Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Pacts Americana: Bellwether Looks at Fed-State Relationship

Bellwether Education Partners is a reformy thinky tank that often stands in the shadows of the Fordham Institute. If I were to characterize the differences (beyond size-- Bellwether is a more modestly sized operation) it would be that in the great thinky tank balancing act between thinking and trying to sell something, Bellwether tilts more toward thinking and Fordham tilts toward selling. Bellwether is back in the office reading Carfax reports and meditating on the nature of transportation while Fordham is out on the lot working the hard sell.

But this morning Bellwther hit the ground running with a new report, "Pacts Americana: Balancing National Interest, State Autonomy and Educational Accountability."  The paper, by Chad Aldeman, Kelly Robson and Andy Smarick, raises some points worth talking about even though (spoiler alert) I think they get several things very wrong.

It's a thirty page document, but I've read it so that you don't have to. As always, you can thank me later.


The paper starts with a recap of accountability over the past thirteen years. NCLB gave us a national reporting-accounting system, but congressional disagreement-lock opened the door to waivers, a "de-facto ESEA reauthorization," which opened the door to multiple accountability measures. The writers' takeaway from all of this is to view all of these various structures as deals between the state and federal government, and that's going to be the lens through which we consider accountability in this paper. I can go along with that for the moment.

Evolution of Federal Accountability

ESEA started out as a way to fund inputs, with little or no accountability measures attached. Under Nixon, the National Institute of Education was launched to see if the feds were getting any bang for their bucks; this gave us the birth of the NAEP tests. By the seventies, more folks wanted to know if the giant mountain of money was doing anything useful, egged on by the 1977 SAT investigation into why SAT scores were falling. The correct answer was "because more students of lower ability are taking it," but folks decided to push accountability anyway, getting us our first "minimums." By the early eighties, the feds were handing out block grants, and we got the premier chicken littling of A Nation at Risk.

NAR kicked off a new accountability era, with the search on for a good test-driven model. From there it's a hop-skip-jump to Clinton-era Goals 2000 and the Improving America's Schools Act, which was kind of like NCLB but without actual teeth-- states were to implement test-based accountability and measure AYP, and if they came up short the feds gave them a Stern Look.

In this context, NCLB looks like the feds simply saying, "Yeah, we say keep doing that stuff, but now we're serious." But it turned out that NCLB's tendency to be inflexible, brutish and stupid did not endear it to anybody. Cue backlash, including a desire to get the feds to back off, and our current mess.

That's the Bellwether History O'Accountability, and it's not a bad one. Let's move on and look at the lessons of the NCLB era.

Lesson 1: Test-based accountability has produced positive academic outcomes.

Man, I thought I'd get further into this before I had to flat-out disagree, but here we are already. There's a lot of research cited here; I'm not going to address it directly or in detail, because I think by looking at this stuff in detail obscures the simple truth of it, and it's in looking at the simple truth that we see why this is just dead wrong.

Here's what the research shows:

By focusing on getting higher standardized test scores, we are able to get higher standardized test scores.

The "positive academic outcomes" mentioned in the heading are really only one single outcome-- higher standardized test scores. That's it. That's all. There are no measures here of future life success of students, ability to better function in the real world, better college achievement level, better professional success, improved quality of life, deeper critical understanding of the material- nor are there any academic outcomes that aren't math and reading related.

So if you think the purpose of school is to get students to produce higher standardized test scores, then yes, this lesson is a True Thing. But if you think that's a narrow, cramped, tiny, inadequate, probably inaccurate measure of student achievement, then lesson one is no lesson at all.

Lesson 2: States vary in their implementation and success.

Again, we're talking about test scores. And since nobody knows how to convert a raw test score into a reliable proxy for educational achievement (we check our work against... what?), every state comes up with its own method-- and since the results were linked to high stakes and big money, states predictably infected the methods with means of blunting the impact of low numbers. These infections ranged from Mildly Creative to Baldfaced Baloney.

Oddly, the writers omit the biggest source of such state-level shenanigans--- under NCLB, every single school in the country was destined to fail. By 2014, given the 100% above average requirement of the law, every single school in America was either going to be failing or cheating. And so as those dates loomed closer and Congress displayed its inability to do anything about it, states and districts did whatever they could do to postpone their inevitable failure. It's the rule demonstrated with fatal consequences in Mao's China-- impossible goals plus strong punishment for failure equals lying.

The authors also do not spend any time talking about variation within the states. If standards and reporting systems really do bring everyone into line and foster achievement, shouldn't we see that within the states, at least, the NCLB era decreased the spread of achievement within states? Did that happen? I think not.

Lesson 3: State flexibility is essential

One final, critical lesson from NCLB is that state flexibility is essential. States differ widely due to their unique histories, demographics, traditions, politics, and more. The federal government should not—cannot—implement a one-size-fits-all model across such widely varying contexts.

That sounds about right. The authors cite the tradition of local control and the differences between states. They also note that top-down programs imposed from on high do not engender enthusiastic and fruitful implementation by the people on the ground. And finally, the idea of a one-size-fits-all model is just unicorn farming. There is no such thing, and any attempt to create and  implement such a thing will result in failure.

In fact, these guys say that the Obama waivers were the right move-- and may not have gone far enough in terms of returning control to the states.

Funny piece of trivia

I just noticed-- and did a document search to confirm-- that the phrase 'common core" does not appear anywhere within this paper.

The New Idea: Compacts

There follows a few pages of chartage, laying out the differences between NCLB, Waivers, and Compacts. Most of what the chart says is covered in the following, but if you're intrigued by any of this, I suggest giving the charts a look.

Principle 1: States must have flexibility to tailor their education policies to their unique local contexts.

Even as I agree with this principle, I know what the problem with it can be. The "unique local context" of some states, for instance, is "we don't want to spend more than $1.98 on education" or "we prefer not to fund schools for poor/black/brown students."  And Bellwether's idea of a range of approaches has a familiar reformy ring to it:

Some have embraced non-district chartering; others are adopting private school choice programs and others still have created statewide “extraordinary authority” entities like Louisiana’s Recovery School District.

Compacts would come with some structure and requirements. States should show they have college and career readiness standards in place (sigh). And they would need means of identifying and "addressing" pockets of incorrigible suckage. They will need a plan of attack, but the plan must be all theirs.

The writers recognize that such flexibility takes us back to Lesson 2. They suggest three ways to head this off by requiring approval from either 1) the secretary of ed, 2) a peer review group or 3) a panel of experts. These all have their own sets of drawbacks, all underlining the futility of such a system.

Here, in short form, is your problem. If your system rests on the idea that somewhere, somehow, some place the system rest on an  absolute immutable objectively verifiable vision of exactly what a school system must be and do, you are doomed because your journey, no matter how complex and far-ranging, still ends at a unicorn farm. Yes, I do have some ideas about what you do instead, but rather than add another thousand words to this piece, I'll just say that step one is accepting that you can't have perfectly objective and absolute standards of accountability any more than you can come up with such standards for kisses or marriage, because ultimately education is a web of relationships, and all relationships are primarily shaped by the people involved. I have more, but let's not wander too far off track.

Principle 2: State accountability should focus on outcomes, not inputs.

Again, I get this. A teacher whose classroom approach is, "Hey, I cover the material, and they either get it or they don't. Not my problem. I put it out there." is not a good teacher.

But there remains a huge huge huge HUGE problem with the focus on outputs school-- we still don't have any decent way to measure the outputs that matter.

But there would need to be guidance for the creation of goals. For example, goals should include clear measures of educational achievement, in particular for low-income and historically underserved populations of students. States might be required to create goals related to graduation rates but states could also develop other goals. For example, states could decide to measure the development of noncognitive skills, the percentage of fourth graders reporting a challenging and supportive school environment or the percent of high school students taking AP or IB classes.

"Educational achievement" still just means "test scores on limited one-time standardized tests," and if you ask a hundred parents what they want out of their child's school, "Get him to score well on standardized tests" is not going to be high on the list. I will admit that it is creeping up the list, primarily because reformsters have successfully hammered away at the idea that such tests are a measure of educational quality. I'm unimpressed. A well-repeated lie is still a lie.

We don't know how to provide a simple, clear objective measure of how good a school is. Like pornography or the woman who steals our heart, we know it when we see it, but we can't lay out a set of clear, objective measures of it. That's bad enough, but when we try to fake it, we end up screwing up the system and providing more examples of Campbell's Law in action.

I decide I want to measure meal quality in restaurants. I can't really measure easily a meal's goodness, so I notice that being visually appealing with a nice mix of colors and textures usually goes with it, so I measure those. If I offer rewards just to people who score high and punishment to those who don't, pretty soon I've got a world of chefs who are choosing food-ish materials based on how they look and not how they taste, and my meals taste lousy.

Bad, inexact, incorrect, incomplete measurements warp the processes that they measure. That's where we are right now. We aren't measuring the outcomes that matter.

Principle 3: Federal accountability should focus on continuous improvement.

States should have to re-up their compact with the feds, and part of that process should be showing how they're going to do better. Well, yes. Everyone who actually works in education gets that continuous improvement is part of the gig. I've often said that any teacher worth her salt can immediately list for you the areas where she is weak and is working to improve.

That, actually, was one of the immediate signs that the Common Core are crap-- there is absolutely no mechanism in place for revising, improving and upgrading them. Nothing good in education is like that. Nothing that is high quality in education stands still.

This principle does underline the problem with compacts-- they keep the feds in the driver's seat. We can institute everything that the paper talks about and still end up with a federal government that says, "No, if you don't check off the following items the way we want them, no compact for you." Which would put us right back where we are with waivers.

Negotiating the Compact

In fact, one of my big points of curiosity-- how do these things get settled? How would my state of Pennsylvania, which is incapable of settling the budget-connected policy issues even remotely on time negotiate a compact with the federal government, which is now eight years late rewriting ESEA?  If they can't agree on the terms of a compact, what happens? If the answer is, as I suspect, the feds just put their own default in place, then what pressure do they feel to negotiate when they will "win" in the end anyway?

Just wondering how all this will work.

Bottom line

Ignoring for a moment that Bellwether's measure of excellence defaults include "does it help support more charters and choice?" the biggest issue remains that this whole system depends on an objective, reliable, accurate measure of how well schools are doing, and that means that the system might as well depend on a conference of yetis meeting on the head of a pin while dancing angels cater lunch with hippogryph meat. That is a huge problem, and the paper doesn't address it at all.

On the other hand, the question of how to balance state freedom, local control, federal oversight, and some kind of accountability-- that's a good question. A much better question than "how many standardized tests should we have" or "how can we scrap tenure" or "what are some good ways to take over public schools and give them to private operators."

This question at least addresses some of the fundamental issues lurking behind many of the surface skirmishes in education. While I disagree with Bellwether hugely on many of the answers and most of the solutions, I give them props for asking a good question. And the title's cute.

Monday, June 29, 2015

FEE & the Honesty/Proficiency Gap

Oh, how quickly the talking points pass by.

Just a month ago, we were treated to the Honesty Gap, a gap that was revealed by comparing the percentage of students who beat the NAEP cut score to the number who hit the cut score for states. This is a not-very-valid comparison for any number of reasons, but to keep things brief (unless you're a link follower), I'll just mention one.

A 2007 NCES study followed students who had taken the NAEP and discovered that of those who had scored "basic"-- that would be "not proficient" and therefor "not ready for college or career" according to the current gappy discussion-- about 50% of those not-ready-for-college students successfully completed college. So right off the bat, saying that only students who made the "proficient or better" cut on the NAEP are proficient enough for college-- that statement would appear to suffer from an accuracy gap.

Tell us more!

Be that as it may, Honesty Gap was going to be the hot new buzz term. And then it wasn't. The initiative, backed by the Fordham and the Chamber and other of the usual crowd, even had its own hashtag. But now #honestygap hasn't been used supportively by anyone since the 23rd, and then five days before that, and...well, about sixty times total in all of June. For comparison, #Ilikepie has forty-two June mentions and #beiberdefensesquad has about thirty in the last twenty-four hours.

But fear not! The Foundation for Excellence in Education has stepped in. You will recall that FEE is the school privatization advocacy group that was run by Jeb Bush and occasionally launches new PR blitzes to varying degrees of effect or occasionally announces another piece of the sky falling (and only privatizing education can help). Bush actually stepped away from official leadership of the group, handing the com over to Condoleezza Rice so that he could try for the Bush Oval Office hat trick. I have actually wasted a chunk of time sitting here scouring the interwebs for something-- anything-- that Rice has done with the office after rising to it, but I cannot find a thing. All of the heavy lifting (and FEE comes up with some really large piles of shtuff to lift) is still being done by Patricia LeVesque, who has her own special brand of Umbridgian baloney unloading style.

So, anyway. FEE has renamed the gap-- it is no longer an Honesty Gap, but a Proficiency Gap!

Like the Honesty Gap before it, Proficiency Gap gets its own website. And it's here that we'll learn everything we could want to know. Well, almost everything. Let's travel through the five informative, slick, definitely not part of the free blogspot layout package, screens.

Let's define our terms.

Being proficient means a student has demonstrated mastery of the subject matter, including subject matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real-world situations, and associated analytical skills.

Well, that sounds like a useful thing to know, as well as an impossible thing to measure. But let's just remember this-- that the tool we're using to measure this is a standardized test covering reading and math. When we say the student has "demonstrated mastery of the subject matter," the only subjects that we're talking about are reading and math. That's it.

Do you want to determine if young Chris is ready to major in music, study biology, or become a welder? Too bad-- none of those things are covered by the instruments that we are going to pretend measure proficiency. And that's just the issues we have before we even get to discussing what "mastery" means or what kind of 'real world situations" we're talking about or what's implied by "associated analytical skills."

But let's not forget-- what "proficiency" actually means is "high-enough test score on a single standardized test covering math and reading."

Why do we measure it?

To have an honest, objective benchmark of what a child is learning to ensure that every student is prepared for success in college, a career or the military.

FEE isn't going to let the "honest" thing go entirely, because reformsters are attached to the notion that the public school system is founded on lies and deception. I am impressed, however, that a benchmark exists that would allow us to know with certainty that a student is ready for those things. That would be awesome. Every college, prospective employer, and branch of the military could use it and be guaranteed that they would never, ever, accept/hire/enlist someone who couldn't cut it ever again. That is awesome news.

Boy, oh boy-- I just hope the next slide tells us HOW we are able to pull off such a difficult, complex benchmarking thingy.

What does proficiency cut score mean?

Oh, disappointment.

A proficiency cut score is an actual number (score) on an assessment that draws the line determining where a student is proficient. 

FEE would like you to know that some states draw the line too low, giving students a false sense of confidence when they actually suck and their teachers are big lying liars. There's a cool graphic showing a Greek column on which state score and NEP score lines have been drawn at different heights. Boo, state line drawers!

There is also an option to draw up the (beautifully rendered) stats for your state, so you can see how badly you're being lied to.

What is the issue with proficiency measurement?

If you guessed "that we have no idea how to measure proficiency," the BRRZZT sorry, but you failed. The issue is (somewhat redundantly) that states and NAEP define proficiency differently.

Therefore, state-reported proficiency is not equivalent to proficiency on NAEP. This is referred to as the “proficiency gap”.

Now, I might have called that a "testing gap" or a "test design gap" or just plain "test score" gap or even "proof that the state tests are crap gap" or even possibly "proof that cut scores are arbitrary and don't really reflect a damn thing" which is not technically a gap, so I'll deduct three style points from myself.

Why does proficiency matter?

Here come some factoids. Too many students do poorly on the Armed Forces Qualifications Test. There are too many manufacturing jobs begging for qualified applicants. Too many ACT test-takers came up as Not College Ready. And too many students have to spend a ton of money on remedial college courses.

Remember-- proficiency is "a high-enough test score on a single standardized test covering math and reading."

And yet-- if our students just had higher PARCC or SBA or Various Mongrel Test scores, that would make them ready for the army, ready to be welders, and never needing a remedial course whether they attended Harvard University or the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople. Just two scores-- one math and one reading-- can tell us all that. My God-- but we live in a magical age!!

What question did we not ask?

We never did ask or answer how we determine proficiency. I don't mean how we set cut scores (though we didn't really answer that, either) but how do we determine whether a student is proficient or not? How do we measure it? Apparently the NAEP folks know exactly how to do it, so what's their secret? How do we determine that a student is ready to study at any college in the country or do any job in the country or serve in any branch of the military? I've plumbed the mysteries of proficiency before:

What could it even mean to call someone a proficient reader? Does it mean she can finish an entire novel? Does she have to understand it? Does she have to finish it in less than a month? A week? A year? Can it be any novel? Does it have to be a modern one, or can it be a classic? If I can get through The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn but not Moby Dick, am I still a proficient reader? If I read Huck Finn, but I just think it's a boy's adventure novel, and I proficient, or do I have to grasp the levels of satire to be proficient? Must I also be able to see symbolism tied to the search for identity in order to be proficient? What about poetry? Does someone have to be able to read poetry to be proficient? Any poetry? From any period? Is a proficient reader moved by what she reads, or does reading proficiency have to do only with the mechanics and thinky parts? And should proficient reader be able to read and follow instructions, say, for assembling a new media center? Would a proficient reader be able to follow the instructions even if the writer of the instructions was not a proficient English language writer? Can a proficient reader deal with any non-fiction reading? How about, say, Julian Jaynes Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind? Can a proficient reader read a whole Glenn Beck book and spot which parts are crap? Because that was some pretty heavy stuff! How about legal documents? Does a proficient reader read legal documents well enough to understand them sort of, or completely, or well enough to mount a capable counter-argument to the legal document? Would I count as proficient if I only ever read chunks of reading that were all 1000 words or less (like, say, blog posts), or does proficiency mean dealing with longer, more involved stuff? If college readiness is part of proficiency, does that mean a proficient reader is ready to do the assigned reading for a class on Italian Literature at Harvard or a class on Engineering at MIT or How To Talk Good at West Bogswallup Junior College? Will a proficient reader get A's? C's? And speaking of levels of ability, would a proficient reader read all of a Dan Brown or Stephanie Myers novel and know that it was terribly written? Would a proficient reader have made it all the way through this unnecessarily lengthy paragraph, or would a proficient reader have figured out that I was using bulk to make a rhetorical point and just skipped to the end?
Or does "proficient" just mean "able to manage the dribs and drabs of reading-related tasks that we can easily work into a standardized test"?

I'm still wondering. It's not that I don't think there are levels of how well-educated a student is, or not. But when reformsters start throwing around words in ways that don't actually mean anything, I suspect they're busy trying to cloud an issue rather than illuminate it. I suspect they're trying to lay down a smokescreen to cover whatever piece of thievery they're up to now.

And "proficient" is a big, thick smokescreen, billowy and opaque and yet possessing no substance whatsoever.

Is there a proficiency gap?

Between what and what? If the assertion is that we have a gap between the results of one lousy standardized test and another different lousy standardized test, then, yeah, I guess so, but so what? If the gap is between what we tell students they can accomplish and what they actually are able to accomplish-- well, where's the evidence? Oh, I know what reformsters believe-- that all the poverty in the country is the result of students who couldn't score high enough on a standardized test. This strikes me as highly unlikely, though I get that there are many possible explanations for and solutions to widespread poverty. But if we've had the most terrible education system in the world, and we should fear that because it will lead to failure and collapse, I just feel as if the country isn't doing as badly as all these chicken littling privatizers want to say, and where I do see failure, I see problems of racism and systemic barriers to class mobility. Oddly enough, race and poverty do not appear as issues on the proficiency gap site.

So if FEE is declaring that states need to do more about closing the resource gap and the opportunity gap and the stupid racist barriers gap, that would be swell. But I've read enough FEE materials to suspect that they're chicken littling in one more act of "There's a terrible emergency, so you must do as we say!!" The Honesty Gap folks wanted us all to buy more PARCC and SBA tests, and Common Core harder, as well as handing over more public schools to private interests. Oh, and stop opting out. This seems like more of the same old stuff aimed primarily at helping privatizers close their revenue gaps.

Cyberschool, Truancy, and Abuse

Pennsylvania is a playground for cyber-charters, and many cybers have been happy to play there (at considerable cost to local districts). And child advocates have noticed an issue that affects a small number of students in critical ways.

I want to be clear before we get into this-- we're talking about a systemic problem, but also an issue that appears exceptionally rarely.

According to an early-June report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh School's solicitor Ira Weiss and pediatrician Mary Carrasco talked about the issue of reporting truancy after the beating death of Donovan McKee, an eleven-year-old who attended a cyber-charter. Since that case, two more children have died in similar cases.

Carrasco notes that one of things that cyber schools do not have are mandatory reporters. If a child shows up in my classroom with questionable bruises, I am required by law to pass that on to my boss and/or file a report with the state. Cyber teachers, of course, cannot. This leaves a small but scary loophole. As Carrasco tells the PPG:

“I’m not suggesting that every child in cyber charter school is at risk, but there are kids who are taken out of regular school precisely because the parents don’t want someone to see them and that’s a problem,” said Dr. Carrasco, also a member of the child death review team in Allegheny County.

That is not an easy loophole to plug-- but part of it can be addressed, and Carrasco,Weiss and State Representative Dom Costa have been trying to address the truancy piece with some legislation requiring cyber charters to deal more aggressively with truancy. In a PA school, three unexcused absences will get you an official call and a report sent up the chain of school administrator command; in more aggressive districts, even one absence will get you a phone call home. Even small schools districts such as mine employ a truancy officer.

We think of truancy in terms of getting those darn kids to school, but it's also an issue of making sure that the child does not disappear through the cracks. If Donovan McKee had been in a public school, either his repeated abuse would have been noted and reported, or his continued absence would have been followed up on.

Truancy in cyber school is an issue. Attendance is taken simply enough-- students have to log in each day. Of course, to be exact, somebody has to put in the child's login name and password. But even when students are reported absent, all the cybers are required to do is pass an over-three-day absence report to the home district.

The proposed amendment would require cyber teachers to notify their administrator and basically put the requirement to enforce truancy laws on the cyber charter. This is not unheard of-- Minnesota actually implemented a fairly aggressive anti-cyber-truancy program years ago. And Pennsylvania cybers are not unsympathetic to the need. 

Bob Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, reports that many charter operators get it, and "welcome that kind of accountability and authority." But they are concerned that this give cybers more work to do just as the state is getting ready to cut charter revenue.

“The problem is there’s an increased responsibility while cutting resources,” he said.

He should probably not try that plea for sympathy around any public school employees, who have regularly acquired more responsibilities even as Fayfich's members are busily sucking the blood out of public schools. I think I speak for all public school employees when I say, "Big frickin' waaah."

Forcing Pennsylvania cybers to deal with truancy more immediately, directly and effectively would be better for everyone. It does cybers no good to be known as a haven for truants and slackers, and yet there is a small but significant sliver of cyber-school sign-ups that are about a frustrated parent or student who don't to deal with truancy officers and fines any more.

I cannot say this enough-- I have absolutely no doubt that the vast majority of cyber school parents are NOT child abusers or even just truancy enablers. But clearly there are steps we can take in Pennsylvania to better involve cyber-charters in the critical work of keeping students safe and accountable.

Testing: NY Relaxes Nothing

It would be surprising to find that one of the nation's leading newspapers does not understand some basic vocabulary, but apparently the New York Times does not know what "relax" means.

Yesterday the Times ran a story claiming that the state had "relaxed" the teacher gag order on test items, and then preceded to prove this false in the very same story.

See, now the state will allow teachers to discuss items on the test after they have been publicly released, whereas previously, teachers could only discuss test items after they had been publicly released.

Under the new law, teachers and administrators will be free to discuss certain test questions, but only those that have been publicly released by the state.

For years, the state publicly released every question on elementary and middle school standardized tests, but then stopped after discovering that the practice had led to inflated scores.

According to the article, what has actually changed is that the state has decided to release some test items again-- but only some. After all, there are important interests to protect here:

It takes years of trials, not to mention money, to come up with questions appropriate for mass testing.

As always, test proctors are forbidden to look at the tests they are proctoring. And nobody can discuss items that the test manufacturer hasn't released. I'm sure they'll go ahead and release the more controversial items so that folks can have an open and transparent discussion of what's going on in the testing universe.

No, I don't think so either. Teachers can still talk about test items that have been released, and test manufacturers are still free to keep any parts of the test under wraps that they so choose. So as far as the gag order goes, nothing has changed.

Or, as Carol Burris put it this morning

Sunday, June 28, 2015

One More Teacher for Bernie

Boy, I really don't want to start wading into the 2016 Presidential election season yet, but it seems increasingly unavoidable. And besides, I'm kind of excited about Bernie Sanders.

Is he some kind of crazy radical? Fellow Democrats, of all people, accuse him of that of being too far Out There, while no less an authority than George Will says that calling Sanders a Socialist is a charade, the Sanders is no more Socialist than the last seventy years of American politics. But the Washington Post has gone from ignoring him to delivering daily coverage as if he were-- shocker-- a legitimate Presidential candidate-- including a piece two weeks ago confirming that many Americans agree with many of Sanders's positions.

The Sanders campaign trajectory reminds me of the candidacy of Ron Paul-- a guy who initially looks like a fringe candidate slowly gathering steam by speaking to wide streak of voter discontent both in the content of his message and in the unpolished directness of his campaigning. It is part of what draws some people to-- dare I say it-- Donald Trump; he may be a horse's ass, but at least he talks like a regular human being and not a carefully packaged focus-group tested human-shaped product. (Also, they are all not exactly conventionally attractive.)

As a teacher, I know that nobody in the current GOP field is going to support public education. I know that Hillary is never going to say anything she doesn't think voters want to hear, and she is never going to do anything that her 1% backers don't want her to do. They are all standard-issue modern candidates, candidates who don't need to show up in person because every word out of their mouths will be pre-scripted, pre-vetted, pre-tested, and pre-rehearsed. They are all running for one primary reason-- they want to be President. Now we'll just watched to see what they're willing to do to get there. As the old joke ends, we have already established what they are-- now we're just haggling over price.

But Sanders, like the senior Paul before him, has the air of someone who isn't really heart-set on the Oval Office. It's just that there are some things that need to be said, and if not him, then who?

I'm not naive. I know that Sanders is a seasoned politician, that he didn't get where he is by being an amateur bumpkin. I know he's not Superman or a knight on a white steed. But I also know Vermont, and I know slickness will only get you so far there.

And Sanders says stuff like this:

It would have been easy to suck up to the first questioner and deliver some halfway answer. But "no public dollars to private schools" is nice and clear and not what some folks want to hear. I've watched several similar clips and I'm struck that Sanders speaks plainly and directly, but without hyperbole or over-promising.

And with roughly 147 candidates out there, Sanders is the only one willing to directly address the massively corrupting influence of money on our political system; the other 146 want that money too badly to so much as nibble on the hand that feeds them.

Sanders is drawing crowds now, but I don't imagine that means he'll easily withstand a full onslaught of the well-financed political machine that Clinton can unleash. Nor do I imagine that, should he somehow land in the White House that he will single-handedly turn back the tide of corporate reformsterism. But I'm still supporting him.

First, because I am sick to death of Democrats who consistently and deliberate kick teachers and public education in the face. "Well, the GOP will kick you in the face and also break your fingers," is the only response we get. At least Jeb Bush is going to continue to be forthright about his intention to break public education and sell off the parts to private concerns. Somehow, the fact that Clinton will do the same thing, but will insist on pretending that she won't is worse.

I am tired of casting my vote for the lesser of several evils. The candidate I support will have to earn my support by some argument tougher than "I don't suck as much as that other guy, as far as you know." I'm done with that. I've had it.

"But what if you throw away your vote and the evil Other Guy wins?!" Honestly, I don't care. If I have to suffer under an Evil Other Guy Presidency in order for the Democratic party to wake up and say, "Hey, maybe we should pay attention to someone other than our rich corporate overlords," then so be it.

I am tired of being the Democratic Party's booty call, and if finally putting my foot down means I have to sit at home alone on Prom night, so be it. It's the right choice for me and the right choice for the long run. I deserve better, dammit.

Go here to read up on Sanders and to make a contribution to his campaign. It doesn't appear that there is any other way that the voices of ordinary citizens and teachers are going to be heard in this election cycle, so let's give it a shot.

Threading Cake Testing Needles (Part III)

I've been enjoying a dialogue centering on some postings by Nate Bowling. Bowling is more reformy than I, but his work is interesting because A) he is an actual teacher and B) he does not claim that he didn't know how to do his job until Common Core. There aren't that many actual classroom teachers out there articulating the reformster case well, but Bowling seems to be continuing a sincere and teacherly search for some answers and solutions around the issues of testing, and I have appreciated watching part of his journey.

You can find earlier pieces of this conversation here and here and here and here.

Part III is up and while we're still torturing metaphors, at least we're still eating cake and threading needles and not eating cake with needles in it.

Bowling opens with observations about the effects of polarization, in particular how it becomes an obstacle to useful discussion. I have some ideas about how that polarization became welded onto the education debates (when you attack teachers and the work they've invested themselves in, it's hard for them not to take it personally), but I absolutely agree that any time you assume that people who disagree with you must be either evil or stupid (or both), you're not going to accomplish anything worthwhile. As much as hugely disagree with many folks on the other sides of the Great Education Debate, I have found that almost every last one of them is amenable to civilized conversation. It's like they're actual humans, or something!

Bowling presents that view as the context for trying to further clarify the issues that he laid out in the first part of the series. His thoughts are worth looking at, even if I disagree with some of them.

Problem 1: Standardized testing comes with huge costs of both money and instructional time, and it gives no real useful information in return. I think that's dead-on.

Problem 2: Testing as a civil rights issue. Reading Bowling's explanation of this issue (which leans on writing by Chris Stewart) suggests to me that maybe what we're talking about here is a new audience for student progress reports.

I've often mocked the notion that either parents or teachers need standardized test results (which are hugely limited in scope, in depth and in detail) to know how their students are doing. But the civil rights testing argument seems to include the notion that communities and leaders need hard data about school failure in order to create political and social pressure to right wrongs and close gaps.

There are problems with using tests for that purpose. One is that the tests are still bad measures. Bowling writes

One of the most frequently raised arguments against testing that I come across is that testing is not an accurate measure of "the whole child," or their “real worth.” I agree, but no one (no one worth listening to anyway) is arguing that it is. 

I disagree with his second sentence. Every time someone makes a statement about student achievement or teacher effectiveness or whether a school is swell or not, all they are talking about is test scores. "Student achievement" as currently used literally means nothing but "student test scores," and so test scores have become a proxy for every kind of measure that can be imagined. And that can't help but narrow the view of what schools are supposed to do.

Nor is there much useful data. Bowling notes that "Tammi got a C+" isn't for some folks-- but it has more granularity than the Big Standardized Test reports which just tell us which of four possible grades that student earned.

I could look past that, maybe a little, if low test scores were used to prove that Lowscore City Schools were not getting sufficient support and resources from state and federal government. But that's not how the story plays out. Instead, we see two things happen over and over again.

One is that the state sweeps in and cancels democracy for the community. Instead of coming in, sitting down with community leaders, and finding out what resources they need to support their local vision for their own community, from Newark to Philly to Chicago to Detroit, over and over, the state comes in and says, "Clearly you brown/black/poor folks can't be trusted to run things, so we're going to suspend democracy, silence your voices, and tell you what you should have."

The other is the building of tiny lifeboats. In the name of rescuing students from failing schools, charter systems are created that allow a small percentage of students to escape the failing schools. Meanwhile, all the other students are still in the troubled schools-- which are now getting fewer resources rather than assistance.

When the citizens and students of Newark are in the streets repeatedly-- and fruitlessly-- demanding to have a voice in their own community's schools, that doesn't look like a civil rights win to me.

Now, should we have some means of keeping relentless and forceful pressure on politicians to make sure that all communities are well-served and absolutely unignorable? We should. I don't believe for a milisecond that politicians do not know which the communities need assistance, but if we need to be able to generate charts and graphs to hold their feet to the fire, then let's play that game. But the current wave of test-based accountability-- which we've been trying for over a decade-- is failing to do the job. We have never really had; a system for generating data for the audience of politicians and policymakers, and we need to go back to the drawing board to come up with the right instrument for that task.

Bowling goes on to offer solutions, with the caveat that these are Washington State-based ideas, and your mileage may vary.

No test scores in teaching evals. Well, yes. I'm not sure what will finally kill this, since there is not a small continent's worth of VAM debunkery out there. I suspect that this won't crumble until we have enough local stories of how Beloved Mrs. Teachswell, known by one and all to be wonderful in the classroom, has been judged Terrible by the state evaluation system. Right now the system is so crazypants that folks literally refuse to believe me when I explain that the shop teachers evaluation is partly based on the test scores of students he's never even met; it's so bizarre that they are sure "that can't be right."

Eliminate redundant exams and shorten existing ones. And, though this implied by the rest of his paragraph, be damn sure you can explain why failing Exam X should, all by itself, keep a child from graduating or moving on to the next grade.

I mean come on, the test to determine whether you are proficient at any single grade level should not be longer than a Bar Exam. We can create assessments, linked to the CCSS, NGSS, (insert your own SS) that indicate where a student is on a continuum from way below grade level.These assessments don’t have to be insanely expensive, overly complicated and should be able to be completed in one or two class periods, rather than the five days (2xs) it took to administer each SBAC (math and ELA), at many schools this year.

I'd go further. Why does it need to be a test?

Shift power from testing companies to educators.

"If tomorrow I was given the power, I’d commission a group of teacher leaders to create the exams for my state. I would shift the duty of designing state exams from unknown figures at various testing companies to noted and notable educators." Yeah, I'll back that. The problem is money. All of reform is a shift of power from educators to people who would like to make money from education. How we push Pearson back out of the BS Test manufacturing market when on any given day we are in our classrooms and they are lobbying in capitals is a mystery to me.

I'm not saying we shouldn't try. But the whole premise of BS Testing is that the grade given by a classroom teacher can't be trusted, and I don't know how we can possibly turn that political tide. Lord knows we're trying to get the message across-- but very few people with actual power are listening.

One other advantage of teacher-created testing? Students would be more likely to take the testing seriously. And teachers might get something we could actually use. It really would be a vast improvement in many ways, but I don't know how we sell it.

I appreciate Bowling's resolve to see this conversation through and to examine the positions honestly. One other problem with polarization is that it can give you blinders-- you only allow certain conclusions to be reachable, and that, of course, colors how you view everything. It takes some nerve and patience to track the ideas without trying to force your way to a particular conclusion, and I appreciate that Bowling appears to be doing so. Thanks for the cake, Nate.

The Charter Life

 from the May 2017 issue of Charter & Choice Journal

by Macon S. Uppton

Charles T. McSwagg arrived late to the interview, pulling up thirty minutes after our appointment in a shiny new Mercedes.

"Sorry I'm late," he said, getting out of the car. "The Bentley was almost out of gas."

This kind of bold problem solving is a good example of McSwagg's bold approach to the Charter-choice lifetsyle. He explained further over twelve cups of coffee. "I want access to an excellent automobile with a full tank of gas. The Mercedes was almost out of gas, so the only solution was to look at some choices of other excellent cars that had full tanks of gas." And then he went back to testing the twelve cups of coffee.

I might have raised my eyebrows.

"I like just the right balance of sweetener and cream in my coffee," he said. "So I have them bring me several different combinations so that I have access to the excellent cup of coffee that I'm looking for."

I asked if that wasn't rather expensive. He shrugged. "We make compromises," he said, and I looked closer to see that each of the cups only held a small amount of coffee. McSwagg selected the cup he wanted, swept the rest off the side of the table and onto the floor, and as the waitress swept up after him, we began the interview.

CCJ: What led you to first adopt the charter-choice lifestyle?

M: I made a bundle investing in the charter school movement, and I found the approach of options over improvements to be a powerful one. Why should we have to fix things, or pour more money into the things we already have? Shouldn't we instead just have access to a variety of better options? Wouldn't that be a great way to approach life?

CCJ: So, how many homes do you currently own?

M: I think I'm up to ten. Of course, I've moved out of several of them. My first home had carpet that wore out and, after a bad windstorm, there was serious roof damage. So of course my only option at that point was to move into another home.

CCJ: Isn't that a waste of the home?

M: My first wife lives there now. I think she's comfortable as long as she stays in the front parlor and on the first floor.

CCJ: Your first wife...

M: Yes, my first wife and I had some conflicts and disagreements about how to manage the house; thank goodness I had access to many excellent alternative wives and was able to move on.

CCJ: Did you consider repairs for the home, or counseling for your marriage? If there were problems that could be solved with time and work--

M: Well, that would just be making excuses. There's no reason the house couldn't be excellent and my first wife couldn't be excellent. But they weren't. I just wanted access to other excellent options.

CCJ: So how many wives--

M: Well, my second wife was injured in a car accident, and my third just started to really show her age. I'm grateful that I had access to those other excellent options.

CCJ: But couldn't you just--

M: There's just no point in trying to fix things when you can have other, better things, instead. Leave the things that need fixing for other people. Poorer people.

CCJ: Don't some of your wives, or, um, optional possible wives, find this system sort of... of-putting?

M: Well, now you sound like several of my children. But as I've explained to them, if a relationship isn't serving my needs right now, today, then I see no reason to invest more time and effort in it. And time is limited. If I spent five minutes a day with each of my children, I'd never get anything else done. But I do want access to the option to have excellent children, so I have several on stand-by.

CCJ: Children?

M: Why ground them when you can just replace them?

CCJ: Why try to fix it when you can just replace it?

M: Exactly. Now we can-- oh, bother.

CCJ: Did you just spill some of that coffee on your pants?

M: I did. I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to cut this short. I need to go buy a new outfit.

Teachers vs. Publishers' Reps

If there is one area where educators consistently fail to flex their muscles and stand up for themselves and their students, it is in dealing with publisher's reps.

Making the deal

I don't know if this is part of the general tendency of teachers to be good team players who don't want to be mean or unpleasant to anybody, but many publisher's reps must feel as if they've slipped through a portal into salesman's heaven. It's a dimension where used car salesmen say, "Well, the price on the sticker is probably as good as it gets, and you'd better snap this up right now," and the customer just says, "Oh, all right, then."

I have a teaching colleague who, for a decade before she returned to the classroom, ran the sales department of a newspaper in the New York Times Giant Chain O'Papers. When she gets done with a textbook salesperson, he doesn't know what hit him. "You'll need to grab these up right now," goes the pitch. "I can only make this price available for the next few weeks, so you have to go for it. Sign here."

"Here's how it's going to go," she replies. "We'll be deciding in a few months, after we look at all the available books out there. If we decide to go with you in a few months, it will be at a lower price than the one you just quoted me, and here's a list of how many teacher manuals and supplemental materials you're going to throw in for free. We'll be in touch."

It's a thing of beauty, and it is based on what so many administrators and teachers seem to forget-- in the sales relationship with textbook publishers, it is school districts that hold the power.

Instead, too many administrators and teachers "negotiate" like Oliver Twist or an unattractive teen in an Abercrombie & Fitch, acting as if we're just hoping that maybe the publisher will consent to sell us something. No. Wrong. Backwards. We do not have to bow and scrape for the privilege of being allowed to buy their product. Negotiate from power and for the love of God, remember that no matter how much they try to suggest otherwise, you are not making friends with the salesperson-- you are buying something from them on behalf of the taxpayers who ponied up the money in the first place. Get the best deal possible and please don't worry about making the salesperson sad-- he'll perk right up when he finally makes a sale.

Amateur Hour Professional Development

Once the product is purchased, then we get the next round of fun and games-- professional development during which a textbook salesperson tells teachers how to do their jobs.

Textbook publishers have developed a greater interest in following up their sales, figuring that if they can make sure that teachers are successful with, say, Pearson products, then Pearson loyalty and repeat business may ensue.

This leads to the awkward spectacle of trained professional educators sitting in a room and listening politely as some publisher's rep (who may have taught for a year, once, a while ago) explain how to "properly" teach addition or pronouns or whatever else the textbook contains. These sessions range from insulting to infuriating, and they can be one more example of too-polite teachers refusing to stand up and push back.

I'm not advocating rudeness. The publisher's rep is just the messenger, but always remember-- the line of communication runs both ways, and your reaction in the "training" session will be carried back to the mother ship. Your behavior in the PD will be the difference between Publisher McRepface telling the boss, "People out there love this stuff" and "Boss, we have got to get this tweaked."

So don't be an asshat, but don't just sit there smiling and nodding if you are thinking, "Well, that can't possibly work." Use your words. Use them politely, but firmly. But use them. Is your principal in the room? All the more reason to be vocal. Stand up for your students. Stand up for your profession. Never forget-- you are the person who actually teaches and nurtures students for a living, and that guy in the nice suit is the person who sells textbooks for a living.

The Education Monopoly?

I fell into a twitter conversation a while back with Neal McClusky, the education guy for the Cato Institute, a libertarian thinky tank originally founded as the Charles Koch Foundation in 1976, though in keeping with libertarian principles, the institute has had some spirited arguments with the Kochs over the independence of the organization.

Libertarians have never been a fan of Common Core, and they generally frown on anything that comes out of DC. But they do love them some choice. McClusky made this distinction today:

Libertarians don't dislike pub "education." Dislike pub "schooling" - gov monopoly - b/c freedom is essential 

I questioned the "monopoly" label-- public education would have to be the lousiest national monopoly ever, with thousands of locally-run branch offices that cannot coordinate to save their lives. McClusky clarified that schools are local monopolies, and that citizens are forced to pay taxes for schools assigned by location.

I am generally not unsympathetic to the libertarian view. I am doubtful that top-down decisions coming out of DC will be helpful (though I also know that historically, some state make terrible choices if not federally co-erced). Unlike many of my progressive friends, I'm pretty sure that I wouldn't be sad to see the Department of Education go away. But while I found libertarian ideas appealing when I was younger, I've come to recognize that in practice, libertarian ideas look a lot like survival of the richest and best-connected. Libertarians comfort themselves with the idea that such extra power is earned and deserved based on merit. I remain unconvinced.

So if we end the local school monopoly and open the field up to the power of individual choice, what happens? I raised the question of Newark, an "all-choice" system that has spectacularly ignored the voices of individuals. McClusky says that Newark is state control, not freedom.

Libertarians aren't anarchists; they believe some regulation is required. But if we have erased local geographic boundaries to end the tyranny of the zip code, doesn't that actually shift the locus of control toward DC instead of away? (And if we hate the tyranny of zip codes, does that mean we should also stop hounding undocumented workers for just being born on the wrong side of another imaginary border?)

So who would regulate the new open market? Would we just let anybody open up any school and accept students from any place? Or would we have some quality control, in which case who would provide it, enforce it, and oversee it? Who would make sure that every single student in the country had access to a quality education and not just be consigned to Hot Potato High School (established and maintained at minimal cost for all the students that no charter wants)? Who would insure that no school could just suddenly close up? I mean, it's great fun when the invisible hand of the marketplace sorts out the winners and losers, but individual students do not have that kind of time to waste ("Yes, I have no real high school education because the market was stabilizing itself during my teen years.")

The mistake is in imagining education as a commodity to be sold, when it is a community service to be provided. It has not grown top-down, but bottom-up. The geographic restraints are a natural result of that-- people banded together to provide the service of education to themselves and their neighbors. Most communities also have "monopolies" on fire departments, sewage systems, police services, and water. None of these services would be improved by allowing for competition across geographical boundaries. What's more, creating such competition would be tremendously wasteful economically. It costs more to operate two or twelve homes than it does to operate one.

It is true that some "local communities" are too large to be truly local. I suspect there is some upper limit past which size becomes more of a problem than a help. I have no idea where that line is crossed, but I'll bet that New York, Chicago and many other metro systems are on the wrong side of it.

I'm aware that some libertarians are actually okay with some extra cost because they see the availability of choice as a virtue in and of itself. But in most communities, when people see that they are paying extra for redundant services, the pressure of the invisible hand is for consolidation. Certainly as individual districts find themselves cash-strapped across the country (often because many of their resources have been diverted to charter-choice schools), their reaction is to close existing schools, not open new ones.

I'm not an economist (but then most economists don't know jack about about education and that doesn't keep them from making pronouncements about it) but I'd love to read a scholarly look at the relationship between free markets and monopolies, because in my reading of history it certainly looks like the former often leads to the latter, and the process always involves government stepping in on the side of The People (hello, Ma Bell breakup) or on the side of the most powerful players (hi there, Affordable Care Act). 

At any rate, what McClusky and friends call a monopoly, I call a delicate balance between democracy, market dynamics, civic responsibility, and federal-vs-local powers in the act of providing a vital community service that we, as a country, long ago decided we would provide to every single citizen.

When a corporation starts winning in a free market, its priority does not become to preserve the free market, but to take it over, dominate it, and come as close to a monopoly as possible. I see three possibilities here:

A) Our current system-- a loosely connected network of locally-operated service providers.

B) A system of private corporations providing the service, eventually dominated by a handful, or even just one, corporation that controls most of the market (though certain unprofitable customer bases would be left to fend for themselves).

C) A heavily-regulated market created when the government steps in to keep B from going Too Far.

The dream of a vast network of private corporations locked in robust competition that pushes all to greater and greater levels of excellence-- it's a lovely dream, but I cannot think of a single industry or sector of the economy in which that has ever happened. Not one.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

NC: Driving Teachers Away Still Working

North Carolina's leaders have made a long and strong commitment to ending teaching as a viable career in their state, and teachers continue to get the message.

Just to recap. NC legislators tried to get rid of tenure, but there were these dumb laws and things that got in their way. Then, since they couldn't manage that, the plucky leaders decided to hold teacher pay hostage-- an easy trick because North Carolina teachers have been losing ground in both real dollar wages and, well, any other kind of dollar wages, for almost a decade. The legislature offered a deal-- teachers could have a raise (just one) if they gave up job security. They've also attempted merit pay, offering a big whopping $500 bonus for teachers of students with good test scores.

On top of all that, North Carolina has also instituted destructive classroom policies. NC is one of the states where we'll flunk your third grader if she can't pass the standardized test, despite a boatload of evidence that such policies do more harm than good. Plus, North Carolina has tried to become an Ohio-style charter school paradise with the kind of oversight-free approach that lets even the most obvious grifter strike it rich.

By spring of 2014, reports showed that the program to drive teachers out of NC was working well. It wasn't looking any better the following fall. NC is bad enough that to some teachers, Georgia is looking like a better option-- but when you're 42nd in teacher and plummeting regularly, that's what you get.

Well, here's a new report to let us know that things are still looking bad.

Station WBTV reports that teachers rallied at the state capital last week to speak out about the NC budget, which includes cuts to education money, resulting in various cuts including a possible 8,500 teacher assistants. The state's second-largest school district has seen almost 1,000 teachers resign for this coming fall. The state may be bleeding classroom professionals faster than any transfusion could hope to replace-- and no transfusion is coming soon, because enrollment in NC teacher training programs is down twenty percent over three years.

The report indicates that teachers are learning the fine art of one-to-one lobbying. It remains to be seen if they can make an impression in time to save the teaching profession in their state. It is true that teachers don't go into the profession in order to make money-- but we do like to make a difference, and we do like to make our bill payments. As long as North Carolina makes it more and more difficult for teachers to do either of those things, they will continue to be strong contenders in the race to the bottom.

Duncan: Every Family's Rights

In addressing the national PTA conference last week, Arne Duncan unveiled a new, more compact and campaign-ready version of the USED talking points, three "foundational" rights for every family.

This collects several of the talking point adjustments we've made over the past year. "College and careers" have now become "college, career and life."

USED continues its commitment to preschool without showing any understanding of what "quality" means for a preschool. That is book-ended with a commitment to affordable college. The commitment to affordable college would be more compelling were it not that the Department of Education is one of the entities profiting from college students. If the feds want college to become more affordable, there is a simple but powerful first step readily within their grasp-- start lending money to college students at the same sorts of rates they grant big time banks and other favored  customers.

Sandwiched in between these, we get a now boiled-down version of the last decade-plus of reformster rhetoric. High standards (whatever that means, though we certainly won't use the C words any more), good teaching, good leadership, and resources-- families have a right to schools with all of these.

Note that families are not entitled to a democratic process for creating their own local school system.

When I say that these points are campaign ready, I was thinking specifically of the Clinton campaign. Hillary Clinton's website covers a lot of ground, but really doesn't say much about education issues at all. Her policies seem likely to be close to those of the current administration and the previous one, too, for that matter).

Her education PAC declares itself in support of five ideas:

1. Universal pre-school
2. Two free years of community college
3. Increased teacher pay and flex work options
4. Access to high quality schools for all communities
5. Full-service community schools

 It all seems familiar, fluffy and foundation-free. Lordy, but I'm not looking foreward to the coming year in politics.

USED Sticks It To NY Disabled Students

The United States Department of Education ordered New York to keep making life miserable for students with special needs.

The state had asked for freedom to test some students based on their developmental level rather than their chronological age. They had also asked to give new English speakers two years before giving them the 3-8 grade tests, rather than the current one.

Arne Duncan's department said no on both counts.

U.S. Assistant Education Secretary Deborah Delisle said the requirements are "necessary to ensure that teachers and parents of all students, including (English learners) and students with disabilities, have information on their students' proficiency and progress in reading/language arts and mathematics" and "to ensure that schools are held accountable for the academic achievement of all students."

The first reason is raw, unsliced baloney. First, as always, the department assumes that teachers and parents are dopes who have no idea how the student is doing until the student takes the magical test. Second, exactly how much information can really be gleaned by a test that a student cannot pass, either because it is far beyond the students intellectual capabilities or because it is in a language that a student has been using for less than a year?

The second reason is, at least, more honest. Duncan's has long expressed the belief that special needs designations are used to warehouse undesirable, difficult or underserved students, rendering them effectively invisible and allowing the schools to give up on them. Very well. Those of us who support public education need to not pretend that such things don't ever happen. But I don't believe that it happens nearly as much as the feds seem to fear, and I especially don't believe that the solution is to drag every single student with a challenge out into the center of town to be forced to fail visibly and completely.

There is nothing to be gained by forcing students to associate education with failure, to turn school into that place where they go to hear about how much they suck. It helps nobody.

Oh, I know. The most bizarrely stupid idea to become lodged in this department of education is the notion that students with special needs only do more poorly because teachers expect them to-- if teachers just expected harder, all students would do great. When it comes to English Language Learners, presumably the department is staffed with the same people who believe that when speaking to people who don't speak English, you can close the gap by speaking English at them louder, slower and harder.

So congratulations, New York, on being reminded that the feds have mandated failure for some of your most vulnerable students, and your teachers must continue to ignore their professional wisdom and personal empathy and instead continue throwing students with challenges under the bus.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Corporatized: The Movie

As the resistance to the reformster movement has grown, it has slowly developed its own video wing.

There have been highlights already. The film Building the Machine (now available for free on youtube) is a slickly produced piece from folks who are not necessarily fans of public schools, but who share public education advocates' distrust of corporate and government forced reformy programs.

Standardized is a great look at the role of standardized testing in the reformster movement. You can buy a copy of that; I've handing mine off to anybody who will watch it.

Defies Measurement, a documentary by Shannon Puckett, is also available to watch for free on line. I've reviewed it on this blog; it's a masterful blending of the larger issues of reform with the specific example of one school's struggle. You should watch it.

I am waiting for my copy of Education, Inc by filmmaker Brian Malone; once I've seen it, I'll have a full review here.

(Just to be transparent-- while I know and respect many of the people in these films, I am not in any of them. My transformation from blogger to talking head has not yet occurred).

The film I want to talk to you about today is still in the pipeline-- Corporatized:The Real Story about the Education Takeover. The film is being produced by two film-makers-- Jack Paar and Ron Halpern-- with a background in the business. Paar's wife is a teacher, and a rally in Washington that she attended piqued his interest. Here's their kickstarter reel:

The film is still working on raising funds, and they have a fairly large chunk of change in mind, but the film looks like it has its heart in the right place. If you are interested  in helping, stop over to their kickstarter page and make a contribution. I mean, blogs and words are nice, but for reaching the general public, pictures that move and talk are far more powerful, and we can use all the help we can get putting out the word. Like some critics of documentaries, I doubt that documentaries change already-made-up minds-- but I think they can definitely influence minds that haven't been made up yet. As much time as we spend on these issues, I still think there's a huge chunk of the population that just doesn't know, and films like this can help people finally understand what is going on. So spread the word and make a contribution.

Privatizer Product Placement

Fellow blogger Steven Singer has spotted one of the more troubling trends in the current education debates.

In the Marvel Universe, he ran across two examples of privatizer ideas embedded into the fabric of shows.

In Agents of Shield, a character uses charter schooling as shorthand for loving parental care-- if you really love your kid, you put her in a charter school.

In Daredevil, a character equates the of-course-their-corrupt villainy of the teachers union with the mob and evil corporate polluters.

Check out his original post to see the particulars.

This sort of thing troubles me more than the umpty-gazillionth essay by a reformster that will be read by a small sampling of other reformsters. One of things we easily forget in these debates is that while we struggle and holler and dialogue and argue, most of the US population goes on about their business unaware that there's any problem.

Product placement in mainstream media reaches those folks, and it reaches them in an uncritical, visceral way. It's a basic rule of politics and marketing-- repeat something over and over and over and over and over again, and people will start to assume that it's just one of those things that everybody knows.

We've seen it with the idea that US public schools are failing-- everybody has heard it so many times that they simply assume that it's so.

It is possible to push back, but it takes the same dogged repetition. Reformsters stopped saying that teachers wrote the Common Core because every single time they said it, someone was there to contradict them, to hold up the truth, to challenge them for the proof they didn't have. And so they stopped saying it.

Pushing back and calling out-- that's how these battles are fought.

As Singer surmises, someone at Marvel may have been paid for a little product placement, may have been told these issues are on the corporate synergy list, or may simply be repeating something they heard. In any case, and in all cases where we find this sort of thing, the answer is to send letters, tweet, emails, whatever fits your resources.

Here's the contact information for Marvel. Let them know. Pass the word. Speak up. Every repetition counts.

Ohio Bushwacks Public Education

In a bald-faced attempt to snatch the Worst Sonsabitches In State Government award away from other contenders, Ohio's legislature used swift maneuvering and slick lawmaker tricks to help their Department of Education move forward in the process of giving public education away to privateers.

The Ohio Legislature's love of charters and privatization is the stuff of legends. Juliet looks at it and tells Romeo, "Why can't you love me that much?" In this legislative news, we find a carefully-buried earmark to hand $4 million to Teach for America. Even more impressive, GOP legislators killed a charter reform bill that was actually supported by many pro-charter folks such as the Fordham Institute. Even the head of the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools liked most of the bill. But the GOP killed it anyway, because they'll be damned if anybody is going to handicap Ohio's quest for the award of State with Worst Charter Schools in America.

But all of that pales to the shenanigans attached to House Bill 70.

This bill started out as an innocuous piece of legislation aimed at helping schools become community learning centers. When it came up in the House the first time back in May, it passed 92 to 6. It went to the Senate this week, and that's when the shenanigans began again.

According to the Akron Beacon, on Wednesday, the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers was ready to testify in favor of the bill when she heard about an amendment to be attached at the last minute which would allow for state takeover of schools.

When it came time for her to speak, she attempted to oppose the new provision, but was told that the amendment had not yet been offered, so she could not address it.

She sat down. The amendment was introduced and four men in line behind her who had traveled from Youngstown stepped up to give favorable testimony
The bill was then passed and sent back to the House where it passed-- this time 55 to 40.

Within twelve hours of seeing the light of day, the amended bill was on Governor John Kasich's desk. His office thinks the bill is awesometastic, blah blah save kids from failing schools blah blah. I keep waiting for someone supporting one of these bills to mess up his talking points and say that it's great we're saving children from democracy.

If we go to look at the bill (link here) we find much that seems familiar. Under the law, the state will take over a distressed school and turn it over to the Academic Distress Commission, who will hire a CEO to run the school. That CEO, who will serve at the pleasure of the commission, "shall have high-level management experience in the public or private sector" and "shall exercise complete operational, managerial and instructional control."

Creating Achievement School District style takeover mechanisms is always bad news for public education, but the installation of this law as a fast-tracked amendment to an unrelated bill really sets a new level of slimy, but it only looks worse upon examination-- Doug Livingston of the Akron Beacon reports that the Ohio Department of Education has been working on this for months.

While it is expected that Youngstown schools will be the first to be hit by this, Lorain (where I had my first teaching job) is also looking down the barrel of this mugger's gun. And the law is not specific or targeted-- it potentially applies to any district in the state that doesn't hit its numbers enough years in a row.

A list follows, and when they say complete control., they aren't kidding. The CEO can hire, fire, set salaries, set schedules, set the school calendar, determine the school configuration of grades, set curriculum, change any board-set policies, and of course, hire contractors to run things. There are more items on the list, and the CEO's powers are not limited to the list, but if it all gets too much for him, he may choose to delegate "specific powers or duties to the district board or district superintendent."

So the elected school board and district superintendent aren't completely dissolved-- they just work for the new unelected CEO. Think of it as the Roman Empire Management Model.
Speaking for the Ohio Weaselly Department of Education:

“Bottom line,” Charlton said, “is that it is not fair to the students and parents who trust their schools to provide for their educations, the local educators and community leaders who have played by the system’s rules, or the communities whose futures depend on educated, skilled citizens. It’s time for a change. Kids in academically struggling schools can’t wait any longer; we need to make immediate improvements to the support system.”

He did not go on to add "That is why we've spent months planning how to circumvent the entire democratic process and cut public ed off at the knees before anybody could raise a fuss."

My favorite quote from Livingston's piece?

Sen. Michael Skindell of Lakewood said of the potential for the program to spread. “It seems to incentivize students to go from a failing public school to a failing charter school.”

He added: “Gosh, I wish we would be moving as fast on the failing charter schools in this state.”

The Beacon-journal has done some previous work looking at the effect of charters on public schools, discovering that-- surprise-- the better students use choice (open enrollment, they call it in Ohio) to get out of places like Youngstown schools, leaving the least desirable students in a system being drained of resources, creating a larger scale "failure" in those districts.

Well, open enrollment was already draining those districts of money, but now the plucky educrats of the ODE have found a way to let someone squeeze the last drops of profit out of the husk of the public school system. Ohio's legislature remains committed to making the Buckeye State a paradise for privatizers, even if they have to subvert democracy to do it.

Pearson Sells PowerSchool

This may not be the biggest news in the education world-- unless, like me, you teach at one of the gazillion of schools that uses PowerSchool as its electronic gradebook. But the giant edubiz conglomerate has sold the giant gradebook monstrosity to a huge investment firm.

First, a confession: I don't hate PowerSchool. I know some folks do, and a lot about what is hate-able about the big PS comes down to how well your local IT configures it and supports it. But for my district, it's the most recent in a string of electronic gradebooks and the previous software was just so deeply awful in its awfulness that PowerSchool seemed like a breath of fresh air when it arrived. I still find it relatively easy to use and it mostly does the things that I want it to. I still keep a paper gradebook as my primary records, but by and large I trust PowerSchool to do its job of recording, storing, computing, and making available to parents and students the grades from my class.

Why did Pearson sell this successful program? That is an excellent question. The company is profitable, though not hugely so, but Pearson's spokesperson indicated that it didn't exactly fit Pearson's mission of owning everything in the world having to do with teaching or testing.

The sale of PowerSchool, an administrative system rather than a tool for learning, teaching or assessment, will enable us to focus more directly on learning outcomes, and further simplify Pearson as we make our products more global, digital and scalable.

Who's buying the company? Well, that's not very encouraging. The happy new owners are Vista Equity Partners, "a leading private equity firm focused on investing in software and technology-enabled businesses." They are the kind of group that describes themselves with phrases like "with more than $14 billion in cumulative capital commitments."

Or hey-- here's their investment philosophy. The large picture is "to enable good businesses to achieve their full potential"-- not exactly groundbreaking, though better than "to squeeze money out quickly and then sell the husk." Can you be more specific, Vista?

This starts by selecting well-positioned companies with best-in-class software products and related services, referenceable customers, and attractive market dynamics. We seek to align the interests of management with those of shareholders and focus on the operational processes and best practices that are critical for long-term value creation.

Uh-oh. Demerits for "referenceable customers" and an ominous shudder for "align the interests of management with those of shareholders etc." So PowerSchool has just become a company whose primary purpose is to make money for investors-- providing a useful product is actually secondary, a means to the most important end which is making somebody rich(er).

Their investment portfolio includes a bunch of software companies that you have never heard of. Every single one of them is "a provider of solutions" for some industry, from real estate to healthcare to news media to sports stats. Vista also partners with a variety of regional do-gooding organizations, including the Atlanta Academy, Bay Area Discovery Museum, Chicago Children's Hospital, the Lincoln Hills Experience (fly fishing for young people) and Squash Drive (a non-profit that promotes academic, athletic and general life success through squash-- the game, not the vegetable). While their philanthropic work tilts toward youthy stuff, they don't have any of the reformy connections here that we've come to know and love.

They did win an award for 2007 Top Performing Domestic Buyout Fund as announced by Reuters Buyouts Magazine, which is a real thing. Apparently Vista is good at what it has been doing for the past fifteen years.

The company was started in 2000 by Brian Sheth, Steven Davis and Robert F. Smith, both previously employed by Goldman Sachs. Sheth was 24 at the time and started out as an associate; Davis has since moved on and Sheth has moved up. While the company has offices in San Francisco and Chicago, it is based in Austin, Texas. A Wall Street Journal profile last year called them one of the top ten private equity companies in the world.

So for now, users of PowerSchool will be waiting to see what changes will be coming as the company shifts to its new goal of Making Money for Investors. We'll also be watching for what Pearson does to replace this giant data-hoovering capabilities of PowerSchool. Stay tuned.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Fordham's Takeover Overview

Earlier this month, the Thomas Fordham Institute (America's leading promoters of school privatization) released the capstone to a series entitled Redefining the School District by Nelson Smith. It's worth a look to better understand where these folks are coming from. (Spoiler alert-- Smith is the former head of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and currently advises the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, so guess where this train is headed.)

The first two portions of the series are location-specific (Tennessee and Michigan), but the third installment steps back for a wider view of redefining school districts in America, and that's the one I'm going to skim for you today, but this is still a long haul. Fasten your seatbelt and grab a snack.

Opening Shots from Petrilli

Amber Northern and Mike Petrilli pen the introduction to the report, setting up the premise for all that follows.

First, the failure of turnarounds so far. The feds spent $5.7 billion-with-a-B on School Improvement Grants, and it didn't move the needle a bit. Why? Petrilli and Northern cite an unnamed study from may of 2015 that showed that state officials simply lack the expertise to do it.

So schools need to be turned around, but the states don't know how. To whom, I wonder, can we turn to get this job done?

There are other problems, as suggested by these oddly-juxtaposed sentences:

Even when we stumble upon promising strategies, the old familiar barriers make implementation difficult. In 2012, for example, the Center on Education Policy found that a majority of state officials believed that replacing the principal or staff of low-performing schools was a key element in improving student achievement there. 

I agree-- the idea that mass firings will create excellence is an old familiar barrier to improving schools. Oh. Never mind. Reading on, I see that they're setting up the point that silly old unions and regulations keep bold innovators from firing their way to excellence.

So we're going to look at Recovery School District-style governance changes, because that's a system that cuts through government regulations to give charter privateers the chance to do whatever the hell they want, which will advance the cause of public education as surely as the advent of fast food franchises have further the cause of public health and nutrition.

So let's begin.


Some of the same background. What will our focus be?

All of these involve the reshuffling of governance authority between state and local players. While touching lightly on all, this paper focuses mainly on state reforms that take over schools, rather than districts, and that assume “LEA” functions for those schools—the mundane routines of oversight, administration, and finance that a local education agency (a.k.a. a conventional school district) ordinarily performs. 

Nicely done. Although these papers are talking pretty directly and exclusively about the process of handing public schools over to private corporate interests, we're never going to say those words. Notice here that it's "state reforms" that take over the schools. I respect the precise language fig leaf even as I'm unimpressed by what it covers up.

Framing the Choice

Smith informs us that CAP found "compelling evidence" that turnarounds happens when districts get uber-aggressive about it. No, he's not going to tell us where that evidence is, or whether it would be compelling to people who don't already assume the conclusion.

His repeated point here is that local districts just won't scorch enough earth. It's almost as if they considered community concerns and interests and were not willing to do whatever it takes to get test scores up (because, don't forget, in every instance that we're talking about "success" and "achievement," all we're really talking about is scores on a single not-very-good standardized test).

But the turnaround-district concept is not fundamentally about resources; it’s about establishing and then earnestly pushing toward radically higher expectations for schools that have been written off as failures. 

Put that notion beside this quote from Andre Perry:

Our goal is not to improve a school in spite of the community. Our goal is to improve a community using schools.

Throughout his work, Smith rarely mentions community except as an agent of resistance. He certainly doesn't admit that community factors like poverty get in the way of school excellence. And on his list of status quo items that get in the way of excellent turnarounding, he includes "local control" as if allowing people to have a say in running their own community schools is just a foolish roadblock on the road to awesomeness.  Nor does he have a real outcome on the table-- just better test scores, which are a proxy for... something. The view of schools as community's shared resources is completely absent from his view.

This the choice he sees:

The real comparison is not between one kind of bracing rescue effort and another. It’s between taking the risk of major, disruptive change and settling for the kind of timid, safe steps that leave thousands of kids in failing schools, desperately awaiting help.

So when he mentioned schools "written off as failures" earlier, maybe he meant that he was the one doing the writing. At any rate, our choice is clear-- we must burn the village to save it, and people who want to put out the torches are just obstacles to be pushed aside.

How Are Current Turnaround Districts Doing?

Smith wants to revisit the three existing takeover districts (my word, never his) and show how great they are doing. These are all discussions that have been had many, many times, and I'm not going to revisit them here in any depth.

Smith does not try to blow nothing but smoke here. He's pretty clear and direct, for instance, in acknowledging that NOLA RSD school are still at the bottom of the Louisiana barrel, though he also talks about the super-duper impressive gains that RSD schools have made. He claims success by saying that the RSD has changed the trajectory of these schools and pointed them in the right direction.

His treatment of the individual districts highlights another rhetorical feature of this paper-- public schools have flaws which are proof that they are failing, abandoned, written off, and otherwise the sort of hopeless institutions in which we don't want students to be trapped. But while charter school flaws are acknowledged, these are not proof that either the charters or the entire takeover model is failing or fundamentally flawed-- it's just a few bugs to be worked out.

Every public school failure is proof that they've reached the end of the road, while charter failures are just challenges to be met on the road to awesome.

Smith's examination of Tennessee's ASD provides one my favorite examples of How To Avoid The T Word. Noting that most of the bottom 5% schools are in Memphis, Smith says that ecah year "the ASD selects a few more of them for inclusion in its portfolio." Doesn't inclusion in a portfolio sound so much nicer than being taken over. It has the added advantage of being language that the hedge fundy backers of the charter chains can understand.

The Tennessee section does run through many of the real issues of Tennessee (for instance, the rules change to allow ASD schools to ship in students from outside the area they're supposed to serve). It also mentions in passing one of the big challenges they face-- RttT money is going to run out soon. And Smith wraps up by saying that the ASD parents poll as being mostly satisfied, which is unsurprising given A) why would unsatisfied parents still be in ASD schools and B) parents are universally satisfied with their schools. If Smith's polling data is a good measure of success, then the vast majority of public schools are successes and we can stop all this nonsense. But of course the reformster narrative is that public school parents are satisfied only because their schools lie to them and they don't know any better.

By the time Smith wheels through Michigan and its "precipitous drop" in enrollment after year one, now happily turned around, or its challenging "external environment," it finally hits me that the language of this report suggests a prospectus for possible investors and business partners, not a consideration of how the takeover of public schools is affecting the schools, the students, or the communities. And that makes more sense out of the next section.

Prospects on the Horizon

The phrase "emerging markets" doesn't actually appear in the next section, but it might as well. Here, Smith says, are some other states where this sort of takeover approach is being tried, floated, promoted or otherwise looks likely to launch.


Connecticut and Delaware are brought up as "faux districts." The principal issue seems to be that in these states, the local bodies were allowed to retain some control. The schools were not taken over and properly handed off to charter operators or other privatizers. So, close, but not good enough.


So here's what Smith thinks states should be doing as they prepare to hand public education over to private operators.

Concede There's a Problem

Step One in Smith's book is for the state to admit they have a problem they can't solve, and don't listen to those stupid teachers unions.

Governor Cuomo’s proposal to put some of his state’s 178 failing schools into receivership generated plenty of controversy, but no response was more revealing—or damning—than that of the state teachers’ union: “New York doesn’t have failing schools....It does have struggling schools where teachers and parents are working together in different circumstances to cope with deep poverty. Poverty and chronic under-funding by the state are the central issues the governor’s proposal does not address.”

Followed by this--

That’s a prescription for doing nothing.

This is classic Orwellian backwards reformsterism. Here's how it works. When I say, "We have some serious issues here that need to be addressed as part of the business of addressing student achievement," I am being defeatist and claiming that as a victim, nothing can be done. But when you, Mr. Reformy McCharteralot, say, "This public school is unsalvageable and must be scrapped completely," somehow you are not giving up or claiming that there's no solving the problem?

I come into the house and say, "Hey, before we can drive anywhere, I need some help cleaning out the car." You say, "It's not possible. We'd better just sell the car for scrap and buy a new one." Now, which one of us is giving up and saying that the problem can't possibly be solved?

The observation that poverty and chronic under-funding are factors in school success are not "a prescription for doing nothing." That's like saying, "The doctor says I don't have enough iron in my diet and I need this medicine. So yeah, he totally thinks I should do nothing."

Don't Paint by Numbers

Smith acknowledges that one size does not fit all. For instance, rural areas such as those in Georgia, do not lend themselves to a choicey system (people tend to choose the school that's not thirty miles away). As always, this is not a reason to question if the takeover model is a good idea. It's just a call to get creative with solutions. Mind you, it's not that I don't love me some creative solutions-- but why is that not a legitimate alternative to takeover for public schools?

Call Your Lawyer

You might want to check to make sure that handing over your public schools to private companies isn't a violation of your state constitution.

Be Careful With Eligibility Requirements

I may be reading a little too close here, but this section looks kind of like "Don't make your takeover criteria so rigid that you start chewing up perfectly good charter enterprises along with the public schools."

Define Turned Around & Define the End Game

This is actually a good point. The outcome of your school takeover is supposed to be... what? This continues to be a weak spot in the privatizer battle map, a piece of rhetoric that distinguished them from Common Core pushers. Core fans have a lofty end goal-- we'll be smarterer than the whole wide world. But privatizers' end goal is a privatized education system that will be better because it will be privatized, and that's just inherently better, because reasons.

Hey, I have a thought. Let me repeat Andre Perry's quote from above:

Our goal is not to improve a school in spite of the community. Our goal is to improve a community using schools.

Doesn't that seem like a better goal than High Test Scores and Good ROI?

Don't Include Sucky Charters

Smith says don't take charters over; just put them out of business. For just a second, we kind of agree. But then I'm thinking, one charter closed is another charter's business opportunity-- unless the state gets in the way.

Pay for it from Public Funds

Don't make the program dependent on grant money or philanthropy or one-time state largesse. This of course creates a whole other question-- what if there aren't enough public funds to go around?

Learn from This

Let your state-commandeered takeover district be a shining beacon of How To Do Schools. Remember--we started this in the first place because nobody working in education or operating state bureaucracies-- nobody knows how to make schools better. Once those privateers get in there and show you how it's done, take notes!

Of course, we've had modern era privateer charters and even takeover school districts for a while now, so maybe we could list off all the things they've taught us about How To Run Successful Schools............ .  .   .     .      .

Well, we have learned a couple of things. Like running a successful school means spending all the money it really takes. And being careful that you don't accept or keep the Wrong Kinds of Students. Anything else? No?

Next Up: Recommendations for Management

Here are the things you need to do when setting up the management of your new takeover district.

1. Think long term. There will a lot of pressure to get things fixed immediately. Probably because that's how you sold this whole business in the first place (We can't give public schools one more day to work on this. We must fix it RIGHT NOW!) Don't let those expectations push you around. Be patient. Wait. These things take time (except for public schools).

2) Expect course corrections. You'll make mistake. Just keep trying stuff till you get better. Remember, you're not a public school, so you deserve more chances.

3) Create a portfolio. Let lots of different privatizers ride this gravy train.

4) Get the right skills. Hire people who are really good at doing turnaround work, although that may be difficult because right now the number of companies with a proven track record is pretty much none.

5) Understand that race and class matter. No, he's not suddenly acknowledging those terrible "excuses "that public schools use might be worth thinking about. He is acknowledging that when you bring rich white guys to come run schools in poor black communities, the locals might get a little cranky.

From the outset—in framing the legislation, in designing the district, in hiring administrators, in reviewing applications for charter operators—those who will be affected by this change should be part of the process.

Close, but no cigar. Those who will be affected by this change should be in charge of the process.

6) Use the district to leverage broader improvement. In other words, use school takeovers as a threat.

7) Stress talent. Yeah, forget everything from point five. Smith quotes privateer par excellence Neerav Kingsland: “The RSD has helped facilitate the nation’s first decentralized, non-governmental human capital system—where groups like Teach For America, TNTP, Leading Educators, and Relay Graduate School of Education are the talent engines.”

There are people out there who are just better than everybody else (particularly most of the everbody's who are teachers) and you should recruit them. Smith mentions that the influx of young TFA type talent into New Orleans was great; he does not mention the hundreds of black teachers who were fired to make the space.

8) Give the locals a chance. You know, they might not all suck. Maybe.

9) Focus on neighborhoods. I have no way of knowing if he giggled aloud while typing this.

10) Communicate clearly with the community. Again, is there some place in the reformy world where this has actually happened?

Five General Implications

Smith has five more ideas that run through the paper that he makes explicit at the end. I'm pretty sure I don't see any of these quite the way he does, and since this is my blog, I'll be giving you my perspective.

1) The local district has lost the exclusive franchise. Well, yes-- local taxpayers and voters have in fact been disenfranchised in these takeover school districts, their voices silenced and their ability to vote for representation in school governance stripped from them. Though they do still get to pay all the bills that all these various schools run up, so there's that, I guess.

Smith notes that while states have always been able to take over schools in "extraordinary" circumstances, the definition of such circumstances has widened "to include a school’s chronic failure to educate its pupils." Which, again, simply means lots of low test scores. But the playbook remains the same-- starve the school of financial resources, or simply push at the low test scores that inevitably come in any high poverty community school, and you can declare a crisis and throw out local control. Ka-ching.

2) Power shift at the state level. This is an interesting point and deserving of its own study. Basically, the implication is that under a state takeover plan, he who controls the state's "school district" controls access to a ton of money and fat juicy contracts, which means that suddenly being an educational bureaucrat is getting to be a lot more fun. Plus the state "school district" needs its own administrative and contract-granting super-structure, so states are growing new offices. Smith and I may not see the same implications here, but I think we agree that all sorts of power lines are shifting in state capitals.

3) A boost for the portfolio concept. As noted, a diverse portfolio makes for a better investment and school privatization plan.

4) The federal question mark. This is a long-running reformster problem. They loved federal involvement when it helped break open the piggy bank (e.g. federal support and push for Common Core) but not so much when the feds start making a lot of rules about how the game can be played. Only the feds had a hammer big enough to crack open the public education sector, but privatizers really don't want the feds to stick around after the smashing is done. So there are many "questions" about the federal role, in the sense that you and the traffic cop that just pulled you over may have "questions" about whether you violated any law or not.

5) We need to know more. There are many aspects of takeover schools and the results thereof for which we don't have answers. Or, we have answers, but privatizers don't like the answers very much. But remember-- when these kinds of questions come up in a public school, that's proof of failure, but when they come up in privatized schools, it's just a challenge that we must patiently learn and grow from.

My implications

My cranky demeanor might suggest that I am simply trying to blow holes in this report without even considering what it has to say, but I am paying attention, and there are specific reasons that I think the takeover school model is a bad idea.

1) The bizarre double standard. Privatized schools that are struggling need resources, time, patience, and the chance to try new approaches. Public schools that are struggling need to be taken over, closed, privatized, wiped out. This is not what you do when you're trying to find the best way and understand what is going on-- this is what you do when you've already decided that you want to support privatization and crush public schools.

2) The dishonesty. The repeated use of language meant to soften or hide what we're really talking about is a bad sign. It indicates a program that's unwilling to honestly stand up and live or die on its own merits. It indicates people who know they're proposing a bad idea, but are trying to somehow slip it by.

3) The narrowing of education. Without even discussing the choice, this report summarily reduces the meaning of a quality education to good test scores on a bad standardized test. That is inexcusable and unsupportable.

4) The bludgeoning of democracy. Takeover school districts involve the end of any democratic process for local taxpayers and voters. For that very reason, takeover school districts target schools that serve mainly poor, brown, or black citizens. These communities have the predictable low test scores and poor financial support that makes it easy for bureaucrats to holler, "Failing school!" and they lack the kind of political connections that have kept reformsters from trying to "reform" any rich, white districts.

Just as schools can and should be tools for strengthening and improving communities (want me to bust out that Andre Perry quote again?), schools are being used as tools to bust communities apart. Take away the local voice. Spread the students around the city, away from the community. This is backwards, and this is wrong.