Monday, November 30, 2015

CBE & The Data Bottleneck

Can you tell I've been doing a lot of reading about Competency Based Education lately?

While some proponents like to point to more human-friendly versions of CBE such as a personalized district in rural Alaska, the more common picture of CBE is of a huge data-mining monstrosity. And while CBE has been rolling steadily at us under various aliases for a few decades now, it is computer technology that has made it look like both achievable and profitable.

In fact, CBE on the ground really does look like one more variation of the old and failed teaching machines, an intent to convert the entire ed system to the failed model of Rocketship Academy or the very failed model of on-line schooling.

You don't have to dig very far for hints about where CBE is headed. One of the flagship groups leading the charge is iNACOL -- which stands for "International Association for K-12 Online Learning." You can find their logo on works like the report presented by CompetencyWorks (what the hell is it with these guys and smooshedtogether group names?) entitled Re-Engineering Information Technology, a report all about how to redesign your IT systems to accommodate CBE.

Like many CBE fans, these guys are wrestling with the challenge of collecting tons of data, crunching it, making it transparent to students and teachers, and using it to make quick decisions about what should happen next in the student's education.

I'm hearing and reading the stories from teachers on the ground, in classrooms that are in part or in full running CBE, and they all seem to be about getting data through the bottleneck. Teachers who spend hours plugging test/quiz/worksheet scores into their platform. Teachers who maintain data walls on steroids so that students can walk into the room and first thing in the morning see where they are on the standards matrix and task completion matrix. Teachers who are directed to keep the students on those iPads for a significant portion of the day.

Computers become attractive in a CBE approach not because they do a better job of teaching (they don't) or because they are more engaging for students (they aren't) but because nothing else can compare for the speed and efficiency of gathering up the data. To wait for a human to process, score, record, and do data entry on class sets of papers-- that's just too long, too inefficient (plus, if those teachers haven't been properly freed from the tyranny of a union, they might balk at being required to put in fourteen hour days just so they can handle their hours of data entry).

So once again, the technology isn't there to serve education or the students, but to serve the people who think their program is magical. Only computers can clear the data bottleneck and get that sweet, sweet data flowing, and if that means we have to design all tests and worksheets and lessons and objectives so that they are the kind of thing that a computer can easily handle as opposed to, say, the kind of things that actually educate students-- well, the needs of the system outweigh the needs of the humans involved in it.

That's why CBE is destined to be nothing but OBE dressed up as the biggest cyber-school ever. It may not be great education, but at least the data trains run on time.

Chugach, Alaska

As reformy advocacy shifts toward promotion of Competency Based Education (or Proficiency Based Learning-- they have really got to settle on the set of buzzwords they want to use), we are going to hear now and then about a magical place in Alaska-- the Chugach School District.

Back in the nineties, when Objective Based Education (the previous iteration of CBE) was all the rage, Chugach signed up in a big way. They developed an OBE system that is now bills itself as the first competency based school district in the country.When edutopia visited in 2007, they found a system that was the pinnacle of performance-based learning. The district had over a thousand standards, and students had to achieve mastery of each before moving on to the next. Students also design their own projects and a "school-to-life" plan. And the Voyage to Excellence program is a self-directed process with a big vocational-technical flavor. The leader of the district during the switch repeated one of the mantras of OBE:

"Time was the constant and learning was the variable -- that's the old model," says Roger Sampson, president of the Education Commission of the States, who led Chugach's transformation as district superintendent in the 1990s. "We switched. What's constant is learning. Time is the variable."

Or as is noted elsewhere in the article:

Even as globalization and media propel our culture -- and our classrooms -- toward modes of production that are bigger, faster, and more alike, Chugach has refocused on an approach to education that is smaller, personalized, and variably paced. As Douglas Penn, the districtwide principal, explains, "Our kids graduate when they're ready. We're not pumping them out the door with D's on their diplomas."

And "graduate when they're ready" means just what it says. When the district won a Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award in 2001, the write-up noted that students might graduate when they fourteen or when they were twenty-one.

The accolades have been steady. Here's a piece from the John Hopkins School of Education, written by Wendy Battino, a teacher-principal with Chugach who went on to join the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition (as well as a career as a life coach). Here's an edsurge paean. But, boy-- nobody loves Chugach like, which ran a five-part series in January of 2015 (here's part five).

In 2001, then-superintendent Richard DeLorenzo had this to say about the district's vision and their place in the educational firmament:

Education is in a crisis due to the fact that we must now educate all students regardless of their potential or socio-economic status to some degree of excellence. Relying on traditional methodology and practice will only lead to tinkering with mediocrity where we fail to meet the needs of individuals. In order to accomplish excellence we need to radically alter what we teach and how we teach. We at Chugach have undertaken this journey and have dismantled many of the barriers that were once thought unapproachable to reach excellence in education. We have endured many hardships and disappointments and yet we still proceed with this tiresome journey because every student deserves the chance to be successful and share the opportunity to reach their full potential.

So-- yay! Dismantling barriers. The end of "tinkering with mediocrity." I can see the appeal to reformsters. But after twenty years, the system seems to be working in Chugach Schools. Could it be a model system for the rest of us?


Here are some things to know about the Chugach School District.

* The largely rural district covers about 22,000 square miles, including some square miles which are islands.
* Number of students in the system has ranged from 150 to 300, depending. The district markets itself to students outside its geographical boundaries.
* 77% of the students are homeschooled.
* The district generally employs fewer than twenty full-time faculty.

Let's set aside the argument about "mastery learning" for a moment (at exactly what point does one declare that a student has "mastered" reading?). We'll also set aside some questions about whether Chugach really did involve all stakeholders as their Baldrige write-up suggests, or whether this researcher was correct to conclude that political maneuvering of a ham-fisted "visionary" drove the bus. Let's just check this idea for scaleability.

Let's imagine, for instance, Chicago, where students (public and charter) run around 400,000. Exactly what would a system where 400,000 students pursued 1,000 objectives independently look like? Would we, like Chugach, have 300,000 of those students home schooled, so that their families are responsible for making sure the student stays on task? Chugach requires students working on certain types of projects to contact and get advice from professionals. So if 25,000 Chicago students decide they want to do a photography project, where will all 25K turn for advice?

The system allows students to finish whenever they get there. How would that play out in a poor urban setting where there are already so many obstacles to school completion? What does a bright fourteen year old who has breezed through all the performance tasks and graduated "early" do next?

How does a staff of teachers monitor 400,000 students all working at their own pace? And how do parents react when they learn, as Chugach parents have, that at any given point, every child's report card may look different?

What does it do to the cohesion and culture of a school when students must choose between moving forward to their next standard and staying with their friends? How badly does it crush a child's confidence to be among those "left behind." I'm not asking because I'm afraid students might feel bad, but because I know these kind of blows to the ego and self really interfere with learning. With a predominantly homeschooled population, Chugach provides no window on how this kind of system affects the culture inside a building.

For reformsters who love CBE, Chugach is a model of how paradisey the competency based model can be. But to me, it's just one more example of how one size doesn't fit all, and that the continued search for a magical school approach that can be applied to any district anywhere is a fool's errand. Chugach is very unique system with very unique challenges that has landed on a very unique solution.

Chugach's approach may very well work for Chugach, a very rural district of a very few, predominantly home-schooled students.  But if someone starts telling me that Chugach is a reason to believe that CBE will be awesome everywhere, I'm going to assume that they are more interested in selling snake oil than helping schools.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

ICYMI: Some Sunday Edureads

It will be a quickie this week-- I have both of my children home and a grandson's birthday party to attend!

Eva Moskowitz Cannot Help Herself

Daniel Katz provides one of the best overviews of Moskowitz's ongoing meltdown. A study in how privilege, money and power can make you blind to how you're behavior is playing in the real world.

How Twisted Early Childhood Education Has Become

Early childhood ed has arguably been more badly damaged by reformsters than any other segment of the education biz. Sometimes it helps to have someone take a step back, show how far off track we have gotten, and help you realize you're not crazy for thinking we're getting early childhood ed completely wrong at this point.

Competency Based Ed: The Culmination of the Common Core Agenda

A good collection of the many pieces and points of view springing up as CBE becomes the newest topic of the education debates.

Five Perspectives on Student Fragility

At Psychology Today, Peter Gray has been running a series about the increasing fragile nature of our students, including theories about the source. This latest installment is interesting because it includes the many, many reactions from various stakeholders in that discussion.

Are You Being Served?

Nobody combines humor and actual journalism better than Jennifer Berkshire at Edushyster. Here's a look at the facts of which students Boston charter schools are actually serving.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Remember Outcome Based Education?

Because of massive technological, economic and social changes, we are challenged to boost standards of student performance substantially, especially among those who in the past were least successful. The educational sector apparently will not have more money, so we cannot expect salaries to be more attractive or other resources more plentiful. The alternative, say thoughtful observers, is to restructure. 

That quote comes from Ron Brandt, the Executive Editor for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. In 1994. It comes from Brandt's introduction to the book Outcome Based Education: Critical Issues and Answers, by William Spady. More about him in a moment.

If you are a teacher of a Certain Age, you remember Outcome Based Education. OBE started popping up in the US in the early 90s. While one of its features was a certain vagueness (Brandt wrote in an ASCD overview that "OBE is more of a philosophy than a uniform set of practices"). But now that Competency Based Education is auditioning for Educational Thing Du Jour, pulling out the OBE notebook seems apropos.

OBE attracted my attention when it first appeared because it sounded suspiciously like Management By Objectives, a management technique developed by Peter Drucker. Watching old insights from MBO appear in OBE was first led to my theory that when management consultants have finally saturated the business market, they go through their materials, cross out the biz buzz words, and pencil in education jargon and voila!-- they are back in business.

But if OBE was transmogrified from the business world, so what? Was it any good?

The central philosophical shift was to move from time-based schooling to objective based. in other words, the traditional constant in school is time, and the variable is learning. We only have 180 days-- how much can we get done in those days? OBE said, "Let's list what learning objectives we want the students to achieve, and time will be the variable."

The self-proclaimed father of OBE is the above-mentioned Bill Spady, a sociologist who started pioneering OBE in the mid-eighties. He became the director of the International Center on Outcome-Based Restructuring, and continues to work in education today. If you really want to know all about Spady, a John Anthony Hader wrote his dissertation about Spady and his work.

Spady was notoriously unwilling to give exact instructions for setting up OBE, insisting that objectives had to be locally developed. But he did lay down some guiding principles, some of which are listed here by his colleague Brandt. 

* Clarity of focus. Your outcome has to be focused and specific.
* Design down, deliver up. Work backwards from your objective to design programs, but work toward the objective from wherever the students are.
* High expectations. Specifically (if we heard this once, we heard it a million times) believe that all students can learn all.
* Expanded opportunities. Provide students many chances and many ways to show they have achieved the objective.

Additionally, OBE acquired various corollaries, implications, and add-ons. If we were going to insist that all students can learn all, then we had better settle on objectives that all students can learn (let the dumbing down begin). For some reason, cooperative learning became closely tied to OBE in many regions. And the prospect of wreaking havoc with the school year-- headaches! If Chris can meet all objectives by Christmas, can Chris then go home? Or does Chris just start the next "grade"? And what if Chris is still not getting it in July-- does Chris's school year continue until the last objective is met? Logistically, how does that even work? And how do you write a teacher contract that says, "Depending on how well you do, you are hired for something between 100 and 300 days." Or do you just pay teachers for piecework ($100 per every student objective met)?

Objectives themselves were problematic. This was the dawn of TSWBAT (the student will be able to...) which meant that every single objective had to be paired with some observable student behavior. This has eternally been an educational challenge (did Chris learn to understand the Iliad, or did Chris figure out how to act like Chris understands). But OBE threw its weight on the side of observable behavior, encouraging teachers to require student performance rather than teacher inquiry to assess.

OBE caught on big time, until-- and I say this with both pride and shame-- Pennsylvania broke it.

Pennsylvania was poised to weave OBE into the warp and woof of state education regulation. Many of us went to professional development sessions to prepare us for the Big Shift. But instead, this time, shift never happened.

Some of it was not Pennsylvania's fault. The OBE fans had missed one of the implications of their own work, which was the the objectives would need to be clearly measurable. Instead, various versions of OBE were peppered with what we now call non-cognitive objectives. And not just non-cognitive, but politically charged as well. Here are some contributions to the genre:

All students understand and appreciate their worth as unique and capable individuals, and exhibit self-esteem.

All students apply the fundamentals of consumer behavior to managing available resources to provide for personal and family needs.

All students make environmentally sound decisions in their personal and civic lives.

OBE programs has a variety of objectives like these, and conservatives freaked. Rush Limbaugh, Bill Bennett, Pat Robertson and most especially Phyllis Schafly were sure that OBE was here to socially engineer your child into some bleeding heart gay-loving liberal twinkie.  

OBE was also vulnerable because there wasn't a lick of evidence or research to indicate that it actually worked. And because it was focused on locally-selected objectives that could be met in a variety of ways, there wasn't even any way to tell if it was working at all.

Opponents were also taken aback by the electronic portfolio. OBE demanded a portfolio system in which the many and varied objective-meeting projects of students could be gathered, but then some computer-enamored mook decided that an electronic portfolio, that could be stored in perpetuity and could follow the students anywhere-- that would be cool! Is any of this starting to sound vaguely familiar?

And because Spady and his brethren refused to give specific instructions, OBE looked like a thousand different things, some of which seemed directly contradictory. In Pennsylvania, the initial version of OBE state education regs included roughly 550 objectives. According to Hader's oral history, Spady told them they were about 540 off; the education department rapidly backpedaled while begging Spady to come write the objectives for them. Then Peg Luksik activiated her formidable army or conservatives to attack OBE, and the whole business started to collapse. Pennsylvania broke OBE, and it never quite recovered.

When I started to hear about Performance/Competency Based Education, I initially thought that it would be the reheated leftovers of OBE. I cringed, because I remember the training and the insistence that all students can learn everything and the crazy barrage of ever-shifting state directives. Pennsylvania's OBE initiative came at the end of my first decade in the classroom, and it marked the point at which I suddenly realized that the policy leaders and educational bureaucrats on the state level might not know what the hell they were talking about. But I also remembered OBE's complete and utter collapse and thought, "Well, this will die quickly."

But CBE turns out to be a different sort of OBE, an OBE with its holes plugged by sweet, sweet technology and its foundation shored up with Common Core college and career ready standards. Where OBE was all loosey goosey with whatever standards and objectives the locals wanted, CBE will help you get a list of standards/objectives already in place-- and some vendors will throw in the assessments and performance tasks and the software to measure them as well as recording the results as well as using those results to decide which pre-packaged lesson your student should do next.

Technology also aids in the variable-time logistics problem. Now, instead of puzzling over whether behind-on-objective Chris must stay in school through July, we can just get Chris to use internet connections to make the school day fourteen hours long. Of course, we still have the puzzle of what to do if Chris completes an entire grade level's worth of objectives over the weekend.

Technology also ups the ante on that electronic portfolio, the data backpack that will follow your student throughout life. Of course, in some schools that currently means that a teacher's primary function is endless data entry. But since the performance tasks are on the computer, the teacher will be spending far less time teaching anyway.

Most of all, technology underlines the classic problem with OBE-- the notion that education is just learning to perform a series of designated tasks, like a team on the Amazing Race. Education is just working your way down a checklist, and once everything on the list is checked off-- congratulations! You're an educated person! That's all it there is to it! Of course, that also takes us back to the problem that killed OBE the last time-- exactly who gets to decide which tasks go on that checklist?

As I've said, I have my doubts about CBE's chance to take over the education world. Its resemblance to OBE doesn't improve my estimation of its odds. 

Friday, November 27, 2015

Can Competency Based Education Be Stopped?

Over at StopCommonCoreNYS, you can find the most up-to-date cataloging of the analysis of, reaction to, and outcry over Competency Based Education.

Critics are correct in saying that CBE has been coming down the pike for a while. Pearson released an 88-page opus about the Assessment Renaissance almost a year ago (you can read much about it starting here). Critics noted way back in March of 2014 (okay, I'm the one who noted it) that Common Core standards could be better understood as data tags. And Knewton, Pearson's data-collecting wing, was explaining how it would all work back in 2012.

Every single thing a student does would be recorded, cataloged, tagged, bagged, and tossed into the bowels of the data mine, where computers will crunch data and spit out a "personalized" version of their pre-built educational program.

Right now seems like the opportune moment for selling this program, because it can be marketed as as an alternative to the Big Standardized Tests which have been crushed near to death under the wheel of public opinion. "We'll stop giving your children these stupid tests," the reformsters declare. "Just let us monitor every single thing they do every day of the year."

It's not that I don't think CBE is a terrible idea-- I do. And it's not that I don't have a healthy respect for and fear of this next wave of reformy nonsense. But I can't shake the feeling that while reformsters think they have come up with the next generation iPhone, they're actually trying to sell us a quadrophonic laser disc player.

From a sales perspective, CBE has several huge problems

Been There, Done That

Teaching machines first cropped up in the twenties, running multiple choice questions and BF Skinner-flavored drill. Ever since, the teaching machine concept has kept popping up with regularity, using whatever technology was at hand to enact the notion that students can be programmed to be educated just like a rat can be programmed to run a maze.

Remember when teaching machines caught on and swept the nation because they provided educational results that parents and students loved? Yeah, neither does anybody else, because it never happened. The teaching machine concept has been tried, each time accompanied with a chorus of technocrats saying, "Well, the last time we couldn't collect and act on enough data, but now we've solved that problem."

Well, that was never the problem. The problem is that students aren't lab rats and education isn't about learning to run a maze. The most recent iteration of this sad, cramped view of humans and education was the Rocketship Academy chain, a school system built on strapping students to screens that would collect data and deliver personalized learning. They were going to change the whole educational world. And then they didn't.

Point is, we've been trying variations on this scheme for almost 100 years, and it has never caught on. It has never won broad support. It has never been a hit.

Uncle Sam's Big Fat Brotherly Hands

Remember how inBloom had to throw up its hands in defeat because the parents of New York State would not stand for the extensive, unsecured and uncontrolled data mining of their children. inBloom tried to swear that the kind of data mining and privacy violation and unmonitored data sharing that parents feared just wouldn't happen on their watch. But the CBE sales pitch doesn't just refuse to protect students against extensively collected and widely shared data mining-- CBE claims the data grubbing is not only not a danger, but is actually a valued feature of the program.

The people who thought inBloom was a violation of privacy and the people that thought Common Core was a gross federal overreach-- those people haven't suddenly disappeared. Not only that, but when those earlier assaults on education happened people were uneducated and unorganized-- they didn't yet fully grasp what was actually happening and they didn't have any organizations or other aggrieved folks to reach out to. Now all the networks and homework are already done and in place.

I don't envision folks watching CBE's big data-grabbing minions coming to town and greeting them as liberators. CBE is more of what many many many people already oppose.

No Successes To Speak Of

This has always been a problem for reformsters. "Give me that straw," they say, "and I will spin it into gold." They've had a chance to prove themselves with every combination of programs they could ask for, and they have no successes to point to. Remember all those cool things Common Core would accomplish? Or the magic of national standardized testing? The only people who have made a respectable job of touting success are the charteristas-- and that's not because they've actually been successful, but because they've mustered enough anecdotes and data points to cobble together effective marketing. It's lies, but it's effective.

Everything else? Bupkus. This will be no different. CBE will be piloted somewhere, and it will fail. It will fail because its foundation combines ignorance of what education is, how education works, and how human beings work.

Anchored to What?

A CBE system needs to be linked to some sort of national standards, but only those who have been very well paid have a deep commitment to them are still even speaking the name of Common Core. To bag and tag a nation's worth of data, you must have common tags. But we've already allowed states to drift off into their own definitions of success, their own tests, their own benchmarks. Saying, "Hey, let's all get on the same page" is not quite as compelling as it once was, because we've tried it and it sucked. As the probably successor to ESEA says, centralized standardization of education is not a winning stance these days. So to what will the CBE be anchored?

Expensive As Hell

Remember how expensive it was to buy all new books and get enough computers so that every kid could take a BS Test? You can bet that taxpayers do. Those would be the same taxpayers who saw programs and teachers cut from their schools even as there was money, somehow, for expensive but unnecessary new texts and computers (which in some cases could be used only for testing).

When policy makers announce, "Yeah, here's all the stuff you need to buy in order to get with the CBE program," taxpayers are going to have words to say, and they won't be happy, sweet words.

If every single worksheet, test, daily assessment, check for understanding, etc is going to go through the computer, that means tons of data entry OR tons of materials on the computers, through the network, etc etc etc. The kind of IT system required by a CBE system would be daunting to many network IT guys in the private sector (all of whom are getting paid way more than a school district's IT department). It will be time-consuming, buggy, and consequently costly.

Who wants to be the superintendent who has to say, "We're cutting more music and language programs because we need the money to make sure that every piece of work your child does is recorded in a central data base." Not I.

Program Fatigue

For the first time, the general taxpaying public may really get what teachers are feeling when they roll their eyes and say, "A NEW program? Even though we haven't really finished setting up the old one?!"  

Bottom Line

I think that CBE is bad education and it needs to be opposed at every turn. But I also think that reformsters are severely miscalculating just how hard a sell it's going to be. We can help make it difficult by educating the public.

There will be problems. In particular, CBE will be a windfall for the charter industry if they play their cards right. The new administration will play a role in marketing this and I see no reason to imagine that any of the candidates won't help market this if they win. (Well, Sanders might stand up to the corporate grabbiness of it, and Trump will just blow up all the schools.)

But there will be huge challenges for the folks who want to sell us this Grade C War Surplus Baloney. It's more of a product that nobody wanted in the first place. We just have to keep reminding them why they didn't like it.

Is the Teacher Shortage Real?

We talk a lot about the current teacher shortage. I've posted about it numerous times. But the question remains-- is there really a teacher shortage?

A study released this month by the National Center for Educational Statistics suggests that everything we think we know about the Great Teacher Shortage is wrong. Or at least, it was wrong as of four years ago. The study is pretty straightforward, and it's worth making a note of.

The writers are Nat Malkus of the American Institutes of Research with Kathleen Mulvaney Hoyer and Dinah Sparks of Activate Research, Inc. AIR is also in the test manufacturing biz (SBA is their baby) and Activate is a "woman-owned small business" in the metro DC area focusing on research and policy. They created the report under the aegis of NCES, an arm of the USED Institute of Educational Sciences, so while none of these are without blemish, this is not another Gates-funded fake research project.

The report looks at four samples of data from the 1999-2000, 2003-2004, 2007-2008 and 2011-2012 school years, and it looked for answers to fairly straightforward questions:

1) What percentage of schools reported teaching vacancies or hard-to-fill spots?

2) What percentage of schools found these positions related to particular subject areas?

3) Did persistent hard-to-fill spots correlate to any school characteristics?

The report is easy to read through and contains lots of charts, but the answers reached by the researchers are not necessarily what we might expect. Let me just hit the highlights.

The percentage of schools reporting vacancies and hard-to-fill spots in 2011-2012 was down from 1999-2000. In fact it's the lowest of the four years.

Those percentages were also uniformly down for all subject areas, including math and special ed.

High minority schools still experience more staff challenges than low-minority schools, but 2011-2012 was still dramatically lower.

Title I schools have a harder time than non-Title I schools, but 2011-2012 was still better than all other years (I'm just going to write "pickle" every time this is the case, to save myself some typing.)

Large schools have it harder than small schools, but pickle.

When comparing city, suburban, town and rural schools, the most staff challenged schools have shifted over the four year. Cities used to lead the challenge with rural schools having the lowest percentage of staff challenged schools. In 2011-2012, suburban schools reported the fewest problems. Cities still has the most, but in all four categories, pickle. Big pickle.

I don't know what explains the pickle, and to their credit, the reports writers take a stance of, "We're just here to show you the numbers, not to make wild-ass guesses about why the numbers are what they are." The appendices give some number breakdowns and report on methodology, and while I am no trained stats cruncher, I don't see anything that sets off whopping alarms.

So am I thinking that I'll just stand down because the teacher shortage turns out to be all in my head? No. No, I'm not.

First of all, I have a certain amount of trust in my head, so I don't just throw away my head's ideas willy-nilly. I am , however, open to the notion that the teacher shortage is partly an artifact of the media's tendency to focus on a story thread and magnify it (e.g. the great shark summer of 2001).

In Pennsylvania, I know exactly why the numbers would reflect a not-shortage of teachers-- we've been shedding jobs left and right, dropping 2000-5000 teacher jobs (depending on who's counting) every year for several years. This is doing a great job of setting the stage for a teacher shortage, as college students repeatedly declare a major in Anything But Teaching. The ABT major is actually leading some college ed departments to shrink or collapse. The choking off of the teacher pipeline sets the stage for a combination of overcrowded classrooms and an actual teacher shortage.

My reading of teacher shortage bulletins is that teacher shortages are highly localized, and while the study's sampling of around 8,000 districts would ordinarily be plenty, I have to believe that the specific samples could make a huge difference.

But mostly what these results say to me is, "Holy smokes! We have plunged into a bad place very quickly over the last four years!"

Take for instance Scott Walker's Wisconsin. Here's a piece that lists the growing effects of Walker's gutting of the state's education system-- from November of 2011. In other words, the most recent data sampling in the study was being gathered just as Wisconsin schools were starting to feel the crunch. Quick quiz: have things gotten better or worse in Wisconsin since 2011?

Or North Carolina, another state that moved rapidly from a progressive education-supporting agenda to a state intent on driving teachers out.

Over the past four years, things have gotten far worse pretty quickly in schools across the country, from Race to the Top to Common Core testing. And in 2011, schools were seeing the last of federal stimulus money that allowed schools to keep hiring. When the stimulus money ran out, many districts starting cutting staff to match.

Take a look at this snip from the fed's chart on teacher employment. The first column is total teachers, column two is public, and column three is private (numbers are in thousands of teachers). 2011 is the last year for which we have hard numbers. Note that teacher employment peaked in 2008, and we've been declining since. Nothing like cutting 100,000 jobs to help reduce the number of vacancies you're trying to fill. Put another way, the study shows that 1999 was the worst in terms of unfilled jobs, but as we added more teachers, the vacancy percentages dropped. But then the last drop coincides with a drop in number of jobs to be filled. There are two ways to solve an unfilled vacancy problem, and we have now tried both. Which approach do you think is more likely to fix things in the long run?

I'm saving a link to this study, because I believe it sets the stage for what's to come. I expect that when the next data set is added from further inside the reformy abyss, we'll see charts with upward hooks. I believe that the story will be, "Well, things were getting better, but then ed reform switched into overdrive, and it all want to hell pretty quickly."In short, nothing in this report contradicts the perception that a troublesome teacher shortage has appeared in the last four years.

I get that the Teacher Shortage is a complicated issue, for reasons including the desire of everybody on every side of the education debates to use talk of the shortage to support whatever point they'd like to make. But this new report definitely doesn't make me think that everything's actually okay, and I look forward to seeing more data when it finally appears.

Accelerated Reader Research Part 2

A little while ago I took a look at this silly piece of faux research from the Accelerated Reader people. But there was one puzzle I couldn't quite solve.

The study was reported as concluding that just a few minutes more reading time would produce fabulous results, but I wondered exactly how the researchers knew how much time the readers had spent on their independent reading.

Much ado is made in the report about the amount of time a student spends on independent reading, but I cannot find anything to indicate how they are arriving at these numbers. How exactly do they know that Chris read fifteen minutes every day but Pat read thirty. There are only a few possible answers, and they all raise huge questions.

In Jill Barshaw's Hechinger piece, the phrase "an average of 19 minutes a day on the software"crops up. But surely the independent reading time isn't based on time on the computer-- not when so much independent reading occurs elsewhere.

The student's minutes reading could be self-reported, or parent-reported. But how can we possibly trust those numbers? How many parents or children would accurately report, "Chris hasn't read a single minute all week."

Or those numbers could be based on independent reading time as scheduled by the teacher in the classroom, in which case we're really talking about how a student reads (or doesn't) in a very specific environment that is neither chosen nor controlled by the student. Can we really assume that Chris reading in his comfy chair at home is the same as Chris reading in an uncomfortable school chair next to the window?

Nor is there any way that any of these techniques would consider the quality of reading-- intensely engaged with the text versus staring in the general direction of the page versus skimming quickly for basic facts likely to be on a multiple choice quiz about the text.

The only other possibility I can think of is some sort of implanted electrodes that monitor Chris's brain-level reading activity, and I'm pretty sure we're not there yet. Which means that anybody who wants to tell me that Chris spent nineteen minutes reading (not twenty, and not eighteen) is being ridiculous.

When I was working on the piece, I tweeted at the AR folks to see if they could illuminate me. I didn't get an immediate response, which is not significant, because it's twitter, not registered mail. But I did hear back from them a bit later, and they directed me to this explanation from one of their publications about AR (it's page 36).

The Diagnostic Report also shows a calculation called engaged time. This represents the number of minutes per day a student was actively engaged in reading. To calculate this number, we look at the student’s GE score on STAR Reading and how many points the student has earned by taking AR quizzes. We compare that to the number of points we can expect the student to earn per minute of reading practice. Then we convert the student’s earned points to minutes. 

For example, let’s say Joe Brown has a GE score of 6.5. Our research tells us that a student of his ability can earn 14 points by reading 30 minutes a day for six weeks. Joe has earned only seven points. Thus we estimate Joe’s engaged time to be only 15 minutes a day. 

If a student’s engaged time is significantly lower than the amount of time you schedule for reading practice, investigate why. It could be that classroom routines are inefficient or books may be hard to access. Since low engaged time is tied to a low number of points earned, see the previous page for additional causes and remedies.

So, not any of the things I guesses. Something even worse.

They take the child's score on their proprietary reading skill test, they look at how many points the child scored, and they consult their own best guess at how long a student with that score would take to earn that many points-- and that's how much time the child must have spent reading!

What if something doesn't match up? What if the AR reverse-engineered time calculation says that Chris must have taken thirty minutes of reading to get that score, but you gave Chris an hour to read? Well then-- the problem is in your classroom. Chris is lollygagging or piddly-widdling. Or the books are on too high a shelf and it took Chris a half hour to get it. Whatever. The problem is not that AR's calculations are wrong.

And of course this doesn't so much answer the question as push it up the line. Exactly what research tells you that a student with STAR rating X must use fifteen minutes of reading to achieve Y number of points on the AR quiz?

My confidence in the Accelerated Reading program is not growing, and my confidence in their research skills, procedures or conclusions, is rapidly shrinking.

Thursday, November 26, 2015


Thanksgiving is, well, problematic as a holiday. At least as a celebration of anything historic, because the related history is complicated, and if there's anything Americans hate, it's sorting our way through complicated history. We like our history sorted out into nice clear good guys and bad guys; unfortunately, actual human beings are rarely all good or all bad.

So my preference when celebrating Thanksgiving is to chuck the historical element completely, and embrace the holiday's best element, which is taking a day to be thankful.

There is being thankful for the most immediate circumstances of our lives. Last night, my daughter and her husband and her son and my son and his fiance all slept here in this house, which is the first time that has happened in years (actually, if you count my one-year-old grandson, it's the first time in ever). To have family all here, to make them breakfast-- that's all a huge blessing, and I am grateful for it.

I'm thankful that I get to continue working at one of the greatest jobs in the world. I'm thankful that my work situation is so much less contentious and difficult as the situations of so many of teachers throughout the country. I'm thankful that I live in a small town next to a river and only a few blocks away from family and the center of town. It really is a beautiful place, and I'm thankful that I have had the opportunity to participate in so many other enriching activities like playing in a band, working in community theater, and writing for the local paper.

Today many Americans are expressing similar sentiments, and that's a good start. But we Americans are not always good with the whole thankfulness thing, and when we're not careful, the day's expressions come out as some version of, "I am grateful that life/God/fate has provided me with all the benefits that I so richly deserve and have rightly earned." And that's not thankfulness; that's just self-congratulatory smugness.

It's not that our hard work and our efforts and our talents and the occasions on which we follow our higher virtues don't all have something to do with our successes. They do. It's important to Make Good Choices. No question about that.

But if hard work and smarts were all it took to become wealthy and successful, there would be millions of wealthy and successful people on every continent, and there aren't.

My success, such as it is, can be partly attributed to a handful of not-awful qualities that I occasionally managed to bring to bear on my situation. But my success is also the result of other factors. I'm successful because I was born in this country and not some other one with fewer resources and less stability. I'm successful because I was born into a family that could build a platform for me to stand on and build my own success upon. I'm successful because I've never been stuck by cancer, never caught by a random act of nature, never hit by an out-of-control delivery truck or a piece of Skylab. I'm successful because none of the spectacularly bad choices I've made in my life resulted in setbacks from which I could not recover.

In short, my success (such as it is) is not just the result of my own brains and hard work. It is also the result of fortunate elements over which I had no control and advantages that came to me without me doing a thing.

This does not mean I'm "really" a failure or that I actually suck.

What it means is that I have much to be thankful for, and the proper response to that kind of thankfulness is a sense of gratitude for what has come to me that I did not "earn," but from which I benefit. And there's no way to feel actual gratitude and express that gratitude as , "Well, I've got mine, Jack. So screw the rest of you." Because that gratitude has to live right next door to a sense of indebtedness.

I owe the universe or God (take your pick, suit yourself-- neither the presence nor absence of religion changes my feelings on this) a huge debt. I owe individual human beings as well. I owe my parents for helping me stand up and get out into the world. I owe the teachers like Ed and Mike and Janet a huge debt for awakening certain understandings in me. I owe guys like Ed and John for showing me how to get things accomplished in this world. I owe folks like Diane and Anthony and Nancy and Susan and a really, really long list of people who pushed my work on this blog out into the world. I owe the country that provided me with the stable world in which to find my business, and I owe the entire institution of public education for providing both a foundation for growth and the chance to pursue my line of work.

And that's before we get to this list of things that I owe a debt for because by my choices, I made the world a little bit worse. The times I hurt somebody in ways that can't easily be made right.

I owe for those things (and others) because none of them are things that I made happen myself.

So for me, it's never enough on this day to just sit back and say, "Boy, I am grateful that my life is awesome." It's a day to do accounting, to ask, "What can I do to pay down this debt?"

If I'm sitting at a table with a dozen other hungry people and out of nowhere, a waiter brings me plates piled high with food, food that I didn't order, food that I didn't pay for, it's not enough for me to look around the table at those other hungry faces and say, "Boy, I sure feel thankful for this." And it's not okay to just avoid the awkwardness by not meeting their eyes at all.

We owe the world. We owe our friends and family. We owe people who came before us whom we have never met. We owe the God who blessed us or the world that dropped good fortune on us. We owe the people we have taken things from, even if we didn't mean to, even if we didn't know.

So that's where I am on Thanksgiving. Not just grateful, though I surely am that, but also mindful that I owe it to the people around me, to my students, to my family, to my God-- to all of them, I owe an effort to be a better man, a better person, a better user of whatever small powers and talents that life has put in my hands. I'm not a huge person, an important person, but I'm still a person, and I still owe it to the universe to make the best of what I've been given, because I've been given far more than I have any right to expect. I don't necessarily control what is given to me, but I surely control what I choose to do with it.

So Happy Thanksgiving to you. Enjoy the day with family, and use it well.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

PA: Testing Good News & Bad News

This week the Pennsylvania House of Representatives voted to postpone the use of the Keystone Exam (Pennsylvania's version of the Big Standardized Test required by the feds) as a graduation requirement. The plan had been to make the Class of 2017 pass the reading, math and biology exams in order to get a diploma. The House bill pushes that back to 2019.

The House measure joins a similar Senate bill passed last summer. The only significant difference between the bills is that the House bill adds a requirement to search for some tool more useful than the Keystones. The bills should be easy to fit together, and the governor is said to support the two-year pause, so the postponement is likely to become law. And that is both good news and bad news.

Good News 

The Keystone is a lousy test. It is so lousy that, as I was reminded in my recent Keystone Test Giver Training Slideshow, all Pennsylvania teachers are forbidden to see it, to look at it, to lays eyes on it, and, if we do somehow end up seeing any of the items, sworn to secrecy about it. But because I am a wild and crazy rebel, I have looked at the Keystone exam as well as the practice items released by the state, and in my professional opinion, it's a lousy test.

So it's a blessing that two more rounds of students will not have to pass the tests in order to graduate-- particularly as the feds bear down on their insistence that students with special needs be required to take the same test as everyone else, with no adaptations or modifications. The year the Keystones are made a graduation requirement is the year that many Pennsylvania students will fail to graduate, even though they have met all other requirements set by their school board and local district.

That will not be a good year.

Bad News

The tests will still be given, and they will still be used for other purposes. Those purposes include evaluating teachers, and evaluating schools.

Pennsylvania's School Performance Profile, looks like it based on a variety of measures (some of which are shaky enough-- PA schools get "points" for buying more of the College Board's AP products) but at least one research group has demonstrated that 90% of the SPP is based on test scores (one huge chunk for a VAMmy growth score and another for the level of the actual score).

So we will continue to have schools and teachers evaluated based on the results of a frustrating and senseless test that students know they have absolutely no stake in, and which they know serves no purpose except to evaluate teachers and schools. Get in there and do your very best, students!

Bonus Round

Of course, some districts tried to deal with that issue of getting student skin in the game by also phasing in a pass-the-test requirement as a local thing. So now a whole bunch of students who have been hearing that they'll have to pass the Keystones to graduate-- they'll be hearing that the state took that requirement away, except then someone will have to tell them that their local district did NOT take the requirement away. This should open up some swell discussion.

So How Do We Feel?

State Board of Education Chairman Larry Wittig (a CPA who was appointed to board by Tom Corbett) is sad, because he thinks the whole testing program is awesome and well-designed. Wittig's reaction is itself a mixed bag. On the one hand, he thinks that the testing system is "well-crafted" and beneficial to students, which is just silly, because the test is neither of those things. On the other hand, he also said this:

If I'm a teacher and in part my evaluation is based on the result of these tests and now the tests are meaningless, I'm going to have a problem with that.

And, well, yes. "Not stakes for students, high stakes for schools and teachers" kind of sucks as an approach.

And really, is there anyone in Harrisburg who wants to articulate the reasoning behind, "We don't have faith in this test's ability to fairly measure student achievement, but we do have faith in its ability to measure teacher achievement." No? No, there doesn't seem anybody trying to explain the inherent self-contradiction in this position.

Perhaps the House-sponsored search for a Better Tool will yield fabulous results. But in the meantime, we've already signed Data Recognition Corporation, Inc, to a five-to-eight year contract to keep producing the Keystone, even if we don't know what we want to use the tests for.

The good part of this news is undeniable. Two more years of students who will not have to clear a pointless, poorly-constructed hurdle before they can get their diplomas. That's a win for those students.

But to postpone the test rather than obliterate it, to keep the test in place to club teachers and schools over the head, to signal that you don't really have an idea or a plan or a clue about what the test is for and why we're giving it-- those are all big losses for teachers, for education, and for all the students who have more than two years left in the system.

Has CCSS Affected Instruction

Brookings, an outfit that is usually a reliable provider of pro-reform clue-free baloney, offers an interesting question from non-resident senior fellow Tom Loveless: Has Common Core influenced instruction?

It's a worthy question. We've talked a lot about how CCSS has affected policy and evaluation and assessment, but has it actually affected what teachers do in the classroom?

The proponents of the Core never developed a way to answer that question because their assertion has always been that we would see the effects on instruction in the flowering of a million awesome test scores. But the 2015 NAEP scores turned out to be a big bowl of proofless pudding, and so now we're left to ask whether the Common Core tree fell in the classroom forest without making a sound, or if it never fell at all.

William J. Bushaw blamed "curricular uncertainty," while Arne Duncan went with the theory of an "implementation dip." Loveless's brief piece includes this masterpiece of understatement:

In the rush to argue whether CCSS has positively or negatively affected American education, these speculations are vague as to how the standards boosted or depressed learning. 

In other words, Core fans are unable to get any more specific than their original thoughts that Common Core Standards would somehow magically infuse classrooms, leading to super-duper test scores. Of course, they also assumed that teachers were blithering incompetently in their classrooms and that adhering to awesome standards would mean a change. Loveless notes a 2011 survey in which 77% of teachers said they thought the new math standards were the same as their old math standards. So there's one vote for, "No, the standards changed nothing."

Then Loveless drops this wry observation:

For teachers, the novelty of CCSS should be dissipating. 

Yes, the "novelty" is surely fading away. I could jump to the conclusion that Loveless is one more deeply clueless Brookings guy, but he follows that up with these lines:

Common Core’s advocates placed great faith in professional development to implement the standards.  Well, there’s been a lot of it.  Over the past few years, millions of teacher-hours have been devoted to CCSS training.  Whether all that activity had a lasting impact is questionable.  

Loveless cites some research that tells us what we mostly know-- after a new change is shoved on us in professional development, there's a "pop" of implementation, and then it mostly fades away.

Loveless doesn't try to explain this, but I'll go ahead and give it a shot. Every teacher is a researcher and every classroom is a laboratory. And every instructional technique, whether it's in my textbook or pushed on me by edict or sold to me in PD or is the product of my own personal research and development efforts-- every one of those techniques is subject to the same rigorous testing and data-driven evaluation.

Does it work in my classroom?

I can find you numerous elementary teachers who took their newly purchased Common Core math textbooks, tried the recycled New Math instructional methods and pacing in the texts (because most of us will try anything once or twice) and then said, "Well, my students are confused and can't do the work. So I will now add a few days to the suggested pace of the book, and I will teach them how to do this The Old Way so that they can actually get a handle on it." The "fading novelty" looks a lot like "adapting or rejecting new ideas based on the real data of the classroom." And since Common Core's novelty is the product of well-connected amateurs and their personal ideas about how school should work, the novelty has indeed faded swiftly.

To the extent that we are allowed to (and that is the huge huge huge problem facing teachers in some districts-- they are no longer allowed to exercise their professional judgment), we do what meets the needs of our students. We do what works. We don't stick with something that doesn't work just because some textbook sales rep in a PD session or some faceless bureaucratic ed amateur in an office said we should stick with it.

Loveless suggests there are two plausible hypotheses. 1) As educators get better at using CCSS techniques, results will improve. 2) CCSS has already shown all the positive effects it ever will. I'm going to say that both are correct, as long as we understand that "get better at using CCSS" means " steadily edit, revise, change and throw out pieces of the Core based on our own research and knowledge of best practices."

Loveless does highlight one measurable effect of the Common Core-- the increased emphasis on non-fiction and the concurrent de-emphasis on fiction. He has data to back this up. And he also knows what the shift really means:

Unfortunately, as Mark Bauerlein and Sandra Stotsky have pointed out, there is scant evidence that such a shift improves children’s reading.

He also notes that more non-fiction doesn't necessarily mean higher quality texts, noting that two CCSS supporting groups provide completely different ideas about curriculum.

Loveless notes that analysts tend to focus on formal channels of implementation and ignore the informal ones. It's a good catch. A top-down directive from a state department of education can carry much less power than teachers sharing the video clip of CCSS architect David Coleman explaining that "nobody gives a shit what you think or feel." And politics are involved in the Core (and always have been, since the Core was imposed by political means).

Finally, he notes that implementing top-down curriculum and instruction reforms always runs afoul of what transmitters think, and boy, do I agree with him on this one. Every top-down reform is like a game of telephone, and each person who passes the program along reads into it what they personally think should happen.

As the feds tell state departments of ed and the department tells its functionaries and they tell their training division and they tell superintendents and superintendents tell principals and principals hire professional development ronin-- at each handoff of the baton, someone is free to see what they believe the program "must" require.

Loveless uses the example of non-fiction reading, postulating that an administrator who had always wanted to dump fiction for non-fiction would be given protective cover by CCSS. But that rests on a pretty explicit reading of what CCSS says about itself. This sort of top-down implementation also gives rise to policies that involve reading between the lines, such as an administrator who wants English teachers to teach less grammar and uses Common Core as justification. And of course the standards have been completely rewritten by test manufacturers, who interpret some standards and leave others out entirely.

In fact, some folks make a curriculum argument based on what the standards don't say at all. The rich content crowd insists that implementing Common Core must involve rich, complex texts from the canon of Important Stuff, and their argument basically is that because Common Core doesn't really require rich content because otherwise, it would just be a stupid set of bad standards emphasizing "skills" while leaving a giant pedagogical hole in its heart where the richness of literature should be. They must mean for us to fill in the gaps with rich text, they argue. Because surely the standards couldn't be that stupid and empty. (Spoiler alert: yes, they are).

In fact, in an otherwise pretty thorough brief, Loveless misses another possibility-- the Common Core Standards are limited in their ability to influence instruction because they aren't very good. Can I influence the work of cabinet-makers by putting bananas in their tool boxes? Can I influence how surgery is performed by telling surgeons to wear fuzzy slippers into the operating room? The implementation problem remains unchanged-- it's impossible to have a good implementation of a bad program.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

MA: How To Gut a School District

Back in April of 2014, Jim Peyser was managing director of the NewSchools Venture Fund, a group set up to support "venture philanthropy" in the charter school world with grant-funneling, consulting, lobbying, etc. Think of them as bag men and enforcers for hedge funders interested in making a charter school buck or two.

That would make Jim Peyser an ordinary charter-pushing well-connected money man, but that was Peyser in April of 2014. But two days before Christmas of 2014, Santa brought Peyser a gift of the job of Secretary of Education for the state of Massachusetts. Not since the fox was hired to stand guard over the henhouse has a job been so cleverly filled, but Governor Charlie Baker loves him some charters and has thrown open the gate to every kind of charter shilling under the sun.

But the case of Peyser is unique, because as NewSchools Venture Honcho, Peyser laid out his ideas about how the path forward for gutting redesigning school districts. Take for instance the piece he published in that long-ago April, "Redesigning School Districts: The Way Forward."

He opens by quoting an imaginary friend who bemoans the fact that although charters are swell, they only serve a few students, and in order to "close the achievement gap at scale," the "real work" of fixing school districts must be done.

These friends and allies believe charters have successfully proven that it’s possible to create high-performing public schools in high-need neighborhoods, but now charters need to step aside so that their practices and systems can be taken to scale by enlightened district leaders.

Peyser wants to point out two problems with that view. You will perhaps be surprised to learn that neither of the problems are that charters have not actually successfully proven anything. Okay-- they've proven that with an infusion of resources and a carefully chosen student population, you can test prep your way to higher test scores. But we've known that since before charter schools were a twinkle in a hedge funder's eye.

No, Peyser thinks there are two other things wrong with that.

First, it is based on the Great Man theory of reform, the belief that a really awesome superintendent or principal can Fix Everything. But Peyser says that fans don't reckon with the bump-and-run employment pattern of urban superintendents. In the very next sentence he indicts the "this-too-shall-pass" attitude of "tenured teachers" (though if superintendents leave every three years, this too, whatever it is, really will pass) and "entrenched administrators." See what he did there? Problem administrators are stuck in the mud, but problem teachers have evil job protections.

Second, Peyser lays out what he calls the "twin obstacles to effective and sustainable change: politics and collective bargaining." Those really are the bugbears of the corporate approach to school operation, and they really are twins, because both of them interfere with the leader's ability to do whatever the hell he wants without having to get anybody's approval. "Applying sound management practices" to a big ole school district is hard enough when leadership has the unfettered freedom to Do As He Will. "Doing so in an environment where change must be negotiated with powerful unions and ultimate control rests with an ever-changing cast of politicians and school board members, is next to impossible."

It's a pretty quick, clear explanation of the corporatist view. Get rid of elected officials. Get rid of collective bargaining. Let me run the company the way I think best, based on "sound management practices." These guys really, literally, do not know what the hell they are doing when it comes to schools.

Peyser lists the other problems. The large majority of students are still being educated in the public schools, and "politico-bureaucratic inertia" makes it hard to "right-size a school system that is gradually losing students and resources as charters grow." Yes, those taxpayers can get so grumpy when their neighborhood school is right-sized.

The result is an annual series of budget cuts and a growing chorus of complaint from district employees and parents of district-school students that charter schools are forcing their schools into a downward spiral.

Peyser's feeling about this is not clear. Is he suggesting the death spiral isn't really happening, because that would be a hard point to sell. Does he think people should be happily compliant about the death spiral?

But Peyser does have answers to the Big Picture Issues.

Specifically, district superintendents, state education commissioners, and mayors, in partnership with one another and with charter operators and local and national funders, are developing new systems for breaking down the walls that separate the district and charter sectors, and that reorganize central offices to empower individual schools – both district and charter, alike.  This isn’t a veiled attempt to co-opt and regulate the charter sector, in order to “level the playing field” (i.e., force charters to live with all of the dysfunction that district schools suffer under).  Instead, it is an effort to liberate all schools from the dead-weight of central management, in exchange for a results-based system of accountability.

Note that he wants to rest assured that this not some attempt to co-opt charters, meaning, I guess, suck them back under some office's control. Instead, he would like to free the public schools from their chains of central office management. Yes, when the charter operators come to take over public schools, they will be greeted as liberators.

Practical steps in this liberation?

Well, Peyser likes a universal enrollment system, like the ones in Newark and New Orleans, where students are thrown in a big single lottery and each student waits to be chosen by a charter school "receives a single offer of admission from a school that his or her parents has chosen." He also likes the idea of designating a charter as a default neighborhood school with an opt-out option for parents.

He likes common school report cards, so that parents can make informed choices about the schools that charter operators will assign students to. Some parents will choose schools with high standardized tests scores, and some parents will decide to send their child to a school with low test scores, I guess. Well, no matter. Newark and New Orleans teach us that most won't get an actual choice anyway.

But common school report cards do help set up another favorite Peyser practice-- bringing charters in to take over or replace "failing" schools. The big bonus here is real estate:

In exchange, the charter schools can lease or buy the school building, a precious commodity for any growing charter operator. 

Because the very best school plans make sure to address the needs of charter operators, and students are not nearly as precious as the buildings they occupy. Peyser likes the Tennessee ASD, and he provides this hilariously understated summary of charter real estate grabbing in New York:  

Even when a charter school is not directly replacing a low-performing district school, some districts, like New York, have helped find space for charter operators in underserved communities.

Yes. "Find" space. As in, "While we were looking for a co-location site, we just shoved all these public school kids out of the building and-- voila! We found some space!" 

Peyser also wants to be clear that in his perfect School District of Tomorrow, there are plenty of opportunities for folks to cash in on the remaining public schools as well. All sorts of school functions can be shifted to outside contractors and new funding formulas can help turn any low-scoring public school into a fiduciary funnel for private operators. And don't forget-- freedom from those damn contract restrictions so that school leaders can flex their autonomy and deal with teachers as they wish.

All of this would be one more set of musings from a corporate-style, pubic-school-gutting, hedge-fund-feeding charter promoter if it weren't for the fact that this is the guy now in charge of Massachusetts' public education system. No wonder charter sharks like Families for Excellent Schools are now churning the Massachusetts waters, and Boston's mayor has laid out a plan for gutting Boston Public Schools. The only good thing about Peyser is that he's already laid out exactly what he has in mind. None of it is good, but like a big truckload of manure driving toward you across a field, you can at least see it coming.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Clinton-Induced Charter Freakout Continues

Man, just thirty little words can cause sooooo much fuss.

Most charter schools – I don’t want to say every one – but most charter schools, they don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them.

These have been quoted over and over and over again. Sometimes they are quoted by folks who are excited that Clinton said something supportive of public schools. But they've also been quoted by charter supporters who are absolutely freaking out.

Reformsters Robert Pondiscio and Richard Whitmire also made attempts to raise some dudgeon high over Clinton's thirty-word assault, and while I think they're wrong, they at least showed a little rhetorical and intellectual rigor. Not so some of the other defenders of the charter cause.

The Washington Post editorial board scolded her by citing bogus data from a report written by the Center for Education Reform, a group that exists strictly to push charter schools and crush teacher unions. That's high order journalistic sloppiness, like turning to the Tobacco Institute for your "facts" about smoking. The Wall Street Journal also rushed to the defense of the hedge fundies who profit from charter schools, citing more fact-free facts.

But nobody has leaned on the Panic Button with hands any heavier than Juan Williams today on The Hill. Williams is a Fox News "Analyst," a position he moved into after being fired by NPR for either A) some impolitic remarks about Muslims on planes or B) because he was buddying up to Fox. Take your pick of explanations.

All the features of the High State of Charter Dismay are here in this piece.

It starts with the headline (which, it should be noted, is probably not Williams' call)-- "Hillary betrays charter schools." Betrays?? As in double-crosses? Did they have some claim to her? Are they offended because they thought Clinton was their BFF, or because their ethical standards say that when a politician is bought, she should stay bought?

Next, Williams opens by invoking children:

My 5-year-old grandson goes to a big city charter school. But Eli and his classmates do not belong to a union. They do not give money to politicians. They can’t vote.

That is unquestionably true of Eli and his classmates. It is probably not true of the people who own and operate Eli's school. I bet those people have plenty of money to give to politicians.

Williams throws in the word "flip-flop." He calls her thirty word backstab an act of "political expediency." He accuses her of running over Eli. He says her words sound like a script written by the teachers union (to whom? and what exactly is that sound?) And then he starts in with some of the same old non-fact facts.

By law, almost all charter schools get their students from a lottery. They do not cherry-pick their students.

Yeah, no. The very act of a lottery is a creaming process, as it automatically selects out those parents who are able to navigate the lottery system and are willing to do so. When charters start taking randomly selected students from the public school system-- including students who didn't even express interest in attending a charter-- then you'll have a point. And the widespread evidence of push-outs, as exemplified by Success Academy's got-to-go list, is one more example of how charters make sure they are working with a select group of students-- unlike public schools.

Williams says he has talked to parents who see charters as "a great stride towards improving public education by providing competition and pioneering teaching techniques that offer a model for all schools." And yet, charters have done none of those things. Name one educational technique, one pedagogical breakthrough that has come from a charter.

Williams quotes the Washington Post quoting the Center for Education Reform in saying that charters take on a higher percentage of poor and minority students than public schools. No, that's not true, either, unless I suppose you are comparing charter schools to all the public schools in the country, including all the public schools that serve very white communities. But if we start looking city by city, we find things like the charter schools of Massachusetts that serve no non-English speaking students at all. Or you can check out some of the legitimate actual research done in New Jersey about exactly what populations charters serve. Or you can just keep reading copy from the ad fliers put out by the Center for Education Reform.

The Post also cited research that shows “charter schools produce greater student learning gains than traditional public schools, particularly for poor and minority students.”

It takes an extraordinary amount of laziness not to locate the research that shows that charters do no better than public schools, and often do worse. Heck, the writers at the Washington Post could have just looked through the reporting in the Washington Post to see that they were missing a point or two.

Williams moves on to a recounting of Clinton's flip-floppery, and then, of course, we have to spend some time indicting the Evil Unions.

The unions do not appreciate the Obama administration’s effort to have public school districts compete for grants given to districts with improved student achievement. They opposed holding teachers accountable for their students’ success or failure. 

That's because "improved student achievement" just means "higher test scores on a crappy standardized math and reading test." Do you, Mr. Williams, have any hopes for Ele beyond that he just learn to do well on a Big Standardized Test on math and reading? I'll bet you do. Welcome to the club.

And for the gazillionth time-- teachers do not oppose being held accountable for what we actually do. Let me put it this way-- would it have pissed you off if NPR had fired you over something to do with the actual quality of your reporting instead of some baloney about saying the wrong thing whiel talking to the wrong people? Do you think it was fair that your job security suffered for something unrelated to your job performance? Because-- again-- welcome to the club.

You want to evaluate me, come on ahead. I welcome it. But evaluate me on my actual teaching skills, and not some random trumped up fake-science VAM baloney that is neither valid nor reliable.

But Williams is not done unloading his big truck full of bovine fecal matter. This next sentence is sitting all by itself, just for impact.

In the name of protecting failing teachers and bad schools, they are the number one opponents of school reform.

Bullshit, sir. Bull. Shit. We have opposed "school reform" because it is and has been bad for education and bad for children, and because, after over a decade, it hasn't produced a single success.

The Wall Street Journal fears that  future Clinton ed department will be a wholly-owned union subsidiary, which brings me to what I find most hilariously ironic about all this Clintonian pearl clutching.

The charter folks take Clinton's words far more seriously than I do. Clinton has always been a wholly-owned subsidiary of Wall Street, and I fully expect her to behave as such should she be elected (which, if it happens, won't be because I voted for her). So Clinton said something vaguely mean (and painfully accurate) about charter schools, one time. Hell, Clinton says a lot of things. And since both unions threw support to her without making her so much as curtsy in their direction, I don't think there's much of a deal there. Nor do I think that union coffers will, this one time, outweigh the vast mountains of money that Wall Street has thrown at her over the years. And since it is Wall Street that ultimately backs the charter industry, I don't think charters have the slightest thing to worry about.

Heck-- almost immediately, a Clinton staffer walked back the terribly ouchy thirty words and re-assured charters that Clinton still thinks of them as Very Important Public Schools.

So the irony here is that while charter fans are freaking out because they think Clinton might start telling the truth about them and they might not be able to hoover up tax dollars with impunity any more, I'm thinking those thirty words are pretty meaningless. You guys really need to take a deep breath and get your blood pressure down; this is going to be a long haul.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

OH: Raking in Consultant Money

Education reform has spawned a variety of new money-making opportunities, including a burgeoning field of education consultants.

That's because one of the new steady drumbeats is that superintendents, principals, and most especially teachers-- in short, all the people who have devoted their professional lives to education-- don't know what they're doing and possess no expertise in education whatsoever. No, for real expertise, we must call in the High Priests of Reformsterdom.

That takes us to Cleveland, Ohio. I love Cleveland; I did my student teacher at a Cleveland Heights middle school while living in an apartment at the corner of East 9th and Superior, and those, indeed, were the days. But Cleveland schools have a long history of difficulty. Back in the day, Ohio schools had to submit all tax increases to voter referendum; Cleveland voters routinely said no, and Cleveland schools repeatedly shut down around October when they ran out of money.

Now, in the reform era, Cleveland schools have embraced charters and privatization with a plan that stops just short of saying, "We don't know what the hell we're doing or how to run a school district, so we're just going to open it up to anybody who thinks they can run a school or has an opinion about how to run a school. Except for teachers and professional educators-- they can continue to shut the hell up." This is Ohio, a state that has developed a reputation the charter school wild west, where even people who make their living in the charter biz say, "Oh, come on. You've got to regulate something here!"

Given this climate, it seems only likely that Cleveland schools would call on a consulting firm like SchoolWorks. If the mashed-together name makes you think of other reformy all-stars like StudentsFirst and TeachPlus, you can go with the feeling. SchoolWorks started out helping charter schools get up and running and had a close relationship with KIPP schools. Their CEO's bio starts with this:

Spencer Blasdale considers himself a “teacher by nature,” but found early on in his career that his passion was having an impact beyond the four walls of one school.

And may I just pause to note how well that captures the reformy attitude about teaching-- you are just born with a teachery nature, and you don't need training or experience and you certainly don't need to prove yourself to any of those fancy-pants teacher colleges or other professional educators. The entry to the teaching profession is by revelation, and once you "consider yourself" a teacher, well then, what else do you need?

You will be unsurprised to learn that Blasdale's "career" consists being a charter founding teacher, rising to charter administration, and then deciding to jump to charter policy. His LinkedIn profile indicates that he did teach a couple of years at a private day school back in the nineties. He has never taught in a public school. He's a product of the Harvard Ed grad school. Based on all that, he and his company are prepared to come tell you what you're doing wrong at your school; you can sign up for just an evaluation, or they will provide coaching as well.

Which brings us back to Cleveland.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that SchoolWorks has already been to the district. They visited ten schools. They visited each school for three days. Based on three whole days at the school, they evaluated the school in nine areas.

For this they were paid $ 219,000. Seriously.

The reports were not pretty. "Not all educators convey shared commitments and mutual responsibility," they said (which strikes me as a pretty incredible insight to glean in just three days). Another school was slammed for "rarely -– only 11 percent of the time –- letting students know what the goals were for class." This would be more troubling if there were, in fact, a shred of evidence that sharing the goals had any educational benefits. Security officers were careless and the schools were messy and unclean. Good thing they hired a consultant-- I bet nobody in the district is qualified to tell if a school is messy or not.

The whole SchoolWorks package is like that. They come in to give one of four ratings on nine questions.

  1. Do classroom interactions and organization ensure a supportive, highly structured learning climate?
  2. Is classroom instruction intentional, engaging, and challenging for all students?
  3. Has the school created a performance-driven culture, where the teachers effectively use data to make decisions about instruction and the organization of students?
  4. Does the school identify and support special education students, English language learners, and students who are struggling or at risk?
  5. Does the school's culture reflect high levels of both academic expectation and support?
  6. Does the school design professional development and collaborative supports to sustain a focus on instructional improvement?
  7. Does the school's culture indicate high levels of collective responsibility, trust and efficacy?
  8. Do school leaders guide instructional staff in the central processes of improving teaching and learning?
  9. Does the principal effectively orchestrate the school's operations?
Now, some of these are crap, like #3's focus on data-driven instruction and decision-making. And many of them are really good goals in general, but it's going to come down to, for instance, exactly what we think "intentional, engaging and challenging" instruction looks like.

But on what planet are any of these-- even the iffy ones-- better checked by strangers with no public education expertise in the course of a three-day drive-by then by your own in-house experts? Do your superintendents and principals check none of this? We can take care of item #7 before the consultants even get to the school. Does the school's culture indicate high levels of collective responsibility, trust and efficacy? If you have just paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to come look at what your own people can see with their own eyes, the answer is "no," or maybe "hell, no."

But Cleveland schools say, "May we have some more." SchoolWorks will be driving by twenty-five more schools for a price tag of $667,000. Which-- wait a minute. Ten schools for $219,000 is $21,900 per school. And twenty-five times $21,900 is $547,500. Apparently the additional cost is so that SchoolWorks will provide a "toolbox of solutions."

If this seems pricey, SchoolWorks also offered Cleveland a one-day drive-by package which would have covered the thirty-five schools for $219,000.

If there's a bright spot anywhere in this picture, it's that Cleveland school leaders recognize that simply soaking test scores in VAM sauce won't give them a picture of their schools' effectiveness. But if I were a Cleveland taxpayer, I'd be wondering why I was forking over a million dollars so that some out-of-town consultants could come do the job I thought I was already paying educational professionals in my district to do.