Friday, October 31, 2014

The Feds and College Money

It can be very, very hard to figure out where the federal government stands on the myriad of financial issues surrounding post-secondary education, particularly in the area of for-profit vocational colleges. Sometimes to suss these matters out, you have to look at the history.

History tells us that last summer, the Obama administration made good on its threat to clean up scamsters like the Corinthian College Giant Web O' College Flavored Deception. These are schools that appear to view students as receptacles for carrying college loan money from the government and banks to the sort-of-a-college's bank account. This process tends to leave the students themselves holding the debt-filled bag, often without anything remotely resembling a marketable skill. Anyway, the feds were going to put a stop to those shenanigans, so last summer they tracked down the biggest offenders, looked them in the eyes, and said, "Here's another pile of money to keep you from going out of business." To be fair, they also said the bureaucratic equivalent of, "And I've got my eye on you, mister, so don't try any funny business." Which given the circumstances was slightly better than, "Watch out. There's more where that came from."

This is in keeping with the highly mixed messages that are common currency in the college loan world. Even those of who have traveled there are not quite sure of the terrain. Take, for instance, Sallie Mae-- the public is split between people who A) believe it's a government agency, B) don't know what the hell it is and C) think it's a country song title. But it was increasingly clear that maybe they were hosing veterans (and settled a $60 million lawsuit without fessing to anything), and so the government decided to investigate them, or itself, or something, and early peeks at the results indicate that-- ta-dahhh!! --- there's Nothing Bad happening.

This so clearly contradicted what folks had concluded by using their powers of seeing and hearing that the Education Department is now scrambling to investigate the investigation. So we're still doing the rewrite on that slice of history.

It's a sore point because the US Department of Education has been accused before of making a buttload of profit from student loans. They've never really refuted those claims other than to say parents are still getting a deal (whether half-baked or raw was not discussed) and that accounting is, you know, hard. Arne Duncan stated definitively, "We did not." So, you know, that settles it. And yet, when discussing the cost of the college education that the administration wants everyone to get, we never discuss tricks like, say, loaning money to college students at the same miniscule rates used to loan money to banks. So-- touchy issue. The federal government and loans have a history.

This week came a clear statement that the administration recognizes the problem. An announcement on both the White House and Ed Department blogs declared the problem:

Too often, students at career colleges — including thousands of veterans — are charged excessive costs, but don’t get the education they paid for. Instead, students in many of these programs are provided with poor quality training, often for low-wage jobs or in occupations where there are simply no job opportunities. They frequently find themselves with large amounts of debt and, too often, end up in default. In many cases, students are drawn into these programs with confusing or misleading information. 

The new rules, which are somewhat nebulous in the press release, appear to require proof that your program produces actual graduates who have actual skills and get actual jobs (for which they are paid actual money).

To qualify for federal student aid, the law requires that most for-profit programs and certificate programs at private non-profit and public institutions prepare students for “gainful employment in a recognized occupation.” 

So if they turn out to be a big scam, we might cut off the federal aid to students and let those students-- what? Still get a fake education but do it with money they borrowed on their own. I mean, maybe somewhere in this mysterious language are some actual teeth, but it looks like the feds are going to keep not doing much of anything about these folks. Though as I read it, this is for programs that are supposed to be vocationalish. I don't think the feds will start requiring liberal arts majors to prove they're employable. At least, not yet. So maybe we're coming around on that one.

I certainly hope so, because this week also featured yet another initiative to get every single student into the FAFSA database. The first lady has released a FAFSA Completion Challenge video, announcing a competition for schools to get 100% of their students registered with the biggest college loan clearing house in the ever.

Looking at the federal history on this issue, it's hard not to feel a bit queasy about the Challenge. The White House press release touts the vast amount of loan money available-- but it's loan money, and this general cheering about getting every student to go to college, no matter the student, no matter the cost just seems irresponsible-- particularly coming from a governmental body that may not be so much an impartial booster as a potential profiteer from all this youthful indebtedness.

And if you are inclined to be paranoid about our Data Overlords, the FAFSA database certainly makes a tasty gathering bucket for a giant stew of Big Data on every eighteen-year-old potential customer in the country.

College isn't cheap, loans aren't free, and higher education is not automatically the road to prosperity. Don't get me wrong-- I'm a huge believer in continuing education, and I will be paying off loans for a long long time because I decided that my own kids would get there if it was humanly possible for me to do it.

But as the last couple of years have demonstrated, attending college is not risk free, and it can do some nasty long-lasting financial damage without leaving any real benefits. I can't help feeling that if the feds really felt strongly about this, they'd find a way to cut students the same kind of loan deals that they give their corporate buddies. They would get into the scholarship business, instead of the loan brokering business. I would feel a lot better about the federal boosting of the college path if they were more clearly looking out for the interests of students rather than bankers and profiteers. The last time the feds started convincing people to buy things they couldn't afford, we ended up with a massive financial crisis, a bunch of banksters who still managed to end up filthy rich, and a bunch of regular citizens hung out to dry.

I want every child who wants to to go to college, and I support the idea of my government making that happen more easily. I'd like to believe that's mostly what we're doing. I like the optimistic view. But in this matter, history is not on the side of optimism.

NC Program To Drive Out Teachers Is Working

The News Observer reports that the number of teachers leaving teaching in North Carolina has grown, and analysts suggest that it's only going to get worse.

"What a surprise," said nobody who was paying attention. The Tar Heel State has been doing its level best to let teachers know that their kind aren't welcome around these parts. The North Carolina legislature has tried to erase tenure, tried to give teachers a choice between job security or getting a raise ever (maybe-- because they didn't actually have a way to fund the hypothetical raise). And, of course, every year north Carolina teachers take a real-dollar pay cut-- unless they just started out and get the almost-adequate beginning teacher raise that the GOP pushed through.

On top of that, North Carolina has followed Florida in implementing the kinds of kid-unfriendly programs that can make classrooms extra-miserable, patterned on classics like Florida's "Just Read, Dammit!" program that tells eight year olds they're ignorant failures who must repeat third grade if they don't get a sufficient score on a badly designed standardized reading test.

Few states in the country can hope to match North Carolina in creating an environment that is openly hostile to anyone who hopes to build a lifetime teaching career there. Under current conditions, it's just not possible.

And so, teachers have decided to get the hell out.

North Carolina's political dimbulbs continue to ignore this. Thanks to a lower retirement rate last year, the full turnover rate took a slight dip downward. But the number of teachers leaving teaching in general and leaving teaching in North Carolina in particular continues to grow. And as one analyst points out, these figures are probably low anyway because they only cover through March and don't include everyone who made a decision to bail over the summer.

Wake County, the state's largest system, continues to lead the pack, with teacher attrition numbers that have at least doubled over the last few years. But Dallas Woodhouse, head of political group Carolina Rising that backs GOP Senate candidate Thom Tillis, thinks things are going great.

Teachers leaving the state is an issue, Woodhouse said. but Republicans are dealing with it. The economy has to improve for teacher salaries to improve, “and we’re seeing that now,” he said.

Read more here:

Of course, North Carolina loves its charter schools. Reports suggest as many as 170 opening next year, and why not. NC pols fight hard to preserve charters rights to operate with little or no oversight, even on something as simple as revealing what they pay staff. The special blend of rules has worked well for businessmen like Baker Mitchell, a gifted and well-connected charter profiteer.

For a flourishing charter picture, nothing could be better than a teacher shortage, because teacher-job-filler is cheap and agreeable. North Carolina is becoming a great place to be a TFA temp and the charter operator who hires her. For actual professional teachers, it's sadly true that nothing could be finer than to exit Carolina.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

PARCC Is Magical

Today David Hespe, the acting education commissioner in New Jersey, sent out a letter to Chief School Administrators, Charter School Lead Persons, School Principals, and Test Coordinators.

The re: is "Student Participation in the Statewide Assessment Program." Specifically, it's "why there ought to be some, and how you handle uppity folks who want to avoid it."

In the two page letter, the first page and a half are taken up with a history lesson and a legal brief. Basically, "some laws have been passed, starting with No Child Left Behind, and we think they mean that students have to take the PARCC." (If you want to see the faux legal argument dismantled, check out Sarah Blaine's piece here.)

But then Hespe, correctly suspecting that this might not be sufficient for dealing with recalcitrant parental units, offers this magical paragraph:

In speaking with parents and students, it is perhaps most important to outline the positive reasons that individual students should participate in the PARCC examinations. Throughout a student’s educational career, the PARCC assessments will provide parents with important information about their child’s progress toward meeting the goal of being college or career ready. The PARCC assessments will, for the first time, provide detailed diagnostic information about each individual student’s performance that educators, parents and students can utilize to enhance foundational knowledge and student achievement. PARCC assessments will include item analysis which will clarify a student’s level of knowledge and understanding of a particular subject or area of a subject. The data derived from the assessment will be utilized by teachers and administrators to pinpoint areas of difficulty and customize instruction accordingly. Such data can be accessed and utilized as a student progresses to successive school levels.

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (forgot that's what PARCC stands for, didn't you) is a magical magical test. It can tell with absolute precision, how prepared your student is for college or career because, magic. And who wouldn't want to know more about the powerful juju contained in the PARCC test.

So if Mr. Hespe and any of his friends come to explain how crucial PARCC testing is for your child's future, you might try asking some questions.

* Exactly what is the correspondence between PARCC results and college readiness. Given the precise data, can you tell me what score my eight year old needs to get on the test to be guaranteed at least a 3.75 GPA at college?

* Does it matter which college he attends, or will test results guarantee he is ready for all colleges?

* Can you show me the research and data that led you to conclude that Test Result A = College Result X? How exactly do you know that meeting the state's politically chosen cut score means that my child is prepared to be a college success?

* Since the PARCC tests math and language, will it still tell me if my child is ready to be a history or music major? How about geology or women's studies?

* My daughter plans to be a stay-at-home mom. Can she skip the test? Since that's her chosen career, is there a portion of the PARCC that tests her lady parts and their ability to make babies?

* Which section of the PARCC tests a student's readiness to start a career as a welder? Is it the same part that tests readiness to become a ski instructor, pro football player, or dental assistant?

* I see that the PARCC will be used to "customize instruction." Does that mean you're giving the test tomorrow (because it'a almost November already)? How soon will the teacher get the detailed customizing information-- one week? Ten days? How will the PARCC results help my child's choir director and phys ed teacher customize instruction?

* Is it possible that the PARCC will soon be able to tell me if my eight year old is on track for a happy marriage and nice hair?

* Why do you suppose you keep using the word "utilize" when "using" is a perfectly good plain English substitute?

* To quote the immortal Will Smith in Independence Day, "You really think you can do all that bullshit you just said?"

The PARCC may look like just one more poorly-constructed standardized math and language test, but it is apparently super-duper magical, with the ability to measure every aspect of a child's education and tell whether the child is ready for college and career, regardless of which college, which major, which career, and which child we are talking about. By looking at your eight year old's standardized math and language test, we can tell whether she's on track to be a philosophy major at Harvard or an airline pilot! It's absolutely magical!

Never has a single standardized test claimed so much magical power with so little actual data to back up its assertions. Mr. Hespe would be further ahead to skip his fancy final paragraph and just tell his people to look parents in the eye and say, "Because the state says so." It's not any more educationally convincing than the magical CACR bullshit, but at least it would be honest.

High Stakes Testing 2.0

In the world of reformsters and their Orwellian word salads, statements often mean the opposite of what they appear to say. "We need to be able to hire more great teachers" actually means "We need to be able to fire any teacher we wish." "We want to rescue high-poverty low-achievement schools" turns out to mean "We want to starve high-poverty low-achievement schools of resources."

So it really should be no surprise that "We see that there's a problem with over-reliance on and over-use of high stakes testing" actually means "We intend to triple down on high stakes testing."

From the moment CCSSO and CGCS held their misleading phone conference, it was evident that they were not talking about backing off testing at all. Almost immediately (as if something had been sent out in the Education Reformsters Newsletter), High Stakes Testing 2.0 began to reveal its ugly face. You can see it in the test-cheerleading websites such as Minnesota's. Even Arne Duncan got in on the act of being against the tests before he was for them (as well as trying to shuck responsibility for installing HST at the center of US education in the first place).

This has been a version of all those crime dramas where the guy who has gone undercover punches his buddy in the face before the really dangerous guys can kill the buddy dead. It's a stalling tactic, mean to save the buddy, not actually harm him.

The Cult of Testing paused just long enough to generate some headlines meant to soothe the opposition, but we are already proceeding with High Stakes Testing 2.0, in which high stakes testing remains the hub around which all decisions in education must turn.

Take a look at Education Post, the website that has rapidly proven itself as a war-room agit-prop echo chamber for every talking point of the reformster movement (and so I'll not link to them unless absolutely necessary). They've been running a swell piece by Erika Sanzi who thanks Arne for insulting white suburban moms and praises testing because, well...

My gratitude now extends to his continued call for smart and meaningful testing of students. We cannot possibly provide kids with the education they need and deserve if we don’t have an accurate sense of what they know, what they don’t know, and how we can best help them.

I try not to do personal attacks here. I'll attack ideas and statements, but I remain conscious that these are real people with homes and families and lives and aspirations, I must assume, to do good. But what am I to make of a mother and teacher who says that she won't know how her children or students are doing unless someone shows her standardized test results? How do I not insult her when she has so handily insulted herself?

Sanzi also floats the talking point that standardized tests are just like diagnostic tests at the doctors office. This is a weak comparison-- doctors order tests, one test is not used for all patients no matter what, and diagnostic tests are not used to evaluate the doctor and hospital. If you want my full rant on why this comparison is bogus, you can find it here.

And Sanzi winds up with the other go-to argument for HST, which translates roughly as, "How dare you try to deprive poor, minority students of this chance to advance in the world!?" It is potent salad of baloney that tosses in some powerful ideas-- civil rights! racial equity! wealthy privilege! It makes it clear that you are risking being rhetorically tattooed as a monster if you try to cross them. It does not provide one whit of explanation as to how giving a poor, minority student a high stakes standardized test will open doors to opportunity for that student.

As someone who has taught in both privileged and underprivileged schools, I can’t imagine anything more threatening to students’ civil rights than denying them evidence that proves they are—or are not—learning. How else can we expose and aspire to close the achievement and opportunity gaps if we aren’t willing to acknowledge they exist?

This echoes the language of John White the CCSSO/CGCS phone call suggesting that only through testing will we ever know that students aren't learning. Because the trained professionals that spend 180 days with these students have no clue (or are big fat liars), and so only tests will tell us The Truth. This is one of the foundational pillars of HST-- that our entire army of professional educators simply can't be trusted to give us information about student achievement. If we don't give tests, we will never know.

And test we will.

A recent post on the US DOE blog highlights just how little of an impression the anti-testing pushback has made-- starting with the title "Investing in Evidence: Finding Game-Changing Evaluations."

The full post is a monument to governmental gobbledygook and a blind faith in testing, but just look at that title. There are two huge assumptions embedded there.

1) The game needs to be changed. Schools are such a disaster we must change everything, start a new game, play a new song, throw out bathwater, babies and basinets. Game-changing does not leave any room for the thought that some of the work being done is good-- no, we need a new game.

2) The way to change the game is with tests. Not with training. Not with personnel. Not even with shiny national standards. No, if games are to be changed, it is tests that will change them. It would be hard to come up with a clearer statement of belief that testing is the foundation, the fundamental bedrock of all education.

The proposal itself seems to be (the language is really impenetrable, and you know I have dug my way through some doozies) to collect up the best tests that are most effective for something something as identified by people who volunteer to answer some questions such as "what questions about P-12 education are still unanswered, because if we find the really good tests and connect up the programs that can't afford really good testing, we can sort of spread the testy love around and answer all the questions by using all the tests. Lordy, I may wade into this thing in greater depth some day, but knowing how way leads on to way, probably not.

Specifically, we are asking your help to identify what the most pressing education policy and/or practice questions are and how answering them could provide needed information to educators, parents and local, state, and federal governments to enable significant improvements in education. Our goal is to support the development of findings that have the rigor and power to inform significant improvements in how schools, districts, states, and the federal government provide services to students.

The clear takeaway is this-- this is not a plan for cutting back on tests or limiting tests. It's a plan for spreading tests out and around.

Every indication, from the feds to reformsters to reformster mouthpieces, is that HST 2.0 may be concerned about its optics, but it's not remotely interested in backing off on the noble goal of testing America's children (and teachers) into submission. So we can all stop pretending that testing caps and limits and restraint was ever a thing, because it wasn't, and it isn't. Get those opt out forms back out, because you're going to need them.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Education Is Not Medicine

One of the popular new reformster talking points is to compare standardized testing to diagnostic testing at the doctor's office (you can find examples here and here). This comparison is total baloney, and reformsters need to retire it immediately. They are just making themselves look silly. Let's break it down.

Students are not patients.

Students are not patients who need to be "cured" of the "disease" of not knowing stuff. There is nothing about that comparison that holds up. Disease attacks a healthy body and breaks down tissues and functions that were previously fine. Which part of that sounds like a student not understanding how to multiply doubly digit numbers or misunderstanding how to find verbs?

Doctors choose the tests.

The doctor uses her professional judgment to determine which tests will be administered. The doctor uses her professional judgment looking at the symptoms, the nature of the patient, and the possible issues that might be involved. And then the doctor decides which test to order because

There are many tests.

Doctors do not have a single one size fits all diagnostic test that is given to all patients, regardless of whether they are complaining about a sore chest, a broken leg, or a high fever. The test is chosen to fit the situation (again, using the doctor's professional judgment). For that matter, for every test the doctor chooses to give a patient, the doctor also choose NOT to give a large number of tests to that patient. There is no medical analog for a high stakes one size fits all test to be given to all students.

Doctors can still see.

When I went to the doctor with the flesh of my knee split open, my doctor did not say, "Well, it looks like the flesh of your knee is split open, and I might be looking at the patella right there, but let me run some tests, first." He definitely didn't say, "First, I have to give you this exact same test that we give every single patient who enters the hospital no matter what the issue seems to be." Because, as it turns out, my doctor has A) eyes and B) sense. So he sewed up my knee. Some times the correct diagnostic test is no test at all, because A) eyes and B) sense.

Results are timely.

Depending on the urgency of the situation (as determined by the professional judgment of the doctor), the results will come back in a timely manner. If you get your broken leg x-rayed in May, your doctor expects to see the images before September.

Judgment beats test

When the test results return, the doctor makes a diagnosis and prescription based on his professional judgment. The test provides data; it does not make a prescription. "The test says I have to prescribe paxil for you," said no doctor ever. The doctor's judgment is not subordinate to the test results.

Doctors know when to quit

My doctor does not shorten my treatment so that he has time to give me more tests. If he has to make a choice between more treatment for my problem and more testing, more testing does not automatically win.

No stakes tests.

The diagnostic tests that a doctor orders do not become part of the job evaluation of the doctor. The hospital board does not call a doctor in and say, "100% of the limbs you ordered x-rays for this year were broken. Therefor we find you ineffective and you're fired." Nor do we use the test results to judge the hospital. And we especially don't use the test results to judge people in some other department who never even saw the patient.

So stop comparing high stakes standardized tests to diagnostic medical tests. They are not comparable and the analogy is extraordinarily weak. Find something else better to compare high stakes standardized tests to, like cumquats or people who insist on talking loudly on their cell phones in public places.


CCSS: Runaway Train

One of the oddest things about the Common Core is that here you have this giant movement, this massive shadow regulation of one of the nation's largest sectors, the entire institution of public education, and yet nobody is in charge.

Think about that. You've got this set of rules that shape the lives of millions of Americans, and nobody is actually in charge.

Core boosters might say, "Well, the state's in charge," but of course that's just not true. The states were required to adopt the Core as it was handed to them, with only minor additions and no changes, and the states have no real authority to change anything in the Core. At least, that's the supposition-- since there's nobody in charge, there is no place for states to turn to ask for that authority to change the Core.

Conservative Core foes would say that the feds are in charge of the Core, but that's not quite right. Arne Duncan has anointed himself the enforcer of standards compliance, but that's a negative role. He will tell you if your state is being too non-compliant with the Core. He'll tell you what not to do, once you try to do it, and he may punish you for it. But he won't tell you what to do with the Core exactly because A) that would be illegal-ish and B) he doesn't really know anything about how to institute effective education programs.

States have been slowly inching out of the Common Core haunted house, like burglars who think maybe the guard dogs are gone now but they're not quite sure, and so mostly they have just decided to sit on the porch and pretend that they've really gotten out of the place.

The copyright holders have been absolutely silent on the requirement not to change parts of the Core and even more silent than that on the subject of how to use it and what's okay to do with it.

The creators have long since walked away from it, moving on to more profitable ventures. And the politicians that once championed it now dare not speak its name. It's senior night at the football game and nobody will step forward to say, "That's my kid!!"

And you might argue that Pearson et al are de facto in charge of Common Core because they make the materials and tests that give it actual form in the classroom. But if you called up Pearson and asked permission to change a standard, they would laugh at you, and if you asked for help implementing a standard, they would just try to sell you something.

Put another way-- if the Common Core were to collapse and everyone in the country came to see it as a disaster and a Huge Mistake, exactly whose head would roll? Who would be held responsible?

It's kind of amazing. Name one sweeping, nation-wide, institution transforming program that has ever been instituted in this country with nobody in charge of it. Common Core is a gigantic runaway train-- maybe not traveling very fast or true, but with a completely empty cab up front.No in charge. No one's responsible. Or, to use the language of the ed revolution, nobody is accountable for Common Core.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

CAP: Core Is for Ladies [Updated]

The Common Core is great for the ladies.

At least that's what we can learn from a new CAP (Center for American Progress) article that combines two now-classic Core-boosting rhetorical techniques-- wacky leaps of logic, and taking credit for what was already happening.

The piece opens with a paragraph with a shout out to Title IX, then sadly shakes its head and notes that there are still gender-based inequities in education and employment persist, particularly for girls of color and from low-income background. Plus, girls often lack access to high-quality, rigorous STEMmy courses, which would prepare them for college and high-paying careers. Not that the author offers any evidence, or even an assertion, that they lack access to a higher degree than boys.

Next up: charts and data. The data is exclusively high stakes tests based, so here's what we know. More eight grade boys get proficient-ranked test scores on science tests than eight grade girls. The boys barely edge out girls on the math test results on the eight grade test. And as always, black and brown girls score lower on the test than their white counterparts. So that's a picture of how eight graders score on those two tests. What we can actually deduce from that about the entire educational system is a whole other debate. I just want to be clear on what we're actually talking about. 

Fewer females than males take the AP computer science test. Few females take STEM related AP tests. Also, female students and students of color take more college remedial courses (the article lumps women and minorities together a lot). And we get a section (well, two paragraphs) of data with a chart about the pay gap between men and women. This, the article tells us, exists even when controlling for college major, hours worked, and occupation.

So wait-- how is the Common Core fixing all this? Let's go back to the introduction:

The Common Core State Standards represent an important step toward closing achievement gaps and opening the door to higher-paying STEM fields for millions of girls. By establishing uniform and more-rigorous academic standards, the Common Core helps ensure that all students—both girls and boys, regardless of their income levels and backgrounds—are taught to the same high expectations. 

This is followed by the data establishing, sort of, that the gender gap exists. Then we arrive at this conclusion.

More engaging and challenging standards build a strong academic foundation for all students. Girls—and in particular, girls of color—have a lot to gain from more-rigorous learning standards that better prepare them for college and career success. By raising the expectations for student learning, the Common Core State Standards allow girls the opportunity to seize STEM learning opportunities while in grade school; to pursue a diverse set of college majors; and to obtain jobs that command higher salaries. The Common Core State Standards can expand on the progress girls have made since Title IX and can have a long-lasting impact on women in society.

Many of you will recognize a composition technique known as "recycling your introduction in new words as your conclusion."

That's it. That's the whole argument. CCSS will raise everybody's standards, so women (and, I guess, students of color) will just automatically be raised up to the level of white guys. Of course, that effect would theoretically work with literally any educational standards at all-- so why didn't the states (particularly those with super high standards rated by Fordham Institution as better than CCSS) already wipe out their own gender gaps? And how can rigorous education wipe out the pay gap when the pay gap, as CAP just said, is controlled for occupation? Will lady engineers suddenly be paid more because they have a Common Core seal of approval stamped upon them?

This has to be one of the laziest arguments I have ever seen for pretty much anything. I guess it's good that they didn't print a special CCSS edition in pink for girls, but the implication that girls have been doing poorly because, well, it's just that nobody asked them to do better-- it's somehow insulting to everybody. If CAP is going to try to score social justice points, they're going to have to do much better than this.

[Update 10/30] The evening that this post went up, several of us were contacted by CAP chieftain Neera Tanden who asked if anyone wanted to take issue with the data.

The answer was, of course, that the data about gender gaps were fine, but there was no data at all to indicate that CCSS could close the gap. Tanden cited gains in the College and Career Readiness Ratings for girls in Kentucky, one of the first states to adopt the Core. I asked how those gains for girls compared to gains for boys, and she referred me to this site, where Kentucky parks all their reports on student achievement.

This actually raised more questions than it answered, because the high school data clearly shows that girls outpace boys by large margins in most tested areas (boys win on the social studies test) and that the gender gap on the College and Career Ready ratings also runs in favor of the girls. I asked about this, but have yet to hear a response (it's twitter-- I don't read much into the silence). My conclusion, however, is that the CAP article profiled above makes even less sense than it did before.]

Slow Schools

In a recent blog post, Daniel Katz made a plea for a slow schools movement (like the slow foods movement). It's a great piece and well worth your time.

Katz is the director of Secondary Education and Secondary Special Education Teacher Preparation at Seton Hall University, and he begins the post with observations about what he's hearing from his alumni when they return. They are hurried.

This is not a new problem. Teaching has always involved doing an infinite number of tasks in a finite amount of time. People who want to say, "Yeah, just like every other profession" just don't get it. Teachers are up against finite time in a way that no other professions experience. And boy does this resonate.

The most read thing I have ever written in my life is this post about the hard part of teaching, how there is never enough. Over at HuffPost, it has pulled almost 450,000 facebook likes, and they've translated it into Italian, German and French. Nothing I have ever written in my life has come close. What that tells me is that this is a subject that really really resonates.

Teachers have always suffered from having more and more duties, tasks and responsibilities jammed into their days (and into the parts of their days that are supposed to be theirs). And as Katz correctly observes, those "new"duties are removed just about as often as governments repeal "temporary" taxes. But there is a new order of magnitude going on today.

In a policy environment that provides high stakes standardized tests the power to put teachers’ jobs in the balance and with an active movement afoot to remove teachers’ workplace protections, pressures today rival those at any point since the Common School movement began in the 19th century.

And as Katz observes, it's not just a matter of Getting Things Done, but of getting things done right.

However, the need for “slow schools” goes well beyond a simple desire to lift added and poorly thought out burdens from teachers who already had important work to do.  It goes towards fundamental aspects of what learning actually requires.  A productive school is one that hums with energy, but it is not the energy of people rushing anxiously from one obligation to another.  It is the energy of people grappling with challenging ideas and materials, working through from what they do not understand to what they do understand, and proposing and testing new hypotheses about how the world works around them.  That is a specific kind of energy that cannot happen under constant pressure to perform on command.

Thinking, understanding, coming to grips with concepts, and particular the kind of deep conceptual understanding that the Sultans of Common Core insist they want. This is one of the many self-contradictions of life under the Core-- we want you to go an inch wide and a mile deep, but we won't tell you what material you can now cut from the curriculum, mostly because we still expect you to cover everything you always covered-- just deeper and slower. We want you to drive from LA to San Francisco at 20 MPH, with a stop every hour to get out and smell the flowers, but we still expect you to leave after breakfast and get there in time for supper.

Deeper understanding takes time. Time, Katz says, that includes time for being confused and working through that confusion.

A deep and layered understanding of complex ideas cannot be forced to happen simply through intensity, although significance and deep understanding have intensity of their own.  Students necessarily must be frustrated as they grapple with complex and unknown concepts, but they need time in order to work through that confusion, and when forced or hurried to move they not only fail to develop the desired understanding, but also they become needlessly frustrated and disengaged from the task of learning.  Taken together, Bruner, Doyle, and Duckworth denote essential truisms about classrooms and learning:  1) students are capable of better and deeper understanding of more complex ideas than we often think they can; 2) the products, processes, and materials that support the development of that understanding are often highly ambiguous and complex to enact in a classroom; 3) confusion is an important part of the learning process, and learners need time and space to be where they are in their emerging understanding without being forced to move faster than they need.

 Unfortunately, what we've got is a system that demands results Right Now. Actually, not so much demands results as demands an assortment of paperwork and data points that can stand in for results. And so we have multiple tales of teachers are commanded to spend so much time planning to teach, documenting the planning to teach, document the results of the plan, documenting the results of the teaching, and documenting the analyses of the data generated by the plan to teach-- all this to the point that the teacher literally has no time to do her actual job.

Reformsters have become like the person who asks, fifteen minutes into a first date, "Are we going to get married, or not?" The demands for results (or at least data-filled reports that pass as results) have become so urgent that we lack the proper time to get the results in the first place (but then, we don't need actual results-- just data points and reports that pass for them).

Katz is right. We do need to slow down-- not for the harried and hurried teachers, but for the students who need the time to take that slow and sometimes muddled journey to understanding. I think Katz is absolutely correct-- we need a slow schools movement.

Monday, October 27, 2014

MA Committed to Chasing Teachers Away (Updated)

It seems that several states are locked in a contest to determine who can do the most to undermine and gut the teaching profession. From Florida to North Carolina to Tennessee, state governments are doing their best to find creative ways to tell professional educators to go straight to hell, do not pass go, do not collect any dollars.

Massachusetts has taken a bold leap forward by extending the misuse of student test scores. The proposed revisions in the licensure process are a masterpiece of bureaucratic gobbledygook, but then, they have to be-- because if the people who wrote these exquisitely stupid rules had written them plainly, it would be obvious just how foolish they are.

There are three proposed versions (A, B & C) of the new system, and they all share one piece of twisted DNA-- they link teacher evaluations to teacher licenses. Not pay level or continued employment in that particular school district-- but licensure. A couple of below-average evaluations, and you will lose your MA license to teach.

There is no profession anywhere in the country that has such astonishing rules. Good lord-- even if your manager at McDonalds decides you're not up to snuff, he doesn't blackball you from ever working in any fast food joint ever again! Yes, every profession has means of defrocking people who commit egregious and unpardonable offenses. But-- and I'm going to repeat this because I'm afraid your This Can't Be Real filter is keeping you from seeing the words that I'm typing-- Massachusetts proposes to take your license to teach away if you have a couple of low evaluations.

It will not surprise you to learn that those evaluations would include all the usual groundless baloney. Student Impact Ratings-- did your real student get better test scores than his imaginary counterpart being taught by an imaginary average teacher in a parallel universe? Did you successfully climb the paperwork mountain generated by a teacher improvement plan (duly filed with the state department that doesn't have time to do the work it has now, so good luck with the new influx of improvement plan filings)? One version of the plan even allows for factoring in student evaluations of teachers; yes, teachers, your entire career can be hanging by a thread that dangles in front of an eight-year-old with scissors.

You can read the proposed plans here -- apparently hosted by an outfit called the Keystone Center, who have  this to say about themselves: "The Keystone Center was established to independently facilitate the resolution of national policy conflicts." Those conflicts seem to most often have to do with oil and gas stuff, as well as Colorado higher education and monarch butterflies. How they ended up helping Massachusetts blow up teaching careers is not clear to me. But it's easy to see how their "project partners" ended up here, because they're teamed up with TNTP, a group that never met a set of teacher job protections that they didn't want throw in a woodchipper and burn with fire.

If TNTP ever has a legitimate mission, it has long since been replaced with one single-minded focus-- to make it easier to fire all teachers everywhere all the time.

Keystone is also the "vendor and facilitator" for some "stakeholder meetings." These meetings do not appear to be designed for freewheeling stakeholder discussion.

During the upcoming stakeholder meetings, we are not asking for people to vote on or express their support or opposition to any one or more of the Policy Options. Rather, we will be asking stakeholders to identify pros and cons of each of the Policy Options as well as specific considerations or challenges and how to address these challenges.

Massachusetts Teachers Association members who attended the first of these meetings report that they are exactly the cheery railroad ride one would expect.

Members who attended the first session reported that the conversations were controlled and participants were not given the option of challenging the faulty premises being promoted by DESE. (Department of Elementary and Secondary Education)

The MTA site also has some direct and strongly worded objections to all three plans, and I would recommend that the rest of us all study these because if TNTP has their nose in this business, they'll be telling all their friends across the country about this fun way to chase people out of teaching.

I would point out to the people pushing this that it's a great way to chase people away from teaching in Massachusetts ever. I would point out that young people interested in starting a teaching career might favor a state where that career can't be snuffed out because of random fake data that's beyond their control. I would point out that this is one more policy that will almost certainly make it even harder than it already is to recruit teachers for high-poverty low-achievement schools. I mean, most states are settling for evaluation systems that punish inner-city teachers with just losing that particular job; it takes big brass ones for Massachusetts to say, "Come teach in a poor struggling under-funded low-resource school. Take a chance on the job that could end your entire teaching career before you're even thirty." Who on God's green earth thinks this is a way to put a great teacher in every classroom?

Well, the answer is nobody. I would say all those things to the people pushing this program if I thought they cared about any of that. But it seems increasingly obvious that creating a massive teacher shortage is not a bug, but a feature. It's not an unintended consequence, but the chosen objective.

The MTA is a feisty group. I hope they keep fighting, and fighting hard, because if they lose this, two bad things will happen.

First, Massachusetts will become one more state where teachers choose to work only if they're forced to by personal circumstances like friends and family or if they have no other options.

Second, other reformsters in other states (near other branch offices of TNTP) will look at Massachusetts as a model to follow, and the cancer will spread.

(Update! Good news. In fact, the best. In the face of a storm of howls and opposition and, the DESE in Massachusetts has said, "Um, never mind."  The memo (which I can't find a linkable copy of this morning) was pretty straightforward-- the high poobah of MA education said, "I've heard from a buttload of people voicing strong opposition and I've concluded that they're right, so we're not doing this." He has also reportedly invited MTA to continue the conversation. So this story has taken a definite turn for the better.

So now we get to learn a better lesson from this adventure-- that a strongly organized union that throws its back into pro-teacher advocacy can Get Things Done. Rather than worrying that this kind of rules change might infect other state departments of education, we can hope that this sort of strength infects other state teacher organizations (and who knows-- maybe the national ones, too.)

PA Solicits Standards Feedback

Pennsylvania's Department of Education wants public feedback on Eligible Content, the specific skills and knowledge that are listed in the Pennsylvania (Totally Not The Common) Core Standards.

Anybody with an internet hookup can go to 
and review the standards, item by item. They can give each individual item a check (for "that's just fine") or an X. With the X, you get four specific complaints that you can lodge:

* The statement should be broken up into several, more specific statements.
* The statement should be in a different grade level
* The statement should be rewritten
* The statement should be rewritten

These choices allow for written explanation, rationale, and/or suggested rewrites.

You'll be asked for an email address and to explain why you have a stake in PA standards (so knock it off, you crazy carpetbaggers), and you'll only be allowed one comment per standard per device. Right now only the third grade math and ELA standards are up, but everything is supposed to be up within the next couple of weeks. The site will be available until January 15, 2015. 

The stated goals of the site are

1) Increase awareness and understanding of PA's eligible content
2) Solicit actionable feedback as part of the department's review process
3) Provide exam sample questions for teachers in the tested grade/subject

The site is almost entirely funded by Team Pennsylvania Foundation, which is an economic development group. So I'm not sure what they're doing here.

The whole thing seems extraordinarily.... reasonable. So I'm not sure what we're up to, unless this is meant to help Corbett get out from under his education albatross before the election (though the lead time is a little slim). Whatever. It's an open invitation for Pennsylvania teachers (and anybody else) to sound off to the state about the standards. It would seem a shame to waste it.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Why Aren't We Talking About Teacher Retention?

To hear some folks talk about tenure, you would think that one of the biggest issues facing education is a glut of teachers, a veritable mountain of wrinkled old classroom geezers blocking the career paths of a million Bright Young Things who are itching to get into the classroom. Oh, if only tenure and FILO didn't allow them to sit there in lumpen uselessness while hot young blood congeals somewhere else, unused potential unrealized.

All the way back to She Who Will Not Be Named and her Time cover appearance, broom in hand, the prevailing image has been of the need to sweep away the tenure-protected deadwood. It's a compelling image-- it's just not closely related to reality.

The Economic Policy Institute thinks we don't even have enough teaching jobs. By their count, we should have 377,000 more job openings, which I'm pretty sure would take care of every enthusiastic twenty-something who's allegedly languishing somewhere.

On top of that, we are losing somewhere in the neighborhood of a half million teachers each year. Everybody likes to quote the two most striking data points-- fifty percent of new teachers leave within five years, and twenty percent of new teachers leave within the first three years. Recently TFA made the argument that their two-year teachers stay in a classroom longer than most traditional teacher school grads. That may or may not be accurate, but it's certainly close enough to give one pause. Meanwhile, I can report first-hand that many college education programs are shriveling up and, if not outright dying, becoming shambling zombie shadows of their former selves.

This report from April highlights some of the trends. The teacher force is very female, and very white. In other words, the teacher population looks less and less like the student population. And there's no good news to report there, either. Black men are entering the profession in huge numbers and leaving it in even huger numbers.

And into this picture we have Silicon Valley moguls telling us that the problem with education is that we can't fire people enough.

You will occasionally hear a stat thrown around along the lines of "Last year in North Pennsyltucky, only twelve teachers were fired out of sixty gabbillion employed in the state." This is supposed to alarm us with the slackitude of schools' firing skills, and serve as proof that zillions of terrible teachers are still in the classroom, lazily tenured and blissfully unfired. This is baloney. I will admit that when I entered teaching, it was a field where a lazy person could hide and while away the time until retirement. But that was thirty-some years ago; today teachers have to slog away just to keep their heads above water. The high attrition rate for beginning teachers tells me that many young men and women are saying, "Damn-- this is hard work that I don't think I can do very well. I'm outta here!" I believe a huge number of not-so-awsome proto-teachers are showing themselves the door before anybody else has to.

Why else are we hemorrhaging teachers? In that study linked above, Richard Ingersoll wrote this:

In short, the data suggest that school staffing problems are rooted in the way schools are organized and the way the teaching occupation is treated and that lasting improvements in the quality and quantity of the teaching workforce will require improvements in the quality of the teaching job.

In other words, making teaching jobs crappier and less secure is not likely to get people to stick around.

New York City schools played with the tenure thing, creating a sort of tenure twilight. Some folks thought a study of the system proved that you could get weaker teachers to go away on their own. I'm pretty sure that it proved you could get any teachers to go away if you told them they had no job security in their present location.

Everything-- everything-- tells us that if our goal really is to put a great teacher in every classroom, reformsters, educational thought leaders, and rich unelected amateurs who somehow get to set education policy are going about it exactly backwards. The attacks on tenure are literally the exact opposite of what is needed.

Of course, if the actual goal is to give schools a labor force that is cheaper and more easily controlled, then we are right on track. If we are trying to manufacture a staffing crisis so that we can say that we must issue emergency teaching credentials to all sentient beings in America, then we are on the right track. If we are trying to chase teachers away from large urban districts so that those districts (and their big beautiful piles of money) can be divied up by charter privateers, we are on the right track.

But if we want to talk about improving the teaching force, about making it better resemble the student population, about putting great teachers in front of all students-- if we want to talk about those things, then we need to stop talking about tenure and start talking about retention. What people actually choose to talk about tells us a great deal about their actual goals.

Tenure Is a Civil Rights Issue

I keep trying to write this out, and I keep getting bogged down in the many intricacies and side issues. I'm going to try once again to lay out how the people who insist that getting rid of tenure is a great leap forward for civil rights get things exactly backwards.

First, it's not even close to impossible to fire bad teachers.

Do you want to fire bad teachers? Okay-- how will you identify them, and just how bad do they have to be in order to be fire-worthy? How many people have to agree that they are bad? Remember, in the Vergara case one student's example of a terrible teacher who didn't deserve tenure was a woman who was named Teacher of the Year in her district.

The "solution" proposed by reformy types is to define teacher effectiveness (teacher goodness or the lack thereof) by looking at how well students learned. But "how well students learned" really means "how well students scored on the big state tests."

Keep in mind that the Big State Tests often test only math and reading. Do you think you can judge the quality of an eleventh grade phys ed teacher by the tenth graders' scores on a reading test?

Also keep in mind that multiple studies show that scores on those tests correlate directly to the amount of poverty in a school. Poor, urban, and/or minority students will predictably score lower on the big state tests, which means whoever teaches them will automatically pull low evaluation scores, which means volunteering to teach in high-poverty schools is volunteering to have a low (and potentially fire-worthy) effectiveness score. What do you think would be the best way to recruit teachers for those jobs?

But aren't there Value Added Measure formulas that can correct for all that? The short answer is, no, there are not. There is not a shred of evidence that those formulas do what they're supposed to, and plenty of evidence that they do not.

Which means that, despite all the noise about tenure repeal reform being a civil rights issue, the types of due process derailing being promoted will (by design or not) directly attack the quality of the teaching staffs in the schools that can least withstand these attacks. Linking teacher job security and pay to student test scores makes it harder to recruit and retain teachers for the urban schools already socked in by poverty and suffering from the instability that comes from steady staff churn.

These are also the schools in which teachers have to fight for their students, and fight hard, for everything from getting books for the classroom to speaking up about big-district policies that are unfair to the students, policies created and implemented by leaders who couldn't find their way to the school in question unless it was with a chauffeur and a GPS.

You build up any school by recruiting and retaining teachers, by building a staff that provides stability and security for the students there. You do not recruit teachers for high-poverty, low-achievement classroom jobs by saying, "Come work here. We'll chase you out the first time we get the chance, or the first time you annoy us." You recruit and retain teachers by saying, "We are investing in you for the long haul. We will work with you if you need help, and we will give you the support you need to do the job. We've got your back, and we're committed to you for the long haul. We promise that, barring actual malpractice,  you'll keep this job as long as you wish, even when we find you annoying. We hope you'll think of this school as your home for decades to come."

You build up any school by committing to a relationship with the people who work there, not by letting them know that you'll only keep them around as long as they're useful to you. If you want to protect the civil rights of the poor and minority students in this country, you protect the rights of their teachers.

Burden of Proof

We Americans have uneasy relationships with many of our most cherished laws and traditions. For instance, that pesky First Amendment-- can't we just limit freedom of speech to people who aren't stupid and wrong?

We also have trouble with the whole "innocent until proven guilty" thing. We all agree that you shouldn't jump to conclusions, but, man, when you just know that somebody is guilty, why should we have to bother with all this convoluted due process crap?

The framers had a pretty good idea how quickly things can go south without the presumption of innocence. Because when you presume, guilt, the whole focus, the whole purpose of the process completely changes.

Remember pressing? You might remember it from the case of Giles Corey, one of the Salem residents accused of witchcraft. Corey would not confess to witchery, and so the authorities tried to get a plea out of him by simply piling more and more slabs of rock on top of him. Instead of confessing, Corey died.

See, if we start with the assumption that a person is innocent, then the process involves figuring out the truth, whatever it might be. But if we start with the assumption that the person is guilty, then the process is about getting him to admit it, and since we already "know" that he's a guilty, guilty Bad Guy, anything we do to get a confession out of him is okay. Tricks? Sure-- we're trying to "catch" him being guilty, not find out what actually is going on. Torture? Doesn't matter-- it's just a down payment on his punishment. In a system that presumes guilt, we may never get at the truth, because we aren't even looking for it. We just head directly into the punishment phase.

It's all about burden of proof. If we assume that I'm innocent until we know otherwise, then you shoulder the burden of proving that I'm not. If we assume I'm guilty, then I have the burden to somehow prove that I'm not.

The attempt to change teacher evaluation in this country doesn't just represent a change in focus or technique. Some reformsters are trying to shift the burden of proof. "More than half the students in New York State failed the Big Test," exclaim Campbell Brown et al. "That means that more than half the teachers in New York State must suck." And so we set out to design a system in which teachers are assumed to be incompetent until they can prove otherwise. And that means a gotcha system, a pressing system, a system that is not interested in getting an accurate picture of what is going on in the classroom. "Accurate picture?" scoffs CBET. "We have an accurate picture-- crappy teachers are everywhere and they're stinking up the joint. Now, prove you're not one of them."

I believe some reformsters believe that student test results are actual useful data (they're dead wrong, but they believe it). But I also believe that some reformsters like using test data because it will give them the results that they already presume are true. They already know the "truth" (public school teachers are terrible), so a "good" evaluation system is one that "proves" what they already "know."

This shifting the burden of proof to teachers blinds the system, because we're no longer trying to find out what's actually happening in classrooms. We're just trying to catch teachers being "bad."

Worse, the same attitude trickles down through the system. American students are all terrible, right, because they're trapped in failing schools. We alllllll know that, right? So when, for instance, New York claims that almost three quarters of NY students are failures, reformsters don't leap up and say, "What the hell! Are you sure that's right?" and demand a more careful look at where those figures came from. No, it just confirms what they already "know" to be true. If somebody (say, one of the students who was just labeled a failure) wants to prove they're not a failure, the burden is on the student.

This is the essence of bad assessment, particularly for young children. Part of the idea of authentic assessment (for you young folks, that's an approach to assessment that was just gathering steam when No Child Left Behind came along and stabbed it in the heart) was that for teachers to approach assessment by asking, "What would be the best way for me to allow the student to reveal what she knows or can do?" High stakes standardized testing says to the child, "Prove to me that you're not a loser."

As I said, particularly rough on small children. Barring any kind of abusive home life, it has never occurred to a seven-year-old that she sucks, let alone that she should be prepared with an affirmative defense to prove she doesn't.

For a small child, the idea that the world sucks and she also sucks is serious news. But for children of any age, establishing that they're in an adversarial relationship with an education system that considers them broken and stupid unless they can prove otherwise is not helpful for anyone. Nor is it useful to employ a system of tests designed to "reveal" as much failure as possible. It's teacher 101-- success experiences create more success.

Tell students that they're failures over and over and over again and many will buckle under the heavy burden of proving that they aren't. And in the crazy world of reformsterism, reformsters speak as if they understand the importance of expectations, and then support a system that says plainly to students, "We expect most of you to fail."

A justice system that puts the burden of proof in the wrong place will collapse under its own badly distributed weight. It will fail to do its job, fail to find the truth, fail to support the innocent. An education system that makes the same mistake will yield similar results.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Test Prep Texts

Reformsters like to claim that the new generation of standards and tests have moved us beyond test prep. "No more rote memorization," they'll say. "Now we'll be testing critical thinky skills and depth of knowledge."

They are wrong on several counts. First, there are no standardized tests for critical thinking. Nor do I believe there ever will be. Let's consider the challenges to create a single such test question. We'd need to

1) design a deeply thinky, open-ended question that will play the same for every child from Florida to Alaska that generates

2) a million potentially divergent answers in a million different directions but which

3) can still be consistently mass-scored by a computer or army of low-skills test scorers. Plus

4) all this must be accomplished at a low cost so that whatever company doing it doesn't go broke.

Nothing that the testing industry has done in the history of ever would suggest that they have the slightest clue how to do this successfully. So what we get is a bunch of workarounds, cut corners, and plastic imitations of critical thought, such as questions where students must bubble in the correct piece of evidence one must be guided by, or more commonly, the one correct conclusion a good critical thinker must reach. Pro tip: if you expect every one of millions of human beings to answer your question with the same answer, it's not an open-ended question, and you aren't measuring critical thinking skills.

No, what we've got now is new tests that require more test prep rather than less. Here's why.

In prehistoric slate-and-charcoal tests, we would give the student a question such as "4 + 2 = ?" Because we had learned the conventions of that simple set-up, the student knew exactly what was being asked, and exactly how to answer it. The only test prep required was making sure that the student knew what you get when you add two and four.

The modern test problem is exemplified by a student I was once supervising in a test prep academic remediation class. He was working on a popular on-line test prep teaching program, and he had stopped, stared at the screen, typed, entered, stared some more, typed again-- rinse repeat, finally with lots of staring. I stepped up behind him; he was frustrated. "Do you need a hand with this problem?" I asked.

"No," he said. "I know what the answer is. I just don't know exactly how they want me to say it."

Meredith Broussard captured the issue masterfully in her Atlantic article last summer, "Why Poor Schools Can't Win at Standardized Testing." She concluded that the very best way to get students ready for the Big Test is to get them textbooks written by the same big three corporations that are producing the tests.

The most important test prep is getting students used to A) how the test will ask the questions and B) how the test wants students to answer the question. More complex (excuse me-- "rigorous") items just mean multiple ways to ask the question (and multiple ways to interpret the question that you ask) and multiple ways to answer the question.

So teachers are spending lots of time teaching students "When they ask X, what they're looking for is Y" as well as "When the want Y, they want you to say it like this." We practice reading short, context-free crappy excerpts, and then we learn what sorts of things the questions are rally looking for. We are doing more test prep carefully focused aligned instruction than ever.

If you're fortunate enough to be studying out of a Pearson text, you'll be test prepped educationally prepared for the Pearson test. If your students are studying out of some Brand X textbook, they won't be learning the Right Way to ask the question nor the Right Way to answer it. And what Broussard also revealed is that many large urban school districts (she was looking at Philly, but there's no reason to believe they are hugely unique in this respect) do not have the money to put the proper test prep books in front of their students.

It's just one more way that poor school systems get the shaft. Or if you're more conspiratorially minded, it's one more ways that large urban systems are set up for failure as a prelude to letting charter and private schools get their hands on all that sweet, sweet cash.

And even in less poor districts, test prep texts are a challenge. Remember-- if your books are more than about four years old, they probably aren't giving good test prep properly aligned with the tested standards. You need to replace them all, even if you're on a seven or ten year book replacement cycle.

Test prep is not only alive and well. It is more necessary, and more profitable, than ever.

Lend a Blogging Helping Hand

I read many education blogs. Many education blogs. There are so many people doing this work, and my blog list over on the right-hand side of this blog gets longer and longer. I'm writing today to enlist your assistance for one of my faves.

Most of the help you can give bloggers is cost-free. Don't just like; share, repost, retweet. If you like the word, spread the word. These just take a few extra seconds, and they are hugely appreciated.

Few of these blogs generate income for their writers, but most of us still have our day jobs, so it's not a big deal. Some folks will occasionally try to draw the false equivalency between the sides of the debate about the fate of public education, but the fact is, on one side you have outfits like Education Post that get $12 million in start-up money from reformsters and on the other side you have guys like me, who blog before the sun gets up or after the papers are graded at night or over our duty-free lunch.

But those of us who sacrifice a little sleep or more leisurely chewing sacrifice is small potatoes to someone like Jennifer Berkshire, who doesn't blog in addition to her job, but instead of getting a real revenue-enhancing job.

Berkshire is the brains behind Edushyster, a blog that is wickedly funny in a way that I deeply enjoy. But beyond being wickedly funny, Berkshire also does the work of a real journalist. She goes places, and talks to people, and consequently sees and hears things that nobody else does. She's been doing on this for two years, depending on the kindness of strangers and the forbearance of the man to whom she is, apparently, technically married. Now she proposes to try a little something else, but that requires her to get a little more than a couch to sleep on in some strange city.

She is proposing to take a look at some fairly big issues in education and gentrification as they play out in Chicago, and she's doing it through a sort of crowd-sourced independent journalist platform called Beacon. And the crowd-sourcing part is where we can help.

Follow this link. Look at the pitch. And chip in. Help support a valuable voice in the debate over public education.

TFA vs. Harvard Students

Valerie Strauss reports an exchange between the TFA mother ship and members of the Harvard chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops. Strauss presents the letters from this back-and-forth in their entirety, and you should click on over there and read them. It's worth noting that both sides are extraordinarily polite and civil. But I want to highlight just a couple of details from the TFA missives.

In reply to the USAS charge that TFA no longer follows its original mission of relieving a teacher shortage:

To your question about shortages, our program exists to meet local demand for teachers and long-term education leaders. In many of our partner districts, this demand stems from a severe shortage of available candidates for low-income schools generally. In others, the shortages are specific to certain subject areas or grade levels. In some, we serve as an additional source of teaching talent for principals to choose from.[Emphasis mine]

So, note that the program has as its stated purpose creating long-term education leaders. The teaching thing is just a training program for future edubosses, edupreneurs, and edubureaucrats.

The TFA writer also notes that TFA only applies for open positions, which is probably wise because back when I was job-hunting, I found that applying for occupied positions wasn't very helpful. The writer does not make any particular distinction about how those positions became open (say, through mass firings instituted so that the position could be filled with TFA members). And then we revisit the point made above:

We believe that students are best served when principals have access to the most robust possible talent pipeline – whether through our program, other alternative certification routes, or the schools of education that continue to prepare the vast majority of our nation’s teachers. We aim to be one small part of a well-trained, supported and celebrated national teaching force.

So-- it's not that there's a teacher shortage, or even (per the newest iteration of TFA) a teacher of color shortage. It's that principals need more choices, because what's coming through the traditional pipeline just isn't good enough. It's as straightforward a TFA statement as I've ever seen saying, "We fully intend to beat out new teacher school graduates for these jobs. You don't need us because there are too few teachers. You need us because there are two few teachers who are as awesome as we are."

After a USAS response, the next TFA letter comes from co-chief Matt Kramer. Kramer offers this interesting statistic:

Compared to first year teachers in general, they [TFA bodies] are more likely to teach a second year.

Not clear how he figures this one. While the USAS letters come with footnotes for their allegations. Kramer just says stuff. He also addresses the TFA Just Passing Through criticism by saying that the problems of education are larger than a classroom teacher can fix so he deplores the idea of judging any teacher based on student test results. Ha! Just kidding. He says that since these problems are too big for classroom teachers, many TFAers do education the favor of becoming "principals, community activists, district administrators, policy makers, elected officials and parent advocates." Thanks, guys!

The whole thing is an eye-opening exchange, particularly in the ways USAS find to say gently, firmly and politely, "You are full of it. Here are the facts. Stop lying." But totally civilly and respectfully. I could probably learn a lesson or two from them.

Jeb's National Education Summit

It's almost November and that means it's time to start making our plans to attend Bush III's National Education Summit, brought to you by your friends at Jeb Bush for President 2016 Foundation for Excellence in Education. It's a giant reformsterpalooza. (For some great stories from previous summits, read here and here.)

This year's theme is Unlocking Student Achievement: Choice * Accountability and it provides a great template for how we can peddle all of the regular reformster wares even as we completely scrub them of any reference to the Common Core. Bush III has been scrubbing all of the royal presidential educational advocacy materials lately, having noticed that being a Common Core Adorer is not winning him big love from the conservative wing of the GOP. Note this fundraising letter that completely avoids any mention of Bush III's previous policy BFF.

The national conference may be Common Core Free, but it is still stacked tall with reformy baloney. Here are the sessions you can expect to enjoy if you attend, and to save you time, I'll go ahead and predict the takeaways for each right now.

After Bush III's opening keynote (still working on a title, I guess), will be followed by these strategy sessions:

Measurement 2.0: Elevating students by testing what you teach

"States are adopting more rigorous academic standards" is about as close as we get to acknowledging that the Core exist (though if we're talking in present tense "dumping and distancing themselves from" might make a better sentence middle here).

But add to your stack of 1001 Statements That Prove CCSS and Tests Cannot Be Decoupled this sentence:

A standard without accurate measurement and strong accountability quickly becomes optional.

You can't kill the tests without killing the standards, and don't think for a moment that reformsters don't understand that. At any rate, this session focuses on the search for a super-duper test that is impervious to test prep and rote learning, and which measures critical thinking and depth of understanding. We will hear from four states about their search for this mythical test. Since the four states are Kentucky, Idaho, Mississippi and Florida (Pam Stewart will be there, perhaps to explain why tests should be administered to dying children), so I think we can cut to the chase, which is that nobody yet has the slightest clue how to create this mythically awesome tests.

Autonomy vs. Accountability: The right mix for school choice programs

We're talking about private school choice programs here. Michael McShane will be leading the panel, which includes leaders from FEE, Step Up for Students, and Alliance for School Choice.  Let's go ahead and predict that the right mix is "Let them do whatever the hell they want."

Communicating Reform Part 1: Crafting e-messages people will read and watch

Given the short life and sad demise of the "Learn More. Go Further" PR campaign that Bush and Friends launched. complete with sad sponsored teacher twitter accounts, I'm not sure FEE is the group to give advice about this. But somebody must because " we are confronted by an organized and well-funded opposition dedicated to maintaining the status quo." All I can say is-- somebody had better cough up my share of this well-fundedness, because I am clearly not getting a cut of the money that is buying other public education advocates their summer homes and fancy dijon mustard on their fancy ham sandwiches. I am literally sitting here at my desk in pajamas with a toasted bagel perched atop my desk mess, and shortly the dog is going to demand to go poop in the back yard and I will have to take him myself. I wonder if Jeb Bush has to take his own dog to poop in the back yard. I wonder how all of these reformsters dogs will cope when their owners are all in DC for two days.

In short, "organized and well-funded," my ass.

But @TeacherFaye is going to be here on the panel, so I'm pretty sure the takeaway will be, "Yes, go on and use the twitter on the interwebs, and the young persons will see your message and become convinced by the twitness."

Education Begins with K-3 Literacy: If kids can’t read, they can’t graduate

"because we won't let them" should probably be the rest of the title. FEE has beaten this drum since the first national convention in 2010, and the short form is simple-- flunk all third graders who can't pass your state's standardized reading test. The panel includes Mississippi State Senator Tollson and  Ohio Superintendent Richard Ross; if you are expecting to hear the slightest lick of research por evidence that this test and punish retention plan is a sound and helpful idea, you should just go wait in line with the people waiting to see Sasquatch riding a unicorn across the Bridge to Atlantis.

Takeaway: we should flunk third graders who flunk the state test because eight year olds need to be whipped into shape. Uphill, both ways.

Innovation in the Certification Process: Rethinking teacher licensure

"Rethinking" is a great word. I am rethinking taking my dog out to poop because my wife is now up and if I rethink it long enough, I might get out of doing it. While I do not mean to compare teacher licensure to dog poop, I think the rethinking process is similar. The panel also seems to be interested in rethinking tenure and FILO. It includes John King, so you know this will totally not be about how to rethink your way to an easily managed, low paid, non-licensed teaching workforce.

Making Schools Better Instead of Just More Expensive: How to make your education dollars count

"Despite all evidence to the contrary, there is still widespread belief that school success is tied to school funding," begins this description. "So this panel will discuss how they cut the budgets of high achieving schools in rich neighborhoods down to level of low-achieving schools in poor neighborhoods because it shouldn't make any difference." Ha! Just kidding. This panel is led by Chester Finn. This panel will discuss how to "direct funds where they will do the most good" or, as I read it, how to rewrite funding rules so that generating good test scores gets you funding, because directing funding away from struggling schools so that they can be declared failures and closed is bad education, but damn fine business.

The Next Chapter in Educational Choice: Education Savings Accounts

aka "Maybe If We Try Legislating Vouchers This Way, We Can Finally Get Them Past the Courts."

Not Your Daddy’s Woodshop: Career and technical education in the 21st century

Possibly not stupid-- somebody has noticed that we have a problem filling high skills blue collar jobs. Since we haven't yet figured out how to make jobs like, say, welding as low-skills as making fries, we'll have to come up with a way to train these peoples. "This is definitely not your daddy's woodshop," they say, stopping just short of "And of course your mommy would never take wood shop because, no penis." The head of the US Chamber, heavy promoters of Common "Everyone Has To Go To College" Core will head this panel, so I hope he's taking his cognitive dissonance pills.

Accountability Works Workshop: A-F school grading

Another Bush III fave with no actual facts to back it up. Presumably we'll skip the unit on How To Tweak the System So You Don't Embarrass Your Charter School Friends.

Day II Starts with:

The Civil Rights Issue of Our Time: Access to a Quality Education

This general session is moderated by famous civil rights activist and educational expert Campbell Brown. Since she's only the moderator, presumably she will not deliver her speech on "How to squash uppity black ladies who try to horn in on your civil rights lawsuit action."

For actual panelists we get Andrew Malone of Harlem Success Academy, Rev. Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and Patrick Dobard or the New Orleans Recovery School District. The blurb suggests that this will be a demonstration of how to appropriate the language of civil rights to promote your business interests as you cash in in the education sector.

Communicating Reform Part 2: Delivering effective messages

Marketing strategy. This is about "how to effectively reach your target audiences with tailored messages." So I'm expecting an update of the classic Charter Messaging Bible.And it should be a good one-- one of the panelists is Felix Schein, president of RALLY, the PR firm that created the successful astroturf group Students Matter for David Welch. Expect some practical branding and messaging advice here.

Bridging the Access Gap: How to bring the best courses to every student, in every state

I last encountered this idea in Michael McShane's walk-and-talk video-- why voucherize entire schools when you can really unbundle and voucherize by individual classes. Charter operators, you should attend this session so that you can understand that when some reformsters look into the future of education, they don't see you.

Building Trust in the Classroom: Protecting student data privacy and security

The big question is why this is not entitled "Doing the Right Thing: Protecting student data and privacy." But in reformsterland, data security is a PR problem, not an actual problem. This session promises to address all the data security issues except the main ones. We're going to talk about securing your on-line gradebook, but apparently not for the wholesale collection, sharing and selling of the data gathered from high stakes testing.

And there you have it

The confab runs from early morning, Thursday, November 20, through Friday afternoon, thereby guaranteeing that the doors will not be darkened by anybody who actually works in a public school classroom. Registration for the event is $499, though you can apply for a scholarship. The conference will be held at the Washington Marriot Wardman Park, so, fancy.

But the organizers want you to know: "Attendees leave the National Summit armed with the knowledge and networks to advance bold education reform in their states." They call it an "uncommon conference" which is kind of hilarious because they have scrubbed every reference to certain common thing, so it is literally un-commoned. At any rate, it "serves as a catalyst for energizing and accelerating the reform movement across the nation. Be there or be left behind."

I would love to be there to watch and learn and write down things I could blog about in a well-funded and organized way later, but I actually lack the funding and I am using my personal days this year to visit my soon-to-be-newborn grandson. Also, somebody has to be here to take the dog out to poop. Priorities, you know.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Charter Wolves in Public School Clothing: Buffalo Edition

The Alliance for Quality Education and Citizen Action of New York have released a report that shows in impressive detail how one school board member is raking in money in the charter biz.

Carl Paladino runs Ellicott Development, a large property develop company in the Buffalo area. Ellicott does a big chunk of business with charter operators in Buffalo, having worked with "the private operators of at least five Buffalo charter schools. His preferred money-making technique appears to be either flipping properties back to the operators, or "leaseback" deals.

The report also suggests that Paladino makes money indirectly from properties near new charters, which are now more valuable because the neighborhood has been improved. In one particularly sweet deal, Paladino bought up twenty-two properties on Buffalo's East Side, turned two of them into charter schools, and then started developing the other nearby nineteen as apartments.

Paladino ran for school board on the assertion that he would recuse himself from charter school votes. But the report notes that he has instead acted as "the most vocal proponent" of charters.

It reminds me a bit of the old westerns where the wily politician grabs himself a chunk of land and then colludes with the railroad company to run the new tracks through his property.

Paladino's interest in charter schools is not in dispute-- not even by him. On the question of making money from working with charters, the Buffalo City News quotes him:  "If I didn't, I'd be a friggin' idiot."

The News sat down with Paladino after the report was released and gave him an opportunity to respond. His argument appears to boil down to:

* Charters are only a small fraction of Ellicott's business.
* His investments in charters are crazy risky and yield a paltry 10% ROI, but he's a charter believer.
* Ellicott is a private company and he's not opening his books.
* He'll recuse himself from votes in which he has direct financial interest, but that's it.

The News also found at least charter founder who found Paladino to be an angel. These testimonies include schools in which Paladino is the sole investor; I am thinking they know how to treat that feeding hand.

The report gets into the specifics of how some of these arrangements work. The leaseback is particularly tasty. For those of you who don't play games with money for a living, here's how it works:

* Chris buys a building.
* Pat leases the building from Chris for a buck ($1.00)
* Chris leases the building (which he actually already owns) from Pat for a buttload of money.

Why would anybody even do that? Why pay a buttload of money to lease a building you already own? At least two possibilities come to mind.

1) In some regions, you may get tax breaks on lease payments that aren't available if you outright own the place. If you make the lease "include" features like custodial services and utilities, you can get breaks for basic overhead.

2) It gives a plausible cover for any large sum of money that Chris wants to give Pat without having to explain it. It can also be a way to hire and pay someone to fix your building up-- you could say that one is leasing back the improvements on the property. Of course, it all gets much more interesting if Chris and Pat are business partners-- or the same guy. Like, say, a not-for-profit school operator who still wants to pocket profit-like money.

I don't know what's going on in Paladino's case. He has scarfed up something like $685 K in tax breaks from sales and mortgage tax. Whatever he is, he is not a friggin' idiot.

Paladino may not be a generally shady operator at all-- at least no shadier than the average developer. Much of this likely falls within SOP for developers, and what Buffalo is simply witnessing the predictable shenanigans that come when you turn education from a public trust into a private enterprise. Paladino spent much of the article clarifying and supporting his business practices, but there was not a word about the quality of the charter schools that he has profited from.

The real shame here is that Paladino is on the school board, that he has basically been given a voice in how to run his business's main competitor and the oversight for his charter business. The conflict of interest here is huge, and anybody who says that charter interests and public school interests aren't directly opposed is smoking something. This is like giving a major leadership role at Coke to somebody with a major financial interest in Pepsi. It is like putting a wolf in charge of shepherding.