Monday, August 31, 2015

Middle Way

In the midst of the back and forth over her comments about New Orleans' Myth of School Makeovers, Andrea Gabor dropped this quote from  Howard Fuller:

“I do believe things are better for a large number of kids than before Katrina. But I don’t want to be put in the position of saying: pre-Katrina was all bad, post-Katrina is all good. When we set it up that way, we’re negating anything that was positive before Katrina. What that tends to negate is the capacity of black people to do anything of excellence. 

 “The firing of those teachers is a wound that will never be closed, never be righted. I understand the issue of urgency. But a part of this quite frankly has to do with the fact that I do not believe that black people are respected. I don’t believe that our institutions are respected. And I don’t believe that our capacity to help our own people is respected…

 “Its hard for me, because I do support the reforms and think there are some great things that have happened. I do have to ask the same question as Randi (Weingarten)—at what cost? 

 “Even if you talk to black people who drank the Kool-aide: The issue still is– this was done to us not with us. That feeling is deep. It can’t be ignored. It speaks to any type of long-term sustainability of what’s happening in New Orleans. 

 “When black people came out of slavery, we came out with a clear understanding of the connection between education and liberation. Two groups of white people descended upon us—the missionaries and the industrialists. They both had their view of what type of education we needed to make our new-born freedom realized. During this period there’s an analogy—I’ve said this to all my friends in Kipp And TFA. During this period two groups of white people descended on us the industrialists and the missionaries. And each one of them have their own view of what kind of education we need. 

 “What people have never grasped is that we want to be helped, we don’t want to be controlled. In this process, we wanted to be a critical part of defining what role education should play in our continuing struggle to truly realize freedom in America. That’s the thing that’s truly unsettled in my soul. How do I make that happen, when I’m swimming with sharks on the left and on the right. And trying to find an independent course that speaks to the pain that my people experience every single day.” 

It's a bruisingly honest response from someone who has paid double dues on the front lines of education and education reform and who has been a willing voice for the privatizers and charter pushers for a long, long time. And it's a reminder of what is wrong with the most extreme narratives on opposite sides of the public education debates.

The cartoon reformster narrative: US education was hopelessly effed up in a morass of self-serving institutionally calcified failure. Our poorest, most vulnerable, and historically most underserved populations were being left further and further behind. Only a complete guttting of the system can blast loose the systemic problems.

The cartoon public school supporter narrative: the reform movement is an unnecessary attempt to gut public education, and they should go away and let us get back to what we were doing.

The challenge in threading the space between these two narratives. each side has things it needs to face up to.

Public education advocates need to recognize that there is no going back, that in some places, public schools have functioned primarily as institutions heavily embedded with all the neglect and racism and dumping on the people at the bottom of the ladder that we could possibly hate. New Orleans was, by most accounts, terrible in every way that a school district can be terrible. Many other poor urban schools were in a similar place.Something had to change.

But reformsters need to recognize that many of those districts were filled with excellent teachers in excellent schools working in communities where they were the educational equivalent of strong salmon trying to swim up Niagara Falls. And many of the reformsters of good faith (I believe there are such people) need to recognize that they opened a door that let it all manner of money-grubbing vermin who had no real interest in improving education for anybody-- just cashing in on a movement that opened up a mountain of public money to private profit.

The irony is that while reformsters recognized that some aspects of the system needed to change, they have ended up holding onto the aspect that needed the most change of all-- the continued disempowerment, disenfranchisement, disinvestment, and disintegration of the communities in which the schools were found. Folks in places like New Orleans traded a system in which it was hard for community voices to be heard, hard for community leaders to take charge, and hard for community needs to be considered-- they traded that for a system in which it is now impossible for the community voices to be heard, empowered, and responded to. In both the old version and the new version, schools are something that is "done to" the members of these communities.

And yes-- I did not represent the two sides as needing equal amounts of correction. They don't. By disregarding the expertise of professionals and the voice of the community, reformsters have put themselves far out in left field. They are not wrong about the need for change and improvement and a system that better responds to the needs of America's poor, and they have won plenty of support by showing they get the need while public education advocates have said, "Look, we're doing great. Just let us do our thing, and trust us."

But reformsters are dead wrong, and have been dead wrong nearly every step of the way, about what reforms will improve the situation. Some don't care about being wrong; they're simply focused on "solutions" that will redirect that beautiful river of money and power to The Right People, the Betters. Or they have a blind and foolish faith in The Market (which will never, ever, get us better schools). Or they have blind faith in their own superior wisdom.

But those who do care about getting it right have listened to the wrong people, and supporters of public education have made it easy for them to do so by being slow to respond to real concerns, real needs, real problems.

It's something to read Fullers words, to see a guy who's been unapologetic about taking mountains of Walton money (re: John Walton "I love that man"), say straight up that nobody on any side of the fight gets it. Not his opponents, and not his allies, either. The NOLA restrospectives taken together highlight one thing-- that all of this public education stuff is complex, and that people who believe in simple answers or explanations are kidding themselves (and lots of other people, too).

AP Notices Common Core Failure

In the midst of arguing about whose poll data supports which side in the debate about public education, AP writer Christine Amario Saturday noted that "As Common Core results trickle in, initial goals unfulfilled."

What began as an effort to increase transparency and allow parents and school leaders to assess performance nationwide has largely unraveled, chiefly because states are dropping out of the two testing groups and creating their own exams.

Common Core boosters have dealt with this big slice of failure by simply ignoring it and developing selective amnesia about the goal of having every state on the same page. But Amario offers a few reminders.

For instance, she takes us back to 2010 and Arne Duncan's promise that the tests would end the practice of having "fifty goalposts." In fact, back in the Core's infancy, Core pushers were pretty straightforward about how the whole program leaned on the testing component would push schools to adopt matching-- well, they couldn't say the word "curriculum" because a federally-inflicted curriculum would be illegal. But remember-- one advantage would be that a student moving from Idaho to Arkansas would be able to make the transition without missing a beat.

Amario even manages to get someone from Brookings to say something useful.

"The whole idea of Common Core was to bring students and schools under a common definition of what success is," said Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "And Common Core is not going to have that. One of its fundamental arguments has been knocked out from under it."

Of course, part of the problem was that Core fans grossly underestimated the reaction to federal overreach. And while some Americans did (and still do) support the ideas behind the Core and Core testing in practice, they found that the reality of both was far less appealing. And so the vision of a country in which every single state gave one of two national Big Standardized Tests began collapsing almost instantly. But the PARCC is down to no more than eleven states, while SBA is down to fifteen. She also notes on the comparability front that PARCC and SBA don't even give the same number of performance levels (five for PARCC, four for SBA).

Amario tries to see if the tests are actually useful, and here her work is less impressive.

Rather than paper-and-pencil multiple choice tests, the new exams are designed to be taken by tablet or computer. Instead of being given a selection of answers to choose, students must show how they got their answer. Answer correctly and get a more difficult question. Answer incorrectly, get an easier one.

Welllllll... instead of being given a selection of answers to bubble in, students must, click, or drag and drop answers. And the record on adaptive testing is mixed at best.

Amario also lets an LAUSD official drop in an unchallenged assertion that the tests are providing "richer" information, which is patently ridiculous. In most states teachers are forbidden to see the questions and get no information about student performance beyond a simple score, which tells nothing about what the students did and did not answer correctly.

She notes that many test results came in low, but she doesn't examine the issue of cut scores and how they are set, a critical point, since the average civilian would find the idea of setting passing levels AFTER you've scored the test kind of dopey and rather the opposite of having standards.

So there's plenty of work still to be done. But still-- the AP just called out the Core for a total failure on one of its original major goals. That's at least one small victory for fans of public education.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Report on Systematic Crushing of Local Control

The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools is a broad network of  groups standing up for local and community schools, linking everything from the two national teacher unions to parent and community groups. AROS this month released a report looking at the issues surrounding the privatization of local schools and the stripping of local control. "Out of Control" is worth a read, particularly as it puts the newest reformster development in context.

In the introduction, AROS reminds us that this month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, and notes that the act has been under attack as recently as the 2013 Supremes decision. But that's not the main focus of the report.

But there is a different attack on minority enfranchisement not addressed in the Voting Rights Act. Instead of barriers to the ballot box, local elected governance is being dissolved altogether.

The local governance that's being dissolved is the local elected oversight of schools, and AROS notes that these state-level take-overs of local schools "are happening almost exclusively in African American and Latino schools and districts—in many of the same communities that have experienced decades of underinvestment in their public schools and consistent attacks on their property, agency and self-determination."

The report looks at some specific instances of this sort of take-over and disenfranchisement, but the strength of the report is in how it gives context to what is going on.

School takeovers in non-wealthy, non-white neighborhoods come on the heels of decades of disinvestment. Even with Brown vs. Board of Education, most states linked school funding to local property taxes which, as the report notes, "embeds inequalities based on race and class." Poor schools exist in poor neighborhoods, where poor residents suffer from disinvestment in their neighborhoods as well as pressure to hold down costs of any relief or support, right down to fighting against unionization ("right to work" anyone?) and a higher minimum wage.

The rise of the modern charter movement meant a renewed interest in draining money out of poor communities, and financial pressures on states left more and more schools strapped for cash. The pattern was born in 1989 New Jersey-- states would not spend more money to support or improve the schools, but would instead take the districts over and give that money to private entities to run the schools instead, and in the process, wipe away all vestiges of democratic process. Twenty-nine US states now have a mechanism for a takeover.

Schools would be something done to poor black and brown citizens, not something done by them

AROS looks at the specific cases of Newark and New Orleans, and then they consider come of the implications and effects of these takeovers.

Fragmentation of political power. Local folks have no say in any aspect of the privatization. Charters answer to their own governing board, and as "recovery" and "achievement" districts spring up, even corporate control is unmanageable spread out. In Detroit, there are at least 45 separate entities running schools; in New Orleans there are 44, and nobody who is actually responsible for keeping track of all New Orleans students. The cracks through which one can fall are now huge, and the ability of local parents and voters to seek solutions from the People In Charge has been erased.

Loss of community-based institutions. In many poor communities, the school is one stable community center. But state takeover invariably involves "freeing" students from "the tyranny of geography." Saying that students should not be trapped in a particular school because of their address sounds noble, but in practice it means that the neighborhood loses one more unifying, strengthening connection (I recommend Robert Putnam's Our Children for a clear and thorough explanation of why that's a very bad idea). But in Chicago, some neighborhoods have no schools at all.

Increased segregation. The numbers are in, and charter schools exacerbate segregation. Now, frankly, local control in the hands of racist jerks can not only support segregate, but can make the effects of it far worse. But even in those cases, there is an electoral remedy. In state-run charter systems, there is no remedy at all.

Financial instability. Let me say it one more time-- if you think you can run multiple parallel school systems and maintain a total system with far more capacity than you use and do it all for the same costs as a single public system, you are a dope. And of course by the time the state steps in, the school district has already been starved of resources and needs more than simply maintenance-level support. As we've also seen repeatedly, the charters who are hired to run these schools commit to doing the job only as long as it suits them financially. On top of all that, let's consider a state like Ohio, which has exercised no educational or financial oversight over its charters, leading to a system that is laughably full of graft, corruption and incompetence. And yet, the state now wants to start taking over school districts and hiring a CEO to serve as conductor on the charter gravy train that will take the public school's place.

On top of this, it has to be said-- and AROS says it-- that this state-led destruction of democracy and school systems is happening almost exclusively in poor black and brown communities, communities that sometimes welcome the takeover because the neglect has previously been so bad, only to discover that state takeovers leave local citizens without a democratic voice or a community school for their children.

Read the whole report-- it's not too long and while it doesn't really break any new ground, it puts many of the pieces of this mess in one clear and cohesive narrative that can help you wrap your head around this huge disenfranchisement of American citizens in our poorest communities.

Why Trump Is Not Sanders

Warning: this piece is about the Presidential race and only tangentially about education. You've been warned. Also, I use a rude word repeatedly, and while many of you won't mind, my mom often reads here, and she doesn't like it when I use bad language.

There has been a tendency, both in the media and in casual conversation, for people to see a parallel or even equivalency between the runs of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. This is a mistake. The two candidates have one shared feature-- they are both benefiting from near-universal disgust with politics as usual in the US. Past that, Sanders and Trump are exact opposites.

American politics run on bullshit. Loads and loads and loads of bullshit. The Sanders candidacy is what a Presidential run would look like stripped of bullshit, without the slick, pretty candidate and the focus-group-crafted messages. The Trump campaign is what a Presidential run would look like if you cranked the bullshit up to twelve.

Regular politics are that one kid in your class-- the one who punches the kid in the next seat or throws paper wads across the room or passes abusive notes, and does it all when your back is half-turned, and then when you call him on it, shrugs and says, "What? I didn't do anything. That kid just yelped all of a sudden. I don't know why. "

Teachers are annoyed by that kid for two reasons-- one is that he's mean and disruptive and rotten to the other students, and the other is that the subtext for his denials is some version of, "I'm pretty sure you're a frickin' idiot, and you're way too stupid to know what I'm doing."

But Trump. Trump just turns around, punches the kid in the next desk right in the face, turns to you, the teacher, and just shrugs and smiles, like "What are you gonna do, you know?" And then he says, "What? I didn't do anything? I think maybe he ran into my fist." Still smiling, like this is all kind of fun. And you can't help it-- he's such a transparent asshole that you're charmed.

When someone else is the class tries the sneaky punch routine, Trump gladly narcs on him-- "Hey, teacher!! Jebby just punched Floyd in the arm!" Catch someone in a lie? Trump's glad to tattle because when Trump wants to lie, it's a big, fat, indefensible lie, so baldfaced that it invites applause for its audacity.

Conventional politicians play a game in which they lie, pretend, ignore their own history, attack various groups of Americans, and lie some more, but they do it all in a gutless over-thought manner, with the ultimately goal of doing all those things without looking like they're doing all those things. But Trump lies, pretends, ignores his own history, attacks various groups of Americans, and lies some more-- and never pretends to be doing anything else. That's why the other kids on the GOP playground can't call him out-- because he's not doing anything that they don't do. He's just doing it in plain sight, without artifice. Conventional politicians try to convince the public that their bullshit is caviar and goose pate; Trump just backs the truck up and makes Bullshit Mountain with the confidence of a man who knows that this is what the game is really about.

When Trump criticizes other politicians because they "can't get anything done," he's criticizing their lack of guts, their lack of understanding about how a real salesman plays the baldfaced bullshit game. They want to play at playing the game while looking like they're not playing the game. Trump is playing the game, full on.

That's the difference from Bernie Sanders, who is not playing a game at all, but is simply trying to communicate a message. Trump, who is playing a game, has no message to communicate. Sanders is revealing the hollowness of the Presidential race by showing what substance looks like. Trump is revealing the hollowness by turning it into performance art, an exaggerated cartoon candidacy, a show that turns to the other candidates and says, "Look, if you really want to play this bullshit game, let's really do it, and not just half-ass it like you bums are used to doing. If you want to be a bullshit slinging, woman-bashing, minority-abusing, ethically rudderless asshat, let me show you how it's really done."

How far Trump's show can go is a mystery. The most entertaining alternative would be that he actually breaks the GOP, and we see the emergence of a real third party founded on reclaiming the values that the GOP once stood for. That's probably as unlikely as Sanders reclaiming the Democratic party from the corporate overlords who have commandeered it, but this feels like a year in which surprising things could happen.

ICYMI: This Week's Readings from the Edusphere

Some reading from this week in the edusphere.

13 Years of Dress Rehearsal

Chris Thinnes ran a back-to-school parent's night speech by Rachel Thinnes that is a great reminder that school is not just about students getting ready to live their lives -- their lives are going on right now. She also references Excellent Sheep, which is always bonus points as far as I'm concerned.

EdTPA and TFA Are Two Sides of the Same Coin 

Fred Klonsky spent a chunk of his week fending off feverish defenders of Pearson's teacher certification baloneyfest, EdTPA. Klonsky wrote several good take-downs of the program, but this one put it in the context of another favorite reformster program.
10 Years of Corporate Media Celebrating Disaster

You'll need a strong stomach for this look back at some of the decades most notable cheerleading for death and destruction in New Orleans. Because who cares how many people have to die, neighborhoods have to be destroyed, and citizens have to be permanently displaced if, when it's all done, privatizers can make some money and test scores go up, a little, in some places, for some people.

Message from Bethlehem Superintendent

The superintendent of Bethlehem Area Schools in PA wrote in the local paper a piece to show that he gets it, and that he regrets "a different world we are now in where a teacher potentially risks a negative evaluation because she is committed to helping her students develop their passions, gifts and talents."

NC Teachers Being 'Voluntarily Exploited' 

Brief but powerful profile of three North Carolina teachers and how they make it work. These ladies are inspirational-- wait till you read about how one turns the experience of not being able to buy groceries into a growth experience for her own practice.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Trib Writer Tries To Spank Dyett Hunger Strike

Eric Zorn decided to just wade on into the Dyett High Hunger Strike yesterday with a piece that is as stunning as it is ill-informed. But it underlines the problem of effectively organizing for a cause.

Zorn apparently didn't do any more reading on the hunger strike except to learn that there is one, and that it has something to do with a high school. Apparently some folks have tried to convince Zorn that the strike "requires coverage of their cause, which is the establishment of a particular type of new school in the Dyett High School building in Washington Park."

But Zorn says he's turned off by the tactics, and goes on to equate a hunger strike with holding hostages and/or slow-motion suicide. But we don't negotiate with hostage takers, and suicide is, I guess, rude. And what Zorn is really saying is that he doesn't believe that it's that big a deal, not even to the hunger strikers:

Would today's protesters rather die than live in a world without the Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology Community High School, the academy they want CPS to establish?

The piece is spectacular in its lack of nuance or understanding. He talks about the proposed high school as if they want it established from scratch, and not as if they are proposing a way for the community to hold onto its last open-enrollment, community-based school. A school that they already had. A school that CPS is threatening to either hand over to outside interests or to simply close entirely, which sets the stage for the kind of gentrification that is already an issue for Chicago.

But beyond Zorn's unwillingness to do even cursory homework because, I guess, he doesn't care for protestors' tone, is the same old question I always have for these types of folks-- what does he think the protestors should do instead?

Should they peacefully and professionally develop a positive alternative for the CPS to show how the community school could be maintained and improved? They've done that. Should they partner with respectable community organizations to show just how serious and solid the plan is? They've done that. Should they repeatedly approach the authorities through the appropriate channels with the appropriate paperwork? They've done that.

What else would he like them to do?

If this were a violent protest, we know that everyone would be tsk-tsking the Dyett supporters for not doing things The Right Way. Don't be so violent. Don't take such a tone. When you are so confrontational, you just hurt your own cause.

I can't say this hard enough: Dyett supporters have done everything right, everything that could be asked of people who have been trying to get their voices heard for years and years-- unless what critics like Zorn are really suggesting that Dyett supporters should voice their opinions in such a way that they can be more easily ignored, and that anything they do that makes any kind of noise at all, attracts any sort of attention is just not okay. They should be not seen, not heard, and happy with whatever CPS decides to do to them, their school, their community.

What the hell kind of choice is that??

Zorn has established himself as a fan of staying in place and not bucking the system in the past. Back in July, he wrote a piece in response to Sandra Bland's arrest and death, and while the piece is bluntly critical of the police officer and minces no words about how wrong he was every step of the way, he still somehow lands on this conclusion:

The lesson here is that you must always defer meekly to the police. Even when they're acting like bullies, goading you or issuing you preposterous orders like to put out your cigarette as you sit in your own car, don't challenge their authority. As I reminded my kids in the wake of this story, things will never go better for you if you argue with police officers. Comply. And if you feel your rights are being violated, take it up later with a judge.

So perhaps the message of Zorn and others is that the Dyett Twelve should defer meekly to bullies. That's lousy advice, particularly given how relatively meek and non-confrontational the Dyett protesters have actually been. And people in not-wealthy neighborhoods with not-white skins have been called upon to defer meekly far too many times.

Zorn and those who agree with him are just plain wrong, and out of line, and lazy. Mr. Zorn, I'm an English teacher in Pennsylvania-- how is it that I know more about the situation at Dyett than a journalist in Chicago? Shame on you, sir. Here's a quick link to sources with which you can begin to educate yourself and then do a proper job writing about the issues involved.

PA: Districts Now Short $1.18 Billion

Last Thursday, schools started to feel the impact of our elected legislators' perennial inability to get their job done.

Thursday was the day that $1.18 billion-with-a-b in subsidy payments were supposed to go out to school districts. But they can't. Because Pennsylvania still doesn't have a budget. The Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officers surveyed 171 districts and learned that 83% of those will be dipping into their reserve funds. 60% may delay vendor payments, 53% may delay maintenance work, and 29% may put off filling positions. Other districts are looking at the necessity of borrowing money, which means that for some districts, Harrisburg's failure will translate into real dollar-amount costs for local taxpayers.

Of course, the most notable impact is being felt in Chester Uplands School District, where the lack of a payment Thursday meant that the district could not meet their payroll. District teachers and staff voted to work without pay as long as "individually possible."

Does Pennsylvania do this a lot? Well, "Pennsylvania Budget Impasses" has its own Wikipedia page. In the last decade, we've been stuck in this place five times (2007, 2008, 2009, 2014, and 2015). Back in 2003, the fight dragged on until December.

The process is always grueling and tense, because those of us who are mere citizens in the commonwealth never know what the heck is going on (unless we want to believe the various battling press releases that emerge from the back rooms of Harrisburg).  We know the basic set-up this time; Tom Wolf wanted to write a budget as if he had won an overwhelming victory that signaled voters' utter repudiation of the Tom Corbett budgetary approach, and Pennsylvania GOP legislators would like to budget as if Tom Corbett were still governor. According to a recent poll, 54% of Pennsylvanians blame the legislators for the impasse, and 29% blame Wolf.

Meanwhile, 100% of public schools are facing effects of the government's halt. And more subsidy payments are due to schools in September, October, November and December.

Our legislators have the second-highest pay in the country, and Pennsylvania has the second-largest legislature in the country, which means we have the most expensive legislature in America-- and that's before you figure in how much this budgetary blockade is costing us. Safe to say that we are not getting very good bang for our buck. Folks have many suggestions. Dock the legislatures pay. Shut down the capital cafeteria and get Harrisburg restaurants to refuse to serve our elected representatives until they get their damned job done. Cut their pay $5K for every day they're late with the budget.

Pennsylvania's education funding has huge problems. This is not helping. We can only hope that Harrisburg gets its act together before it has to miss its next education payment.In the meantime, if you're a Pennsylvanian, I suggest you find your elected representative, contact him, and tell him to do his job.

Can Tech Fix Teacher Shortage?

If you don't have a lot of time to read right now, I'll cut to the chase.


The topic is being heavily discussed because, for many folks, "shortage" is spelled o-p-p-o-r-t-u-n-i-t-y. As in, golden opportunity to push TFA, alternative certification, and technology in (or instead of) the classroom. As the teacher "shortage" story has continued to bounce around the edusphere, some writers have stepped up to talk about how technology and blended learning could help solve the problem.

First off, we don't really have a teacher shortage. We have a shortage of employers offering the working conditions necessary to attract people to the teaching profession.

The worst pockets of unfilled teaching positions are not marked by leaders saying, "How can we attract and retain more high quality teachers?" Instead, they're asking, "Where can we find people who will settle for working under the conditions that we're offering?"

There are plenty of creative answers to that question, including fast track programs, lots of alternative certification programs, and even proposals that some classes be taught by people who have only a high school diploma. But of course the people who are most willing to fill teaching jobs under even the lowest of conditions are not actual people at all, but pieces of technology.

But there are several large obstacles to using technology to plug the teacher "shortage." Here we go.

Tech Is More Expensive Than You Think

Remember when we were all excited because instead of paper books, we were going to use electronic versions of texts. Instead of having to buy new copies of High School Handbook of Tedious Grammar every five-to-ten years at a cost of Good God They Want HOW Much For This Dollars, we would have awesome digital copies that would never wear out. It was going to save the district millions.

But then it turned out that the company was going to make us license the e-copies of the text every three years for You Can't Be Serious Dollars, and the savings from going to to e-books were going to be somewhere between Modest and Non-existent. And that was before it finally sank in that netbooks or chromebooks or tablets or whatever we were using would only survive a few years before either needing to be replaced or being abandoned by the company that provided them. So actual savings turned out to be negative dollars.

Oops! Too Late!

Staying ahead of the technology curve is hard enough for people who work in that sector. But in my school, we do our classroom budgets almost a full year before we actually use the stuff we're budgeting for. I can look around right now, do my market research, find out where my students are in terms of apps and programs, and design something really cool for next year, and it will be absolutely quaint by the time next September rolls around. High school administrators may think that getting laptops in their students hands will be a big step forward; meanwhile, the students are trying to remember how to use this odd kind of device that they haven't touched since they were five.

It's Only Technology

The other mistake that oldsters make over and over and over again is to miscalculate the Wow Factor of computer tech. As repeatedly noted, our students are digital natives, and that means that a tablet and a computer and a smart phone are all about as novel and Wow-worthy as books or trees. I still meet people who think that a worksheet will be compelling to students because it's now a drill program on a computer. Nope. Not even a little. Doing that drill does allow the teacher to collect and crunch data is new, speedy, useful ways. But for the student, it's just same-old, same-old drill.

The other mistake oldsters (digital immigrants?) make when considering digital natives is to assume the digital natives are deeply interested in and knowledgeable about computer tech. Well, fellow oldster-- let me ask you this: when we were young, how many of us got really interested in the processes of printing and bookbinding? That's right-- almost none. We just used the tools in front of us without thinking too much about what and how they worked. My students know very little about computer tech except how to use the apps they like to use. Everything else requires my instruction, explanation, incentivization and general, you know, teaching in order for them to use it successfully.

There's No Successful Path To Follow

Rocketship Academy bet its entire existence on blended learning, on a model that set students in front of computers and let them ride that technobooster to the stars. They've had almost a decade to show us all how it's done. Instead, last year they had to scale back their aspirations. They threw everything they had at the idea, and it has just bounced off the wall and landed with a thud.

In short, if there's a really good scaleable way to use technology to reduce teacher staffing, nobody has been able to demonstrate it yet. KIPP and Rocketship have both demonstrated that computer-aided test prep works well and can be done with fewer meat widgets (huge hat tip to @hackerhuntress for that replacement for "human resources"), but there are no signs that blended learning works as well in actual schools as it does in reformster thinky tanks and blended learning advocacy groups.


The biggest issue in replacing teachers with tech is relationships.

The foundation of teaching and learning is relationships. It is true that once a person has learned how to learn, how to teach herself whatever it is she wants to know, then a real connection to another real human becomes less critical. But it takes a long time to get to that place, and as our system swings more toward giving students an external locus of control, it will take longer. In other words, if you are being taught that the whole point of school is proving to other people that you know and can do things, it will take longer to get to the point where you are accountable to yourself for your education.

Our students need to have a relationship with a teacher, a connection to another real live human. It is an absolutely essential part of learning and, as yet, computer technology can't reproduce it. In this area, technology has absolutely nothing that can substitute for a teacher.

Don't Mistake Me For a Luddite

You can take the computer-based technology out of my classroom when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers. It provides me with innumerable valuable tools that help me extend and improve my instruction. But I don't feel as if I'm being excessively egotistical to say that the critical element, the central factor in my classroom complex of netbooks and tech and smartboardery and worksheets and reading and all the rest-- the central elements that ties all of that together is the teacher. Without me, the tech is pointless. With the tech, I am the equivalent of the classroom six million dollar man; but without me, it's just a bionic leg flopping around on the ground by itself. Tech can really help me, but it cannot replace me. 

Friday, August 28, 2015

No, NYT, Common Core Is Not About Knowledge

In today's New York Times, Natalie Wexler offers an op-ed from some parallel universe in which Common Core and reformsterism are-- well, maybe Opposites Day is today and I missed the memo.

She opens by arguing that the Big Standardized Test is not narrowing the curriculum, claiming that it's narrow anyway, and right off the bat she establishes herself as someone who doesn't understand how schools work. Heck, back in 1977 elementary teachers only spent 50 minutes per day on science and social studies, and that has only dropped by ten minutes. Some quick math tells us that over 180 days, that's a loss of 30 hours of instruction. I know in the private sector, ten minutes is nothing, but in a classroom, ten minutes is plenty of time to Get Some Stuff Done-- and it adds up quickly.

But that's just the overture. Wexler then launches into a full-blown opera about the romance between Common Core and Rich Content, the kind of knowledge-heavy education championed by guys like E. D. Hirsch. This shows a profound mis-understanding of the Common Core.

While critics blame the Common Core for further narrowing curriculums, the authors of the standards actually saw them as a tool to counteract that trend. They even included language stressing the importance of “building knowledge systematically.”

... Most educators, guided by the standards alone, have continued to focus on skills.

So Wexler's theory is that we're supposed to close read the standards and see, buried somewhere between a gerund phrase and optional appendices, a mandate to include rich content.

Like the rest of the rich content crowd, Wexler is so sure that rich content knowledge has to be there, she has convinced herself that it is.

She is wrong.

The standards are clearly focused on "skills" (whether the "skills" are really skills or not is another debate). David Coleman, the writer of the ELA standards, has given plenty of detailed and hugely clear demonstrations that in his standards, content is unimportant and literature is simply a conduit, a bucket, a paper cup for transmitting the skills to students. And the standards are written in the language of behavioral objectives-- students will "cite," demonstrate," "analyze." The quote that Wexler pins her "they even included language" hopes on is simply part of a tacked-on introduction to the standards-- not the standards themselves.

She gets the criticism of Common Core correct, quoting cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham to show that you can't improve reading skills without attaching them to content, and you can't test those skills without actually testing the students' prior knowledge. Her mistake is in reasoning that since you can't do those things, clearly Common Core and BS Testing are not trying to do those things. In this, she is incorrect.

Not only did Coleman intend ELA standards to be focused strictly on skills, but test manufacturers have gone out of their way to make prior knowledge irrelevant to the BS Tests, selecting passages that are obscure, strange, and just plain bizarre in an attempt to select items about which students are likely to have no prior knowledge. As Coleman loves to say, the idea is to stay within the four corners of the text, and to bring nothing into those four corners with you.

Wexler goes on to sing the praises of knowledge-rich curriculum, but she doesn't understand that knowledge-rich curriculum is irrelevant to Common Core, and that her explanation of why CCSS must include knowledge-rich curriculum is really an explanation of why Common Core stinks-- because it eschews knowledge-rich content.

Wexler is in a high state of denial here; what Common Core actually says is so wrong, she's convinced herself that it must actually mean something else.

But Common Core in general and the high stakes BS Tests in particular do not require, want, ask for or favor rich content. Tools like Depth of Knowledge are predicated on the very idea that the proper mental skills can be taught with any level of content.  I could spend an entire year having my students reading and answering practice questions about nothing but articles from the National Enquirer and still get them fully prepared to rank "proficient" on the BS Test.

Her finish is a fine symbol of the confusion in this piece. First:

While standardized tests didn’t cause the curriculum to narrow, they’re a useful reminder that some students have acquired a lot less knowledge than others.

Wrong. Of course the tests caused the curriculum to narrow. And no, they don't tell us a single solitary thing about what knowledge the students possess. On the other hand:

 But if we want to finally begin to remedy that, we can’t just teach the skills the tests seem to call for.

That's exactly right. It's a good argument against the Core, against the BS Testing, against the high stakes attached to those tests, and also an excellent argument in favor of the opt out movement. Even if Wexler didn't understand what argument she was actually making.

Note: For a more thorough and scholarly treatment of this issue, I highly recommend this piece from Johann N. Neem

PA: Teachers Agree To Work For Free

Its financial recovery plan rejected by the state, Chester Uplands School District now faces the grim reality that it cannot meet its payroll. The cause is simple-- obscenely profitable charter schools are bleeding the public system dry.

And (fun fact) the three charters in question--  Chester Community Charter School, Widener Partnership Charter School, and the Chester Charter School for the Arts-- none of the three enroll high school students (though CCSA is "growing" a high school program year by year).

The Chester Uplands District, long financially strapped, already has a state receiver (it was the state that proposed the financial rescue plan that the court rejected). There aren't many options left, and so the teachers have taken the ultimate hit for the team-- they have agreed to work without pay. Otherwise the public school system will not open. The district has been pushed to the wall before (here's news from 2012 that seems familiar).

That's over 300 employees. Teachers and support staff met Thursday and after hearing from the state-appointed receiver about just how dire things are, resolved that they “will work as long as they are individually able, even with delayed compensation, and even with the failure of the school district to meet its payroll obligations, in order to continue to serve the students who learn in the Chester Upland School District.”

The financial problems are further complicated by the lack of a state budget. Now over fifty days behind, the legislature in Harrisburg has failed to get their budgetary house in order, an almost-yearly ritual in Pennsylvania that results in all manner of state-funded enterprises, departments, and employees being strapped for cash as they move into the fall. Many school districts are, at this moment, dipping into reserves or taking out loans while waiting for our elected officials to decide how much money schools will get (though, of  course, school budgets were due to the state a while ago) and then sending it to them. Thanks a lot, elected officials. (And that's before we get to their negative state subsidy situation.)

Some districts can weather the budget storm. CUSD, sucked dry of money by charter schools, cannot. So while the state's elected officials cannot get their jobs done for pay, Chester Upland teachers and staff will get their jobs done for free. Tell me again about how teachers and their unions are the big obstacle to education in this country.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Teacher Career Ladders

Teaching-- a field where you can start at the middle and work your way up to the middle.

Many commenters on many sides of various tracks periodically note that one of the problems with the teaching profession is that there is no career path. You start out teaching a bunch of kids in your classroom, and thirty-some years later, there you are, still teaching a bunch of kids in your classroom. You are probably better at it for any number of reasons, but you're doing the same job, with the same responsibilities for the same classroom teacher pay.

Lots of folks (again, from all sides of all tracks) note that this is certainly not one of the more attractive features of a teaching career, and that we could probably hang onto teachers more easily (those of us who actually want to, anyway) if we could offer some sort of career advancement. Unfortunately, here are the teacher ladders that have presented themselves to date.

The Escape Ladder

The problem with a career ladder is that it adds non-teaching tasks to a teacher's day. There are some traditional career ladders open to teachers that involve moving up to administrative or supervisory jobs. If I had to guess, I would bet the two most common reasons that teachers do not climb that ladders are 1) being an administrator looks like a miserable job and 2) they don't want to leave teh classroom.

Administrative jobs have been so hamstrung and depowered that they have lost the luster that usually makes advancement appealing. The usual desire to climb a career ladder goes something like this: "At my level I can see problems to solve that would make The Work go better, and if I climb up a rung or two, I'll be able to effect those changes and make the place work better." But in schools it looks like you have to climb a ladder to the clouds before you can actually get your hands on the power needed to straighten out much of our mess.

Even lesser jobs, like taking on dean of students or athletic director, mean less classroom time. Career ladders lead not to another, higher step in a teaching career, but to another career entirely, a career where you no longer get to do the work you went into the biz to do in the first place. Teaching, even after a few decades, requires a huge hunk of your regular day, and all of your school day-- nobody is sitting in the lounge thinking, "Boy, I just have so much time left over after handling classes-- I need another project to fill up all this empty time."

The Vapor Ladder

Nevertheless, many teachers take on extra projects and responsibilities anyway. Committee chair. Heading up the implementation of New School Program #1452. Taking responsibility for applying the lessons from that cool in-service.

All of these in-house teacher-leader career steps have one thing in common-- the teacher holds the job at the pleasure of the administration.

Teachers all across the country can tell similar stories. Teacher brings back great idea to school with desire to implement, and administration says, "Sure, but you can't have any money, you can't use our facilities, and you'll have to meet with people on your own time. Whip up an implementation plan and we'll tell you whether we'll let you do it or not (Spoiler alert: not)." Teacher gets job of heading up a program and is free to lead as long as she does exactly what her administrator tells her to do. Teacher heads up and leads a program implementation, only to come to school one day and discover that somebody else is now leading meets that she is not even notified about; nobody even bothered to tell her she wasn't in charge of Project X any more.

In other words, teachers are given tasks, but not ownership. They're allowed to ride in the front seat of the bus, but they can't drive. A real step on a career ladder gives you ownership and the power to chart a course, to make your mark by using your judgment to make things better.

The Invisible Ladder

Every organization has it. There's the organizational chart that's written on paper, and then there's the real organizational chart, the one that describes how the company really works.

Schools are no different. In your building, there are teachers who have unofficial roles. "Call Ms. Clearheart if you need help with that software." "Stop by Mr. McWhittlebutt's room if you need some extra paper supplies." "See Mrs. Johnsonville-- she has the key to that closet." "Check with Mr. Gallonoches about that-- he's always in charge of that event."

There's a certain amount of regard and responsibility that comes with these unofficial jobs, and they can be really important, a part of your institutional tradition.

But they don't come with any of the trappings of a real career ladder. They usually don't pay more, and since they're unofficial they are more vapor jobs, jobs that can be taken away by administration for any reason at any time.

The Ladder of Imaginary Excellence

Reformsters often propose a career ladder based on excellence-- teachers who demonstrate their awesomeness can move up a step, get more pay, bigger desk, maybe a tiara. Perhaps we could give them a big raise and have them teach 300 students, or just oversee a bunch of teacher apprentices.

I understand that many reformsters feel compelled to fix what they view as major design flaw in the teaching profession-- people who get a raise every year (well, unless they're in North Carolina) whether they did anything swell to earn such an advancement. Even as I'm compelled to note that the private sector is filled with examples of people who get huge bonuses even when they've, say, crashed the entire economy, I get their point. I think there are compelling reasons to do it the way we do, but that doesn't really matter because (I'll type this for the gazillionth time) we do not have any system at all at all at all that can tell us which teachers would deserve advancement in a merit-based system.

And even if we could, there's another issue-- financing such a system. No school board is going to go to the public and say, "We have so many excellent teachers that we need a five mill tax hike to pay them properly."

Plus, the idea of a system in which teachers climb a career ladder by taking on more supervisory jobs gets us back to a career ladder that leads away from the classroom.

Can It Be Done?

Okay, I started to lay out my ideas here and it tripled the length of this post, so I think I'd better mull it over and save all of that for another, better-focused day. Suffice it to say that my idea would require some major structural and cultural changes. Also, getting rid of administrative jobs. At the same time, we could probably do a little with simple things, like office space and autonomy.

So it's not easy, and it's especially not easy if what you're really trying to do is come up with a system that would let you scrap tenure and reduce the total cost of staffing. But I can agree with those from all sides of all tracks that the current version of a teacher career ladder looks suspiciously like a step-stool, and is probably not optimal.

So, Charters Can Cheat, Apparently

The New York charter school that had the highest jump in ELA test scores is also the charter school that decided to score their own tests.

English scores at the Teaching Firms of America Charter School (a school that is under the gun to show the state that it shouldn't be closed) jumped from 20% proficiency to 40% proficiency. And according to NY Chalkbeat, the principal doesn't find anything odd about it.

Founding principal Rafiq Kalam Id-Din II said he was confident that the English gains are an accurate reflection of how far his students have come.

“The growth is the result of authentic instruction,” he said. “That’s what happens when you don’t do test prep.”

In NY, charter schools aren't part of the test-grading consortium that scores exams for public schools, but they have a similar system set up which most reportedly use, so that nothing looks, you know, suspicious. Like a doubling in test scores after you score them yourself.

Id-Din said he decided to allow his staff to score students’ answer sheets because he wanted teachers to better understand the state’s test-development and grading process and because it saved money for the school.

Does it really matter who runs score sheets through a scantron machine? Well, no (and we should note that the school saw no such leap in its math scores). But the ELA test of course includes writing elements, and if your students respond to a prompt just the way you taught them to (in your totally authentic non-test-preppy way) well, wouldn't that constitute a bit of an advantage.

Should anyone be worried about going to jail, Atlanta style? Of course not, silly. This is a charter school in New York, and everything they did is perfectly legal and okay. A reporter from a NY news outlet indicated on twitter that the NYDoE had told him they had no intention of investigating.

And the story is clear-- nobody anywhere is accusing these guys of tampering. But all I can think of is how subjective writing scoring is, and how much better my students would do if I were grading them based on the same assumptions and techniques involved when I taught them.

Maybe the school didn't cheat, even a little. Maybe scoring your own writing samples from your own pupils written according to your own teaching standards doesn't result in an inside track to scoring excellence. But we will never know any of those things because what the school did IS PERFECTLY LEGAL AND OKAY BY NY RULES!

In other words, maybe this school did not cheat. But now we understand a little more clearly just how easily they could, if they wanted to.

PA: Charter Vampires on the Loose

In Pennsylvania, opening a charter school, particularly a  cyber-charter, has long been just like printing money in your garage (only you won't get in any trouble for it).

The current plight of the Chester Upland School District highlights just how screwed up the whole mess is, and how charters are set up to suck the public system dry. Yesterday's news roundup at Keystone State Education Coalition has most of the best coverage of the story, but let me pull up some highlights for you.

I'll remind you that before CUSD ever started to get in trouble, the state of Pennsylvania has been distinguishing itself by some of the most inequitable funding in the country. This is a bi-partisan screwing of public ed. Democratic Governor "Smilin' Ed" Rendell used stimulus funds exactly as he wasn't supposed to, as a replacement for regular state funding of education, and his successor Republican Tom "One Term" Corbett slashed education on top of the auto-slashing that occurred when those stimulus funds went away. Bottom line-- funding of our poorest schools is in free-fall, because they get very little from the state.

As it turns out, CUSD gets negative support from the state. That's because the hugely generous payment formula for charters has resulted in CUSD losing more money to charters than they get from the state of Pennsylvania.

Each school district pays charters based on their own per capita costs per student. That's right-- what the charter collects has absolutely nothing to do with what it actually costs to educate the student. Perhaps that's how it's possible to pay the six top executives at cyber monster K12 a grand total of $16.4 million. Perhaps that's how Vahan Gureghian, King of the Keystone Edupreneurs, can end up building (and now selling) an $84.5 mansion in Palm Beach (not to be confused with the 30,000 square foot manse he built in upscale suburban Philly).

Gureghian operates one of the largest charters in PA, located right in Chester County. So it's only a mild stretch to say that Chester Upland Schools are in danger of being shut down so that Gureghian can live large. But like many charter operators in PA, Gureghian has friends in high places. Here's a fun story-- one of Gureghian's schools was in trouble for test cheating, but the school was allowed to investigate itself.

Chester Uplands is a perfect example of how students with special needs have become the cash cows of the charter biz in PA. This is a special kind of creaming. Francis Barnes is the receiver for Chester Upland schools, and he's a pretty frustrated man these days as witnessed by this open letter he sent to many media outlets. He outlines how the profitable selection process works.

The key is that while all CUSD students with special needs come with a hefty $40K for a charter school, they are not all created equal. Students on the autism spectrum are expensive to teach; they make up 8.4% of CUSD special ed student population, but only 2.1% at Chester Community Charter School, and a whopping 0% at Widener and Chester Community School of the Arts. Emotionally disturbed students are also costly; they make up 13.6 % of special ed at CUSD, 5.3% at Chester Community, and zero at the other two. Intellectual disabilities make up 11.6% for CUSD, 2.8% for CCCS, and zero for the others.

Speech and language impaired, however, are pretty inexpensive to educate. CUSD carries 2.4% of the special ed population in this category, but the three charters carry 27.4%, 20.3% and 29.8%.

That is the charter trick. Get the students for which your paid the most, but which cost the least to educate, and ka-ching! you are off to your gigantoc mansion.

New Governor Tom Wolf is trying to fix the system, but due to PA's super-duper budgeting process (the budget is due at the beginning of the summer, but our elected leaders don't generally get it passed till Halloween) that is stalled. The state tried to get special relief for Chester Uplands, but the judge said no.

You cannot swing a cat in Pennsylvania without hitting a school district that has had to close a school building because of financial problems caused by bloodsucking charter schools (combined with our seriously messed-up pension situation, but that's another day). But Chester Uplands is poised to become the first entire district in Pennsylvania to be shut down entirely by charters, leaving a few thousand students to go... well, who knows what happens to them when the public school system has to close its doors. The charters certainly don't want all those unprofitable poor kids with special needs.

This is what it means to say that charters save only some kids, only the kids they choose, only the kids they deem worthy (aka profitable), while abandoning the rest of the students to a public system that has been stripped of resources. This is why I don't support charters as currently practiced-- because they violate the spirit, history, and purpose of public education which is to serve all students, not just the ones that help you finance a big mansion. And there is no laying this at CUSD's door-- no amount of responsible financial management would have saved them as long as the system is twisted and tilted to favor the vampires that drain public schools dry.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Why a Teacher "Shortage"?

This originally ran two weeks ago, and yet we're still talking about the issue. It's almost as if there's some sort of real problem.

August is apparently our month to contemplate a teacher shortage. Or reports of a teacher shortage. Or a completely fabricated teacher shortage. The issue has had play all the way from the blogoverse to the New York Times to the Ed Week blog department.

What nobody seems to be able to answer is why, exactly, we're having this conversation? What is causing the shortage-- or at least the repeated reporting of one. What is the actual problem?

It's Teachers Bailing Out

One repeated argument is that the shortage isn't anything special, but teachers and reform-resistors are exaggerating in order to argue that bad policies are driving teachers out of the field. Every anguished "Why I Am Leaving Teaching" column is just a crowbar with which to whack away at the reformster machinery.

This is an odd argument, like saying to someone you're beating up, "Oh, you're just crying because you want me to stop punching you in the face." Well, yeah.

But it's not just teachers making the point. The state of Arizona ran a study on recruitment and retention and came up with suggestions like "treat teachers with respect."

It's the Economy, Stupid

There's a teacher shortage because the economy is better. Because there are so many great jobs out there, this argument goes, college students are saying no to teaching.

There are three problems with this theory.

First, the recovery has added a disproportionate number of crappy jobs. "Why become a teacher when I can go work at McDonalds," said no college student ever.

Second, this theory could be best supported by a historical argument. Simply show the figures indicating that every time the economy gets good, we have a teacher shortage. Go ahead. I'll wait.

Third, what this theory describes is not a teacher shortage, but a teacher pay gap. When National Widget Works can't hire all the widget engineers it needs, it takes steps to make the job more attractive by improving pay, benefits and work conditions. Is it possible that the only real shortage is a shortage of willingness to do what it takes to recruit?

Well, It's Complicated

Once again, nuance and detail are trampled by a herd of rhetorical bulls. Many states report shortages in STEM area, in special ed, and in ELL. Some states have trouble recruiting to rural areas. On the other hand, nobody is reporting a pressing shortage of elementary teachers. And I don't think anybody on any side of this issue is claiming that we have more than adequate numbers of non-white teachers in the field.

It's Manufactured

Just as it's argued that teachers are over-selling the shortage to score points against reformster policies, we can argue that reformsters are using shortage rhetoric to promote their own policies.
The most obvious example is New Orleans, where officials fired over 7,000 teachers and then said, "Dang! We have a teacher shortage. We'd better ship in lots of low-cost Teach for America temps to help us with this dreadful shortage!" Nevada has embraced its teacher shortage as a way to speed former cocktail waitresses into classrooms, and West Virginia boasts a guy who feels qualified to teach biology because his wife's a nurse.

If your state is run by folks with little love for the teaching profession, then reports of a shortage are good leverage for alternate certification plans to put people in classrooms who don't even have a college degree. That leads us to--

It's a New Definition of "Teacher"

Some places "solve" their problem of a teacher shortage by simply redefining "teacher" as "a sentient human able to occupy a classroom." By this definition, there are hundreds of millions of teachers in this country. See? No shortage at all.

It's the Busted Pipeline

I've talked to the president of a college that was founded as a teacher's college and is now radically slashing its education department. She echoed many national reports-- students are not going to college for teaching.

Nobody knows why for certain, though there are certainly popular theories. Teachers have been badmouthed and the profession denigrated. Today's college students have had nothing but teachers who had little autonomy, were tasked with test prep and spent time in clerically-intense data collection, and it just doesn't look like fun.

Teaching was once a stable job, paying decent-if-not-awesome wages, offering job security and promising a good prospect of finding work. All of that has changed. Ironically, the opening of alternate certification means that a teacher shortage and a tight job market can exist side by side (again, think New Orleans with 7,000 out of work teachers and a teacher shortage all at the same time).

So, Is There Really a Shortage?

It's true that rhetoric about teacher shortages serve the interests of both reformsters (We need more alt cert and TFA) and the resistance (Look what they're doing to our profession). But just a look at the numbers shows us that some regions are looking at empty jobs they are having trouble filling.

But does that mean a shortage? Nope. It's one more version of the widespread corporate refusal to deal with demands of the invisible hand. We didn't send jobs to China because we couldn't find the workers in the US, but because we couldn't find them for what corporations wanted to pay. Tech companies have yelled "shortage" in order to import cheaper labor.

The invisible hand is very clear. When you can't get what you want for X dollars, you need to offer more. The world is filled with human beings who have the ability to morph into any kind of worker you want-- if you offer them motivation. Good lord, even Frank Bruni, not exactly a whiz on the topic of education, gets it at least a little (even if he doesn't understand why he's part of the problem).
If you're having trouble filling a teaching position, make a better offer. It really doesn't get any more complicated than that.

Originally posted at View from the Cheap Seats

TN: We've Found the Unicorn Farm

Tennessee officials are cheerfully announcing the advent of awesome new assessments that will be "not a test you can game." The tests will be delivered at the end of the year by winged unicorns pooping rainbows while playing a Brahms lullabye on the spoons.

“We’re moving into a better test that will provide us better information about how well our students are prepared for post-secondary,” Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told reporters recently during sneak peek at some of the questions.

Fans of the new standardized tests continue to be impressed at how these tests solve the problems of education in the 1970's. Assistant state commissioner of data and research Nokia Townes says that the tests will require "more than rote memorization," which puts them on a par with the tests I started giving my students thirty-five years ago. But that statement also indicates that officials still don't understand what "gaming the test" means.

Standardized tests are, by their nature, games. Where you have multiple choice questions, you have one correct answer and several other answers designed to trick and trap students who might make a particular mistake, so by their nature, they are not simply trying to capture a particular correct behavior, but are also testing for several incorrect ones.

But Tennessee officials are distracted themselves, focusing on unimportant test features. The questions have drop and drag! Which is, of course, simply a bubble test question with dragging instead of clicking or bubbling. The questions require multiple correct answers! Which is just a bubble test with more options and two bubbles to hit.

Because standardized tests are a game, gaming them will always be possible. The tests involve plenty of tricks and traps, and so we teach students how to identify those and spot when testers are trying to sucker them in a particular way. We learn specialized testing vocabulary (this is what "mood" means to test manufacturers). We learn what sorts of things to scan for in response to certain types of questions. In short, we teach students a variety of skills that have no application other than taking the Big Standardized Test.

Nothing has changed, really. The advantage of a standardized multiple choice test is that it can be scored quickly and cheaply. The problem is that it can't measure much of any depth. At its worst in the bad old days when Hector and I were pups, it measured recall. In the new and improved days since, it measures whether or not the student will fall for particular tricks and traps-- which may or may not have anything to do with how well the student understands and applies the understanding. And since our focus under the Core is almost entirely on performing certain operations and not at all on content, we're not really testing a student on what she knows, but on whether she can perform the required trick (of course, we're also testing whether or not she's willing to perform the trick, but we never, ever have that discussion).

The article says that the "oldest and most potent criticism of tests" is that "they force teachers to 'teach to the test' and focus unduly on memorizing facts and testing tricks that students promptly forget after completing the test."

Memorizing facts? Maybe. Testing tricks? Those will always and forever be part of test prep for standardized tests because those tests must be speedy and cheap, and the only way to do testing speedy and cheap is by building it out of testing tricks. And any testing tricks that manufacturers can use to create a test, students can learn to take it. 

Content-Free Curriculum

Coming back to school (first student day yesterday, thanks) reminds me once again of the huge hole in the heart of current Core curriculum. The lack of content. The sad fact that there is no there there.

Yes, someone is going to pop up to say that the Core (both in its original incarnation and all the old wine in new skins versions that have promulgated throughout states where "OMGZ NOES! We has no Common Core!" versions of the Core still roam free) is NOT a curriculum, which is part of the trick. Because the Core really isn't a curriculum in a classic sense; the ELA standards are a sort of anti-curriculum in which teachers are forbidden to care about the content, and must only worry about teaching students to perform certain actions, certain tricks, on a test.

Content exists, and teachers a free to select what they will. Teach Romeo and Juliet or  Heart of Darkness or Green Eggs and Ham-- we don't care because it doesn't matter because the literature, the content, has no purpose beyond a playing field on which to practice certain plays. I've accused the Core of treating literature like a bucket in which we carry the important part, the "skills" that the Core demands, but it's more accurate to call literature the paper cup-- disposable and replaceable. We just want you to be able to "find support" or "draw conclusions." About what just doesn't matter.

Back in the early days, we had folks arguing that CCSS called for rich content instruction, that it absolutely demanded a classroom filled with the classic canon. At the time I thought those folks were simply hallucinating, since CCSS  makes no content demands at all (the closest it comes is the infamous appendix suggested readings list). But I've come to believe that those folks were reacting to the gap that they saw-- "Without rich content, this set of standards is crap, so apparently, by implication and necessity, this must call for rich content. Because otherwise it's crap."

I think the absence of content is also the origin of the "new kind of non-bubble non-memorizing test" talking point. The old school test their thinking of is the kind that asks you to pick the year the Magna Carta was signed, or identify the main characters of Hamlet. But the Big Standardized Tests cover absolutely no content at all. I could throw out all my literature basal texts and never teach a single item from the canon, a single work of literature all year, and still have my students prepared for the BS Test by studying test-taking techniques while reading an article from the newspaper and answering questions about it every single day.

This is also the secret of Depth of Knowledge instruction. It doesn't matter what you teach, as long as you use it to develop certain mental tricks.

Look at it this way:

A student could graduate from high school with top scores on the BS Test and have read nothing in high school except the daily newspaper. The student's teachers would be rated "proficient," the student's school would be high-achieving, and the student could proudly carry the Common Core BS Test "advanced" seal of approval, without that student ever having read a single classic work of literature or every having learned anything except how to perform certain tricks for answering certain questions when confronted with a text.

This is not a high standard. This is neither college nor career ready. Core supporters are going to say, "Well, the local school is free to-- and should-- fill in the blanks with classic literature and great reading." But the test-and-punish reformster system that we live on does not care a whit for content. If students cannot perform the proper tricks on the BS test, students, teachers and schools will be punished. If students cannot identify Huck Finn, MacBeth, James Baldwin, or Toni Morrison, it won't make a bit of difference to the system.

This tilting of the playing field does not just make the Core content neutral; it makes the Core content hostile. It dismisses the value of literature without so much as a conversation. If you are talking to a Core fan who insists otherwise, ask them this question-- Can I prepare my students to be proficient on the BS Test without reading a single important work of literature? The answer is "yes." If they say otherwise, they are lying.

Tribune Discovers Dyett Hunger Strike

It only took eight days for Chicago's leading "news" outlet to discover that Dyett High twelve community members were staging a hunger strike. But yesterday afternoon, the Chicago Tribune finally covered the story.

Mind you, they didn't cover it all that well. They reported the 13-student enrollment class without any context, as if it were the result of "plunging enrollment" and not a phased closure (with CPS encouraging students to get out of Dodge).

They reported the two other proposals uncritically. They didn't explain Little Black Pearl's non-past operating schools, and I am becoming really curious about who is behind the athletic school proposal which is always only linked to Charles Campbell, the Dyett interim principal. They did not mention that CPS entertains his proposal even though it was late.

The Trib reported the community proposal, but put "leadership and green technology school" in quotation marks as if this were some sort of crazy idea that community members just pulled out of thin air, as if it were like a school for chinchilla ranchers or underwater basket weavers. And Trib-- you left off "global."

And the Tribune made sure to note that the group on hunger strike has always been tied to the Chicago teachers' union (you know-- Those People).

Still, they did report on many of the group's major concerns-- and they acknowledged that the hunger strike is going on.

Now-- here's what you need to do.

1) Click on over to the article. Remember, every click on an article is a vote saying "I want to read more coverage of this."

2) Comment. I'm not sure if any comments are actually getting through, but make sure the comment section includes the rest of the story.

An action like a hunger strike is only as effective as the public reaction to it, and that depends on the public hearing about it, so the Tribune's end of their news blackout of the event means that progress is being made. Keep the pressure on. Spread the word. And remind the Tribune that the worlds needs to know about what's going on.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Robert Putnam and Cage Busting

It was probably because I was reading Robert Putnam's Our Kids and Rick Hess's Cage Busting Teachers, but in Putnam's book, this section leapt out at me. Putnam is describing social capital, the "informal ties to family, friends, neighbors and acquaintances involved in civic associations, religious institutions, athletic teams, volunteer activities, and so on."

Social capital has repeatedly been shown to be a strong predictor of well-being both for individuals and for communities. Community bonds and social networks have powerful effects on health, happiness, educational success, economic success, public safety and (especially) child welfare. However, like financial capital, social capital is distributed unevenly...

Contrary to romanticized images of close-knit communal life among the poor, lower-class Americans today, especially if they are nonwhite, tend to be socially isolated, even form their neighbors.

Perhaps more important, more educated Americans also have many more "weak ties," that is, connections to wider, more diverse networks. The reach and diversity of these social ties are especially valuable for social mobility and educational and economic advancement, because such ties allow educated, affluent parents and their children to tap a wealth of expertise and support that is simply inaccessible to parents and children who are less well off. 

Now, that speaks to me as a teacher learning about students-- but it also speaks to me just plain as a teacher. Putnam is talking about how the lack of social capital gives poor students a disadvantage, but it got me to thinking about teachers' social capital.

Hess's book talks about authority and power-- but what if the issue Hess is talking about is really social capital?

After all-- one of the side effects of working almost exclusively with children is that teachers don't develop the kind of network of soft ties that other professionals do. In fact, teachers early in their careers are often so busy doing the work that they don't get out, don't join community groups, don't volunteer, don't become part of a "more diverse network." Even things as simple as meeting someone for lunch are not do-able in teacherville.

We've talked a lot about how reformsters have access to a great deal of money, but it's social capital as well. When David Coleman and his buds decided that they had the blueprint for re-inventing American education, they cashed in some social capital and got a meeting with Bill Gates. When I have new ideas about how to revolutionize education, I tell other faculty in the lounge. Guys like Rick Hess and Mike Petrilli and Arne Duncan have powerful and important people in their phone directory. Guys like me do not.

Weak ties get things done for people with social capital. My child or I have an interest or concern? I know a guy. For the poor, informal weak ties are supplemented with formal government agencies. If a socially capitalized parent is worried that his kid is sick, he cashes in some capital to get an unofficial medical opinion. For the poor, the only solution is a trip to a clinic; they don't have access to a doctor's home number. Likewise, the union often substitutes for teacher weak ties. I may not know how to get connected with a political figure, but my union does.

So when Hess spends time talking about earning moral authority by doing the right thing, when he talks about how to effectively approach the People In Charge to get their permission and support, isn't he perhaps talking about building (or substituting for) social capital?

What is mentoring except offering to share a wealth of social capital with someone who hasn't had a chance to build any yet?

Imagine a world in which every rich and powerful player adopted not schools, but teachers. Imagine if every rich and powerful person decided to become socially connected to four or five classroom teachers, connected well enough that they felt comfy calling him any time.

Of course, it's hard to imagine because what would the teachers offer the rich and powerful player? Because they don't have any social capital to offer him in return. But if such ties became the norm, eventually teachers would become an integral part of a larger network. Heck. Imagine a world where rich and powerful folks connected to each other through their teachers.

But teachers-- because we are isolated in our classrooms, interacting mostly with children, don't build the kind of powerful social capital accounts that other professionals do. Our biggest source of social capital is our students and their families, which means in poor communities the teachers end up with less social capital to "spend" on behalf of their students. In upscale schools, teachers get to grow capital through parent connections, and through former students who go on to be Big Deals.

Seen through this lens, perhaps part of Hess's message is that teachers have more social capital than they think they do, and they should start using it and building it. I think of my colleague Jennifer Berkshire, who's not a teacher, but who gets to interview all sorts of people through the revolutionary technique of calling them up and asking. Sometimes we grossly underestimate the amount of social capital that we have at our disposal.

Maybe the big secret of cage busting is finding ways to build social capital, to create connections, to accumulate the kind of weak ties that make life run better for those who have them. Maybe the cage is not actually a cage, but a kind of null space created by the lack of connections to anything, and we don't need so much to bust the cage as we need to bridge the gap and build connections across that empty zone.

I'm still thinking this stuff through. Maybe when Putnam and Hess give me a call and invite me to sit down with them over lunch to talk about it, I'll flesh it out some more. If they can meet with me for thirty minutes during fifth period.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Cage Busting Teachers?

One of my summer reads was Rick Hess's book The Cage-Busting Teacher. Hess comes to us from the American Enterprise Institute, a right-tilted free-market-loving thinky tank, but Hess is no dummy and has shown at times his willingness to think things through, whether that thinking leads him into disagreement with reformster orthodoxy or not.

This new book of his deals the question of the cages that teachers inhabit, what makes the cages, what keeps the teachers in the cages, and how they can get out. It's a challenging book, because parts of it are dead on and parts of it are dead wrong. But I've read it, so you don't have to (or so that you can decide if you want to).

First, the Very Short Version

Teachers complain of being thwarted, boxed in, bottled up, and just plain caged. Hess spent some time talking to lots of folks, and concluded that while teachers lack the organizational authority to bust a cage (we don't control budgets, staffing, scheduling, etc), teachers can make use of the authority of expertise and moral authority. Using those, teachers can shift the culture of their buildings and create concrete solutions to institutional problems.

The more teachers do that, the more trust they'll win, the more policy makers will back off, and the more room they will have to put their expertise and passion to work. That has the promise to flip today's vicious cycle, where micromanagement leads to resistance, which lead to more micromanagement, which leads to more resistance. Cage-busters can create a virtuous cycle in which problem-solving educators earn the trust of lawmakers and administrators, yielding more autonomy and more opportunity to make smart decisions for kids.

Remember that paragraph, because it contains most of what is right and wrong about Hess's idea.

So What Is the Cage? 

The cage consists of the routines, rule4s and habits that exhaust teachers' time, passion, and energy. The cage is why educators close their classroom doors and keep their heads down.

Hess gets more specific. An avalanche of well-intentioned directives. The casual and thoughtless wasting of teachers' time with everything from potty duty to pointless assemblies to --well, just stuff. Every teacher knows the drill. No systemic rewards for excellence. And being "blindsided by accountability," where Hess admits that testing culture is a bit out of control.

And it is so pervasive that teachers have come to accept feeling alienated, disempowered and frustrated. Hess notes the disconnect between surveys showing that teachers think their boss is doing a good job, but feel their work environment is not open and trusting and that they are not treated with respect. Hess's conclusion is that teachers not only work in the cage, but accept that the cage is an inescapable part of the job.

Hess goes on to point out some of the mindsets that keep teachers in the cage. The MacGyver trap, where some teachers just make miracles out of stretching what they have-- but wearing themselves out and keeping others from finding actual real non-gum-and-paper-clip solutions. Hiding in the classroom, disconnected from the full school system. Getting too angry about the big picture to accomplish things locally. Simply waiting for the flavor of the month to pass, rather than dealing with it. And fear-- fear of rocking the boat, causing trouble, being That Guy, making a mistake.

This part of Hess's construct is his strongest, the part where, mostly, he has a point.

Who Are the Busters?

Hess is clear that CBT are not about specific classroom techniques, but simply seeing their world a little differently. Here are some of the things that Hess's cagebuster believes.

* actions, not words, change culture
* teachers can have influence, but have to earn it
* management's job is to root out mediocrity, but teachers should pressure them to do so
* "teacher leadership" is chirpy nonsense unless it comes with real power
* precision and clarity are important
* problem-solving and responsibility are the teachers' tools for creating change
* the lucky get luckier
* that "this stuff is hard" and that mistakes will be made

Cage Busting Teachers wield their authority of expertise by being experts in their field and knowing what the heck they're doing. They get and use their moral authority by being guardians of the public good. Moral authority is earned.

Hess spends a lot of time throughout the book trying to describe this complex of stuff. What I see him saying is, basically, a teacher who is self-directed and intrinsically motivated, who knows what the right thing to do is and does it.

So, How Does One Bust

I'm going to really oversimplify this part, but contained in it is the best part of Hess's book.

Teachers in the cage tend to be compliant, well-behaved, institutional team players who stay in place. As Hess says, there are many reasons for that, but he's onto something when he observes that one way to get out of the cage is... just to walk out of the cage. I was reminded of C. S. Lewis in The Great Divorce, describing how there are no actual barriers keeping the damned in Hell. They could walk right out at any time, but for a variety of reasons, they have convinced themselves that they can't, and so they stay there, suffering.

It starts with cage-busting teachers. It starts with teachers earning, employing and leveraging the authority that will make them masters of their fate. It's about a new deal, where teachers embrace responsibility for what schools do and how students fare.

Instead of seeing themselves as other-directed cogs, a CBT would act on the belief that this is our house. A CBT steps up and solves problems. And as the CBT establishes herself as a strong agent of responsibility, administrators invest more trust and responsibility in her, giving her more power to influence the system.

And that's actually pretty much it. The rest is a matter of working out the details.

Contentious Issues 

Hess spends an entire chapter on "The Union Question." Hess knows his history-- he knows that teachers have suffered a variety of historical abuses such as being fired for stupid reasons, and that the union did not just spring up because a bunch of teachers wanted more beer money.

Ultimately, his position here vis-a-vis the CBT is that a CBT does not necessarily take a particular side on the question. Hess is never a fan of over-simplifying some issues: "Cage-busting teachers eschew sweeping generalizations..." So unions can be good or bad, depending on members and leadership.

But Hess's handling of difficult issues gets in the way of his cage-busting vision. He suggests, for instance, that while teachers should be vocal and intolerant when it comes to crappy colleagues, the business of how exactly to identify bad teachers is an issue that the CBT doesn't need to get all wrapped up in-- even though I would argue that it's hugely important and all his talk about getting rid of the chaff and rewarding excellence is meaningless if we have no way to identify either.

And in fact, Hess's CBT is bold and courageous and outspoken and willing to exercise her authority-- but always in a proper non-controversial way. For a while I thought that Hess was advocating his version of "It's better to ask for forgiveness than for permission," until he specifically wrote that he wasn't.

And There's Hess's Big Problem

The book is filled with dozen of examples of CBTs who identified a problem, figured out a way to address it, and worked the problem until they managed a solution. They are all great stories. And yet every single solitary CBT story ultimately rested on a cooperative administrator. Some had to be convinced at first, but not one of them actively attempted to thwart the CBT.

In Hess's universe, many teachers are not making great enough use of the power that they have at their disposal-- and on this I agree with him 100%. But in Hess's universe, the power structure, the entire system surrounding schools and government oversight thereof-- that is all just as it should be. The right people are in charge, right where they belong.

Teachers "earn" trust. The people in power "yield" some authority to teachers. And all of that earning of trust and power is done on the terms set by those in authority. He even includes big chunks of information about how to get those in authority to say yes to your cage-busting ideas (and he's not entirely wrong-- some teachers are very bad at that sort of thing). But in Hess's world, teachers never have more authority than is given to them by the people in charge. Hess looks at the public education system and sees the Catholic Church, with all power flowing down from above. He sees a feudal society where things run smoothly as long as everyone stays in their place. Teachers who behave themselves and please their rightful bosses can earn a longer leash.

Hess's universe is an inverted version of mine. In my universe, I'm the professional who knows what the hell he's doing (mostly, on most days-- I ain't Superman). If you want to come into my world and tell me what I'm supposed to do, you're going to earn the right to have me take you seriously and consider following your "suggestions" about my classroom and my school. I mean-- I'll listen to almost anything, because I'm always ready to steal be influenced by a new idea. But just because, say, you had some success selling computers or winning an election or running a thinky tank or selling a textbook, I'm not automatically going to recognize your authority in my workplace. Not until you earn it. Sure, you can get control of all or some of the government and pass laws and create some rules, and you may be able to force my compliance-- but that's not authority. It's just blunt force.

It may be that Hess is just offering practical realpolitik. And I absolutely agree that many teachers sit in cages that have lockless doors and bars made of tin foil, cages that don't even need to be busted-- just walked right out of.

But there are administrators, officials, bureaucrats, meddlers, policymakers, and other cage builders out there who are resistant problems, massive obstacles to educational progress, and a polite and proper approach to them isn't going to budge a thing. Hess's whole model depends on cooperation from the people who have positional authority, and the educational landscape is filled with people who aren't letting go of an ounce of their control, no matter how deserving and earning a CBT acts.

In fact, if we just think back, we can recall that during every wave of reformsterism, including NCLB, RTTT, Common Core and everything else that has dropped on us in the last fifteen years, there have been plenty of teachers around with plenty of professional and moral authority, and they were resoundingly ignored. Well, that's not true-- when some tried to speak up, they were belittled and dismissed.

I think Hess's book is worth reading-- there's a lot to think about, even when you're disagreeing with it. But at the end of the day, Cage-busting Teaching is about being a little bit of a rebel, just enough of a self-starter, and not-inappropriately independent. I think some of his ideas are actually useful-- but more so when taken further than he wants to take them, because ultimately, in Hess's world, outside of the cage is another, bigger cage. That is, perhaps, reality, but Hess still ends up with an oddly limited message of, "Stand up for education, as long as you, you know, get permission and don;t get too unruly."

I actually have one other big thought about the book, but I'm going to deal with that separately. In the meantime, maybe Hess will return my favor and give my book a plug.