Monday, February 29, 2016

Why Teach?

Man, it just sucks to be a young person contemplating teaching these days. It's not just that so much of the news about the profession, or that states are crying about shortages while districts say they're not hiring, or that so much security is being stripped, or that so many layers of crap have been dropped on the classroom, or that poverty has become so widespread in the nation, or that looking closely at our institutions reveals embedded layers of racism and classism, or that education has so few attackers and so few supporters, or even that so many old farts will tell you, "For the love of God, young'uns-- don't go into teaching! It's a terrible idea!"

First, I want to apologize on behalf of Old Farts everywhere. We should really knock it off with delivering Discouraging Words, which are at best annoying and at worst disrespectful, as if Kids These Days are incapable of making their own career choices.

Second, I want to be clear that I teach in a rural, small town setting where we are not very wealthy, but don't have the heartbreaking level of poverty found in some parts of the country. There are hundreds of thousands of teachers who have a much harder job than mine.

There are many reasons to stay away from classrooms these days. Lack of resources, but an excess of blame. Low levels of pay, but high levels of disrespect. Large challenges to overcome, but tiny tools with which to tackle them. Many people who want to tell you what to do, but few people who want to actually help you do it. And when you start to peel back the educational onion, layers of institutionalized racism, classism, and decisions driven by politics, greed, power-- everything except the needs of the children.

So why step into a classroom? I've taken up a few miles of bloggy bandwidth considering all of these questions, but I think the bottom line is simple--

Teachers step into schools for the same reason fire fighters run into burning buildings-- because that's where you find the people who need the help.

If you want to help young humans grow and strengthen and learn and build themselves up into their best, most human selves, then you have to go into the school, into the classroom. Not that there aren't other ways and places to help, but if you want to help young humans learn to read and write and think and understand and build a greater vision of themselves, then a school is where it's at.

That school might not be in the best of shape. It may not be run by the best of leaders. It probably isn't fully funded. It may be twisted out of shape by the flames of testing and the heat of political games. And the people who are supposed to be helping you, supporting you, may be throwing flaming molotov cocktails at your head.

But all of that is background noise. The only question that matters is, "Do you want to teach students, and can you do it here?"

The answer to the second part might be no. Your tank might be empty, or the obstacles at your particular school might be too great. I'm not going to judge. You can only do what you can do.

But there have always been obstacles in the culture and problems baked into the system. I'm not saying don't fight them-- I'm saying someone who waits for perfectly calm educational seas to set sail will never get out of the harbor.

So we go into school because that's where we find the people who need us. That's where we can do the work. The obstacles aren't what keep us from doing the work-- they're the reason the work needs to be done in the first place. Let's go teach.

MA: Charters Hate Compromise

This morning's Boston Post Globe reports that a "Bitter Fight Brewing over Mass. Charter School Expansion" (though it could also have been "Mass Charter Expansion"). And while the battle has not been "brewing" so much as "going on for a while now," the article centers on one question-- can the legislature come up with a compromise on increasing the number of MA charters, or will the whole mess end up as a ballot initiative in the fall?

Massachusetts jumped on the charter bus with real enthusiasm back in 2010 when they saw it as a way to grab some Race To The Trough money (charters had been around for considerably longer, but RTTT really ramped the business up), but of course that money is no longer available, and local districts and taxpayers are noticing what charter school "hosts" everywhere notice-- that funding a new entitlement for students to attend private school at public expense is costly.

The battle is playing out mostly in the Senate-- the charter-reformster industry has already purchased themselves a governor and a House of Representatives in Massachusetts.

Reporter David Scharfenberg suggests that in the past, charter legislation has been an area of compromise, but this time offers a different summation:

“It’s the pure charter play this time,” said Martha “Marty” Walz, a management and public affairs consultant who helped usher the 2010 bill into law as cochairwoman of the Legislature’s education committee.

The governor has tried to sweeten the pot by budgeting more money for the big pile used to re-imburse districts (temporarily) for the money sucked out by charters, but Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg is moving above that, suggesting that legislators look at issues "from financing, to governance, to admission and retention of hard-to-educate populations, like special needs students and English language learners."

The charter industry doesn't much like that idea.

“We have the highest-performing public charter school sector in the nation,” said Mary Jo Meisner, executive vice president of communications at the Boston Foundation, which has been a strong charter advocate. “Opening that up to radical change is a scary thought.”

Continued Meisner, "How are we supposed to have high performing charters if we serve the same students as the public system? Our success depends on being highly selective with our student body and booting students who make us look bad back to the public schools." Ha! Kidding-- the charter industry continues to avoid anything remotely like honesty about these provisions. In fact, the charter industry and #1 Fan Governor Charlie Baker continue to read the own PR so much that they believe they would win a ballot fight (plus they know just how many giant piles of money they threaten to throw at such a ballot question- about $18 million total).

Senator Patricia D. Jehlen is unimpressed. “If a bully comes and asks for your lunch money one day and you give it to him, does that keep him from coming back the next day?”

Fighting tough union leader Barbara Madeloni has different thoughts as well.

“We want to go to the ballot box, that’s what our poll numbers are telling us,” said Barbara Madeloni, president of the union. “I really think the narrative about charter schools is shifting.”

Shift though it may, the signs are clear-- charter schools in Massachusetts have key government positions on their side and they want their giant pile of money, and they want it unencumbered by any sorts of rules that require them to be part of public education's mandate to educate all students. Once again, charters really could be a part of a robust and fully- (and honestly-) funded public education system, but in states like Massachusetts, it seems that what the current charter industry wants is to exist outside public education, in a special bubble where all they have to do is operate some very selective schools and rake in some very large piles of public tax dollars. Here's hoping that the Massachusetts voters set them straight.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

$100,000 Garbage Workers

Ha-- you thought that was some sort of snarky figurative expression in the title, but no-- courtesy of CNN Money, here's an article about the garbage workers in New York City that make over $100K annually.

While we keep insisting that every child must graduate from high school and immediately hit the college trail, garbage workers, including the two high school dropouts profiled  in New York City make over $100K. And the article reports that garbage worker salaries are growing faster than other salaries in the country.

This looks like a fine example of the invisible hand at work. Cities (particularly huge ones) need garbage workers. Need, as in "can't function at all without them." Not a lot of people have the desire or the skills for garbage work, and so cities offer more and more pay to convince people to do the work. It's elegant and simple.

There are other blue collar jobs like this. Welders, for instance, are in constant demand. I teach many future blue collar workers, and from them I've learned about jobs that I never knew existed, like the former student who traveled for years with a hotel upgrade crew that simply traveled from city to city, remodeling the next hotel in the chain that was due to be upgraded. Roofers, construction workers, heavy machinery operators, linemen-- all sorts of jobs that, as Mike Rowe always said, make civilized life possible for the rest of us.

When we discuss work and compensation, we often fail to distinguish between different kinds of work. I don't mean blue collar vs. white collar. I mean necessary vs. unnecessary. As a culture, we employ a vast number of people doing things that nobody actually needs to do at all.

If all the garbage workers in the country vanished overnight, we would have a major crisis on our hands within a week, and virtually everybody in the country would be alarmed. On the other hand, if every McDonald's in the country vanished overnight, there would be no crisis for anyone except the people who work in Micky D's and the people who make money from it.

That distinction makes a huge difference in leverage. Whenever someone argues against a living wage by saying, "If they want to make better money, they should take a better job in a cheaper city," I want to ask, "But don't you need somebody to do that job in your city?" However, the answer to my question in many cases is, "No. " But not with garbage workers-- we need somebody in our city to do that job, and so we pay whatever it takes to make that happen.

And so, while contemplating the $100K garbage workers, it hit me-- it's not just that many folks think anybody can do a teacher's job, or that reformsters are trying hard to turn teaching into a low-skills job that anybody can do. It's also that lots of folks think it's a job that doesn't need to be done. Nobody, the thinking goes, really needs to learn about quadratic equations or the Boer War or that Shakespeare guy. Sure, reading and writing are swell, but don't we all pretty much have a handle on that by fourth grade or so? After that, isn't it all just training for a particular line of work? Do we really need middle and high school for anything?

We are disinclined to pay a lot of money for people to do a job that we don't think actually needs to be done.

In this arena, reformsters are both helping and hurting. On the one hand, corporations like Wal-Mart and McDonald's benefit from having very wealthy constituencies, the corporate chiefs who depend on the corporation for wealth and use that wealth and power to look after their business interests. Until the rise of corporate reform, with its big money charters and multi-billion dollar testing manufacturers, education had no such constituency. Nobody was making Walton-style money from public education. On the other hand, reformsters have done their best to reduce education to the process of getting ready for and taking a Big Standardized Test, which is an outstanding example of a job that doesn't need to be done at all.

And so we get hit pieces like the Boston Globe opinion piece slamming school district employees who make over $100K. The writer was comparing teachers to Navy Seals when she should have been comparing them to garbage workers-- "Over a 100 grand! Who do they think they are?! Garbage workers??"

I don't begrudge those workers a cent. New York needs them in a way that it doesn't need any other profession (including banksters on Wall Street). But I do envy them their recognition for being an essential part of life in the Big Apple, and I question the single-minded tunnel vision education focus on college as a goal for all students. Go to college, kids, so you can make good money. Who knows? Study hard, and some day you might even make garbage worker money!

ICYMI: A Stack for the End of February

We've collected a whole bunch this week, campers. Let's get cracking.

I Don't Want To Be Liberal

Blue Cereal Education tells a story that seems really familiar. Raised to be conservative, inclined to be conservative, and yet, somehow, forced to be a liberal. 

TN(Not)Ready-- What's Really Changed

Tennessee's testing fiasco and the effects of disorganized, change-your-mind accountability

Who's Raking in the Big Bucks in Charterworld

Just how rich are charter school leaders getting on the backs of a small number of students?

Will Competency Based Learning Rescue the Testocracy

Anthony Cody looks at how Competency Based baloney fits into the arc of reformster policy.

Robbing Public Schools to Pay Private Charters

Former lawmaker Paula Dockery takes on a proposed Florida bill intended to steal more public tax dollars to enrich private schools.

How Charters Get the Students They Want

This Stephanie Simon piece is from three years ago, but it's still essential reading. A vivid picture of just how charters can rig the admission process so that they get only the students they want while still looking as if they're open to all.

Seventh Grade Reflections on Stereotypes and Assumptions

Brief but poignant-- what seventh graders know about the assumptions they are painted with by others.

No, You Cannot Test My Child

Daniel Katz runs the table on arguments that his child should be tested, batting each one down. Perfect reading for anyone psyching themselves up to take the opt-out plunge.

A Light Moment in Senate Ed Committee-- and Some UNlight Reading 

Claudia Swisher catches the OK ALEC crowd trying to deal with someone appropriating their terminology. And she adds an outstanding reading list about vouchers programs.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Can Conservatives and Unions Play Nice?

Andy Smarick is a partner at Bellwether Partners and a senior fellow at Fordham Institute, two reliably reformy right-leaning thinky tanks, so it's safe to say that he favors the reformster view of the education debates. But I also find him to be thoughtful and intellectually honest, particularly when it comes to considering the role of conservatism in the reform movement.

I've been saving a Smarick piece from last week's Weekly Standard to mull over (it's show week, and my close reading time has been replaced by rehearsal time). In "Don't Scoff," Smarick considers the possibility of collaboration between conservatives and unions, particularly in light of two events-- the passage of ESSA and the Friedrich's case. Granted, the Friedrich case is not looking quite so game-changing now that Scalia has shuffled off this mortal coil, but Smarick's points are still worth considering. I do recommend that if you want a fuller understanding of his argument, you read his piece.

Where he sees the "key overlap in the conservative/union Venn diagram is a respect for local custom and knowledge." Both conservatives and teachers wanted the feds out of the education business, and so ESSA-- a sort-of rejection of Big Government and a extra-rare example of a federal agency being stripped of powers.

The corollary is that cocksure D.C.-dwellers not only lack the right answers; they also inadvertently warp local practice by concocting policies that serve the purposes of central administrators. The cognoscenti may view the local leader as helplessly parochial, but conservatives and unions can recognize her as informed, no-nonsense, and prudent.

Smarick sees this as a larger trend. In a term that I fully intend to steal, he refers to our recent past as The Decade of Mistakes by Experts. The failure of bankers, the economy, the border patrol, "even the New Orleans levees" has provided example after example, alarming folks all across the spectrum. "We were told ISIS was a JV team, that we could keep our health care if we liked it, that Iraqi WMDs were a slam-dunk." You may disagree with some of the failures on Smarick's list, but that's kind of the point-- no matter what your political inclination, the experts have screwed up something that you care about. While we may disagree on the particulars, all Americans have shared the experience of seeing federal experts and bureaucrats make a hash out of something important.

Smarick believe that this trend feeds directly the traditional conservative desire for decentralized, local government, and I agree with that notion even as I question just how much traditional conservatism is still alive in America. Just hold that thought for a few paragraphs.

Smarick sees Friedrich as a catalyst for what he views as a useful change-- unions dropping their political focus for a more tradespersonlike approach, a union more focused on strengthening the practices and craft of the field, thereby helping more clearly establish teachers as Local Experts who are better positioned to take the reins of local control. He does acknowledge other possible outcomes, but it looks like we don't really need to discuss the possible effects of the plaintiffs winning the appeal, so I'm going to stick to his vision of a less-politicized union.

I see a couple of problems with Smarick's vision.

First, I remain skeptical of how much traditional conservatism, the conservatism of my father and grandfather, is still a force in the world. I don't, for instance, think that Trump is a rejection of the conservative GOP establishment, but the miscalculated-but-all-too-predictable outcome of it. The right has been trying to panic voters with a long list of Terrible Things That The Government Must Put a Stop To Right Now; they simply failed to realize how effective the panic would be and how completely successful a candidate shameless enough to give the subtext voice would be. Trump is not a revolt against the GOP-- he has simply put his money where their mouth has been.

Meanwhile, Trump's Democrat counterpart is not Sanders, but Clinton, who is also a fully-manufactured product of the establishment. In her case, it's just a fulfillment of the establishment big-money purchase of politicians. They are both exactly what one could expect from the system as it stands.

At any rate, I don't see any real candidate for much of anything who actually represents the traditional small-government, trust people with local control conservative.

Nor do I think that education reform as practiced has much to do with conservative, liberal or progressive philosophies. What we have is an establishment sleight-of-hand designed to make everybody happy. "Look," say faux conservatives. "We will starve the government schools and get the centralized education monopoly out of schools." Meanwhile, liberals announce, "We will make sure that the needs of various constituencies like the non-wealthy and the non-white are thoroughly met."

And what all this actually means is that we will starve the central government into the business of being essentially a contractor who hands tax dollars over to various subcontractors. I find it telling that this ed reform pattern is repeated with Republicans, Democrats, conservatives and liberals. It's not about a political philosophy; it's just about the politics of directing public tax dollars to private corporate pockets. The beauty of it is that it can be dressed up with the rhetoric of the left ("Helping the poor"), the traditional right ("Getting government out of the X business"), or the corporate right ("Letting the free market's invisible hand sort things out"). Folks who really believe those things can and do sign up to be part of the journey, but I'm not sure they ever get to actually drive the bus.

Meanwhile, the teacher unions, even in a parallel universe where Friedrich was settled against them, can never leave politics alone, because politics can never leave education alone.

Back in the early years of my career, I subscribed to the notion that I should just do my job, teach my students, and leave politics alone. But the more I paid attention, the more I realized that every dumb rule that got in my way and even the occasional smart rule that helped me do my job-- every single one of them had been birthed by politicians working with other politicians to do some political stuff. If there's a family of angry badgers living in your house, you can tell yourself, "Well, they're not actually members of our family, and I don't really know anything about badgers or badger control," but after they keep busting up the furniture and eating the food and pooping the living room, you eventually understand that you have to get involved in the badger game. Politicians are the badgers in the house of education, and the only hope education has is for some to work badger control. Nobody in the political world has the interests of schools, students, or teachers very high on their priority list; teachers cannot afford to sit silent while other disinterested uninformed parties decide our fates.

This has created its own set of issues. Union leadership and union membership interests are not always perfectly aligned, and leadership's desire to have a seat at the proverbial table often puts union leadership out of step. Union leaders were all in on Common Core and Arne Duncan while members were still not so enamored of either, just as both NEA and AFT leaders threw their weight behind Hillary Clinton to the distaste of many, many members. And that's before we get to the many teachers who are happily registered Republicans.

So the fracture between conservatives and teacher unions is, for me, overlaid with dozens of other fractures-- traditional conservatives vs. values voters, rand and file vs. leadership, establishment vs. upstarts, corporate interests vs. public interests, centralized power vs. local control, and the unending debates about who should get to make mistakes and who should get to judge whether or not they are mistakes. No matter what labels we're playing with or what tribes we're identifying, I remain convinced that there's almost always somebody Over There who shares some of your values and you are going to have to decide whether you follow your labels or your values.

I think Smarick's idea that teacher unions could become depoliticized tradesperson groups is unlikely given where the controls of the education biz lie-- but they can certainly focus more on the craft and profession of teaching. I think Smarick gives traditional conservatives more credit for power and, well, existence than is supported by reality-- but there are such people out there. I think it's possible to reach agreement that DC should not be running the show, but I think that agreement evaporates about the moment we start discussing what should be driving the bus. I have zero faith in the Free Market's ability to improve education for many reasons, but I have great faith that it would open the door to renewed federal meddling (all free markets are "maintained" by government). I am perfectly okay with true local control with little or no provision for being able to compare schools from state to state, but I'm pretty sure Smarick is not excited about that idea.

At root, the education debate always runs into the same snag-- as a country, we have no shared vision of what a school is supposed to do, what excellence looks like, or how to achieve any of those things. We have fundamental disagreements about how the world works and what that means to teachers in a classroom. I have no doubt that for specific issues, we can all find unlikely allies in unexpected places if we're just willing to look. But I don't think we get much further than that.

What Do They Know?

Anthony Cody has a great piece at his blog, Living in Dialogue (which should be on your must-read list) that puts the push for Competency based Education in the context of the reformster movement. In particular, this--

There are two unwritten assumptions that are constant from the beginning of NCLB and carry through to this new version. Teachers are not trusted to make judgments about what students learn, how they learn it, or how learning is assessed. Assessment is defined as the external monitoring of the work inside the classroom. The second assumption is that data and technology must be instrumental in whatever process is devised. The main innovation here is the more thorough and intrusive penetration of the classroom via computers capable of monitoring learning.

One question that naturally follows-- why, exactly, are teachers not to be trusted? Reformsters tend to fall into two camps.

One camp includes groups like DFER and Students Matter and some leaders of Teach for America, when they didn't think anyone was listening, who believe that the teacher biz is a giant, corrupt racket that the Big Teacher Unions keep in place in order to enrich themselves For an example, just flash back to Chris Christie's "punch in the face" comments.

But I believe the far larger camp is the one that thinks teachers can't be trusted because we Just Don't Know.

Turnarounds, takeovers, classroom scripts, tight national standards, externally created testing regimens, alternative educator training programs, charter schools-- these are all versions of folks shouldering teachers aside and saying, "All right, you've screwed things up enough. It's time to let somebody take charge who knows what they're doing."

In fact, one of the other unwritten premises of reformsterism has been that reformsters know the secrets of how to make education work. Just sweep aside incompetent and corrupt teachers, clear away the Education Establishment, and they will work educational miracles. Because, dammit, they Know Things.

Well, we've been doing this reformy dance for over a decade now. What do they know?

The whole point of, say, having a state take over a school district is that somewhere in the state capital is someone (or someone who knows someone) who really knows how to run the school properly.

The whole point of having charters is to give people who really Know Things the chance to take charge of a school and make educational magic.

The whole point of having tightly managed standards and instruction is that somewhere at a corporate office is somebody who really Knows Things about how to teach the material and can actually package that magic.

So where are all the successes? Where are all the programs spreading like wildfire as word spreads that this state or that charter or some educorporation has the Secret of Awesome Education?

And if all these people know the secret of teaching that has either escaped or been hidden by teachers, how is it that after over a decade, we still haven't heard about it or seen its transformative power in actual schools with actual students.

Seriously. What do they know? How much longer do we have to stumble searching for snipe under bush after bush while the emperor, wearing his new hunting clothes, keeps hollering, "No-- wait-- there it is! Over there!" If they actually Know Things, it's way past time for them to put up or shut up, to show their hand or cash in their chips, and at the very least, stop announcing as New Knowledge things that actual teachers already knew ("Hey, we've discovered that teaching poor kids can be difficult!"). It's way past time for reformsters to prove they have an answer to the question.

What do they know?

Choice $$ Lies

This little undated brief from the good people at The Heartland Institute lays out the straightforward argument for vouchers (and by extension, charter-choice systems) as a money-saver, and it's so clear and straightforward, it's easy to see where the lie is.

The Heartland Institute is a right-leaning thinky tank-- well, actually, they don't appear to be so much leaning as lying down on their right sides atop a mattress stuffed with corporate cash. Founded by a CATO Institute refugee, they're based in the Chicago area (Arlington Heights) and have previously taken such bold stands as teaming up with Phillip Morris to oppose tobacco bans. They've hooked up with some Tea Party groups, and they are a top clearing house for climate change denial.

Their argument in favor of vouchers is as simple as it is wrong.

Florida’s voucher program, for example, costs $3,950 per student, compared with a public school system that spends $7,000 per pupil. Surely even the efficiency of the free market can’t make up for a 44 percent funding deficit, right? Wrong: A Northwestern University study found no difference between achievement in students attending schools through voucher programs and those attending public schools.

I'm not even going to argue with the second part of their point, because the first part is where the lying occurs. There are several links listed with the article, and they all make the same point-- that choice systems save the taxpayer money because choice-charter-voucher schools educate students for less.

First, choice-charter-voucher schools educate students for less because they specialize in students that cost less to educate. 

Second, and perhaps more importantly, choice systems must increase the total cost of education for the taxpayers in a community. When a voucher or choice or charter payment plan or whatever removes money from a school district, that district must either replace some of that money, or cut programs, or both. That means a tax increase on the local level. Because, no-- when a student leaves a school, that school's total costs do not reduce by the amount of one student's worth of money.

This is precisely what is happening in Pennsylvania, where the funding gap continues to widen. It's widening because, as money is drained from local districts, some districts have greater ability to replace that money than others.

I'm going to use simple numbers so that even a right-leaning thinky tank can understand.

Chris pays $100 for school taxes. Two children from the district leave for a charter school, so now the school only gets $80 of Chris's money. To replace some of the lost $20 and get at least $90 from Chris, the district must raise Chris's taxes. Chris now pays $110 in school taxes.

Voucher systems, choice systems, charter systems-- these are all just a way to raise taxes in order to send a few select children to a private school and pay for it with public dollars.

When someone like the Heartland folks of the Friedman thinky tank wants to tell you how much cheaper a choice system is, notice that they are talking only about state and federal costs-- ask them what happens to local costs under such a system.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Stockman: Starve the Teachers

Writer Farah Stockman took to the pages of the Boston Globe yesterday to give professional educators a big fat punch in the face.

There's a great deal of battling over education going on in Massachusetts, with the grass roots and professional educators lined up against the various grifters and privatizers who have captured state offices. State Secretary of Education Jim Peyser worked previously for reformsters New Venture Fund, where he explained how to gut public schools for fun and profit. State Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester was the head of the governing board of PARCC, the test manufacturers profiting heavily from reformy testing programs.  Paul Grogan, head of the Boston Foundation, one of those cool foundations that allows civic minded rich guys a way to impose political pressure on serve their community, is a regular agitator for charters.

And then there's Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who pulled a bait-and-switch to get elected and now shills hard for cutting public schools off at the knees. Privatizers have launched legal attacks on the public schools, and profiteers have had vulture conventions in town to contemplate how they can get their hands on all that sweet, sweet public tax money.

The Boston Globe has long since abandoned any pretense of objectivity; they are reliably and regularly the sort-of-journalistic voice of privatization, of gutting the public school system in order to use pubic tax dollars to fund privately owned-and-operated charter schools.

Given all that, Stockman's piece is as unsurprising as it is dishonest.

Stockman uses a rhetorical structure that basically follows the "It would be wrong to hurt you, but I am now going to club you with this stick" format.

Stockman talking about program cuts to Boston schools: "These cuts are painful and real. I hope they get reversed... While individual cuts hurt, the school system itself has more cash than ever."

Stockman says that the school system is not starving, but has grown its budget tremendously. So why is the system facing so many tremendous cuts? One guess.


Teachers and their damned paychecks and benefits and salaries. Stockman throws around some numbers and I'm not in a position to check them, but I can google the source-- the Boston Municipal Research Bureau. BMRB is yet another group carefully named to sound like a benevolent public agency that is actually yet another business-run group advocating for business-friendly policies.

Stockman drops some numbers for specific money-grubbing teachers, making sure to identify them as "a librarian" or "a swimming instructor." And then, at the bottom of the article, she lists every single BPS employee who makes over $100K, because public shaming is an important part of her argument.* She lists those salaries so she can write, "If that's what starving looks like, where do I sign up?" Which is an odd comment-- you can sign up at a university for a teacher training program and then apply for a job with the district. Does Stockman mean to suggest that these teachers just fell into their jobs through some secretive, suspect system? Because if she'd like to sign up for one of those jobs, she totally could (in fact, she taught for two years in Kenya). Except that her actual point is that nobody should be able to sign up for those jobs at all.

"Don't get me wrong. Teachers deserve to be paid well," she writes, and as you might guess, that's a clear signal that she's about to explain why teachers don't deserve to be paid that well at all. Sure, teachers "hold the future of our country in their hands," but so do Navy Seals, who mostly make under $60 K. This could be an argument to raise Navy Seal pay, but that's not Stockman's point-- teachers make too much money. And not just teachers. Headmasters make really good money-- one as much as $162,378-- but the national security advisor earns only $10,000 more-- "without a generous summer vacation."

Why, she wonders, do Boston schools pay teachers so much compared to other places? She considers for a moment the possibility that this is actual Free Market economics at work, but rejects that explanation in favor of-- can you guess? -- unions!

You know who doesn't have unions? Those noble and wonderful charter schools! Charter teachers work longer hours and for less pay, and "of course, charters burn through teachers much faster than a traditional public school. But you don't have to negotiate with them for years to get an extra 40 minutes added to the school day." Stockman chooses not to make a connection between treating teacher like low-paid flunkies and rapid staff churn, nor does she suggest that rapid staff turnover might be bad for students. It's cheaper and easier-- what else do you need to know?

In fact, here's what Stockman calls charters' "greatest innovation"-- "teacher who are willing to work more for less."

Well, no. That is just unvarnished baloney. It discounts the charters that have tried to create a model based on teacher pay at the same level she finds objectionable in Boston, or the many charters where teachers have tried to unionize because they're tired of general low pay and mistreatment. It discounts the effects, particularly on low SES students, of a school that is destabilized by an endless parade of new (and inexperienced) faces. She might wonder what it says about a charter if their teacher pool is composed entirely of People Who Couldn't Get a Job Somewhere Else, or people who have been recruited with the slogan "Our Charter Will Never Require You To Teach Difficult Students." She might also want to factor in the huge administrative costs of charters that may keep teachers poor, but make sure their owners and operators get rich.

In the end, Stockman has taken a long, roundabout rhetorical journey to essentially say, "Teachers get paid too much because of their evil union; that's just one more reason that charter schools are better, and one more reason that the public schools should be gutted and replaced with a charter system." There would be many things to argue about, but at least it would be an honest argument in which she simply said what she meant directly instead of trying to pretend that she was being fair and balanced. If you're going to do a hatchet job, at least hold your hatchet out in plain sight.

* Since I wrote this piece, that list at the end of the article seems to have gone away. I have no idea why.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

CAP: Muddled Teacher Eval Thoughts

The Center for American Progress wants to get its two cents in on the Vergara appeal, and their thoughts are... confused. Catherine Brown is CAP's vp of Education Policy after previously serving as vice president of policy at Teach for America, policy adviser to senator and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and senior education policy adviser for the House Committee on Education and Labor. Brown is in US News making her pitch for life over and above Vergara.

As is typical with CAP, we're a little short on actual facts or serious data, which leads Brown down the garden path and into verbal weeds like these-

Teachers largely view their performance based in part on the impact they have on student learning.

I am largely impressed in part by this sentence's attempt to assert something that is largely unsupportable while in part maintaining largely deniable language. In part. This sentence goes into my reformster gibberish hall of fame. Congratulations, Ms. Brown. Your statuette is largely in part on its way.

It's not all nonsense; Brown makes a largely unreformstery point in part with this thought:

Our collective policy goal shouldn't be to eliminate teacher protections like last-in-first-out and tenure based on seniority, but rather to render them unnecessary. We should aim to build schools with such high-performing cultures that eliminating incompetence isn't the most pressing issue, spreading excellence is.

That is not stupid (regular readers know what high praise that largely in part is). The stupid comes later, when reformsters start talking about how to build such schools and spread such excellence, but reformsters are correct (in a day late, dollar short way) to recognize that schools will not fire their way to excellence-- particularly in California where many folks are worried that the teacher supply pipeline is actually broken.

But every time Brown moves beyond the broad strokes, she largely paints herself in part into a corner. For instance:

And while states are no longer required to evaluate teachers as a matter of federal policy, there's little evidence that teachers want to go back to the old way of doing business of "close your door, and good luck to ya."

There's little evidence that teachers want that. There's little evidence they don't. I'd be more impressed if Brown just said that's what she thinks than trying to make it sound facty.

She touts a few states that she thinks have gotten things right, and then swings around to a plug for TeachStrong, a reformy program that has its own plan for making teachers largely in part more awesome. That plan, I'll note, has its own special heartfelt love for using Big Standardized Test results to measure teacher effectiveness. Look-- here's the answer key-- as long as we talk about measuring teacher effectiveness largely or in part with measures of "student achievement," we're still just talking about raising scores on BS Tests.

I am happy that CAP is leading a charge away from the old reformy idea of fixing schools by tracking down all those terrible teachers and firing them hard. I'm happy both because it's the right thing to do and because it sounds a little like CAP and others smell an upcoming reversal of the original Vergara verdict.

Brown is fundamentally correct. You don't make schools better by destroying teacher job security and firing a whole bunch of people for no good reason, just as you don't help students learn and grow by berating them and punishing them and telling them to go sit in the corner until they can get the right answer. But she is scrambling past the part where CAP and others like them have no idea how to identify teaching excellence, let along promote, foster and develop it. On that point they are still largely in part lost and confused.

Vergara II: Here We Go Again

Today, while Acting Pretend Secretary of Education John King is being interviewed in DC for the job he already has, across the country lawyers will be teeing up in an LA appeals court over the attempt to roll back one of the most bogus court decisions in education.

Hard to believe that Vergara vs. California is a few years old at this point. The case was originally filed in 2012 and decided in 2014. Launched by Students Matter, a reformster group created and run by David Welch, a rich guy who thinks that CEO-style school leaders shouldn't have to deal with any union-created restrictions on their executive freedom. Welch rounded up nine show-pony defendants, a large pile of money, and went to work overturning tenure and LIFO rules.

Education Post is celebrating the occasion by running a piece by one of the "plaintiffs" (the use of recruited sock puppet plaintiffs by well-financed legal activists is not restricted to any side of any issue, but it remains an odious practice, both in the fake cases that it generates and in its callous use of live human beings as prop for high-priced lawyerly plays) to talk about why he wanted the case to happen.

What I wanted when I first stepped foot in the courtroom two years ago—and still want today—is to see that vision of an awesome teacher in every classroom in California’s public schools become a reality. I want all California kids, regardless of where they live, how much money their parents make, or the color of their skin, to have the quality education they deserve.

The writer also talks about how great teachers have been a great and positive influence, noting that "these are the teachers who inspired the Vergara lawsuit in the first place."

That's a lovely sentiment. It just doesn't have a single thing to do with the Vergara decision. Not a thing.

There is so much to rehash, and it has been hashed pretty thoroughly already. Evidence in the trial included the baloney science that purports to measure the effect of teachers in terms of student lifetime earnings. The notion that tenure rules are somehow responsible for segregation in schools.

But mostly the bizarre notion that great teachers will be empowered by less job security, that we can simply fire our way to excellence, that school districts in a state that is already complaining of teacher shortages will be chomping at the bit to fire teachers left and right so they can hire new teachers from the vast invisible surplus of unemployed awesome teachers, and, most of all, that teachers are the root of all educational evil.

Vergara pretends to presume that the best way to attract the best and the brightest to a field is to say, "Come work for us, and your new bosses will promise to fire you whenever the mood strikes them." What Vergara really presumes is that hero school leaders, mighty CEO's with brilliant visions, should not have to answer to the hired help.

Vergara also presumes that the full weight and energy of the law should be brought to bear on teachers, but somehow there's no need to make full-out assaults on funding or de-segregation.

So prepare yourself for more rounds of PR about how schools should be free to fire their way to excellence and hero superintendents should never have to listen to unions or rules or anything that might provide teachers with job security. And all of that will be wrapped in soaring rhetoric about how every child needs a great teacher no matter what the zip code without a single solitary word about how killing tenure of LIFO would help make that happen. This is the classic reformster construction-- the problem is real and compelling and therefor you should take our word for it that our proposed solution is actually a solution.

Vergara is about breaking unions and de-professionalizing teaching, removing one more set of on-the-ground advocates for students, leaving our most vulnerable children that much more exposed to the ill effects of corporate reform. The court will need to offer a ruling within ninety days. We'll have to wait and see what kind of protection public education, teachers, and students will receive from the court.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

MD: Asking the Wrong Questions about Testing

The Maryland state school board has noticed what many other folks have noticed as well-- if you make the PARCC test your state graduation requirement, a huge number of young'uns in your state are not going to graduate from high school.

Maryland rolled out the PARCC last year, and over half of their students performed below expectations, or as folks put it more colloquially, "failed." Had the PARCC been a graduation requirement, it would have created a mess of epic proportions. So the Maryland board had what the Baltimore Sun called a "spirited debate" about the topic.

Some of the spirit was predictable, given the players. Chester Finn, a long-time reformster and former chief of the Fordham Institute, a right-tilted thinky tank that has reliably and relentlessly pushed the Common Core, Big Standardized Tests, and charter schools.

"I thought the move to PARCC was to increase standards," he said. "We are headed toward telling Maryland students they will get a Maryland diploma and they are not ready." He said a low standard would mislead the public.

Mislead in what way is not entirely clear, but Finn has a solution-- a two-tier diploma system: "one for students who passed PARCC and are considered ready for college and a second diploma, equivalent to what is given today, for students who have fulfilled the course requirements and achieve minimum passing grades on state tests."

Board member James H. DeGraffenreid, one more guy whose educational expertise consists of his time in corporate offices, thinks that's a bad idea because it would institutionalize the achievement gap instead of closing it. He wants to phase the standards in, which is admittedly marginally less foolish than simply dumping them on the schools like a bathtub full of ice water.

The Sun dug up some more comments, like this one:

"There is no state in the U.S. that has made the high school graduation requirement the same as a college-readiness requirement," said David Steiner, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy.

While the board was debating these issues, here are some questions they did not ask:

Is there any reason to believe that making 100% of high school graduates college-ready is a worthwhile goal? Is it realistically achievable, and will it provide the students or society with any actual benefits?

Is there any reason to believe that scores on PARCC's BS Test of reading and math skills are actually a true measure of a student's college readiness?

Is there any reason to believe that colleges and universities would be prepared to deny students admission because those students had only a Old Standard Diploma and not a Shiny PARCC Super-diploma?

And other than supposedly gaining students admission to colleges or universities, what other benefits would Finn's Super-Duper PARCC Diploma provide? Better pay on the job? Happier life? More attractive spouse? Exactly why would high school students give a rat's rear whether they got a shiny PARCC diploma?

We tried this in Pennsylvania about fifteen years ago. The problem with our BS Tests at the time was exactly the same fundamental problem with the current crop--  students know an irrelevant, pointless waste of their time when they see one. This repeatedly drives the Powers That Be to alternately offer threats and bribes like an incompetent camp counselor. If you don't take this test seriously, it will go directly on your permanent record, young man! And if you do take it seriously, we'll give you a sticker.

PA was going to slap "diploma seals," aka "shiny stickers" on the diplomas of PA grads who had done well on the BS Tests. Those yielded almost immediately to "certificates" that were to become part of student transcripts. (Ha! You thought I was just kidding with those "sticker' and "permanent record" cracks.) People were pretty worked up about them at the time, but within just a few years, it didn't matter, because nobody cared. Colleges did not, and do not, care about student BS Test scores. Students really did not and do not care beyond the need to surmount one more pointless obstacle to get that diploma.

So Maryland could probably go ahead and give Finn his Super-Special PARCC Super-diplomas, because odds are not a soul will care.

Reformsters and ed leaders get so invested in this stuff, they just lose sight of how silly their antics will look on the ground. They are absolutely invited to come to a classroom full of sixteen year olds and solemnly explain that if the students try really hard on the BS Test, they will get an extra piece of paper that no college, employer or any other human being will ever care about. See how that goes over.

When any performer takes the stage, she either commands the attention of the audience, or she doesn't. If she doesn't, no amount of cajoling or bribery will make the audience take her seriously. The PARCC (and the rest of its BS Test brethren) are failed performers on a stunted stage, and neither threats nor shiny toys will change the audience's mind. There is no reason to take it seriously, no reason to believe that it measures any of the things it claims to measure, no reason to believe that it adds one iota of value to students' educational experience. And if reformsters think teenagers don't know all that, they are kidding themselves in addition to trying to con the rest of us.

The last question that the board didn't debate, but should have, is this:

Even if you have your two-tiered diploma system, what makes you think that Maryland's teenagers will be moved or motivated by it?

NJ: Lawyers Over Schools

Here's a nice clear metric for telling when you have a problem in your school district.

PIX11 reports that in 2014-2015, the school district of Elizabeth, New Jersey spent over $5.98 million on lawyers, both in house and outside firms. That works out to $237 per student. For comparison, the district spent roughly $750,000 on books in that same year.

School board member Jose Rodriguez notes that the board had to raise taxes to bring in an additional $7.1 million while cutting 81 positions in the district. The district has reportedly hired a forensic auditor, but I'm pretty sure a civilian amateur could figure out how many of those positions could have been saved with $5.98 million.

Elizabeth schools have had money issues before. In April of 2015 they were fined a chunk of money (over $300K) after it was determined that they had spent money state and federal lunch money to cater school board meetings. That investigation came on the heels of the school board president's conviction for falsifying her own child's free lunch documents. If we go back to 2011, we find even more accounts of graft and nepotism and shaking down staff for money for board members.

Okay, so maybe the hefty legal costs for the district make sense, given district leadership's apparent love of not-entirely-legal behavior. But it seems like it would be way cheaper to just send the lawyers home and just obey the law instead.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

More Bad Poverty News

We have seen versions of these findings before, but one more study drives home the point again-- education does not erase the economics of your family of origin.

This particular study is written up by Brad Hershbein over at Brookings, and the findings are short, simple, and important.

While some folks accept that a person from a rich family and a person from a somewhat-less-rich family won't be put on a level playing field by a college degree, they'll at least enjoy the same sort of boost from that education. But Hershbein's research says, no, that's not how it works. This chart spells it out--

(FPL is Federal Poverty Level)

In other words, a BA helps rich kids get way richer, while a BA helps poor kids get only just a little bit less not-poor.

As I said, this is not exactly news. A Johns Hopkins study over twenty-five years in Baltimore cemented the importance of family-of-origin. Robert Putnam wrote an entire book about how access to social capital is both product and producer of differences between wealthy and not-wealthy children.

The results are clearly not exactly what Hershbein expected, and he reports that he and his partners are moving next to see if the findings hold up for other data sets as well as looking for explanations (neighborhood, location, college choice for non-wealthy students?). It is frankly refreshing to see a researcher first come upon results that don't match his pre-existing assumptions and then not leap to trying to explain them away.

If a college degree is not the great equalizer we hoped, strategies to increase social mobility by promoting post-secondary education will fall short. A more comprehensive approach may be needed.

I look forward to seeing what else Hershbein et al turn up. In the meantime, it's nice to have further proof that simply jamming poor students into a college will not magically erase poverty. 

Monday, February 22, 2016

Yes! Make King Secretary of Ed!

Well, it's finally happening-- Acting Pretend Secretary of Education John King is going to have his very own nominations hearing starting on Thursday, and I'm okay with that.

Carol Burris, former all-star New York principal and currently Executive Director of the Network for Public Education, has written a clear and thorough explanation of just how badly King performed as New York State's education chief. John King has a compelling personal story, though I wonder what he's learned from it. But Burris points out three major issues with his management style.

King is inflexible and deals with those who disagree by questioning their motives. His total and blind commitment to Common Core and other reformy programs created many major messes in NY. And King's devotion led him to stay the course, no matter what actual data came in. Under King, Common Core implementation was a disaster, teacher evaluation was a disaster, testing was a disaster, massive data gathering was a disaster, and having public meetings to manage public reaction to the other disasters was a disaster.

Nevertheless, I am happy that King is getting a hearing, and I hope he gets the job.

First, we need to recognize that the administration is going to pick somebody in the Duncanesque reformster mode. People who believed that Duncan was somehow responsible for all the evils of ed reform under Obama were always kidding themselves, imagining that somehow Duncan was driving the school bus and Obama was  not paying attention. We've had seven years of exactly the education policy that President Obama wanted us to have.

Put another way-- while people may object to King's support for the Common Core, standardized testing, the use of test scores for teacher evaluations, and charter school love, the unfortunate truth is that anybody put forward by this administration will share those affections. The policy support menu that people hate about King is also the policy support menu that is a basic requirement for being Barack Obama's ed secretary. If King is rejected, the President is not going to get on the phone to Diane Ravitch. Heck-- Jeb Bush is now available, and there's nothing that Jeb believes about education that would conflict with current administration policies.

So we're going to have someone who perpetuates reformsters policies, and if we must, I say that John King is a fine choice.

Why? Well, let's look at some of his accomplishments in New York State.

King helped galvanize such outrage and activism about data mining that a $100 million project supported by Bill Gates was scrapped.

King powered up the largest test revolt in the country, creating an opt-out movement that is now a potent political force in the Empire State.

As often as he said dumb things, Arne Duncan also was able to say the right thing. Let's be honest-- there was a time when we all listened to what he and his boss had to say and thought, "Yeah, that's right. That sounds good. I think maybe we're going to be okay." King (or some USED intern) is already showing an ability to make semi-conciliatory noises, but two things work against him-- we know who he is and what he's supported and until he tells us a story about his trip on the road to education Damascus, there's no reason to believe anything has changed; and second, he has a proven track record of being a terrible communicator. Say what you like about Duncan (I know I have), but he would never have screwed up the New York "Splaining Tour to the point of cancelling it because he couldn't handle it.

In the ongoing argument about public education, we pro-public ed folks have had a problem convincing civilians that there's a problem. We shout and point and holler, "There's a monster over there!" and they look and they see a reasonably pleasant mild-mannered guy who explains that he's just looking out For The Children. We try to sound the alarm and end up looking like William Shatner gawking out the airplane window.

But in New York, John King did what dozens of pro-public ed activists failed to do-- he got thousands upon thousands of parents and taxpayers to see just how crappy the reformster plan for education was. His tone deafness, his inflexibility, his utter dismissal of other viewpoints, his unwavering focus on barreling right past red flags-- all of that had the effect of displaying the reformster agenda in all its ugly unvarnished glory. John King was the emperor who paraded his nakedness without restraint or artifice, and many New Yorkers looked and said, "Damn! Yuck! I finally get it! This is bad stuff."

So keep sending those letters and letting Congress know he's bad news. That's fine. Maybe somebody at the hearing will actually even ask questions about the train-wreck of federal education policy, even if they do think they've rendered his office mootly neutered with the ESSA (Education Secretary Spanking Act). They're wrong, but that's another conversation. Let's go ahead and have this conversation first.

But me? I'm just hoping that King can do for the nation what he did for New York. Spread opt out across the country. Galvanize parents. Tout reformster ideas with so little sense or restraint that even the most casual observers will start to think, "Hey, those seem like really bad policies."

Sunday, February 21, 2016

ICYMI: Reading for a quiet Sunday

Some reading for you from this week in education. 

TN Not Ready

Tennessee was supposed to be taking its super-duper online test. Things didn't go so well.

I’m a New York City school administrator. Here’s how segregation lives on.

This piece isn't short, but it's pretty raw and thorough, from someone who taught, founded a school, and learned some hard lessons about segregation in NY.

The Promise of Integrated Schools

Integrated schools are better for everybody, and the research keeps saying so, over and over and over.

Students Aren't Coddled; They're Defeated

I referenced John Warner's article earlier in the week, but it's worth reading the whole thing. You may or may not agree with him, but I bet you'll recognize some of the students he's talking about.

McKinsey and Friends in Minneapolis

Sarah Lahm has been writing a super series about how McKinsey helped worm reformsterism into Minneapolis. The above link takes you to part one, and you should follow up with parts two, three and four

MS To Teachers: "Shut Up!"

So, first, to put this in context, I have to tell you about Initiative 42.

Mississippi has historically languished at the bottom of the American education barrel, notable for their unwillingness to spend money on schools. Maybe many of their leaders don't like education, or don't like spending money, or don't like spending money that might somehow help black folks. I'm sure it's all very complicated. But at the end of the day, Mississippi has systematically underfunded their school system.

They took a shot at fixing the problem in 1997 with the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. By passing the MAEP, the legislature committed to funding schools according to a formula, but mostly all MAEP has done is provide a formula for computing just how money public schools are being cheated out of. The funding requirement laid out by MAEP has only been met twice since 1997. Since 2009, Mississippi has underfunded schools by $1.5 billion-with-a-B.

So last year, some folks proposed yet another tweak to the rules. That tweak looked something like this, with strikethroughs representing the deleted language and underlining the added language:

Educational opportunity for public school children: To protect each child's fundamental right to educational opportunity The Legislature the State shall, by general law, provide for the establishment, maintenance and support of an adequate and efficient system of free public schools upon such conditions and limitations as the Legislature may prescribe. The chancery courts of this State shall have the power to enforce this section with appropriate injunctive relief.
This was Initiative 42, and while it may look like SOP in some states, in Mississippi, it raised quite a fuss.

Arguments against it included "We underfund everything; why are schools special?" Also, "the GOP has been doing a great job funding education!" Republicans from Haley Barbour to the MS GOP chairman argued that this gave power to "a judge in Hinds County." Because if there's anything that characterizes our democratic form of government, it's that the legislative branch should be allowed to operate without having to answer to anybody, ever.

The GOP-controlled legislature floated their own amendment called "Alternative 42," putting the legislature on par with those companies that create cheap knock-off versions of popular films in hopes that your easily-confused grandfather will buy you a copy for your birthday. Alternative 42 was sort of the same idea except instead of having to provide an "adequate and efficient system of free public schools" to the satisfaction of the courts, Alternative 42 would have required the legislature to provide "an effective system" that satisfied the legislature's idea of what such a system would be. IOW, Alternative 42 would not have done jack.

What it did do was turn the ballot initiative into a series of confusing questions about either-or propositions where you had to decode exactly what you were voting for. Both measures were defeated, allowing Mississippi's political leaders to continue sitting on their hands and doing Not A Damn Thing about education. (If you would like to read more about the ballot initiative, I recommend this highly informative article at Ballotpedia, upon which I leaned heavily for the above account.)

Actually, Not A Damn Thing isn't quite fair. The MS legislature is still considering lots of fun education bills. Here's one that fines a school $1,500 every time it doesn't have students say the Pledge of Allegiance within the first hour of school. Here's one forbidding schools to open before Labor Day.
Here's one to make sure that Creationism can still be taught in the classroom (actually, as written, it also allows teachers to throw in Holocaust denial and Flat Earth Theory).

Oh, yeah. And this bill and this bill both intended to make teachers shut the hell up.

One version of the bill is from House Education Chairman John Moore, who filed a similar bill last year. The other version of the bill is from Greg Snowden, who also authored Alternative 42, the legislative smokescreen that laid down to mess with Initiative 42.

Not that Mississippi has ever been fond of vocal teachers-- this is the state where teacher strikes are illegal, and if a teacher takes part in one, she can never work in any school in Mississippi ever again. But it may be the Initiative 42 fracas that finally overstressed the legislative camel's back. Teachers and superintendents lobbied hard for that bill, and the legislature didn't much care for it. So now we have increased attempts to silence Mississippi educators.

Some of the provisions of these proposed laws are reasonable. Teachers who want to advocate for a political action shouldn't be doing it while they're on the state's clock. "Here's a worksheet to do quietly while I call my Congressman or work on this phone chain" is not an acceptable professional stance.

But the bills as written are both vague and extensive. Can I turn to a colleague at lunch and say, "You know, I really think we should all vote for Candidate Barnswaggle in the upcoming election"? Getting on Facebook and posting any kind of political message while I'm on my duty-free lunch period-- well, depending on the bill, that could earn a fine of $100 to $250 (Snowden) or a fine of $10K and loss of my teacher license (Moore).

Teachers, however, make out far better than superintendents, who are not allowed to take a political position on anything, ever. They may not advocate for or against bills that could affect their districts, ever. Ditto for school board members, which must make them the only elected officials who give up their First Amendment rights by being elected.

As one analysts suggests, these bills could also clamp down on any political activity in the schools-- say goodbye to your campus chapter of Young Republicans or Young Democrats. In fact, combined with the "teach the controversy in science" bill, these would make Mississippi schools the only place where you could discuss the existence of God, Satan or the Flying Spagetti Monster, but not the existence of political parties and legislation.

And so the Mississippi legislature works hard to maintain its supremacy in education awfulness, pursuing its right to avoid spending any money on schools while not having to listen to anybody bitch about it. Mississippi-- "it's like coming home" if you are over 150 years old.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Awful Mean Naughty Journalism

unionsCaroline Bermudez is senior writer and press secretary at Education Post, Peter Cunningham's  pro-reform rapid response war room created to help Tell the Reformsters' Story. And this week Bermudez took to Real Clear Education to complain that "Uninformed, Irresponsible Journalism Is Killing Needed Education Reform."

Bermudez wants to call out the anti-reform narrative, the "amalgamation of all the myths spewed forth against education reformers." These pieces are "political propaganda as nuanced as a jackhammer drilling into concrete." But those pieces come from people like Valerie Strauss and Jeff Bryant who, she implies, are eminently dismissable, but it makes her really sad when the New Yorker publishes film critic David Denby's "hollow critique" of the general anti-teacher tenor of education reform. And he did it without any data!! Or reliable evidence!! Bermudez's indignation would be more compelling if "No data or reliable evidence" were not the reformster movement's middle name. Can we talk about how Common Core arrived without a stitch of evidence to its name, not even for the very idea of using national standards to improve education, and it's still prancing around naked today? Or the kind of fake research regularly churned out by groups like TNTP or NCTQ?

But Bermudez is not here simply to register her righteous shock and blah-blah-blah over a major magazine pointing out what millions of teachers already know. She would also like to take a moment to mock all articles that disagree with the reformsters. She calls the anti-reform pieces "endemic" and notes that reformsters "utter familiar groans" when they come across these articles that so often "repeat the same sound bites."

And then she lists the things she's tired of hearing:

1. Education reformers disrespect teachers.
2. Reformers solely blame teachers for educational failure.
3. Poverty goes unacknowledged by reformers.
4. Public education is fine. Reformers are hysterical.
5. Charter schools privatize public education.
6. Reformers reflexively hate unions.

So, I guess the good news is that she has been listening, kind of? The bad news is that Bermudez does not offer any research, data or arguments in response to any of these alleged criticisms. But education reformers do disrespect teachers, from their idea that anybody from the right background can become a teacher with five weeks of training, to their insistence that bad teachers are the root of educational evil, to their steady attempts to reduce teachers to simple "content delivery clerks."

Of course, almost no reform critics claim that reformers only blame teachers (and that includes the article she linked to, which also doesn't claim that), just as no serious reform critic claims that reformsters don't acknowledge poverty at all. There are some good conversations to be had about poverty, its effects as an obstacle to education, and how to deal. But Bermudez is hell-bent on overstating her case in order to make a point, so she says silly things like claiming that pro-public education writers say that public ed is fine and that reformsters are hysterical (once again, the article she links to, which actually has a good deal of charts and data, doesn't actually say what she suggests it says).

Not all of her points are overstatements. Lots of pro-public ed writers point out that charter schools privatize public education, which is kind of like pointing out that the sky is blue and water is wet. I don't think I've read all that many reformsters who even try to claim otherwise.

Union hatred? Well, yes. DFER hates unions with the hot, shiny hatred of a hundred suns. Vergara, Friedrichs, Baby Vergara in New York-- all lawsuits brought by big-money reformsters to roll back the union, just like the arguments about removing tenure and other job protections, all rooted in a general philosophy that a school leader CEO should be free to make choices without having to deal with a union. maybe her point is that reformsters don't hate unions "reflexively," but after lots of thought and careful consideration. Fair enough.

Of course, she also doesn't argue that any of these oft-repeated points is wrong. Just that they're of-repeated.

Bermudez has some specific recommendations. "Ambitious, valuable journalism" does not, for instance, use terms like "corporate reform." Not that she thinks reformsters should never be critiqued:

While our opponents believe we prefer to live in an echo chamber, we would much rather have our work analyzed—even challenged—thoughtfully and without an obvious agenda.

So says the woman who handles PR for a website launched with $13 million dollars from Eli Broad and other reformsters in order to make sure that they get their message out there

The irony is that I actually know several thoughtful reformers with whom it is possible to have thoughtful, productive conversations. But they generally don't open by making unsupported mis-statements of pro-public education arguments. Bermudez is not trying to start a conversation; like many reformsters before her, she is arguing that the other side should by and large be silent.

She is also promoting the old subtext that Education Post and some others are fond of-- the notion that pro-public ed folks are some large, well-coordinated conspiracy, passing talking points back and forth and creating swarms that make it hard for the beautiful truth of reformster policy to be heard, and occasionally infecting real journalists with their mean propaganda. I'll give her credit-- she at least doesn't accuse all pro-public ed writers of being tools or paid shills of the teachers unions. You haven't really arrived in the pro-public ed writing world until you've been accused of being a union shill.

I always want to ask the paid reformsters mouthpieces like Bermudez-- just how much do you believe this stuff. If you were not a paid PR flack for this site, how much of your time and effort would you devote to your cause. Because I'm sitting here tapping one more blog post out for free in the morning hours before I head to work (all day rehearsal-- it's school musical season here). In a couple of months the Network for Public Education will have its third annual convention and some of us won't be there because we can't afford it and nobody pays us to go. Sometimes I just don't think that folks like Bermudez get that we are neither well-funded or well-organized-- we just believe that we see something that has to be called out and resisted. I have no idea how much Bermudez is paid to be Education Post's PR flack, and I don't know how much she got to write this particular article, but I'm responding to it for free.

Of course, Bermudez is not arguing against bloggers so much as decrying that a real paid journalist is picking on ed reform, but she tries to dismiss Denby by lumping him in with the rest of us, by treating all anti-reform writing as if it's one big piece of fluff. But at no point in her piece does she explain where she thinks Denby-Bryant-Strauss-Ravitch-Heilig get it wrong. Maybe coming up with the research and data to support such a view would just be too rigorous, or maybe such work has no place in a pro-reform screed. But if Bermudez knew more about teaching, maybe she'd remember that a good technique for teaching is to model the behavior you want to see.

Friday, February 19, 2016

WI: Trying To Hide Charter Truth

One of the great lies of the charter-choice movement is that you can run multiple school districts for the price of one.

A school district of, say, 2,000 students can lose 75 students and with them about $750,000 dollars of revenue, and somehow that district of 1,925 students can operate for three quarter of a million dollars less. And how does the district deal with that loss of revenue? By closing a building-- because the more school buildings you operate, the more it costs.

The other common response of a school district to the loss of revenue to charters is to raise local taxes. If charters want to look at where some of their bad press is coming from, they might consider school boards like mine that regularly explain to the public, "Your local elementary is closing and your taxes are going up because we have to give money to the cyber charters."

We can run examples a dozen different ways. What is cheaper in the aggregate-- to house your ten person family in one house, or to house each family member is a separate building? Is it cheaper and more efficient to educate 2,000 students in one district with one set of administrators and special areas teachers, or in five school districts with five sets of administrators and special area teachers?

The inefficient, multiple provider model of charter schools creates greater expense, and the difference can only be made up one of two ways-- either taxpayers must fork over more money for education, or schools must cut services. If you are going to add charter-choice schools to a system, those are the only two options.

States have tried to fudge their way around with various systems of reimbursements to school districts for the students they lose to choice-charter. IOW, when that district loses the $750K, some states help make up the shortfall, either partially or completely. This is solidly in the Taxpayers Must Pay More category, but by funneling the money through the state, taxpayers might be kept unaware that they are paying more tax dollars so that a handful of students can go to a private school at public expense.

Which brings us to the morning  news from Wisconsin. 

Wisconsin is a happy land for school choice fans, with vouchers in play through three separate programs, robust choice advocacy groups, and a governor who tries to expand school choice every time the sun shines. So they have had plenty of opportunity to feel the effects of voucher prorgams sucking the life blood from public schools. Choice advocates have tried combating the bad PR with bad arguments ("it all just kind of evens out over time, somehow"). But now the legislature is trying to patch, or at least hide, the bleeding.

The 2015-2017 let local school districts draw on additional tax dollars, through state aid and through property taxes, to cover the money lost to vouchers, but Assembly Speaker Robin Vos didn't like that plan, feeling that local school districts could "pocket" the difference (schools would probably have squandered those tax dollars on books and programs and education stuff, and we can't have that). Vos's proposal would have dramatically reduced the amount of revenue that districts could call on to plug the gap, actually leaving districts in the hole.

Thursday the legislature passed a break-even compromise. If a school loses $750K in voucher money, they are authorized to gather some combination of additional state aid and local tax increases to raise exactly that $750K.

Which means that having vouchers in a Wisconsin school district raises the cost of educating students in that district by exactly the cost of the vouchers. The vouchers represent not a backpack of student money following students from school to school, but additional taxpayer dollars injected into the education system. The taxpayers will pay extra so that some students can go to a private school.

This is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. If you want to stand up in front of the taxpayers and sell the idea that they should pay higher taxes so that some students can go to a private school at public expense, go ahead and try to sell that idea. But if you are going to insist on lying about it and insist, for instance, that people's taxes are NOT going up to finance vouchers-- well, that sort of dishonesty doesn't benefit anybody.

Wisconsin is a fine example of a state that has successfully avoided having an honest discussion about what they are actually doing, which is increasing taxes in order to fund a new entitlement-- the entitlement of a handful of students to attend a private school at pubic expense. Such an entitlement may or may not be a good idea-- that's a separate discussion, but step one in having that discussion is to be honest about what you want to do.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

PA: Philly School Commission Gets Spanked

Philly schools are, by any measure, a mess. And after almost two decades, they are a prime example of how badly state takeover districts fail.

In the nineties, the school gave up lost local control in exchange for enough funding to survive. In 2001, the state installed the School Reform Commission, a board created by the legislature and  made out of politicians appointed at the state and city level. Of course, the advantage is that politically appointed boards know secrets to effectively running school districts that locally elected boards do not. Ha! Just kidding. Despite its insistence that it could do better, the SRC doesn't know a damn thing about running school systems-- but they have certainly learned a lot. And the states supreme court just delivered another lesson.

In the process of gaining an education, the SRC has managed to anger just about everybody on every side of the education debates. Their overwhelming concern became coming up with more money because, shockingly, it turns out you can't just reverse the effects of Pennsylvania's cockamamie inadequate funding system just by Tightening Your Belt and Being More Efficient. So the SRC went looking for money everywhere.

They angered teachers by finding money in staffing. They found this money by unilaterally declaring that they would honor neither their contract nor state law. They declared for themselves the power that reformsters like TNTP dream of-- the power to ignore seniority in staffing choices. This power allowed them to make staffing choices, including layoff choices, based on cost rather than seniority. They tried outsourcing substitute teachers to save money this year and-- well, fun fact: when you offer people less money to do a job that not many people want to do anyway, they do not turn out in droves for the chance.And they privatized like crazy, the Superintendent serving as chief charter conversion officer.

They could experiment with all these various techniques because the legislative act that created the SRC exempted them from huge chunks of the Pennsylvania School Code, the portion of state law that governs schools.

But the SRC learned one other thing-- Pennsylvania charter schools are financial vampires that suck the blood right out of public schools. And so the SRC started saying no to new schools, no to raising caps, no to letting charters grow. Some charters fought back by, well, just ignoring restrictions (one charter exceeded its cap of 675 students by 600-- probably not a clerical error). But the West Philadelphia Achievement charter decided to take their beef to court. The SRC said, the financial hardship no law law allows us to do this, because charters constitute a big fat financial hardship on our public school. And the case went to the state supreme court.

And the SRC lost.

What the State Supremes said was that the legislature was acting unconstitutionally when it gave the SRC powers that only belong to the legislature.

Is this good news or bad news? Well, it means that the days of the Philly SRC acting as if they don't have to answer to anybody are over, so that's not a bad thing. On the other hand, it means the day of Philly charter schools acting as if they don't have to answer to anybody are just beginning. Most importantly for the plaintiffs, in Pennsylvania a charter can expand as much as it wants, and the public school district to which it is attached, leechlike, must just keep forking over money (that's how the charters of Chester Uplands could end up actually taking more money from the district than the state gives in support). So now the district has to play by the rules even though, as the SRC has already noticed, some of the rules suck.

Philly schools now also have a tremendous mess to clean up from the years of disregarding seniority in job assignments and layoff callbacks. That's going to be a fun time.

Of course, there are other solutions. Periodically somebody floats the idea of installing an Achievement School District style state takeover district, and since most of the bottom schools in the state are in Philly, establishing an ASD would mean that the state could take over from, well, the state. That could prompt another fun rule rewrite.

Another solution would be for the state to finally fix its dementedly off-kilter finding system, but that's not going to happen any time soon. As I type this, we are on Day 233 without a state budget. The state capitol, currently occupied by the least competent legislature in the country, is currently the least likely place to find any sort of solution to anything. Good luck, SRC!