Monday, December 1, 2014

Forbes Fab Five by Five (Part II)

In our last installment, Forbes called a summit of Many Very Rich People to lay out what it would cost to fulfill the Must Have list for remaking American education. Now, we're going to sit around with some alleged representatives of education stakeholders.  And we should note that it's happening in the department of Forbes.

Paul Tudor Jones (founder of the Robin Hood Foundation) will be directing traffic as Andy Cuomo, Arne Duncan, Randi Weingarten and Kay Henderson (DC school chancellor) jaw about this. I should note that I'll be walking you through the Short and Marginally Sweeter transcript; apparently there is a longer version, but I just can't bring myself to go there.

You can read the account of what Forbes decided US education Really Needed at this post. The basic list of five critical elements of an educational overhaul are:

1) Teacher efficacy-- recruit best and brightest
2) Universal Pre-K-- because childhood is too long
3) School leadership-- give principals greater power over staff
4) Blended learning-- broadband and computers for everybody
5) Common Core/ College Readiness-- insert all classic baloney arguments here

So, let's begin.

Jones: "We have literally, the pillars of education in the US" here today. Our first question is a request to comment on the five...well, I guess we're going to call them Big Ideas. Which is biggest?

Weingarten goes first. Sigh. She thinks the five big ideas are really big and must all get done together. She sticks up for the Common Core some more, as if the whole foundational assumption of Common Core is that Weingarten's constituents can't do their jobs. I've made the same complaint about my own NEA many times-- would it be too much to ask that the head of a teachers' union stick up for teachers. Today, apparently, it is.

Henderson thinks that control of teaching staff and Common Core are the secret of DC's imaginary leap forward.

Arne thinks all five are swell, and all must be done at the same time and at scale. There are days when I think Arne is just a life-sized See 'N Say-- pull a string and some combination of his usual word salad comes out. Name checks his favorite Places Where Things Are Going Great (DC, Indiana, Tennessee). Thinks what's needed are leaders who will buck their own party orthodoxy-- so, Republicans who will cheerfully welcome federal control and Democrats who will screw teachers and public schools. Which brings us to

Cuomo agrees that we need all five. He decries the dual system of good schools for some and bad schools for others, as if he hasn't been working hard to spread that two-tier system. Andy says the big problem is that we're moving too slow and we're okay with that. Guess that's one more hint about what NY teachers can look forward to, and soon.

Jones asks which of the five can be controlled, and which can't. Weingarten makes noises about co-operating on local level, and Henderson allows that she has great power but she Gets Things Done when she works with her union partners, gets money from her government partners, and gets even more money from philanthropists.

Duncan goes with great teachers, great principals, high standards. Then someone pulls his string and something comes out from some alternate universe:

We found obviously that federal mandates don’t work well. Where we’ve had the most success is around incentives. And lots of carrots. Not mandate, not have sticks, but put money out there where we can to reward excellence–and that’s a hard sell on both sides in Congress. They’d much prefer straight formula funding. So we’re always fighting to have just a little bit of money to put out there as carrots.

Wait! What? I'm pretty sure the entire foundation of the waiver-based RttT system is sticks. Sticks to thump on states, evaluatory sticks to thump teachers, mandated testing, mandated school closings, do what we tell you or we'll let the wratch of NCLB rain down on your head-- maybe Arne just doesn't know what the difference is between a carrot and a stick. I mean, they're both shaped about the same. Maybe he's just completely confused.

Cuomo observes that he didn't get anything done by being nice, so he made everybody's money contingent on how well they follow his orders and he hasn't had any problems since. Money buys compliance! He has it all figured out, except maybe the part where purchasing compliance gets you nice paperwork and reports and people who are undercutting you every single chance they get. It gets you a mandate that never arrives because you were only able to buy just enough support to win, but not enough to win in a Presidential timbre manner.

Jones wants to know how philanthropists. Randi says "we're starting to learn what works" and this whole sad performance is one more example of how it's useless to get a seat at the table if you're not going to say anything useful once you get there. Honestly-- if you erased the names and titles, you would never read this article and guess that one of the participants was the head of the second-biggest teacher's union in the US.

Henderson gives Arne some strokes for being the only government guy who will fund innovation, and I think we can all agree that using a bureaucratic waiver maneuver to create new laws without the benefit of Congress is pretty innovative. The guillotine was also hot new stuff in its day.

Arne will now deliver more History from an Alternative Universe:

 Having a common way of measuring success is just so basic and fundamental to all of your businesses–that’s a radical concept in education. We need to get to that point of having a high bar and having clear ways of measuring how everybody is stacking up against that bar. Under No Child Left Behind, about 20 states dummied-down their standards, they reduced their standards. Why? To make politicians of both parties look good. It was terrible for children. Not one person challenged those politicians. Until [philanthropic leaders] and the broader citizenry hold politicians accountable, we’ll continue to be mired in mediocrity.

It's true. In thirty-plus years of teaching, I have never measured success in any manner. Just throw darts at a board and call it a day. But states did not dummy down under NCLB to make politicians look good. They did it to save their states' school from punishment under the heavy brainless hand of top-down federal mandates. They did it to avoid an unavoidable punishment that was inevitable because the feds set standards that nobody believed could be met, but they set them anyway. The dummying down was a completely predictable result of the perverse incentives built into a unsustainable punishment-based test-driven system created by educational amateurs in Washington DC. Dammit, Arne, if you want to learn a lesson from NCLB, learn that one, and learn it in some manner other than repeating the same damn mistakes.

As I said, there's a longer version of this somewhere. But as much as I love you all, that is a hit I'm not ready to take for the team.


  1. Sticks and carrots are just opposite sides of the same coin. I learned that as a kid. When my parents said, "As soon as you finish your brussels sprouts, you can have dessert", I heard, "you can't have dessert until you finish your brussels sprouts".

  2. Give principals even more dictatorial power over teachers than they already have, with no accountability for their actions? Just because some people in the world have way too much money doesn't mean they know anything at all about education, much less about the outrageous power imbalance between teachers and principals.

  3. Instead of giving principals hiring and firing power, they ought to be required to have 15 years teaching so they could actually attempt to be instructional leaders.