Saturday, January 31, 2015

Liberation & Cain's Problem

In Wisconsin, Governor (and presumptive entrant in the GOP Presidential rat race) Scott Walker has proposed to give the state university system freedom and independence. Specifically, he wants to liberate them from the oppression of about $300 million of state support over the next two years. He's also getting rid of many government mandates and statutes governing the university system, so they are free to innovatively slash whatever they like to make up for the shortfall.

This is solid conservative principle in action. Also in Wisconsin, we just saw a proposal for zones in Milwaukee's poorest areas that would "unleash" the power of individuals by getting them off welfare, a refrain that has been heard in virtually every state in the union. This has become a modern moebius version of the social program-- the best way to help the poor is to cut their government support.

The independence argument has crept into education as well, with the repeated assertion that throwing money at schools just won't help, the idea that schools are too dependent on financial assistance and that support should be trimmed back to make them more nimble, robust, flexible, innovative. The basic premise of school choice is that by taking resources away from public schools, we will force the public schools to become better by making better use of their newly-reduced resources.

I suspect that there are people who truly believe this, and I can even see why. but I don't believe for a second that any of the leaders and politicians who espouse it actually believe it at all. Not a bit. Here's why. They never bring it up in reference to anything except social services programs.

None of these corporate Masters of the Universe say, "We need to spark some creativity in the widget division, so let's cut their budget." Nor do they say, "The bumswagger division has done some great work, so lets reward them by cutting off their financial support."

None of these political whiz kids says, "Wall Street corporations have become too dependent on the largess of the federal government. We must help them out by pushing them off the federal teat. That way we can unleash them and their innovative creativity."

No-- in the corporate world, you go see a some Master of the Universe and make your pitch that you plan to be, hope to be, expect to be creative and innovative. Then the Master of the Universe helps unleash the innovation by handing over a pile of money.

I mean, look at the Gates Foundation. They have unleashed a hundred different cheerleaders for the common core and charters and other reformster fun zones by throwing money at them and there certainly doesn't seem to have been great concern that groups like TFA or CAP or any of the dozens of astroturf groups that have bloomed in the last decade-- nobody seems to be sitting back at the main office shaking their heads in serious and mournful tones saying, "Guys, I'm afraid that we have just made these groups too dependent on us. We should liberate them and unleash them so they can do great things."

No-- in these cases they do the opposite. Let's liberate innovation by supporting it; let's unleash innovation by funding it.

I expect they see a distinction between the two types of liberation-- liberating some folks by giving them money and liberating other folks cutting them off, making them do without support.

I suspect that they are following the simplest human impulse. Let's take care of Our People.

It is Cain's problem. The difficult question is not, "Am I my brother's keeper?" We all know the answer to that. The hard question is, "Who is my brother?"

The human inclination is to limit our compassion to members of our own tribe. My brother is a person like me. Those people over there who are not like ought to shape up; the ways in which they are different are probably part of their problem in the first place. We know on some level that it's wrong, but we can't help it. And yes-- we are just as bad when we assume that those damn reformsters must be friendless terrible people whose own mothers probably hate them.

I'm inclined to believe that one of the reasons that we're here is to take care of each other (and yes, I also believe that in the event there is no reason we're here, that only makes taking care of each other a greater imperative). I'm pretty sure it's a simple as that. Each of us is uniquely positioned to take care of a particular batch of people for a particular period of time.

I am not a puppies and rainbows guy, so I absolutely believe that sometimes taking care of people looks more like a kick in the butt than a pat on the head. But I also believe that step one means recognizing and honoring a person's own aspirations for him- or her-self.

I believe that to liberate persons, you have to respect them, listen to them, probably even love them. And I see no respect or honoring or love in policies that say, "I don't want to give Those People money because they are The Wrong Type of People, and so I am going to try to make them hurt instead."

The root of far too many policy ideas is a simple one-- it's the belief that Those Kinds of People are making the wrong choices, and they should be suffering because of them. Anything that interferes with that suffering is interfering with cosmic justice, and if it's interfering by using my money, it's a double interference.

Too much of this thinking has seeped into education policy. If those kids don't want crappy schools, they shouldn't be poor. But if you're That Kind of Person, you end up poor and you should end up poor and you should suffer the effects of being poor. We'll set up better schools for some of those poor kids, but only the ones who show their willingness to be the Right Kind of Person.

That is not liberation. It is subjugation. That is not unleashing. It is leashing.

We cannot support schools with infinite resources that we don't have, and it doesn't help anyone to be given free ponies and ice cream every day just for drawing breath. But we have got to stop this ridiculous language of liberation, insisting that we can best help people become unleashed and free by turning our backs on them, making sure they feel the full sting of need, and ignoring our own moral imperative to help and support whoever we can.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Boston Consulting Group: Another Dark Horseman

Word went out today that immediately after Arkansas decided to make Little Rock Schools non-public, the Walton family called a "focus group" meeting "in conjunction with the Boston Consulting Group. This is worse than finding the slender man in the back of your family portrait. For a public school system, this is finding the grim reaper at your front door. And he's not selling cookies.

The Boston Consulting Group is often referred to as " management consulting group." That's not entirely accurate. BCG is one of The Big Three consulting groups-- the other two are McKinsey and Bain. People love working there, and the people who work there are recruited heavily from the very toppest universities. These are the guys that Fortune 500 companies call for help making money. Forbes lists them as America's 112th largest private company. Gutting and stripping school districts does not even require a tenth of their power or attention. They are officially scary.

Read up on BCG and you find they have mainly three big claims to fame, and all of them are deeply bad news for public education.

This is the growth-share matrix, used to help a corporation to decide how to allocate resources (aka how to figure out which losers could be starved out). Sound familiar?

The experience curve is even simpler. The more a task is performed, the lower the cost of performing it. In other words, if you can reduce a process (manufacturing, service, whatever) to a series of simple tasks that will be repeated over and over, you can reduce the cost of the process. Sound familiar?

This advantage matrix lets us divide businesses into one of four types in order to figure out which strategy best lets us cash in. For instance, when a business is scaleable but hard to do differentiation in, the answer is volume volume volume. Sound familiar?

BCG's arrival in Little Rock is unsurprising; they've been around the education block several times. They were in the news just last week when Parents United finally won a long court case to be allowed to see BCG's super-duper secret plans for Philadelphia schools, drawn up way back when Philly was first turned into one of the nation's largest non-public school systems, run by state-appointed executives rather than an elected board.

A major feature of BCG's plan for Philly seems to be standard for them-- close this bunch of schools, and open up some nifty charters. In other words, cut off resources to the dogs. As a top consulting group, BCG doesn't come cheap-- their consulting fee in Philly was reportedly $230,000 per week. That's just under $33,000 per day. That's a little less than the starting salary for a teacher in Philly. Per day. 

BCG has proposed a similar program in Memphis. Reportedly Cleveland, Seattle, Arizona, and New Orleans have also felt the loving BCG touch. BCG also has close friends in the charter world, with several folks hopping back and forth between BCG and the board of KIPP. BCG joined up with many of the big players (Gates, Joyce) to form Advance Illionois. And they helped write North Carolina's Race to the Top bid (all these painful details and more can be found in this 2012 article at The Common Errant). Strive in Cincinnati-- that's BCG, too. And last fall, they were spotted doing development planning for Connecticut's education sector.

A year ago, BCG teamed up with the Gates Foundation and the Harvard Business School; for their first magic trick, they produced "America's Education System at a Crossroads: New Research and Insights on Business-Educator Partnerships in PreK-12 Education." (If that language sounds vaguely familiar, it could be because Arne Duncan's Big Important Speech about ESEA reauthorization was entitled "America's Educational Crossroads"). The BCG "report" put forth three recommendations:

• Laying the policy foundations for education innovation: Business action is urgently needed to ensure Common Core State Standards are actually put into practice, for example.
• Scaling up proven innovations: Business leaders can partner with educators to scale up innovations that are already showing results.
• Reinventing the local education ecosystem: Business can help educators set and implement comprehensive strategies to upgrade education in specific cities and towns. 

 Yeah, that all sounds familiar, too. Their second piece of reportage, "Partial Credit: How America's School Superintendents See Business As a Partner" (because why talk about teachers-- these kinds of important dealings don't involve The Help who will do as their told when it's time to tell them), offers some concrete advice:

“Strengthening our schools is a big challenge. To get this job done, we must all work together. From designing new classroom tools to engaging with businesses, our educators must not just be included in the process, they must help lead it,” said Jeff Raikes, CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

That all reaches a fuller pitch in "Lasting Impact: A Business Leader's Playbook for Supporting America's Schools"  (another BCG-Gates-Harvard joint production). It starts with an introduction that quotes the "rising tide of mediocrity," stops at "fortunately, we don't have to settle for incrementalism any more" and barrels down to more detailed discussion of the three strategies listed above.I may take you on a more detailed tour of this twenty-seven page tome, but for the moment, I don't have the heart to add one more gloomy chapter to this dark tale. Suffice it to say that it is a veritable bible for the corporate reformster. 

Bottom line? Say a little prayer for the formerly public schools of Little Rock, because BCG is in town and they're sharpening their axe.

Mismarketing the Core

Reader Rafe Gomez works at VC Inc. Marketing, "a provider of multimedia Sales Inquiry Optimized content." I tried to google "Sales Inquiry Optimized content" and discovered that VC Inc not only provide this service, but are the only people on the internet using this phrase.

Whatever his bona fides in the world of fancy huckstering, Gomez does offer an interesting perspective on Common Core. Specifically, he approaches the Core as a product that was not very effectively marketed, and in this blog piece, he presents the Five Marketing Lessons That the Common Core Initiative Should Have Followed. It's an interesting look at the reformsters' issues from a different discipline's perspective.

In general, he suggests that "the Common Core proponents didn't perform their due diligence," and were more intent on getting the Core launched and "disrupting" public education instead of "bulletproofing its contents, perfecting its pedagogy, and proving its value to implementers (teachers) and end users (students, and by extension, their parents)." Here are his five lessons.

1) Inspire bottom up innovation.

If the true goal of the Common Core's architects was to devise high-quality academic standards that prepared public school students for college, career, and life, they should have enlisted teachers to formulate, test, and refine such standards themselves that were appropriate for their respective grade levels.

Facebook was designed and implemented from the bottom up. It may seem obvious now, but nobody was telling Zuckerberg to go design this thing-- he just set out to fill a need. Involving teachers in the creation of the Core would have resulted in a better product and created much more traction with the people who were actually going to use it.

2) Disrupt productively

Gomez gives the Core more credit than it deserves, saying that it's too early to make the call on whether it's productive or unproductive. We know it's unproductive, which just goes to prove his point. A bull in a China shop is disruptive, but not in a creative or productive way.

3) Deliver undeniable 360 degree benefits

The best marketing is product that provides something that people want. Gomez offers LinkedIn as his example. It launched and it took off because it provided something people wanted and it delivered on that promise well.

Gomez is again generous to the Core.

Though the Common Core has many laudable goals, its clear-cut advantages have yet to be realized. With no universally agreed upon benefits to speak of, it's not currently possible for the Common Core to attain rapturous LinkedIn-like buy-in among implementers (teachers) or end users (students and their parents). 

The laudable goals may be arguable, but Gomez is correct in saying that part of the Core's problem is that it hasn't delivered anything useful. If it worked, and worked well, Bill Gates and other cheerleaders could save their money, because teachers would be pushing the Common Core on their own.

4) Listen, adapt, and improve

Successful companies include a feedback loop in their marketing, a way for them to assess how well their stuff is playing to the audience and adjust accordingly. Gomez offers the example of Ford's messed-up MyFord Touch, but my mind went straight to New Coke. After marketing the living daylights out of it, Coke could have sworn that the public could either buy the new stuff or go thirsty. Instead, they listened, adapted, and fixed the problem.

Common Core, of course, has no such capacity. The creators wrote it, copyrighted it, and dispersed to other profitable jobs. If you have a suggestion about the Core, you can talk to the wall, write your idea down and bury it wrapped around a warty toad leg under a full moon, or call the Common Core help line. Ha! Actually, only two of those three solutions are actually possible. Guess which one isn't (hint: it involves a phone).

5) Respect and thrill your customers

Gomez mentions Amazon's fifth consecutive year in the Wall Street Journal customer service hall of fame. People love amazon because it busts its ass to make its customers happy (we'll set aside for the moment exactly how happy they make their employees). Gomez suggests that CCSS could have used Amazon's desire to thrill (and he calls Common Core a "curriculum," inadvertently underlining how CCSS has also failed in the clear messaging department).

But unfortunately, the pursuit of servicing and satisfying their "customers" (teachers, students, and parents) isn't mentioned in any of their marketing collateral. And as discussed above, respecting and thrilling their customers doesn't seem to be an element in their implementation protocol.

For a marketing guy, Gomez sure has a way with understatement. This point is solid, and it actually makes me a little sad to contemplate how used we are as teachers to working in a world where being amazing and awesome and thrilling and respectful are adjectives that we don't even expect to encounter.

Interesting to contemplate the failures of Common Core from another perspective. Also interesting to realize that even though we think of the Core as something that has been sculpted and marketed with the power of a mountain of greenbacks behind it, even that marketing push has been poorly done. Not only are the Captains of the Core rank amateurs at education, but they are marketing amateurs as well.

Ohio Superintendents Step Up

Sixteen superintendents from Lorain County, Ohio, have stepped up to speak out for public education in Ohio.

Lorain County is a short hop west of Cleveland, right on the lake. It has given the world Toni Morrison and Tom Batiuk. My first teaching job was at Lorain High School, one of the three public high schools in the city. That was 1979-- the city was a bit over 80K in population, and solidly blue-collar, with steel, auto, and shipping industries firmly in place. The bottom soon dropped out. I was RIFfed at the end of my first year; a year later Lorain was on the news as part of a feature on the collapsing industrial economy. Today the high school where I taught is a vacant lot. So I have a soft spot for Lorain County.

As reported by Michael Sangiacomo on, the sixteen superintendents of Lorain County have come together to call for big changes, particularly targeting "excessive student testing, overly strict teacher evaluations, loss of state funding to charter and online schools, and other cuts in funding."

Funding formulas are a special kind of bizarre in Ohio. According to the superintendents, the state actually pays more to send students to charters and cybers than to send them to public school. They offered some specific examples but the overall average is striking by itself-- the state average per pupil payment to traditional public schools is $3,540 per student, but the average payment to an Ohio charter is $7,189.

The superintendents have a website-- that at the moment offers just a few pieces of information.

One is the summary of the survey that the superintendents conducted in January of 2015. The summary of what they heard from Lorain County residents is short but sweet

* their school districts are doing an excellent or good job,
* high quality teachers are the most important indicator of a high quality education
* earning high marks on the state report card isn't that important
* increased state testing has not helped students
* decisions are best made at the local level,
* preschool education– especially for those students from poverty-- should be expanded (and they said they would increase their taxes to support it)
* school finance is the biggest challenge facing our schools,
* and their local tax dollars should not be going to support private schools and for-profit and online charter schools

The superintendents offer their response as well. They note that the vast majority of citizens are unaware of what's coming out of Columbus and DC. They have some specific concerns about some Ohio reforms, but their overriding concern is " the loss of local control of our public schools." And this, which I found interesting:

We are much to blame for not standing up to these ill-fated education reforms.

 There are some other interesting chunks of information on the site, including a link to the site about How Ohio Charter Schools Are Performing, which features a chance to plug in a charter and compare it to your own school results and a bank of news that provides information about how the charter fight is going. This site comes from the Ohio Charter School Accountability Project, which is a joint venture of the Ohio Education Association and Innovation Ohio. 

Ohio has been hammered hard by the reformsters, and the political leaders of the state have made no secret of their love for charters and privatization. It's nice to see an entire county's worth of school leaders standing up to fight back for public education.

Public Schools Are Not Monopolies

A common rhetorical flourish among reformsters from charter boosters to the governor of New York is to refer to public schools as a monopoly.

That's not the truth. To call public schools a monopoly is to either reveal ignorance or hide behind a lie.

To have a monopoly, we must have a single person or business entity which controls all the supply of a particular commodity. Now, schools are not businesses and education is not a commodity, but for our purposes, let's go ahead and pretend that the term can be stretched to cover something like schooling.

A monopoly would be a situation in which you can't get schooling from anyone else. Put another way, it would be a situation in which you have to deal with a particular boss or set of bosses.

Those of us of a certain age remember when the phone company was a monopoly. It didn't matter where you lived or what service you wanted in a phone, ultimately you were dealing with exactly the same corporate board of directors. And you couldn't do a thing about it.

Public schools would be a monopoly --

-- if every single school in the country was ultimately run by the same board of directors. They are not. That has always been one of the reasons that people choose to live in West Egg instead of in East Egg-- they like the West Egg schools better.

-- if the management of the school could not be replaced by the customers. But they can be. We have this thing called elections, in which the public can replace as many of the board of directors as they wish. Imagine what would happen to a corporation like Microsoft or US Air if they could be voted off the board by a vote of every customer of the company? They can't, but the board of a public school can be.

I was struck this morning, reading Jersey Jazzman's account of the struggle over public education in Jersey City, just how much the reformerized school districts behave like true monopolies.

Graduates of the Broad School, where future school bosses receive master of the universe training, cranks out people who prefer a setting where they answer to nobody. Reed Hastings is just one charter fan who has complained about having elected school boards. The push repeatedly in places like Philly and New Jersey and Detroit and unfortunately the list goes on and on-- that push is to cut the elected board out of the picture and replace it with a structure that is politically insulated from the voters.

Charter and choice fans talk about busting government school monopolies, but what they want specifically is a setting where they answer to no one and where no elected official can bother them. Elected officials are a pain because they have to keep voters happy.

And so we repeatedly see school leaders like Cami Anderson and John White who plough on secure in knowing that they don't have to answer to the voters or the customers or anyone.

That is what monopoly looks like on the ground. You take your complaint to the boss and the boss says, "So what? That's what I want to do, and you can't do a thing about it." And that's not what we get at public schools, where the voters can hire and fire the board members who are the ultimate bosses. That's what we get at school systems that have been reformed, or charter systems that have no elected board and need not answer to anyone.

That's the upside-down world of school reform. Use accusations of "monopoly" to help cut down the public system, and then replace it with systems that behave far more like monopolies than public schools ever did.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Milwaukee's New War on the Poor

On Wednesday, Senator Alberta Darling and Representative Dale Kooyenga released "New Opportunities for Milwaukee." It'stunning. It's a blueprint, a plan, a carefully-crafted rhetorical stance that turns the war on poverty into a war on the poor. Does it present new opportunities? It surely does-- but they are opportunities for more privateers to use the language of civil rights to mask the same old profiteering game.

Make sure your seat belts and safety harnesses are locked in place, because we are about to travel to a place where up is down and forward is backward. The first chunk is directly related to education; the rest is not, but I'm going to go the distance anyway because it helps lay out a particular point of view that is driving some reformsters. The full report is twenty-five pages; I've read them so that you don't have to, but you may still want to. Forewarned is forearmed.


2014 marked the 50-year anniversary of the war on poverty. Since 1964, taxpayers spent over $22 trillion to combat poverty. Little, if any, progress has been achieved.

Those are the opening lines, and our basic premise. The writers declare the war on poverty a failure, and the draw a line between Eisenhower's military-industrial complex and a new poverty industrial complex. "There is a presumption in this nation that all we have to do is appropriate more money to address a problem, but over time we see no correlation between government spending and the alleviation of poverty." In fact, the writer's suggest, poverty has gotten worse in the areas that get the most government attention.

"Two-thirds of the incarcerated African-American men come from six zip codes in Milwaukee and it is no coincidence that those zip codes are also home to the greatest density of failing schools and the highest unemployment in the state." Boy, and that's true. It's also no coincidence that every time I see a building on fire, there's a fire truck right nearby, or that every time find water dripping off my car, there's rain. Say it with me, boys and girls-- correlation is not causation.

The writers acknowledge that the poverty of these areas is "a reality no one should accept" and they talk about "the real pain there." They also assert that "no one wants to be in poverty"and they recognize that "Milwaukee is increasingly becoming a tale of two cities."

They also want you to know that the ideas in this plan won't "cost any taxpayer, at any level of government, a single cent." Because compassion is nice and all, but compassion that doesn't actually cost you anything is best. Their plan is about "unleashing individuals, not unleashing government spending," which rather begs the question of what, exactly, has individuals leashed in the first place. They think their ideas are good for the whole state, but for now, they'll just focus on zip codes with unemployment over 10%.

Chapter 1: Empowerment Through Education

This chapter kicks off with great news! While we lost the war on poverty, we apparently totally won the battle for civil rights and equity. No kidding.

In the past, being a minority in America inhibited an individual from pursuing a promising career and well-paying job. This reality is an embarrassing one for our great country, fortunately tremendous progress has been made on this injustice since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Today, a greater discriminator to escaping poverty is not race, but instead revolves around the ability to obtain a high school diploma.

The emphasis is mine (the comma splice and fractured syntax are theirs).

Just soak that in. Just absorb for a minute the implications. The civil rights movement is over; everybody can just go home now. Race is no longer a factor in poverty, and poverty is no longer a factor in its own perpetuation, and class background has nothing to do with upward mobility. It's all education.I told you you were going to need a seatbelt.

The writers want you to know that "fortunately" Milwaukee is a veritable experimentation laboratory for swell things like open enrollment, choice and charter programs. How's that been working out for them? Well...

There have been successes and failures, but overall the competition between schools and school systems is a positive for the community.

Mind you, just a paragraph earlier the writers had graphs and facts and figures about graduation rates. I guess we're just going to have to take their word for it that competition has been positive. And just to be clear-- no, I don't necessarily think that they are trying to hide the truth here. Choice and free market advocates often believe that choice and competition are virtuous in and of themselves. Educational results are beside the point-- choice is how proper systems are supposed to work, and if the results don't back that up, well, something else is messing the system up.

Now on to their proposed fixes.

Charter School Replication 

Expanding proven charter schools is essential to improving more quality education, say the writers, and once again, this is more an affirmation of faith than an evidence-based conclusion. A short history of charters in Milwaukee follows, featuring a lovely pro-charter quote from President Obama and some examples of swell charter ideas like Rocketship Charters.

Charter schools are a positive for any community. Similar to the voucher program, their existence applies pressure to traditional public schools to increase their educational delivery system in order to compete. 

Their proposal? Allow high-performing charters to replicate without the approval of a charter school authorizer. In this case, "high-performing" will be defined as "beating local mat and reading scores by ten percent for two straight years." So charterpreneurs just need to scoop up some select educational cream, hit the test prep hard, and in two years they can earn carte blanche to create as a big a charter chain as they wish, answerable to nobody at all!

Turnaround schools

Entrenched interests are standing in the way of large scale reform. Thousands of children are "victims of low academic achievement and therefore, dependence on government."

The writers will now use New Orleans and Tennessee's ASD as examples of sweeping reforms. For NOLA, they'll cite success that has been repeatedly debunked. For Tennessee, it's just "early reports" are "encouraging."

Their proposal? A turnaround board that operates outside traditional bureaucracy. The board will entertain proposals from charter operators and will award a five-year charter school contract to the best plan. So, one more public school system turned into a non-public school system to be run as a business. Because it has worked so well in-- oh, wait. It hasn't worked anywhere. Because democracy is stupid and gets in the way of a good business plan? Maybe that's the justification here.

Dual Enrollment Program

"The notion that every student's best interest is served by pursuing a bachelor's degree is without merit."

I have no disagreement with this portion of the proposal at all. Apparently Wisconsin runs a program that helps prep students to be machinists, welders or tech workers in a work-based learning opportunity. In Pennsylvania we have vocational-technical schools, and I will go to bat for these programs any day of the week. The world needs more welders and what's more, the world pays welders good money. There's no reason not to make it easier for students to choose that career path (which is one more reason that the Common Core are a waste of our time).

Proposal? More of that. I'm not going to disagree.

Chapter 220 Intradistrict Aid Flexibility

Back in the seventies, Milwaukee decided (with the help of some federal pressure) to get to integrating its schools.This falls under the heading of Chapter 220 intradistrict stuff.

If I understand correctly, schools basically get paid to accept students who help them meet the mandated mix of integration. The writers want you to know that the statute has a large helping of stupid in that it only recognizes two types of students-- white, and not white. As far as the statute is concerned, Asian, African-American and Latino students are interchangeable.

Proposed solution? If you said "Fix the definition of diversity," you lose. The correct answer is Give out all the money as block grants and don't require any school to do anything in particular with it. So, call a halt to desegregation in Milwaukee? Maybe that's larger than our goal. Perhaps they just want to make sure that charters can choose exactly whatever students they want, no matter what.

DPI Waiver of Mandates

"One size does not fit all." By which the writers mean, schools should be able to get permission to ignore whatever mandates they would like. Because what fun is a charter if you have to follow a bunch of government rules?

Computer Programming Academy

The market wants more technology workers. Let's make it some, because programmers make a lot of money. Perhaps Milwaukee can also start programs for super-models and professional athletes, who also make big money. Or politicians.

And that's the end of the education-specific material. If that's all you came for, you can bail now. 

Chapter 2: Free Market Zones-- Targeted Practices for Challenging Neighborhoods

So, these target areas we're talking about are former industrial areas that have seen a "steady decline in manufacturing and the economic activity related to its supply chain," which was a surprise to me because, you know, the key to fixing all economic problems is education, so wouldn't that mean that back in the days of fuller employment we were going great guns in schools? Anyway, these high-unemployment areas carry a lot of extra costs connected with poverty. But have no fear--

Our proposals are not centered on removing safety nets, but providing trampolines.

I love a good metaphor, but I'll be damned if I can figure out what a trampoline would be, but here some the specific of their plan, so let's see.

Not all is baloney. There's a proposal for zero-percent corporate taxes for new businesses (as long they aren't competing with old one).  Wisconsin also has a 1939 law that you can't sell products at a loss, so that the big guy won't squeeze out the little guy. The writers say that since the big guys are now on line, this is a lost cause (and keeps consumers from getting hot deals). I think I may side with them on this. On the other hand, there's this:

Right-to-Work Zone

Peacekeeper missile. Freedom is slavery. Right to work.

The proposal here is simple. A five-person governor-appointed board should be able to okay keeping any unions away from a new business. The writers say this is necessary to keep Wisconsin "competitive" by which we must mean competitive from an employer's viewpoint, because this is certainly not how you compete for workers.

Oddly enough, Wisconsin is not the only place to recently float this idea. The governor of Illinois has also floated a similar inspiration. It's almost as if somebody, somewhere has suggested this cool idea-- "If you can't get your whole state to go anti-union, maybe you can just set up a few select union-free zones here and there." ALEC? He Man Union Busters Club Monthly?

I have actually seen a business keep the union out. The owner did it by treating their employees so well that they consistently rejected union overtures. I have also seen managers work with unions as effective partners in keeping a company efficient and profitable. I am not a knee-jerk union supporter at all, but the idea that you have to keep the union out to run a company well is narrow, short-sighted, and often more about somebody's personal power trip than effective corporate management.

Right-to-Work states, zones, neighborhoods and companies are baloney.

Chapter 3: Removing Barriers to Work

Apparently there are Puritans in Wisconsin, because this chapter kicks off wit the idea that work is a moral imperative and it's immoral for the government to put obstacles in the way of anybody interested in working.

The writers would like to remove licensure requirements for floor sanders, interior designers, photographers, and African hair braiding. They would like businesses with low traffic and few employees to be operated out of homes. And they'd like to stop the city from creating more license-necessary professions.

Chapter 4: Social Impact Bonds

Lordy, there's a lot of language here, but it appears that this just all fancy talk for "Sub-contract various government functions and initiatives to third parties." So, for example, if you have identified a problem with recidivism, hire an organization to work on that.

If you'll remember way back to the intro, you'll recall that the writers were very concerned that poverty programs were leading to a poverty industrial complex, but it looks to me like this sort of third party contracting is exactly how you create a poverty industrial complex, or social services industrial complex.

It's a version of what we're seeing in reformster thought- throwing money at government programs is bad, but throwing money at private contractors to run government programs is just super.

Chapter 5: Benefit Corporation and L3C

I'm curious about this, but I don't have time to research further. Apparently a benefit corporation is basically a corporation that can't be sued by its shareholders for making too little profit. Benefit corporations are supposed to be all about producing some sort of social good. It's a new legal toy; the first state to approve it was Maryland and that was just back in 2010. Only twenty-eight states have them right now; Wisconsin is not one of them. Low-profit Limited Liability Companies seem to be legal constructions for the same sort of general purposes. I'm not certain, but it seems like just the thing for anybody who wanted to cash in on the social services industrial complex, or run a charter school company.

There are, of course, gaping holes in this proposal. The jobs went away because industry went away, but if we get everyone a diploma, they will be able to get jobs.... where? Spending money on social service programs is stupid unless you're spending it on private companies that implement those programs, in which case it's great. Unions and government assistance are holding people back, but race and class have nothing to do with it.

There's remarkably little in these twenty-five pages about how to actually solve some of the problems of poverty, particularly poverty in a place where the industrialized bottom has fallen out. It may well be that the writers truly believe that an onslaught of business folks will actually lead to some sort of Milwaukee renaissance, or it may be that they are cynically exploiting the issues of poverty, civil rights and equity to help some buddies make bank. 

Either way, this proposal is not about how to help people in the Danger Zones. It's about how to open up the Zones so that private interests can get in there to make a buck. It's opening up the gates to the game lands and telling the pack, "Go ahead. It's open season."

Choice & Charter Digest

In honor of both Throwback Thursday and a week devoted to school choice PR (thanks for endorsing that, Mr. President), here's an assortment of archive pieces from this blog about choice and charters. Enjoy some old favorites and share them with a friend.

Bullying in New Jersey
In which the New Jersey Charter School Association decides that the best way to deal with a Rutgers professor doing research that makes charters look bad is to use the courts to try to bully her into silence.

My Public School Sales Pitch
If I were telling a parent why to choose public school over charters, this would be my sales pitch.

Indiana: Building a Better Leech
Here's how they go about sucking public schools dry in Indianapolis so that charters can profit.

Choice and Disenfranchising the Public
School choice is all about cutting voters and taxpayers out of their own public school system.

The First All-Charter District
A complete takeover of an entire school district by a charter company has been tried. You just don't hear about it much because it was a total failure.

Why For-Profit = Anti-Student
Whether it's a flat-out for profit school or one of those non-profits used to funnel profits to corporate pockets, a school that needs to make money cannot help being bad for students.

Chicago Schools Caught Cooking the Charter Books
When charters need to look successful, there's always plain old changing the numbers. Here's how Chicago gave some charters a helping hand.

Profiting from Non-Profits
Non-profits are a great way to look noble and still make a bundle of loot.

Charters Break the American Promise
School choice is about reinforcing the social strata

Bush: Nuanced and Wrong
Jeb Bush may be backing away a bit from CCSS, but he is leaning into choice and charters. Here's why he's wrong.

Charter Wolves in Public School Clothing: Buffalo Edition
Buffalo, NY, provides yet another model for using charters to get rich off public tax dollars

Should We Embrace Charter Districts
Responding to a piece that puts all the pro-charter arguments in one spot. They're still wrong.

Forever Schools
Charters aren't in it for the long haul; public schools are.

The Public Charter School Test
If a charter wants to claim it's a public school, it has to meet these four tests.

Charters as Money Funnels
The Gulen chain provides yet another example of how charters can be better at making money than at making education.;

Charters Want More Money
Remember how charters promoted themselves by saying they'd make education less expensive. That was the bait. Now comes the switch.

Fraud and Mismanagement in PA Charters
Here's Pennsylvania's version of how to use charters for shenanigans and profit.

How To Win Hearts and Minds for Charterdom
Did you know there's an actual marketing handbook for the charter movement. I am not making this up.

Cyber-Schools Still Suck, Says NEPC Report
NEPC took a look at 338 cybers. Not very pretty.

When School Choice Works
Under what conditions would voucher systems be okay?

Choice & Cable
Market forces do not foster excellence.

School Choice Does Not Reduce the Cost of Education
School choice does not make education cheaper. It just redistributes the money.

Conservatives Don't Really Like School Choice
Okay, I know some say they do. But if you really follow conservative principles, they do not lead you to school choice.

The Financial Fantasies of Choice
Support of school choice rests on some financial fictions that just won't die. This one caused enough ruckus to rate a sequel.

School Choice is Un-American
Choice violates some basic principles that we hold dear in this country.

Involuntary Free Market
Free market competition for schools doesn't fit, because not everybody really wants the product.

The Free Market Hates Losers
The free market demands winners and losers. It's a philosophy that has no place in public schools.

Schools, Transparency and Free Markets
Remember when even that free market CREDO charter fan said that the free market doesn't work for schools.

Charters: Diminishing Returns and Just Good Enough
The free market is incompatible with education. Here's why.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Congress and Your Homework

Congress must not abdicate its responsibility to help all children succeed.

That's Arne Duncan, responding to the proposed Lamar Alexander remix of No Child Left Behind. It's an interesting construction, an inspiring line.

The first picture that popped into my head was an old white guy in a suit, knocking on some family's front door. When a parent answers, he says, "Hello. I'm Senator Bumswoggle, and I'm here to help Chris study for the big algebra test tomorrow."

Okay, that's probably not what Duncan means. But it does raise the question-- what exactly can Congress do to help all children succeed? If we went into classrooms and asked the students, "What do you need from your Congressperson to help you succeed this week?" what would they say?

Would they say that they really, really need to take a bunch of standardized tests? "I think I'm getting better at reading," will say some bright-eyed eight-year-old, "but until I take a standardized test from Congress, I just don't know." Is that what would happen?

Would they say, "Please don't give any more resources to this school. Instead, give the money to some charter operator to set up a completely different school. Yes, I realize they might not let me go to that school, and I'll have to stay in this one scraping by with fewer resources, but I'll sleep better knowing that entrepreneurs have had the opportunity to unleash innovation while making good ROI."
It is sweet that Duncan and Congress want to help. The desire to help, particularly to help those who are most vulnerable, is a basic human impulse, and a credit to every person who feels it. But the desire to help does not automatically confer the ability to help.
Suppose one of my children is injured and rushed to an operating room. I would want to help. I would want to wave a magic wand and fix it, right now. But if I grab a scalpel and dash into the operating theater declaring, "I really want to help. What can I do?" they would have to throw me out, because as someone with zero surgery-related skills, the most useful thing I can do is get out of the way. Even if I am obscenely rich and incredibly powerful, I still don't have the skills.

So if Congress's message to children is going to be, "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help you" the question remains-- what can Congress actually do to help children succeed?

Not teach the children-- neither Congress nor the Department of Education contains barely any people with skills and expertise in actually teaching children. Congress doesn't know how to build schools or run a sceince fair or assess an essay. Nor would I want to watch a Congressman take a shift or two of lunch duty (okay, I might want to watch a little). With few exceptions, Congresspersons do not know how to do any of the things directly related to helping a child achieve success in school. So they won't help the children succeed that way.

In fact, Congress doesn't even know the individual children that it's talking about. This means that it has no idea what individual strengths and weaknesses the children have. It also means that neither Congress nor Secretary Duncan knows what each individual child means by "succeed." So the actual working with children is best left up to the people who are right there with them-- teachers and parents.That work includes defining and measuring success; Congress lacks the skills and expertise to do either of those tasks.

Congress does have the expertise to deal with the money and politics portion of the picture. Congress can do its part to make sure that every school has the resources that it needs, and Congress has a responsibility to do that honestly, without damaging fictions such as, "We can fund ten different excellent schools for the same money that's now spent on just one." Congress has a responsibility to do its homework, so that it's not making choices based on the lies in charter school PR materials.
Congress has the expertise and skills to make sure that states do not create funding formulas that treat some children like second-class citizens. Congress has the expertise and skills to require that states and school districts remain transparent.

Neither Congress nor the Department of Education has the expertise and skill to determine when a school is failing or what should be done with that failing school. They have been told that expertise in business, politics and money are sufficient to identify and cure failing schools; this is simply not true, any more than my expertise in teaching English means I belong in an operating room or a board room.

Congress's responsibility to help children succeed is not a bad measure. But if we're going to be honest and truthful about the matter, Congress's ability to help children succeed is nearly non-existent. Great responsibility can come with great power, but in this case, Congress's most important power is to step back and let the people with expertise, training and skills do their jobs.

Prime Prep Ends With a Whimper

Prime Prep Academy was going to be one of the great celebrity-based charters, an educational experience spearheaded by a high-profile rich guy famous for accomplishments having nothing to do with education.

The story of Prime Prep Academy has been long and troubled. Well, troubled anyway. The school launched in 2012, on top of the charter bubble. It was meant to be a college prep academy that would be a launching pad for the best high school athletes around. It was a tremendous mess from the very beginning.

For more complete reading about the full-on mess that was Prime Prep, I recommend two articles-- a good summary by Barry Petchesky at Deadspin, and Amy Silverstein's fully fleshed-out and researched piece for the Dallas Observer. But even a brief highlight reel is nstructional.

Sanders partnered with Damien Wallace, who right off the charter application bat set himself up to be paid rent with taxpayer money. The application also included corporate partners who weren't actually partners, and it apparently cut and pasted portions of other school applications. None of these problems slipped by Texas regulators-- but they approved the charter anyway. Silverstein seems a bit surprised by that; perhaps she was unaware that using the rental payment shell game is a not-uncommon way for charter operators to turn a handy profit.

The whole launching-pro-careers thing turned out to be problematic. Graduates found that they weren't eligible to play in college. So the whole point of the school was in question.

Computers were stolen. The school was evicted over a rent dispute. Administrators came and went quickly. Sanders and Wallace became locked in a power struggle, each trying to drive the other out. Sanders frequently expressed displeasure with the amount of money he was making. Several individuals, including Wallace, alleged that Sanders physically assaulted them. Sanders was fired.

Last July, Texas finally announced it would pull the plug. The alleged last straw was having the feds yank the school's eligibility for free and reduced lunches, given the schools mis-handling of previous federal lunch funds. Their finances were a mess, and Texas found them out of compliance with state education code.

Sanders vowed to save his school and as recently as last week there will still rumors (based, possibly, on statements by Sanders) that Prime Prep would be merging with Triple A Academy. Not the first merger rumor to be floated. Triple A's founder and chief flatly denied that any such merger was in the works.

So as Prim Prep limps into 2015, the charter board could not even manage to close the door on themselves. The school was being run by a state-appointed superintendent and board of managers.  Monday the non-profit board of directors attempted to hold a meeting to surrender its charter, but that was canceled when they were unable to gather a quorum. Tuesday the state was granted a final default judgment against the charter in its final appeal.

It remains now to be seen if Prime Prep has enough money to finish the year. According Jeff Mosier in the Dallas Morning News, the school is facing $75K in legal bills, lost $40K in a lawsuit, and owes $45K to the state agriculture department. Plus they have a monthly rent bill of $12.5K.

Texas handed Prime Prep $8.5 million in aid and the feds chipped in a chunk of change as well. That bought two and a half years of high profile celebrity charter hijinks with no educational benefits for the students caught in this mess.

When choice and charter advocates are making their arguments about how competition promoted excellence and choice makes for better educational opportunities for all students, they will probably not bring up this celebrity-stoked unsupervised amateur-hour waste of time, money and resources.

Speak Up for the Profession Now

We're coming down to the wire on your chance to speak out about one of the dumbest ideas to come out of a Department of Education that breeds bad ideas like bunnies.

This particular bad idea is the idea that VAM should be used to evaluate teacher prep programs. In other words, after we get done evaluating my performance based on my students' test results as processed by a piece of junk science that has been soundly rejected both by experts in education and experts in the science of measuring stuff, we will go ahead an use MY made-up evaluation results to evaluate the college education program that gave me my teaching degree in the first place.

This is a dumb idea. It is the emperor of dumb ideas. If dumb ideas were a country, this would be the capital city.

Do not just sit and sputter. Do not go fume in the teachers' lounge. Do something.

I'm kind of amazed-- there are several million teachers in this country, most of whom have to know that this is a dumb idea. There are many colleges of education in this country, all of which are staffed by a variety of people who have to know this is a dumb idea.

And yet, as I type this, the federal website shows 2062 comments on the proposed alterations. 2062.

So here's the link. I'm going to once again make it huge so that you can't miss it. We are talking about the programs that are the gatekeepers of our profession, and what we're talking about is making the gatekeepers stupid. This is fundamental to determining which people will be joining us in our schools, working side by side with us. We cannot sit silent.

We only have until Monday, February 2, to speak up. If you like, you can be part of a crowdtasked mark-up of the bill here at the wire. If you're not sure what to say, just be brief. Copy and paste or link to your favorite commentary on the subject. But don't just sit silent.

Yes, I know the odds do not favor the administration actually listening to what we have to say. But we can be absolutely guaranteed that they won't listen to us if we don't speak. What they're proposing is wrong, and we need to say so. Time's running out. Take the minutes to leave a comment.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Ohio Charters and Phantom Students

Apparently some charter schools feel that choice is so important that they make sure to offer it to students who don't even attend the charters.

The Columbus Dispatch reported last week on some surprise headcount trips made by Ohio state auditor David Yost. Turns out that some charters are Below Basic when it comes to proficiency in counting.

On October 1, the auditors walked into The Academy for Urban Scholars Youngstown with a stated enrollment of ninety-five. Actual students that the auditors found in the building?


The explanation wasn't exactly encouraging. Students had been sent home at 12:30 because they had spent the morning prepping for the state exam. So it's not that the Academy was lying about students in school-- they just weren't actually teaching any.

A Youngstown tv station reported that the auditors made a follow-up visit in November. On that occasion, they found thirty-seven students in attendance.

Capital High School in Columbus claims 298 students. Auditors found 142 in the building.

Charters, of course, receive money for every student they claim. So every name on the rolls is money in the bank. It's not so much a perverse incentive as a just plain incentive for charters to enroll students who are the spiritual descendants of the legendary phantom voters of Chicago.

Of the thirty schools the auditors visited, over half had issues of at least 10%, with several showing discrepancies of over 30%.

Several of the schools who appeared to flunk counting were Dropout Recovery and Prevention schools-- charters whose selling point was that they would turn potential dropout students into successes. I suppose counting them as being in school when they aren't is one way to do that, sort of?

9 Things to Know About School Choice

To help kick off School Choice PR Week, Forbes ran a puff piece about choice entitled "Kicking Off School Choice Week With 9 Things You Need To Know". The piece comes from contributor Maureen Sullivan who in 2009 was elected to the the Hoboken school board arguing "for lower taxes and higher standards" during her "nearly" four year term (Sullivan was elected as a member of the Kids First team, then defected because she found them insufficiently reformy, leading to a great deal of fiscal grandstanding and wrangling in Hoboken)

Her 9 things make a nice compendium of what choice advocates offer as arguments these days. Let's consider them in the order she presents them.

1) Sullivan cites the American Federation for Children poll as proof that Americans want school choice for realsies. As Diane Ravitch pointed out to me when I wrote about that poll, it's interesting that in all the times choice has been on a ballot in the states, it has never won once (update: my mistake-- with huge backing, a charter bill did finally just pass in Washington) . At any rate, looking to AFC for information about school choice is like looking to R. J. Reynolds for information about the effects of smoking.

2) More than 100K students use vouchers to attend private school (according to Center for Education Reform, another school choice booster group). There are a little under 50 million K-12 students in the US, making voucher students about 0.2% of the student population. It's a good number to remember the next time anybody offers students in a voucher program as proof of anything.

3) There are 6,500 charter schools open now. Well, probably, more or less. Hard to say exactly how many have opened or closed this week. According to the National Alliance for Public School Charters, 2.5 million students are enrolled. Sullivan did include one actually interesting factoid here-- half of all charters are in four states (California, Texas, Florida and Arizona).

4) The Center for Education Reform offers grades each state on its charter school swellness. It's a fifty-five-point scale, and twenty-five of those points are based on independent authorizers and number of schools allowed. Fifteen more points for a combination of state and district autonomy, along with "teacher freedom," whatever that is supposed to be. Final fifteen are for funding. The A states are DC, Minnesota, Indiana, Michigan and Arizona.

5) Eight states don't allow charters (North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, Vermont, West Virginia, Alabama and Kentucky, though Nebraska is likely to change under a new pro-charter governor). It's an interesting list. Do you suppose the lack of any juicy urban profit centers is a factor for these states?

6) Charter schools go out of business. Sigh. I wish this weren't news to people, but as we repeatedly see, it is. The NAPSC reported that 200 2012-13 charters didn't open again the following year. The Center for Ed Reform says that of 6,700 that ever were, 1,036 have closed since 1992. I do not know how to make those figures fit with the figures in item 3.

7) Charter schools are getting better results. This is based on the wishful thinking and fluffy unicorns study released bu CATO studying Texas charters. In fact, there are no conclusive studies showing that charters do it better, and where marginally better results occur (and also when they don't, which is sad for the charter) those results are readily explained by how the charter manages its student body with selective intake and pushing out low performers. There are virtually no examples of charters attempting to educate an entire student population in the same way that a public school system must. So far we've had one all-charter district, and it failed to have any positive effect whatsoever.

8) The US Senate passed a resolution recognizing National School Choice Week, sponsored by Tim Scott (Rep-SC) with ten co-sponsors including Ted Cruz , Rand Paul, and Dianne Feinstein.

9) The two biggest teachers' unions got their asses handed to them by pro-school-choice candidates, achieving victory only over Pennsylvania's Tom Corbett, who arguably could have been beaten by my dog. There's a whole host of explanations for those electoral victories, and they do underline how disconnected AFT and NEA leadership are from absolutely anything at all. I suspect the elections mostly show that political fooferawing only moves the needle so far. Scott Walker wasn't going to lose unless someone caught him on video beating a nun to death with a puppy. Tom Corbett wasn't going to win even if someone had a video of Jesus endorsing him.

Sullivan's article is one more example of the long game that charter and choice advocates are playing. Just keep insisting something is true long enough (public schools are failing, vaccines are dangerous, fluoride makes you communist, The Bachelor is a show about finding true love, charter schools are popular and successful) and eventually it enters Conventional Wisdom as, at a minimum, a "valid alternative view." It's not necessary for the things to be true, or even supported by facts-- just keep repeating them uncritically and without argument, and eventually, they stick.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Biggest Failure: Defining Success

Time magazine ran an interview with Senator Lamar Alexander, discussing the future of testing and the ESEA. It concludes with this quote:

What I know is the biggest failure of No Child Left Behind is the idea that Washington should tell 100,000 public schools and their teachers whether they’re succeeding, whether they’re failing and what the consequences of that should be. That hasn’t worked.

I think that's close, but perhaps not dead-on. Because implied by the idea of DC telling the public schools whether or not their succeeding is the idea of DC telling the schools what success really means.

No Child Left Behind didn't just legislate the idea that the feds would tell schools and teachers how well they were doing. It redefined what "success" means in education.

Defining success has always been one of the great challenges in education. Through the early part of my career (I graduated from college in 1979), there was a steady trend toward authentic assessment, because everything we knew and were learning about education said that an objective test was by far the worst way to decide how well a student was acquiring skills and knowledge.

If you are of a certain age, you recognize and tremble at these initials-- TSWBAT.

For you youngsters, that's "The Student Will Be Able To," and it meant that your lesson plans would focus on what the student could actually do at the end of instruction. So if you were trying to teach a student the knowledge and skills necessary to analyze a full modern novel or write a complete analytical essay or assemble a carburetor or successfully bid out a hand of bridge, you weren't going to give some sort of bubble test. The student was going to demonstrate outcomes by doing the thing. That would be success.

The focus on outcomes was leading us to student portfolios. No longer would a test or two or ten define the student's achievements. Instead, a portfolio would be assembled showing progress, development, achievement, and success in a year's worth of projects, assignments, and accomplishments. That was going to be success.

And just as we were out in the trenches coming to grips with how exciting and terrifying it would be to come up with a portfolio system and they could be electronic portfolios, because with computer tech we could include videos and demonstrations and oh holy smokes on a shingle this would be completely individualized so that each student would graduate with twelve years' worth of broad, varied authentic achievements that would paint a completely personal picture of all the strengths and depths and awesomeness of that individual human being--- just as we were starting to get a grip on that, the feds stepped in, dragged the needle across the vinyl and said, "Nope-- we got your definition of success right here."

Success is a good score on a standardized test. And it looks exactly the same for every student.

And Race to the Top and RttT Lite (less filling, more waivery) doubled down on that by adding one-size-fits-all non-sequitorian justification. Success is a good score on a standardized test because success is a college education and a well-paying job.

Being an outstanding musician or welder? Not success. Being a middling student but a stand-up person who makes their community a better place? Not a success. Screwing up as a freshman and turning your life around to graduate after five years? Not a success.

Marching to the beat of a different drum? Hey, kid. Who said you could have a drum? Everybody in this band plays clarinet, and to be a success, you must take the standardized bubble test on clarinterry.

The most stunning obtusity, the most spectacular failure of NCLB/RTTT is the manner in which it has turned the goal and purpose of education into something small, cramped, meager and unvaried.

Success is a good score on a standardized test.

What a sad, tiny, uninspired definition of success. But NCLB introduced it and tied us all to it, like eagles chained to a stuffed turtle on the desk of the world's least ambitious accountant. The biggest failure of NCLB was to take the whole vast continent of possibilities, the promise and varied range of humanity that has always characterized this country-- to look at all that and say, "No, we're just going to say that success is a good score on a standardized test that only covers a couple of subjects, badly. And we'll demand that everyone achieve it at the same time in the same way. That's success."

That's the biggest failure of No Child Left Behind. If you see Senator Alexander, you can tell him I said so.

Duncan's Legless Duck

I opened my eyes while you were kissing me once more than once
And you looked as sincere as a dog
Just as sincere as a dog does when it’s the food on your lips with which it's in love

                                                      --Fiona Apple "Parting Gift"

When you have to bribe or threaten people to be your friend, you can be sure that your friendship will be short-lived.

Over at EdWeek, Alyson Klein is asking one of the big questions of the moment-- how much political juice does the ED department have in NCLB waiver renewals? The related question is how much juice does the department have in the NCLB reauthorization itself?

The possible and imminent rewrite of ESEA/NCLB makes more obvious what some of us have been saying all long-- the tale of "voluntary" adoption of Common Core, high-stakes testing, test-based teacher evaluations, and the rest of the reformster package was a fiction. States complied with the federal mandates because the feds had everyone's violation of the NCLB ridiculously unattainable goals to threaten the states with, and because they could score some cash doing it.

Reauthorizing ESEA has always been the quick way to short-circuit reformster plans. NCLB has been the gun that the feds held to every state's head. Now Congress is threatening to take out the bullets. Without any bullets, and with the big piles of money running out, the administration is finding it's out of friends.

Arne Duncan can make impassioned speeches about the value of testing and then rerun the text in various publications. It doesn't really matter. Arne Duncan has had six years to prove that he has a vision of how to make US public education strong and vital. He has had six years to convince people that he knows what he's doing,that he knows where he wants to go and how to get there. He has failed. His only hope at this stage would have been a cadre of people saying, "Well, I wasn't sure, but I know I've seen the good his policies can do and the way they've really energized the school district, so I back this guy." There are no such people now. He may have some small input with the Senate committee (Sen. Patty Murray seemed to be parroting many of his talking points), but I don't hear anybody saying, "And of course we want to work closely with the Secretary as we consider this important legislation."

Duncan hasn't made friends in Congress. He hasn't made friends among teachers, which is in some ways his biggest failure; if you think back to the beginning of his time in office, you'll recall that he said many things that teachers thought were great, but then he followed those good statements with terrible policies. And he hasn't made friends among the states. He may have thought he was making friends, but all he was gaining was compliance for as long as held the gun in one hand and the purse strings in the other.

So now, as waiver renewal comes due, Duncan finds himself in the difficult position of negotiating the price of a condo in a development that may never be built and which he doesn't actually own. Someone else (someone who's not even listening to him) is designing the building, and he has to negotiate a deal with future tenants. The administration perhaps thought they were strengthening their hand by making new waiver deals good through 2018, but it's looking like a mistake-- why lock yourself into a long term deal you may not need to make in the first place.

And you'll notice that none of the states are piping up to say, "We would like you to rewrite ESEA so it looks exactly like the waiver requirements, because we think they are swell." Instead, Klein quotes Kentucky ed commissioner Terry Holiday saying that once waivers are dead and gone, "I think we'd all quickly abandon all the work on tying teacher evaluation to test scores."

The waivers exist to free states from the mandates of ESEA, but nobody knows what those mandates will look like after Congress gets through with them. Duncan's position? Make a deal for a waiver or else something might happen, somehow, maybe? 

Klein quotes Anne Hyslop at Bellwether:

"I don't see the department doing much more to really put the hammer down on states to get their evaluation systems in place," she said. "I don't think [renewal] means states are going to change what they're doing or get in trouble if they don't do what the department says. The secretary is saying pretty please do this, and states are saying thanks for your input, but we're going another direction."

Maybe if his programs had possessed some actual merit they would have developed support of their own, but here we are looking at VAMs and test-based accountability and increased charterization and turn-around schools and the feds telling every school in the country what success looks like and none of it-- none of it-- has produced anything resembling successful results. The only real success can be found in the same places as Duncan's remaining friends-- boardrooms and offices of edubiz corporations where the money has been pouring in.

Congress created NCLB in a flurry of bipartisan jolliness, but it was so closely tied to the Bush administration that it is still seen as a Bush law. Whatever comes out of the current move to rewrite, I don't think anyone is going to call it the Obama/Duncan ESEA.

Don't worry about Duncan. His connections have kept him sell-employed for most of his adult life, and I doubt that they'll fail him after he leaves USED. But for the moment he's just a guy trapped on a legless duck without enough food left on his lips to make the dog fake affection.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

What Is Public Education, Really?

One of the repeated tricks and techniques of reformsterism is to propose policies or procedures as beneficial for public education when in fact, intentionally or not, they are far more likely to damage public education. This argument usually takes the form of trying to redefine public education itself-- kind of like handing someone a screwdriver and saying, "This will be a great hammer; just hold it like this." Much of what is presented as an attempt to reform the public schools are actually attempts to turn them into Not Public Schools.

So let me see if I can lay out what features the real US education system actually has, the better to understand when we've moved outside that boundary. I'll stipulate right up front that our current public education system does not always nail each of these perfectly, but these traits still define what our public education system is (and is not).

The public education system takes all students.

We've divided up territory geographically so that we can be sure not to miss a single child. If a child lives within the boundaries of that school system, that school system must take that child. There are some limits in the public education system (for instance, a child who presents a clear and present danger to other students), but beyond those limits no child can be rejected, pushed out, or required to seek education elsewhere. And certainly the public education system does not require you to apply to be in the system, or go find a school to take you when your original school no longer will.

The public education system is publicly funded.

All taxpayers contribute. It may be necessary for state or federal government to shuffle some of that money around to even things out; after all, we do not provide roads decent roads only in rich neighborhoods. If there's a requirement that parents must contribute money, time, or both in order for their child to be allowed to attend, that is not a public school.

Conversely, any attempt to cut funding or failure to properly provide for a school is nothing less than an attempt to turn it into Not A Public School. While student "outcomes" are certainly a consideration for a public school, it is does not establish equity to simply demand that all schools produce the same outcomes regardless of what resources and facilities they have.

The public education system is run by local taxpayers.

A public school system is one of the last bastions of participatory democracy. The school is run by a group of taxpayers who are elected by other taxpayers. The school board must (in fact, can only) have public meetings at which members of the public can have their say about the decisions of the school board. Taxpayers get to have their final say about school board decisions by voting.

If a school is run by people who don't have to meet in front of the taxpayers and do not have to listen to the taxpayers, it is not a public school. If the people who run the school cannot be removed from office by the people who live in that local school district, it is not a public school. If school policy is set by a people who do not have to answer to local taxpayers, that is not a public school.

The public school system is run transparently.

The complete financial records of a public school are always available, in full, to any taxpayer and/or voter in the local school district. Any school that says, "We don't have to show our financial records to you," is not a public school.

The public school system is not run for profit.

The public school system is a public service. If you like, you can think of it as a managed public good, like a park or the municipal water supply. As such, it never produces a profit for anybody. This includes directly (as in an explicitly for-profit charter) or indirectly (as in a not-for-profit charter that pays profit-creating fees to a building owner or school management company).

The public school is stably staffed with the best professionals the available money can buy.

A public school hires certified professionals, and it pays with a competitive salary and it structures its system to encourage the staff members to stay in the school for the length of their career. Teachers are evaluated with a system that considers the full range of skills and qualities that the school district values, and those who do poorly receive support or, eventually, fired if they cannot get their act together. A public school tries to be a source of stability in its community.

Schools that use any of the pay systems that are designed to cut total operating cost by paying the total teaching staff bottom dollar are not public schools. Using an evaluation system that does not really evaluate the full range of teacher qualities, or which injects an invalid random element, is an attempt to turn the school into Not a Public School. None of these "merit" systems, VAMvaluations, "career ladders," or short-term hiring practices designed to run a school on the cheap contribute to the quality or stability of the school.

The public school is a long term commitment.

Public schools represent a promise by the community made to every child, present and future, that they will be given the best education we can get them, no matter what, as long as there are children who need it. Public schools do not close for business reasons.

You can break these rules.

There are plenty of perfectly good schools that don't meet these standards, and their existence is not a pimple on the face of the universe. But they aren't public schools.

Another way of understanding the reformster position is that they have tried to convince us that entities that are not public schools actually are. If they want to have a conversation about how to change our traditional public education system into something else, that's a perfectly legitimate conversation to have.

But to have that conversation, we need honesty. Reformsters need to just say, "We want to replace the traditional American public education system with a different kind of system," and then we can have that conversation. But insisting that we are trying to bolster or improve public education by stripping its defining qualities is both destructive and dishonest.

Public Education: Political Orphan

Last week's Senate hearing on NCLB underscores what may be old news for some and a growing sick revelation for others-- the Democrats are no longer the party of public education or public school teachers.

Many supporters of the public school system and the teachers who work there have been in denial for a while. They've tried to dismiss nominally Democratic voices touting reformster policy as outlier, or Democrats in Name Only. DFER is so clearly part of a privatizing agenda-- surely that's not what Democrats stand for. And last summer union members agitated for a resolution condemning Arne Duncan and calling for his ouster, as if Duncan were some sort of rogue agent and some day Barack Obama would wake up, read a Department of Education briefing and exclaim, "He's doing what!!?! We'll have to do something about that right away!"

But the names and the stories just keep stacking up and stacking up. After six years, we can no longer pretend that Arne Duncan is doing anything other than what the President, our biggest-name Democrat, wants him to do. A recent New Yorker profile reminds us that among those who have praised Jeb Bush's "work" in education are Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton. Arguably the highest-profile Democratic governor in the country, Andrew Cuomo of New York, has announced in no uncertain terms his intention to break public education and the unions that work there. Randi Weingarten, head of the AFT and so representative of a traditional partnership between organized labor and the Democratic party, has come out in favor of the reformster agenda of testing and VAM-style evaluation.

Well, maybe House and Senate Democrats will ride to the defense of public education? Last Wednesday's hearing reminds us that no, that's not going to happen.

Ranking Democrat Sen. Patty Murray spouted the usual reformster lines. "Assessments help parents and communities hold schools accountable," she said as the hearing opened, repeating the reformster notion that without a big standardized tests, the quality of a school is somehow a mystery. Murray also opened the hearings with the need to get rid of redundant and bad tests, a meaningless assertion that simply serves as a weak manner for insisting that the Big Standardized Tests are necessary and excellent. Murray also threw in a reference to how hard other countries are working to out-compete us in education (because China is a nation whose culture, educational and otherwise, the US should really aspire to.)

What about Elizabeth Warren, who has emerged as a Democrat's Democrat, an alternative to the corporate clubby Hillary Clinton? Nope-- Warren is also of the opinion that when the federal government gives monetary support to local schools, in the name of not having said money wasted, it should get to exercise full oversight in the form of high stakes testing. The subtext of such oversight is, of course, that those of us who work in public education can't be trusted, not to mention a failure to recognize that huge amounts of money are being wasted right now. Senator Al Franken? As Jeff Bryant reported, Franken made   

wondered if the whole darn mess could be cleared up by using “computer adaptive assessments.” (Maybe, if you want to spend a whole lot of time and money, a witness replied.)

The lone education friendly set of words came from Rhode Island's junior senator, Sheldon Whitehouse, a career politician and former US Attorney and AG in Rhode Island. I'm going to give you Bryant's version of these comments in their entirety, because they're the only high point of the hearings:

“My experience in the education world is that there are really two worlds in it. One is the world of contract and consultants and academics and experts and plenty of officials at the federal state and local level. And the other is a world of principals and classroom teachers who are actually providing education to students. What I’m hearing from my principals’ and teachers’ world is that the footprint of that first world has become way too big in their lives to the point where it’s inhibiting their ability to do the jobs they’re entrusted to do.”

Indeed, the footprint made by education policy leaders in classrooms has left behind a form of mandated testing that is “designed to test the school and not the student,” Whitehouse stated, and he described a dysfunctional system in which teachers don’t get test results in a timely fashion that makes it possible for them to use the results to change instruction. Instead, educators spend more time preparing for the tests and encouraging students to be motivated to take them, even though the tests have no bearing on the students’ grades, just how the school and the individual teachers themselves are evaluated.

Whitehouse urged his colleagues to consider more closely the purpose of testing – not just how many tests and how often but how assessments are used. He concluded, “We have to be very careful about distinguishing the importance of the purpose of this oversight and not allow the purpose of the oversight to be conducted in such an inefficient, wasteful, clumsy way that the people who we really trust to know to do this education – the people who are in the classroom – are not looking back at us and saying, ‘Stop. Help. I can’t deal with this. You are inhibiting my ability to teach.’”

So, among all the various Democrats in power, we've got one who gets it.

It seems that it's past time to pretend that the Democrats attacking American public education are aberrations or outliers. The reverse is true. The bright lights, the mainstream public faces of the Democratic Party have abandoned public education, combining the kind of pro-corporate privatizing agenda usually associated with the GOP with a cartoon-Democrat affection for government overreach.

Does that mean we should turn to the GOP? Doubtful. Committee Chair Senator Lamar Alexander is an opponent of much of the current administration's education policy, but he also loves him some charter and voucher programs, so he's not exactly a public education BFF either. And while most GOP politicians are now treating the words "Common Core" as if they are highly radioactive, that doesn't mean they are looking to support public education, either.

In terms of policy, the biggest difference between the parties may be that Democrats still occasionally feel the need to hide their druthers behind language designed to keep teachers and other public school advocates from deserting them, whereas Republicans don't try to pretend that teachers, their work, and their union matter factor in GOP political calculations.

Somehow US public education in just one short decade has transformed from the baby that every politician was ready to kiss into the ugly kid that nobody wants to go to Prom with. In this environment, I'm honestly not sure who there is to speak up for public education in the political world, but I hope we can figure it out soon, because the hearings last week were one more reminder that there is no cavalry coming any time soon.