in teacher school.

They don't tell you you'll never have enough time to do everything you know you need to do. They don't tell you just how finite are the 180 (or so) days that you have with your students. They don't tell you how summer vacation can be rejuvenating, but also disorienting.

Every June, every teacher loses his job. Most of us know we'll have a new job in the fall, but it will be a slightly different job, working with a different group of people doing work that's similar, but not exactly the same because the conditions and students will be new. My wife is going to wrap up her first full year of first grade, and I know when the day comes that she has to say goodbye to these students she's given her heart to, she's going to cry a bunch. But the job we've just spent nine months on-- it's over.

I'll fill the time. My wife and I will spend time and travel together. I'll play in our community band and do some directing for community theater; these are things I enjoy, but also things that allow me to put something back into a community that pays me. I'll read, and I'll try to figure out some new tricks for making next year's job better than this year's.

I am not complaining. Not a bit. American education's tradition of giving students the summer to help with the family farm is weirdly anachronistic, but the result is a huge blessing and benefit for me and I am grateful for it.

But still-- can't I have one more week? Even a few more days? There are so many things I wanted to do with these guys, and I crammed as much into my 178 days as I could, but -- I need more. And when this job that I've poured myself into stops, it's like setting my foot down expecting a step and finding instead nothing. Yes, I'm a bit frayed right now, but I'm also strengthened by knowing when I get up in the morning I'm heading off to do important work, work that matters, work that allows me to be my own best self. When summer comes, it's hard not to miss that a little.

We live where we are, when we are. We grab whatever is here, now, and we embrace it and live it and try to go all Thoreau on it. My heart goes out to those teachers who are teaching far harder trenches than mine; God bless them with the respite they need.

But for me, this is one of the hardest times of the year. So much to do. So little time.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Pearls, Triggers, Exonians & Checker

The trigger warnings issue has now reached a massive level of pearl clutching all around.

What's the Issue?

We know that trigger warnings are a thing because the New York Times wrote about them last Sunday. The basic idea seems to be that certain works of literature, classroom subjects, even statues, should come with warning labels attached because they might trigger a traumatic memory or reaction of some sort. Trapped in a classroom and suddenly confronted with a graphic reminder of a traumatic personal experience, a student could suddenly be overwhelmed by panic, fear, discomfort.

On the one hand, there's a certain amount of common sense at play here. When I have a student who is suffering through the difficulty of a recent or imminent death of a loved one, I pay special attention to how any of the 482 death-related literary works that we study might strike that student's particularly raw nerve. I do anything from soften the discussion of the work to prepare the student ahead of time for what's coming. And I am always conscious of the fact that there may be other similarly raw nerves in my classroom that I just don't know about.  I don't really do this as a pedagogical choice, but as a human one.

Are Those Crazy Kids Out of Line?

On the other hand, some of the campus pearl clutchers seem a bit overzealous about stamping a warning label on any potentially upsetting content, and there seems to be a rather fuzzy zone between triggering a real personal trauma and just being kind of uncomfortable. I find it hard to imagine, as one advocate suggests, that The Merchant of Venice might trigger a serious episode of panic and distress because of its anti-Semitism (the presence of which is open to some debate anyway).

Fahrenheit 451 (a far more believable and hence scarier dystopic novel than 1984) posits a world of censorship that is not the result of top-down totalitarian mind-control, but instead censorship from the bottom up, caused by people demanding that anything disturbing or upsetting or uncomfortable be whisked away from public view. I think that's a fair comparison here.

But before I get my own pearls twisted up in my knickers, I remind myself that trigger warnings are a thing that some college students are asking for, and college students ask for a lot of things. We periodically hear about these movements sweeping campuses, and then it turns out, not so much. College faculties are not so excited about this idea, and colleges have an oft-effective means of dealing with troublemakers-- give them a diploma and send them away. So I'm not ready to get excited about this yet, and we can probably all calm down and---

No, Wait. Too Late.

The phrase "trigger warning" itself needs a trigger warning, because the term comes from the world of feminism, and you know how feminism gets some people's pearls all clutchified.

Like Chester E. Finn, Jr., currently head honcho at The Fordham Institute. Checker wrote a piece for Politico which has a url-based title of "Will America's College Kids Ever Grow Up" but which is headlined "America's College Kids Are of Mollycoddled Babies." And boy, if "mollycoddled" doesn't evoke some serious pearl-clutching, I don't know what does.

Finn is a smart man, an accomplished and prolific writer, and a conservative guy who often says things I quite agree with. But although he's a mere thirteen years older than I am, in this piece he sounds for all the world like my grandmother.

Poor dears. These are the same kids who would riot in the streets if their colleges asserted any form of in loco parentis when it comes to such old-fashioned concerns as inebriation and fornication. God forbid they should be treated as responsible, independent adults! After all, they’re old enough to vote, to drive, even (though it’s unlikely) to join the army.

Yes, we all remember those awful pro-fornication campus riots of.... when exactly was that, again? Well, it doesn't matter. Kids These Days, with the rap music and playing with their twitters and the backwards hats and not getting jobs and not joining the army. Pull up your pants and get off my lawn!!
Those Darn Miserable Stinky Fershlugginer Kids!

While I usually stick with mockery and avoid ad homineming it up, since Finn just ad hominemed all current college students, I'm going to make an observation or two. First, born in 1944, Finn would have come of age just in time to serve in Vietnam, yet curiously, I find no mention of that service in any of his bios. His bios do mention his education at Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard. I did not attend Harvard, but I'm pretty sure that mollycoddling is tolerated there to a considerable degree; in fact, many students arrive pre-mollycoddled. But then, I think Finn knows this.

He goes on to contrast traditional four-year college students with good, solid, dependable job-holding, family-supporting, career-minded folks that you can find at community colleges, trade schools and the University of Phoenix (so, clutching some cyber-pearls). These traditional students have "been accustomed to getting their own way with just about everything, hovered over and indulged by their parents, praised (and grade-inflated) by their teachers and carefully cushioned from every form of risk, adversity and hardship."

Did I say pearl clutching? Finn has grabbed his pearls and is swinging them around, flailing angrily at these damn kids. They go to barely fifteen hours of classes a week. They gorge themselves on copious food options. They dare to protest speakers they disagree with. They use elaborate exercise and recreation facilities. They are awash in political correctness, self-absorption and "spoiled bratism." They are prissy. They are "schizy and spoiled." They will make terrible leaders in the future.

What are we to make of this child of privilege so filled with rage at the children of privilege? When he says that they've been "carefully cushioned from every form of risk, adversity and hardship," what exactly is he gauging that against? Because I am pretty sure that Chester E. Finn, Jr. has not spent a lot of time developing grit out on the mean streets. I don't know-- maybe Harvard was a tough go for Checker. But clearly, young people complaining about things are a huge trigger for him. I mean, seriously-- I've read his stuff before and I have never seen him so angry and ranty. You would think that Kids These Days are the softest, whiniest, most terriblest students ever in the history of ever. Spiro Agnew on his worst day did not dismiss a chunk of young America so completely, and Spiro didn't even go to Harvard.

Surprise Personal Insight

True story. My father is also a graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy, but he attended as a townie. His wealthy classmates went on to Harvard, but he went on to the University of New Hampshire. My father was the son of a general contractor; Chester Finn, Sr. was a prominent Dayton attorney. My father was the only member of his family to ever attend such a prestigious school; Chester Finn, Jr. is a third generation Exonian. So I guess if anyone had cause to be bitter and cranky about the children of prep school privilege, it would be my father, but he's not. Never has been.

More true story. My folks sent me to Phillips Exeter for a six week summer session. It was one of the great experiences of my life. The library was a gorgeous dream, the theater building the envy of most colleges.

The summer session brought together people from all over; most of us were nicknamed by our home city or state. I learned much. I learned that rich kids don't always have it easy, and poor kids don't always have it hard. I learned that rich is a relative thing.* I learned that when you have people from many backgrounds, it's good to think before you open your mouth because you might trigger someone's anger or hurt without even meaning to.

At the end of the day, the whole trigger notice brouhaha appears to be a bunch of folks just clutching pearls at each other. Am I being too simplistic when I suggest that just being kind and considerate and thoughtful, that just listening to people without scolding them for whatever imagined slights you think they have committed or are about to commit, that just treating each other decently would allow all of us to just put down our pearls and take a break? Because that looks like a path forward to me, even if I never went to Harvard or the University of Phoenix.

*This is my best Phillips Exeter summer school story, and while this piece is already way too long, I never get a chance to tell this one. So here it is a s a footnote; you can skip it all you want.

It was the summer of 1973. We would hang out in the dorm lounge and tell stories about home. We regularly made fun of one foreign kid who kept telling us about his country where every single citizen was rich, and every citizen got a share of the oil money, free health care, free college, free everything. We teased him and accused him of making it all up. He just laughed and said we could believe him or not; he would own us all one day. We had never even heard of his country before; we thought he made the name up, too. The country was Kuwait.