Friday, July 31, 2015

Eyes Right

This is actually a delayed post, because technology is awesome.

My wife and I have left the dog and my mother-in-law in charge of the house while we travel to the family cabin in Maine. My grandfather, a New Hampshire general contractor, built it ages ago as a hunting cabin on what was then an isolated lake (Great East Lake, for those of you who like your geography). There have been upgrades since, but the place is still isolated enough to have limited phone coverage and no Wi-fi. So I'm taking some days off.

While I'm AFK, I recommend that you take a look at the list of blogs that trails down the right-hand column of this blog. There are many mighty fine writers there as well as people who do much of the heavy lifting in the research arena of the debate about US public education.

I could tell you more, but why read about them when you could read them. So if you're a regular fan of this blog, take the time you would have spent reading my blathering today and acquaint yourself with one of these wise individuals.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

NC Education of Tomorrow

Raleigh, North Carolina, April 2019

Political leaders gathered to celebrate today as Department of Education bulldozers upgraded the last NC public school, replacing it with a picturesque park.

"It has been a long road," said State Education Biggifier Harlen McDimbulb, overseeing the work as the dozer knocked down the last chart-encrusted data wall. "But our big breakthrough came with the court ruling that certified our voucher system back there a few years. That finally allowed us to get money and support to outstanding schools like God Loves White Guys High and Aryan Academy. Great private schools were being denied public tax dollars just because they wouldn't teach state-approved so-called 'fact' and 'science.'"

"Vouchers opened the door," said Assistant Secretary of Money Laundering Chauncey Gotbux. "But with the court's blessing, we were finally able to use public education tax dollars as they were meant to be used-- as a source of profit for people who deserve it."

Asked about the looseness of oversight and accountability for the tax dollars, Gotbux replied, "When you give the money to the right people, you can trust that they do the right thing with it."

"There were some serious problems," admitted Golly Mugbungle of the Greater North Carolina School Choice Initiative Authority. "We quickly streamlined the process so that non-public schools could get their money just by asking for it and completing a simple yet rigorous form. But since the form only asked 'Are you a school' and we had no follow-up investigation to look at those claims, we discovered that we were mistakenly sending tax dollars to public schools." He chuckled nostalgically. "Yeah, we had to shut that down pretty quickly."

"The upgrade of public education in NC required several different initiatives," said McDimbulb. "It helped to set up a clear choice for parents-- would you rather have your child trapped in third grade forever while he tries to pass the state's reading exam, or in a fun private school where reading is only occasionally taught at all? Do you want your child stuck in a school where she has to sit in rooms with the children of Those People, or do you want her to be able to relax with children of the right kind of folks?"

"Initially the exodus was a little too slow," added Mugbungle. "We helped that along with the Furniture and Accessories Initiative of 2017. Under that law, public schools, in addition to the funding that they had to give up through vouchers, were required to give desks, chairs, tables and clocks to any private school that asked for them. The cost savings to private schools that no longer had to come up with, say, their own roofing or parking lot asphalt were considerable. At one point we were looking at ways to strip the paint off public school walls and give it to private schools, but that just wasn't feasible."

McDimbulb interjected. "The teacher part of the puzzle stumped us for a while. You recall the courts told us we couldn't just cancel tenure or their pensions. We thought not giving them a raise for almost a decade might do it, but again, progress was just too slow." He shook his head and smiled. "We could not get them pesky sumbitches to give up-- like cockroaches. So the Teacher Excellence Protection To Excel Act of 2017 right-sized the teacher pay scale so that we have actually reduced their salaries each year, thereby protecting teachers from the stress of having to decide what to do with disposable income. We are proud to say that base salary for a teacher in North Carolina is now $147.53. The three teachers receiving that pay seem quite satisfied with it."

"To fill teacher-ish jobs, the alternative certificate program has been highly successful. You've probably seen our Teaching Certificate Vending Machines in most major super-markets. We share the revenue with TFA and it has worked well for us," said Gotbux. "Anybody with a couple of quarters to rub together can become part of the exciting world of education."

"People have questioned the quality of many of our Private Education Fund Recipients (what y'all sometimes call schools), and we are proud to say that as officials of the state government, we have no idea, " said McDimbulb.

Gotbux laughed and corrected him. "MY salary is actually paid by the charter school industry."

"Anyway," McDimbulb continued, "we think it's best that we not meddle with the private schools in any way, so we try to stay completely ignorant of what they're doing. Though I do hear rumors from time to time. Why, I heard tell of one innovative program where science class is built around old Flintstones videos. How clever is that? The Flintstones are a great way to combine historical lessons with humor."

"There are some public school students left," said McDimbulb. "We'll be pitching a nice tent for them to have classes in right over there. We expect to set up the tent next Monday, and then Tuesday we'll be fining the school for holding classes in a tent. We need to get them off this lot because we have plans to put up a statue of Jesus riding a dinosaur here."

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Kansas: Digging a Deeper Hole

News came two weeks ago that Kansas has taken a bold new step in making their schools Even Worse. The story is one of how several current trends intersect to drag schools backwards in defiance of common sense or educational concern.

July 14, the Kansas State Board of Education voted to allow unlicensed people to teach in Kansas schools.
Their motivations are not hard to explain. Kansas has entered the Chase Teachers Out of The State derby, joining states like North Carolina and Arizona in the attempt to make teaching unappealing as a career and untenable as a way for grown-ups to support a family. Kansas favors the two-pronged technique. With one prong, you strip teachers of job protections and bargaining rights, so that you can fire them at any time for any reason and pay them as little as you like. With the other prong, you strip funding from schools, so that teachers have to accomplish more and more on a budget of $1.95 (and if they can't get it done, see prong number one).

The result is predictable. Kansas is solidly settled onto the list of Places Teachers Work As Their Very Last Choice.It's working out great for Missouri; their school districts have teacher recruitment billboards up in Kansas. But in Kansas, there's a teacher shortage.

Kansas is not alone. Indiana is also among the many states with fewer new teachers in the pipeline than ever.

How to solve the problem?

You would think with so many free market fans making their mark in the edubiz these days, the answer would be both obvious and widely discussed. Because the free market really does understand this problem. If I want to buy goods and services from you, and you won't sell to me at the price I propose, my choices are A) do without, B) get a cheap substitute, C) rob you or D) offer you more money. Even basic economics students understand supply and demand.

But all these free market acolytes keep looking at teacher shortages, scratching their heads, and saying, "Golly bob howdy, but I don't know how we could possibly convince teachers to come fill these jobs."

Well, not all of them. Some look at the dismantling of public education and say, "Excellent! Glad to be rid of it." And others have said, "Teachers shmeachers. Any shmoe can teach school."
Kansas now joins the latter group.

They haven't gone whole spam (because who needs the whole hog, amiright?) yet. Kansas will only be allowing unqualified people in the classrooms of poor students in poor districts, specifically the Innovation Districts that have been given special dispensation to skip certain state regulations.

Meanwhile in other news, a newly-released piece of research suggests that poor students in poor neighborhoods get the least qualified, least effective teachers out there. There are many debatable points in that research, but there's no denying that Kansas is making a concerted and determined effort to make it true. The Kansas legislature could not more effectively drive their school system straight to the bottom if they sat down for a strategy meeting to answer the question, "How Can We Make Our Schools the Very Worst in the West?" (Okay, that's not entirely fair-- I'm sure that none of Kansas's wealthy districts will be getting unqualified people off the street in their classrooms.)

UPDATE/CORRECTION: In fact, there is at least one very wealthy district that is in on this game. It does reduce the awfulness of the rest of this plan, but it does mean that Kansas is not simply targeting poor schools for this special treatment.

Look, boys-- it's not rocket surgery. The Kansas City Royals were a giant suckfest from 1985 to the early 2010's, in no small part because they insisted on getting rid of any players who got expensive and because players were not in a hurry to play for losers. Then they decided to build their team up by offering competitive salaries and better playing conditions. Team owners did not declare, "Since it's hard to recruit, let's just grab some guys off the street and put them out on the field."

The Kansas legislature either wants to destroy their public education system, or they're dopes. Perhaps how they react to the Board of Education decision will give us a clue. Keep trying, boys. Missouri is cheering for you.

Originally posted at View from the Cheap Seats

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Rick Hess's Cage-Busting Lessons

Rick Hess has been busy promoting his book about Cage-Busting Teachers, and he reported ten lessons that he learned out on the circuit. As always I find Hess worth paying attention to because (unlike some of his reformy brethren) he's not sloppy or lazy in his thinking. So what did he learn (and, by extension, think the rest of us should get)?

1) Schools and leaders are hungry for teacher leadership. Well, they say they are. Which, of course, is often the problem. Most of us have had encounters with administrators who project a clear message of, "I would love to see some teachers step up and become leaders in pursuit of exactly what I tell them to pursue." This is a recurring issue that I have with Hess's cage-busting model. Sometimes the cages are built strong, wired with electricity, and coated in poisonous venom.

2) Advocates on all sides of the reform/public ed issue love the idea of cage busting teachers. I think that's probably true, but only if we get that there's a wide number of ideas about what a CBT is and what obstacles need to be busted.

3) Hess agrees. Everybody likes CBT, but nobody knows how to grow them. I have some thoughts. But Step One is for administrators to let go of the notion that teacher leadership has to look like they want it to and result in the outcomes they demand.

4) Reformers have focused too much on getting rid of bad teachers, while teachers have not focused on it enough, but everybody should focus more on giving great teachers what they need. Hess is landing near the Hero Teacher Fallacy here, but he's not completely wrong. Guys like Andy Cuomo who believe that there are a gazillion terrible teachers who just need to be found and jettisoned are wasting their time.

5) Veteran teachers are used to a culture that has no respect for excellence. Yes, I'd say that's true. And this:

I've been struck at how enthusiastically these educators describe the lift provided by modest recognition, and how appreciative they are for some of the perks that twenty-something policy types take for granted.

Yup. I've argued for years that money discussion would be less contentious at contract time if districts just offered to treat teachers like respected grown-ups. But they don't.

6) Teachers don't code switch. Sigh. I hate it, but I know he's right. Too many teachers don't get how to function in places that aren't their classroom, and are bad at the most essential part of dealing with people-- understanding what those peoples' priorities and foci are. The most cringeworthy argument I hear teachers make to advocate against a policy is offering some version of, "But this makes me sad.."

At the same time, it's hard not to resent the underlying power dynamic here-- to be heard, teachers have to learn to speak the language of policymakers and boardrooms and suits and even think tanks. Why is it that none of these people have bothered to try learning our language?

7) Reasonable and polite teachers should speak up. We know that Hess prefers his cage busters polite and genteel and not speaking up loudly, rudely or at inappropriate moments. This remains the weakest part of Hess's position-- he's concern trolling and tone police in one, worried that if teachers speak up too loudly or too rudely, gosh, they just won't be taken seriously by the People Who Matter. I won't deny that there are some teachers who are in a seemingly permanent state of High Dudgeon (and reformsters who are stuck in a state of Righteous Crusading Against Infidels). But I'm reminded of something I've said often-- if people don't believe they are being heard when they speak, they will keep raising their voice. If someone is yelling at me, nine times out of ten it's because they don't believe I hear them. If I don't like being yelled at, it is often within my power to stop it. It's not that I'll listen to them when they adopt a proper tone; it's that when they know I'm listening, they'll get quieter on their own. Just saying.

8) While Hess reminds us that reformsters by and large mean well, he reminds reformsters that teachers actually have to make all these bright ideas work.

That power and precision accorded to accountability systems, teacher evaluation systems, turnaround models, and the rest is sometimes disturbingly disconnected from an interest in how this affects the actual work of the teachers who are expected to make these deliver.

9) Teachers surprise Hess by actually being quite open to New Stuff. Well, yes. We're always looking at new stuff, trying new things, and experimenting like Doofenshmirtz hunting for a great new Teachinator. Reformsters have made this mistake over and over and over and over again, assuming that because we don't like their stupid new idea, we don't like any new ideas at all. Reformsters consistently fail to ask the question that teachers, experimenting in our classroom every day, always ask-- Does this actually work? Does this actually help me teach students?

10) Policymakers and Other Important People listen to teachers better when teachers provide concrete specific examples of what they're talking about. Fair enough.

My cage busting problem (and I freely confess that I have not yet read the book) is that Hess's whole model seems to assume a maintenance of a certain power status, with teachers on the bottom. In the wrong light, Hess starts to sound like a solicitous parent saying, "Of course, you can come sit at the grown-up table, just as soon as you act grown-up and show us that you can handle it."

What he says sounds reasonable, and it may in fact be a clear dose of Realpolitik, but to get at what troubles me, let me propose an alternative book. In this book Hess (or someone) says, "For too long we've been trying to keep teachers locked up and constrained, forcing them into the shape we demand of them. So let's release them from the cage we've built for them. Let's stop talking to them about how to do their job, shut our mouths, sit down and listen to the experts, the teachers who have devoted their lives to education. And maybe after we have listened and learned, we can prove to them that we deserve to be listened to and our ideas deserve to be considered. But first we need to free them to do the work they know." The author of this imaginary book could call it Cage-Busting Policymakers.

But that's not the book he wrote. And while teachers do need to step up and are (and have been) doing most of the heavy lifting of the teaching world, Hess's assumption that of course policymakers, whether elected or self-appointed, are rightfully in charge, and teachers are, by default, rightfully not.

Hess's best insight is that too many teachers are so used to being caged and powerless that they don't test the limits and they don't break through some bars that are weak and pointless and deserve to be busted. But he is disingenuous to avoid acknowledging where those cages came from in the first place, or the huge number of new cages that have been built in the last fifteen years.

Damn. I'm going to have to read his book.

NY Charter in Trouble

Riverhead Charter School was first opened in 2001 in Calverton, NY. They started out as a K-5 school and have since moved up to K-8 status. And Standards & Poors thinks they have some problems.

On the upside, Riverhead has just moved into a shiny $14.1 million new school, financed through two bond issues, including the first federal Qualified School Construction Bond ever awarded a charter school. Now students can eat in a cafeteria and have PE in a gymnasium. I'm sure there are plenty of public school students in New York State who are envious. Back in 2004, Riverhead also became one of the first charter schools in New York to unionize.

Riverhead has also had its share of controversy. Much of the more recent controversy appears to center around Principal Raymond Ankrum. This video clip will give you absolutely no real information, but watching this board meeting spin completely out of control gives a real sense of the level of volatility. Ankrum was brought in after a national search; he's an experienced charter hand, but he had been at the school only a couple of years before all hell broke loose.

At the Great Schools site, ratings are either very high or very low-- there's no in between. While these can be taken, always, with a lump of salt, they seem to lay out the issues pretty clearly:

The principle [sic] Mr. Arkrum has worked very hard to filter out all staff members who chose to believe in a Union including the Union President. There are all new teachers with less than 2 years experience and are under Mr. Arkum rule!! There are no bad kids only bad behavior that need to be redirected. I like to know why bad kids don't deserve a place at that school? I know they are not special needs friendly.

The principal and teachers of this school do care and Mr Ankrum has worked very hard this past year to filter out poor staff and bad kids that don't deserve a place there. Children are pushed and encouraged a lot but for their own good. Any child under Mr Ankrum's watch is safe and this can't be stressed enough.

Ankrum apparently called a staff meeting, invited teachers to share how they felt about the teachers union, and then those that supported it were fired, some as soon as two weeks after the meeting, including a teacher previous lauded as "Teacher of the Year." Then the school filed a petition to have the school's union decertified. Ankrum reportedly reminded staff that he could fire them at any time. NYSUT did not take kindly to any of this, and the labor wrestling and lawsuits began. Ankrum (actually titled "executive director") is still in place.

Oh, and this is the school where the union president was fired over using eggs in a classroom experiment with an egg-allergic student in the room.

Then, just last week, this:

The Riverhead Charter School’s bond rating was downgraded this week following a state report indicating it’s at risk of closing due to poor performance in various areas, including communication and oversight.

That's the bond issued on the new school building. S&P has downgraded that to a negative outlook, based on the state's on-site analysis that the school may not have a future ahead of it. Ankrum responded to the downgrade:

“The Riverhead Charter School continues to strive for excellence by providing a rigorous education in an environment where students are put first,” Mr. Ankrum wrote in an email. “We are confident that S&P will upgrade our next rating since parent satisfaction surveys are in the 90th percentile, we have made academic gains over the past year and have a 92.5 percent staff retention rate for next year, which is well above the 81 percent national charter school average.”

Well, maybe. The state says that when given the chance to speak anonymously, parents and staff describe a school where Ankrum and the Board don't communicate effectively and establish an atmosphere where parents and teachers are expected to shut up and do as they're told. The descriptive phrase “in a degrading fashion to parents and staff” turned up. And folks are still concerned about the union-related purging of staff. A former board member is suing over her removal after she was critical of board policy. And the state criticized the lack of any formal job performance review system for Ankrum.

It all adds up to one more example of the instability that comes with charter schools, as well as the sorts of chaos that comes without job protections for teachers and a chartery hatred for unions in a system that doesn't have to listen to the taxpayers if they don't feel like it.

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Substitute Shortage

One of the surprises of my look into state by state teacher shortages was the widespread reporting of a substitute teacher shortage. I knew we had a problem in my region. I didn't realize it was a problem everywhere.

Several writers have tried to parse out the problem and offer solutions, but I don't find anybody doing any serious research on the issue. So until that turns up, let me fill the void with more speculation and anecdotal evidence. You're welcome.

One writers specifically singles out the ACA as NOT a problem. Many folks were worried that districts would cap substitute hours to avoid having to pay health care costs, thus effectively reducing the number of total sub-hours available. But that shortage-by-Obamacare assumes a pool of subs who wanted to work all the time, and that may not be a safe assumption in any markets. So maybe a culprit, maybe not.

That same source also suggests that greater absenteeism is a culprit--iow, we need more subs. Can we get teachers to miss less school? The writer suggests that an increase in in-service training is the problem. And so we can chalk up the sub shortage as another side effect of the reformster movement.

Fewer people in the teacher pipeline also seems a good bet. Fewer people coming out of teacher programs means fewer people "auditioning" for jobs in school districts.

I would bet we are losing some of those as well. Here comes an anecdote.

When I came back to my area, I started out as a sub. I was single; I sank my nest egg into a mobile home in a trailer park. Back then (early 80's) a day of subbing paid $50. Two days of work paid my lot rent, and after that it was all gravy (well, spagetti and generic sauce, anyway). I couldn't have supported a family on sub pay, but I could live independently. But in thirty five years the going sub rate in my region has gone up about thirty-five dollars. If it had kept pace with inflation, the sub rate would be at about $130.

Point is this. In 1981, I could live on sub pay and hold on until a job turned up. Nowadays, subs may take on another easy-to-schedule job like waitressing and still not be able to support themselves. A teacher hoping to land a real gig may end up taking themselves out of the pool because of their selfish desires for food and shelter. In many areas, teaching has joined the long list of modern jobs that you can't afford to break into unless you have well-off parents or a good trust fund.

The other common sub back in the day was a nice lady with a teaching certificate who had stayed home to raise kids and, now that they were older, was ready to earn a little pin money to supplement the main income her husband brought home. That scenario is by the wayside as well, of course.

Bottom line: lots of people need to make a living too badly to stay available to sub pools.

This dovetails with another oft-cited culprit--an improving economy that means people can do better and get an actual job. I'm not sure how much this holds water, but the argument is out there.

Many states have come up with many creative ways to fill their sub gaps. NEA has a whole list, and some of it is a little horrifying--  Georgia and Florida are among the states that only require a high school diploma to be a sub. But opening the doors wide to any warm body is not a great answer, either. Pennsylvania years ago tried a Guest Teacher program; with a little training, anybody who'd ever held down a job could become a substitute teacher. We had lots of folks sign up, but very few of them survived their first few encounters with actual students. (Turns out that while your office subordinates may have listened to you because you were the boss, sixteen year olds are less so inclined.)Substituting is hard work-- in some ways more grueling than having a regular classroom assignment-- and lots of folks find out they'd just rather not.

Substitute shortages are a good example of our avoidance of obvious solutions. How could we possibly convince more people to become substitute teachers?

Pay them more.

Yes, there are other factors that would help. Nothing will lose a sub faster than a building where nobody is in charge and no discipline is maintained. And it's nice to make subs feel at home, like part of the team, and not like a stranger who's supposed to know what to do through some sort of psychic power. But mostly it's pretty simple. If people can't afford to live on the wages you're paying, people will take any other job except the one you're offering.

A good sub pool is critical. A good sub keeps classes moving forward and makes sure that the needs of students are met even if the regular teacher must miss. A bad sub means it will take me three days to make up for the one day I had to miss. A good sub honors the promise that a school should make-- no matter what, we will get you the education you were promised. It seems obvious that we do not want to draw subs only from the pool of People Who Couldn't Find Anything Else To Do In The Whole World.

Heck, you could get crazy and hire permanent subs as some districts do-- a person who is hired at a full contract with full benefits and who is there every day to cover whatever needs to be covered.

Substitute shortage is yet another problem to which we know the solution. It's just that the solution costs money, and we don't wanna. A good substitute teacher is worth her weight in gold, but we prefer to offer only peanuts. 

Duncan Gets a Pass

Catalyst Chicago has been reporting on Chicago education for twenty-five year, operating as "an independent news organization that serves as a watchdog and resource for school improvement in Chicago." While they do offer plenty of space to features like guest writers plugging the awesomeness of reform, their news coverage is pretty balanced-- they do not appear to have any requirement that their reporters never cover bad news about charters.

But last week Catalyst ran the fluffiest piece of fluffery ever in Maureen Kelleher's paean to Arne Duncan. Surely this is not going to be the narrative that anyone pushes about Duncan as he approaches his post-federal earning years.

First, Kelleher flashes back to Duncan's elevation to the head job of Chicago schools (he was successor to Paul Vallas). Duncan's big success-- adopting a tracking method for freshmen. On the other hand...

Duncan also championed expanding school choice and lent new urgency to the work of transforming struggling high schools -- initiatives that drew heat from the political left. These efforts had more mixed results.

No kidding.

Next we move on to Duncan's career as Secretary of Education in, perhaps, some parallel universe.

Duncan has encouraged states to innovate around accountability systems, offering waivers from No Child Left Behind’s rules.

This is true in much the same way it's true that a mugger encourages you to put your hands up and offers to take all of your cash. To talk about the waiver program as if it was a mild suggestion, even a favor, to state systems, is to miss the whole point. States, over a financial barrel, and looking at the unachievable goals of NCLB (100% above average by 2014), had a choice about accepting Duncan's offer in the same way that apartment dwellers have a choice about whether or not to pay the rent.

Finally, we look into Duncan's future.

As noted by the Washington Post, Duncan's family is moving back to Chicago while Duncan says he's sticking out the rest of the Obama Presidency. While some have expressed skepticism, I can believe it. Summer is the time to move kids without messing up their world, and this summer is likely to be less messy than next. Why not. Of course, as widely noted, his kids will attend an elite non-Common Core unreformed private school. That would have been a good thing to mention.

But Kelleher turns to Peter Cunningham for quotes. Cunningham is a long-time Arne associate who now heads up the $12 million dollar website-that-will-not-be-named, but which now looks almost hard-hitting compared to Kelleher's piece. Cunningham says Duncan is no quitter, with grit and drive and stuff.

Duncan's sister confirms he's not looking for work right now. Probably true-- Duncan can line up consulting work in the ed industry with an hour's worth of phone calls, so why rush anything.

Considering what other education secretaries have done after their terms, Cunningham doesn’t see Duncan returning to district leadership, either. Consulting, elected office and work with think tanks and foundations are more likely. While in CPS, Duncan’s team built relationships with private foundations and federal grant administrators that more than tripled the district’s take of competitive grant funds.

I'm not sure which thinky tank would have him, but I get a smile out of imagining him going off to work for Mike Petrilli at Fordham. The implication of that last sentence seems clear to me-- Duncan will be able to hook people up with some serious money.

So, not so much as a sentence to consider the reality, the controversy, or the legacy of Duncan's work in office. Between this and the Post profile, it's beginning to look like we're going to be subjected to a year or more of valedictory essays filled with attaboys but no consideration of the damage to public education done by Duncan.

Look, I have no desire to see the guy drawn and quartered and publicly pilloried, but he has presided over an unprecedented re-engineering of the entire purpose of US public education-- one of our oldest and most honored institutions-- and in the process has come close to destroying one of the legs on which democracy stands. Backlash against his work has created entire new movements that didn't exist a decade ago, and Congress has spent part of their time writing a new law arguing about just how much power should be stripped from his office simply in reaction to how he has used that power.

I don't need to see Duncan personally attacked, but any retrospective or faux retrospective has to look at where we are in education policy, what choices have been made, what the effects have been on us as a nation, if for no other reason than we need to have a serious talk about where to head next. A business as usual, nothing to see here, so how do you like living in DC puff piece is irresponsible.

Duncan's one gift is that he has such an aww-shucks lovable lunkhead air about him that people don't so much notice that he has been laying waste with a battleax. As he nears his exit from office, we cannot afford to pay attention only to the aw shucks and ignore the damage done with the battleax.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Teacher "Shortage" Reflections

Assembling my recent post on teacher shortages gave me a lot to reflect on, but since the piece was already a gazillion words long, I saved that reflection for another post. Here is that post.

In no particular order, here are some of the things that jumped out as I did my national tour.

Spin Is a Thing

I deliberately searched through general press coverage. I didn't dig deep for True Facts, and I stayed away from direct reporting by teachers' unions. So what I found yesterday was a better reflection of what people are saying than what is necessarily true. I don't have to tell you those aren't always the same. Statements about shortages fell largely into these categories--

* OMGZ!! We have barely any teachers and we must must MUST certify anything that moves as a teacher right after we invite as many Teach for America folks we can find into the state.

* Look at that teacher shortage! It's proof that the people who run our state suck with a sucky suckiness that really sucks.

* We want to have good schools. We are paying attention to what's happening, and we're trying to make smart, responsible choices about how to handle things.

The third group seems to lack a certain sense of dramatic crisis mode in their press coverage. The other two, not so much (and I say that knowing that group two includes people who share many of my concerns and allegiances about education).

I suspect that this relates to how some of the results came in. Many people expressed amazement that Ohio is not talking about teacher shortages; that may be because charters really have increased demand or it may be because running for president is easier if you don't have one more education crisis at home. Likewise, folks let me know that many parts of California are wielding the layoff ax with verve, in a way that would belie any claims of shortage. If there's a disconnect between reality and reportage, that's a story, but it's not one that this citizen hack faux journalist had the time to run down, yet.

Teacher Diversity

Only two states were talking about it. Why this issue keeps falling off the front burner is beyond me. It's critical that our teaching force shift to reflect the new reality of diversity in our student population, but it's just not happening, and nobody in a position to make a fuss is doing much about it. In all the talk of recruitment and retention, nobody is talking about getting non-white, non-female teachers into classrooms and keeping them there-- and we should be talking about it a great deal.

Shortages Are Not All Bad

Teacher shortages aren't so bad if you're a teacher looking for work. And relatively mild ones can be a help.

Here in PA teacher training programs are drying up and shutting down because of low, low, low enrollment. That low enrollment is undoubtedly related to the fact that everybody knows a teacher who can't get a job, or who had a job that she lost when the district shut down a school because of financials pressures created by our genius leaders in Harrisburg. Should we turn a corner some day (hey, it could happen), we're going to go from teacher glut to teacher shortage very quickly, and once that happens, it takes years for college students to get the memo that, yes, there are teaching jobs again.

So a little bit of shortage equals an encouraging job market that helps draw people into the field (assuming, of course, that you haven't North Carolinaed everything up and made teaching hopelessly untenable as a career).

The Substitute Thing

I should have known. I mean, we're in substitute trouble here even though we ought to be loaded with teachers who want to get a job.

This is going to need its own piece, because it's not clear what it means. Some writers consider it a sign of teacher shortages. In my area, I consider it a sign of two things-- 1) that no human being not living in a van by the river could ever live on sub pay and 2) the former sub pool of nice housewifey ladies with teaching credentials who wanted to make a little grocery money on top of their husband's real salary-- that group is now living on Hippogryph Lane, just past the unicorn farm.

But it is clearly a national issue, with all sorts of implications, and none of them are good. I'll definitely get back to this.

The Real Shortage

It's not teachers-- it's working conditions conducive to maintaining the nation's teacher force. If we discovered that our armed forces were comprised of six skinny guys with slingshots, we'd want to know why recruiting was broken, and we'd try to fix it. We wouldn't try to punish the six guys for not being one hundred bulky man-mountains. We wouldn't try to make it harder to legitimately get into the armed forces while simultaneously picking up the slack by grabbing random people off the street. And we wouldn't try to change the job description of a soldier (Anybody who can make a mean face should do) so that we could fill up empty spots without paying any attention to what we were filling them with.

As I've said many times, it is mysterious that so many free market acolytes don't seem to get this. You offer what the market requires you to offer. Instead, many states are trying to bite the invisible hand that has ceased to feed them.

ICYMI: Top Edublogging of the Week (7/26)

As always, this is neither all-inclusive nor based on any criteria other than my own. But here are some things you should read from last week.

When candidates talk education, media rarely go beyond buzzwords

Well, in all fairness, the media don't do any better with other issues, but here's a great look at the side tracks that keep appearing in coverage of candidate edubloviation.

Dumbing down kids

If you want to get angry over EngageNY and canned teaching programs all over again, here's the piece. Detailed, specific, and incisive.

Who's actually running America's charter schools

You actually need a double dose of School Finance 101 this week. Start with this look at which groups are actually getting most of the charter business. Then move onto this explanation of just one of the crazy twists in charter financing. It's a little wonky, but clear and thorough.

ALEC now says school vouchers are for kids in suburbia

This one's important, and charts the shift in the voucher sales pitch. We knew this was coming-- now it's here. Vouchers are no longer pitched as a way to rescue those poor kids in failing urban schools. Now some folks would like to expand the market.

Teacher "Shortage" Coast to Coast

Talk of teacher shortages has been popping up on a state-to-state basis, so I thought I'd engage in a rare act of actual data collection. I'm working from two basic sources here: 1) a report from USED that actually goes back to 1991, but we'll just focus on the present and 2) my research assistant, Dr. Google, with which I'll check for "OMGZ! We haz got no teechurz!" stories for each state. Let's see how we're all doing, shall we?


The USED shows Alabama hurting in many instructional areas, and they've been talking about a teacher staffing crisis almost a decade ago. They've recently blamed a substitute shortage on Obamacare, because reasons. Since the Great Teacher Crisis of 2007, they've been trying to offer incentives like bonuses for working in districts or subject areas that are suffering a shortage. Alabama is not known for its great teaching conditions or spending on education, but nobody is hollering about a teacher shortage at the moment.


One of the least shortagey states on the USED's list. Alaska has also been plagued by periodic bouts of teacher shortage, and that seems linked mostly to the general issue of enticing teachers to work in Extremely Rural Areas. Average salaries push $70K, but if you know Alaska, you know living there is not exactly cheap. However, there seems to be no major panic at the moment.


USED says that Arizona is short everywhere in everything, and that's reflected in media reports throwing the word "crisis" around as recently as yesterday. Arizona is dead-last in per pupil spending and fighting to get to the bottom on teacher pay, but the charter operators rate them highly. Things are so bad that a study on recruitment and retention offered suggestions along the lines of "treat teachers with respect," which is apparently a new idea for the reform-hungry privateers who have been running the state. A new study on the shortage is expected next week; I don't figure it's going to say, "Yeah, everything's okay now."


Arkansas has had teacher recruitment problems long enough to have been growing some solutions of their own. Meet the Arkansas Teacher Corps (Motto: why pay Teach for America when you can just grow your own). Arkansas is a leading laboratory in ways to get anybody off the street and into a classroom. The state is also busy stripping districts of local control; perhaps that will help.


Yeah, everyone is freaking out in sunny CA. Enrollment in teacher programs has been cut in half, and things are bad enough that even reformy outlets like EdSource are sounding the alarm (and calling for any warm available bodies to be slapped in classrooms). Not only that, but California's teaching force, while shrinking, is also turning more white even as the student population turns less white. California, ever the nation's leader, is leading with an impressive teacher shortage.


Colorado districts have tried a little, "Hey, it's the whole country" to blunt finger-pointing as they contemplate their shortages. And they are another state to report a shortage in substitutes, including districts like Jefferson County, a district also in the news for hoohaw over it's hostile takeover by outsider-backed reformsters.


Connecticut has had shortages in the past, but in recent years they may have been one of the states to stay ahead of the shortage by simply cutting teaching jobs like crazy. CT also suffers from some selective shortages, like a lack of teachers qualified to keep up with their growing English Language Learner population. Their reformy governor favors just giving certificates to any warm body.


Delaware has been feeling the pinch for a few years, and has a robustly advertised alternative certification path. Like many states, they have some specific areas that are extra-thin. Unlike many states, they do a regular study of How Things Are Going with recruitment and retention. The 2013 report indicated that shortages were a result of lack of qualified candidates in public school, and crappy low salaries in charter schools.


You know what? They make such consistently terrible hiring choices, I'm not going to bother.


Two years ago Florida was scrambling to deal with "critical shortages" in seven areas, including every core subject but history. Florida dug up a fun data point. The ACT asks seniors what career they want to pursue. 81% of FL seniors took the test; 3% of those said they planned to teach. Meanwhile, districts are sending administrators to New York State on recruitment junkets, and the University of Southern Florida is using grant money to give scholarships to future (they hope) science teachers.


Georgia is in trouble. Next year they expect to hire 14,000 teachers, but Georgia colleges expect to graduate 3,500 ed majors. The state is talking about offering 10% bonuses for good teachers to stay at low-performing schools (this is both a bizarre perverse incentive and a Catch-22-- how does a teacher at a low-performing school maintain a high rating). Ha! Sorry, my mistake. That was Georgia's plan fifteen years ago!! How's that working? Well, Georgia, you will recall, is home to the Atlanta school system (motto: we'll send you to jail if you cheat and fire you if you don't). Georgia is also another state that stays ahead of the shortage by slashing job.


Surely not Hawai'i. It's beautiful and tropical and-- oops, ranked the fifth worst state for teachers. 41st in commute time! 46th in public school spending per pupil! And 51st in both starting and median salaries! Which is extra brutal because absolutely everything in Hawai'i is more expensive than it is anywhere else on the planet. The state also has its own extra set of issues that come with indigenous people in a state that left colony-like status behind less than two generations ago. Put it all together, and Hawai'i is a state that always has a teacher shortage.


This spring, 55 out of 65 Idaho districts said they could not fill all their positions with qualified teachers. In 2007-08, 1,184 teacher certificates were issues; in 2013-14, the number was 866. Idaho leaders have not so much treated this as a problem that needs to be solved as an opportunity to get their TFA on. But they did balance that by trying to make it harder to become an actual teacher. Doesn't seem to be helping, yet. Their USED "needs" list is huge.


Illinois has been dealing with teacher shortages off and on for at least fifteen years (says Dr. Google). They are another state noting the substitute shortage. Illinois only claims a shortage in certain subject areas, but some observers think there's a retention issue. Chicago leads the state with creative ways to beat teachers down, but it also leads in feisty unions that will fight back. But there are signs that the pipeline is drying up. 


Indiana is wracked with concern over an oncoming teacher shortage. The state has been a reformster playground, rolling back teacher support and attacking teacher pensions, so some sources are reporting a jump in teacher retirement. But the supply end of the pipeline is even more damaged-- the state Department of Education reports a drop in issued teacher licenses from 7,500 in 2007-08 down to 934 in 2013-14. While trouble filling openings is still spotty, the future does not look good.


Iowa has a well-promoted loan forgiveness program for areas designated by the state as shortage areas, taking care of up to 20% of a teacher's outstanding balance. You can also color me surprised that Iowa is one of few states to so clearly track where they're short (the usual suspects-- math, science, ELL). The Iowa Business Council backs much of this, but nobody seems to be suggesting that more TFA and charter schools would help.


Kansas is in big trouble. In 2014, the GOP used a 4 AM session to strip teachers of job protections. The state has slashed spending and capped per-pupil spending so that local districts have hands tied. And teacher pay is lousy. How bad is it?  A Missouri district has recruitment billboards on Kansas. Right now Kansas is still looking at about 500 teacher openings, more than double the usual. And that includes elementary positions, which are not a shortage anywhere (except states that have made their teachers miserable ).


Kentucky has a rural teacher issue, and a special education teacher issue. They have some scholarship programs in place for teachers. USED find them short in the usual STEM areas.


New Orleans is arguably Patient Zero for the technique of driving teachers out so that you can declare a shortage and start shipping in boatloads of TFA-style temps. Retirement numbers in LA have been climbing for years while teacher program enrollment numbers decline and tales keep emerging of teachers being driven out. It's hard to know how much of a teacher shortage LA would have if the state hadn't been working to manufacture one.


Other than suffering under a loony-tunes eternally pissed off governor, Maine does not appear to be feeling any special pinch.


In 2013, Calvert Institute studied Maryland's consistent teacher shortage issues and determined that their certification process was too burdensome, and the state should go heavier on alternative certification. The state has been combating large teacher shortages for quite a while, to little apparent effect, but they've cranked up alt programs and TFA presence. It could be that people just don't like Maryland, or it could be that Baltimore is one of the worst places to work in the world.


Fifteen years ago, when the last big teacher shortage hit, Massachusetts offered $20,000 signing bonuses. Since then, they've decided that Teach for America might be cheaper.


Numbers for teacher prep programs were down 38% as of 2013. In 2014 the state superintendent was pushing for any alternative to trying to improve that pipeline. At the same time they've tried to open alternative doors to any warm bodies, Michigan has made the traditional pathway tougher. Gee, I wonder how that will work out.


Minnesota has it all. They are short on subs. Their rural areas have trouble recruiting. And the state as a whole has a shortage. The administration argues that's a good reason to loosen up requirements, which seems to include tying VAM to layoffs (despite the fact that Minnesota has been doing little laying off). Meanwhile, the "community expert" program lets anyone with a job become a teacher.


The USED shows Mississippi with one of the historically lowest levels of teacher shortages. That seems...unlikely. The state lists 48 school districts with critical shortages that qualify for state assistance. There was a lot of fuss about the teacher shortage in 2013, but that seems to have been aimed at installing an extremely loose alternative certification path. 


We last saw Missouri trying to poach teachers from Kansas. Missouri is another of the few states that has been studying and addressing the teacher shortage at the state level. The report they generate is a pretty data-rich piece of work, including data on first year hires, attrition, and non-white teachers. Attrition has been high, but consistent. Ditto hiring rate. Missouri's shortage is acute enough that at least one group has sprung up to make a living recruiting non-teachers to teach. Missouri voters rejected an effort to strip tenure, but legislators have just kept trying to get rid of it anyway. Because when you don't have enough teachers, being able to fire the ones you have is important.

Last summer, Montana was looking at over 1,000 vacancies, with particularly bad shortages at the seven reservations. Montana has the rural problem plus the lousy pay problem. Can you support a family for less than $30K a year, particularly in an area where your spouse may not be able to find work? Many teachers say, "No, thank you."


One more state with the substitute and rural problems. Nebraska schools are short in many areas by their own count, and the state has instituted the Attracting Excellence to Teaching program to make becoming a teacher more affordable. Some outfits, like the Platte Institute, have advocated for alternative certificates and an end to tenure, but without success. Nobody is calling teacher supply a crisis in Nebraska.


Clark County (which includes Las Vegas) is the fifth largest district in the country. If they hired all 1,300 expected teacher grads this year, they would still be about 1,300 teacher short. Even programs to fast-track former cocktail waitresses into the classroom can't keep up. The USED list is huge. And Las Vegas is another of those places where a teacher salary can barely-if-at-all provide enough support to live there. Meanwhile, Nevada has launched a lamebrained vouchers-for-all program; proponents say the program will lead to many more fine schools opening, but how exactly do you build more capacity when you can't staff the capacity that you have? When it comes to dealing with teacher shortages by using reformy foolishness, Nevada is a state to watch.


New Hampshire talks about a "critical" shortage in STEM teachers, and the USED list is long for such a tiny state. The Granite State offers a wide variety of alternative paths, including one for anyone with a Bachelors degree who can get a school to hire and train her.


New Jersey has been struggling to fill math and science positions for a few years. Well in the grip of reformsteritis, they have also pursued making it harder to enter teaching through traditional paths, even as the many state-operated districts roll out the red carpet for Teach for America. Meanwhile, the USED list shows shortages all across the state.


In 2013, district across the state were short new teachers and losing old ones. In the fall of 2014, Albuquerque schools were still 200 teachers short. By 2015, the state and business were teaming up to float such ideas as a fast-track program to certify STEM teachers. The legislature has studied the problem and determined that NM should pay more and hire better.


New York is one of those states that has made entry to the teaching profession a costly, difficult nightmare, but then once you're teaching, you can face Cuomo's new monstrosity of a teacher eval system. Despite all that, New York state is not talking about any teacher supply crisis.


Oh. North Carolina. Has any state worked so hard over the past few years to destroy teaching as a sustainable career? Stagnant wages, destroyed job protections, and low spending on schools. It's no surprise that the state expects to need over 10,000 teachers, but only has 4,300 in the pipeline. Radicals have suggested that actually raising teacher pay might make the field more attract, but you know that's just crazy talk.


North Dakota is in trouble and concerned enough to launch a Recruitment and Retention Task Force. ND has known they were in trouble for a few years, and has climbed up from 49th to 36th in national average salary rankings, but Minnesota still kicks their butt. The state also has the rural problem, with isolated districts near the Canadian border getting zero applications for some jobs. It's not going to get better; projections call for about a third of the 10,000 person teaching force to retire over the next ten years, but ed schools are producing fewer than 400 new licensees a year. They have a loan forgiveness program, but their alternative certificate path does not open the door to just anybody.


Ohio's DOE still instructs districts to handle hiring as if they were awash in a sea of high quality applicants, and news articles talk about how the market is good for job-seeking teachers, but few complaints are out there about a shortage. There may be a retirement bump coming because of upcoming pension changes, but for the time being, Ohio is the happy land of No Teacher Shortage.


OK is feeling the shortage, hard. The state is looking for 1,000 teachers, with a ton of veterans retiring-- this as the end of a year in which many positions never were filled. In two years, emergency certification has risen from 97 to 499. OK teachers start at about $31,600, one of the lowest salaries in the country-- and OK teachers haven't had a raise in eight years. The state has moved to offer bonuses for retention or recruitment, as well as making it easier for out-of-state certification to be used in OK.


Facing a shortage of certified teachers. Oregon does not do the alternative certificate route; instead, they will essentially let you start teaching before you've completely finished your teacher training program.


We have avoided a teacher shortage pretty simply. By deploying crushing financial pressures on districts, we have been cutting 4,000 to 5,000 jobs a year. We have crowded classrooms, and the worst rich vs. poor funding gap in the country. But no teacher shortage. Nosirree.


Well, if there's a Rhode Island teacher shortage, nobody is talking about it on line. Even so, the USED lists RI as short in most areas, including elementary ed, which is rare indeed.


Many years ago, I distance-dated a teacher in SC who went to work for the state's recruitment program, a forward-thinking program that started getting students interested in teaching while they were still in high school. But today, shortages in rural and urban schools remain a problem. The state is bringing in alternative certificate pros to help. But although they beat out North Carolina, South Carolina still landed 45th on the list of worst states for teachers.


Last year, 31 districts in South Dakota started the year with unfilled positions. The teacher shortage was discussed in tones of deep concern last summer in the capitol. But folks can spot the most notable issue-- South Dakota is 51st in the nation for teacher pay. Fixing that would require some sort of tax, and that seems to be a conversation-killer. Or you could, as the state does, let the schools hire warm body as long as that body embarks on a path to get credentials. In the meantime, SD schools feature a mix of unqualified teachers and empty positions.


What about the home of reformster miracles? They have the substitute problem, but it turns out they have a governor who's at least willing to pay lip service to keeping teacher pay competitive. Of course, they also have an Achievement School District, a mechanism for turning public schools into revenue-generating charters. TN has many education issues, but nobody is hollering about a teacher shortage just yet.


Texas has two parts of the teacher shortage problem-- hard to find enough applicants, and a tremendous turnover rate among those they hire. But it has only been a year since legislators noticed that maybe this is a subject in need of discussion. Texas also has a program that puts alternative certificatees straight into the classroom, which means those who realize they've made a mistake can walk straight out again. So Texas is short-handed and without a real plan.


Another state short on subs. Utah is short on the usual big three -- math, science, special ed-- and was willing to consider the unusual step of paying more for those fields. Legislators have also discussed Vergarafying the state and making it harder for teachers to achieve job security; unsurprisingly, some folks suggested that such a move would make it even harder to recruit teachers.


Vermont publishes an annual list of shortage areas. Surprisingly, the list currently shows a need for math and English, but not science. Nobody is complaining about a big teacher shortage.


Virginia lists most of the usual areas as having shortages, but there are no articles talking about any teacher shortage crisis.


Washington could face a teacher crunch for unusual reasons-- the voters asked for reduced class sizes for K-12 and full-day kindergarten. That would depend on fully funding the school system, which is, as always, a problem-- fully funding right-sized classes beyond that K-3 has been denied by the legislature. And the sub pool has been shrinking for years. Washington teachers have also gone without a cost-of-living increase since 2008. So a shortage could be on the way, for any of several reasons.


West Virginia has just passed a law to fix their teacher shortage-- more TFA and alternative certificates. WV has reportedly 700 unfilled teaching spots, with the largest number of teachers working outside their area. The legislator leading this initiative is just one more arguing that the best way to fill spots that might go to unqualified teachers is by hiring more unqualified teachers, because, reasons. Meanwhile, in one rural area, a guy teaches biology because (and I am not making this up) because his wife's a nurse.


Gee, why wouldn't an 18-year-old who has spent high school watching teachers get vilified and beaten down and stripped of job protections and union powers and pay-- why wouldn't that young person want to go into teaching? Well, apparently she doesn't. Scott Walker is deeply committed to sweeping away public schools and replacing them with low-cost, high-profit charters, so teachers got to go. Here's a handy list of Wisconsin teaching highlights. Wisconsin is the best example of one other way the teacher shortage plays out-- you can't have a teacher shortage if your ideal number of trained, professional teachers is zero.


Wyoming put The Teacher Shortage Loan Repayment Program in place for teachers who would stay in Wyoming after graduation; they did it a decade ago. The teacher pay is good, taxes are nearly non-existent, and if you like the kind of pretty that Wyoming has, nobody does it better. Since their neighbors are states like South Dakota, they are well-positioned to recruit, though they do have some select shortage in some certification areas. (Also, I left them out of the first published version of this piece. Sorry about that, Wyoming)


I did learn some new odds and ends. I had not realized the extent of the substitute shortage. I also didn't realize that agricultural teaching was in trouble because of shortages of qualified teachers in that field.

Teacher programs really are slowing down, though ideas about how to address that are... well, spread over a wide area. The Center for American Progress thinks we should make teacher school harder and put more obstacles in the way because that will make more students enroll? Surprisingly few commentators point out the obvious-- that teaching has been beaten down for a generation.

Not all shortages are created equal. The big three are math, science and special ed, but elementary teachers are being produced in more-than-sufficient numbers.

But mostly we need a new word, because we're not really talking about a shortage of teachers-- we're talking about a lack of incentives and an excess of disincentives to go into teaching. Put another way-- there is no state among the fifty that is paying top dollar, providing great working conditions, and treating its teachers like professionals that is struggling with a teacher shortage. Instead, states offer low pay, poor work conditions, no job security, no autonomy, and no power over your own workplace and voila!!-- teacher "shortage."

And in the interests of space, I didn't even get into Right To Work states where teachers can't bargain and just have to trust the tender mercies of the state.

Look, even convenience stores get it. When my local place can't get good people to work for minimum wage, they offer more than minimum wage. States who set a standard of Barely Better Than North Carolina or South Dakota will always have a "shortage."

And yes-- many of these states aren't manufacturing a shortage so much as they're trying to engineer a new definition of what a teacher is. "Look! If we define 'teacher' as a sentient adult willing to stand in a classroom, there's no shortage at all!!"

Still, whatever we call it, something is going on across almost all fifty states, not just the few that have made big news with their particular staffing issues. Some states have adopted a direct, thoughtful approach to the issues. Most have not. That's the picture coast to coast. Incidentally-- if you know something I missed in your state, don't hesitate to shoot me a note or speak up in the comments.

And because this is already too long, you can find my further thoughts here.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

PA: Legislator Misunderstands School Costs

Not just any legislator. Today we're talking about Mike Folmer. Folmer is the Vice-chair of the Education Committee, a businessman (seems to mostly have worked in sales) who was first elected in 2006, one of the many "reform" candidates swept in after Pennsylvanians snapped under the final straw of the legislatures infamous late night Give Themselves A Raise shenanigans (an event infamous enough to get its own wikipedia page).

Folmer had a bout with non-Hodgkins lymphoma a few years back (not as scary as some of the big-name cancers, but damn, it does suck), which may or may not have something to do with his passionate support for legalizing marijuana (it's "part of God's creation he has given us.") Beyond that, he has been a reliably conservative lawmaker; just a couple of years ago, he had a hand in the plan to empower universities to disempower local voters and taxpayers by chartering schools. Folmer loves him some choice. Yup. Vice-Chair of the Education Committee.

So here comes Folmer with a piece that ran first on his own web page and then was picked up by the Patriot News site. It's worth a look to understand some of the misconceptions running around the state capital.

Folmer opens with a bunch of numbers, but his basic point is "OMGZ!! We are spend so many of the moneys on schools! Soooo much!!!!!" He is particularly concerned that, as much as we spend, now Governor Tom Wolf wants to spend more.

Folmer cites (as he often does) the line from the state constitution about education: “The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.” And the he arrives at his point:

The current system is far from efficient:  for each dollar invested in education, just 37 cents goes into classrooms. Most of the money -- 62 percent -- goes to the salaries, healthcare, continuing education, pensions, and other benefits of the adults in education.  How many of us would support a charity where just 38 percent of the monies collected go to the purpose of the charity while 62 percent goes for overhead?

I've run into this misunderstanding before with people from the business world. I once listened to one of my own board members, who owned a concrete business, express absolute astonishment that such a high percentage of the school budget was personnel costs

Folmer and others like him are failing to understand how costs break down in a sector that provides a service. Schools don't make anything; they don't spend big money on raw materials, or marketing, or equipment to turn the raw material into a finished product.

Folmer's contention that just 37 cents goes into the classroom is just wrong. The "adults in education" also go into the classroom. Every cent spent on a teacher goes straight into a classroom. 

A school is not a charity, and teachers are not "overhead." A school provides a valuable service, and teachers are the people who actually do the work. A sports team that wants to be successful-- either in terms or winning or in drawing fans and making money (all of which are, of course, linked)-- does not try to build success by cutting its personnel costs to the bone. The Yankees do not list A-Rod as an overhead cost.

After bemoaning how people react poorly to him when he cites his "facts," Folmer wraps up with this:

To me, education should focus first – and always – on students.  However, in the current debate over education funding, students are used mostly to demand more and more money – because:  "it's for the kids."

As vice-chair of the education committee, Folmer is surely aware that Pennsylvania has the worst spending gap between rich and poor schools in the nation. Well, maybe he's aware of it. Folmer is the former head of the ed committee, and he wrote about what he learned in that position. He is disappointed in the teachers unions, and he likes to talk to bright, sparkly students. He knows that the PA pension is a mess, and he expects that people will want to spend more money on schools. And to fix all this....well, nothing. But to address the funding gap will, in fact, require a bunch of money; if he doesn't think so, Folmer needs to explain what other solution would address the issue. If he thinks PA should embrace its spot at the bottom of the heap proudly, then he needs to go ahead and make his case for that.

Finding the political will to deal with PA's education problems is going to be hard. Right now we're stuck in our annual budget stalemate. Our new Democratic governor unseated a one-term incumbent, which has happened before pretty much never, but our GOP would like to govern as it never happened this time, either. We have huge financial problems, and it will take billions-with-a-B to fix them, and nobody is going to love the solutions for where that comes from. It's going to take politicians with guts and vision to pull this off. Oh, and it will also take politicians with a basic understanding of how school costs really work.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Bill Bennett's Baloney

William Bennett appeared on Campbell Brown's reformster PR site to stick up for the Common Core, but he ignores some inconvenient truths in the process.

The first stretcher is in his thesis-title: the GOP is wrong to run away from the Common Core-- because the standards are working. "Working" is a heck of a subjective term here, but let's see where he's going, shall we?

He starts with some history, noting that many GOP governors who used to love the Core have decided to dump the standards because it's politically expedient to do so. He is not wrong, but he conveniently ignores parts of the story. Perhaps most notable is that so many of these states actually adopted the standards before they were actually written. Bennett also gives a head nod to the notion that "federal overreach" sullied the otherwise beauteous standards, as if the standards would have had a chance of adoption without the full force of federal coercion and cash behind them (spoiler alert: they would not have).

So the story is not, "States adopted educational standards because they examined the standards and decided that Common Core would make education in their states great. Now those same state leaders are dumping the Core for crass political reasons."

No, the story is, "Some politicians adopted a policy because they thought it would be politically (and financially) advantageous to do so, and then dropped that policy when it became politically advantageous to do so." This is not a new story, and it is not a surprising story, and the degree to which career politicians pretend to be surprised by it is baffling.

Bennett correctly calls out Chris Christie for the hypocrisy of dismissing the Core without making any "substantive policy changes." That's fair, but again-- adopting the Core was a political gesture, and so is disowning it. I'm shocked-- shocked, I tell you.

Bennett then embarks on a journey of logic-chopping and baloney-slicing.

Christie recognizes that New Jersey still needs tough, internationally benchmarked standards that resemble CCSS.  

Well, except that CCSS is not internationally benchmarked, and never has been. And the word "tough" is meaningless rhetoric. Something can be tough and still be a waste of everyone's time, like sitting through the film version of Les Mis or listening to twenty-four straight hours of heavy metal polka music. 

Many polls indicate that the American people support higher and more rigorous standards and testing. 

Let's pretend that those poll results aren't baloney in their own right. Let's pretend that the word "higher" means something when applied to standards. None of that means that the Common Core (Bennett carefully skips around how the brand name does in the polls ) is a hit with anyone. I can say that I am really hungry and would like to eat, but if you bring me a plate of raw liver covered with fried kale, I will still send it back. "But you said you wanted supper," you might say, but you'd be silly to do so. 

Bennett then repeats his titular assertion that the Core are "working," which is yet another very vague rhetorical flourish. Does he have evidence?

In a word, no.

Bennett instead brings up the Achieve Honesty Gap report, a report with all sorts of problems, such as treating NAEP as a benchmark test. Oddly enough for Bennett's argument, the Achieve report also doesn't mention the Common Core, ever. Bennett's point is that the Big Standardized Test results are getting more in line with NAEP results. This assumes a great many things, not the least of which is that BS Tests are giving us a real measure of how Core-tastic students are, but since there are many parts of the Core that will never be on the BS Test (collaborative learning, reading full works, and critical thinking, for starters), it seems unlikely that the Core tests are even measuring what they claim to intend to measure. 

But Bennett's baloney-fest isn't over. 

Christie has every right to call for a review of the standards in New Jersey, in fact, most states review their standards every few years anyway.

(Yes, Bennett seems to want to mostly spank Christie in this piece). Bennett is also conveniently forgetting that the Common Core Standards were carefully constructed NOT to be reviewed every few years or even ever. Set in cement, copyrighted, and with states pledged to add no more than fifteen percent and to change not a whit or tittle, the Core also had no mechanism in place for review or revisit, and the architects left the scene quickly for pricey new gigs. 

Given the Core pushback and the lack of any authoritative body to oversee anything, the copyright issue has evaporated. But CCSS was designed not to change a bit, and certainly not to be reviewed by the states. In that sentence, Bennett himself has made the case for dropping the Core.

Bennett also invokes the doctrine of Core Inevitability, a sort of sour grapes argument that says, "Fine, make your own standards. But they will inevitably look like the Common Core because CCSS is so close to the Platonic ideal of education standards that all standards must be a pale shadow of the Core awesomeness." This is a highly charitable and extra-fantastical view of the Common Core Standards, which remain the mediocre, poorly written product of educational amateurs.

Bennett finishes with one more hopeful eruption.

If a state ends up tweaking and renaming the standards, it will be acting in a way that is entirely consistent with how the Common Core was designed to function – as exemplar standards for states to improve and build upon.

Yeah, see above. That is very specifically NOT how the Common Core was designed to function. States were forbidden to improve or build upon CCSS. Bennett is entitled to be bitter and disappointed that same political winds that once filled CCSS sails have now deserted the SS Common Core. He is not entitled to pretend that the SS Common Core was built to be some sort of mighty, nimble ocean vessel when in fact it was always, from day one, a wobbly, leaky dinghy with a brick for a rudder.